The legacy of place

One of the beautiful things about being human is memory. Memory is not just a film, a television show of time and place past. Instead it lies in the tactile, the auditory, the olfactory . . . We thumb through old photo albums, black pages with memories photo-cornered and captioned in white pencil. These photos take us places, but it is the brain that responds with the full sensory spectrum. I can see the flatness of an old photo and it will spawn a sense of what it smelled like, what it felt like, the sounds that came from the land. I can hear my mother’s voice, or smell the sap-sweet cottonwoods along the river, feel the slickness of trout fresh from water.

My fly rod and me, 1967.

In the mid-1970s, our family found its way to the banks of the White River in northwestern Colorado several summers in a row. There my dad shrugged off the stress of owning his own practice in downtown Denver and my brother and I took to the river with fishing rods and options: flies, worms, Pautzke’s Balls O’ Fire salmon eggs, lures. We laughed and fell in the river, got soaked, dried off. Did it all over again. We went for boat rides on Lake Avery outside the podunk down of Buford, trolling lures with names like Flatfish, Daredevils, Pop Gear. We caught fish every day. I can particularly remember a cutthroat I caught. We called them natives. It fought harder, longer, stronger, than the stocked rainbows and when I brought it to the side of the boat, it netted out at sixteen and a half inches. In our old photo album, there on the black page is my mother’s writing in white pencil: “16 and 1/2 inches!”

A native cutthroat trout, 1974. Digging the plaid pants and shoulder creel.

A few weeks ago, I traveled that old path, driving, hiking and fishing the Colorado places where I had fished, hiked and hunted as a lad full of trigger itch and fishy zeal. The Colorado of my youth has swollen like a spring river from its banks–1.7 million souls in my puppy years to 5.2 million people today. So too has the nonresident zest for a part-time home. Colorado isn’t what Colorado was and I was fully prepared to see some of the places where I’d fished locked up, built over, shut down.

It had been nearly forty years since I had stepped into the White River with a fishing rod in hand. Forty years and many river miles. And yet, it was as I had remembered, oddly enough. Sure, there were some trophy homes along the banks in a few places. The old Sleepy Cat Lodge had burned to the ground years ago. Yet the land, the river, was the same.

The north fork and the south fork of the White still run clear and cold and pure. Lake Avery still sits above the valley floor, still good fishing for rainbows and “natives.” The land is much the same. Yellow flocks of elk thread down from the high country to the lower White, dining on spring grass, mewing like Mynah birds. Hundreds of them, winter coats hanging ragged and spring coming. I stepped into the South Fork and cast to trout for an hour, caught several decent rainbows and looked at the sky line. It was still the same. I caught fish, smelled cottonwoods rising, and listened to red-winged blackbirds trilling. And I thought about legacy.

My brother, Chuck, and me with a stringer of Lake Avery trout, 1976.

I had come to Colorado in part to attend the christening of my latest Godchild who just saw his first birthday. His father and I go back a ways, sharing a passion for good saddle horses, backcountry escapes, sweet fly rods and cold good beer. As I fished the White of my youth and now of my middle age, I thought about this place through that child’s eyes. How incredibly fortunate he is, because we have saved something for him. We have saved my own experience of youth for him. Some day, I will take him here and show him how to thread a writhing worm onto a hook. Show him how to gut a trout and run a thumbnail up against the backbone to clean out the bloodline. Maybe we’ll stay in the cabins at Buford, that operate because the land sustains a legacy of outdoor heritage.

The reason we will be able to do this lies in the country. The river at my feet runs cold because of the land. What we do up in the high country impacts the fish and the fishing and the legacy. We left the White alone: thousands of acres of backcountry flank the White River valley and these so-called roadless lands protect the best of what is left of that lifestyle of old. This roadless land protects our legacy, our elk, our fish. You can still drive a jeep into those same places we did back in 1974, still catch native cutthroat trout. You can see even more elk than there were back then. This is because there are still places that are true backcountry, places to explore, hunt, fish.

Maybe one day this little angler will get to enjoy the same places I've enjoyed over the years. I hope so.

Approximately four million acres of roadless land still exist in Colorado. These are places that are open for adventure. They protect the health of the rivers below, places where little boys and girls can catch fish and learn about life. It is the experience of place and past that can be willed to our generations to come. Country left like it was and like it is, left for now and for the future. Roadless Colorado is what Colorado was and is. It is still there and still will be.

–Tom Reed

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