Despite hearty efforts and owning my own fly rod, I am not much of a fisherman.
Neil and Ian Provo, on the other hand, are fish whisperers, and much like my fishing they’re equally new and equally ambitious to the mountain biking scene. We do have two things in common, however: we all love trout and we all love mountains, especially the nearby Uinta Mountains.
As fellow Utah residents, we’ve all spent time among the Uintas’ 11,000-plus-foot peaks, and so during the late summer of 2013 we started dreaming about a way to combine the two. The Uintas are riddled with trails and trout streams, and after poring over topo maps we came up with a plan for a perfect shoulder season adventure.
The concept was ambitious, but in theory simple: connect multiple drainages in the Uintas, traveling by bike and carrying everything we needed on our backs. We’d ride one mountain pass per morning, aiming to arrive at each spot in time to throw some flies, and, theoretically, catch enough fish to fuel our pedaling.
As far as we knew it hadn’t been attempted, and many of the trails we intended to use were all but forgotten. But that was the idea. Without the thousands of dollars, months of planning and multiple travel days an expedition usually takes, we would venture into a far corner of our backyard and hopefully find ourselves as equally off the map.
It only takes a few minutes of climbing with a 40-pound pack to understand why many photographers refer to their camera bags as “angry midgets.” It takes even fewer minutes of descent to understand how angry that metaphorical midget can actually be.
After splitting up gear at the trailhead, the morning of our departure we spread out the map on the hood of our truck and look over the climb that will kick off the trip. As we slog upwards, the extra weight of our packs swings side-to-side as if trying to pull us off our bikes, and our suspension and tires compress like a Taiwanese scooter carrying a family of four. We are forced to stop and add air to each, but luckily soon reach our first trail junction and first descent, a classic, high-speed downhill through high-Utah forest. That is, high-speed until we roll into the burn.
Wildfire, much of it human-caused, is a regular visitor to many parts of Utah, and in 2002 a group of unsupervised Boy Scouts decided to have a campfire in one of the nearby drainages. The resulting inferno torched over 14,000 acres, and in the decade since the trails in the burned area have been neglected. To a mountain biker, carrying a bike over a downed tree is disheartening. When it’s over 200 downed trees, most charred black, it’s soul-crushing. So when we reach the first, then 12th, then 80th tree along the barely visible path, what should have been a few easy down-hill miles turn to long hours of suffering.
Still, with fiery death comes life, and the forest floor is green with new growth, signaling a new biological generation. Dropping deeper into the drainage, we ride into a young aspen grove, the quaking leaves the color of the fire that ripped through 12 years earlier. It is both a sign of fall and a healing ecosystem, further proven when a trout jumps through our wheels while we cross a creek. While we can’t fish due to our smudged and sweaty delay, we take it as a good omen.
As we set up camp the sunset burns the sky to black, and soon flames crackle in our own small campfire. Despite our exhaustion we stay up deep into the night, trading stories of past adventures and hopes for the days ahead—no cell service or Wi-Fi, just each other and the dark wilderness around us.
The next morning we wake to cold, overcast skies, and quickly start a warming fire while we eat breakfast and pack up. Having not fished the afternoon before, we set up the rods and spend the morning fishing—the morning and too much of the afternoon, as today we have two passes to climb to reach our next camp spot. Still, Neil and Ian live up to their whisperer status and both catch fish. I am not as lucky, but in the mountains every victory is shared.
For better or worse, however, so is every challenge, and the next push over Deadman’s Pass is well deserving of the title. The Boy Scouts’ blaze continues over the pass, and while the young aspens—also in the fiery throes of fall—are beautiful, the scorched trunks once again litter the trail. This time, however, we’re not struggling down hill. Between the downed trees and steep pitch, the climb to the pass is treacherous. Then rain begins to fall from the heavy clouds, and the footing turns to muddy peanut butter. It’s a full-on, hike-a-bike survival scramble, and by the time we reach the saddle we’re exhausted. One down, one to go.
Luckily there is a short downhill before the next, and we speed through more aspens towards the second pass, wistfully discussing the specifics of our first meal back in civilization as we make the last big push. It’s only two hours until dark, and we nibble Clif Bars as we prep for the long descent to camp. It’s not steak, but for the moment they’ll have to do.
The trail is fast, full of perilously loose rocks and high-speed corners, difficult for even the best riders. Weighted with packs and with limited riding experience, it’s a gauntlet for Neil and Ian. Neil is the type of person who jumps into everything completely, and had decided if he was going to mountain bike he was going to use clipless pedals. While this will most likely prove to be a wise decision in the future, at the moment it means lots of furious leg twisting before falling on his side—quite entertaining, but also sketchy, as a broken wrist would end the trip and mean a long, long push out.
It becomes less entertaining as it gets darker and colder, and just as we roll into camp it begins to rain. We set up quickly and slide into our tents, hoping for dreams of burgers, fries and a tall beer.
The USDA recommends a 2,600-ish daily calorie intake for the younger, moderately active adult male. Depending on flavor, a Clif Bar has just over 200 calories, a ramen noodle package about 200 calories, and a four-ounce trout fillet just under 200 calories. For an extremely active adult, in cold weather and high-stress situations, that daily requirement jumps to as high as 5,000 and beyond. For three exhausted, fly-fishing mountain bikers (or mountain biking flyfisherman, for the Provos), that’s a lot of Clif Bars and ramen, especially when you’re not catching any fish.
When we wake the next morning, the sky is clear and crisp, and the river passing by camp is beautiful—both in aesthetics and the potential aquatic calories it may contain. Technically, we’ve brought enough food to survive; however, with the big days and cold temps “technically” isn’t enough, and suddenly fishing becomes more than just a recreational activity. We have a huge day ahead, climbing onto a 10,000-plus-foot butte where we’ll pitch our final campsite, and the only extra food is in the river.
Whereas Neil and Ian’s lack of mountain bike experience became apparent during yesterday’s technical descent, my lack of fishing experience is obvious as we spend the morning tossing flies. The Provos give good advice, and I quickly improve—not enough though, as catching anything proves difficult for even the fish-whispering duo. Finally Neil lands a few small (but blessedly edible) trout, and we hurry back to camp to revive last night’s campfire and light the Jetboil. Add some ramen, and it is easily the best trout I’ve ever had.
Somewhat satiated, we pull down camp and load up. Our route today is on the map, but the trail is seldom used due to its remoteness. Despite a thorough search we can’t find the thing, and instead opt for an old mining road, hoping to intersect the trail higher up. We wonder over the strange assortment of stones that litter the road, but the pull of our packs turns our attention back to the climb. Soon the two-track narrows to singletrack, and eventually crosses the trail.
We pedal higher, and the top of the butte comes into view, but so does an impending and ominous storm, its dark clouds fast approaching. Temperatures drop by the minute, and soon we are shivering and soaked through. Lightning rides in on the rain, and when we finally arrive at our planned campsite we find shelter in a stand of scraggly pines—at 10,000 feet, “shelter” is a relative term. We set up tents and get a fire going, trying to dry our clothes out in the rain (it works about as well as you’d expect) before giving up and retreating to the tents.
The sunset that final morning cancels out some of our previous misery. It’s one of the most stunning we’ve ever seen, the early morning light spilling into the mountain valleys below like a flood of gold. The fire and a cup of coffee hold off the worst of the chill, and we relax and plan while the Jetboil roars away.
Then we hear the thunder.
Deep on the western horizon are some of darkest clouds any of us have ever seen, made worse by the fact that we’re basically even with the storm. Its menacing reach stretches off in both directions, hiding its full magnitude and leaving us to fearful speculation. Later we will find out this is the same storm that ravaged Boulder, CO a few days later. At the moment, we just know we need to get the hell off this butte.
Neither of our two options, however, are promising. We can either: A) pedal away from the brewing clouds and back the way we came, putting us two days away from the truck and stretching our already meager food supply; or B), charge directly into the storm, across the butte and towards a possibly grown-over trail, all while hoping not to get struck by lightning. Hungry, tired and soaked through, we start towards the blackness.
It is an odd feeling to be headed into the belly of this beast, almost like heading into war. The storm is alive, battering us with gusts of wind, striking the peaks around us with flashes of lightning and roaring with thunder. We make it through unscathed, and not only find the trail but also a dirt road. It is decision number two of the day: singletrack or gravel shred.
While this is normally a no brainer, we are literally scared for our lives and agree the latter is the only reasonable option. We hunker under a grove of pine trees for a snack and map check, linking a winding route of dirt roads that will lead us to safety. It seems we’ve been beaten by the monster raging overhead, but sometimes listening to the mountains’ advice is the wisest course. They know much better than we do.
After many dirt road miles and just before the truck, we reach our final river crossing. Since the storm has passed we decide to salvage the day by throwing some flies. My mind may be thoroughly set on a burger, but I’m also more motivated than any other point on the trip. I’m the only one who hasn’t caught a fish, and while that’s something I’m used to it’s also something I’m determined to change.
After a little guidance from the Provos, I finally feel the tell-tale tug at the end of the line. I know in a few hours we’ll be devouring massive burgers at the Hi-Mountain restaurant in Kamas, but at the moment no burger or milkshake matters. It’s just me and the hidden trout, connected by a piece of monofilament that feels more like a nerve than a fishing line, and after a few minutes I pull it in, both of us exhausted.
It’s a feeling like nothing else, and just as the Provos survived their first mountain bike epic, I’ve survived my first fishing expedition. It’s down-home exploring, filling in a blank on a very personal map, as challenging as any far-flung journey and equally as rewarding.