Managing Expectations: More on my Travel Out West

June 2022

On my trip out to California, my flight arrived in Reno late in the day. Notwithstanding the time distance in my favor, the experience at the airport was a bit unsettling. First of all, from the minute I exited the plane I was never more than a few feet from a slot machine. I can understand gambling at casinos but at the airline arrival gates? It was Reno but slots on the way to the men’s room?

The ride to Downieville was easy. The traffic out of Reno during rush hour was not the Long Island Expressway, that is it didn’t seem like much traffic at all. The exit into the valley was like an off ramp to the wilderness. I opened the windows in my rental car to take in the fresh mountain air. With Frank Sinatra on the Sirius radio I was in heaven. Cruising along with one eye on the GPS the time seemed to pass quickly as I headed to my accommodations at The Lure.

The Lure is not a hotel but a scenic arrangement of cabins along the Yuba River. I found my cabin attractive and well-furnished and looked forward to falling into bed. My first surprise was when I read in the list of Lure details and learned there was no wifi or cell service at the site. I sat myself down on the sofa and took a deep breath. Was this good or bad I thought to myself. Good—no one to bother me. Bad– withdrawal from life as I know it? I would deal with the issue in the morning. I live by an Apple watch and I phone. I went ahead and plugged all my gadgets into power, ready for whatever was to come in the morning. I was scheduled to meet Bill Copren for breakfast at Bassetts, a diner-service station about 45 minutes north on Route 49, followed by a day of fishing. Without cell service I had no GPS. Oh well, I would find the place as Ali had given me brief directions.

Of course, I set my travel alarm for 7:00 am forgetting that it was 2 hours earlier. In fact I arose without an alarm, at 5:30 a.m. Eastern time. The cabin came with a coffee maker but no groceries. Despite Ali’s admonishment that she outfit the cabin in advance of my arrival with basics, I, the big shot, told her I would handle groceries when I arrived. Of course, I didn’t realize the grocery store was in the opposite direction of Bassetts. I arrived at Bassetts before it opened at 8:00am and waited for someone to open the door. As soon as the “closed” sign was turned to “open” I stumbled in, in search of my first coffee of the day. Whoa am I addicted! Bill soon showed up and we sat together chatting about fishing and catching. I repeatedly told him I came to fish and catching was extra. I don’t think he bought my line. We left together in his truck to Gold Lake, off Route 49 in the mountains. Bill explained that Gold Lake got its name from the rumors that spread during the gold rush years, that there were massive deposits of the yellow ore beneath the lake floor. It drew hundreds of hopefuls but the rumors proved to be just that.

We approached the lake through a magnificent row of fir trees pruned by nature to form a canopy over our path. As we parked and pulled on our waders, we noticed an elderly couple – as a cohort I know how to define elderly—carefully rowing off into the middle of the lake. The sun beamed overhead between the high clouds, the sky pierced with contrails of passing jets. The woods teemed with life, including some busy blue jays hunting for breakfast. It was a peaceful, idyllic scene.

Bill and I waded chest deep into the water. The cold penetrated my feet and the shock was refreshing. The air temperature was in the 50’s and the water no more than 45 degrees per Bill’s reading. We were the only fishermen for some reason. After a while with no takes, Bill decided we should go to Mallard Cove at Davis Lake. Still no takes, but our time together was grand – a fishing and history lesson. Bill was a meticulous fly tier and we used the flies he had personally tied. The next day we traveled a distance to the Little Truckee River, where I went in barefoot in my wading boots. The water was icy cold and I cast with a 5-weight rod that allowed for a terrific drift. There was no action, but the stream was a delightful soft run of casual water that I am certain on the right day held lots of brook trout.

My time with Bill was a wonderful opportunity to not only hear but experience the history of the High Sierras. Bassett Station, where we met for breakfast, was a way station, since the 1850s, where horses were changed when pulling wagons over and through the Yuba Pass. Bill explained how a gold miner from Connecticut named AP Chapman discovered the valley in the 1800s and after a successful run of mining brought his family west to settle there permanently. He was the largest landowner in the area and is considered the founder of the Valley. In 1859 the Comstock Lode was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada and the miners abandoned the Downieville area.

There are still a few local gold mines, but not like they were in the heyday of the ‘49ers. The old mining towns exist today as Downieville, Sierra City, and many others. The rich history of the area is preserved by people like Carl and Bill, who keep it alive through word of mouth and through The Mountain Messenger – a nostalgic tribute to a wonderful pocket of American history.

Here in Downieville

June 2022

I spent last week in the High Sierras visiting with the owner-editor-publisher of The Mountain Messenger, Carl Butz.  It was a trip I had planned to take back in 2020 before the pandemic set in.  Finally, this spring I was able to comfortably plan a visit with Carl and explore the area that I briefly visited some 12 years ago with my good friend Gere, who was celebrating his 70th birthday with a trip to the California National Parks.  This time I was motivated to talk with Carl and learn more about the area surrounding Downieville, which is the center of Sierra County, and to explore some of the mountain wilderness.  My visit more than met my expectations.  Not only did I spend evening time with Carl, but he introduced me to one of his close friends, Bill Copren, who grew up in the area.  Bill was tasked with taking me exploring and fishing which we did together for a couple of days with enthusiasm. Not only did Bill give me a history lesson of the area but drove me through some of the most dramatic mountain ranges in North America.  I visited Sierra City and Truckee, all of which were within reasonable driving distance of my cabin on the Yuba River.  I urge those of you who read the Messenger from afar to visit the Downieville area.  The town is a classic, northern California gold rush town with lots of history.  Many of the buildings are historical sites occupied by local retailers of sports equipment, morning coffee, bars, and a grocery store.  Downieville, as county center, brings morning traffic from points north and south.  I took away from my trip a better understanding of Carl’s goal in purchasing and bringing back to life the paper.  “Nostalgia” responds Carl to my query about why subscribers and readers both local and far away read his weekly paper.  Of course, local news is important, but the history of the area prompts readers as well.  Carl’s enthusiasm for providing both a service of local interest as well as the historical aspect is palpable. Caffeinating with Carl on the second-floor porch of his office, we spoke of the importance of maintaining a weekly paper with local news.  Coming off an interview about the Supervisor race for the county job, Carl was focused on the positions taken by the candidates.  Over 40 locals participated in the session where the candidates answered questions and stated their positions on issues that are similar to those in races throughout our land—gun control, the environment, climate warming and affordable housing.  Carl’s reporting in last week’s paper articulated the views of many of the participants.  Those of us who cherish the free press and liberties associated with the right to express our opinions are fortunate to still have people like Carl who invest their time and money to preserve a local paper.  P.S. For my readers, including my friend Arnie, who were praying for me to catch a salmon on my last afternoon of fishing the Restigouche in Quebec – I am sorry to report I was “skunked.”   I tried Arnie!

Fishing Paradise Valley with Kara

March 2022

As anyone reading my columns know, I have long had a special fascination with the state of Montana–its history, its landscape and its unparalleled opportunities. Last night I watched the final episode of the Paramount television series, 1883, which follows a frontier family on their long journey to Montana. To my surprise, Paradise Valley was their last stop– the final resting place for Ilse, the main character. I know Paradise River Valley well from several visits over the years, including a fishing trip with my eldest daughter, Kara, in 1992. Kara had avoided the trip her sister Brooke and I took to the Bob Marsha It Wilderness Area in Montana a few years earlier. Our enthusiastic reports afterward of our many adventures may have swayed her, as had the photos from another trip with my nephew to the chalk streams in Yellowstone. This time, when I had the itch to go back to the Valley, Kara was all in. She wanted to experience it for herself-to see “Big Sky Country” and to learn flyfishing.

I was delighted with her change of heart and vowed our time together on this trip would be special. We left New York and landed in Bozeman, Montana, rented a car at the airport and drove west on Highway 90–a long stretch of road running east-west–turning off at Route 89 into Livingston. The town of Livingston is at the northern entrance to the Valley and at the time, some 30 years ago, it was nothing more than an old run-down movie theater, a vintage hotel, a grocery– and one of the best fly­fishing outfitters in the west. We stopped in town to stock up on groceries and fishing supplies and then headed to our home base. I had secured a comfortable, furnished cabin to rent near the trailhead to the mountains. Our view from the cabin picture windows was the magnificent Gallatin Range –the western flank of Paradise Valley, which is the natural gateway to into Yellowstone Park.

Kara, surprisingly, made dinner that first night – I think her mom gave her some cooking lessons before we left. Afterward, we stepped out onto the deck to observe the evening sky. Millions upon millions of stars formed an elaborate tapestry of bright, twinkling lights. With no noise pollution, the distant howls in the mountains drifted across the Valley toward us, as if the coyotes were close enough to be in our backyard. Maybe some of them were.

Fishing was to start the following day with a float trip down the Yellowstone River, so we went to bed early for a fast start the next morning. I slept like a baby and awoke to a glorious, cloudless dawn. We met up with our guide, a young, long-haired fellow who was pleased to teach Kara, a city girl, how to cast. Kara had deliberately smudged up her brand-new wading pants so she would not look like a complete novice. She needn’t have worried because she took quite easily to casting in the first lessons at the bow of the drift boat. She had soon mastered those 11 to 2 swings essential in tossing a fly. Right off the bat she hooked a cutthroat trout on the bank. Excited as all hell, she kept crying out “Dad look at me!” The thrill of that first fishing experience has lasted nearly 30 years. Only yesterday we talked about our upcoming summer trip to camp in Maine. She and I and her husband, Peter, will fish for bass on East Grand Lake and take a float trip down the Baskehegan River.

These days, Yellowstone Park draws bigger crowds, and the town of Livingston has grown to accommodate them. Montana in 1992 was like a walk through the old west. Dinner on our last night was at a saloon, with cowboys in jeans and dirty boots and large hats that stayed on indoors. The next day, we stopped for lunch in Bozeman, where we would catch a connecting flight. Before going to the airport, we had a little time to stroll the wide main street, passing horses tied up outside where parking spots might normally be. We saw girls in denim with big hair and big belt buckles that represented star rodeo riders. Overhead the blue went on forever. Montana’s moniker “Big Sky Country” was apt.

The Majestic Tetons

September 2021

Visiting Jackson Hole this past week revealed a whole new world of mountain architecture to me. The Tetons are a naturally constructed piece of art, majestic in their scale and staggering in their beauty.  Sadly, it is a beauty partially clothed in the smoke from the western fires raging in California and elsewhere. Sheep, deer, elk and bison roam the deep valleys.  People in cars stop abruptly along the road in Teton National Park to observe and photograph the animals strolling nonchalantly across the roads and throughout the forest. The summer season is now coming to an end; hay is being rolled to provide feed for the cattle over the winter. The first snow is not yet in the air, but the animals sense it is around the corner. The elk have come down from the mountain heights to feed for the winter months. 

The local people are happy for the tourist traffic but cautious of the Delta variant. Restaurants have resumed mask mandates for entry again. The threat of another economic shutdown is chilling. Oh, to be as carefree as the animals, who have no concern for the delta variant or the state of the economy. In the open spaces of the Grand Teton National Park, it certainly makes it easier to forget the cares of the world.  We have Laurance Rockefeller to thank for the donation and protection of some 1100 acres of public park land in Wyoming. His foresight and generosity now benefit all of us, as well as the wildlife. 

I had a brief talk with a ranger who manages a large historic ranch called Cunningham, located outside Jackson. Dressed in jeans, a straw cowboy hat and a blue denim shirt, he guided me and Erik to an area along the Snake River where the buffalo congregate. He emphasized the importance of being comfortable with the animals.  “Do not startle them,” he said.  “They are gentle souls.” I appreciate the genuine caring this ranger has for his wards. He described how he is creating dams to irrigate the extensive fields so the Buffalo will have winter feeding islands throughout the prairie. From this devoted ranger to the Rockefeller family, we need more people like them, with the passion to preserve and protect the lands we all share through our national parks.  It is the task of every generation to continue the stewardship of this gift of nature.  


September 2021

I fished the Snake River today.  It is my first time in Wyoming and what a beautiful state, with plenty of open space and few drift boats on the water.  This morning my host and friend Erik gave me a Jackson Hole cap to wear, and then we were off, first stop after breakfast was to meet Nick, the fishing guide and to drop his driftboat into the Astoria Elbow stretch of the river.  Nick is a long-haired, gentle soul. He quickly immersed himself in tying the appropriate fly to our five-weight rods and before we got in the boat, he cautioned us not to stand at any time as there had been a drowning this season and he wanted us to return.  The water conditions were clear, and the clouds gently rolled across the sky. An eagle watched us along a stretch of the river, looking for a dinner treat I presume. Erik sat in the front seat and led the catching with an 18 “and then a 16“cutthroat trout. I was casting from the rear and landed a few minors.  They went right back in.  The flies were basically chubby Chernobyls and small perdigons. Nick worked hard rowing us from side to side to look for fish. Plenty of takes but only a few brought to the net. Nick is barbless, meaning the fish have an equal chance of mouthing the fly or letting go.  The conversation among us in the boat was about fishing of course but a bit of politics worked its way in.  Nick informed us that his wife recently left her job at an outfitter because of the political tension.  He believes that politics have become too all-consuming in people’s lives. Quite a comment from a 20-ish free living young person who loves nature and the boundless lifestyle of Wyoming and the west. Most of the talk aside from “strike” and “missed” was about the impact of climate change on the rivers.  Nick was constantly checking the water temperature to indicate his concern.  His enthusiasm for what he does is extraordinary.  A cool morning in Jackson hole renders the water temperature 69 degrees –perfect for cutthroat.  Eventually we got to talking about the philosophy of fishing and like most young guides who haven’t become grumpy yet from years of rowing people around a river, Nick has his words of wisdom: “Fishing is good because you have women to go back to.” Well that’s some philosophy. I suppose it means being in the wilderness makes you appreciate the comforts of home.  Nick said that as Erik struck another 18” fish.  Right now being in the wilderness is just fine.