The hash marks on I-5 are zipping by almost at the same speed as the caffiene-diluted blood in my veins. It's 4 in the morning and the olive orchards are sleeping black shadows; by 5 the rice fields are steaming with mist and by dawn, the sunflowers on highway 99 are looking as eagerly to the east as I am. Quartering to the south, I drain the last few drops of jitter juice and just catch the ever-clarifying mirage of the Sierras. Soon I will have been awake for 24 hours, unable to sleep partly because I've been working all night, but only partly. It was going to be another 10 hours before I could sleep, if that was even going to be possible with mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and black bears dancing around my tarp. But those stars sure are going to look beautiful in that dry open air at 7000 feet with radiant golden trout unveiling their own dance to the wild flowing rythm of the Golden Trout Wilderness. And I would be inexorably tethered to it, enveloped in the entirety of it all.
Sure we had talked about it plenty, and come up with generalized ideas of what it would take to pull off a trip of this magnitude, typically during alcohol lubricated rants on the porch or on pleather upholstered stools. Why, we had even gotten a vague idea of what creeks we would have to fish to find the motherloads of geologically induced piscine purity. But never had we tried to put the plan into action. It would take months of planning and hours of poring over maps, tying flies, checking leaders, packing gear, preparing food...But we've done all that. Hell, all we need is the time off.
Less than three weeks of planning, and we had the loose framework of what had the potential to solidify into one of the most epic troutings to date. Sure, we've ground through day upon day of steelhead hell, making repetitive drift after painfully repetetive drift, but at the end of the day, there are buffalo wings to be had, beers to be quaffed, and firelit tales of elusive glory and the rock that you swear up and down shook its head to free up that fly. Steelhead fishing has a comfort to it that cannot be explained, only lived. This trip was going to be a whole different animal, a new kind of suffering that would require an entirely unique approach at losing yourself in the illusion.
37 pounds of food, water, shelter, and zen tools loaded in the back of the grey ghost, and I am getting a shotgun view of the foothills backed by bigger foothills backed by the Western Sierras. Both Mainerd and I have enough caffiene and sugar in our systems to kill a small herd of elephants, but we're keepin 'er between the white lines, and that's all that matters. A stop at the local ranger station proved to be less than helpful. The poor gal had no idea she was about to run into two raging fanatics that had preconceived of actually hunting golden trout in the GOLDEN TROUT Wilderness. "Golden trout? I didn't know we had those." My dear Ms. Simpleton, we are only in the GOLDEN TROUT wilderness in the state of California, the flagship fish for which IS the golden trout, Onchorynchus mykiss aguabonita, the purest strains of which are found in Golden Trout Creek and Volcanic Creek, from which it derives the other common name, Volcano Creek Goldent Trout...Oh, and did I mention that we are in the GOLDEN TROUT WILDERNESS!!!!!!!!!!!!
Aside from that carnival ride, the route we planned to take was completely off the charts for these folks. The best we could do was get some guess-work at the trailhead location and directions (which actually turned out to be rather easy and accurately assessed, contrary to prior research, due to a relatively new trailhead) to said trailhead. From there, we were on our own, lost in the vast wilderness. So naturally, we thank them for their time and recommendation of a $20 map to fill in the gaps and act as a supplement to our other $30 map, and the vividly highlited trail maps distributed for free. Armed with maps out the wazoo, high-tech toppographical mapping GPS software, and a pocketful of dreams...hearts full of hope...we drive ever onward and alarmingly uphill to the trailhead. 5000 feet we climb beside river and cliff and certain-death preventing guardrails to the babypowderesque sands of Click's Creek Trailhead.
I change socks and clothes, rearrange my 37 pounds of food, water, shelter, zen tools and sh*t tickets, compose the parting shot with the grey ghost, and we're off!, but not before returning to snag the GoPro. The first bit of the trail eases downhill and across and beside a tiny trickle, probably a tributary to Clicks Creek, but HO, Mainerd spots a trout. Not only does he spot a trout, but he spots a trout that is rising. Should we stop to fish less than a half mile in? What kind of trout is it? Is it worth the stop? Should we both rig up, or just one of us? These are the questions that, though most of them had the simple answer 'yes' built into them, belly-crawled me through the grass, enduring the hordes of mosquitoes to the edge of the water. In a matter of seconds, I was hit with a shockwave as the leviathanic beast broke free of his hydraulic confines into the alien world of my eyes and the winged six-legged appetizer he had just inhaled. A belly of gold, that's all I saw, and all that I needed to see before Mainerd sets the hook and I thwart his best attempt at pinning a little kern goldent trout to my ear. Step one: Find trailhead..check. Step Two: catch little kern golden...double check as I send my wriggling victim skyward and wing my way to a 100% catch rate. One cast, one fish.
High fives all around, break down the rod, and it's back down the old dusty trail. Until we hit the creek a second time, we're on cruise control. Already we've knocked out, oooooh, about a mile. Then we hit a split. It's midday, the GPS is acting up, and the maps don't show a split. And where the heck are the signs!? This trip is getting off great, one mile in and we are disoriented, not to mention we look like a couple of amateurs asking for directions from a passing trail riding group. We would come to discover that a majority of the folks using these trails are mounted. Good thing to know. So we get set in the right direction and we are off again. Down. Downhill for 2 miles or better, losing all of that precious elevation we had gained so easily in the car. I am quickly finding out that the pack I am carrying is slightly less than trail-worthy, and 4 or 5 miles in, I'm actually feelin' pretty spry. We roll on through Grey Meadows, right on track and come upon the little pack camp cabin, and two real nice, rugged-lookin' gals. I had to admit, I was kinda envying the set-up. Pack in on horseback with 10 or 12 mules and spend a little time in a cabin at the edge of the wilderness, greeting passersby and exploiting some of the small stream fishing (complete with shoreside lunch and a percolating pot of grit-coffee whilst the horses graze hobbled in the trees) damn near every day of it. Purty romantic, ain't it? So these gals chat us up, about where we're from, where we're headed, how they used to pack fish in and out of the wilderness area when fisheries management was being born, and we come across some valuable information. Apparently, Trout Creek Meadows is LOUSY with bears and the rattlesnakes abound by the spring. So, not really wanting to call it quits at a mere 8 miles, we announce that, "Hell naw, we're headed to Willow Meadows. We're just gonna walk up all these bunched together skinny lines on this here map and down them other ones, and we'll be there; it's just 6 more miles."
After a little interpretation, just short of breaking out our flawless conglomeration of modern navigational means, we finally all get on the same page with the destination, and they casually toss out the little factoid that grey meadows to willow meadows was 2 or 3 hours on horseback, and that we'd probably wanna look at camping at the Little Kern Bridge. It was half the distance, and the bears and rattlesnakes were actually rather friendly, aaand we probably weren't going to make it to willow meadows by nightfall. Like HELL! Onward we march, stifling our laughter at how the underestimatory remarks and suggestions had bounced off of us like small twigs, splintering in the dry sand! HA! (and for the record, I'm pretty sure I just invented a word. Take THAT Webster and the world! You are welcome.)
Our eyes were first opened by the smooth granite canyon of the Little Kern River. Breathtaking fall-aways, smooth granite walls, and a wild little mountain river crossed by a picturesque bridge with a seemingly perfect little campsite right off the trail. Come to find out later, that campsite would have been a nightmare. Imagine pack train traffic running right upwind of your campsite next to a trail whose sand is, no joking, finer than baby powder. I mean, you breathe a little too hard and you are gonna be dusted. Anyway, we pressed on. 7 or 8 miles in at this point and I decide to take a look at the old GPS, and..."We are headed entirely in the wrong direction" I says. 'Huh?' " We're headed towards the meadows that the two ol' gals back at Grey Meadows casually warned against, Mainerd, I think we missed a trail."
Utter disbelief. How could we have missed a trail? There WAS no other trail. So I volunteer to go back and take a look, and sure enough, we had missed it. Standing right on it, I wouldn't have even known it was there, but for a small duck (or cairn or pile-o-damn-rocks). Manzanita and some other low shrub had covered all but a sliver of the depression of the old cutoff trail, as we were informed it was by a passing pack train that dusted us thoroughly and left us standing in a mound of horse shit. I'm sure this is it, and now it's Mainerd's turn to set the pace, because by now, I'm losing that bit of second wind. WWW,TRD? What Would Walker, Texas Ranger Do? He'd hike up this damn trail, that's what! Then turn around and karate kick it back into a mountain! Well, we never brought it down from being a mountain spur, but up and over we did go until through the trees, I start seeing hints of an opening. At this juncture, I am stumbling exhausted, we're not entirely sure there is a decent spring at this meadow, it's getting near dark, and I just noticed a few bear tracks on the trail. Suddenly, after rolling down the backside of the hill, I get up, dust myself off and my eyes fall upon a quiet meadow hemmed all around by huge pines and firs, and a pretty well set up cow camp. This is it, I'm locked in on my target and I'm going down. I hit the log bench like a bag of hammers, too tired and worn out to even talk very loudly, and threw that pack off like it was a rabid wolverine strapped to my back. I just wanted to be as far away from that accursed thing that had been riding on my back and slowly peeling the skin off my hips and shoulders!
We slowly reconciled our differences and the bastard conceded to let me dig around for my food bag and water bottles, but I could still feel that evil glare that said, "Round 1, I win." So I turn up the flame on the stove, boiling right along with my pot of tasty tortilla chicken soup, and silently cursing and weaving vows of revenge. And it's off to bed with an aching body, a weary soul, and a small glowing ember of hope for tomorrow's awaiting conquests.
|The uprights on that bridge are about 25 feet high and the rock in the bottom center had the remains of the old bridge whose remaining pieces are my size.|
|My heritage trout #5, The Little Kern Golden Trout.|
Mainerd's LK Golden.