A bottle of Altamura sangiovese weighs a few pounds. Although my pack was heavy and we were walking roughly thirteen miles that day, I knew the wine was worth the extra weight. It was after all, my birthday.
It was mid-September and I was celebrating my twenty-seventh year with a backcountry trip of fly fishing and fine wine. It was a Napa Valley appellation from 1999, and decidedly my favorite, which is why I lugged it to our camp along Fish Creek. While I carried the wine, my boyfriend, Jon, agreed to haul a tri-tip for dinner.
As I walked along the trail, the weight of my pack hung uncomfortably on my shoulders. I tried to enjoy the scenery.
We finally made it to camp as the sun was setting, casting a yellow light on the granite-lined valley. We set up camp and organized the kitchen, but it wasn’t until the next day we were to enjoy the steak and wine.
Waking with the first light, we made a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and were off to explore a side canyon on the creek. It was then I realized the old, borrowed fly rod and reel I was using had been replaced with a new Sage eight-foot, four-weight with a Ross reel and new line.
This birthday was off to a good start.
Carrying only snacks, water, and fly rods we set out for a day of fishing.
Twelve miles from the trailhead, the trail moves away from the creek canyon and ascends into Cascade Valley. It then continues upstream and meets with the John Muir Trail. We had walked the entirety of the twenty-one-mile trail along Fish Creek before; this time we headed for the section of the creek not accessed by trail.
The bottom of the canyon was dream-worthy pocket water. Wild rainbow trout were hungry and feeding on the dry flies we presented to them. Many fish eagerly ate stimulators, adams, and humpys, while pickier trout took size eighteen blue-winged olives.
We boulder-hopped up the canyon until the walls were steep and the sun no longer reached the water. It was almost impassable at many points.
The fish were small, and with dark backs and silver bodies. They hardly bent my rod and I was able to reel them in with little fight.
It’s a pretty creek. After the biggest winter on record, the water was still flowing high, even in the fall. The pools were deep and lined by granite boulders and walls over one-hundred-feet high. I sensed not many people had fished here. I had fished bigger waters, for trophy trout in the Eastern Sierra before (with little success), but there is something about small water, with wild trout. The pressure is off, and an angler can open to the inner peace of the sport.
Sometimes the best fishing really isn’t about the fish.
We found ourselves swimming through pools, and traversing rocks with the smallest of handholds. My wet sandals slipped on the rocks, and I went plunging into the water many times. My hips, arms and legs were bruised and scraped, clothes wet, and energy dwindling.
My shiny new fly rod and reel took a few hits to the rock, and with each new ding, I realized this was not a day for egos. As we inched up the canyon, we fished less and moved more. Even though we hadn’t felt the sun in a while, we could see it was sinking rapidly and we were still far away from the point where the trail met the creek again.
The goose bumps on my arms made the hair stand straight up as I waded through another deep pool.
At this point I wondered, “Would it be faster to simply turn around, or press on?”
We pressed on and I longed for a campfire and hot meal.
On the map, the section of creek we were hiking was at most two miles. Still, any outdoor survival guide advises hikers to be prepared for the worst and carry jackets, emergency food and flashlights, none of which we had.
“If we don’t move faster, we’ll be sleeping out here,” Jon warned.
I scowled at the thought of missing our steak and wine dinner and while my body was sore and tired, I picked up the pace.
Finally, at dusk we met up with the trail. In a matter of minutes it would be dark as coal, but we followed the trail back to camp.
Later, as we sat by the fire, sipping the wine, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What were we thinking?”
The sangiovese had an earthy flavor. It tasted like the forest in which we were camped. The musty tannins were soft on the palate, and the fruit danced around my mouth.
I rested on a log, warming my feet by the fire. My fly rod was propped against a Jeffrey Pine glowing in the firelight.
To myself, I concluded, “We are adventurous fools.”
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Mammoth Monthly Magazine