The day starts early well before the dawn. It comes with a hangover from the night before. The wind has already begun to blow down from the north and brings a bite of cold hinting of snow in the high country. Neil and I brave the morning chill and make our way to the Hiouchi Cafe for our customary breakfast. Before us, yet another day of winter steelheading on the fabled Smith. The rain that was forecast to fall during the night has disappeared somewhere out over the Pacific, but the sky still threatens, and we take it for a good omen of what might come. We head north up the 199 to a familiar spot, constantly breaking our necks to look down and see the river below as we pass the usual haunts. The boys are on it this morning; the tell-tale 4x4 in every pull out signifying that below is a good run and the fish are in.
It is always with nail biting apprehension that we come to our destination. Constantly craning to see above the last slope in the dirt road trying to spot the glint of metal that will signal we've been had by the earlier bird. On this day we prevail and are alone when we park and prepare to hike in. It has become a kind of ritual rigging up here. We must be fast, less we talk the better, for we both know one day we'll be right in the middle of putting around when a caravan of gut-slingers will come down the road and snake us. That'll be the day.
It's a decent hike in, with enough gain in elevation to keep you honest about your health. The perfect remedy for my hangover. From time to time we take pause to rest, and from this vantage we can see dark clouds mounting in the west.
"We might get soaked today."
We trudge on, two pilgrims on their way to the promise land. It really did feel as such, for we had both done well fishing this water the month prior. Both of us had fought and lost fish that neither of us will likely ever forget. The Smith held true to her solemn promise of offering up creatures that defy all expectations to those who are willing to put in their time and effort and pay their dues.
We make our descent and come upon the middle run, the best of the three, and rest under the cover of a madrone. It feels like it could start pouring rain at any moment. It would be welcomed, for the river is low and clear, and that is not making either of us brim with confidence.
"I'll walk up and fish the top and give you the middle. When we're done swinging this stuff I'll show you where that fish grabbed and broke me off."
An hour or so goes by. We meet up at the madrone and stare down into the run below.
Neil shows me where he hooked his fish and we go through the play-by-play of the fight as we meander down the cobble towards the end of the gravel bar.
"He took me right through all of those willows there, ha! I was sweating my ass off dude, the reel was screaming! I thought I was going to break Mike's rod. And then I started to scramble up those rocks there and I got to that point way out there."
He points down river to a rocky outcropping that juts out into a swirling back eddy. Below are rapids that spell certain death if one were to slip.
" I think my skagit head wrapped around that big rock out there. That's where he came off. Once it's summer time I bet I can swim out there and get my line back."
"Your line's gone man."
Standing there, we can just start to make out the hint of the next gravel bar and run down river from us. Normally, if the water was up, you wouldn't dare take on such a scramble for what could amount to peanuts. On this day, however, it might be just what the doctor ordered. You can only fish new water once, so why not. It's hard immediately. An arduous one step pivot and step affair. The river rages right beneath our feet as we boulder hop, it's relentless torrent drowning out any sound but that of itself. We come to a dead end and march upward, finding a game trail along a narrow ridge that leads us into a heavily wooded flat 100 ft above the river. Neil is ahead of me and comes upon it first. He stands back and waits until I am beside him and we both stare through the alder and huckleberry brush in absolute disbelief and amazement. The skeleton of a dead bear lays before us. As we step closer the leaf litter starts to squirm and it takes a moment to realize that dozens of newts are retreating from their feast. There are mushrooms erupting from the soil where the flesh of the animal has rotted away, and its claws litter the ground and shine like alabaster in the dappled half light of the afternoon. We stand and look at the skeleton for what seems like a long time without saying anything at all. It was as if we were stealing a glance at something that was never meant to be seen. The bear lay in such a place so hidden away from the rest of the world that it may never have been discovered or known of by anyone, save for the other animals. We felt like wild men, like we were pioneers. We were earning our stripes as steelheaders out in the last bastion of unmolested country and it had given us a glimpse of one of its most closely guarded secrets. We stood there above the Smith and beheld the tomb of a god.
We fished the run below, dead bear run, and had no luck. The days end fast in the winter months, and it was with sudden haste we made ready to hike out. As we ascended the ridge the clouds started to push in right on top of us. One moment the weather would be in so thick you couldn't see but ten feet ahead of you, and then it would suddenly break open, giving a view of the entirety of the river and valley below. It was grand. Out in the western sky you could see the sun was making ready to set over the Pacific. Neil had gotten a good ways ahead of me on the trail, and every once in a while I would look up and see him and he would turn and look back and gesture with a shrug and a smile as if to say does it really get any better than this?
Not a chance.