Heading further up-river in search of even more exciting fish holes, I’m soon reminded why this place lives in local legend. The topography quickly changes from a flat plain to steep cliffs on both sides of the drainage. This must be the gulch Bobby told me about.
This adventure will have to wait until later. So rather than get myself in any deeper, I decide to turn back for breakfast and meet our host. Not to mention the fact that I have that other surprise to reveal.
Walking through the creaky screen door, I am greeted with the smell of french toast, sausage and eggs on the wood-fired griddle. Did I mention this place is the stuff dreams are made of?
Over breakfast, Bob introduces me to his aunt Nell. We sip fresh ground-coffee listening to some great stories from the early days while she hand-feeds a kitten from a bottle and shows us Indian artifacts she found plowing the gardens.
After a good chat and entertaining recount of the previous night’s Jeep debacles, I remind Bob we’re on a tight timeline – we have to be out at the main gate by 10 A.M. Nell knows exactly what I’m talking about because I’ve been in touch with her friend, Charlie B, for a couple weeks setting this adventure up.
Bob looks back and forth between us with a wry grin like we’ve conspired against him. We sure have. “What are you up to, Smarg? Are you playing more tricks on me?” Both Nell and I have a laugh over this remark.
Seeing the whole spread for the first time in broad daylight, it’s easy to understand why it’s steeped in family lore. I can only imagine what Bob’s great uncle thought of the property when he first set foot on it after seeing so much death and destruction in the invasion of Italy. Talk about paradise on earth…
After a twenty minute drive, we get to the front gate and wait for “the package” to arrive. Bob can’t even remotely figure out what I have in mind, but it’s pretty obvious when I tell him to take a peek in the rear view mirror:
“Smarg, are you serious?!” I just look over and laugh: “What? You said you’ve never seen the whole property so you really think I’m gonna give you a tour without some help?”
Bob looks just like Maverick from TOP GUN as the horse trailer comes to a halt in the front yard. Nell greets us all with a friendly wave.
As it turned out, I called around to a bunch of ranches in Lander to inquire about renting a couple horses for a few days to take a backcountry trek around Nell’s property. Most figured me for some California dumbass and wouldn’t give me the time of day until I called this one guy and he asked which ranch I planned to ride them on. Well, as soon as Charlie B heard Nell’s name, I had the credibility to rent his horses. That’s just the way things go in this neck of the woods.
“Now you’re on your own, kid – I ain’t got no release papers to sign. You may look the part, but if this here mare chucks or kicks ya, don’t come cryin’ to me,” says Charlie as we lead ‘em out. I promise him we won’t take the ponies any faster than a canter and there would be “no cowboy shenanigans.” He looks to Nell and asks: “Can I trust this guy?” Without missing a beat, she replies, “I wouldn’t, but I know my Bobby will keep him in line.”
I have to admit, for the price I paid him in cash, I kinda felt like a horse thief. But when it came to getting these things to actually do what we wanted, I’d a had better luck cussing at the broad-side of a barn! No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t get these hoofed heathens to go any faster than a slow gate. It was like Charlie trained ‘em special just to spite us.
Putting what happened next in print will only get me in trouble, but suffice it to say I settled my nerves afterwards with a luke-warm Coors rather than take any more chances with these “goddamn pack mules!” Meantime, Bob’s over there in stitches, stacking up blackmail stories by the minute.
My original plan was to circumnavigate the entire ranch on a double-overnight that would take us from the river basin to the alpine highlands above the gorge and then back through red-rock country. This morning’s ride was intended to familiarize us with these animals and hopefully bond enough with them so they could be trusted carrying our gear into some really rugged terrain. Well, as the famous John Steinbeck saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. So I decide to ditch these donkeys in the corral and come up with a Plan B.
On our way back, we pass the old ranch house – the one Bob’s great uncle built when he was a young man on his own. We dismount to take a look around and contemplate the seasons of life that have passed since the echoes of his hammer first reverberated through the canyon.
Looking back at the skyline, I see the lone silhouette of one of our rides. It must have been a similar sight for him. And I am reminded that, much like the horses’ stubborn temperaments, one’s ego is quickly humbled by whims of the weather. It’s best to admit defeat in moments like this rather than butt your head against the proverbial wall. You’ll only run your gears ragged.
Fortunately, the following morning brings clear blue skies as we load overnight packs. As I assemble my rifle-barreled 12-gauge Remington 870 Express Shotgun with Winchester slugs, Bob asks why I’m being so paranoid. I assure him, paranoia has nothing to do with it as I hand over my .45 ACP Kimber Custom II: “I just like to have an unfair advantage.” He looks at me, holding the pistol like it’s going to spontaneously explode. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?!” “Carry it on the outside of your pack. And don’t pull the trigger when it’s pointed at your foot.”
It’s pretty simple; we’re headed into “big bear country.” And anybody who knows anything about bears knows that the first defense is offense. Your goal is to be loud and to NOT to engage them. But if you do come across one or heaven-forbid, one of momma’s baby cubs, your goal is to be as big as possible and and make lots of scary noises. Bob is clearly skeptical. “Scary noises?” Yup. I also hand him some Counter Assault bear mace spray and tell him we’ll “hold the line shoulder-to-shoulder until it bluff charges.”
The concept of a bluff charge is foreign to Bob so I tell him male grizzlies are especially territorial and will basically just want to show us who’s boss. A bluff charge comes when they assert their dominance. “If we run, we’re dead.” Once the bluff charge happens, chances are we’ll have pissed our pants, but if we stick together, we have a much better chance of survival. “So then what happens if he doesn’t stop?”
“If he doesn’t stop, he’ll be on us faster than you can blink. You point that bear mace at his head and spray in bursts as you back up. Hopefully he’s disoriented enough so I have a split second to get to his right flank. If he jumps you, curl up into a ball and unload that .45 straight down his throat. I’ll finish the job with a couple slugs to his heart.”
Bob has the same look on his face he did when we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. “Don’t worry about it, buddy. The chances of something like that happening are zero. But it’s important to have a plan so you don’t end up as a pile of bear shit.”
With that, we retrace my steps up-river and get into the gorge. I tell Bobby about all the trout I caught, but of course, he thinks I’m full of it. There’s something about telling stories really well that automatically makes people think you’re lying to them. So I’ve grown accustomed to taking lots of pictures to corroborate all the details and let the record stand for itself.
As the pitch of the landscape changes from flat to highly contoured on the old USGS map, I decide to get out of the water and head up alongside the eastern ridge. I tell Bob, “There’s a plateau that looks fairly passable.” Who knows if that’s true or not. Guess we’ll find out.
The concept of hiking completely off-trail is just as strange to Bob as a corporate board room is for me. But his tenacity is truly inspiring. I’m starting to get a bit tired and uncomfortable so I know this must be hell for him. Yet he doesn’t hesitate a bit. I look down the ridge and am proud of my good buddy pushing himself so hard. At least he’s still in decent spirits and isn’t demanding we turn around yet. I do my best to encourage him knowing that either one of us could easily fall straight off this ledge!
You never really know how your buddies will do in the backcountry until you get into the sticks. The good news is there appears to be a valley on the far side of that ridge just ahead so my goal is to get us there without spraining any ankles or breaking any necks.
The cliffs get really cliffy really fast. I double-check the contour lines and try to use the nearby peaks as land-marks to figure out how much further we have to go before we get past this really exposed section. I keep telling Bob the valley is right around the corner knowing full well that it isn’t. But that’s one of the tricks to navigating and leading these kinds of adventures – you always have to be just “15 minutes away” from the next waypoint.
And then I look down at my feet and see exactly what I don’t want to see…
Four rounded toes and a big flat center pad.
Lucky for us, this mature cougar track isn’t fresh. You can tell by the fallen pine needles and the degradation around the perimeter of the imprint that it’s maybe a day or two old. The darker color of the earth around the base indicates that he was probably moving during last-night’s rain-fall which caused the moisture to pool a bit.
As I scan the cliffs immediately to our flanks, I’m torn about what to say to Bob who is currently scratching his way up a shear drop-off above the river…
Once he’s settled on this precarious perch above the rushing white-water fifty feet below, I take my glasses off and give him a second to catch his breath. “How’s it going, Bobby?” “Not bad – you?” “Well, I’m great, but we have an interesting dilemma. I don’t have a rope to safely descend with our packs so the only way we’re getting out of here in one piece is to follow this mountain-lion trail along the base of the ridge and hopefully get to valley before he invites us out to lunch.”
Bob makes sudden eye contact: “What?” I nod. “Yeah. You’re standing right in the middle of it.” Bob snaps his foot up like he just stepped in a load of dog crap. “The good news is it doesn’t look like the lion’s been here for a day or so. The bad news is that lions actually stalk their prey from above and behind until they strike by literally jumping on the back of whatever they intend to eat.” “Are you f*cking with me?” “Not this time,” I say matter-of-factly. “The difference in predation patterns between bears and lions is that bears don’t really want anything to do with you. But lions will pretty much take on anything they think they can bite.”
“So your solution is to actually follow the tracks?” “Yup. Believe it or not, we’re in a really advantageous position right under this ridge because it’s so steep. My guess is that the lion uses this rock ramp as an access path rather than for ambushing deer. He’d do that further down-stream where we started because, just like us, he’s not interested in doing a face-plant into the river.” Bob looks over the edge of the cliff and then follows the tracks down the ridge-line.
“Put my glasses on the back of your hat and look over your shoulder every thirty seconds to make sure we’re not being followed.” Bob is not liking this idea one bit. “What good will that do?” “It just might trick him into thinking you’re staring straight at him which will delay the likelihood of a pounce.”
Bob looks around frantically. Rather than let fear and present uncertainty paralyze us both, I push forward – ironically, straight into the lion’s den – literally.
About 100m ahead, we come around a precipice and encounter an overhanging ledge. There’s clear evidence of recent “activity” all around. So I toss a recently broken and bloodied deer bone at him, hitting him square in the chest: “Want some deer jerky?!”
Bob leaps back and whips his head around. “Is that what I think it is?!”
“Keep your head on a swivel – looks like we got the jump on him.”
I’m not going to pretend this is the best place to be. But it does make for a helluva story and at least – I try to convince us both – “puts us at a tactical advantage.” Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…So I do the only thing a scared shitless guy should do while standing in the middle of a mountain lion cave – I mark my damn territory!
Bob tosses the festering femur away: “What the hell are you doing?!” “I’m letting this fur-ball know who’s boss! When he comes back, he’ll smell my testosterone all over his pillowcase and bugger off.” (At least that makes some sense in my head…)
I explain that the vast majority of people who are attacked by mountain lions are women running in the woods by themselves. The cat’s instinct gets triggered when you run so that’s the number one thing you don’t do when there’s a big one around. But if you’re a chick wearing really sexy Lulu yoga pants and a tank top all by yourself, kitty’s gonna smell your estrogen and put you at the top of his menu. So your best bet is to get the hell out of there without panicking.
I check the ridge-line directly above us every few moments as we slowly make our way through dense underbrush. I also explain to Bob that even seeing a cat like that in the wild would be a real privilege. He disagrees so I add humorously, “Well, it’s only fair – he’s had eyes on us since we started climbing this cliff!” “Seriously?! You think he sees us?” “Course he does! This is his back yard.”
The fact is, that oversize pussy cat probably is watching us as we speak. But that ironically doesn’t bother me one bit. Maybe I’m a fool, but there’s actually something comforting about being potentially stalked by an apex predator. You see, he’s thinking exactly the same thing I am: I know that if he doesn’t make his move now, he’s not likely to because he also figures he’s going to be on the wrong end of my shish-kabob stick! Nevertheless, I don’t let the forest’s relative silence lull me into a false sense of security. Ultimately, we may both be smart enough to realize the difference between being predator or prey is mindset, but we’re also not stupid enough to think that’s just our choice to make.
So since I want to keep myself on the right end of the food chain, I zip up my fly and f*ck off.
Turning the bend into the inner valley section of the gorge, a great sense of relief washes over us and I recall the great Winston Churchill’s words of wisdom: “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” That is such amazing advice. You can’t actually argue with a giant cat that wants to turn you into a meat-cake. But knowing the historical context in which this eloquent orator was speaking, I take the ironic liberty of assigning to our present circumstances the inherent relevance of his prosaic rhetoric.
In other words, I tell myself, “Self, let this be a lesson-learned: Never allow fear to dictate the terms. When you are most afraid; when you are most likely to fail, it is then that you must summon your own inner Tiger King to tame the tempests of your heart.”
Heading up-valley, the terrain is not looking great. I expected to find a “shelf” that would provide plenty of ideal camping spots, but what we found was just the opposite:
Rocky ridges dump into the river basin like a cascade of granite on all sides. Since we’re getting past noon and I know the sun will dip below the mountains long before night-fall, I decide to get to that grassy knoll on the far side of the river. It’s the best place to dump our rucks and settle in. Only problem is, there’s a lot of heavy flow between those banks.
When I’m in Alaska, I have no problem just fording rivers because I know there’s no way to avoid getting soaked in the backcountry. It’s a constant struggle in and out of the water. But given the run-in with the lion, I opt to keep Bobby as dry as possible so he doesn’t mutiny on me.
So I propose the next move and to my surprise, he’s all about it!
Leaping across the river like a couple of kangaroos, is a great way to conclude the morning’s mishaps.
As if the universe is smiling upon our choice, a quick scout of the area reveals its most redeeming feature: The PERFECT fishing hole.
A small falls on the far side of the pool gives way to a deep lagoon punctuated by two large boulders offering steep and shady shelfs for some very large indigenous rainbow trout. I can see their sleek shadows hovering just below the surface and know that in an hour or two, the lighting will be perfect to conceal a stealthy, down-stream stalk.
So I back through the bushes without a sound to collect some firewood that will help stave off the chilly night air and warm a supper I am determined to land.
As the sun wanes in the west, the trees cast longer shadows across the pool and it’s the ideal time to strike. Just as before, I know I will only get one perfectly placed cast to nail one of these suckers!
So I align my body with the flow of the river, allowing for the cleanest back-cast and pitch. The hatch is your common terrestrials like grasshoppers and nymphs so I opt for the latter based on what I see congregating along the water’s edge. Since the falls is now in shadow, I know the best way to strategically place the entry is on the very edge of the light and dark section just below that far rock. There’s a sharp shadow cast off the edge so I want to literally hit the rock with the fly then allow it to fall clean into the water with a splash big enough to catch the attention of whatever lurks beneath the millions of tiny bubbles.
I line it up, take a couple back-casts to let the line out long enough, being very careful not to allow the end to settle more than a meter above the surface before loosing the fly unto its furled fate…
Low and behold, the ancient river yields its abundance once again!
This rainbow trout put up quite a fight. I could tell by the ferocity of the strike and the instant yank upon the line that this fellow had no intention of being caught. But alas, the victory is mine and so too is the prize.
Simple is always best when preparing fish in the backcountry. I prefer smoked to charred or baked because if you can find the right natural herbs like wild thyme or sage, the combination of pine and pre-soaked lineaments is exquisite.
Preparation Notes: Gut the fish as soon as you catch it and keep the body submerged in free-flowing water until you’ve gathered your ingredients. If I know I’m likely to catch a big one, I usually gather all my firewood and herbs ahead of time to optimize freshness.
When you’re ready to get started, harvest fresh pine boughs and weave them into a bowl of sorts. It’s easier when you create a natural frame of pliable willow or spruce that adds structure, but you can be quick about it just by weaving the limbs together at opposing angles. Be sure to place individual limbs along the base to create a heavy foundation. Then before you add the fish, soak the pine bough bowl and herbs in water for 30 minutes to get them nice and saturated. The extra moisture will be your friend when it comes time to toss it on the coals.
Next, dig a separate pit just for the coals to sit completely flat. If you put this thing straight into your fire, you’re going to regret it – you have to control the heat. The way I do that is by finding a large flat rock in the bed of the river. ***Make sure it hasn’t been submerged because rapidly boiling the water inside could cause it to explode! Place the flat rock in the base of the pit then cover it with red-hot coals. Once spread out, place the pine bough bowl along with the bed of herbs and trout right on top of it. It’ll immediately start smoking like a mother-f*cker. That’s exactly what you want.
Finally, you can clear the coals and remove the rock to keep the fish warm while you eat it.
I stand in the heavy plume of white smoke and take an exaggerated deep breath: “The best part about smoking fresh fish in the backcountry is it’s exactly like ringing a giant dinner bell for the bears.” Bobby has been around me long enough at this point to know not to laugh at my sardonic sense of humor – it’ll just encourage me to keep going.
But the look on his face is one of genuine concern so I do my best to assuage him of any doubts about the relative safety of our campsite: “We’ve got shear cliffs on both sides and a wide section of river directly below us. I picked this spot because it would be difficult for anything to sneak up.” “What about up-river, genius? Did you consider that they might just come from that direction?” “Yes I did. And that’s exactly why I placed the tent directly in the flow of fishy smoke then swapped your sleeping bag to that side so they’ll find you first!”
Even Bob has to crack a smile at that one: “You’re a f*cking maniac. Pull that thing outta there and let’s eat it before they eat us.”
Sitting around the fire drinking whisky and chewing on smoked trout off sharpened sticks like a couple of cavemen, my buddy Bob and I spend the next couple hours reminiscing about the good old days: The frat parties we’ll never tell our future wives about; the politics nobody in California wants to discuss; and plans for just how the hell we’ll deal with a bear or cougar if one really does show up in the middle of the night.
For a guy who always tries to come up with a logical answer even if there aren’t a whole lot of good options on the table, I decide to just give my pal some peace of mind: “Hit the hay, dude. I’d keep watch until the early hours. You’re gonna need some rest to get out of this canyon the short way or it’ll be week more of this shit before we see the other end.” “You’re a f*cking maniac,” Bob says as he heads back to the tent and settles in for the night.
Truth be told, my plan for getting us out of this canyon is just as sound as my plan for “dealing” with a bear attack – non-existent. Sure, I looked at the maps plenty of times. The topo lines were pretty manageable until we were face to face with the real rock features this morning. I’ve got my doubts about tomorrow, but hey, that’s what getting @OFFZGRD is all about – not knowing your way in or out.
The sun rises before we do, but when I pop my head out of the tent, I see we’re in for some more adventures. There are black clouds on the horizon and the rusty smell of petrichore in the air.
I know getting out of this place is not going to be any easier than it was getting in. But nevertheless, I lead the charge up-river towards what appears to be milder slopes leading to the ridge-line plateau a couple miles away.
To my surprise, the river actually disappears right above camp! For some strange reason, it flows underground which makes me wonder if maybe this place is some kind of mystical spot.
But by the time the “Easy-Out” slope comes into view, Bob has had about enough of this off-trail stuff. He’s hungry and wants to head home. I don’t blame him – especially considering there’s a violent lightening storm brewing and heavy thunder riding our ass.
I tell him we have two options: Shelter under a rock ledge away from the trees or try to get up and out before the storm hits. It’s hard to tell if the worst of it is upon us because the canyon is so high, it obscures the horizon in all directions.
As thunder cracks above, I look to the skies in search for the first signs of the torrential down-pour that is certain to strike. There is no obvious place to take cover.
I recall years ago when I was exposed like this outside Telluride, Colorado during a similar alpine storm that moved in at the drop of my hat. The lightning got so close, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up and I actually saw lightning split a couple trees. I definitely do not want to repeat that experience today. So we both opt for the latter option and hope for the best.
As we cross the dry river bed, we are reminded that we are most certainly not alone out here…
Fresh bear scat. I am no expert, but at least the viscosity doesn’t indicate this deposit was recent. Bob is not laughing at my stupid poop jokes which means I better just shut up and get us out of here otherwise I’m going to be held responsible for whatever happens – bear or otherwise.
The thing about the backcountry is you have to go with the flow. There’s no way to control it. If you try, you’re just going to get more frustrated. So I’ve learned to do like the Marines do and embrace the suck. The concept is really simple: Revel in shit. The worse it gets the better, because you are never going to be any colder, wetter, hungrier or more exhausted than you already are. So slap a f*ckin’ smile on your face and just deal with it!
I’ve had this quality engrained in me since I was a kid. I used to stay out in the cold and rain for hours knowing my mom was going to kick my ass when I finally did come home. Same thing when we’d have 5AM pool workouts for cross-country – I was the guy who’d do a sprinting belly-flop into the deep end just to motivate my teammates. There has always been something about voluntarily suffering that is attractive to me. I guess you’re either wired that way or not. And if you aren’t, you’re not gonna learn it in a day. Some guys never do.
Bob is no exception. And to make matters worse, he’s always had crappy knees because he’s played soccer his whole life. So climbing this really steep ridge-line with a full pack is not exactly his cup of tea.
To his credit, Bobby really pushed himself through a lot of pain.
You can’t hear him looking at these pictures, but he embraced the suck the whole afternoon. And there’s a part of me that feels like Mother Nature had some mercy on us because She could see we’re learning valuable lessons and creating lifelong memories: Not a single drop of rain fell upon us the entire time.
Eventually, we make it to the ridge plateau. Bob is ecstatic.
Looking down over the cliffs, we can see our fire-pit.
I can’t help but wonder when we’ll be back down there – if ever. And that same maudlin feeling creeps into my gut again as I realize these are the days we’ll remember most when we get old. Those rocks will be stacked in that circle long after the echoes of our laughs fade from the canyon walls and our footsteps lead off around the bend for all eternity.
Someday, maybe someone will come upon that ring, look at those silent rock faces and wonder what we joked about. Fact is, they won’t have to hear the setup to know the punchline; all young guys joke about the same things – whether it’s this century or the next.
Turning our attention homeward-bound, we get to see The Ranch from another perspective – a bird’s eye view. Looking down upon it gives you the sense you own the place for a moment. I’m not sure if Bob feels that way too, but a part of me does.
I am glad my friend gets to see it this way. His character arc alone is testament to his personal fortitude. I’m sure some small part of him endured the fear and the pain just to hold it in his heart forever. Weather that translates to some kind of nominal “ownership” regardless of whatever happens to this place or not, is for him to decide. But one thing is for sure – Bobby is a different man now than he was yesterday morning.
We own this day. This is our time.
Walking into the yard, I trail behind Bob because he’s on-point now, leading the way. I’m not sure if it’s hunger driving him on, or maybe a secret sense of accomplishment. But I sure feel like he pushed himself more than he knew he could. I am proud of my friend.
It may not seem like much, but the last 24 hours has been one helluva adventure; we’ve seen this place from backcountry to front. It wasn’t exactly how I’d planned, but that’s okay. The experience always manages to shape you rather than the other way around. Jeeping has taught me to not only expect that, but to actually long for it.
So I hope my good buddy Bob remembers his family’s ranch the way I will – more beautiful than I’d ever imagined it…