Blackfoot Canyon

  William R. Parks

Henry Chase stood on Jake’s cracked cement porch in the quiet, early morning darkness. Jake was never ready on time. He knocked again. The weather seal popped and the door opened a few inches. Jake peeked from the darkness inside, “C’mon, in, I just need to get my shoes.”

“Shoes, jacket, breakfast, something always holding you up,” Henry mumbled as he stepped inside. “It’d be nice to drive up and see you walk out without having to come beat on the damn door at five o’clock in the morning—your wife probably hates me.”

“You gotta be shittin’ me, man, she sleeps like a rock,” Jake said quietly. “The kids hollerin’ for breakfast is the only thing that brings her around. I stubbed my toe once headin’ for the bathroom late one night—hurt like hell! I yelled…I mean I yelled loud—she just laid there and didn’t do nothin’. I figure she can hear fine, just playin’ possum. If there’s no need to get up, then she don’t.”

Fishing. Between the demands of Henry’s landscaping business and Jake’s all-too-frequent hires and fires (along with three kids and a demanding wife), the time they could find to cast a line was becoming rare. It was unspoken, but they knew this might be their last outing for the season and maybe for good.

Henry and Jake are not “bait-a-hook and crack-a-beer” weekenders who troll lazily in a boat, or sit shore-side in a lawn chair to watch a bobber and consume the better part of a twelve pack. They are endeared to the art of fly-fishing. Where the beauty lives in the gentle drop of a Royal Coachman from a forty foot cast to drift an undercut bank, or the feather-light appointment of an Elk Hair Caddis into the front pocket of a mid-stream boulder—the sensitive rod vibrating with electricity from the jab of a hungry trout.

They gather Jake’s gear and climb into Henry’s red and white Chevy truck and head south to Hwy 64. Leaving the high plains they breach the Front Range through a narrow winding climb up Raylin Pass where rugged rock walls from turn-of-the-century dynamite jut out low in search of the wandering fender. Beyond the pass, the road opens wide. The U-shaped valley with dark pines blanketing the ridge on either side, guides the old Chevy into the sleepy town of Woodford. They stop at a Nelly’s Nook for handmade donuts and black coffee then proceed westward to their destination— Blackfoot Canyon.

Five years ago, Jake and Henry worked together at Rutley’s landscaping cutting lawns and shoveling manure, and when paired for particular projects discovered their common bond of fly-fishing. Eighteen months to the day after starting at Rutley’s, cancer claimed Henry’s mother following a long and arduous battle. She had prepared for this time, and in doing so, left a sizeable life insurance policy for her only son. Henry never hesitated. After the grieving and the rounds of legal paperwork, Henry met with his supervisor at Rutley’s, shook his hand and said, “Thanks for everything, I quit.”

Henry immediately invested in two commercial lawnmowers, a Bobcat skid loader for moving dirt and rock, and a small tractor with several attachments—including a device for pulling underground sprinkler lines. In the industrial section of town near the old train depot, he found a small steel-frame storage building with a small office walled off in front. He paid for a yellow pages ad and systematically visited every Rutley’s customer account, offering a better deal. After eight months, Henry was running four crews; with five full-time employees, a secretary to answer phones and keep track of everyone, and part-time work for eight or so illegal aliens, depending on the season.

His business savvy had started and ended in a high school economics class and the rapid acquisition of property maintenance contracts excited but also terrified him. Henry Chase muddled through the growing pains of launching a small business and expanded through fulfilled commitments, heavy customer hand-holding along with snow removal and sanding services to financially survive the dead of winter. It was no surprise to him when Jake Brightwell showed up at the office looking to his old pal for work.

Through the front office window, Henry watched Jake climb out of his decaying Buick.

 Jeez, Henry thought, He’s still limping that shit-box along. Henry stood casually, hands in pockets, leaning back crossed-legged against his front office desk and smiled as Jake came through the door.

“I was wondering how long it would take before I saw you walk through that door.” Henry forced his used-car salesman smile as he extended his hand.

Henry was quite aware of Jake’s lack of initiative and job hopping. He repeatedly suffered through Jakes dramatic malcontent speech preached in local bars. In his words, every employer had screwed him out of something and was never given a fair shake. Henry liked Jake. Personally, they got along fine. They came from similar Midwest backgrounds, laughed at the same jokes, and identified with one another easily. But Jake was an employer’s nightmare. While at Rutley’s Jake would complain habitually about pay rates, raises, overtime, supervisors, other employees, and routinely called in sick three or four times a month. He also excelled at dodging what needed to be done. Rutley’s was Jake’s fourth job in as many years.

Henry knew Jake would drag his business down and force a strain on their friendship. It wouldn’t be easy to lie to him either, as they were compadres on the river—Jake being a superb fly-fisherman since his youth, and Henry learning so much from him. It just made it harder to turn him away.

“Well Henry, how ‘bout it? Is there a place here for a wayward soul such as myself?”

“Man, I wish you’d been here a month ago,” Henry lied, “I needed someone to run one of my crews, but right now I’m full up. With winter coming on, my illegals will be heading south and I’ll be running skeleton crews for snow and sand ‘til spring.”

“Shit!” Jake said as he shook his head and looked up to the ceiling. “My wife is raggin’ me to no end. Those shit-heads over at Rutley’s just pushed me too far—Jones told me if I didn’t step-up, he’d have to let me go.”

“Really?” Henry said, trying to sound incredulous.

“Screw it” Jake spat, “I won’t give ‘em the satisfaction. I told Jones, he can take his ‘step-up’ and shove it!”

Henry feigned concern, offered a cup of coffee and tried to change the subject. Jake continued to verbally pound Rutley’s management, then people in general, and drifted into the pressures of home life—raising three kids with limited income and trying to appease his bitch of a wife.

“Sometimes you just feel the weight of the world clamped on your shoulders, sucking the life up outta’ you and nothin’ seems to shake it,” Jake said.

“When I started this company, I didn’t sleep for weeks. I spent every penny and ounce of effort I had on a gamble with long odds, but perseverance is what wins the day. You just can’t give up, however bleak it seems…it will get better.”

“Yeah, that sounds poetic and all, but I just don’t know anymore.”

“Maybe we’re due to wet a hook. You know, spend a day up at Blackfoot…take your mind off things, even for just a day. It might give you some perspective,” Henry said.

“It has been awhile for us.” Jake said, sounding more optimistic.

With Jake’s job search gladly deferred another day, they agreed to head out on Thursday as they usually fished during the week to avoid the overwhelming weekend crowd. Nothing was more disheartening than driving up to the high country, wading into a beautiful mountain river and standing elbow to elbow with a hundred other guys trying to do the same.

Now, as they leave Woodford, they chat about the overcast weather, technique, and what the day may hold. Jake is a purist in the true sense. He builds his graphite fly rods from a kit, ties his own flies, and spends immeasurable hours at the library studying fly patterns and river entomology.

The first thing Jake does upon arrival to any location, is turn a few flat river rocks over to study the larvae sequestered beneath. As the day warms up, he makes use of panty hose stretched over a coat hanger to sweep the sky. Like a prospector he picks through the make-shift net identifying the daily hatch that floods the air. With his fly-tying box right there, next to the river, he creates a perfect twin.

Henry, not having the luxury of Jake’s free time, buys his flies out of a glass-top box at Rocky Mountain Outfitters on south Nolan Avenue. His fly-rod and reel were gifts from his family to encourage him in a hobby and get him out of the house. “Enjoy life a bit,” they said.

Most of what Henry considers his fly-fishing competence has come at the hands of Jake, who never misses an opportunity, and is always more than happy to teach a particular trick, adjust, tune, tweak, hint, comment, suggest, or show a better way to accomplish a certain tact to the point of irritation. But his heart was in the right place and Henry usually cut him slack.

“You know, Henry, my wife was pretty hard over about lettin’ me hit the river today” Jake said.

“Well, she can be a little tough on you at times, at least that’s the impression I get.”

“Deep down, she’s a good woman, and the kids are alright, but man, together, they can really make the walls feel like they’re closing in.”

“I know what you mean,” replied Henry.

Henry had no idea what he meant. He married Melanie, his first love, after high school. Melanie Chase worked as a cashier at Safeway after they wed, but when the kids arrived, she quit for full-time motherhood. She was a great mom, handling everything domestic including most needs of the children, and governed the household expenditures like an uptown banker. She was frugal, yet always managed to have surplus for birthday presents, an occasional dinner out, and a yearly vacation to a not-so-far-away place. Mel rarely complained and put Henry first, as he did her. With the kids grown, Mel returned to the world of retail, this time working at a “plus-size” woman’s clothing shop in a strip mall three blocks from home. It kept her busy, gave her a little spending money, and filled the hole the empty nest had made.

They approach the entrance to Blackfoot Canyon, rocking gently with the irregular waggle of the old Chevy. Jake presses against the side window, the cool glass fogging as he gazes vacantly at the river.

The beauty of the canyon is remarkable. The river bounces and weaves through a narrow chasm of large boulder fields, giving way to pockets and pools of trout habitat like no other in the state. Mature pines hold fast to vertical granite cleaves with blue Columbines, Scarlet Gilia, and yellow Rabbitbrush speckling the rivers edge. The audible power of the churning water evokes the energy of nature and quells any left-over urban resonance.

Blackfoot Canyon is deemed Gold Medal Water by the Division of Wildlife, and its fickle stretches can yield young stockers, trophy rainbows, or nothing at all. There are only two ways into the canyon, both dead-end beneath an eighty foot granite block dam. The dam, constructed seventy-five years ago, is the last restraint of Ptarmigan reservoir. The South Platte River muscles through these rocky crags—born in South Park below the continental divide; filling six reservoirs then waltzing through Denver, and denouement at the Missouri River, south of Omaha.

The canyon has a small ranger station at the entrance charging vehicles five bucks for a one-day pass, initiated from increased popularity of the once secret area.

Henry and Jake pull up to the shack near the start of the canyon’s gravel road. A portly Ranger in uniform appears, twirling his finger horizontally in the air, signaling Henry to roll down his window.

“They’re working on the road a couple miles in, so you can’t go this way,” the Ranger says. “You need to go around and drop down through Pine Gulch trail. It might be a bit of a drive, but it’s better than waiting here all day.”

Gulch is a pain, that will cost us another hour.”

“Hey Henry, that’s good!” Jake says excitedly. “See, most folks won’t go down that old four-wheeler trail, you know? It ain’t marked worth a shit and with all the rain this summer, it’s bound to be washed out all over. This old truck’ll make it, and we might have the entire canyon to ourselves…for at least awhile!”

“Tell you what,” says the Ranger, speaking as if he is the mayor of the canyon, “I know it’s inconvenient, and since you guys are the first ones here, I’ll give you a day-pass at no charge.”

“Can’t beat that,” Henry says playfully. “Game on, my friend,” as he backhands Jake on the forehead.

They give the ranger a wave and turn the old Chevy onto the gravel fork skirting the south side of the canyon, leading toward Pine Gulch. The road quickly dwindles into a rutted trail, as if cut by covered wagons.

The turn for Pine Gulch, as expected, is poorly marked and they nearly miss the small faded sign nailed to a bent Ponderosa pine. They back up, and then roll on to the four-wheel drive trail. The truck creaks audibly like a crabby old woman, as it tilts and twists through the rutted washes, tangled root mounds, and deep hair-pin pitches as they descend into the canyon.

They emerge from the woods near the canyon road mid-point. The best fishing is toward the top. Henry turns left and steps on the gas.

Near the top of the canyon are two consecutive tunnels crudely blasted through a rocky mass. Chiseled and shaped for narrow-gauge rail access during dam construction, they now allow single lane passage high above the river. The most promising water lies close to the tunnels and beyond.

“To the tunnels or all the way to the dam?” Henry inquires.

“The tunnels man, the tunnels!” Jake chants as he cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of the river. “Looks a little low, might be a good day.”

“You’re the boss,” says Henry.

“You’re the boss if you give me a job.”

Henry shifts in his seat uncomfortably and says; “Yeah, I guess that’s true, but unfortunately I….”

“Save it, man,” Jake interrupts, “I know the deal”

Henry pulls over in small parking area just past the second tunnel. They climb out of the truck as diluted morning sun strikes the canyon rim with the river in shadows below. A light fog stands like primordial vapor, limiting visibility to a few hundred yards. They slip into their chest waders and polarized sunglasses, tie their wading boots and begin rigging their lines.

“What are you going to start with Jake?”

“Why? You havin’ trouble decidin’ what to use there, Henry?”

“Well, I figure we should use nymphs until we see a hatch, then we can move to dry flies”

Nymphing is for weekend hacks in their thousand-dollar Orvis gear, might as well use bait,” Jake snaps.

“Orvis hacks, eh? Is that like a Harley Davidson yuppie?”


Giddy as school girls, they step and skid down the long slope to the river. The fog becomes a light misting rain as they move downward and their shoulders darken with moisture. On silent cue, they walk at angles from each other and their arrival to the bank puts them a good fifty yards apart. Henry softly steps out into the river—lightly whisking silt like a ghost across the sandy bottom. He is downstream from two large pools and a swift tongue brings faster water to the far bank. He stops in slow, hip-level water; produces a small tin of balm from his vest and with his thumb and forefinger, carefully rubs the oily mixture into the tiny Royal Wulff. He begins casting, snapping his forearm like a buggy whip, pulling extra line from the reel with his left hand to increase his distance to the upper part of the pool.

The lure settles and rides the surface as a child’s stick boat enslaved to the current, imitating breakfast to the unsuspecting quarry.

Jake steps into the river too. He lifts some debris near the bank and notices a littering of small gray flies—a floating graveyard from yesterday’s Caddis hatch. He immediately snips his fly from the end of his nine-foot leader, opens his small fly box, and produces one closely emulating his find.

There is no talking now, not even a glance toward each other—they are deeply engaged. Within minutes Jake is side-stepping downstream with a rainbow trout arching his rod. It’s no trophy at twelve inches, but you wouldn’t know by Jake’s calculated determination. He moves with the river to keep the line from snapping under the pull of the current and the trout’s run downstream. The fish tires quickly, and is soon reeled lifelessly toward Jake’s awaiting net.

“Yeah, nice little fella…,” Jake says quietly to the fish as he removes the hook from its gaping mouth. “Be a good lil’ trout and tell your friends, nobody goes on the grill today.”

“Cool, that’s one for me,” Jake boasts, releasing the now sluggish trout back to the depths. He catches Henry’s eye as he stands, and waves his index finger in the air with a toothy smile. This is what it’s all about, Jake thinks, The Jones’ of the world can pound sand, here I am a God!

Henry spots Jake’s finger wag in the air, notes his shit-eating grin, and his competitive side emerges; Fine, catch every fish in the river, pal. At the end of the day, you’re still a jobless dead-beat. This notion gives comfort to Henry’s unproductive efforts thus far.

Jake was right. Even now, as the day creeps by, they are alone on the river and haven’t seen a single car come up the narrow road. The typically overcrowded canyon is virgin wilderness. Contrary to the original plan, they are unconsciously working their way downstream, a few steps at a time. By mid-morning both have caught and released a few stockers, Jake maintaining the lion’s share of the total count, and they converge in a clearing to discuss fly patterns, eat a sandwich, and take a nip from Henry’s flask of bourbon.

Soon they’re back in the river. Jake finds a large pool split at the bottom by two large boulders. The flow accelerates between its granite narrows and a tapered waterfall plunges ten feet down the other side.

Jake suddenly becomes guarded. His mind flashes to last year on the Arkansas River, stepping forward and dropping in almost over his head. The memory triggers a muscle reflex and he proceeds with baby steps, inching along. The pool is deep, and the strength of the falls has a vortex effect, pulling water and debris toward the hungry orifice. He finds a firm base to stand, and begins casting toward the opposite bank, eager to seize the attention of a Rainbow hidden beneath the folded reed bank. His Wooly Bugger dances and drifts downstream invitingly.

“C’mon” Jake whispers, “You gotta be there, I know you’re there. Come on out, I’ll be nice, I promise.”

The river takes a mild bend before entering the pool, drifting surface debris to the far bank where he now sets his aim. He throws cast after cast without strike, and eventually stops to rest.

“Shit, they’ve gotta be right there,” he quietly reassures himself as he shakes the ache from his arm.

With the roar of the falls directly behind, he snips the Wooly Bugger off the end of his leader and opens his fly box to change patterns, finding a well-tied Parachute Adams. His first cast with the Adams drifts farther from the bank than desired, and after several more attempts he is still missing the spot.

“Damn it,” he whispers.

His frustration percolates in thought and chain-links to reflections of joblessness and his nagging wife, causing him to visibly wince. He soon lays the feather-made fly onto the flowing lane, coasting past reeds and Columbines in a perfect float. As he pulls back for another cast a breaching trout erupts from beneath. The trophy sized beauty is airborne and slaps the surface upon reentry; hauling Jake’s taught line directly upstream.

“Holy-shit!” he yells.

A huge German Brown—shining burgundy and umber leopard spots fading into a rust-colored underbelly. It must be twenty-two inches long and heavy as five pounds. As any fly-fisherman knows, an opportunity like this comes along once or twice in a lifetime.

The pressure is on to play it, tire it, land it, and certainly mount it.

He tries to predict the fish’s movement and allow it enough freedom to run, yet maintain tension on the line. Jake uses barbless hooks as a humane gesture—considering himself a conservationist—and at this moment he understands how stupid that is. His fly rod bends in a stiff arc, nearly touching the surface at times as the Brown skitters in desperation. It leaps from the water to shake the hook, over and over, and each time it breaches could be the last.

Jake shows his experience, and reacts well to the fish, gently stepping through the rocks and sandy river floor to keep up. But this fish is strong, relentless, and again makes a fast run toward its original position under the far bank. He moves forward to offset the pull, anticipating firm gravel but finding deep, loose sand.

Unexpectedly he stumbles and collapses forward, facing up-river. He falls quick and in reflex pushes his hands up high to keep the rod above water. He goes deeper than expected and with his arms straight out, the river rushes in to fill his chest waders.

The shock of cold water triggers a dire thought; in his haste to reach the river he forgot his chest strap. Cinched tight, it keeps water out, without it you can become one with the river, to tumble and flow like any other piece of debris.

The icy torrent imprisons his legs and body, and the excessive weight drags him down into the pool. He attempts to right himself, but his feet and arms thrash as the river’s hastening draw speeds him toward the sound of the falls. He spreads his arms and legs out in panic—an attempt to impede his momentum and deny the river’s purpose.

Abruptly he is wedged in the throat of the falls, and the force of the relentless, numbing water pounding against him deadens his senses. He drops the rod at the last possible moment, clutching at the sharp rocks that shred his hands and looks hopelessly upstream for Henry, who is not there.

Jake begins to fade, his mind spinning and strength draining quickly through gritted teeth. He takes a last glance toward the top of the pool and like a dream, thirty feet away, a majestic bull elk gingerly crosses in the shallows.

It stops halfway and turns with interest to the unusual sound consuming Jake. They lock eyes. In his delirium, he remembers his youthful hunts for the elusive elk only to come back empty handed. They gaze upon each other for a split second in some silent primal exchange—Jake would call it irony if he knew the word, but You gotta be shittin’ me is the only thought he can muster—then he is gone.

The graceful elk blinks at the now open flume before turning slowly, continuing across and disappearing into the trees.

Hours later, Henry walks the river looking for Jake. He comes upon a broken fly rod lodged between two large rocks of a deep pool. He moves in close and using his own rod, casts to retrieve it. Upon reeling it in, Henry realizes he knows this rod like his own.

After backtracking through scrub oak and willows and calling Jake’s name over the long stretch of river, Henry begins to feel a knot in his gut. He climbs the steep embankment and is greeted by the portly Ranger standing near the truck.

The Ranger is holding a pair of twisted sunglasses. He isn’t smiling.

“I wasn’t sure where you were down there, so I figured if I waited by your truck, you’d show up eventually.”

The ranger pauses for a moment then looks out across the canyon and says, “I got some bad news, friend.”

Henry looks down solemnly at the gravel road beneath his feet and kicks at it a bit. He breathes deep as the fog begins to give way to blue sky, and images of Jake’s wife and children flicker through his mind.


 © 2004 William R. Parks

William R. Parks - Randy Parks was raised in the New Orleans but has made Colorado his home.  Nestled in the shade of Pikes Peak, he has built his life as a creative force; working in paint, sculpture, photography, woodworking, music, and writing.  He is an avid fly fisherman, golfer, hot rod enthusiast, and has won several awards for his design and photography work.