Alpine Exposure

Uncovered in the high country.

It was a long time ago. I was young, independent, and full of myself. Having grown up an hour north of Yellowstone Park, I was used to the great outdoors. Our ranch buildings were mere steps from a river that wound around misty, rugged peaks bordering the Gallatin National Forest. On the other side was the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, edged by Yellowstone’s wild expanse.

In my 20s, I began taking occasional trips into the wilderness by myself. I didn’t look like that kind of girl—I stood only 5’7” and weighed 124 pounds soaking wet—but I was gutsy and swollen-headed.

At the time, I was madly in love with a young fly fisherman. While I’d gone fishing a number of times, it wasn’t a passion of mine, so I decided to practice. I bought a pretty little telescoping fishing rod—shiny, silver, and delicately made—packed it and a night’s supplies, climbed into the pickup with my dog, and headed out.

At the end of a rough four-wheel-drive road, I climbed for what seemed like eons. Ollie, my sweet but protective shepherd-mix, was in heaven, He went racing back and forth across the trail, investigating every chipmunk, marmot, and ground squirrel.

We hiked into a large box canyon with soaring cliffs on both sides. The huge crows that circled the sky sang out in voices that sounded almost human, echoing off granite cliffs. I stopped to catch my breath and listen to the breeze blowing through the pines.

The trailhead was now far below me. I worried about running out of water in the heat—my first campsite was still nowhere in sight. But I kept hiking. Forty pounds of gear on your back gets mighty heavy after a while. The timber grew thinner and more stunted as I neared the treeline until I finally broke into the open end of the canyon. I was close to 10,000 feet above sea level and miles from the nearest road.

Ancient glaciers had carved out perfect terraces bleached white by time. Each terrace formed a long, wide step up to the next, and I felt like I was on the doorstep of the gods. In the center of these terraces was an ancient one-room log cabin. It had a doorway but no door, a window but no windowpane. Inside there was one long, low shelf that probably served as a bed.

Behind the cabin, a few low-growing bushes and struggling trees crowned an exquisite lake. The water had the unbelievable clarity known only to undisturbed alpine lakes. Darting through the aquamarine water were flashes of what I assumed to be brook trout. It was a perfect place to try out my new fishing pole.

I slept that night inside the cabin, bundled up in my sleeping bag on the shelf-bed. Ollie woke me occasionally during the night, growling at whatever crept around in the dark. Coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions? I preferred to not think about it.

The next morning I was ravenous. It was lovely, sitting on the stoop of that cabin, eating my breakfast in the morning sunlight as I gazed down the long canyon, while chatty crows cawed a chorus of remarkably human-like banter. After cleaning up, I grabbed the fishing pole and my camera.

It was a gorgeous morning to fish, but as I worked my way along the shoreline, all I seemed to catch were shallow snags. I unlaced my boots and waded out to untangle the line while Ollie danced along the shoreline and the crows circled above.

The water was deeper than it appeared. I’d wade out to an area that looked knee-deep and soak my seat or waist. As my clothes got wetter, I finally just took them off. The crows cawed and cackled and sometimes I’d stop and listen, deciphering if they really were human voices. But they were only crows.

Those alpine fish never did take a liking to my pretty little fishing pole and lures—I caught only snag after snag, and kept wading out to retrieve my lures, all the while getting further from my pile of discarded clothes. I imagined how I must have looked, traipsing along the shoreline accompanied by a dog and some crows, dressed only in my hiking boots with the camera around my neck and the silver fishing rod in my hand. But there was no one there to see.

Then, just about the time that I started back toward my clothes, I heard something, from the trail over the cliffs west of the lake. Clear as a bell, just three English words:

“Yes, she is!”

And I haven’t been fishing since.