Photo: Barry & Cathy Beck
Photo: Barry & Cathy Beck

Home Pool, Sulphur Creek

By Peter Heller   |   Mar 4, 2019 March 4, 2019

When you lose your trout stream to climate change, where do you go to find yourself?

It was late September and the creek ran clear and low out of the West Elks in southwestern Colorado. My favorite time of year: Through the V of the ravine upstream I could see the shoulders of Mount Gunnison slashed with the gold of aspen, and by the water I could smell cold stone and the particular sweetness of willows turning yellow.

I stood on the grassy bank and strung the fly rod, taking my time. I was in no hurry. White moths flitted in and out of sunlight. In the dark green pool just upstream, under the shade of a leaning spruce, the trout dapped the surface, making quiet rings. The sun was maybe an hour off the wooded ridge on the far side. Good.

Call it the Sulphur. That’s what I named it in my novel The Painter—enough disguise to keep it from being overrun. It’s the place I always come back to. Not because the fishing is world class—it isn’t. The brown trout are mostly gone, and if I catch a bigger rainbow, it’ll be 14 inches and I rarely need a net. I love the creek because I learned to fish here 30 years ago. I’d always been intimidated by the art of fly fishing. I’d read A River Runs Through It, and I thought you had to be pretty much born to fish and maybe your father had to be a Presbyterian minister, and there was some mystical aspect to the whole thing. Bobby Reedy, who ran the gas station in Paonia with his father, Gene, and his son Mike, said, “Hell, Pete, just throw the damn fly out there. A trout has a brain the size of an ant.” I asked him if I should go down to the trophy waters at the forks of the Gunnison. “Nah, it’ll be full of fuckwits from Aspen. Go high.”

He lent me a rod and showed me a basic cast. For an entire fall I drove to the creek every evening and fished. I didn’t have waders and I slipped and splashed in old sneakers and shorts, and my legs got numb. I didn’t care, I began catching trout. I was the happiest man on Earth. I was so excited I often fished until the stars came out. I fished until the guides on the rod iced up. I’ve fished the same 6-mile stretch ever since.

Photo: Dylan Silver
Photo: Dylan Silver

This evening I tied on a spray of elk hair called a stimulator. (Great fly fishers know everything a trout eats. They know the taxonomy of the insects and their life cycles. Not me. I look around and if there’s a big, tufty brown bug flying about, I look in my box for a brown, tufty fly.) I stepped into the water. I caught a 12-inch rainbow in the near pool and let her go, and then I waded up into the middle and began to cast upstream along the edges of the eddies. I kept moving. A kingfisher flew ahead of me, lilting limb to limb. The wind was still upstream and blew gusts of leaves out of the box elders. In half an hour the sun balanced on the ridge and the current became twinings of mercury and oil. That surge of quiet joy. I forgot myself.

The dirt road climbed away from the creek and left us alone. I clambered over a wrack of fallen trees and into a stretch of the canyon people rarely see. I caught a few small rainbows and held them into the current until they wriggled from my hands and lost themselves to the shadows of the stones. I loved this more than anything. I think we often love the people and the places to whom we bring the best of ourselves. On this stretch of water I had always brought my best attention and, oddly, my vulnerability. I’d fished here when I was brokenhearted, when I published my first book, when my mother died. I’d sat on the same boulder and wept for someone who would never come back. I’ve called out happily to an osprey gliding over. The sift of the current, the gulp against the bank—those have been the music that has accompanied my life. I always thank the creek when I leave. I guess that’s the meaning of the home pool, the place where we find ourselves … and lose ourselves.

That evening I lost track of time. The creek began to fill with shadow. I fished on. The banks steepened and closed in. The creek pooled and deepened. I could see the rings of trout rising on the dark water, and I began to make longer casts.

I was casting to the far bank when I heard a knock. I looked up and he was there—standing half in the water on my side of the creek—a very big black bear. Black bear is the common name but he was cinnamon brown, darker around the head. He was fat and strong, and he had burrs stuck in the fur of his flank. His round ears were forward. He was a long cast away and I couldn’t smell him because the wind was stirring upstream, but he could smell me. He could certainly smell the fish on my hands. I froze. He lifted his nose. I let the fly I had cast drift down. I didn’t strip in the line, and it looped and gathered on itself and floated past. He stood. I stood. Then he lowered his head, swung away and splashed without hurry across the creek and vanished into the dark woods.

I breathed. I reeled in the line and let the hammering of my heart slow. I had lost myself to the creek and he had stepped out. He had studied me, wondering if I was a threat—I wasn’t. If I was a meal—apparently not. I was nothing. I was a part of the evening, as he was. That was the gift.

The Sulphur has given so many of these moments. In early July, I drove up the old dirt road, parked at my pullout, strung the rod and ran down through the trees, excited as always. I’d been working hard and hadn’t been here since April. No waders today, it was 95 degrees. It never got this hot. I had always come up here to cool off, and it was not cool. That was disconcerting.

I hustled down the bank, and the green current spilled through the riffle. It was very low for this time of year, late-August low. I splashed out into the middle, already sighting the first cast, and stopped. The current wasn’t cold. I dug into my pack and pulled out a thermometer. Seventy-four degrees. I blinked and read it again.

I waded back to a large boulder and sat down. Seventy-four is about 14 degrees warmer than you want to fish. Warmer water has less dissolved oxygen and the trout get stressed. After getting hooked and thrashing at the end of a line, they can’t recover. You can let one go, but it will die.

In The Dog Stars, my postapocalyptic novel that takes place in a near-future Colorado, climate change has dried up many of the creeks and warmed the rivers. The trout have disappeared. It’s an awful prospect. Now I watched the creek swirl into the dark pool beneath the leaning spruce, and I thought: It’s happening now. There are more and more of these days. Not in late August, but in late June, when the creek is supposed to be icy with snowmelt. It’s happening here, and in the Alps and in Bolivia.

I felt the clench in my chest, the same panic as when someone we love dearly is sick. And I thought: Please, get better. And: What a terrible time to bear witness. A few more seasons like this and the trout will go. And if they go, so will the kingfisher and the osprey. The spruce and fir will follow.

And I thought: I have done this. I am complicit. It’s a dream I can’t blink away.

I’ve tried to live a good life: I built my house out of dirt, passive solar—it never freezes and it’s off the grid. I have written about important environmental issues. I buy sustainable stuff. It’s not enough—not nearly—because I have traveled, burned through jet fuel, driven thousands of miles for recreation, amassed gear, been a model consumer, put on blinders. I have lived as heedlessly as anyone.

I broke down the rod and walked back through the trees. We are so complicated. Maybe we are sometimes noble. Maybe we are wanton and greedy. We have this huge capacity for joy and love, for fun, and we know how to change and grow. We can take care of each other when we want to. We can also take care of the ones without a voice—the creek, the kingfisher, the bear. I thought: We can, we can do all of that. It’s now or never. These things we love, we need, are withering before us. Who the hell are we and what are we doing here if we can’t bear witness and step up?

I could hear the low murmur of the creek behind me. It flowed out of mountains that still held the memory of blowing snow, and it spoke in a language I could not decipher.

This essay was featured in the 2019 Patagonia Fish Catalog.