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Jarre Canyon

Brian G. Angevine

 

            We always left real early in the morning. Dad and I would pack everything up the night before, then get up about 4:30 or so in the morning. At Denver’s altitude it always seemed to be chilly that early. We’d wolf down a little breakfast—Dad always believed in eating breakfast—and hit the road.

            Our fishing vehicles over the years assumed many forms, but usually consisted of the family sedan. One time we managed to borrow someone’s half-broken-down jeep—the bare bones military style. That was a real experience. I remember nodding asleep during the drive that time and almost falling out of the jeep. No doors, no seat belt, just hang on and pray. Not conducive to sleeping soundly!

            Dad was always mindful of the neighbors as we crept quietly away and headed generally southwest out of Denver. We enjoyed the highway travel in spite of the darkness and cool temperatures because things would soon get rough! A little gravel bypass road took us off the unfinished Interstate 25, through a hilly, growing residential area and into Sedalia. From there gravel roads led to the formidable Nighthawk, a steep pass over the foothills to the South Platte drainage. I remember some of the vehicles we drove barely had enough power to make it up that hill, and it was so narrow only one car could use the road at a time. We would sit at the bottom of the climb listening for other traffic. Getting up a good run we blasted up the hill, blowing the horn all the way. Pitching over the top we careened down the other side hoping the brakes would hold.

            But the western slope of Nighthawk led to the river, our goal. The road paralleled the twists and turns of the river for several miles. This section always tested my courage. Dad was such an avid fisherman that he liked to check the water conditions while driving. Not only did he check the water but also he scouted likely fish locations, watched for the hatch of flies and anticipated the strike of the big trout. His excitement was transferred to his foot that became decidedly leaden on the gas pedal. Of course his eyes traced every nook and cranny of the trout havens while occasionally flicking to the road ahead. White knuckled from gripping anything solid, and staring rigidly ahead, I dared not say anything about the narrow misses of boulders, trees, drop-offs and other hazards. Dad usually timed our arrival at the river so that there was enough light to scout the river instead of watching the road.

            We blew through Deckers in a cloud of choking dust and screamed up the right fork to a roadside pullout several miles upstream. Once I asked Dad why we never fished all that likely looking water that we raced by. He mumbled, “That gets fished too hard.”

            The army surplus backpacks were hauled out and strapped on before we started the trudge up the Gill Trail. Since my Dad’s nickname was Gil, I assumed that trail was named for him. When I was younger I carried little, but as my size increased, so did the load. We skirted the upper edge of the private Wigwam Camp and began the pull over the hill into Jarre Canyon. When I was a kid Dad pulled me up the steeper stretches by having me grab the loose straps on his backpack. When I reflect on that now I realize all the sacrifices he made for me.

            We hit the river at a place called Steelie Riffle. It was a long, deep run of swift water over rocks. Our routine dictated that we never fished it on the way in, although we often caught excellent rainbows there on the way out. But going in we had four tough miles of hiking ahead of us. The trail wandered up and down the canyon walls, its path dictated by huge, house-sized boulders, and other obstacles. Gravel covered rocks made the footing treacherous and, in places, the trail all but disappeared in slides down sheer drops. Many times I feared for my life, but we never suffered any mishaps.

            There was a spring at Soldiers’ Crossing where we always stopped for water and a breather. By then the sun was slanting down into the clear water of the South Platte and we enjoyed looking for fish working under the big rocks spaced through that hole. Sitting in the cool shade of the trees surrounding the spring felt really good after the exhausting couple of miles we had just covered. Our fishing fever continued to mount as trout swam into our view. Usually by then the chill was out of the air and sitting in the shade sipping the cold water was always welcome relief. But we never stayed there long. Dad always popped up with some comment like, “If we stay down too long we’ll never get up.”

            We made our way to Sandbar Crossing where we usually crossed the river. Our waders were pulled out of the backpacks and we started the first part of the crossing over shallow, moss-covered rocks. The footing was slippery and I often splashed crazily about trying to keep my balance. The deepest channel was near the south bank and we approached it cautiously. The water was swift through there and we never knew how much sand had been washed away. Dad taught me how to face upstream to get the best purchase with my feet, and how to focus on some stationary object to avoid the dizziness of looking at the water rushing past. Still, the water came to the tops of our hip waders (chest waders were not available then) and I usually bent my knees to get a little better balance in the deepest part. The result was always a rush of cold water into my waders. Then I’d forget caution and in panic lunge toward the bank. The thought of being washed downstream under the enormous boulder just below the sandbar was not pleasant.

            By now we were almost to our destination. A grueling climb halfway up the side of the canyon brought us to the cave. I was always surprised when it suddenly popped out of the trees and rocks without being visible from a distance. Grant Foster, my great uncle, had enlarged a natural opening under a rock and fronted it with boards, a door, and even a couple of windows. He had built it as a trapper’s cabin many years before and my Uncle Merle and my Dad had kept it in the family as a fishing camp. Everything in that camp had been brought in on someone’s back up the same trail we had just traveled. These guys believed in a little comfort on their retreats. Inside the cave was a mattress and springs from a double bed, a wood burning stove, and various storage cases to protect food and other items. They had even carried in concrete to shore up walls and to build a catch basin for the spring a ways on up the hill.

            The first order of business was for me to get fresh water from the spring while Dad brought the cache of equipment from its hiding place among the rocks. We set up camp quickly and headed for the river as soon as possible. Now the fun could really begin.

            We usually hit the river just below Mason’s Hole. I don’t remember the name of that stretch, but I always worked it hard. It was shallow enough for me to wade out to fish around a couple of large rocks in the center of the current. I caught quite a few fish there over the years, but I always spent far too long trying for the big one. There were far better holes to fish but none quite so easy for me.

            Dad always liked to try Peg Hole. The moniker fit because one approached the extremely deep run across a smooth rock face, and grabbed a peg drilled into the rock to lower gently onto a small shelf to fish. The other bank was a sheer rock wall about 20 to 30 feet high, so there was only one spot from which to fish. I usually stayed away from there because it terrified me so. Besides, when I finally worked up the courage to fish there I never caught a thing. I’m sure there were enormous trout in there, but I never saw one caught.

            The upper reaches of Mason’s Hole, a rocky stretch above that, and Rainbow Hole were my favorites. I usually caught some very nice trout; although nothing much over two pounds fell for my clumsy delivery of flies or Flatfish. Dad always caught plenty on what they called “rock worms,” but I could never stomach hooking the pudgy, greenish-gray larvae. Besides that it took a perfect drift on light line to fool the trout. I never mastered that.

            Rainbow Hole was another tough spot for me to fish. The approach was across the tail end of a shallower pool to the deep run against the other bank, though the pool was a little too deep for me to wade and I was leery of the power of the water. Once out on the sandbar in the middle of the river one could fish the deep run. The water cascaded over a mini waterfall after pooling around an enormous rock, and then rushed past some smaller rocks on downstream. Dad claimed that a guy named Swede caught a fifteen pounder from under the big rock once. Dad had hooked and lost some monsters in there. You could stand on the rock shelf and cast up under the boulder, or fish the smaller rocks in the current. I caught a few in there at times but never hooked the big one.

            We fished very light two and four pound test line because the fish were so smart and spooky. Once, in Rainbow Hole, I tied into a nice one in the swift water. I chased the fish downstream for about a hundred yards trying to ease the pressure on the line. I stumbled and splashed and yelled my way all along trying to keep up with him. Finally, when I landed him without a net, I think I was about as proud as I’ve ever been. He was a beauty, and I had fought him on his own terms and won.

            We’d usually go back up to camp for a nap and food until about four o’clock. Then we’d trek back down the hill for the great evening hatch. That was always my favorite because I nearly always caught fish. The climb back up in the dark was tiring but I was usually satisfied. Much needed dinner, often made of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (delicious after a hard day), and a very welcome bed, rounded out the day.

            Next morning we were up way before sunrise and poking in more breakfast. I never quite learned how to drink coffee in those days, but it sure smelled good. Dad always wanted to be on the river before sunrise to catch the morning rise. I always went along with this plan but I seldom caught much in the morning. Somehow it never quite worked for me. Give me the evening hatch any day. Seeing the sun come up over the hills and work its way slowly down deep into the canyon to finally light up the river was reward enough for me though. When the day heated up we made our way back to camp to eat some more, chop wood, and clean up the area.

            If our jaunt was a weekend only, we usually started fishing our way back out then.  We worked the better spots all the way back downstream, which took most of the day. Many times we would finish off at Steelie Riffle just in time to catch the evening hatch. What fighters those fish were in that heavy current! Dad always expressed disdain for those fish though. He claimed they were hatchery fish stocked at the Wigwam Club for the paying customers. He would much rather have the native trout on upstream.

            I learned a lot about life on those trips with Dad. Not only did I learn how to be a halfway decent fisherman, but also I learned values and techniques that have stayed with me my entire life. Learning how to find my way back to camp on my own in that formidable canyon was the most valuable. Every few steps I was told to look back over my shoulder to see what the landmarks looked like from that angle. After all, that’s the view I’d be seeing when I headed back. The patience my Dad showed while untangling my numerous birds’ nests, and teaching me how to tie on flies and lures, was admirable. Even now I have a tendency to put a loop in my fly casting motion that manages to tie little knots in the fine leader. Of course they break just as a fish strikes. Another trick I had was to get too much line out of a back cast and catch a bush, or break the barb off the hook on a rock. I lost a lot of good fish that way. But most of all I learned to enjoy the outdoors for its own sake. Whether or not I caught fish I always liked being there in God’s country. We put back most of the fish we caught and kept only the few we wanted to eat.

            Things from the good old days are never the same when you go back. One summer I wanted to take my Dad back to the Canyon to relive some of those experiences. Neither of us had been back for fifteen or twenty years. We knew that the camp was vandalized and all the equipment stolen. We knew that the stream is endangered and fishing is limited to certain lures only. We knew that some unsportsmanlike people have ruined it for everyone and that some are still using illegal bait. But we still had a desire to go back.

            Dad fell and hurt his back a few months before we were to go back to the canyon. He also had triple bypass surgery and felt he would never be able to hike in there again. In spite of his pain and misgivings I still wanted to get him back to his home, his refuge, the Canyon. I get misty-eyed just thinking about it. I know it won’t be the same. But doesn’t he deserve just one more trip?

 

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