By Sam Larson
The parking lot at the trailhead is a mess. The rain has turned it into a nightmare of mud and murky, suspension-threatening potholes. A pack of trail runners mingles near the trailhead. They're sipping water bottles, chatting with each other, and changing into drier clothes. There’s a wary mutual respect there. Weather be damned, the runners and I think as we nod to each other from across the parking lot. We’re the few who are foolish enough to be out here indulging in our favorite obsession. The joggers leave while I roll around in my car, struggling into long underwear, waders, and boots.
The trail is muddy, with a small, rain-carved trench running through its center. Boot soles and bicycle tires have left their mark as well, but it’s the water that’s pulling this trail apart and downhill into the river. Halfway to the river I meet a mud-spattered trail crew. They're digging new water bars between stints spent huddling under trees. Piles of hand tools lay across heaps of mud, and two wheelbarrows have been upturned off to the side of the trail. The crew’s trying their best to persuade an otherwise uncooperative hillside to stay put. The trail, based on the washouts in every corner, seems unconvinced. But the crew waves when they see me, encouraging me to walk across their newest waterbar to help pack it down. “There’s a lot of healthy browns down there, you know,” one of the crew calls out, “But you’ll have a hard time finding them in all that brown water!”
At the picnic tables to check the water I wonder if the trail crew’s have even made it down this far. The river is almost perfect, clear and slow. Overhead, the fog and clouds are squeezing themselves down the canyon. For the moment they seem content to limit themselves to a light, misting drizzle. Ten minutes after I wade into the stream I’ve caught and released two chunky rainbows. I can see a third and a fourth sipping along the banks ahead of me. The fish are looking up despite the weather.
There’s a crack of thunder from overhead. The misting rain that has kept me company most of the morning quickens and starts to pound on my hood and the brim of my hat with more authority. Upstream I can see an advancing wall of rain sweeping down the valley towards me. I break down my Tenkara rod and start to think about an exit strategy. Runners and cyclists sprint downstream along the trail, trying but largely failing to stay ahead of the storm. They’ve got a mile long hike up to the parking lot on a trail that turns right back into the teeth of the rain. I can’t say I envy them.
Behind me there’s a sandy beach where a pine and a thick stand of tamarisk weave their branches together into a dense canopy. Two steps up the bank and I’m out of the weather. The tamarisk branches brush the top of my hood, and the rain patters on the leaves around me. I hang my chest pack and rod on the tree and bury my hands in my pockets. The rain increases and a cold wind comes with it. Hailstones start to splash into the river in front of me. My leafy shelter has started to move in the wind and I can feel more rain and hail falling on my shoulders. I shiver in my coat and tug my neck gaiter up over my face.
When I was a kid I used to put on my raincoat and matching yellow plastic pants and go sit on the front porch when it rained. Every thunderstorm would find me sitting on the milkbox looking out at the falling rain. It made me feel alone, tough and self-reliant, to know that I was out of doors while everyone else stayed inside and watched the rain stream down their windows. And I liked the shiver I got across my shoulders when I could hear the rain falling on my coat and know that, inside it, I was warm and dry.
Now, 35 years old, I’m wrapped in yet another raincoat, standing on the banks of the river and listening to the rain fall through the trees. I’m happy watching the rain and fog sweep down the valley from the Continental Divide. I’m out of doors and alone when everyone else has made the dash back to their cars or never even bothered to make the trek into the hills. I get the same shiver across my shoulders that I did when I was little, and it still feels good to burrow deeper into my raincoat, flannel shirt, and waders and now that, inside them, I’m warm and dry.