Thursday, August 7, 2014

three rivers

River Profile
September 22, 1966
W.H. Auden

Our body is a moulded river

Out of a bellicose fore-time, thundering
head-on collisions of cloud and rock in an
up-thrust, crevasse-and-avalanche, troll country,
     deadly to breathers,

it whelms into our picture below the melt-line,
where tarns lie frore under frowning cirques, goat-bell,
wind-breaker, fishing-rod, miner’s-lamp country,
     already at ease with

the mien and gestures that become its kindness,
in streams, still anonymous, still jumpable,
flows as it should through any declining country
     in probing spirals.

Soon of a size to be named and the cause of
dirty in-fighting among rival agencies,
down a steep stair, penstock-and-turbine country,
     it plunges ram-stam,

to foam through a wriggling gorge incised in softer
strata, hemmed between crags that nauntle heaven,
robber-castle, tow-rope portage-way country,
     nightmare of merchants.

Disembogueing from foot-hills, now in hushed meanders,
now in riffling braids, it vaunts across a senile
plain, well-entered, chateau-and-ciderpress country,
     its regal progress

gallanted for a while by quibbling poplars,
then by chimneys: led off to cool and launder
retort, steam-hammer, gasometer country,
     it changes color.

Polluted, bridged by girders, banked with concrete,
now it bisects a polyglot metropolis,
ticker-tape, taxi, brothel, footlights country,
     à-la-mode always.

Broadening or burrowing to the moon’s phases,
turbid with pulverized wastemantle, on through
flatter, duller, hotter, cotton-gin country,
     it scours, approaching

the tidal mark where it puts off majesty,
disintegrates, and through swamps of a delta,
punting-pole, fowling-piece, oyster-tongs country,
     wearies to its final

act of surrender, effacement, atonement
in a huge amorphous aggregate no cuddled
attractive child ever dreams of, non-country,
     image of death as

a spherical dew-drop of life. Unlovely
monsters, our tales believe, can be translated
too, even as water, the selfless mother
     of all especials.

Then again,
T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages 

I do not know much about gods; but I think the river
Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in the cities -- ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and

Thirdly, more words to less effect, on a specific river and my own obsessions.

Kalama 1991

On the way down I-5 from Canada towards Portland, you pass the chimneys of a paper and pulp factory, then an exit for the Kalama river. It seems implausible that you can reach a real living river from an interstate, but then, there's probably a freeway on the way to anywhere if you go back far enough. I slept last night in Vancouver, so I haven't travelled far at all. On the other hand, it was five thousand miles' drive to Vancouver; before that, seventeen years and several continents since I first wanted to see these rivers.

Happy in the contemplation of a whole day to spend on a new stream, I roll down the window, memory and anticipation persuading me to expect the startling new clarity of morning near water. The paper mill's fume sensibly reminds me that the morning may be new made but the world is not.

The first stop is a pool beneath the hatchery outlet. The chinook salmon returning home tend to accumulate here, sensing the concrete rearing ponds of their youth in the narrow trickle spilling over the gravel. By this time the main run is over, the latecomers that are still alive are old and black, their first ocean strength spent in the weeks of waiting for rain. Their expectations are confounded by a stream which never rises high enough to run up. They line up in the shallows below the outlet, surging away under a strong roll of water when some fisherman comes too close. Some half dozen fishermen are here this midweek day, presenting a variety of salmon flies to the fish that cruise over the sunlit weeds and algae, their massive shapes clear in silhouette. Salmon will take a fly out of aggression, or perhaps some dim memory of river feeding: but these fish, in the bright clear water, are indifferent to all blandishments. I don't expect or want to catch one, but I like to see them, a mystery for once visible and present.

Further up under the uncomplicated sun, more salmon are at their necessary business. These have withstood the delusions of the hatchery pool, instead making a difficult way up through the shallow runs, thrashing over stones in dazzling splashes. The smaller, brighter female fish hangs over the hollow she has dug in the gravel, surrounded by the dark looming males. Her pale spotted back blends into the brown of the stream bed, dappled with light gray shadows of ripples chasing over the surface. As she twists to beat against the hollow, scraping it deeper still, the silver of her flank flashes and winks out again, a kind of semaphore in an unreadable code. The males lie a little below and behind, queuing in an order determined by aggression and muscle. The smaller fish attempt to dart ahead, but are knocked aside by rushes from the bigger males. I watch this old battle appearing and vanishing again beneath the patches of rough water swept over the scene by gusts of wind: then stand up, moving faster than I meant to, but the fish flinch only slightly, the female not at all. I'm going further upstream, don't mean to pester these salmon with the glittering tinsel and flummery of flies.

Near the headwaters, a narrow concrete bridge marks the end of the legally fishable water. Fishermen call these last or first few miles the 'holy water': it is proper that sanctuary should lie above them. Beyond this is timber company land covered by saplings of recently planted firs, meagre in the vanished shadows of their elders. The river is thin here, its bones showing: the rocks of the bed poke out of narrow green coils of water, lie under impassive sheets of reflected sky. Somewhere invisibly below, the fish up from the sea are awake and patient in their element, waiting for what the water will tell them, to know the next thing. After several years of drought, they wait for the same thing as last year - rain to swell the flow and spike the currents with dissolved oxygen. These are steelhead, anadromous rainbow trout, called 'steel' for the blue and grey of their heads, and for their entirely surprising strength when caught. What does a steelhead know of foundries ? Beaten and burnished by the multitudinous perils of stream, river, ocean and back again, it is now as simple as a knife blade, driven by a single quick purpose. Finding them requires reading the river, like a script in an unknown language, or even more simply mysterious: like any writing to the illiterate: deciphering the meanings of leaves that pause in the current, a curl of water on the surface from a boulder five feet down: things for which an instinct would need no elucidation, though dry observation needs a slow long chain of reasons.

A fifty yard run of white water, thigh deep, turns at a spit of small round stones, then runs into a narrow channel divided by a single sharp edged rock, before settling into the pool below. Auden wrote, when touring Iceland, "Too many stones, and all of them the wrong size". These stones, on the other side, are all quite right: slightly smaller than an apple, with a cool mossy presence and a comfortable heft in the hand. In the pool, the currents are thick smooth ropes of water, braided into the misty depths. If the river were running strong, there would be fish at the tail, resting in quiet water after fighting the current of the outflow. As it is, the probabilities are for the channel or near the powerful current at the head. There is shelter both behind a rock and in front, but steelhead often prefer to rest in the cushion of water piled up ahead of the stone. Trying to remember all this, I wade into the brisk turbulence to begin.

After twenty minutes, every imagined lie in the channel has been shown the fly. Carefully, attentively, I have watched the tip of the line as it drifts, imagining the lure's progress as it lifts and swirls over the bottom. From diving in rivers, I know the cool gloom down there, under a bright and dancing sky: holding in a break of the current, seeing the drift of small particles of detritus blowing by, like travelling fast in one place. In all this, the fly is startling and egregious, tinsel ribs glowing over the black body under a white wing, red tail barely red, closer to purple in the deeply filtered light. Losing faith in this channel, so also I lose concentration, considering the broken surfaces of the water instead of its deeps. Further down, the river bends off a rock wall some twenty feet wide, extending fifteen feet above. To reach down that wall will take a cast thrown well upstream, allowing the fly to sink throughout a long drift. Planning these casts, but reflexively fishing the fly around the rock that splits the current, the awaited event is unexpected. As I write now, clattering on a keyboard in a cube of plasterboard in a cube of concrete, I still see her head break into the sun, watch as she allows the current to wash her from her lie downstream.

Tightening on the fish brings a fierce reaction. A swift run to the tail of the pool ends in the shallows with a jump that's nearly a headstand, the whole length of the fish arcing around to splash heavily down. After ten minutes, the fish hangs deep, braced under the main flow: far off, the rose and silver of her side gleams up through obscure complex patterns of water. The fish is too heavy and the current too strong to bring her up to the head where I stand. Attempting to cross here would mean a swim, but the rock wall blocks any other passage. A few cracks and ledges in it allow me to convince myself that climbing over is possible. Before starting, I watch the fish for several minutes, memorizing the details - a slight hiss where the line cuts the stream, weaving under the pressure, a thin film of water sliding up then collapsing in a smooth curve; a weight electric and dense held now in hand; glimpses of dusty rose in the misty green, through shafts of light let into the river. This is undeniable. Halfway over the climb, I lose a foothold, then the crack in which my fingers are cramped.

The fall breaks the reel from the rod, dropping me on a ledge some four feet deep. Rod in one hand, reel in the other, leaning hard into the rock and gripping with my elbows as the water pulls at my clothes, I traverse the ledge hoping that it won't end. An undeserved happiness - when I take up the slack the fish is still fast. From here it's easy, complicated only by having to manage the line without a reel. In the end the fish comes back to me, the powerful beats of her tail establishing a slow and waning time. I grasp her wrist between the tail and the body, keeping a taut line to hold the head up, and walk ashore.

Afterwards I contemplate the torn jagged metal of rod and reel. There is duration, since the wind is in the leaves and sunshine dazzles off the water, which speaks in its sweetly running voice. In the late afternoon I try to fish further, rolling curves of line out across the stream, but can't make it other than mechanical. Below the surface is a pure wildness. On this side, the quotidian - a wisp of foul odor from the paper mill, cars passing on the road above, a headache from dehydration, the edge of a worry about my wife in the city. From the timber farms through the valley of second homes, down under the interstate, this compromised river. In it lives the ideal, but how would the ideal know that? It is the 'ding an sich', the thing in itself. The ideal lives in my head, from where it is a long way back to the real.

Living at all times with illusions and regrets from the past, assailed by fears and dangerous optimisms for the future; trying to be merely in the stream, feeling the wash of its currents over my back. Why so simple a thing as catching a fish and experiencing its terror should place me so solidly, centrally, in being alive, I don't know. I am saddened that I need so much violence to live.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

one picture

Giovanni dice:
What if you were forced – due to a material constraint that is pretty well unthinkable – to pare down your personal visual archive to a single picture? Which one would you choose? How would you operate that selection? What would that picture come to mean to you, and could you bear to let go of the others?
.. To have a single portrait of oneself means to have one more than almost all of the people in almost all of history.
I have many pictures of myself, entities multiplied beyond necessity, but none of them looks like me. Instead here is a truly single picture, my great-great-grandfather with his Crimean war medals. One of them survives and is hung at the bottom of the frame. Sergeant-Major James Kerr:

When that picture was taken, neither Denver nor Colorado existed, only the windy plains cut by the broad muddy river whose name is 'flat water' in most languages - Kíckatus in Pawnee, Nebraskier in Ota, Plate in French. The Arapahoe called it the Tallow River, niinénii niicíihéhe'. Tallow is a word Sgt. Kerr would likely have known, meaning the rendered fat of cattle, but I doubt the Arapahoe meant this: instead my guess is it meant something like the promised land, the fat land: plenty of buffalo to keep the tribe in a happy well-fed state of grease. Now the tribes and the buffalo are gone, and a singular picture hangs in the Denver suburbs at the end of its travels. My connection to it is through my mother and her stories, tenuous but real. My children have only stories of stories of another country and the past.

I have exhausted my knowledge of him, that martial presence standing lonely but assured in the empty palace of memory. His daughter by his first wife was Sarah McDonald Kerr, who taught at the Sabbath School of the Presbyterian kirk in town.

When her mother died and SM Kerr remarried, Sarah went to South Africa as a governess, taking with her a picture of her father and that Bible. The governed family was the Stevensons, who lived through the siege of Ladysmith, and had a street in town named for the father. There she met another vagrant Scot, Leslie Singer, a master stonemason and builder: who built the bridges on the old Delagoa Bay line; knew Percy Fitzpatrick and many of the hunters from the earlies; put up the stone lions couchant on Oom Paul Kruger's stoep.

They lived in Pilgrim's Rest to escape the fevers and morbidities of the coast. In the second Boer war he retreated to Durban, the family going back to Scotland. I hope SM Kerr met his grandchildren there. Meanwhile across in the Free State, another ancestor was fighting for the Boers; his family and small children swept up into the first civilian concentration camps of history, as Lord Roberts pursued a scorched earth campaign against the guerrillas.

The hatred of the English nurtured in these camps lasted well, so I met it when conscripted into the armies of apartheid in the next decade of the 80s. The Afrikaners were derogated as rock spiders, a term going back to that war: the Boers would not line up to be slaughtered with due process by the imperial soldiers, sensibly preferring to hide in the rocks and snipe from there. They called us rooinekke or blerrie rooinekke, red necks, from the sunburnt necks of those imperial troops. Wars last in strange ways. There was another term, soutpiel, meaning a salty organ of procreation: the idea being the Englishman had one foot in South Africa, another in England, and said organ in between washed by the salt oceans. This startled me with an unexpected note of fantasy. Before the Army I had not thought to hate the English for imprisoning my Dutch and Danish forebears. After that, it still seemed a bootless emotion.

Sarah's daughter Ellen married Gerard Bier, a descendant of several gloriously-named Hieronymus Biers. The house of the first of these still stands on a canal in Amsterdam. The second was a Boer, though his daughters preferred English. Ellen and Gerard lived in what had been Delagoa Bay, then Lourenço Marques, Gerard working as an accountant. His inkwell is another remainder, escaped alone from the erosions of time running down. Here it is on my desk, sharing the space with a computer monitor and these words on it. The inkwell stands as a memento mori, a reminder of other scriveners, and a blaze of silver light.

For some time they shared a house with the Anglican Bishop of Lebombo. Since it was the Bishop's residence, it became a Palace, though just the same wood and iron shanty as the other houses in town. My mother was born in the Miramar Hotel, as they felt the bachelor Bishop should not be embarrassed by these female proceedings.  

My mother remembered both of her grandparents fondly. Sarah was an intelligent kindly woman, though tolerating no kinds of fun on the Sabbath - Kirk followed by some light Bible perusal while clad in Sunday best, was about the sum of it. They had retired to Pilgrim's Rest by this time. The grandchildren found respite there from the jiggers, mambas and heat of LM during the summers. I have another picture now lost to everything but memory, of two little girls in bathing suits by the Blyde river. In the end Joy lived in the same retirement home as my mother. We went to lunch when she was in her 80s and my mother no longer grew older. Joy's stories of those days took the scenic route, up down and around through recollections of hills, forests, rivers, children and parents: yet invariably reached their destination in good order, winding up all the threads and gathering them back together. I was too young and simpleminded to understand this prodigious feat of memory, a lost world and its peoples held up and turned to the light for me: and thought Joy was wandering, though only one of us was astray.

Leslie and Sarah are buried together in Pilgrim's, in the new graveyard. Their little grandson who survived only a few days lies beside them. My mother wanted to be buried there as well, but by that time it had become a national monument with no new thing permitted, no longer that possibility we were. 

In the Ukraine where war is starting yet again, the child of her fathers and mothers looks at their one pictures, and speaks for us from the museum of abandoned secrets:
"I don't have it in me to resist the numbing spread of this insane, universal tenderness that pools under my skin like blood from a thousand wounds - this visceral, glandular pity for these dead, for their youth, their speech, their laughter no longer audible from where we are, their piercingly pitiful, childlike innocence to the impenetrable gloom that awaits them."

Friday, April 18, 2014

that possibility you were

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

Wendell Berry


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

perchance to dream

Do Intel chips dream of Facebook updates ?

Yes, they do. Install that driver and your PC will wake itself up repeatedly to check for email, Facebook and Twitter updates; lathering itself into a frenzy, seeking hopelessly for validation. This is a problem if you'd rather have the machine sleep peacefully and cheaply through the night, waking cool and refreshed to do useful work.

When building my latest desktop I carefully did not install the suggested Intel Smart Connect driver. Still, there was something whispering in its ear to give it unquiet dreams. Gently put to sleep, tucked in with a comforting word each night, in the morning it would be up and humming busily. Maybe the NSA unleashed its robot crawlers to inspect my digital fewmets - questing, perhaps, for traces of renewed allegiances to those foreign princes and potentates whom I was supposed to renounce and abjure during the oath of citizenship.

It turns out there are many imps and daemons that are empowered to cause wakefulness, almost as many as hover about my own bed each night. Here's a swift trot through the ways to a better night's sleep, for your Windows 7 computer at least.

Deep in the bowels of the Windows install is a handy command-line tool powerfcg. Look for it in the folder Windows/system32.

Open a command prompt, run it with the -LASTWAKE flag, to see who it was the last time.

C:\Windows\system32>powercfg -LASTWAKE
Wake History Count - 1
Wake History [0]
  Wake Source Count - 1
  Wake Source [0]
    Type: Device
    Instance Path: USB\ROOT_HUB20\4&449fe53&0
    Friendly Name:
    Description: USB Root Hub
    Manufacturer: (Standard USB Host Controller)
Quite a few USB drives will install their own proprietary little driver, which wakes itself up periodically to see if there is any data to be moved around. Just plugging in a new USB can cause a sequence of sleepless nights.

Check to see who is empowered with the -devicequery wake_armed flag.
Wake armed ? like that bunch of lawless criminal deadbeat welshing rebels in Nevada ? No, these devices are innocuous in comparison with the America-haters.

C:\Windows\system32>powercfg -devicequery wake_armed
HID Keyboard Device
ASMedia XHCI Controller
USB Root Hub
HID-compliant mouse (002)
Atheros AR8151 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Controller (NDIS 6.20)

Off we go to go to Control Panel, Device Manager, expand each node looking for something that matches the device name as listed above, rightclick on that device name and select Properties, then on Power Mgmt tab for each of these, uncheck 'allow this device to wake'.

Looks like this,

 and then after the right-click, properties etc,

The keyboard was left allowed to wake, so a keystroke will awake it, but all other devices are disarmed.

Programs can also goad the exhausted boards back into action. See the Windows FAQ on sleep,
To prevent programs from waking your computer
    Open Power Options by clicking the Start button, clicking Control Panel, clicking System and Security, and then clicking Power Options.
    On the Select a power plan page, click Change plan settings for the plan that you want to change.
    On the Change settings for the plan page, click Change advanced power settings.
    On the Advanced settings tab, expand Sleep, expand Allow wake timers, choose Disable for both when your computer is running on battery and when it's plugged in, and then click OK.

All our computers run a nightly backup job in the wee hours, to save data to a NAS drive. So I didn't disable the wake timers, as we need the backup tasks to wake up and run.

Similarly to the above, the power plan can be set so the computer will automatically go to sleep after some set minutes of idleness. If only this worked as well for my monkey mind.. but I wander. The problem now is sometimes it doesn't go back to sleep after running the backups.

To fix this, run the horrible new Windows 7 Event Viewer. Start, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Event Viewer. Wait patiently for the immense gobs of .NET code to load and initialize. Then expand Windows Logs, select system, on RHS select 'Filter Current Log', pick 'Event Sources', pick 'Power Troubleshooter' to show all the wake events and their causes. Scroll through these to look for culprits.

Or, use the powercfg again:
powercfg -waketimers
shows everything with a wakeup,
powercfg -requests
shows what's keeping it up at night.
In this case,
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\srvnet
An active remote client has recently sent requests to this machine.

There should not be any remote clients for this machine.
Who is out there requesting things I cannot deliver ?
Trolling through the dismal swamps of online forums suggests:
- Go to Services and disable "Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service".
Disabled, no change.
- Start, Control Panel, Network and Internet, Network and Sharing Center, Advanced sharing settings
Check under media streaming to block all sharing.
Nope, that wasn't it either.
- look for the Server service. I do loathe it when Windows names its services with these multivalent signifiers, so they look more like infections than reputable services. Apparently the Server service serves up a delectable dish of heaven-knows-what from my computer to random queries from heaven-knows-where. I can't think of a good reason for it to do that. Start, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Services, locate the Server service, rightclick and disable.

Now at least my PC has quiet nights. With Windows 8.1 you are back on your own, have not attempted to debug its insomnia. Time for my tryptophan..

A poem by Charles Bukowski, for the ancestor of my Intel chip.

16-bit Intel 8088 chip

with an Apple Macintosh
you can't run Radio Shack programs
in its disc drive.
nor can a Commodore 64
drive read a file
you have created on an
IBM Personal Computer.
both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
the CP/M operating system
but can't read each other's
for they format (write
on) discs in different
the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
can't use most programs produced for
the IBM Personal Computer
unless certain
bits and bytes are
but the wind still blows over
and in the Spring
the turkey buzzard struts and
flounces before his

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

science sings a lullaby

The Sciences Sing a Lullabye
  by Albert Goldbarth
Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They'll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.

Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness an inch.
You aren't alone. All of the continents used to be
one body. You aren't alone. Go to sleep.

Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down and down.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

late season

Preferred time to go fishing is late September or early October, when all the other fishermen have started hunting and the crowds thin out. What with one thing and another it's usually late October by the time we actually show up, leading to crisp mornings at best and full flight just ahead of an incoming blizzard in most years. We had to stop at Albany County Weed and Pest in Laramie on the way out, to have the canoe inspected for invasive zebra mussels. The cheerful young woman in charge of pests cleared us for import at 6am, with a side conversation about pocket gophers, methods and techniques in control of.

This year the rains came late and hard, so there was still water in the rivers. This is of course Big Lost Creek, with Little Lost Creek coming in on the right. The 4wd road in was a mix of ice, snow, greasy mud, and ice-crusted puddles of indeterminate depth. Fortunately Ken has an actual fishing truck which is quite at home in these conditions. Coming over the top of the hills we found a recent hunting camp with a fine stack of cut wood from the beetle-killed pines. We inspected camp to find the gralloching crossbar in the trees with some tufts of fur beneath; concluding the hunt had succeeded and they would not be back, we salvaged the firewood. The deer watched us carefully. 

I fished all the way down that beautiful riffle without seeing so much as a fin. Despite years of experience to  the contrary I still expect trout to move to the streamer in three feet of clear water. In fact you need a large BB shot on the leader to take the fly down to just above the cobbles and sand of the bottom. Ken took pity and corrected my rig so it started working.  

This is the last legal pool on public land, with fiercely worded signs hedging the lower end, "Trespassers will be violated" or some such sentiments. Every year we contemplate tossing the canoe on the pool to take advantage of the strange water laws of the West, under which a legally navigable waterway cannot be closed and private: every year the fishing in this pool is good enough that we never quite take the trouble. 

That's the last grip-and-grin picture, I promise. The rest have only the beautiful fish and scenery unspoilt by some grinning ugly mug. Up on Little Lost Creek, Bucky and his friends had constructed a fifty-foot wide beaver dam across the lower end so the usual fall run of spawning browns up from the main river was blocked. Bloody engineers. 

There were still fish up there, but just the smaller resident browns and a few rainbows. This fine spotted fellow was in a small run, a sort of miniature steelhead pool, strong green currents folding into a deep obscurity at the bend from which he rose to savage the streamer.

Private property begins about a mile up this creek, beyond which is an industrialist's fortune invested in good solid Western land, plus cows. We fell back to the main creek in the late afternoon. 

This riffle always looks promising but it is quite shallow. Fished it at a hazard, hoping the good water year would provide some cover. By golly there they were, several strong silver red-spotted browns quickly, before I tangled the leader around the splitshot and broke everything off. It was late and we'd caught enough by then. 

An hour after dark the tent had between an eighth and a quarter inch of frost layered on, both inside and outside. Getting into the tent was accompanied by a sort of snowstorm as the frost showered down on my inadequate sleeping bag. That is the first time in my life I've had cold toes in a sleeping bag, even after wool socks. In the morning we left quickly, to drive up the greasy mud slopes while they were still frozen hard. Shortly after dawn back on the hills it was very Wyoming. 

Breakfast in a Riverside cafe, or was it Encampment ? One side of the river is Riverside town, the other Encampment. The prospect of uniting as a single town gives them something to argue about during the long winters. There are two establishments in the combined towns, one is better for eating, the other for drinking and fighting. We chose eating, with a comfortable table in the sun, where the nice waitress Rusty served us and a couple of hunters. 

On through Saratoga, once more surrounded by private property. On a bluff above the river a huge newish castle hangs over the waters, its copper roof now a subdued verdigris. The builder died recently leaving his acreage to a family indifferent to its prospects: the future's uncertain and the end is always near. In the old days the cowboys and ranch hands worked for wealthy cattle barons, now it is wealthy software barons, which is which. The Saratoga airport in July is choked with private jets up to and including Boeing 737s for which the runway had to be extended. We visited the Hot Springs free pool, but neither of the fools on this trip had thought to bring a towel, planning instead to cut our long underwear off just in time for the spring bath. 

Out on the plains the pronghorn mooned us, knowing full well the season was over. 

We made camp out at the implausible plains lake with the salvaged wood arranged for maximum sun and drying effect. It looked like we were preparing for a convivial evening with plenty of seating, instead of the two misanthropes grumbling like old dogs at the cold that in fact ensued. 

Fishing here was slow but good, fat happy rainbows swimming hard in the cold water. 

In the upper pool some huge brook trout were contemplating on spawning, insensible to anything we could offer. A fly tied for carp brought the biggest fish of the evening, 20" or so, lost near the boat when attention was not paid and I wrenched the fly out of its hold. 

Ken built a fire buttressed with the large damp logs. The breezes funneled through the cracks between the logs to create a sort of blast furnace effect, all Halloween orange and chimney red under a band of stars. 

In the morning both sage grouse and  pronghorn wandered by. The grouse crossed the road ahead of us with that 'who, me ?' look about the eyes to show they weren't really there, just sauntering by actually, we were just leaving.. 

Private land again, here opened to the public via an easement which does not allow for driving to the reservoir. Instead we have to hike the canoe through sagebrush. While I hiked back to fetch the anchor, Ken dealt with two huge slab-sided rainbows,  the second on a #22 fly and 6x leader in among willow bushes, for extra credit.

The brookies here were smaller but more willing fortunately. Please to forgive my blurry one-handed picture, I just like the colours.

The sun down, the light in the water dies and turns a hard flat grey. It is time to leave before winter closes on us.

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown. 
- Elizabeth Bishop, The Fish Houses

Monday, September 30, 2013


The black spots are cows. In between the cows are some white spots which are pronghorn alarm signals, or bottoms. Your task is to stalk to within 300 yards of these animals across the open plains..

We decided to try a pronghorn antelope hunt this year, instead of elk hunting, as the pronghorn are supposed to be easier than the seldom seen elk. This sure didn't look easy to me. Quite apart from the emptiness of the plains, the cows are even spookier than the game (which gives one to wonder what it is the cowboys are doing, that the cows find us so alarming). Ian and I dropped into an old water supply ditch, two to three feet deep, and followed its divagations slavishly, on hands and knees. Most of the pronghorn drifted off over the hill or down into little gullies out of sight, but one remained on the hill. We lay flat and watched. When the head dipped down to graze, we'd skulk a little nearer, freezing as soon as he looked around again. This got us within shot, but he was posed against the skyline. The hunter education course we both took is graphic in its illustrations of the horrors of skyline shots, where a missed shot could descend upon unwitting innocents out of sight below the hill. So, we waited, and waited, willing him to take five steps to the right where the shot would be safe: of course he took five steps to the left, and vanished over the hill. We sat up and contemplated the rich harvest of cactus spikes in our kneecaps. 

Empty empty Wyoming lands, miles of green rolling hills and not cover for an ant, anything not a pronghorn or cow gets spotted and spooked at instantly. Crawling doesn't help, they know full well what a crawling hunter looks like, and not so much as a sage bush to hide behind. Ian tried using cows for cover on one stalk, said that worked quite well to 400 yards out, then the cows got peeved and moved off. Apparently it can be helpful to have a horse, walk next to the horse and keep him between you and the antelope; they don't count legs, so a six-legged horse can get quite close. 

After the first day of the season, they figure out what is going on and no longer spook and bolt miles away, too exhausting my dear. Instead they keep a weather eye on you and drift slowly off, staying a safe 800 yards or so ahead. It's possible to cover a lot of country following a herd around, which we did before we figured out what was going on. I learn a little slower than the prey animals, no wonder I remain a hungry hunter. 

This is camp in the morning, after pitching the tent at 9pm last night. Two handsome beasts crossed the road a mile away in the first light, their white flanks absolutely glowing in the sun so they appeared spectrally large, spirit antelope in the dawn. Ian ran away from them and over a little ridge, hoping to sneak closer out of sight behind the ridge. About five minutes later both took fright at something in the unseen world and fled at top speed: a fine sight though discouraging. 

We breakfasted pensively. The Wyoming Game & Fish showed up in one of their monster pickups to check our hunting and camping permits. A different ranger had checked us the previous evening as I backed the minivan up a two-track road blocked by a couple of massive potholes. He said, "ah, just gun it, give it enough gas and you'll make it through". Neither of them said anything out loud about the minivan, but I could see them thinking. 

Parked on the side of the main county dirt road and wandered off again. Although the country is empty and treeless, there's a surprising amount of dead ground (US: dead space) where animals can be concealed. We found a nice big herd, ducked into a handy creek bed and ran two miles around, poked our noses out of the gully and there were 12 heads and 24 eyes all turned around and glaring straight at us. There must have been some noise or scent, fairly sure we were out of sight in the creek bed since I'd used the cows as height markers and couldn't see the cows, never mind the pronghorn behind them.

By this time the hunt area was being patrolled steadily on every two-track by some seven or eight trucks. We took refuge in our ditch again and waited to see if the other hunters would push some animals past us. There are three pronghorn in the picture above, which is why you carry 10x50 binoculars. It's also noticeable that I can no longer keep the camera level when taking a picture. EM Forster observed of Cavafy that the poet stood forever at a slight angle to the universe: in my case I appear to be listing slightly to the left as the years and I approach our meeting point. 

The unfortunate hunted beasts were by now thoroughly alarmed not to mention absent, so we quit and went home. They were all lined up along the main road to wave goodbye, standing safely on private land. 

Some weeks later Ian had Friday off school, so we drove up Thursday night in pouring rain and wind for the last weekend of the season. Since I am now old and weak we did not camp but instead stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find. In the case of success, we would have to stay in that hotel for all future hunts, by way of a talisman. This is a sort of hedging the bets: either we'd endure a cheap hotel night and have luck in the hunt, or we'd be able to pick a better hotel next time. If you don't have skills you have to bargain with the hunting gods as best you can.

Friday pre-dawn drive through the mud to the ranch was interesting at 10mph, fishtailing through the slop. If I could have seen the road conditions I would not have driven the minivan down there. We tried for a herd of a dozen or so, but they were using the ranch cows for cover. As we crawled through the snow in the ditch for half a mile, they just faded away to stay the regulation half-mile out. On the plus side, the snow protected us from another injection of cactus spines. 

Back over the hill and into the ditch on that side, there were three getting ready to bed down in the creek bed. I stayed back in the dead ground and sent Ian to crawl up on them. Again they drifted off, not spooked but not staying to be stalked either. After an hour Ian fired a warning shot in frustration. They trotted up the ridge, stopped to look back, then went over. Ian ran up a mile or so of uphill, used an old water tank on the top of the hill for cover, and approached keeping the tank between him and them. As he came out from behind the tank they started running, but he took the shot and got it. GPS showed it was a running shot at a hundred yards plus, in 25mph gusting wind, after dashing a mile or so uphill. The shot was about 3-6" back from a perfect hit. Clearly I just need to drive Ian to the hunting grounds and then get out of the way. 

Later we had pronghorn backstrap medallions for dinner. The Latin name for the pronghorn is Antilocapra americana, which means American goat-antelope, although it is neither a goat nor an antelope but sui generis. They are affectionately known in Wyoming as speed goats. The choice of wine was therefore obviously a nourishing gulp of Goats do Roam blend (Côtes du Rhône). 

The estate used to be known as Fairview, but this wine succeeded to such an extent the company became eponymous. They always had goats on the farm, for the milk to make artisanal goat cheese. I remember visiting the estate and its goat tower, buying some wine and cheese to have a pleasantly befuddled afternoon. They now have resident springbok as well, though the winelands of the western Cape are far from their native heath. 

These look much like pronghorn and occupy much the same ecological niche, though as the name implies their specialty is leaping rather than the straight run of the speed goat. A nostalgia for springbok may be one of the reasons I love to see pronghorn on the plains.