Back in ’05, I have always wanted to say that like a true old timer, I asked a trusted “internet” friend of mine, one noted Maharishi of a holy man, for a spot to find some serenity and large brookies and of course for those of you who know of whom I speak, he told me to go … … “Fork myself”. Well naturally I found a way to follow his sage advice and it turned out to be one of the best solo camping trips that I have ever had, despite a hike that is long and mean and truly uphill in both directions. The memories have remained with me but the fear of the hike has remained with me as well so I have never returned despite the desire to do so.
Well one winter night in February of this year, when standing on the front porch of cabin near the Nantahala river with about 15 or so fellow fishermen, I saw a blinding glimpse of a fantastic idea to get together a small group and return to the magical rock tumbled river valley and once again “Fork Myself”, the idea burned with a such an amazing shine … … or maybe that was just the “Shine” itself who knows, but none the less I had to act on it and soon enough had a small group of fellow drunk revelers on the front porch of the cabin thinking ahead to a spring time trip for brook trout in the GSMNP. We had originally talked about late March but thinking how smart I was, I added two weeks to allow springtime to arrive in full and we set the trip date for early April. I laughed to myself as we finalized these drunken plans to the back beat of the “Drive By Truckers” that none of these drunks would remember this conversation later anyway. Well somehow about two weeks later the emails and internet messages started rolling in … … now what dates did we select? , so where are we going again? , my head was a little fuzzy but aren’t we supposed to have fishing trip coming up? Which means … … damn boys … … IT’S ON … … “FORKFEST 13” lives.
The group that made plans to meet at the trailhead for this adventure were small but distinguished, Monte my Fishing partner of over 30 years now, Bernard my fishing partner of less years but just as many adventures, (and potentially the most special of all) my 21 year old son Drew and two special guys that I have had the good fortune to meet through enough “internet” fishing gatherings that we are now truly old friends even though we see each other only rarely… … Jermz and Petey, and of course my old fat ass self. Well late March arrived and the weather was warm but not yet spring like so I congratulated myself on my fantastic timing of selecting early April for this trip, as I just knew I had picked the perfect dates. I was positive we were in for a Master’s like spring adventure with blooming trees and blossoming flowers and full spring time in the air… … which is why I was so surprised when the following scenes popped into view on our ride to the trailhead.
So much for my Master’s like daydreams, fortunately we were all able to communicate via the magic of modern cell service, and reroute so that we all did eventually arrive at the trail head. We all began that ritual of shifting and stuffing packs trying to make sure everyone else was ready to hit the trail with backpack on back, before we actually shouldered our burden so that we wouldn’t have to the be the one weighted down while waiting on someone else to get ready, but eventually we were all loaded up and trudging up the trail. Well Monte is 50 and in great shape, Bernard is younger and tough, Drew is not in good shape but he is 21 which makes up for everything and then some, Petey weighs 50 pounds soaking wet so we aren’t even talking to him right now and Jermz was kind enough to go slow and play the drag line to herd the old stragglers like me back to the herd. But I was determined that we wouldn’t need that, I have re-plumbed arteries and I can keep up with the best of them by damn, and I did for the first 2 or 3 mi … … minutes of the hike. This particular trail follows a famously painful uphill path, and I will add well deserved, for at least the first 2 miles but it does have a wonderful rushing bouncing babbling stream to keep my plodding-self company and enough scenery to allow my long heaving pauses to pass for “scenery breaks”.
But somehow I kept my feet moving and soon enough managed to reach a high enough elevation (read that as at least 1500 feet gain) that I could actually believe that the climb could actually be completed. I stopped and gasped for oxygen like a fish in the hands of a rookie perfectionist “grip and grin” photographer, but realized that I might actually be able to finish this “stroll” and I wouldn’t have to face my fears of explaining to the group why I turned back halfway up the mountain and went back to the house abandoning them to the summit. I was rewarded with this hazy view which let me know I was nearly to the top and for those of you with eye sight still sharp enough to see the details; we started this stroll below the small pass outlined in the foreground.
Well soon enough I reached the top and began the descent. I would love to tell you the descent was painless and carefree but to be honest my old knees and hips felt every jarring step down the other side of that mountain but there is one amazing difference, now I could hear the roaring magical symphony of a rushing roaring trout stream at full crescendo as it rushed through the valley far below me, calling me downward, beckoning me home. So finally I arrived at the campsite, the group had been there long enough to already have camp set up and to be ready to go fishing as I stumbled across the bridge into camp. But you can bet I was happier than all of them, as I realized I had made it one more time. I am not sure you can ever see a happier man… at the emotional and uplifting thought of … … getting this damn pack off my back.
Before long we had camp set up and ship shape, even my friend Jermz’s MacGyver home built hammock set up was in place and picture perfect.
I had chugged enough fresh squeezed water down that my limbs were starting to come back to life, which meant my mind turned from survival to its next level of the “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” … … fishing. It was obvious from the valley floor that we were at least two weeks and maybe even three weeks from true spring for this high in the back country, oh well guess we all screw up sometime. The stream was a bruising and brawling specimen of a wide shouldered bar bully size, pushing everything out of its path as it bulldogged its way down the mountain.
It was clear and icy cold which meant not only was holding water hard to find, but the fish would be sedentary and spooky … … a great combination for PETA representatives everywhere, if there ever was one. But this place was way, way, way too beautiful to do more than just acknowledge those thoughts and still smile to yourself at the beauty and feel of your heart beat in a staccato in time to the river at your feet. Rods were strung and bravado filled boasts of fish dinners to come were launched as we sent one brave group up the feeder creek to the falls and on even braver group downstream to battle house sized boulder filled rapids of a river bed as of yet unmarked by even the faintest fisherman’s trail, and finally the third intrepid group … … the ones who had had paid the high end debt for a half century of living … … the easiest upstream section, which even though it was easier, it is still as of yet still untainted by a fisherman’s bankside trail. But even us old farts found the water and made our first casts into what many would call perfection.
Well with water like that you can imagine where my thoughts were, and they certainly weren’t with the fishing, which I would love to tell you meant I missed a slashing strike of a 12 inch native brookie on the first cast but the truth is never so poetic. Instead when reaching for the line I fumbled my clumsy mitts into the custom “Lacey made Adams Reel” that graced my “RND” bamboo rod (so named for my late father’s initials inscribed in silver into the burled reel seat) which knocked it out of the slide ring reel seat and sent it crashing into the foaming white water at my feet. Well as any of you who read any of my more recent long winded narratives may know, in September I lost a very nice Hardy Sunbeam in exactly the same manner, so I naturally almost dived in to try and save that reel. But the bite of the 40 degree water caused me to pull back in thermal shock and the reel spun out of sight, lost in a wave of white water.
The words that spilled out of my mouth were not in keeping with this heavenly and divine inspired setting but they spilled forth none the less. I began to strip line in frantically piling it on top of a rock at my feet thinking I was making progress in pulling my reel back to me. But the line on the rock eventually washed into the current below, piling wave upon wave into a seething mass of white water and finally onto the rocks at the base of circle eddy below. Somehow I resisted the temptation to fling myself into that crush of water to try and find my reel but remained patient and once again started to strip in line, foot after foot. Thoughts of the primary rod and the backup rod that I had dragged up the mountain flashed through my mind along with thoughts of what the heck good are they going to be if I lose the ONLY reel I brought on the first cast of the first day. Suddenly my heart lurched to a stop as my retrieve was halted in a grinding crush of rock like weight. The line and potentially the reel were stuck. Monte thinking quickly scrambled to a rock ledge just below the white water and took the line that had pooled in the backwater down by him and began stripping in the opposite direction. But eventually he too hit a snag showing us exactly where the line and potentially the reel was hung on a LOG under four to five feet of seething, foaming, white water. I almost panicked but eventually stopped enough to think through the problem and realized that I actually had the reel somewhat captured with both the upstream line and the downstream backing still in my hand in one form or another. We pulled hard enough to know that it was a stalemate neither of us was going to win in either direction, least of all find the reel. So I took a major gamble sawed my teeth through the backing and with a faltering glimpse of confidence let it fall free into the swirling white water while gripping the line tightly in my hand hoping and praying I didn’t screw up and let the wrong end drop into the water. Monte stripped the line rushing forward to him with all of his might, but came up fast to a log in the current, which was so strong there was absolutely no way of reaching it. I thought for one more second and told him to cut it at his end and prayed for a positive result … … and then I began to strip the upstream line backwards through the stripping guide, I felt my heart jump with joy as the line and the reel moved past the rocks with a scrape that my fingers felt all the way through my soul. And hundreds of tugs later my reel came into view. And this time I did practically dive on the floating shinning scraps of metal. I pulled my reel safe and undamaged from the water feeling relief flood through me along with a chant of “not this time” river gods … … which I am sure will cause me a karma induced trauma later on… … but for now the reel was safe and sound on my reel seat as I spliced the cut and lost section of backing out so the line would re-attach to the reel and Monte brought me the final birds nest of lost backing that he had managed to recover from the white water, so I could shove it into one of my pockets to be later sacrificed to the camp “fire gods” in hopes of changing my fate with the “river gods”… … But never the less I was back in the fishing game. I motioned for Monte to jump ahead of me and fish the next water while I tried to calm my nerves which were rushing as fast as the spring rains fed river I was standing in, trying to tell myself “act cool dude” like nothing just happened……. Yeah right.
Monte fished up the hole and out of sight before my breathing reached anything even close to normal as I thought about being stuck reel less in this fishing heaven… … thankfully NOT. So shakily I began a few tentative casts with my big dry and long small dropper combo. I wasn’t really expecting much and simply trying to get back into a calm even keel fishing rhythm when subconsciously I saw a dimple on the surface and reacted in an over amped surge of left over adrenaline, from the reel chase and the long hike, and hauled back on my three weight like Bill Dance in a full on ESPN Saturday morning bass strike, launching a very surprised brook trout in an orbit Neil Armstrong would have been proud of. By the time I finally got this poor fellow out of the trees I think he had more frequent flyer miles than even my Delta Diamond tags can account for … … but somehow he still managed to look beautiful … … , small but beautiful.
From there my day was made, I had survived the hike, the scenery was beyond description and my hands now had that cold clean sweet smell of life … … I mean trout. Life is good and I good doesn’t begin to give enough depth to how I felt.
We climbed/fished upstream, and I do mean climbed, this stream was less “boulder hopping” than rope and hook belaying using a 2x tippet and a size 6 wooly bugger over house sized boulders while praying you didn’t slip and land in the seething foaming frothing white water at your feet. Eventually realizing that we were worn out beyond belief, and causing us to turn back and head downstream toward that delicious smell of wood smoke that was now hanging on the ridgeline like natures first billboard for food drawing us downstream back to the campfire and dinner.
Fortunately for me I am not nearly as dumb as I may look, and I had hidden nearly 5 lbs of steak and 2 lbs of charcoal in my 21 year old son’s backpack, since he was too strong too know the difference, unlike my old weak ass self. And I had also hidden “several” mason jars in Bernard’s unsuspecting back pack as well, okay he was smart enough to know what I was doing but likes shine well enough he didn’t really care either. Short answer was we were all gathered unharmed, telling “fishing” stories around the campfire as we smelled the steaks grilling and as we watched the sun set across one of the most poetic and expressive scenes I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
We had been blessed in that a tree had recently crashed to the earth right in the middle of our campsite and our beloved national forest rangers had chopped it up and left copious amounts of fire wood stacked right next to our fire circle. The bad news which always comes with good news like this was that it was a green as Oliver and Linda Douglas from “Green Acres”. We had trouble getting it lit but eventually prevailed as these photos will attest.
But eventually some huffing and puffing and hot winded fisherman managed to get it going
The fire eventually was warm and comforting which lead to some cigar consumption, and some shine consumption, and some late night discussions of what we all wanted to be when we grew up and what the design of a successful “bar stool racer” should look like. I would love to tell you these discussions helped my 21 year old son mature and grow as a productive adult in main stream society, but I don’t like to lie no matter how much the truth may incriminate me. And at the same time I remembered listening to the drunken ramblings of my Father’s friend at various fishing events over the years and realized that 21 year old Drew isn’t in any more danger of being corrupted than any of us and in fact hell, he may even have corrupted a few of us with his wild ass ways. And all the while we had a backdrop of a river running wild, free and unchecked just yards from our campfire and I am pretty sure that means life was good… … very good.
The night slept cold and hard but I have to admit I didn’t really feel it and awoke refreshed and relaxed knowing I had another full day or so of fishing still to come. The morning scenery was beyond anything I can describe so I will simply attach the pictures and let you take it from there.
From there you just knew the day had to get better. And it did. We split the fishing up among three groups again and once again the younger guys were nice enough to let the old farts have the easier upstream water. It is nice to be an old ass dude with nice friends, sometimes. But everyone found water worth fishing and worth taking pictures of. One of the coolest was a scene so wonderful that the photographer couldn’t help snapping a picture of another photographer trying to snap the same picture form a different angle, for those of you with enough patients to study the photograph below. But no matter how these shots were snapped the results were far too pretty not to be shared.