Fishing can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For my wife Aimee and I, it’s always been a vehicle; a vehicle to adventure and explore places we’d never dreamed possible. As I unzipped our tent door and felt the crisp, thin air of our 9,300-foot-high campsite rush into my lungs, my mind immediately went to the rod case I’d stashed outside the tent, which held an engagement ring I’d smuggled in without Aimee’s knowledge. Lifting my hand to shade my eyes from the sun I squinted and gazed across the emerald green waters of Sylvan Lake. A large stone cirque hugged the far shore, and the rocky bluffs surrounding the edges were sparsely dotted with gnarled, stunted pines. Only the hardiest creatures can survive at these elevations, and even they struggle during the short summer season in a scramble to obtain enough resources for the long icy winter. This fishing trip was far from ordinary, but then again, very few things we do are.
Three months before our trek into the high country of southwest Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Aimee and I had left our home on the East Coast. We moved into our brown 1985 VW camper van, which Aimee had affectionately dubbed “Bullwinkle” with one goal in mind: to spend as much time as humanly possible fishing, hiking, and exploring the vast expanse of the American West. We’d quit our day jobs, piled our cameras and fishing gear in the van and set off in search of adventure, with no plan other than to document our travels and hope to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.
I knew long before we embarked I was going to ask Aimee to marry me that summer, and I assumed the opportunity would present itself somewhere along the way as we meandered through some of the most breathtaking and pristine landscapes North America had to offer. But as August waned, and so did our funds, I knew the opportunity to do it somewhere special was slipping through my fingers. I’d heard a rumor about a place, and more importantly of a fish that was so rare, and so hard to reach that few people even knew of its existence. That fish was the California Golden Trout, and upon discovering that a genetically pure, wild population of them had found an unlikely home in the Montana mountains I knew I’d have to get us there.
Golden trout are a genetic anomaly. A subspecies of rainbow trout, they distinguished themselves on the evolutionary ladder through glacial isolation nearly 10,000 years ago. A small population of rainbow trout, separated by the vast ice sheets grinding across the continent, developed unadulterated in the Kern River drainage in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Why they developed such brilliant hues of blaze orange and canary yellow is a bit of a mystery, but after being discovered by mountaineers in the late 1800s their iridescent brilliance was coveted by sportsmen the world over. Attempts to transplant the rare, gaudy salmonids began almost immediately. However having adapted to live in such a unique environment, their habitat requirements were increasingly hard to replicate. Hundreds if not thousands of attempts were made, but very few yielded success.
The story of how golden trout came to inhabit Sylvan Lake is as strange and unlikely as any.
In the early 1900s, a crop of juvenile goldens were being transported over the Rockies to the East Coast when the locomotive suffered a mechanical failure. Realizing that the fish would die before the repair was complete, the transporters hiked the fish to the nearest alpine lake and dumped them in figuring they’d at least have a fighting chance. These “bucket biologists” had very little understanding of the trout’s habitat requirements and chose the lake at random, but by some miracle, the fishless pond had just the right combination of gravel, rock and dissolved oxygen to be a golden trout nirvana.
As the population in Sylvan grew, the same practices that brought the trout there began to threaten their counterparts in California. Non-native cutthroat and rainbow trout were stocked in the Kern River system, and their genetics were similar enough to hybridize with the native goldens. Soon the pedigree of the California golden trout was in jeopardy even within its home waters. In contrast, the golden trout of Sylvan Lake have remained genetically pure for the last century, and are now being used as part of an effort to restock many waters, including their home range in the Sierra.
Finding information about the lake was difficult, and the accounts I could find were discouraging. The hike was said to be excruciating, and past travelers had recounted trouble with grizzly bears around their tent at night. Aimee was terrified of bears, and after managing to go an entire season without an encounter, she was none too keen to spend an overnight amongst them on the final leg of our trip. I couldn’t tell her exactly why it was so important that we hike to this particular lake, and I don’t blame her for being skeptical. We’d had an incredible summer full of wild adventures, why now, should we break our backs hiking into the mountains to catch yet another species of trout, something we’d already spent the last three months doing. Recounting the strange tale of how the golden trout of Sylvan Lake came to be, I assured her it would be a long time before we had a similar opportunity again. With the addition of few a little white lies about the lack of bear activity in the area, she reluctantly agreed to the trip.
We arrived at the base of the mountains in the early hours of the morning. The two-hour drive on poorly maintained dirt roads was harrowing enough, but there was a palpable sense of nervousness as we studied the imposing rocky peaks above us. Dew coated our clothes as we meandered our way through the first half-mile of brushy trail before turning steeply upwards. The hike was seven miles, but it gained over 3,000 feet of elevation from the trailhead. We hadn’t done a tremendous amount of alpine backpacking, and we’d brought forty pounds of camera gear with us on top of already overladen packs. The grade was unrelenting, and once we began our ascent there was no respite for the next six hours. We stopped periodically to lean our packs against the hillside, still strapped to our shoulders, like a turtle flipped on its shell. The difficulty of taking the heavy packs on and off was too great, and it was easier to rest this way. “You got this, we’re almost there…” I kept reassuring Aimee.
Sometime around mid-afternoon, we crested the top of the mountains, to a long grass-covered knoll. Could this be it? Surely the lake was just over this hill. Celebrating our success, we paused for lunch, setting our packs down and admiring the 360-degree views of the mountains. We’d traversed several drainages by now and could no longer see the valley we’d started from. We hadn’t seen another soul all day and surrounded by the imposing spires of rock and snow we felt utterly alone and insignificant.
We repacked our bags and forged onwards. After a quarter mile descent, the trail once again turned sharply upwards. We wiped the sweat from our eyes and stared up at the switchbacks. “Nothing worth having comes easy…” I thought to myself. No part of this felt like fishing, but I knew that what we’d come there to do. “Well, it’s way too late to turn back, and there’s nothing for us here. We’ve gotta keep going!” I said in my best impression of rally cry. An hour later we were standing, out of breath and sore, looking down at the glistening waters of Sylvan Lake. The uncertainty of the morning now a distant memory. Our packs miraculously felt 20 pounds lighter as we skipped our way down the loose rocks towards the shore. We ditched our bags and set up our rods, and two minutes later I heard a shriek of excitement as the first explosion of fiery yellow slashed at Aimee’s fly. As she brought the fish to hand we both stared down utter awe and disbelief. No literature, photograph, or even our wildest imaginations could have prepared us for the beauty of the creature she cradled at her feet.
We silently mused about the journey that both we and the fish had independently taken to meet at that very moment, in the low afternoon sun, nearly 10,000 feet in the sky. It was an experience we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. We fished until the sun set, catching dozens of beautiful golden trout, each one a unique and lustrous jewel. I’d periodically scan our surroundings, half expecting to see hordes of other anglers cresting the hill, come to partake of the incredible bounty stashed away in these remote mountains. But none appeared; a true testament to the difficulty of reaching the lake.
I paced nervously along the rocky shore, fingering the small amethyst crowned ring in my pocket as I waited to hear the zipper of our tent door. Forest fires to the west had brought an otherworldly haze to the morning sun. This was it, and I knew it. After enjoying a cup of coffee together and recounting the previous days adventure I knelt down in from of Aimee, and there, as the only two people for 100-square miles, in one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been, I asked her to marry me. It was the perfect culmination of an incredible season of adventure. But our aspirations to chase after fish and seek out new and unique opportunities didn’t stop there. To the contrary, it was just the beginning. It’s been two years since we hiked into the Beartooths in search of gold, and we’ve had many incredible adventures since. Some might find it odd, the great lengths we go to in pursuit of fish, but that’s the life we’ve chosen to live; one of wilderness and wonder, and one that’s anything but ordinary.
You can read more about Chase’s trip at Discover Interesting.