Anticipating an August road trip out West, I recalled several earlier trips taken with my wife and kids– one trip just two years ago, and others, oh, way back… Perhaps the highlight of one westward transition occurred as we stopped for breakfast in a family-style restaurant near LaSalle, Illinois.
We sat at a table near a few old “regulars” slouched at widely separated stools along the U-shaped counter. Waiting for our orders to arrive, we enjoyed listening to some droll midwestern dialogue…
Patron A: “So, how’s work been going?”
Patron B: “Okay.”
Patron A: “I’ll bet I work more in one day than you’ll ever work in a month.”
Patron B: “That ain’t likely.”
Patron A: “I heard they sent a recliner over to your place for what you do.”
The banter continued, sometimes pausing sullenly for a minute or two, as we sat with our coffees, listening, and admitting, afterward, that the blueberry pancakes were pretty darn good, as well.
[What follows are two excerpts from “Western River Cycle” in my book called Sand & Sage (2010). I see them as reflections from Yellowstone, one of many wild locations that my daughter & I are hoping to revisit soon while maintaining our social distance from the crowds.]
The Nez Perce is a major tributary of the Firehole River. It was flowing low and warm as I passed a handful of frustrated anglers. No one was seeing trout in this hot weather, so I opted to explore the Firehole instead. After promising wife and kids that I would go with them on their second visit to Old Faithful geyser later in the day, I was dropped off at the Firehole Canyon.
The Firehole was flowing full and deep and cool, a fly-caster’s dream where I could lay down my terrestrial patterns on the grassy channels or beside an undercut bank. I caught several good rainbows that were feeding on grasshoppers and ants blown into the water.
Later, following a tasty Montana meal in West Yellowstone, I sampled a bit of the Madison River inside the park. The wind swept layers of storm cloud over the valley as I gave casting lessons to the kids. Releasing a small trout, I thought I heard the river gods intone, “Thanks for trying.” I thought I saw graffiti scrawled on an incoming wave: “I was here for a moment. It was fun.” I definitely heard shouting from the van, “Dad, don’t forget Old Faithful!”
Since the Gardner River below Mammoth Springs is influenced by very hot effusions from within the earth, I figured that any trout in this particular section had to be either suicidal or already cooked. Following some mandatory footwork on the paths of the Mammoth Springs site, we drove upriver toward the isolated Indian Creek Campground. At Sheep-eaters Cliff, named for the ancients who ostensibly hunted and consumed the area’s mountain sheep, my daughter and I strung up the fly rods.
It was the first occasion on this journey for my daughter to try some dry fly casting. She and I enjoyed the fast-flowing stream, but as dusk began to settle on this grizzly bear terrain, we found ourselves edging toward the parking lot. Fellow carnivores had to be respected, of course, and we seemed to be the only human carnivores around.
We were fortunate to have caught and released a lot of little brook trout in the Gardner, each as beautiful in its own way as any of the moose or elk or bison we had seen. The brookies, native to eastern North America, were a splendid fish even though they had usurped the native cutthroat trout in all too many western streams. Cutthroats remained the dominant sports fish on the upper Yellowstone River, and I looked forward to meeting them soon.
Man and machine have brought many changes to cold-water habitats around the world, and one needn’t look farther than Yellowstone Lake for a sobering example. The lake had been home to a stable population of cutthroat trout for millennia. In recent years, someone illegally dumped a number of lake trout into the water and now the non-native species has become a major predatory problem threatening to displace the cutthroat.
The cutthroat struggles for survival in many parts of the West, and the brook trout struggles for survival in the East. At the root of the problem are the transplants, plus the hand that perpetuates transplanting all around the planet. Even on a balmy summer evening, transplants are a theme at the Gardner River. Where once there were native Sheep-eaters struggling to survive, there were at least two eastern fly-fishers, a father and a daughter, trying to live their lives as fully as they could.
[Don’t hesitate to check my 56-second Greys River video below, replete with motorbike sounds & dust, about 20 miles above the nearest village.]