big one

After the two-day, 4,000-foot hike, the reward.

Who hikes two days through desert, landslides and an epic storm to look for a legendary trout that might not exist? 

The insanity of hiking for two days through the simmering heat and dust 5,000 feet straight up a treeless, desert mountain in search of a fish – even a legendary trout reputed to be lurking like the Loch Ness monster in the bottom of a secret, high Sierra lake – wasn’t lost on me but by the time we got to the top of 11,000-foot high Pine Creek Pass, I was too tired to care.

The trail from the Pine Creek Pack Station just southwest of Bishop to the top of the pass has a reputation for being one of the hardest trails in the Sierra and for good reason; it climbs like a gunshot from the valley floor up an old mining road that knows nothing about polite trail behavior, lurching and lunging like a drunken sailor trying to get home. Frequently washed out by massive landslides, cursed by being located on a hot, south-facing aspect (which takes up the hot desert sun like a basking lizard from daybreak to sunset), the trail is one of those most people only use when the quota for other nearby, popular, lake-drenched, snow-washed trails like Rock Creek or Bishop Creek are full.

But I am not most people and I don’t like the way-past-full parking lots and masses of freshly-showered-this-morning crowds on popular trails and so, between the lure of the Loch Ness trout and the solitude, the Pine Creek trail it was – just like it has been many other times in my three decades in these mountains. 

So it also was that at 5 p.m. on the second day of the hike, I finally found myself climbing that last 100 feet to the top of the pass, counting the steps one by one just to forget how stupid backpacking can be at times like this – an exercise in tedium and fatigue and outright discomfort that had me yearning for the anti-grav boots my four younger brothers and sister used to dream of on equally long, hot climbs with our parents back in the Grand Teton hikes of my youth.

“One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three... “I muttered under my breath, the heavy pack glued to my back. “One thousand-four, one-thousand...” and then I was at the top, my clan of collies surging ahead, racing for the clear blue tarn that makes its eternal home at the very top of the pass. I stumbled after them, taking the familiar side trail down to the familiar beach surrounding the familiar emerald-green alpine lawn that graces every high county tarn and lake up here. I dropped my pack and clothes and followed the dogs and Chris into the clear water, diving under and coming up newborn and just like that, the day started anew and the climb and the dust and the fatigue were forgotten. 

Splashing, laughing, chilled to the bone, we hauled up on the beach and dug into the food bag for a few handfuls of chocolate before swinging the packs back on then heading down the trail into the big basin, hiking blessedly DOWN for the first time in two days, chasing that Loch Ness monster.

The trail gentled and rambled and rolled, passing steam and flower and waterfall and rock and snow; the ever-stunning mosaic of green and blue and silver that make up the alpine tundra at this elevation. The sun was still high in the sky because it was mid-summer and we still had miles to go and so on we went.

We had heard about this fabled trout, this monster trout lurking in a high, secret, off-trail lake somewhere up in this huge, mostly trailless basin above Pine Creek, from an old fisherman in Bishop who had been fishing these lakes since before I was born and if that was the excuse we needed to do the two-day climb from Hell, it was as good as any.

An hour later, map in hand, we left the main trail and took off cross country, aiming for a small notch in the eastern wall of the basin. That, the old fisherman had told us, was the gateway to our Loch Ness. By now, the inevitable evening surge of whining mosquitos was getting out of hand and we dived into a hastily-erected tent to wait until it got too cold for the little horrors and they retreated to wherever it is mosquitos go at night. Like clockwork, at dusk they disappeared, allowing us time for dinner and a few, fruitless casts on an unnamed lake that shown like burnished copper far into the evening.

The next morning, we packed up fast and early, aiming straight up the mountain toward that notch in the granite wall, driven by one thing; to find and catch that damn trout. Up we went past tiny meadows full of flowers and waterfalls and pools too numerous to count, the collies forging ahead, their colorful panniers flashing in the morning sun. 

A few hours later, we slipped up the final granite ridge and waterfall and there it was – one of the most stunning lakes I have ever seen, almost perfectly circular, huge, still as a mirror, turquoise and teal and indigo, shimmering under a perfectly blue sky.

I dropped my pack and headed to the lake, tying the dogs up to a Whitebark pine sheltering a perfect campsite because remote, alpine stealth fishing and a bunch of hyped-up collies just... doesn’t work.

I walked down to the outlet of the big lake, not really expecting to see anything except the little, eight-to-12-inch Goldens so common to Sierra high-country lakes, because really, who expects to actually FIND a legend? 

I got close to the outlet and sure enough, I saw dozens of the familiar Goldens flashing in the sun, pale as their namesake and just as beautiful. I watched for a moment, then started to head back to the packs to get the fishing gear and as I turned to leave, there, in the pale aquamarine water, I saw it.

Big, black, twice the size of the Goldens, SOMETHING swam through the Goldens, parting them like Moses at the Red Sea. It was so big, it cast a shadow on the ground. I’ve been fishing these high-country lakes for many years now and have never seen any fish that big up above 11,000 feet, which we were. And what the heck was wrong with the color? It was much darker than the Goldens and then I saw another one, same size, same color, following its friend. I yelled for Chris, “Bring the pole, bring the pole, hurry, hurry!”

For anyone who fishes the high country, the five-fish-for-dinner thing is pretty common; they just don’t get very big up here. This one fish could feed us both.

“Hurry, hurry,” I yelled.

He came crashing down to the lake, trailing gear and a pole that was still not set up and we set up the pole fast, throwing one of Ron from Mac’s Sporting Goods in Bishop’s homemade-just-for-us flies on the line, then cast it into the clear water. No luck. Tried again, no luck. Again, no luck. Then, I got a strike, and it sure as heck wasn’t one of the little Goldens. I started to reel it in, trying to figure out why I wasn’t gaining on it and then I realized the tension was set for a sub-one-pound fish. 

“Tighten it, tighten it,” Chris said, and I did and it worked and I started to reel the huge trout in and then just two feet from shore... it slipped away. Off it went into the deep blue.

I spent the next hour trying to recreate the glory with no luck. I handed the pole to Chris and headed back to the camp because part of me just didn’t want to end the life of something that big. It had earned its size though some very hard work. 

Hours passed and still, down by the lake, cast after cast, hour after hour, the big trout eluded the man. But I know Chris and I know that once he saw that thing slip away from us, there was no way he was going to give up without a fight.

At dusk, I heard him yell, “Got it,” and I ran down to the lake where, sure enough, he had landed one of the big fish we had seen. It was huge for the backcountry; at least two pounds, maybe 24 inches long and it was also very odd; it looked nothing like the resident Goldens that were supposed to be the only fish in this lake but then, we thought maybe we just didn’t know what a such a mature Golden looked like because we had never seen one. We took it home and had to cut it in half to fit in our little backcountry frying pan. 

It was a magnificent meal. 

Then, the stars reeling above and the pines sighing, we slept.

We crashed out of the lake basin the next morning, chased by a massive thunderstorm, bound for Bishop and a date with work Monday morning. 

Within an hour, we were soaked as torrents of rain came down and creeks flooded and then it did the Sierra summer storm thing and sleeted and snowed and after eight miserable, wet miles down the wild and rocky Pine Creek trail, we heard it; an immense roaring sound like thunder and cannons going off all at once. 

We watched in horror as the section of the trail we had just come from disappeared under a massive wall of rock and mud but there was no time to even take in how close we had come to death and we shot down the trail looking for someplace safer to wait out the flashing storm, dodging house-sized boulders and crossing more landslides and I have never, ever been so scared in my life in the backcountry. 

The problem was, there was no safe place to wait out the storm on this entire mountainside, not up, not down. We were stuck on the steepest and most exposed section of the trail and staying in place was a dangerous as going down, so down we went. All we could do was dodge the falling rocks and scramble over the gouged-out trail on unstable new rockslides and drop down into steep ravines cutting the trail in half, hauling dogs and packs through on a wing and a prayer. 

And then, finally, it was over and we came to a halt in the shelter of the only trees on the trail down by the pack station and all I could think was, “Damn, that was one fine trout.”

Ed note: After arriving safely in Bishop, we sent photos of the big trout to Fish and Wildlife biologist Jim Erdman and sure enough, it wasn’t a Golden at all, it was a Cutthroat trout, which should not be in the lake because it could spawn hybrids and ruin the Golden trout fishery up there; the opposite outcome of why the lake was set aside for the rare and beautiful Golden trout in the first place. No one knows who planted the Cutthroats in there or why, but there it was. So, we will be back this year to catch and eat the other one because, after all, it’s just the right thing to do.


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