Every year I live in the West I shed another layer of my prior contempt for dams. The naivety I possessed growing up in the water-rich environment of Minnesota, and the disgust I felt for those red mud-infused waters of Oklahoma, has been informed by life where mountain water drains towards the desert but only if the snow falls. I will never love the blight of dams, but I understand their purpose. And I like fishing beneath them.
Colorado, particularly here in the Gunnison and Uncompahgre drainages, is having a terrible snow year. We celebrated snowfall today, after even the most optimistic winter lovers had written the season off as lost. It will take a dramatic shift in weather patterns and many more snow days to bring depths of snow to typical, or even acceptable. Murmurs of water woes next summer abound and the spillways at the dams keep getting dialed to hold back more. River flows are low, and the fishing is unique.
Rumors around Montrose last week were of eager trout dancing in abnormally shallow water below the Blue Mesa Dam. Fish tales and warm weather were all I needed to pack up and go to Morrow Point Reservoir last Thursday. The excursion remained fishless, but the experience was phenomenal.
The Pine Creek Trail at Curecanti National Recreation Area winds down the gorge holding the creek of same name. It descends flights of stairs to reach the captured water of the Gunnison River. The stairs can act as deterrent, especially packed with icy snow, but the promise of solitude in the canyon is worth the effort. The last time I was in that stretch of canyon in winter, I’d dropped in on a rope and danced up frozen Chipeta Falls with my ice tools. I might have appreciated the crampons on the stairs.
There were gentlemen fishing downstream perched on boulders high above the river. After a brief sightseeing trek in their direction to admire the frosted beauty of the cliffs, the song of the wrens, and the wing tip of a bald eagle, I settled on wading the shallows closer to the dam. I wanted my own space, and water more conducive to my tenkara rod. I put on the waders and stepped into a stretch of river that normally would not invite me in but had alluring edges and micro-pockets. It was then I sensed my presence below the bath tub ring. It unnerved me, but I stayed.
We are used to noticing the high-water lines in the desert reservoirs, and the ever-changing shoreline of Blue Mesa Reservoir. I had never contemplated a ring on the walls of Black Canyon, but there it was. Troublesome was the realization that the walls beneath it were still moist, harboring vibrant green lichen. The water had receded recently. My head said to stay close to the shoreline I came down, my hope for fish drew me towards the other side. I watched the water level like eagle watched for lunch but moved farther from shore.
The fishing was beautiful. The fish were elusive. The gents had departed the canyon about the time I realized my potential peril if the dam released new water. I was alone in the world. It did not matter to me that I was not catching, although surely would have loved to share my solitude with one of the rumored great trout of the Gunnison. I was enjoying the company of industrious ouzels that had an annoying habit of making me think fish were present when a side glance caught the ripples they left. Ultimately the crisp air did get to my fingers and, even though shallow, the cold water began to numb my toes. I returned to shore, poured a cup of tea, and admired the view. Pine Creek was suspended in dripping ice above my head.
Ice spellbinds me; thus I climb it, with frequent stops to admire an unusual feature or window to what lies below. This ice further bore evidence of the recent retreat of water downstream. It ended abruptly and leaked profusely from underneath. Icicles shimmered in the sunlight as the river sparkled like sapphires in the background. It was an exotic place for a tea party for one, but it was also a terrain trap if the water rose swiftly and I am not ready for an ice tomb. I gulped tea and pictures, then hiked out in my waders to the top of the gorge creating the icy delight.
Mother Nature was generous with visual treats that day. I wondered if my fears of rising water were unjust. As I would find out a few days later, they were not. Friends compelled by the pursuit of fish waded the same stretch and beyond towards the dam. They were shocked to find themselves racing towards shore as the river grew rabid around them. All made it to safety, but it rattled them. It rattles me.
I did not bring home fish, although releasing them was always the intention, but I did take home a lesson reinforced by subsequent events. The pursuit of a fish, or pictures, should always be balanced by listening to the little voice of caution, especially when the fisherwoman stands alone in the belly of a canyon beneath the bath tub ring.