Photo by Eric Dieter
“Don’t worry dude, there’s a A&W right outside the park,” I reassure Eric calmly as he writhes in the passenger seat. “You just need quick calories: some soft serve and a Coke will do the trick.” As we twist through the alpine tundra surrounding Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the four-cylinders of my white Chrysler (a rental while my truck was in the shop) gasp as I pressure the accelerator at 11,000 feet, hugging every corner of the descent. Eric needs get to lower elevation. Throughout our history, I’d seen him crush his ankle in his ski boot with little more than a wince and lawn dart off his mountain bike into scree with nary a yelp. But this little fishing mission turned fishing boondoggle had clearly put him in a very dark place.
Looking back, we were woefully underprepared when we set out that morning for one of the park’s remote bodies of water with only a few hundred calories of granola bars and a couple Nalgenes between us. I had almost no beta on Arrowhead Lake except for a trailhead name, Milner Pass and the useless map they give you at the park entrance. Lured by whispers of gorgeous cutthroat and solitude in the rugged drainage below 12,880-foot Mt. Ida, I must have overlooked the 12-ish mile, above-treeline hike and 4,000 feet of elevation gain when I coerced Eric into joining me on a “day trip” in the park. But dude, the fish look huge!
The mid-August day started innocuous enough, an early start out of Boulder, fresh java and breakfast sammies followed by a brisk pace on the well-established trail out of the parking lot. We broke treeline and began a long, mellow, ascending contour toward Mt. Ida through high-alpine meadows filled with elk munching on grass. Near the summit, the trail grew faint and in an effort to save time, we broke off down the peak’s north ridge and descended a steep, loose couloir toward the azure waters of Inkwell Lake. At the bottom of the drainage, we found a maze of house-sized boulders and technical moraines. The area’s long glacial history created a tedious and almost Martian landscape of granite cliffs, icy lakes and rocky debris. Hiking turned to scrambling and our progress slowed as we crawled over the rugged, yet beautiful, terrain.
Around lunch, we caught our first glimpse of Arrowhead still several hundred feet below us down a low-angle granite slab. Despite sore muscles, a rapidly depleting granola bar supply and a longer-than-expected hike in, both Eric and I were fired up at the lake’s fishy prospects. The green waters of the wide, shallow southern end of the lake faded into depths of rich cobalt, terminating in a point and a waterfall down to the next bench of alpine lakes in the drainage. Given the shape of the lake, its name seemed all too appropriate. Our eyes scanned the water greedily as we rigged our fly rods.
High-mountain cutthroat fishing isn’t rocket science. To fatten up for long winters, fish feed opportunistically through the brief summer months. They smash anything that looks plump and buggy both above and below the water’s surface. It’s the dry-fly fishing though, that pulls me to alpine lakes. For an unsubtle, brute of an angler like myself, sight casting bushy stimulators, hoppers and parachutes at cruising fish is a rite of late summer. August’s alpine-lake season can redeem the river skunkings and slow days of June and July with countless fish on the dry. Of course, when the wind blows just right or the moon is in the seventh house or there’s some other witchcraft afoot, the fishing can suck. And it’s this later, much rarer phenomenon that awaited us on the banks of Arrowhead.
Things started out on a positive note. I missed a nice cuttie on my first cast while monkeying around with excess line tangled around my foot. But then, nothing. We both haplessly trolled the banks, working the eastern flank of the lake looking for cruisers. Eventually I found a pod of fish swirling around the lake’s inlet. I casted everything I had at them, ants, Adams, gnats, midges. In the gin clear waters, fish spooked at even the faintest outline of 6X tippet, a strange reaction considering the relative lack of pressure on Arrowhead Lake.
As a last ditch effort, I tied on the ugliest foam beetle pattern in my box and slapped it with an audible thwap in the slow ripple sliding out of the inlet creek. Suddenly, the lake surface erupted as a missile of a fish inhaled my fly.
After a quick fight, I had my first glorious Arrowhead Lake cutthroat to hand. Bloodred through the belly and a deep forest green on its back, the fish, in full spawning colors, was stunning, and easily the prettiest greenback I’d ever caught. Just as things started looking bleak, I found what I’d been looking for here in the deep heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. Then, I promptly returned to not catching a goddamn thing.
Eric had yet to land a fish, but as the shadows around the lake lengthened, reality started setting in: We had a long walk ahead of us. While I’d done some rough Google mapping on the route into Arrowhead Lake, I hadn’t given much thought to our exit, figuring we’d just freestyle it depending on how the hike in went, which, if you haven’t followed along, hovered somewhere in the neighborhood of poorly. Retracing our route was out of the question.
I whipped out the crappy map and we decided on a path around the massive ridge above Arrowhead. Once on the other side, we’d find the best place to regain the Continental Divide then return to the trail. It looked easy enough without contour lines to correct our errors in judgement. After some light bushwacking and talus skipping, we circled the ridge only to walk straight into one of the most jaw-dropping and soul-sucking views in the park. An expansive landscape of willowy tundra, mossy marshes and steep peaks separated us from our car. We could do little but pick a point on the horizon and start the wet, twiggy death march.
Eric’s a tough bastard, but after our food ran out, he began to unwind pretty quickly. Muscle cramps, low blood sugar and altitude began to take their toll. The quick pace with which we’d left the parking lot several hours before had deteriorated into a half-hearted saunter. Eventually his soreness and cramping forced us to make the traverse in methodical 40-pace chunks with several minutes of rest in between each interval.
Had Eric caught any fish at Arrowhead, it would have been the fishing trip from hell. As it were, however, you could safely remove the “fishing” part. There in that quiet, picturesque drainage in Rocky Mountain National Park, the struggle was real. After nearly ten hours of hiking, bushwhacking, boulder hopping and most importantly, not catching, the wheels had fully come off.
Slowly though, we reached the Divide just as the sun began to dip toward the distant Never Summer Mountains. Despite the pain of the last few hours, the warm glow of that fading evening light replaced our feelings of misery with awe, our exhaustion with strength, if only for a brief moment. Queue cliche mountain epiphany. End scene.
Stumbling the last downhill miles to our car, drunk on complete physical emptiness, we waxed about the epic we’d just undertaken. Highlights like the herds of elk, the techy downclimbing to Arrowhead lake, the sunset, the solitude and, of course, that one exquisite cutthroat steered the conversation. As Eric sank into an incoherent stupor while riding shotgun in the Chrysler, I realized how the extreme physical discomfort of the day seemed to intensify the sensual perception of those memorable parts. It only took an ice cream cone and a couple Advil to to coax Eric to the same conclusion.
A former editor at Skiing magazine, Kevin Luby is a moonlight freelancer and marketing stooge at SCARPA. His interests include steep couloirs, trout on the dry and patio beers.