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Twelve: Red-shirt cutthroat

When I first visited Wyoming’s breathtaking expanses of sky, sagebrush, pine woods, and splashes of cars and junk strewn around trailers like exploded bombs, I lived in a brick room at the university in Laramie.

I’d have never had known about Wyoming from my concrete and baked-clay cell. It had a knocking radiator and a view of the squalor called “Married Student Housing.” Above the cinder block rows of unlucky couples and their kids rose the Cowboy Bowl, and the basketball arena, the Cowboy Dome. (I didn’t learn until after I left the dorm later that year to live in Crazy Bill’s house out in the sagebrush that the Cowboy Bowl was named War Memorial Stadium, and the Cowboy Dome was Willet Arena.)

Soon after I moved into the dorm, I felt graduate school was killing me. I didn’t know anyone. As much as I tried, I couldn’t really get to know anyone. I had a new baby in Kansas City and spent long weekends and holidays driving across Nebraska interstate. I was beat up, tired and torn-up, worried about grades and wondering just how much my daughter’s mom could torture me for leaving Kansas City to go to school.

School itself was a morgue of tedious, argumentative professors who nit-picked each other and their students. Most of them hated Wyoming. They seemed to be there either because they had tenure or were on their way somewhere else. The few happy people I met did not limit themselves to the morgue and didn’t work on their resumes. They spent a lot of time in hip waders. It was the best lesson I ever learned in school.

On weekends I didn’t head home to see my baby, I packed my backpack on Friday afternoons went up to the mountains east and west of Laramie Valley. When I went west, I often camped on the hump between the North Twin lakes high up in the Snowy Mountains. It was there ghosts of Indians saved me from myself.

One weekend, I had gone to the North Twin lakes to be alone (my remedy for loneliness). It was mid-morning on a clear Friday in early fall when I left my professor muttering to himself. He always sounded the same to me, and I was sure he would sound the same the following Monday morning.

The North Twin lakes lay in a crease in the Snowy Mountains. They were jewels of clear water and for men and women who walked more than a mile from their cars above Brooklyn Lake. By mid-afternoon, my fly rod had guided me up the winding trail through the woods and past an ice field and beaver ponds and up onto the ledge holding the North Twin lakes. It was cool in an autumn’s-coming sort of way that hinted cold and snow.

That day, as I came over the crest of a ridge above the lakes, I thought the white man who named the lakes had a poor idea of what twins were. At best, the North Twin lakes were fraternal twins or offspring of different fathers. Mostly, they seemed like distant cousins or friends who happened to like the same view. The east lake was small and shallow, a pretty pond, really. It remained a North Twin Lake so long as winter snow pack was thick enough to fill it to the brim in the spring melt. When it didn’t snow much, it was lucky to be a North Twin at all. I had heard from Forest Service rangers that the east lake would evaporate from the grassy ledge time to time and leave the west Twin up there all by itself. When the east Twin receded, rings of wildflowers, mosses and reeds followed the water until the lake vanished in a hush into a muddy sump in the middle.

The west Twin Lake, on the other hand, was deep and spread out wide over the glacial ledge. The Snowies above fell into the west side of the lake down stair-step bluffs of feldspar, granite, quartz, mica, and fool’s gold. A grassy hump rose on the east side of the lake, separating it from its sometimes partner. Along most of the hump, pines tried to grow in the winds that roared down Brown’s Peak in the north and from the rest of the Snowy Mountains in the west. The pines grew in clumps mostly, clusters of flags waving to the southeast.

I thought standing there that the Indians probably had a better name for the lakes, or perhaps different names for each lake. I imagined an Indian name that conveyed a sense of the wind-swept ledge where the lakes sat watch over the Laramie Valley. The names would have described the yawning, cloud-filled gaps below that led down to the valley, lined with scraggly pines, and the rocky creeks with strong cutthroat trout running up in them. Bear, badger, elk, wolverine, and mountain lion were in those names, as well as jittery magpies, marmots who sat about like rugs, squeaky pikas and mice (lots of mice), kestrels, owls, eagles and hawks. Perhaps the Indians had better memories than white men and put big, woolly, overly toothed, slow moving creatures from an earlier age in those names. Maybe, they even put the land before the uplift in the names, and the dinosaurs that roamed there, the fish that swam there before that and the meteors and comets before them.

But that’s the dreaming of a white man who wants Indians to be more than people. Whatever the Indians called the lakes, they could never have called them trout havens. Fed only by snowpack, the lakes never had a connection to the Laramie, where the cutthroat were. Without a stream for the trout to get to the lakes, pretty as they were, they never had a chance to be home to anything but bugs.

By the way, hardly anything in Wyoming has an Indian name.

Taking a break from reading history tests once in the university library, I picked up a plainly bound book, a doctoral thesis, Trout Fisheries of the Snowy Range. A section of the book recounted the history of trout in the North Twin lakes. In 1977, the Forest Service planted cutthroat to get something touristy going on those lakes. A couple of kids on summer duty took several buckets of cutthroat fingerlings from the hatchery near Saratoga up to Brooklyn Lake and then hiked those buckets up to the twins. The fish thrived in the big lake, the west lake. But according to the book, the east lake was too shallow. Hawks plucked the trout out of that lake claw-full at a time. Trout that escaped the hawks lived until the lake froze solid that winter and trapped them like bugs in those clear Lucite balls some people keep on their desks.

But the west lake was a perfect home for cutthroat. The water was pure, the lake deep and filled with plenty of places for trout to hide and breed. Few cattle came up this high and even fewer people.

The lack of a stream from the lake to the Laramie also meant most trout anglers would never have thought fish were in there had they not been told. And almost no one said a thing about trout at the North Twin lakes, almost as if the Forest Service forgot they sent kids up there with those fingerlings. Those trout stayed in that west lake, reproducing from year to year. Since mountain men and hunters trapped, shot, and snared the bears and badgers that would have eaten them, they were safe. Birds of prey, who’d lived through the shooting better than the bears had, mostly found easier pickings in beaver ponds farther down the mountain.

I walked down the ridge toward the lakes. The wind was calm for once up there. I dropped my pack on the hump between the lakes and pulled on my vest and grabbed my fly rod. I found a spot on a corner of the west lake where the rock spilled into the water in level steps. The rocks were like a furniture store of chairs in hundreds of styles. I took up in a fool’s gold and mica-feldspar model and cast an Adams out about twenty feet. The bottom dropped off there, and the trout could find good hiding places in holes and under rocks. The afternoon sun was on the opposite side of the lake from me. I watched those cutthroat in silhouette as they swam up off the ledge and went for my flies. I would have sat down and tried the back rest on a granite-in-lichen recliner, but trade was furious in trout, mosquitoes, and deer flies. I caught my limit in less than an hour.

They were not big trout, but none of the trout in the west lake of the North Twin lakes were big. The altitude was too high, the water too cold and the season too short for trout to get much bigger than eight or nine inches. And trout that big were the elders of the lake, having escaped the hawks and the fin rot and the parasites and the anglers. I poached the trout I caught on my pack stove with water from the east lake and ate them with saltines.

There wasn’t much to do and no people around. Porcupines and skunks might visit later, but those whose ancestors had not become prey for 30.06es were still up high away from the tourists. Bears in that area mostly frequented memories or bad dreams, depending. I gathered enough wood from under the flagpoles to have a good fire.

I read, napped, read some more, and watched evening fall as clouds rolled in. I was hungry again and wanted to fish some more, so I reverently cremated evidence of my earlier meal and caught my limit again. I felt bad, except when I was eating those tiny cutthroat. I had never caught my limit more than once in a day. Of course, the second limit was really over the limit, so it could have nothing to do with a limit at all. I was in violation.

After I started the fire and I fired my pipe, I felt so bad that had a red shirt come over the hump, I probably would have turned myself in. I knew that Wyoming Game and Fish agents were called “red shirts,” although they never wore the signature red flannel shirts except in television public service announcements and in pictures on Game and Fish literature. From other anglers’ accounts, they mostly looked like guys named Bud, who sidled up to you at fishing spots, made like they were your pals, then asked you for your fishing license.

Instead of red shirts (or Buds), night crept over the hump. Time began to ease my bad feelings and soon my pipe sent up guilt-free smoke signals. After dark, the wind kicked up and whipped the fire around and tortured the lakes. The air grew frigid. I rolled my tent out, crawled in and was soon asleep.

But I had not slept long when gusts bustling down Brown’s Peak woke me. The tent bowed and its flaps flapped. I listened to the tent and the wind and thought of the trout in the depths of the west North Twin lake. I thought of their names, and of the Indians and their names. When I finally fell back to sleep, I didn’t fear anything—not my daughter’s mom, not my grades, not my spindly professor (whose name really was Bud). I was no longer alone.

Here’s how I know: I dreamed hoards of Bud-looking white men (both Professor Bud and real Buds) in bearskins and red shirts came over the hump to ticket me. Whenever they got close enough to grab me, the Indians—who had risen up from the east lake and who had run down the naked flanks of Brown’s Peak in the wind—drove the red shirts into the riotous waters of the west North Twin lake for the cutthroat to catch and eat.

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