Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Keyed Off

View from Colorado Springs
Wednesday night the stars were on fire and our feet were numb. The elevation was 7,995 feet, so our heads hovered just above 8,000 feet shivering in the Colorado February darkness. We were stranded and the temperature kept dropping. Our fishing had abruptly ended hours earlier; our minds quickly worked to devise a plan that avoided the four of us sleeping in a Rocky Mountain canyon in the dead of winter.

Lake George lies at the mouth of the canyon, and the town has dotted the map of Colorado since 1891.  If you have ever seen the opening scene of Disney's Frozen, then you could picture men harvesting ice blocks hewn from the frozen Lake George in the winter. Lake George was created to supply ice for the railroad and Colorado Springs area.  The Sunday before our Wednesday night shiver-fest,  I had fished in the same area, but the temperature was mild and the fishing was medium. Today, our guides jammed with ice accumulation and we couldn't find the keys to unlock the tailwater puzzle of the South Platte in Eleven Mile Canyon. Oh yeah, we couldn't find the keys to the rental suburban either.  As daylight began to fade behind the canyon walls, we were keyless and without cell signal; the slow fishing took a back seat to the reality that we needed extraction from the canyon.

Eleven Mile Canyon
On Sunday, the parking lot was full, the weather was balmy, and the river was crowed. Despite the pressure, a patient-dead-drifted-nymph rig would regularly ply a rainbow from the gin clear shallow waters of the Platte. On Sunday, we we slid in the water with 6x tippet and an array of size 22 midges and beatis emergers.  Black beauties, purple juju bees, olive sparkle wing rs2's, and some tiny fbpt's made it into the rotation, and all produced at least one fish. On Sunday, the best setup was drifting any number or combo of tiny flies behind a San Juan worm. The fishing was never hot, but I never went an hour without landing a rainbow.

A run that produced fish Sunday and Wednesday

Cookie cutter S. Platte bow
Three days later, on Wednesday, everything was different aside from the clear water, hundreds of visible fish, and the massive dam that dominates the upstream landscape when you reach the end of Eleven Mile Canyon Road. On Wednesday, a fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape as we drove through the deep scar created by time, gravity, and water towards the dirt lot at the end of the road.  My excitement was palpable as we cut the first tracks into an empty parking lot below the same ominous dam that held back the straining force of Eleven Mile Reservoir. On Wednesday, we were past the cold front with colder temperatures; a classic recipe for sucky fishing. Low fishing pressure overpowers barometric pressure, I thought. I hoped. (The parking lot was empty after all.) But after staring at hoards of fish happily ignoring our presentations, my hope dwindled. We couldn't find the keys to unlock the river riddle that day. I fooled a few, landed two, and lost a brute, but the fishing was down right slow.

The excitement picked up however as the day closed.  Tom started asking me, EJ, and Matt if we had the keys to the suburban about 45 minutes before dusk. I had just switched from a white football indicator to a orange thing-a-ma-bobber so I could actually see my indicator in the quickly fleeting light of the gorge. When I left the river to go look for the keys, I was certain I would be back in the water to get a few more drifts, and maybe one more fish before I had to call it quits on my only fishing trip in 8 months. 8 months. That surpassed my previous fly fishing dry spell of 2 months in the past 18 years. We really don't know what happened to the keys. We scanned the clear waters of the South Platte. We retraced the foot prints and packed snow trails we made over the afternoon's fishing. We turned waders, the suburban, and bags inside-out in search of the keys to be denied around every twist and turn to turn up empty-handed on a day we we often empty-netted. 

Behind a myriad of chain link, barbed wire, and a hatch of 'no trespassing' signs, a slice of civilization held hope for us on the opposite side of the river.  After wading across the river several times, watching my waders and wading boots freeze and unfreeze, and busting some Entrapment-inspired Katherine Zeta moves through fence and wire, Todd and Caroline were home. Todd is the caretaker of the dam, and he and his wife Caroline let us in their house and kindly allowed us to use their phone.  It was Todd's birthday. We ruined his evening I'm sure. I would imagine we weren't the first idiots to knock on that door, stranded in the canyon.  After calls to Enterprise, Rodney the Rescuer, and a tow company, Todd kindly drove back out the nine miles of gravel round that snakes along the banks of the river in the grand and beautiful ditch that is Eleven Mile Canyon. He dropped us off in Lake George after conversations of Matt's Family Feud fame, the many mountain lions that Todd encounters in the canyon, and about a millions apologies from his keyless passengers.  On the way out we passed the tow truck that Tom had arranged to lug the suburban back to the Springs.  As we pulled our frozen gear from the back of Todd's truck in the frigid rocky mountain cold we laughed, we cussed, and we shivered until Rodney and Chad plucked us of the side of the desolate, dark highway. Chad and Rodney had accompanied me earlier on Sunday, and had the distinct privilege of performing the extraction on Wednesday since they were familiar with the canyon and the river. 

We still don't know what happened to the keys (I mean, we know Tom unknowingly dropped them in the snow somewhere, but for Tom's sake, we've let him run with the theory that a passing drifter stole the keys and nothing else form the suburban that was parked 50 feet behind us).  The day will be etched in my memory as the day when both the keys to fishing and the keys to the car eluded us, leaving us keyed off, cold, nervous, and slap-happy. I'd never been so stoked to cuddle up next to frozen waders and wading boots in the third row of a cramped Mitsubishi Outlander car, leaving the celestial brilliance of the Colorado night sky to burn at our backs as we faded into the noise and light pollution of the city. 

Soon, if not already, the buzz and blur of civilized life will leave us longing to escape to the natural places, where solace, beauty, and danger more acutely connect us to the One who created our wild souls and the ever fading wilderness.  The convenience and abundance of resources and shelter can rob us of the very awareness of our mortality, leaving us to think we are gods that control our future with dollar bills, furnaces, pre-packaged food, and experience. In the wild, we are left to wrestle with our own frailty and we are reminded of our need for a Great Provider who will lead us to a redeemed creation, where the South Platte runs free, and in my mind, fat trout rise to drifting green drakes all the day long. I'm not sure that there will be fly rods in eternity, but I have a hunch that Jesus is a fly fisherman who builds his own bamboo rods, ties his own flies, and gracefully condescends to share his favorite run with me...and you, and any other willing to follow him into the reality of wild freedom. He holds the keys.

"A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy.  I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of."  -Jesus Christ, The Gospel according to John