Crippled on Beaver Creek

Every summer, as the streams clear from the muddy spring runoff, I get a powerful urge to hike and fish the alpine lakes and streams of southwest Montana. Last July, my first foray into the high country was thwarted by a grizzly cub 50 feet ahead of me. The cub looked at me and then went scurrying up the trail toward Sheep Lake. Quickly checking to ensure I wasn’t between mother and cub, I decided it might be prudent to save that body of water for another day.

After two days of stewing over my failure to get to Sheep Lake, I was more anxious than ever to do some wilderness fishing off the beaten track. I decided that since my wife was working that day, she could drop me off and I would fish the upper canyon of Beaver Creek.

This stretch of water begins some four miles up a dirt road from U.S. 287, where the Avalanche Lake trail crosses Beaver Creek on a footbridge. At that point, the rocky, 30-foot-wide stream cascades out of a canyon with 60-foot-high walls; not exactly vertical, but steep enough to render them nearly impassable. The canyon and creek meander for roughly two “river miles” upstream to the confluence with Sentinel Creek, which tumbles down from the Hilgard Basin bringing some 75% of the water.

Perhaps a quarter-mile into the canyon, a tiny stream drops several hundred yards down the mountainside, almost like a long waterfall, bringing icy cold water from a hidden north-face snow field, or maybe a small glacier hidden in a crevice lost among the trees. Rounding the first bend, the woods and canyon walls seem to close in, creating a primeval environment where it’s easy to imagine you’re the only human on the planet. Despite the feeling of solitude, you’re not alone: posted signs at the trailheads announce that grizzly and black bears are in the neighborhood.

The water in the creek ran high due to rains the night before, making bushwhacking up the creek problematic—lots of climbing up and over piles of rocks, log jams, and around steep banks where the water was too fast and deep to wade. It was roaring and I knew enough to stay out of the fast, deep cascades. The noise of the creek obliterated all sound, including those that might alert bears to my presence. I tried anyway, yelling once in a while as I made my way upstream. In this scenario, one’s only option is to maintain a heightened sense of awareness, looking around often and watching for tracks or other signs. That’s not a bad practice wherever you happen to be, but especially in the woods.

I took small rainbows from the first few holes and felt good, as I made casts simply because it looked like there ought to be fish there. I used dry flies even though nymphs would probably have been more effective in those conditions. I am not a purist and will use whatever fly pattern catches fish; but when I fish these little creeks, I have come to expect the fish to rise—and they almost always do. This day was less productive than previous trips, but I still picked up a fish from time to time—enough to keep me happy. I like the simplicity of a dry fly on a leader, and today I traded the possibility of catching more fish for the simple pleasure of seeing my fly floating along in the current and occasionally getting inhaled by a hungry trout.

Halfway up the canyon I came to a constriction: a 30-foot cliff above confined water plunging fast and deep through a narrow field of boulders spaced such that I couldn’t climb across. Wading was not an option; I’d have to climb up and over the ridge. I’d made similar climbs more times than I could remember, so without hesitation I slowly made my way up the bank, using one hand to hold my fly rod and the other for balance, always keeping my center of gravity on the uphill side. I reached the top with no problem, and after stopping to admire the view I slowly and deliberately made my way down the other side. Facing up the canyon, I leaned into the slope and felt my way down with my left foot, stepping on rocks whenever possible for better footing and testing each foothold before shifting my weight. At one point, no rock was available so I stepped on a grassy spot that looked stable. Just as I shifted my weight, the dirt underneath—muddy from the previous night’s rain—slipped away.

Fortunately, I didn’t fall down to the creek below—I hit hard on my right foot, which was turned at an awkward angle. I went down, felt excruciating pain, and heard a loud cracking noise. “Oh shit! It’s broken!” I thought immediately as I lay there at a 60-degree angle, wondering how the hell I would get out of there. The thought of crawling out on hands and knees caused a mild sense of panic to creep in. After a few seconds I tried moving my toes, and was pleased to find that I could. Then I discovered I could move my entire foot and began to hope that it wasn’t broken after all—even though it still hurt like hell. After a couple minutes I was very happy to discover that not only could I stand up, but I could actually put some weight on it, albeit with considerable pain.

I contemplated whether to make my way to the top, bushwhack out to the road and wait for my wife, or carefully climb back down to the creek and continue fishing. The road was at least a quarter mile from the top of the canyon at that point and I would have to bushwhack through dense woods with very heavy undergrowth—certainly doable, but difficult under the best of conditions. My wife wasn’t due for another hour, and since the pain was there either way, I shrugged and limped back down to the creek. I could feel my ankle swelling inside my wading boot, but I figured I might as well catch some fish. I found that if I placed my weight just right, the pain lessened somewhat. As a bonus, the creek’s cold water acted like an ice pack and made things feel a little better.

After half an hour of decent fishing, I came across a 40-foot cliff dropping down to a fast, deep run. Once again, I had no choice but to climb around it. Near the top, the trees and thick underbrush forced my path onto a game trail. At first I was relieved as this made the going a little easier—but then a terrifying thought flashed through my mind. “This isn’t necessarily good—all kinds of critters use these trails!” The last thing my crippled self needed was a run-in with an angry mother grizzly or bull moose, but I was relieved to only see deer and elk tracks.

At the top, I considered staying out of the canyon since my wife would arrive soon. The creek made a bend to the right, and I angled across the slope to a clearing where I could see down to the water. Below me was a nice-looking hole that seemed to beg, “come and fish me…” To bushwhack from there would still involve a quarter-mile of heavy going, but even in my damaged state, I couldn’t resist. I painstakingly made my way back down to the creek. The pain proved to be worth it, as I pulled several more fish out of that hole. After releasing my third rainbow, I looked behind me, and there was the confluence of Sentinel and Beaver Creeks—I was only a couple hundred yards from where I’d started. I hobbled slowly up Beaver Creek to the footbridge and up the hill to the trailhead just in time to meet wife as she arrived.