Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Four-Letter Words That Start With "F"


The putrid smell emanating from the trunk of the car was overwhelming, especially considering the heat -- it had to have been close to 100 degrees this fine May afternoon. The San Fernando Valley hummed with the sound of half-a-million air conditioners purring like wildcats, the streets eerily quiet in the searing, unseasonable heat.

As I quickly pulled away from the open trunk – my eyes actually stinging from the ammonia-and-body-odor stench wafting upward in deadly waves – I blindly grabbed the pair of hot, stinking boots and flung them across the wall, landing with a clatter in the dumpster of the apartment building next door.

I can always get a new pair,” I rationalized.

As I continued unpacking the car, an assemblage of various smelly items thrust themselves into my range of perception: one blood-and-sweat-stained t-shirt, four extremely foul wool socks (dried to a stiff, leathery consistency), the aforementioned stinky boots, a befouled hand-towel, one pair of exceptionally filthy and torn pants, and the smoldering wreckage of what appeared to have once been boxer shorts.

Based on the smell alone, I could tell someone had had themselves one heck of a good time.

The High Country Slam

My buddy Joe is one of those rare gentlemen who dreams of remote canyons and small-but-gorgeous wild trout; he’s also one of the few people I know who possesses the skills -- and mindset – to successfully access those ridiculous locations where all the primary conditions are met. It seems logical that over the past couple of years we’ve developed a rapport, and, quite frankly, we’re becoming one heck of a team – between the two of us, there’s been no backcountry situation we haven’t been able to figure out.

So far, anyway.

When I recently mentioned 4-Letter Creek to Joe, I should’ve known he’d come up with a plan – there’s something about the way his eyes glaze over when we’re talking about new, uncharted waters; you can tell the tumblers are turning somewhere behind those piercing black eyes.

When I received an email from him a couple of days later, I had to chuckle: Joe’s plan for a local High Country Slam – complete with a stop at the rarely-visited 4-Letter Creek – was picture-perfect; genius, if I may be so presumptuous.

Here’s the plan he presented:

Wednesday afternoon we’d meet up at a local campground, arrange a car shuttle between two different trailheads (about 15 road miles apart), eat BBQ, and drink brews; Thursday we’d hike up the BBC (aka Baby Brown Creek) fishing along the way to gorgeous Kuni Lake; Friday, we’d bushwhack our way to 4-Letter Creek and explore the fishery; Saturday we’d further explore and fish 4-Letter Creek, then hike to Rainbow Creek Divide late that afternoon; Sunday, we’d fish Rainbow Creek before completing the shuttle and returning home.

All told, the plan involved three watersheds (the “slam” would consist of catching fish from each stream), one high-country lake, 4,500’+ elevation gain and loss, and 20+ miles of backcountry walking, much of it across deep tongues of late-season snow and barely-seen trace trails winding through oceans of buckthorn.

It sounded like fun.

Day 1 -- BBC Creek to Kuni Lake

Here’s a bit of advice I can offer you, the prospective High Country Slammer: never party like a rock star the night before a slog.

I awoke Thursday morning accompanied by dry heaves and an achy, pounding head; I felt disoriented, dimwitted, discouraged. Vague memories of a roaring campfire and several bottled beers washed down with Vicoden danced in what was left of my brain. Regretfully, I had to decline the breakfast of sausage, eggs and hash browns Joe thoughtfully prepared – I could barely breathe, let alone eat.

However, there’s nothing better than a five-mile uphill walk with a 35 lb. backpack strapped to a pair of aching shoulders to purge evil toxins from the body, and, by the time Joe and I reached the BBC late that morning, I was starting to feel like myself again – my senses were working overtime and I was feeling near-human. That could mean only one thing: time to fish.

The BBC is a tiny, meandering stream that flows year-round with a chip on its shoulder; it sports the attitude of a much larger river. It is, in a word, a smartass. Its combination of wide-open waters and brush-choked tunnels make it both a joy and a challenge to fish. As Joe led us a mile or so down the garden path – sunshine splashing down on clear waters, robins and blue jays soaring above – I spied deep pools and gnarly runs: perfect trout habitat.

The BBC was strictly dry fly water, so we both tied on fluffy #18-ish patterns, mine an EHC, Joe’s a hand-tied custom Humpy. It wasn’t long before Joe let out a whoop and landed a couple of colorful miniature browns:

(Photo by Joe)

(Photo by Joe)

With that, it was game on, and I proceeded to dial it in after a few frustrating pools where the brush got the best of me. As always, it takes a little time to adjust to having a fly rod in my hand, especially in tight, small confines, but I rose to the challenge. In one aggressively splashy pool, I hooked into a sweet brownie that bent my rod like a fish twice its size, and fought like a steelie:

(Photo by Joe)

With phase one of the slam complete, my now-grumbling stomach cried – screamed, actually -- for nourishment, so we broke for lunch on a streamside boulder, watching trout rise to naturals under the shimmering pines, the canyon awash in warm breezes carrying the scent of juniper and sage.

Duly nourished, we headed up the ever-climbing trail to our destination for the night, Kuni Lake, resting high in a mountain-enclosed bowl:

(Photo by Joe)

This picture was actually taken three days later as we made our way to Rainbow Creek; on this first day on the trail, we’d hiked up the draw and valley visible just above the lake proper, losing the trail to snowdrifts in places:

(Photo by Joe)

Once camp was established, Joe surprised me by preparing a meal consisting of skirt steak, fried potatoes, homemade red beans, fresh grated cheese, and sliced fresh avocado, all wrapped in a steaming flour tortilla – heaven on earth (thanks, dude!). After dinner, I brought out the Barcardi 151 and we sipped tea and rum, marveling at the view spread out before us:

(Photo by Joe)

It had been a gorgeous day with six long, uphill trail miles underfoot, and I slept soundly as a near-full moon illuminated the valley for the better part of the night.

Day 2 -- Kuni Lake to 4-Letter Creek

Awakening early on a frosty morning at altitude has a way of kicking things into high gear; after a quick hot breakfast (consisting mainly of leftovers from the night before), Joe and I saddled up, anticipating a tough snow-slog up to a high-altitude saddle. We’d brought crampons in case the steep slope was totally buried in snow, but we somehow managed to make it to the saddle without them by navigating carefully and avoiding any direct exposure. Eventually, we reached the saddle only to find waist-high sun cups everywhere:

(Photo by Joe)

Beautiful to look at, but another story altogether to traverse. The things we do for trout...

Cresting the saddle was a milestone for us; we’d been unable to gather any good beta on the snow conditions up that way beforehand, so we were both sweating it out; not cresting the saddle meant not making it to 4-Letter Creek, and neither one of us was having any of that.

Things took a turn for the better on the other side, where, after a handful of relatively easy miles, we crested another saddle and were immediately greeted with our first views of not only 4-Letter Creek, but far-off desert vistas as well:

(Photo by Joe)

Then things got a little weird; you know the old saying: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

You see, below the second saddle, there is supposedly – key word: suppose – a trace trail leading two miles to 4-Letter Creek and its lovely streamside camp. However, try as we might, we were unable to locate the track – there was simply too much brush and not enough trail. So we bushwhacked down the left side of the canyon as shown in the photo above. Down, down, down we trekked, battling manzanita, buckthorn, and unstable scree slopes.

With the weather warming and our water getting scarce, we plodded onward, eventually reaching a small meadow where we collapsed in the inviting, soft spring grass. After a brief rest, we scanned the canyon and recognized what appeared to be a landmark indicating 4-Letter Creek camp, just across the meadow on the other side of a small draw.


Revitalized, we headed off on what we thought would be an easy jaunt into camp and wild trout.

Unfortunately, the short distance to camp was fraught with buckthorn, a nasty plant that can cover acres of land with its tough, spiny limbs. Here’s what the trail looked like from where we stood:

(Photo by Joe)

Incidentally, we’re both still sporting dozens of cuts and scrapes from the experience – it wouldn’t be the last time we’d have to “swim” the buckthorn, please believe.

All bad things eventually come to an end, however, and, a half-hour later, we finally reached 4-Letter Creek camp, a sweet little flat spread out among the Jeffrey pines and willows, complete with a small, sparkling tributary running alongside. We dropped our packs, rehydrated, refueled, and rested. I watched as a hummingbird chased away sparrows while a hawk circled overhead; deer watched the spectacle from afar.

I’ve always had a fascination with this watershed: it’s remote, difficult country, somewhat dry and sporting desert influences, but something about the place intrigued me. No one I’ve ever known has been there, let alone fished it, and neither Joe nor I knew for sure if it contained a population of wild trout. A major reason for this trip was to find out for certain.

As late afternoon approached, we gathered ourselves for our initial recon of 4-Letter Creek. Optimistically rigged for trout, we slowly made our way through the brambles downstream, occasionally catching glimpses of the gathering creek below:

(Photo by Joe)

It wasn’t too much longer before Joe stopped dead in his tracks, pointing to a sweet little pool far below. He simply whispered, “Trout.” There, in the gravel-strewn tail-out, were two 10” trout holding side-by-side in the current, lazily sipping naturals off the surface. It was a joyous sight, let me assure you, and, with renewed vigor, we continued another ¼ mile downstream and began plying the waters of 4-Letter Creek.

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

(Photo by Joe)

Ah, the sweet, fishy smell of success!

We made our way slowly upstream, catching fish left, right and center, all of them exceptionally colorful, some closely matching the red-orange rocks of the streambed. Conditions were among the tightest I’d ever fished, but we managed a fine, fun afternoon down there, laughing, alternating turns at various fishy locations, and having an absolute blast.

This, my friends, is Black Diamond trout fishing at its best.

With phase two of the slam complete, we stumbled into camp at dusk, exhausted from a long day’s work, enjoying a piping-hot dinner under a canopy of twinkling stars; below us, the lights of some anonymous small desert community sparkled on the horizon. After a couple of very strong tea and rums, we felt like we were standing on the edge of the planet.

Perhaps we were...

Day 3 -- 4-Letter Creek to Rainbow Creek Divide

Awakening at first light, the plan was to explore 4-Letter Creek as far downstream as possible. We both knew -- based on the prior day’s experience -- the going would be difficult at best. After sufficiently exploring, we’d head back up to the crest and proceed to Rainbow Creek Divide. But first, downstream beckoned.

We made it as far as we had the prior day with relative ease, but going further down-canyon proved to be a test of wills. If we weren’t swimming through buckthorn, we were battling walls of willows; if we weren’t dodging willows, we’d be navigating steep drop-offs and crumbling slopes. “A twisted ankle here would be a kiss of death,” I told myself -- repeatedly.

It was the buckthorn, however, that proved the most difficult obstacle. One could actually walk on top of the stuff if one had sufficient momentum; however, loss of said momentum resulted in being stranded in a sea of thorns:

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

Suffice to say it took a solid three hours to “hike” perhaps a mile down canyon. Even then, the stream remained discouragingly out of reach, hidden behind walls of dense undergrowth and impassable deadfall. We managed to find one of the more accessible pools, where we took turns drifting dry flies downstream; here’s the pool with me being stealthy:

(Photo by Joe)

Looks like fun, doesn’t it?

The pool turned out to be loaded with fish and, much like the prior day, we had absolutely no problem enticing willing trout from the waters. As morning stretched into afternoon, we battled our way back to camp (fishing wherever possible), intent on resting up for the long slog back up the mountain.

Around 2:30PM or thereabouts, we shouldered our packs and bid a fond farewell to little 4-Letter Creek, both of us certain we’d never pass this way again, happy with our efforts in proving the existence of fish in the drainage.

Retracing our steps through the buckthorn sea, we reached the soft-grass meadow, then set about finding an “easier” way back up the canyon. On the west wall we managed to locate a semi-decent trace trail, which, thankfully, crossed a few snow tongues; in the afternoon heat, the snow was a lifesaver (supposedly, it was 105 degrees in the basin that day). A hat-full of crunchy water made for a much cooler trek up the slope.

(Photo by Joe)

By 5:00PM, we’d reached the crest; we debated spending the night here – we were utterly exhausted, mind you -- but instead decided to continue three more miles to Rainbow Creek Divide. This stretch was marked by the largest snow obstacles of the entire trip, and, once again, we managed to stay on trail through the snow without the aid of crampons. Occasionally we’d post-hole, plunging thigh-deep through the drifts; getting out was always an event. But, as new vistas began to unfold before us, we found the energy to continue.

(Photo by Joe)

We reached high altitude Rainbow Creek Divide at 7:30PM, battle-scarred and weary; there’d be no tea and rum this night. Instead, we hastily rigged our camps, melted snow and filtered water, made our last trail dinners of the trip, and watched the valley in the west turn yellow, orange, pink, and, finally, a deep blue-black. We both hit the sack while there were still traces of light, grateful for the end of a long, entirely thrilling day.

Tomorrow, the adventure would come to an end.

Day 4 -- Rainbow Creek Divide to Rainbow Creek

The genius of Joe’s plan was that this final day would be relatively easy – just under 6 trail miles, most of ‘em all downhill, featuring one last drainage to fish: Rainbow Creek.

We arose at first light, anxious to hit the trail. A warm, gorgeous morning accompanied us as new vistas unfolded with every step:

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

Switchbacking our way down the mountain, the miles flew by, and, by 9:00AM or so, we reached Rainbow Creek, a tiny little thing that, frankly, had me wondering if it had any fish in it at all.

(Photo by Joe)

It turns out we had nothing to worry about. According to what now seemed like a divine plan, it didn’t take Joe too long before he had a fish on, a sweet little wild trout with colors to die for:

(Photo by Joe)

As Joe dialed it in, I once again found myself in a battle with the brush; these high country streams are anything but easy. We came upon an absolutely spectacular pool, shrouded in brush, looking to be about 3 feet deep – a monster pool on this little trickle. We both knew there had to be fish in there, so we took turns working the waters. Eventually I landed my final gem of the trip:

(Photo by Joe)

And with that, the slam was complete. Mission accomplished:

It was an easy walk back to the waiting shuttle car, and, in no time flat, we’d made it back to Joe’s truck, where we shared a well-earned ice cold beer under the pines. Down in the valley below, cheeseburgers and burritos awaited, as well as showers and soft, comfy couches in front of television sets.

All in all, it had been one of the toughest -- yet most rewarding -- backpacking trips I’ve ever embarked upon. Great company, fantastic scenery, lots of new backcountry explored and charted, and wild, willing So. Cal. trout.

Stinky boots aside, what more could a man ask for?

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