Trekking for Goldens
In 2008, while on a trout fishing trip in British Columbia (a story for another post), my buddy Charles planted a seed that would fuel an obsession: catching a trophy golden trout... Charles told me a rumor he had heard about a lake in a remote part of Montana. The lake allegedly held trophy Golden Trout. Here in California, where golden trout are native, we measure fish in inches. The thought of golden trout that could be measured in pounds was unimaginable; I was in! For the next 9 months, Charles and I would spend countless hours and a significant portion of our spare time researching various publications, pouring over topo maps and pounding the internet in hopes of triangulating on this mythical lake.
The planning kicked into high gear a week later when we returned to our respective homes (Charles to Denver and me to San Francisco). We had very little information to guide us but we did have 4 clues: We knew the lake was in a remote wildness area in Montana. We knew the lake had to be at least 10,000 feet in elevation to support healthy goldens. We knew which side of the continental divide the lake was rumored to be on. And lastly, we knew it was going to take several days of backpacking to reach the fabled body of water.
We bought a dozen topo maps, became experts with Google Earth and hosted countless (to the dismay Charles’ now wife) evening phone calls trying to pinpoint what we soon began calling “our” lake. The project was, in many ways, the definition of finding a needle in a haystack. Not surprisingly, the process and lack of immediate progress resulted in the occasional disagreement. At several points in time, I was convinced I had isolated our lake only to have Charles refute my claims stating that “my” lake was either too high in elevation or not large enough to be the lake. Weeks went by and I was tired of staring at the maps. In fact, I had rolled them up and tossed them under my bed. Then, one Saturday evening in March, I got a call from Charles. When I answered, the first thing I heard on the other end of the line was: “I found it!”
I immediately ran to my bedroom and pulled out the maps. I listened, in partial disbelief, as he walked me through his methodology. He made a good argument and after a deep sigh, the only thing I could muster was: “Man… that looks like a REALLY long way in!” Our back of the envelop math suggested a 35 mile hike… one way!
The next day I went to the grocery store and purchased a half dozen 2 gallon water jugs along with a few large bags of rice. My training started that night when I loaded half of my purchase into a backpack and weighed the contents at approximately 30 pounds. A fully loaded pack for a 6-day mission would weigh closer to 50 pounds (I like certain creature comforts) but a 30 pound trainer pack would be a good start. For the next 3 months, I would hike for an hour or two in and around San Francisco’s Presidio Park 3 nights a week after work. On the weekends, I went for longer distances in the Marin Headlands. No matter where I went, I always had the backpack in my 4Runner just in case a training opportunity presented itself. Charles would, no doubt, have an easier time training at elevation in Denver and I did not want to be the one slowing us down. Over a hundred training miles later, I had convinced myself that the distance would be manageable. In retrospect, nothing can train a desk jockey (which I certainly am) for a hike of that magnitude at elevation.
June had arrived and we still hadn’t nailed down our “go” dated due to an unusually heavy snowpack. We were confident that we had found the needle in the haystack and now all we had to do was thread the needle that was timing ice-off in the high alpine. Everything we had read and researched suggested that our best bet for catching a trophy golden was to hit the lake at Ice-off (when the winter ice begins to recede) and before the large goldens retreated to the depths of the lake and outside of our shoreline reach. We decided on the first week of July. We knew that might be a bit on the early side but figured we’d chance it.
As was the norm for most of our western fishing adventures, I flew to Denver and Charles picked me up at the airport. We drove all day to Montana and spent the night in the cheapest motel we could find. The next morning we casually made our way to the small town that would serve as our jumping off point. We needed fishing licenses so we popped into the local outdoor store. While buying our licenses, the store owner overheard us talking and volunteered that it was “way too early to be hiking in that direction.” He went on to explain that a boy scout troop was turned around at the first major stream crossing when they couldn’t wade through the run-off swollen creek. Before leaving the store, the owner showed us a picture taken at 10,000 feet the week prior: snow as far as the eye could see. Walking out of the store, I tuned to Charles and reminded him that we had multiple stream crossings not to mention two mountain passes in front of us. “Maybe we wait a few days and re-think this” I suggested. Charles, ever the optimist, decided that the owner (an accomplished mountaineer in his own right) had no idea what we was talking about. “We are going!” Charles said.
It was 3pm and we had just pulled into a relatively empty dirt parking at the trailhead. As we unloaded gear from Charles’ Subaru, I noticed a hiker coming off the trail. As he approached, I noticed a pair of alpine skis lashed to his back. As he dropped his pack he released a loud sigh of relief. I asked him where he had come from. He pointed in the direction we were heading and said: “Just returning from my last backcountry ski trip of the year.” He went on for a few minutes but I stopped listening after I heard “ski trip.” I looked over at Charles, his head shaking as if he knew what I was going to say. “We’re still going” he affirmed.
At 4:30pm we hit the trail. The afternoon’s goal was to cover 9 miles, the last portion of which would have us cross the stream that turned the boy scout troop around a week earlier. At 8:30pm, we arrived at the crossing; it was going to be deep. After 20 minutes of analysis, we removed our boots, unclipped our pack belts, locked arms and stepped in. At the mid-point it was waist deep and swift. “Nothing like an evening stream crossing to wrap up the first day” I said to Charles as we inched our way to the other side.
Day two of the trek started at 8am. We enjoyed some hot oatmeal while we stared up at the pass we would have to climb some 10 miles ahead in the distance. For the next couple hours the hike was relatively easy. The trail was well marked and relatively dry. Quickly, however, that changed. The gradual increase in elevation gave way to snow drifts in spots that were out of reach of the mid-day sun. In what felt like the blink of an eye, we had lost the trail. We kept moving in hopes of stumbling out of the snow but the trail was nowhere to be found. We spent the better part of 2 hours zigzagging back and forth looking for the slightest hint of a trail but nothing. We finally split up and I took to high ground hoping that I’d be able to see through the trees and to the pass which we could use as our visual guide. Another 30 minutes of climbing later, the trees parted just enough to give me a glimpse of the pass. After a mile of bushwhacking we were back on the trail. Finally, we were above timberline which made for much easier travel. We could stay on the trail or take a more direct line at the pass. We chose to take the most direct line possible thinking that it would cut out distance and time from our trek. A good idea on paper but not in practice. Over the next few hours we would encounter 6 streams. All were small, but each was just deep enough to require us to take off our boots to cross. That in and of itself was a 5-10 minute process as we wanted to ensure our feet stayed dry which is critical on a multi-day trip. When we finally reached the base of the pass we broke for lunch. More importantly, we needed to strategize on how best to get over the pass whose elevation was 11,600 feet. There was no trail and the approach was littered with boulders the size of small cars and poured granite faces. We decided we could pick our way one by one up and over the boulder field which would keep us clear from the slick and exposed sheets of granite. The process was arduous but effective and most of all safe. I would climb a boulder, Charles would pass up the packs and then he would climb up. After a couple hours, we hit the summit.
Reaching the top of the pass was a mental victory that marked the halfway point of our trek. This feeling of relief did not last long… When we peered over the north facing side of the pass were crushed by the sight of snow. It wasn’t the patchy areas we’d trudged through the past few days. This was a thick blanket that covered everything almost as far as we could see. Even the lakes were covered and nearly undiscernible as bodies of water. We took the opportunity to have another snack and orient ourselves.
The snowfield that lay ahead was daunting to say the least. What’s more is that there were few identifiable landmarks. Said differently, our orientation skills were being put to the test. The route down the pass and through the snow was slow and exhausting. The sun was high and the snow was soft. As a result, we sank to our knee with every other step we took.
After an hour, we decided to take a more direct route down. When we finally reached the bottom we looked back up at our tracks. Unknowingly, we had taken a route directly above an exposed cliff. In retrospect, we should have come with crampons and ice axes as one misstep could have ended the trip (or worse). We ended our 12 hour day back below the snow line and next to a lake at about 10,000 feet. As I tried to fall asleep that night all I could think about was getting to the lake the next day and wondering if it would all be worth it.
The next morning our stove broke… No hot water, no warm food…. We decided to hang the stove and any food we would not need for the next couple days in a tree and pick it up on our way back. In the grand scheme of things, the loss of the stove wasn’t a big deal but it was mentally crushing at the time as we choked down the dry, cold oatmeal.
Day three would involve a massive boulder field as far as the eye could see and to the top of our final pass. There was no trail from this point forward and we would spend the next 4 hours using our hiking poles to pole-vault from boulder to boulder as we inched our way up the pass.
As we reached the top of the pass and looked down, we were finally greeted by a lush green landscape littered with emerald green lakes below. One of these had to be our lake I told myself. At the base of our final pass was a medium sized lake and an outflow. Charles was convinced that the outflow would lead us to our lake. Delirious from the past three days of physical and mental punishment, I was skeptical but put my head down and followed him.
As the stream’s gradient mellowed, slowly but surely it transformed into a gentle stream that ultimately lay so flat that it reminded me of a Pennsylvania spring creek. As we approached the lake into which this steam was flowing I looked down. My hair stood on end and I screamed to Charles “We’re here!!!!! We found it!!!!” At my feet, in a small stream no wonder than 3 feet, lay an 18-inch golden trout. Jackpot!
The adrenaline was now pumping. We jumped across the braided sections and to the edge of the lake and dumped our packs and furiously began to string our rods. We spent the next few hours walking the edge of the lake taking note of all the spots that might hold decent populations of fish. Halfway around the lake we found another inflow and below it a rocky flat where fish were cruising. We had seen enough, it was time to wet our lines. That evening was one of the more memorable fishing experiences of my life.
At first, the fishing was easy and we were able to hook fish on small attractor patterns. All the fish were beautifully colored but most were in the 12 inch range and not the trophy-sized tout we had envisioned in our planning stages. Reluctantly, I tied on a scud pattern and launched into the deep blue depths. After a couple short and deliberate strips the line went taught. We had cracked the code…
Charles was quick to get on the scud program on cast to a fish cruising the shoreline. A beautiful male that moved several feet to attack his fly.
As the sun set, we reluctantly reeled up and returned to our packs to set up camp. We spent the next day and a half exploring the lake, sight fishing to cruising fish and marveling in what we knew was a very special place.
After two incredible days on the water the realities of "real life" and the long hike out descended on us. Fuel by amazing memories of the fish and the journey as a whole, we made it back to our car in half the time.