Venturing into the southern regions of Utah during late summer, there is a palpable sense of desolation.
But as one approaches the town of Bicknell on State Road 24, a looming swell appears on the horizon- a distant, hazy blue plateau that seems to rise into the stratosphere and dwarfs the surrounding hills. This is Boulder Mountain, a 10,000 ft. island in a sea of desert, an oasis where snow is still visible in July, and water is relatively plentiful.
There is a bit of folklore with how “The Boulder” got its moniker. Legend has it that when the first maps of the area were being drawn up, its chosen name “Thousand Lake Mountain” was swapped with a range to the North that contains Fish Lake, but few other bodies of water. Boulder Mountain is home to scores of lakes, and the story goes that locals upheld the swap of names to protect their fishing spots. The truth of this tale is lost to history, but the supposed reason for wanting to keep the mountain secret is as real today as it was then.
Fish and game are not the only things that have made the mountain a valuable asset to people for over a century. Towns surrounding the plateau have long depended on its lumber, its water, and its minerals. For this reason, a network of roads and trails crisscrosses Boulder Mountain, making the majority of its grand beauty accessible. Some, like Posey Lake Road, are maintained and relatively easy to travel. Other isolated mountain tracks, cut by prospectors or logging crews in the early 1900’s wind through overgrown forest and boulder fields and would challenge an ATV.
Intrigued by the promise of finding isolated ponds teeming with fish, and more trails than I could walk or ride in a year, I took to the Boulder this summer on mountain bike to explore its waterways. What I found was a biking/flyfishing paradise, where one can ride thirty miles through deep woods and expansive plains, passing streams and lakes by the dozen and not see another person.
From the valleys below the mountain rises 3000 feet, and Bicknell is at an elevation around 7000 feet. Depending on the route one takes to access the high country (there are several), there may be dense fields of scrub oak and choke cherry as the elevation increases. At about 8,500 feet, the air is noticeably cooler, and groves of stunted aspens begin to break up the uniform landscape. Further up the slope, the pines finally close in, thick and inviting.
As we travel in the fading light of day, the forest is teeming with life. Ghostly apparitions of enormous tan elk scatter with a thunder of hooves as we ride by. Already, this first evening Lonnie, my companion on this trip, has spotted one black bear. We go until we can’t see any more and then stop. There are lakes on the map somewhere ahead, and we don’t want to miss them in the dark. We quickly set up a very rudimentary camp. As we settle in for the night, we’re excited, and just the slightest bit scared. It’s perfect.
An hour before dawn, we’re off again. The mosquitoes hum and approach from all sides, so we ride fast in an attempt to stay ahead of them. We’re going light, and I wonder if the three ounces of deet I brought are going to suffice. As the sun breaks over the tree line, we near what appears to be a summit. The road here is horrible. There is no soil to even out the bedrock and we bump and jolt our way over, panting under our packs and occasionally cursing a grinding pedal or a high centered frame.
At last the rocky crest gives way to an enormous flat, grassy meadow and we spy the blue surface of water ahead. Fatigue and lack of sleep are forgotten, and our pace quickens. At the water’s edge, the bikes are discarded and waders are donned. This is a luxury item which I hesitated bringing, but now, surveying the lake, I am grateful to have them- for skirting the entire body of water is a field of marshy grasses twenty feet wide. No way to fish this from shore.
We tie on attractor patterns, Lonnie a cicada, and I a Royal Wulf, and get to work. On the second cast, my fly sits motionless on the still water. I’ve waded just clear of the grass and I know whatever is lurking beneath the surface can clearly see my offering. Ever so slightly I twitch the line. One…then two…then WHAM! The fly disappears and I set, reveling in the firm resistance at the other end. After a five-minute battle, a fat, sixteen-inch rainbow fills my net. With care the hook is removed, and the fish, sensing freedom, explodes to life and disappears into the murk. We are on to something good here.
We fish for the next four hours, losing count of the hungry trout that enter and exit our nets. Finally around noon, we each keep one last fish for the camp fire and cook them on a bed of willows over the coals ten feet from shore. They’re delicious with nothing more than a little salt and pepper.
The next lake is supposedly just a mile to the south. We’re nearly to the top of the plateau now, and the pedaling is much easier, though one can sense the lack of oxygen in the thin air. Little breezes fan the grass as we ride through on what looks to be more of a game trail than a road.
Early afternoon finds us on the second big lake of the journey. This one is shallow and clear of growth around its shoreline, and we stop to scan it for signs of life, searching for a ripple left from a rising fish. Little by little we lose hope. “Looks like winter kill gets this one” I say, and just then, on the distant end of the pond, a trout comes nearly out of the water and falls back with a splash. Before the ripples have faded, we’re off the bikes to resume our regimen. Again the fly rods swish back and forth, and again we lose count some time after fifteen fish.
We finally quit after a couple hours. The “bows and cutts” on this lake are somewhat smaller, and we decide to give them another season. With plans to get to a third lake on our course before nightfall, we set out in the waning afternoon light. On both sides of us are sights and sounds suited to complete a nature documentary. A flock of colorful fledgling birds, the species of which neither of us can guess, is getting a flight lesson from their mother. As I stop, she lands between me and the brood, spreading her wings and flopping along the ground, in an attempt to draw away my attention from her young. It’s a touching display, and I only linger a minute to admire her before leaving them to their aeronautical study.
We begin to descend slightly, and my handle bars rattle the bones in my arms as we pick up speed over the rocky path, and now I’m dubiously considering the shocks on my front forks. It’s a jarring ride, and we’re both grateful after an hour when we look down the valley we’re following to see a glistening sapphire pool hemmed in by black pines. Within fifteen minutes we pull off the trail and into a meadow that looks like it’s been cared for by a golf course staff. A landscape architect couldn’t have designed a more perfect setting. Fish are jumping out beyond the plants. Despite the long day’s activities, we don’t even bother setting up camp before heading out again.
This lake is different. It’s obviously very deep. Black waters begin at the edge of the steep banks and give no hint of bottom just a few feet from shore. With my longer 5 weight rod, I fling out pattern after pattern of fly with no results. We’ve been spoiled so far, and the idea of casting fruitlessly for an hour has me inappropriately frustrated. The sun has now sunken below the trees, and in the afterglow, I tie on a large reddish humpy, one of the last of the “desperation” flies in my box. I send it out and place it within six inches of a lily pad. I don’t have time to take in the slack of my line before the fly is sipped below the surface. The fish instantly runs, making my drag sing for a solid five seconds. I shout in pent-up relief. By the time I land the fish, it’s getting difficult to see its markings until I pull it out of the net. It turns out to be one of the famed Boulder brook trout, measuring a good seventeen inches and around two pounds. I hesitate for a moment, picturing it crispy and brown nestled next to my meager meal tonight, but conscience wins out and I send the brookie home while thinking, “You have no idea how close you came to being dinner my friend.”
Back at camp, there is no scarcity of fire wood, for it looks like few people have stayed here. Indeed, looking across the lake and meadow, we are utterly alone, and that on a Friday in July! I imagine the crowds down below in countless campgrounds, huddling in groups under a haze of campfire smoke in their concrete sites, for which they’ve handed over twenty bucks for one night’s rent…and I have to laugh. The fools. It’s a passing bit of self righteousness, for I too have done my share of “trailering”. But as we view the brilliantly unimpeded Milky Way in the heavens above, it can’t be denied. THIS is what camping was always supposed to be.
I wake in the growing light in my capsule tent, Lonnie is still sleeping on the other side of the fire. As I climb out and survey what the area looks like in the light of day, I’m struck by a strange sensation. Staring out at the rising brook trout this morning, I have no urge to pursue them. Can it be? One day and I’m fished out? Down by the water, a flock of young widgeons in single file behind their mother quickly paddle away. A doe, no more than fifty feet away at the water’s edge looks up briefly at me unconcerned before lowering her head again to drink. “What an amazing forest!” I ponder.
Lonnie is also struck with wonder-lust more than the urge to fish, and we decide to break camp and put some miles behind us. This is a day of distance riding. The next batch of lakes is several miles away, and we thrill at the scenery. The land too, has altered. We’re now riding through huge expanses of meadow, surrounded by stands of timber. Some of these high meadows are miles wide, and the crude tracks we’re following seem to disappear over the horizon. It’s flat, and the trails are mostly free of big rocks. I find I’m slowly pushing myself to accelerate, and Lonnie feels it too. We race through the fields, navigating the twists and turns of the dirt path with the pleasure of ten-year-olds. It’s a truly fun ride. It would be great under any conditions, but we feel like the entire mountain is ours, and that seems to heighten the experience.
Around noon, we stop by a creek with a beautiful clear flow with black rock at its bed, and silted in with reddish mud brought down from the hills above. We stop to walk its grassy banks for several hundred yards looking for tell-tale signs of any inhabitants.
We don’t locate any fish, but lining the fertile banks in the shallow water, and laying in the mud behind every boulder, we see large speckled salamanders. My mind reverts back once more to child-mode, and with eagerness I jump in and we begin to chase and catch them. The slippery, docile creatures wriggle and clasp my thumb for leverage to escape. They wedge themselves between my fingers, and somehow slide free. I don’t know why, but they’re just plain…cool. The last time I held a salamander was years ago when I was a scout at Camp Steiner in the Uintah’s. And wonderfully, I find the thrill hasn’t abated at all. Within a few minutes, the water clears and we snap a few pictures before setting them free to resume their hunt for aquatic insects, and we too carry on.
The next days are a carefree romp of Huckleberry Finn proportions. There are several more lakes and streams, most with fish, some without. All are picturesque and with one exception, deserted. We catch dozens of beautiful cutthroats, some over sixteen inches, from a creek no wider than a normal walking step across. We figure the total of fish caught to be near a hundred, and they include five different species: rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat and tiger trout. We walk and bike miles of nameless roads, camping in places fit for calendar shots. One evening we come across a meadow with thirty one bull elk grazing together. Not a single cow. I think “they look like they’ve formed a club or something”, and as my mind inadvertently searches for a suitable name for such a club, the pun nearly passes my lips.
Now, as a disclaimer, Boulder Mountain has gained a great deal of notoriety in the past decade, and there are places where one can go and find a family or scout troop or even a trailer set up to camp. The Posey Lake campground has been around since I was a boy and has long been a retreat for Boulder and Escalante locals. But what Lonnie and I found and proved by this and many other such adventures is that there is still plenty of Terra Incognita out there for hungry souls willing to go and find it. Near endless miles of empty land, untouched forest, and deserted waterways await the doggedly determined. True, they become rarer with the passage of time, but are duly deserving of the toil it requires to seek them.
This is Dans second article for OUAJ, in spring of 2009 he wrote Adrift on the Escalante. Dan is an avid outdoor enthusiast, instructor of wilderness survival, and has lived in Utah all his life.