I awoke one night in my tent with a strange feeling of dislocation, of something being wrong. No dream had woken me. Nor was it anything outside my nylon shelter, no animal moving. But my nervous connections were short-circuiting and the sparks had spiked my slumber. It took a couple of minutes for me to work out what ailed me. It was the cold. I was dammned cold. I’d wrestled myself out of my sleeping bag in the night and the cold had taken its place, wrapping me so tight in high-altitude chill that I could not feel my fingers. I talked to George about it as we both huddled over the morning campfire, tin mugs of coffee warming our clenched hands. “At this altitude I guess there’s less oxygen to the brain,” he said. “So it took you a while to work out you were freezing. Either that or you are going crazy.”
The days revolved around our horses, the trails, and the lakes we climbed to and the wild, innocent and feisty fish they hosted. But the evenings were about Mel, George and I around the campfire, smoke occasionally smarting our eyes. Mel conjured Venison stroganoff, Elk Burgers and Chicken Enchiladas out of her tiny two-ringed kitchen and there was always snacks before and dessert afterwards. She put some wild flowers in a mug to give our campfire living room a homely atmosphere, to which the fire added the finishing embellishment.
Mel had raced and trained dog sleighs in Alaska, volunteered in Haiti, moved around a lot. Many people her age worry about career paths, promotions and pensions, but, like George, her outlook seemed to be contentment today and let tomorrow take care of itself. It was refreshing and humbling to meet people so in love with the outdoors life that others chain themselves to desk for to enjoy. They both just did it. Mel was thinking about working for Jim at the winter hunting camp. George hadn’t thought it through but was hoping for ski instructor work when the Wild West turns to Winter Wonderland and skiing overtakes fishing and hunting as the outdoor way of life.
Those campfire evenings warmed from the inside out. Shorn of all trappings of modern communication and entertainment, we talked for hours about places and people and spirituality, mediation and the healing powers of the outdoor world. I became more than ever convinced that the 21st century may have radically improved connectivity between people, but at the expense of real communication. I voiced my fears too that journalism was being subverted by connectivity into a fast food consumer item, replacing the nuances of knowledge with pot noodle information packs pitting goodies against baddies, black and white, all flavoured with artificial truth enhancement chemicals.
Those evenings were never sombre. They warmed the soul. Overhead the sky was an astronomer’s paradise of pinpricks. Our horses munched happily in the meadow – in the mornings you could see the crop circles of grass they had worked through. On our way out to fish a new spot each morning, we would let them drink in the clear waters of the river and watch small brook trout scud away as we clattered across the stream.
The days were bright and so was the fishing. On Baer lake, a couple of hours ride away up steep tracks, Mel slept cowboy-style in a clearing, hat over her face, as George and I tested our skills on a turquoise green water. In a fisherman’s life, few things are more exciting than a place which is rarely fished, and this was one.
It took a while for me to work out at what depth fish might be and what they would chase or inhale. The answer was about six feet down and a black bug jerked back slowly. One fish grabbed my fly with such certainty and violence I thought it must be a monster. George, seeing the fish hurl itself in the air and strip line off my reel, rushed round to help. I decided to try to slide it into the bank by walking backwards from the submerged rock on which I was standing. I fell badly and banged my knee so hard George had to help me to my feet. The fish finally came to hand and it was no more than a pound but fought way above its weight and was plain beautiful, a big brook trout, a descendant of the ones a caring angler had brought up in buckets and transplanted all over the Winds to supplement the native Cutthroat.
We found these in huge supply another day on the High Meadow lakes. The water was fringed with shallow sand, like a beach, and we could see the “cutties” sunning themselves as we waded past. They were not hard to tempt with a fly stripped back quickly. For fun I used a Dunkeld (Scottish) a Kenya Bug (Kenyan) and a Watson’s Fancy (Irish) and caught on all three.
Mel had swum under a waterfall on the far side one summer and swore there were monsters in its wake, but the water was just to deep for us to reach. No matter. When you can lean your rod against a rock, stop fishing and just sit down and ingest the beauty of a place, you know that it is a good day’s fishing.
That evening it was my turn to light the fire as George picketed the horses out in the meadow and Mel performed magic with ingredients hauled from the bear-proof panniers. I had watched them both arrange logs, use bark for paper and twigs for kindling. The fire took and I sat down with coffee and snacks while night fell all around us, the smells of cooking mingled with the scent of smoke and pine, and my wading boots steameing towards dryness by the flames.
The next day would be our last. I didn’t want to think about that.