Fishing with Will
by Justice Greg Hobbs
We are headed west in brother Will’s pickup truck, saddled up with Dad’s six-horse Johnson outboard motor and a small metal boat strapped across the top of the cab — two Colorado River fishermen on the way to Lee’s Ferry from the Durango airport, the last week of July 2009.
"Can we take the McElmo Creek turnoff?" I say at a fork in the road, south of Cortez. I am thinking Monument Valley.
In the summer of 1964, on a three-day 1,000 mile sojourn from our staff jobs at Philmont Scout Ranch, we had crossed the Navajo Reservation in our grandfather’s ’55 Olds from Gallup, New Mexico to Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, where we hiked down to White House ruins, then passed through the fantastic spires and buttes of Monument Valley. We turned east by way of Bluff, Utah, and took the Colorado San Juan Mountain route past Chimney Rock over Wolf Creek Pass, then went up the San Luis Valley, and out through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River, back to Cimarron. I was just short of 20; Will was 17, brothers loosed to the Four Corners more than we could have ever guessed.
We make part of that trip in reverse now. The Sixties have become our 60s. Will lives in Durango; I’m in Denver. "Comb Ridge!" he announces. "They found Everett Ruess here this spring. Apparently he’d been robbed and murdered."
Will’s book, The Big Wander (1992), credits Ruess for "the idea of a boy, burro, and dog adventuring in the canyon country. The tiny dog that rides the burro’s pack in this story is named after Everett’s dog, Curly, as a tribute to this remarkable young man who disappeared in the canyons of the Escalante in 1934." Ruess was 20 when he vanished.
Will’s inscription on my first edition copy reads: "To my big brother Greg/We slept by the side of the road along old Route 66/ Bound for Baldy or Whitney and all the years to come/Rediscovering the magic lands."
Baldy Mountain straddles the Sangre de Cristo Mountains within Philmont. Mt. Whitney anchors the Sierra Nevada. At the end of our 1964 staff summer, Will and I ran up and down Whitney in one day from the trailhead outside Lone Pine on the way back home to northern California. At the end of that 1965 summer, we hiked 120 miles of the Muir Trail from Devil’s Postpile on the east side along the spine of the "Range of Light" and out the west side through Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon National Park.
Ruess cut his wilderness teeth in the polished rock of the High Sierra, but the hues of the red rock canyon country have his name written on them. He sent his last letter to his brother, Waldo, from the town of Escalante, Utah, ending with "So, tomorrow I take to the trail again, to the Canyons south."
A long north-south monocline of the Triassic age, Comb Ridge looms white in a sea of red, a quirk of weathering sandstone. A current survey of the ridge by the Bureau of Land Management reveals mile-on-mile of desert canyon ancestral Puebloan roads, like those fanning in and out of Chaco Canyon that Craig Childs describes from his walks in House of Rain. Ruess loved beauty, but he was no vagabond. Ruess’s woodcut of Square Tower House in Mesa Verde testifies that he engaged in an ongoing quest to follow past and present Native American migration ways.
Apparently on the way to Comb Ridge, he left his two burros in the Escalante Canyon (burros don’t do water), crossed the Colorado River, and continued his journey with mules from Navajo friends he’d made over the course of the three years he’d spent exploring the Colorado River plateau. He was killed and buried in a rim crevice of Comb Ridge where it runs into the San Juan near Chinle Wash. An April 2009 National Geographic adventure article reports the DNA identification of his remains, and how a Navajo family revealed the grave site 75 years after his death.
Will and I came of age in this canyon country in 1964, the year Congress passed the Wilderness Act. We’ve been following Ruess’s tracks ever since. Now, we pass on through Monument Valley to Lee’s Ferry where Ruess intended to go, had he survived Comb Ridge.
We launch the little metal boat. With camping and fishing equipment loaded, it’s fit only for two. Will is at the tiller. I’m at the prow, river map in hand. We buck the current upstream 16 miles to the Glen Canyon dam, our father’s six-horse Johnson barely gaining to stay afloat in some onrushing reaches. Roaring out of Lee’s Ferry, guided fishing boats scoot past us heading upstream for the trout waters. Big rafts loaded with families on half-day morning and afternoon runs pass downstream from a put-in at the base of the dam. As we do, they stop on the upper end of Horseshoe Bend and walk along a cliff face to see the mountain sheep petroglyphs, as fine as any I’ve seen anywhere on the Colorado plateau these past four decades.
We enjoy the Ferry Swale and Nine Mile campsites to ourselves on successive nights. No motors running. We watch brilliant desert sunsets light the canyon rims and towers up, fading just as quickly. We see the great blue heron do their early morning fishing off the sand bars. We catch a lot of trout and put them back, except the ones we keep for dinner. We meet a dory river guide, Kate Thompson, who is preparing a story and photos for an upcoming Grand Canyon issue of Arizona Highways. We spot her dory Skagit and the two kayaks of her group at different locations as we ply our drifts in the pools and the riffles.
I call this stretch of the lower Glen Canyon between Lake Powell and Lee’s Ferry, where Marble Canyon begins, the "Forgotten 16" because it’s sandwiched between the greatest of all river runs and the most popular flat water recreation area in the west.
Will’s done the great Grand Canyon trip downstream from Lee’s Ferry 10 times with his wife Jean on their own raft. His books Downriver and River Thunder brim with those experiences, sounding of the canyon wren. I’ve done the Grand down to Phantom Ranch with them, Will at the oars. Then, twice with my wife Bobbie on an outfitted motorized trip from Lee’s Ferry to Whitmore Wash. There’s nothing like the Grand anyhow you can do it.
But fishing with my brother in the Forgotten 16 — that’s a part of our respective Four Corners journeys I’ll not be forgetting. Upon the rocks at sunset on the Horseshoe Bend, Will says to me, "I got to the camping because you were doing it and it turned out just right for me."
Ruess wrote, "When I go I leave no trace. The beauty of the country is becoming part of me." The Navajo night chant repeats in many variations the refrain "In beauty I walk." Will and I have a Boy Scout camp to thank for launching us into the center of the magic lands.