I get out of the lake, tugging at my drooping underwear. Nate follows and fills up the guy’s water bottle with clean water. It is a bit awkward, standing there in our dripping underwear, but we aren’t the guy who dumped his pack and then spent two hours on the wrong trail before being rescued by two guys who now stand before him in their underwear.
No, we are the guys who have a different set of problems. By now, one of us has fallen into a stream for the second time. One of us—the one who reserved the truck that brought us to the Winds—can neither rent nor drive it because he arrived in Jackson Hole with an expired driver’s license. He rides to the trailhead in the passenger’s seat. The road itself begins as two ruts alongside a glacial wall that looms 300 feet above us, and is followed by mud, cattle, trees across the road, and potholes only slightly smaller than I am. At times the road has eroded away except for two ridges the width of tire tracks with three-foot gullies on either side. If the road to hell is unpaved with good intentions, this is the road to hell.
We park behind a tree that crosses the road. It is day one, the day before the real day one, the day one of us gets altitude sickness. Nate makes his diagnosis, leads me back to the trailhead, and then heads back up the trail for the pack I left behind. I sit in the air-conditioning of the truck, throw up, and count the seconds that he is gone. His mother, my wife, would never forgive me if he were eaten by a grizzly. Or a steer.
Typically, I am the hero of my stories. I’d always supposed that if anyone were to be guided, incapacitated, down a mountain, I would have been the guide. I also supposed that if anybody ever walked into camp, it would be a maiden in distress, and that I would not be standing around in dripping underwear.
Flu Guy suspects none of this. Nor does he realize that we walked by him earlier as he tried to eat his lunch, nor that he, in turn, walked by his own group. One of us, probably Nate, because I never did catch my breath at this altitude, offered to go back and get his pack, but Flu Guy declined. The other of us, probably me, because Nate hates maps, showed him the route back to his group. We offered to guide him, and we were silently grateful when he declined. We had been sitting in a lake for a reason.
“Never get sick on the trail,” he tells us. We promise not to as he disappears downhill.
Day four. We have a short discussion about whether to stop halfway to Elbow Lake, or to go the distance. I figure if we go only halfway, it will hurt only half as much. Nate says if we don’t go the whole way, we may never get a chance to fish for golden trout.
We have been talking about golden trout a lot. With the exception of last night’s excitement, we’ve been catching cutthroat after cutthroat everywhere we stop. We catch five or 10 if we happen to stop by a lake in passing, and 20, 30, or more on lakes where we camp. I no longer bother to count. But Elbow Lake has goldens. Let me be honest—I have no idea what a golden trout is.
As it turns out, on Elbow Lake they are giants. They are much smaller on the three California streams to which they are native— only 6 to 12 inches long on average. They have some of the coloring of rainbows, of which they are a subspecies, but on goldens the colors are more vivid. The reds are deep and dark, and extend along the belly as well as the flanks. There are white tips on the fins, and the dark oval parr marks, which most trout lose as they grow, remain on the adults. All of this is on a field of faint gold. They are not native to Elbow Lake, having been stocked sometime around 1939 from milk cans strapped to packhorses. Feeding on scuds and leeches, they have become huge.
As we climb higher, the trees begin to thin out. The intermittent patches of snow become long, thigh-deep snowfields. Above tree line, the rocks get larger. The air gets colder and the hike gets harder. Sweat runs cold down our backs. At the lake, a cold, barren wind whips around boulders 100 feet high—three times the height of a Pennsylvania barn, and at least four times as long. The shore is narrow and meets steep granite crags that rise another thousand feet above. Snow, starting a few feet from shore, works its way uphill in patches until the ground is so steep the snow won’t stick.
I realize then, looking at what I think looks like Iceland, that as cold as it is, it isn’t flu season. Virally speaking, Flu Guy was perfectly healthy. What he did have was a good case of altitude sickness, which at this height can become serious. A smart guide would have taken the group back down the mountain until he acclimated. It is bad form to be a stupid guide, bad form to be arrogant, and unforgivable to leave a sick man alone in the mountains. We may have saved his life by stopping him from wandering
forever deeper into the wilderness. But, like the Iron Lady, we left him alone for the hike to camp. There is nothing we can do. We both think he made it back to his group. If not, damn it, we will read about him in the newspaper. I am glad when we don’t.
We fish an inlet, where the goldens are just beyond a short underwater shelf and pretending that, like an old girlfriend they’d rather avoid, they don’t see our flies. They are painfully close, but nothing will move them.
Walking onto a granite plateau slightly above the stream that feeds the lake, we see massive trout in red spawning colors. They are packed tightly, and running over each other as if they were jumping hurdles at a track meet. Their fins, and sometimes their entire backs, break through the surface. They are a red streak flowing through a black-and-white landscape. For them it is spring, and they are happy.
For us it is cold, but we are happy too. We have never seen anything like it. We dance along the stream, jumping into icecold water to watch them go by, running up to narrow spots to watch them pack together and to take out-of-focus underwater pictures of them. We are as manic as they are.
They are spawners, of course, and should not be fished and will not be caught. Eventually, I make my way back down to the lake to try again for their pre-spawn cousins. For the second time I fail, and for the second time, a figure appears from nowhere. It is not lost. It is neither bear nor steer, but human, with a rod case sticking out of a well-worn pack. He is the first person I’ve seen in a week who isn’t short of breath.
Giving up a good spot to another fisherman is always a dilemma, though if he seems a decent sort, I always do. If the fishing is slow, it’s pretty much automatic. In this case, it was pretty much automatic. For him, however, the fish are old friends. One after another, he pulls 18-to-20-inch goldens from the lake and then releases them.
After a while, he heads upstream, where he will walk across the granite plain and follow a trailless ridge to God knows where. Before he does, he hands me a few size 8 orange scuds. “Fish them deep,” he says. He pauses to watch the spawning run, an endless trail of red. “This is what people dream about,” he says. “Maybe you’ll see this once in a hundred trips. Maybe not. Some people never will.”
He leaves. We fish those scuds deep. The fish we land measure from the tips of our fingers to our elbows.
I look up at a granite spire and mumble, “The hell with Iceland.”
Jeff Day has since been to Iceland, which met with his wholeheartedapproval.