Measuring the magnitude of a moment in real numbers.
[by Chris Morgan]
I LIVED IN UTAH OVER A DECADE before I successfully ventured into the nearby Uinta Mountain range and discovered what many people already knew—that there’s a gorgeous high-altitude wilderness just hours away from Salt Lake City.
It’s not like I hadn’t tried to love the Uintas. In previous years, I’d attempted a few tentative trips to the outskirts of the wilderness with my young family, but always left with swollen extremities from swarms of mosquitoes, clothes drenched from nonstop rain, and memories of sitting in soggy, loud, overcrowded campgrounds. Yet I continued to hear people talk about their mind-blowing experiences in the high, wide vistas and heavenly meadows, and reports of encountering “tons of fish.” That’s right, “tons of fish.”
For a while, my mind continued to key in on that last part, so five years ago I attempted one more trip into the Uintas.
Accompanied by Lucy, my ever-present cattle dog mutt, and Finn, a good friend’s teenaged son, I set my sights on the popular Amethyst Lake basin on the north slope of the mountains. This time, I learned from my past mistakes. I went when the late summer heat already beat down the mosquitoes, dressed appropriately for the afternoon thunderstorms, and marched past the campgrounds.
We hit the trail on an early August morning, but it wasn’t the solemn, calming start I’d hoped for. Lucy sprinted after every chipmunk in our path and Finn rambled on about arbitrary stories, anecdotes, or factoids.
“Do you think I’ll catch twenty fish?” he asked.
“Yes, I promise you’ll catch twenty fish,” I assured him.
“I’m gonna catch more fish than you,” he said with certainty only a few yards farther. I’d fished with him and his father before, and knew what he could do with a rod in hand.
“I’m sure you will,” I replied.
Three hours later, we set up camp in a green meadow dissected by a meandering stream. I pitched the tent, Lucy terrorized more chipmunks, and Finn dumped his tired body onto a sleeping pad. He was exhausted. It took several miles and an elevation gain of 2,000 feet, but I’d actually managed to wear out a healthy 15-year-old boy. I insisted he hydrate, but when he crawled into the tent and fell asleep, I decided to use his squandered time to get ahead on the fish count.
The narrow, meandering stream was teeming with brook trout. Fish were lunging themselves at my tan Elk-Hair Caddis at every bend of the stream. The fish were small in size, but lunkers in terms of spunk and energy. A couple hours later, Finn staggered out of the tent and into the meadow with his 2-weight and finally cast into the water he’d worked so hard to reach.
During dinner later that night, Finn was again his animated self—continually exclaiming how he couldn’t believe how much fun it was to catch so many fish in such a short time. But according to my estimated calculations, the fish count was 66 to 36. My two hours of fishing gave me the lead, but I knew it wouldn’t hold.
The next morning we made the 20-minute hike up to the top of the basin where Amethyst Lake sits under an imposing 12,718-feet-high Ostler Peak. While one edge borders the timberline, limestone scree fields sliding from the peak surround the other banks. For a moment, the lake’s crystal clear shallows and deep, bright aqua center had us transfixed. It was amazing to see with our own eyes—like someone dropped a slice of a tropical ocean into an alpine backdrop.
Walking the south shore, we spotted two brook trout lounging in shallow water and caught them in as many casts. We used only dry flies. These were eager, hungry, high-altitude char, not discerning spring creek trout, and the excitement of sight-casting to cruising fish was simply too addicting. In the blink of an eye, we each caught a dozen fish, then 20, then 30.
We forgot about our impromptu competition. We laughed and cheered, leap-frogging around one another as we slowly circled the lake, even in the face of the fiercest hailstorm I’d ever witnessed. The water boiled like a witch’s cauldron but we fished right through, only because the fish surprisingly refused to quit rising.