Late morning I arrived at the place where the meadow ended and the stream tumbled in a succession of pools and drops through a narrow cleft in the mountainside.
Deep in shadow, ice coated the boulders along its banks and hung in delicate shards from the low-hanging branches of tangled deadfall that cluttered its course.
Sitting on a nearby log, I took stock. Much of the stream I’d followed through the meadow had itself been in shade, with watery snow and ice along its sheltered banks. Aside from two brookies spooked from the middle of a run, I’d seen no fish, let alone caught one. I could rest here, let the day warm a little more, then return downstream to try again or negotiate the steep incline in front of me and see what lay beyond.
The incline’s south-facing side, while largely free of snow, appeared steeper and thick with deadfall. The north side hinted at the outline of a primitive trail switchbacking its flank. While appearing more amenable to negotiate, it held snow and also its fair share of downed trees.
A third option was to return downstream and regain the trail that I knew led in the same general direction. That would involve backtracking and bushwhacking through marshy ground tangled with willows. I decided to proceed up the north side.
A few minutes into the climb I discovered that not only was the ground snow covered, much of it was icy underfoot, the result of springs seeping out of the mountainside then freezing over. Then, what I had imagined to be the top of the climb turned out to be the first of several false summits.
I slipped stepping over a fallen log, landing heavily on slick ground. At this point I began to question the wisdom of my choice – stumbling around, off the beaten path, alone, with no one knowing where I was or whether I was missing – hardly the place or time to deal with a twisted knee or broken ankle.
I contemplated turning back but, like MacBeth, adjudged myself “in blood stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as the go o’er.”
Keeping the stream close on my right, I continued picking my way gingerly up the incline until, 20 minutes later, I emerged from the forest onto a small bare knoll, and in the vista, all the effort became worthwhile.
Before me lay a meadow, at a guess a mile long and a half wide, ringed with mountains like an ancient amphitheater. Fir grew dense on the mountains’ lesser slopes down to the meadow’s edge where rust-brown willows asserted their supremacy. A series of beaver dams had staunched the flow of the stream to where it ran broad and slow, meandering its course from one side of the meadow to the other.
The sunlight reflected strangely opaque off the water’s surface, and after a few seconds I realized I’d arrived a couple of weeks too late. The stream was in the process of freezing over, the ice thicker where it lay among the willows and tufts of tussock grass along the shore bank, thinner and see-through in the more open reaches where the gentle current resisted the ice’s encroachment.
Stepping my way carefully along the frozen, uneven ground, I made my way to the foot of a beaver dam, where water still drained through beneath the cover of ice, searching for signs of a fish in the spare patches of open water, to no avail.
Deciding to wave the white flag on the day, I picked my way slowly across the top of a beaver dam and began to hike in the direction I knew would intersect the trail at some stage. Once found, I’d switch wading boots for hiking boots and follow the trail back to camp.
Hayden Mellsop is a Realtor with Pinon Real Estate Group and a former fishing guide.