As I went slip sliding away down a crumbly, gravely steep slope into Wildcat Canyon, a couple of titles from two of my favorite movies conflated in my head: “ Secondhand Lion” stars in “No Country For Old Men.” That seemed like an apt description of the fix I had gotten myself into.
I could hear my destination roaring below, a remote section of South Platte River about an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs. But it had been a long time since the thought now running through my mind had popped up…that I might not make it down there, so treacherous was the last half-mile. And me in my waders and heavy wading boots, wearing a loaded fishing vest and toting two rigged fly rods plus a small ice chest. A slightly addled angler by any measure.
Then I came to a ledge that I had to jump down. Steadying myself with my wading staff, I landed square on both feet to the chagrin of my aging knees. As I turned around and looked up, I thought how the hell will I get back up that one. Ed Abbey’s similar predicament memorialized in his Desert Solitaire came to mind. He had scurried over a ledge in a dry wash and realized he couldn’t get back up or go down. He ended up spending a night there until he figured out a way to extricate himself. It was some comfort that I had my emergency satellite phone in my fishing vest, but didn’t relish the thought of a night perched in some crevice trying to stay warm.
The hike along an old abandoned jeep trail had started pleasantly enough. The first mile or so could not have been more serene or bucolic, the proverbial walk in the park bathed in sunshine among groves of stately Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen, then an open meadow. The grade was very modest, hardly discernible.
The next half mile was more challenging, first the trail disappearing in an overgrown brambly stretch that played havoc with my long fly rods, my epithets coloring the air as blue as the Colorado sky. Then it was doing some high hurdles over and hopscotching around numerous downed trees scattered like pick-up-sticks over the trail, courtesy of the devastating Hayman fire over 15 years ago, the largest in state history.
That was but a warm-up act for the final half mile that definitely put the wild in Wildcat Canyon. Without my trusty wading staff to prop me up, I would have either plunged head-long down the ravine the trail followed or just turned back.
I continued my mountain goat imitation successfully, and as I caught my first glimpse of the South Platte, all concerns started to vanish.
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and
probably themselves will not be realized.”–Daniel Burnham
On my annual migration from Florida to Colorado this past June, I stopped in to see old friends in Fredericksburg where I lived in the mid-1980s. It’s a wonderful small city that can make a valid claim to being America’s most historic—George Washington’s mother and sister lived there, James Monroe maintained a law office there and served on the city council, and Civil War cannonballs still protrude from landmark buildings. What I saw did my heart good–my hat’s off to the community—you are looking great, a real tribute to years of smart, determined city planning and a lot of citizen initiative.
Fredericksburg will always have a special place in my heart and mind. My son Ben was born there, and we renovated an old historic house just down the street from Mary Washington’s home and grave.
At the same time,I was fortunate to serve on the city council for a couple of terms under the steady leadership of community and civil rights icon, the Rev. Lawrence Davies.
I was only 35 at the time and had lofty goals of implementing all the good land-use law and planning ideas I had soaked in since my law school graduation from savvy mentors like Richard Babcock (Mr. Zoning), Fred Bosselman (author of the ground-breaking book “The Taking Issue,” and Bill Reilly (my boss at the time at the World Wildlife Fund and later head of the U.S. EPA under H.W. Bush). Indeed, some of the old experienced hands on city council called me “White Horse,” and I am sure looking back I could be a pain in the arse. But they put up with me, and I learned a lot of about politics and how things really work in local government from these gentlemen.
Today it is heartening to see that the seeds we helped plant back then have sprouted and flourished thanks to successive enlightened city councils and hard work by hundreds of citizens. Several things stand out. First was the successful campaign to protect the scenic Rappahannock River that flows through the town and was my home water for canoeing and smallmouth bass fishing.
The City of Fredericksburg owned all the land on either side of the river for miles upstream, having obtained it from the Virginia Electric Power Company when its proposal for the massive Salem Church dam (which would have flooded all the property) was defeated. The land was pristine and undeveloped, but we discovered some unscrupulous developers were chopping down trees along the river so they could sell lots with “river views!” We put a stop to that on city council, and later the city dedicated an easement ensuring miles of city-owned shoreline–over 4,000 acres–will be preserved in perpetuity. At the same time, local whitewater/canoe guru Bill Micks, Virginia House of Delegate member Bob Ackerman (a dedicated conservation advocate), and I formed a new group we called Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) to act as the river’s advocate and protector.
I was absolutely delighted to find that from these humble beginnings at a meeting at the Fredericksburg City Library attended by maybe 15 people, it has grown into one of the premier river protection groups in the United States with a dedicated, hard-working staff with an office right on the river.
They have not only saved the river from development, but have made it fun and accessible to the public with great events and support for a wonderful trail system along the water.
That’s the second big achievement that boggled my mind. When I was on council the city had a small trail system with scattered sections along the river and city water supply canal. I started doing some exploring with my young toddler son Ben along some of the creeks that ran into the river and sections of the river itself with no easy public access. The vision of a comprehensive city-side trail system was embraced in the city’s new comprehensive plan, but frankly it was little more than a pipe dream. Fast forward thirty years and thanks to incredible work by the community, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
My jaw dropped when I saw the hundreds of people of all ages using the extensive trail system on a weekday. My friends told me they considered it to be one of the best, if not the best, community amenity in town.
That trail system has helped link the historic downtown to the rest of the community, and that downtown is so vibrant and lively today compared to the early 1980s when a new outlying shopping mall was sucking life out of the central business district. At that time, the city had a weak preservation ordinance that did not protect any structure built after 1870 and then only with delay periods when someone wanted to demolish an historic landmark. Several had already fallen to the wrecking ball, replaced by ugly modern buildings or parking lots. Having served on the Frank Lloyd Wright preservation commission in Oak Park, Illinois, while a young lawyer, I ran on a platform to strengthen the local preservation law and protect all buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (then pre-1935). There was vocal opposition from the local downtown business association, but after the election and with stalwart support of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, we passed the new regulations. Soon progressive local business people embraced the downtown’s unique character as its economic ace-in-the-hole, and the rest is, as they say, history. Today the handsome historic downtown is booming thanks to their advocacy over the years since.
Another feature of the downtown that brought a smile to my face was the old train station. Unused and crumbling back in the 1980s, it was given new life when city council successfully pushed, along with then-governor Gerry Baliles, for commuter rail from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C., and regular train service from Richmond through Fredericksburg to the nation’s Capitol.
The commute I used to do several days a week to Washington, D.C., on the interstate was an absolute nightmare back then. Today city residents have the luxury of train service thanks to successive city councils staying the course and backing it with tax dollars.
The other piece of good news played out on the outskirts west town across from the old Spotsylvania Mall, which as noted above had drained life from the downtown and sales tax dollars from city coffers like outlying shopping centers had done in many other communities across the country. To counter this, in the early 1980s, the city had annexed a large area of undeveloped property across from the mall, but had no comprehensive plan for this large tract. Already there were proposals for helter-skelter strip commercial centers, some massive projects along the river, and poorly designed housing. But starting in 1984 the city council sprang into action, appropriated funds for a major planning effort to ensure the newly annexed area would be developed in a well-designed manner, and then over the years worked closely with the major property owner, the Silver family. The result today is a booming, handsome well-landscaped business park with over 250 firms in well-designed buildings linked by sidewalks and parkways and some housing mixed in.
And I’ll have to admit a bit of devilish delight that the Central Park area, as it is now called, has far eclipsed the old, tattered mall in the county just across Route 3. It stands in stark contrast to the ugly mess that continues to creep out into the county and as a reminder of the value of good community planning.
I came away so proud of the citizens of Fredericksburg, and what they have accomplished working for over three decades with city officials. All of these major areas of progress are monuments to thoughtful city planning and community involvement. I hope they keep up the good work there in Fredericksburg. It’s inspiring.
Fifty years ago I was thrown together in a dorm room as a college freshman in Kansas with a kid from Junction City and a guy from Hutchinson. It was to be one of those serendipitous positive events that helped shape my life. I have heard horror stories from parents about their children’s and grandchildren’s college roommates from hell. Mine couldn’t have been better!
Josúe Perez was a tough, smart little sucker who, as the son of a decorated Sergeant Major in the Army, had been all oer the globe and knew how to take care of himself. He spoke fluent Spanish and was studying to be a teacher. Freeman Lance Miller, a music major and violin whiz, was a gentle soul who grew up in a “big” city close to my small rural hometown, but whom I had never met during high school although our paths had surely crossed dragging Hutch main street on Friday nights. I was just a tall, skinny kid just off the farm who loved nature and science and had aspirations to be a doctor.
We survived that first year as a team, and then became fraternity brothers, having a ball along the way as they corrupted a Mennonite kid by teaching me to dance and drink beer.
Lance transferred to Kansas University his junior year, and he became the doctor as well as a devoted Jayhawker! Joe went on to teach at our college then led an impressively varied international career including a stint as president of a technical college in Phoenix. I decided to forego medical school (damned advanced calculus) and opted to save the world as a lawyer, at a time when the country was in great social ferment. I was elected as chair of Kansas Collegiate Young Democrats (I think there were maybe 10 of us.) and my political fate was sealed.
My annual birthday backcountry fishing trip continues, this time with a trek into the upper La Garita Wilderness to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high along the Colorado Trail. The last couple of summers I have explored the stretches below and above the Eddiesville Trailhead that leads into the wilderness and had a blast catching lots of frisky browns and brook trout (See my July 2015 article on fishing Cochetopa Creek for more detail.). But what really intrigued me was when I bumped into another angler on one of those trips who claimed there were some big cutthroats higher in the wilderness area, beyond the first mile I had hiked up into. Now we all know that, present company and readership excepted, anglers are a mendacious lot, obscuring secret spots and misdirecting others to barren waters. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist as the tale had a ring of truth to it.
So I am on the road at 7 a.m. from my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake high above Gunnison, Colorado, for the 20-mile, hour-long drive to the Eddiesville Trailhead.
It rained last night, a godsend in the midst of this terrible drought, and at least the dust has settled on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that crosses several creeks on the way.
I pass an historic marker that reminds me I am on an old 1874 toll stage route that navigated over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide to the gold mines in the remote San Juan Mountains miles and miles to the west. Just when I think I am quite the adventurer the sign serves notice that I shrink in comparison to the hearty, tough souls who trail-blazed here years ago. It’s hard to comprehend how they built this road hundreds of miles by hand with mules and horses over this rough terrain. It was supposed to become a rail line, but was eclipsed by other equally daunting routes to the north and south.
It’s an endlessly scenic route, with the pyramid of Stewart Peak a prominent landmark looming in the distance and grand vistas revealed at every bend in the road.
However, when I make the first ford over Pauline Creek, I am aghast to find that it’s barely a trickle. Then I cross Perfecto, and find one of my little favorites is actually dry!! As I make my way up higher, Chavez Creek is almost dry, and while Nutras is gurgling along fairly well, Stewart Creek appears to have given up the ghost. Will Cochetopa have any water???
As soon as I arrive at the trailhead, I bail out of my SUV and hightail it to the nearest overlook… and breathe a sigh of relief. Cochetopa appears to have a decent flow, certainly enough to float a trout. So I pull on my waders and wading boots and set out on the hike up into the wilderness.
I intersect Cochetopa Creek after about 1.3 miles. It looks beautiful in the morning light, with perfect temperatures and just a light breeze greeting me. The fishing gods are smiling on me.
After a brief breather and a tremendous display of willpower to refrain from jumping in the creek and start fishing, I continue another mile into the wilderness, hoping I have ventured far enough to run into some cutthroats.
When the valley narrows, and trail veers away from the creek, I bushwhack down the slope to the creek and break out just below a sweet-looking little stretch where the water emerges from a willow tunnel and plunges over a small boulder into an alluring pool. I have seen a few grasshoppers in the meadow above, and when I check under rocks in the stream, I find them chock full of small mayflies and a few caddis nymph cases.
So I tie on a #16 Royal Coachman Trude, my old reliable, to imitate the hopper and a #18 Two-Bit Hooker as a fake mayfly nymph. I am using a nine-foot, five-weight rod I find performs well in these small creeks when a big fish hits and runs for snags under the banks. It will soon prove its mettle.
On my very first cast just below the boulder, a substantial fish flashes out and nails the trude. He proceeds to dive under the boulder and gyrates off the hook. Hmmm…looked suspiciously like a cutthroat, so maybe the guy wasn’t pulling my leg last summer. I flip another cast towards the boulder, and am fast onto another decent fish on the nymph. But this one is a brookie.
A couple of casts later, I score a double—two brookies, one on the dry and one on the dropper. Maybe I was only imagining that first one looked like a cutt. Anyway, that double signals what will be an epic century-club day, landing and releasing dozens and dozens of eager fish who act like they haven’t had a meal in weeks.
Fortunately, only a couple of pools later the truth emerges, and I am smiling. I land a beautiful cutt—not a big one, but hope springs eternal.
As I work upstream, I find the best bets are the pools gouged out by the rushing creek below blown out beaver dams. Indeed, the first one I come to I see a trout feeding.
I sneak into position, launch a long cast, and SLURP, he sucks in the trude. I can tell immediately from his flashy colors that it’s a good cutthroat. After a respectable to-and-fro battle, he slides into my net, pushing fourteen inches. A quick release is followed by a celebratory jig on the bank! Yahoo!!
The further I move upstream, the more the cutts predominate. Sometimes the stunning scenery detracts me from the mission at hand, but I snap out of the daze at the next run below another blown-out beaver pond. There I spy a good-sized trout sucking down mayflies in the quiet water below. On my first cast, he studiously ignores the dry, but on the next, can’t resist the nymph. The pool explodes as the finned critter realizes he’s been pranked with a fake. To my surprise and elation, it’s a nice brown trout—completing another La Garita slam (See my July 2018 articles on fishing Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness just over the Continental Divide a few miles.). It turns out to be the only brownie I catch all day, a bit odd since only a mile downstream the browns are plentiful.
It’s snack time, so I sit on the bank and soak some rays while taking in the picturesque setting. But not for long! I see on my GPS there are some big beaver ponds just ahead, so gird for battle. Beaver ponds are always an interesting, and often frustrating, challenge. I sneak up on the first one and peek over the dam. It’s a gorgeous big pond, with trout dimpling the surface in every direction. It doesn’t take long before I am fast onto a frisky little brook trout, followed by many others.
I continue to cast to risers, with long throws often required. But what fun, including a couple more doubles.
And as I emerge from behind the dam and skirt the shoreline, I spot some foot-long plus brookies cruising the shallows just below the creek inlet. I throw another long cast at a big boy in the crystal clear water, and he jets over to nail it before the little tykes can grab his meal. Another good tussle and quick release.
After my beaver pond delight, I continue upstream, catching more 12-13 inch cutts and brookies. When I finally glance at my watch, I’m surprised it’s almost four o’clock. Maybe time for another pool or two, but I can’t tarry long because it’s at least an hour back to the SUV and another to the mobile fish camp.
Around the next bend I find yet another blown-out beaver pond with a nice deep pool below. As I creep into casting position, I spook some small trout at the bottom end of the pool, so decide to loft a long cast over them before they tattle on me to their brethren.
And no sooner does the trude alight on the water than something big inhales it. The fish thrashes and churns the pool, but finally comes to the nest, a handsome 15-inch cutthroat, the biggest of the day.
The cutt quietly poses for a quick photo and soon is finning his way back to his hideaway. I am thankful once again for having brought a five-weight rod with enough backbone to throw long casts as well as handle the big fish in tight quarters filled with snags.
I can see some more pools upstream that cry out to be sampled, but resist the urge and head back to the trailhead. Fortunately it’s a fairly flat hike, perfect for a newly-anointed septuagenarian. Next year I’ll venture up even further into the wilderness to check it out those pools and beyond…assuming the old body holds up!
“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others the most valuable part.”–Aldo Leopold
Late July 2018
Note: For more information of fishing upper Saguache Creek, see my July 2017 and August 4, 2018, articles
It’s the second day of my annual birthday wilderness fishing trip. After a banner day yesterday, I’m champing at the bit to get back to Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness Area south of Gunnison, Colorado. Visions of trout cavorting in beaver ponds danced through my head last night.
Speaking of last night, heavy rains continued late into the evening, so as I navigate back to the wilds, my route on the gravel and dirt CR 17FF is much sketchier today, eroded and etched from the torrential runoff. I’m getting nervous, fearing that the creek may be muddy and blown out, but won’t find out for another hour when I get near the Middle Fork trailhead.
Forty-five minutes later I’m fording the North Fork of Saguache Creek just above its confluence with the Middle Fork, and it’s running clear—but that stream drains a different valley. Ten minutes later my jaw drops. The Middle Fork is running much higher and is a sickening milky color at the second ford.
I get out of the SUV and assess my chances of running the creek without getting stuck and decide it looks passable, but hard to tell with the murky water. I gun the Xterra, shift into four-wheel drive, and plunge in. Not to worry. It’s not as deep as I feared. But the rear end fish tails as I navigate the steep incline above, so I shift into four-low and take it easy the rest of the way. The road is a mess, with muddy sinks at every water bar along the remaining three miles, but I muddle through.
Fifteen minutes later I’m parking near the Middle Fork trailhead and walk with trepidation to the canyon rim to take a peek at the creek…and let out a big YAHOO when I see it is running clear, maybe a little high, but clear! Game on!!