This story was published in Wyoming Wildlife magazine in March 2006.
It was 1970 and I was driving my new Bronco home from the dealership. My first four wheel drive! No longer would I be confined to the road, forced to fish where others fished. Now I could go ANYWHERE! Bear in mind this was before the SUV craze. Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems everyone has 4WD. But in 1970 if you wanted to fish any distance from a road you usually had to [gasp!] walk.
Our annual family vacation out west would be coming up soon. We always stayed for ten days at a “guest ranch” located on a state highway. Until now my father-in-law and I had done most of our fishing close to a black top road. In fact the highway paralleled the river for several miles. The roadside was public access but we had permission to fish the private water on the other side. But those little blue spots on the topo maps, high mountain lakes up where the elevation lines were close together, had always beckoned seductively to us. Small streams with names like Little Alder Creek, Lime Spring Branch, Dead Man Run … names that fairly screamed I AM FULL OF TROUT… all these places and more would now be accessible to us.
I began to subscribe to off-road magazines with cover photos of Jeeps, Broncos, and Land Cruisers high in the air, bouncing at high speeds off huge boulders. I could never get enough of those photos of off-road trucks with huge, aggressive tires, roll bars, and jerry cans of extra gasoline strapped to the rear.
I sent away to state game and fish departments for maps, brochures about National Forests, anything I could find that would enlarge our list of remote fishing spots. Doc and I studied them for hours, looking for exotic, hard-to-reach lakes and streams that would be ideal for day trips. We needed places where we could leave early in the morning, arrive at the chosen lake or stream, fish for several hours, then return in time for dinner. This was after all a family vacation. No sense unnecessarily antagonizing the women folk, who would be left all day to care for the children.
One of the many things I loved about my father-in-law was that he had somehow hung onto that boyish quality that most sixty-five year olds have long sense lost. I marveled at how a man thirty years my senior could get as excited as a small boy.
After much discussion we chose a small body of water with the enticing name of Lost Lake. The name reverberated through our fish brains like a number ten Royal Coachman being snapped off on a bad back cast. Lost Lake appeared to nestle snugly in a small meadow between two ten thousand foot peaks. The lake apparently covered about twenty acres and was just remote enough to make it interesting. Actually it wasn’t “off road” in the strictest sense. According to the legend on the Forest Service map we would leave the highway a few miles from our guest ranch and travel steeply up-hill about fifteen miles on a winding solid black line which indicated a gravel road. The solid black line would then become a dotted line indicating a Jeep trail. In other words there would be no one there who DIDN’T HAVE FOUR WHEEL DRIVE! Or maybe a horse.
Giddy with anticipation, we got up early the next morning, packed our tackle and lunch and headed for the high country. On the way we discussed our plan of attack. The trout in Lost Lake, probably native cutthroats or brookies, would be very shy, having never seen a human before. We would have to stop and rig up quite a ways from the water, then crawl on our bellies through the grass and, without getting too close, lob our flys onto the water, then wait for the unsuspecting trout to fight each other to see who could reach the tasty morsel first. We should also keep our eyes peeled for bears and the occasional mountain lion.
Our excitement grew as the road turned to gravel. We rolled the windows down so we could smell the cool mountain air. As we approached the fifteen-mile mark I checked to see if I knew how to engage 4WD as I had never actually done it before. Doc began to think aloud about which fly we should try first, a hopper pattern or a Rio Grand King.
Fifteen miles of gravel road came and went… and we were still on gravel. “So what?” I thought. The fifteen-mile distance was only an approximation. We’d be hitting that Jeep trail any minute. Probably just around the next hairpin curve.
I glanced at the odometer. “We’ve been on gravel for twenty-five miles now”, I said. Doc puzzled over the map in silence as we rounded one more curve and ascended higher and higher into the mountains, the smooth gravel road lined on both sides by tall pines and aspens. Something didn’t seem right.
The exact moment when you learn your plans have gone awry is not always apparent. Sometimes it creeps up on you. But not this time. A little girl, no more than ten years old, came roaring around the next curve toward us on a tiny motor scooter, her blond ponytail flying out behind her. She waved as she sped downhill past us and we rounded the curve and saw, for the first time, Lost Lake.
“Check the map again”, said Doc. “Maybe this isn’t it”.
I stopped the Bronco and grabbed the map off the console and stared at it.
“It’s gotta be”, I said. “But what happened to the Jeep trail? We could have driven up here in your Buick!”
A wooden Forest Service sign near the shore confirmed the bad news. This was, unfortunately, Lost Lake.
The lake was indeed nestled between two high peaks. And the scenery was beautiful. But the near side was lined with motor homes and camper trailers, some apparently pulled by low-slung family sedans. Fords, Chevvies, and Caddies. Someone had set up a net and two families were playing a heated game of badminton. The metallic clang of horseshoes hitting a post could be heard above the sound of several boom boxes in noisy competition with one another. Small children floated and splashed on inner tubes and colorful plastic rafts near the shore. Senior citizens rested in aluminum lawn chairs along the bank. Some of them dozed or read newspapers, their casting rods propped in forked sticks in front of them. Another child raced past us on a motor scooter and several boys zoomed about on bicycles. A toddler stood in a playpen as his mom sipped a can of beer and rigged up a heavy casting rod with prepared trout bait on a treble hook. I looked down at the nearby shore and saw one small dead rainbow trout, floating belly-up in the water, impaled on a large metal stringer secured to a tackle box.
The far shore of Lost Lake was steeper than this side but only slightly less congested. The newly graveled road completely encircled the lake and campgrounds full of happy campers were marked with neat wooden signs. One man appeared to be changing the oil in his Plymouth. A launching ramp at the far end was crowded with boats and trailers, some just now launching, others coming out. Several fishermen in boats appeared to be dozing on the water’s surface.
A green Fish and Game department pick-up rolled slowly toward us on the gravel road, stirring up a white cloud of caliche dust. The game warden was coming from the launching ramp where he had apparently been checking licenses and bag limits. He pulled his truck along side my Bronco.
“Why so glum, Fellas?” he asked, giving us a friendly smile. “It’s a great day to be out and about.”
I showed him our map and asked him about the Jeep trail.
“Oh, that”, he said, handing the map back to me. That’s the old 1963 map. He reached into the glove compartment and handed us a crisp, neatly folded new one.
“Take this one”, he offered. “This road was graveled clear to the lake two years ago. The county grades it and re-gravels it often because as you can see it gets a lot of traffic.” He opened the pick-up door, got out and leaned against the Bronco fender.
“If you plan to fish I’ll check your licenses if you don’t mind”.
Doc and I looked at one another. We had fished together long enough to read each other’s minds.
“Nope”, I said. “I think we’ll just try to get in on the badminton game.”
“Or maybe pitch some horse shoes”, added Doc.