My mind was filled with stories of mythical creatures as we embarked on our overnight trip to a high mountain lake. Our hike was a mere mile and a half, but what it lacked in longevity it easily made up in arduous conditions. Over a mile alone, we gained 400 feet of elevation. As we climbed up the ridge, we traveled back in time. The valley was devoid of snow, but in higher elevations, the snow was receding at a much slower rate. Four feet of snow blanketed the ridge that we were traversing. We did not bring snowshoes, and we were post-holing up to our waists. Our trail was obscured by a tangled mass of deadfall, evidence of a massive storm that swept across the ridge many years ago. We ducked under hung-up trees and walked the plank across networks of felled giants, hoping that we wouldn't post-hole through the snow and get impaled on a broken-off branch. A hike that should have taken less than an hour ended up taking two hours.
The further we hiked, the more we questioned whether or not the lake would still be iced over. As doubts about the prospect of fishing were swirling in our minds, massive cumulonimbus clouds rolled over the ridge to the West. Regardless of the prospects of fishing, we needed to set up camp; we could not hike across a ridge and through a forest of snags in a thunderstorm.
Our first glimpse of the lake was disheartening. The entire lake appeared to be covered in ice and snow; however, as we hiked down the ridge to the lake, we realized that the Southern edge of the lake had melted, exposing six feet of open water. On the edge of the lake, we were given our first glimpse of an Arctic Grayling. We could see the massive dorsal fin, and we saw flashes of iridescence. It was all I could do to focus on the task at hand before setting up my fly rod. With the approaching storm, we needed to set up camp.
Finding a camp site proved to be a challenge. The lake was surrounded by dead snags, and in places the snow was as deep as six feet. The only site we could find that was free of snags was on the edge of the lake. The snow was particularly deep, and the site was surrounded by an even-aged stand of conifer trees.
As we set up camp, the wind picked up and huge clouds continued to roll over the ridge. Thunder echoed around the mountains, sounding like sheet metal bending and shaking. Just as we finished hanging our food, setting up our tents, and gathering firewood, it began to rain.
Luckily, the storm skirted around the ridge above the lake. Multiple storm bands passed over and around us throughout the afternoon, but none of them hit our camp directly. With camp set up and a fire ready to be lit, we set up our fly rods and headed to the edge of the lake.
The fish were ferociously hungry. One by one, we experienced the magic of the Sailfish of the North, and the fight they put up was impressive. When a fish took a fly, it would erect its sail and the dorsal fin would flash red, blue and green as it danced through the water.
As soon as I pulled the fish out of the water to take out the fly, the bright colors vanished and were replaced by red spots and orange and grey stripes. When I released the fish in the water, the iridescence of the fins returned instantly. The magic of the Grayling held me spell-bound.
Like many before me, I attempted to capture the beauty of the Arctic Grayling through photography. These frozen moments are just a shadow of the true beauty of these fish.
Each of us kept one fish to eat for dinner. We were told by local anglers that the fish in this lake are stunted due to overpopulation. As we sat by the fire, images of iridescent dorsal fins kept running through my mind. I fell asleep wondering if I would wake up and realize that it was all a dream.
We awoke to thunderstorms. Rain, and maybe hail, bounced off of our tent fly. After the storm passed, we made a fire and had breakfast. A thin layer of ice covered the water on the edge of the lake. I was anxious to fish, because I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t all a dream.
We broke camp after eating bread and cheese, and we started the trek across snow and downed trees. We followed our tracks back along the ridge, and soon we realized that we were not the only ones to do so. A black bear had followed our trail, stepping perfectly within each of our steps.
Somewhere along the ridge, we lost our tracks from the day before, and we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory. After retracing our steps and looking for landmarks on the horizon through the thick trees, we managed to figure out where we needed to go. The return trip took us an extra hour.
Looking on maps afterwards, we still can’t figure out exactly where we were when we were lost. To get our bearings, we hiked to a high point and were able to see Mt. Moran and a tall ridge to the north. Upon reviewing topographic maps and Google Earth after the hike, it appears that his view should not be possible.
Perhaps our maps or our navigational skills are flawed, or perhaps we were looking for what we wanted to see. Either way, we held magic in our hands, and that memory will not fade quickly.