The bells on returning horses awoke me in my cabin cocoon. The sun was suggesting itself through the curtains. I could hear the ranch hands chivvying the stock into the corral for their morning feed after a night out in the open, grazing on the grassland between the forests. My breath was visible. It was damn cold. But the water in the sink tap hadn’t frozen. By the time I had pulled on thermal underwear, my Orvis fleece pants and a pair of jeans, I realized with a start that I was not bum-sore or bent double or stiffer than a frozen chicken. No more than I might have been after a long drive.
I walked down the frosted slope to the ranch house, where the Diamond 4 cast of permanent, occasional and volunteer staff was already buzzing. I was their last guest of the season, but there was work to do getting some of the horses to lower pasture for the winter, and setting up a winter camp for the hunters. And getting a team of four horses ready to ride out to our wilderness camp for the next few nights. The spangled slopes around us were aglow with russet and gold.
I watched others work while caffeinating myself at a picnic table. By the time supper the previous night had ended, I was offering all and sundry the use of my cottage in Ireland should they travel that way; such was the superglue quality of bonds instantly formed. The bond between them and Diamond 4 is horses and the outdoors. There’s a wrangler who comes every summer after nearly 40 years on the factory floor for GMC in Detroit; a tall New Zealander on a gap year break, undecided about whether her father’s farm or academia is her next step; a Louisiana student who seems to have been everywhere in the world including Nyeri, Kenya, where I once fished while covering the Queen of England’s visit; and a group of nine friends doing their annual hiking and camping trip – their gear is being ferried up on the back of mules and horses.
There’s no space on the hat stand for my Willey hat. The atmosphere around the breakfast tables is a mix between school lunch and airport departure lounge. I’m careful about coffee intake. I mean, having to stop for a call of nature is one thing, but having to be helped off my horse to do it is quite another.
I watch the horses being loaded; there are aluminum lockable panniers to keep the bears out; bags of feed cake for the horses; our clothes, my rods and mysterious bundles in sacks, which hang over our packhorses. Mel guides me to a tree stump so I can board Brandy. I surprise the mount and myself by heading out to the meadow to wait for the others. Mel, a former Alaskan dog-sleigh racer and dog-sleigh dog owner and trainer, is our main guide. Her smile is as wide as her hat. George, a cross-country ski champion and trainer is our second guide. His smile is even wider. The sun is up but the air is still cold. “Could be snow up there. Hope you’ve packed an extra layer of everything,” says Mel, as she leads our team of four horses out into the beckoning spaces of meadow, forest and mountains.
We chat amongst the three of us when the horses are close together, picking their way up narrow trails through the pines; we talk about forest fires and derring-do by Jim Allen to guide some campers out; about Africa ,Somalia and the universal cancer of corruption; squirrels skitter up and down trees with pine cones, preparing their winter retreats. There’s the occasional flash of white rump from a vanishing deer. Eagles hover against a pale blue skyline. All the while our horses clip and clop their way over the stones and the scrub.Soon we have a natural, gentle rhythm of moving together, always climbing. There is a break in the forest and a huge flat rock from where we can look down at the ranch below us, and the occasional speck suggesting horse or human.
Five hours and several tempting lakes later – “they are unnamed lakes, don’t know anything about them,” says Mel – we descend into a lovely broad meadow crested by the pretty South Fork river. It is to be our camp and base for the next few nights. It’s a clearing with felled trees doubling as table tops for a camp kitchen; an awning under which Mel sleeps in the open on horse blankets; the fire pit, centre of evening life, and little corral for our four horses. George and Mel dismount and help me off. Getting off is easier than getting on. I’m getting the hang of this.
And then the two of them put the camp together, pulling a two-ringed gas stove from a walled tent in one corner; a mirror and small plastic bowl for our bathroom. A plastic bow and flat tree surface for washing up and drying. There’s wood already for the fire but we all get more. George goes off to dig a pit latrine. Mel makes coffee. I try to help but am gently reminded I am the guest. George puts my tent up in a corner and I decant my possessions into it and change into waders. I have a blow-up camping mattress and pillow and inflate both before my first scalding coffee that Mel prepares. “At this altitude it gets cold between the stove and me giving it to you, so drink it quickly.”
The river beckons while Mel and George water and feed the horses. I string up the Orvis and walk down across the meadow to the river, where dozens of small trout scud around at the fall of my feet or my shadow. The water is very low and the fish are spooky.
Second cast with a small Black Pennell and I have a feisty brook trout in my hands. Dozens more follow in two hours. They are hoping for small bugs and I oblige with small bug-like flies, casting upstream from the bank to keep my profile low. Two, three and even four fish come out of each pool before I move on. A red-tailed hawk of some kind seems to be following me like a drone, perhaps hoping for cast-offs. The air starts to chill but it is still so pure it is drinkable. The meadow is a broad strip of faded straw green sandwiched between bookends of pine, towered over by granite and a pale, watery blue sky.
I can see Mel and George taking the horses out to picket them to graze overnight on the luxuriant grass. As the sun starts to slip behind the mountains, my fly is attacked by a bigger, chunkier brookie that eventually comes to hand. It’s perfect pan size but we will kill nothing. Mel has been preparing food for the past week and we will not waste it. The fish slips gently back into its life and its habitat, and I sit on the bank and ponder both in mine. I am in heaven.
And this is only our first day. Tomorrow I fish the river all day, then we hit the lakes.