Opening week 2014 – first trip of the season – pt2

The Tree of Bones. It was a bizarre spectacle alright.

At first it was the series of large branches skewered into the ground that caught my eye. But upon further inspection I noticed a large tree standing alone which had been entirely “skinned” of it’s bark, the upper half lopped off, and the rest sporadically covered in bones. The main trunk had an intricate arrangement of much smaller bones that were fashioned in such a way as to resemble a skull with horns. It was odd to say the least, and it was probably a blessing that I was lost as my circumstances afforded me no time to ponder whether drunken hunters were responsible for this demented creation, or whether the Blair witch had opted for a holiday in the backcountry of New Zealand. Although slightly unnerving, this dark yet novel bit of craftsmanship had instilled new hope that the hut may be nearby, although after a brief investigation it seemed not to be the case.

And so I backtracked down the river and exited this narrow valley, following the river until it reached the confluence of another slightly larger river. Ahh this must be the right river, I figured.

074The stand of beech behind which mountain mist was mistaken for chimney smoke

076 - CopyThe wrong valley.

It was now around seven o’clock, and with the light of day fading I made one last push for the hut, dreading the prospect of a depressing cook up in the driving rain. The river was lined with beech forest on both sides now, and after a short while I sighted an elevated clearing across the river. A short survey later and I’d found one of the seemingly endangered orange triangles, a partial success.

I followed the track another ten minutes and there was still no sign of the hut. It’s going to be a long walk to the next one if I’ve already passed it!, I thought. This kind of nagging doubt is the last thing you need at the end of a long day. The track inevitably recommenced it’s up ‘n’ down torment so without a second thought I bush-bashed back to the riverbed, in order to escape it’s malicious mind games, and scan the upper valley.

As I walked along a slender island of grass—which is something of an oasis for the feet among a sea of awkward rocks that comprise the riverbed—I vowed to myself to turn back when I reached the end of it. With literally five metres to spare I looked up and surveyed what lay ahead. Despite the fading light a pale angular shape protruding from the greenery in the distance caught my eye. A tell-tale sign of something man made, it was indeed the hut!! It was as if the gods had given me a most timely break.

129Shelter from the storm.

It was indeed a most humble abode. An empty rectangular void hinted that a fireplace had once existed here. Hmm that would have been most convenient, I grumbled. Old silver insulation paper dangled from the ceiling in places, and was propped up in others in ramshackle fashion with small branches procured from the trees outside. But despite all that I was grateful for the ample shelter it offered. The absence of a fire was indeed missed as the night grew colder, but there is something oddly warming about the flicker of a candle and the scent of molten wax on a cold night. Warming for the soul at least.

Once hydrated and cooled sufficiently, dinner was wolfed down in thoroughly ungracious fashion, and a little red wine was administered to dull the aches and pains, and soothe the mind after a long testing day. I was tempted to finish the bottle but I kept some in reserve in case tomorrow was to have more devilry in store. As I stretched out on the bunk bed, I listened to the unrelenting rain pummel the tin roof of the hut, wondering what state the river would be in come daybreak. Hopefully tomorrow would be an easier day, I thought. Though from experience I dared not assume it!

I awoke the next morning to blissful silence. The rain had stopped. It was still oddly dim though, and cold, I noted from the comfort of my bunk bed. A brief bout of hail harshly rattled against the roof and windows before subsiding. Around nine o’clock I gingerly made my way over to the window. White and grey were the dominant colours to fill my vision. Had I turned colour blind overnight? I pondered. No, the weather was just rubbish, I reassured myself.

Snow coated the forest canopy on the opposite side of the valley, almost to the valley floor. And frosty dust devils of snow magically appeared and danced above the treetops before dissolving equally as fast as they had been conjured. The storm had transformed this valley into an enchanting winter wonderland. It was indeed a feast for the eyes, yet not exactly suitable for fishing, and in all honesty I was glad. This was my pass to a guilt-free, no regrets, sleep in.

126Not a bad view while having breakfast.

Collecting water was a grim and perilous affair. I slipped and skidded my way down the inclined track to the river, and the fingers reddened and numbed in the time it took to fill a bottle. The water was still nice and clear at least, apart from the occasional opaque undissolved snowflake drifting past. I could think of many occasions in mid summer I’d dreamed of accessing ice in the backcountry, but on this day I had no such desire for it.

The sun failed to penetrate the grey that day, and only the faintest of glows could occasionally be made out from behind the thick veil of grey. Between intermittent snowsqualls I ventured outside to work on the construction of a snowtrout. Vast amounts of tea were consumed in order to attempt to add a bit of colour to it, but it never looked quite right. It was an enjoyable yet surreal day, and with the valley being completely enveloped in thick mist, gave a real sense of solitude.

The only other notable event of the day was the invasion of the hut by a marauding Robin. Most aptly named, as they are renowned for their unashamed thievery, and so I was not too keen on the idea of sharing the hut with him. I ushered my untrustworthy guest to the window, from which he made his exit accompanied by an ungracious thunk, as he ricocheted off the window pane back into the cold, thankfully appearing unscathed.

125The only fish of the day.

The next morning—day four of my trip—it was still bleak outside, and freezing, and snowing. The river was surprisingly still clear though, so there was still hope. As I cooked breakfast I detected the barely audible sound of dull thuds. A brief wave of despair washed over me. Anglers arriving already?! It was only after lifting the lid of my pot that my fears, or paranoid, were allayed. It was just the muffled  popping of my porridge simmering.

(Gazing longingly out the window) My only wish, to catch a fish… we catches them we does. (Twitches head) But we mustn’t, Master forbids us. It’s too cold to fish… *cough* Gollum, Gollum *cough*. Yeah it was safe to say cabin fever was starting to set in now….

Yesterday’s weather-imposed day of rest had me rejuvenated, and chomping at the bit to hit the river. Around ten o’clock a ray of light pierced the grey and persevered long enough to get a foothold and begin burning it away, and eventually banish it from the valley altogether. The upper valley—now illuminated—was a most glorious sight. And like a Phoenix rising from the ashes I felt reborn, refreshed, and ready to fish!

133The illuminated upper valley.

These were lovely conditions to fish in, especially for a guy who’s prone to overheating when starting out for the day. There was a crisp brisk breeze, which kept the usual early morning glasses fogging issue at bay, while at the same time the sunlight provided ample warmth.

I walked almost a kilometre before sighting my first fish. He had chosen his residence carefully—a diabolical lie hemmed with tree branches on either side—and clearly felt confident of his safety as he sauntered out from the bank, as if to say go on you mug, make a cast. I didn’t. He was only a little fellow, and not worthy of losing a couple of expensive store bought nymphs.

139The diabolical lie.

Another significant walk saw me at a promising pool, which was similar in structure to the pool from which I’d procured my last fish, although much smaller in size. I sat on a rock slightly back from the water, to assemble a fresh rig. One of the bad habits I’d vowed to eliminate this season was winging it with old knots. My half numb fingers fumbled with futility in the cold, but eventually I completed it. A nervous cast was made. The tungsten nymph, devoid of any stealth, met the water with a plop several metres up from the fish. It was a similar scenario to the last fish. A subtle dip of the indicator, and a hopeful strike. Fish on!

He powered his way up out of the pool, and into the turbulence of the shallow channel above. It was tempting to try and net him now, but he was still fresh and unpredictable. I was led to rue this decision as the fish made his way back down to the pool and parked up under what appeared to be a rocky overhang at the bottom of the green abyss. Well okay, “abyss” might have been overstating things, but it was unnaturally deep relative to the rest of this section of river. A few stones were lobbed into the water, in hope of spooking him out, but he wasn’t having it. Eventually he was prised out and down to the shallow tail of the pool, and into the net.

Despite having a more modest physique than the last fish he still tipped the scales equally, or rather stretched the spring-scales of the net to the same degree. He was significantly darker in colouring though, more regular in shape, and bore a couple of odd dark blemishes on his flank which seem to be something of a signature of the fish in this river.

143A dark specimen hauled from the deep. We catches them we does…”

I continued up the valley, only really pausing at the pools now. The valley was becoming extremely narrow, and the carpeting of snow thicker. It was an odd sensation, stalking the bank of the river amid the crumpling sound of fresh powder underfoot.

Another sight most foreign to an angler who usually doesn’t venture out until November were the squadron of Keas which darted across the sky. They appeared to have spotted me on their sortie over the valley and began circling high above, perhaps hoping for my demise so that they could pillage my pack of any rubbery delights it may hold. The thievish antics of Robins pale into insignificance when compared to the downright criminal audacity these guys are capable of. They serenade you with their melancholy caws while making off with half your roof rack! It makes you wonder whether this unique sound was the end result of some clever evolutionary process designed to endear you to them, or at least placate your rage, while they relieve you of any rubberised items you may have. And so I kept a wary eye on my possessions as I stopped to have a rest on an island of tussocks that lay in the middle of the two babbling brooks which comprised the uppermost river.

This was the furthest I would go. It seemed absurd that any large fish would reside any further upstream. Maybe the odd one was present, but I’d decided I was satisfied with my exploration of the valley.

212.jpgFresh powder.

188The author doing his bit to taint a majestic vista.

191Looking back down the upper valley.

206One of the babbling brooks.

228A rare endangered track marker.

I stopped in at the hut to retrieve my pack, and say my goodbyes to the snowtrout—now a spent snowtrout decomposing in the midday sun—before making my way down-river. It was a long walk out, and as it was now midafternoon I aimed to make it half way out before setting up camp, which left a relatively short hike to the car the next day.

After choosing a camp site on the tussock flats beside an appealing section of river, I had a quick fish before dinner. A couple were spooked, before a feisty five-pounder was landed. Not the biggest of the trip but it certainly fought the most valiantly of the lot. No photo was taken as the camera battery was well and truly gone by now. I was most fortunate in this regard. With lens fogging issues and battery life curtailed due to the cold, it was something of a miracle that I had managed to get photos of my best two fish, and relatively decent shots of the scenery as well.

I ate dinner under a clear sky bearing a large moon, it’s surprising how light it is in such conditions. My eyes surveyed the valley as I ate, and one particular thing caught my eye—the beaten state of the forest peripherals. It appears to be a unique feature of this area. The dead beech stood out in stark contrast to their lush live peers, their pale skeletons radiate in the moonlight, and stand as a testament to the brutal harshness of this valley. Upon concluding my internal ramblings, and with the belly now appeased, I retired to the tent cocooned myself in my queen sized duvet for another well earned sleep.

259The final camp out.

I woke around mid-morning feeling pretty run down, and glad to be on my way out. The need to turn over every half hour to avoid my side freezing up certainly didn’t make for a productive night’s sleep! In spite of that, after breakfast was consumed I went for a brief fish before departing, as I had unfinished business with a couple of uncooperative fish I’d encountered the night before. They again proved elusive however, and it was destined to be the first day I would be skunked this season. Not the best note to end the trip on, but I guess it had to happen sooner or later.

The remaining hike out was arduous, more mentally than physically. At times like this the prospect of cold beer and a foot long Subway enter the mind, and provide the incentive for a quick march back to the car. I started doing calculations to see if I could make it back to civilisation in time, before the shops close. The spooky Subway worker—sorry “sandwich artist—had to be taken into account. When it was nearing closing time, if a stealthy approach was not made she had a tendency to lock the door and spook off to her hide out back, seemingly more alert than any backcountry brown.

Interrupting these rigorous calculations was a realisation I still had one last Moro bar stashed away in the pack somewhere. The prospect of another maddening game of pack Tetris was not enough of a deterrent and I dropped the pack to the ground and began rummaging through it. Much to my disbelief, in spite of a thorough examination of it’s contents, no confectionery was found. It was indeed a blow to morale, and had me wondering if the Keas had somehow pulled off a daring caper. And as I write this two weeks later, I’m intrigued to know if I’ll find it in some dark recess of the pack when I finally get around to emptying it. That will probably have to wait until the morning of my next trip though!

It had been a trip with a little of everything. Extreme weather, decent fish, few anglers, a torturous walk, and even a Tree of Bones! I couldn’t really have asked for more. On exiting the valley I paused and looked back one last time, and a sense of gratitude came over me as I gazed upon this river of silver, that yielded memories of gold.

256River of silver.