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Jim Duke | Author

Coal Seam Fire, Part 1

It had started as one of the nicest weekends imaginable. We had set up a shuttle so we could do a one-way ride through the Elk Mountain Range. Our route took us from Hwy 133 between Carbondale and Redstone, up Avalanche Creek to spend our first night at Avalanche Lake. From there we would ride up and over the ridge above timberline to drop down into Capitol Lake and spend the next night somewhere below along Capitol Creek before another day’s ride to our truck and trailer parked at the Capitol Creek trailhead.

There is excellent fishing in both creeks and both lakes along the way and I was especially excited about wetting a line in Avalanche Lake for my first time. Expecting nothing larger than a ten-to-twelve-inch brooky or cutthroat, I had brought only small ultra-light spin casting rod designed to break down to saddle bag size and rigged with four-pound test line. As I worked my way around the lake alternating between Mepps and Panther Martin spinners, I began to wonder if this timberline lake might freeze too solid in the winter to support fish. I’d not had a single strike nor even anything following my lure in the crystal-clear water. There were no minnows in the shallows nor fish rising to the surface anywhere.

As I reached a steep escarpment dropping into the lake on the opposite side from where I had started, I decided to let my lure drop deep. Against all instinct for fear of snagging and losing my lure on the bottom, I let the spinner sink for ten....fifteen....maybe twenty seconds before starting a slow retrieve. I felt an almost instant resistance and assumed that, as feared, I had snagged a rock. But then I detected a movement and held my breath as my line began slowly playing out. I glanced at my spool to see how much line was on it and tried to remember the last time I had replaced it with fresh line. I am notoriously bad at maintenance and upkeep and often have barely enough line for a full cast and rarely change it to make sure it’s not sun-rotted or otherwise weakened by age and use. That was usually not too important with the small trout I was accustomed to.

There was no excited jiggling or breaking the surface to jump, or any of the feel of an excited small trout, just the steady pull of something large on the line. As I watched my spool slowly empty, I considered increasing the drag but knew that I was already pressing the limits of my old, four-pound test line. Just as I was starting to see the aluminum of the spool through the remaining few layers of the translucent fishing line, the fish turned parallel to the shore and quit peeling line off the reel. After another suspenseful twenty minutes or so of testing the limits of my lightweight line while gingerly reeling in, inch by inch, I finally got my first look at the beautifully colored, ten- or twelve-pound lake trout (also known as a Mackinaw). Without a net, it still took another ten minutes to get him into the shallows and worn out enough to get my fingers in behind his gills and land him. He was by far the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever caught, many time larger than any trout I’d ever hooked.

While I often practice catch and release, especially where required, I generally hunt and fish for meat and had planned most of our meals on this trip around fish. This fish was more than Kathy and I could eat for the next several meals, but I knew I could pack any remaining fillets in a mixture of salt and brown sugar that I generally pack along on such trips to preserve and prepare any excess brookies for eventual smoking when we get home. Because brookies are an introduced species, I usually keep at least the limit which, due to being invasive, is as many as eighteen in most Colorado waters.

Although I had plenty of meat for the rest of the trip, I couldn’t resist pressing my lucky streak to continue fishing, planning to practice strictly catch and release from then on. Moving several yards down the shoreline, I repeated my first cast, letting the lure sink deep. Once again, I encountered the same sluggish resistance of another huge laker. After another half hour of suspenseful give and take, I had another identical lake trout landed. This one had been hooked deep in his gills and had bled badly during his battle. He was already almost motionless by the time I had him in the shallows and by the time I wrestled the lure from his gills, they had quit pumping. Holding him gently by the tail, hoping that he would suddenly break free and wiggle away, I pushed him back and forth through the water trying to work oxygen through his gills to revive him. After several minutes, it was obvious that he was beyond help. This beautiful fish, identical to the one that had been such a source of pride a short while ago, now brought only shame and guilt. I had taken too much.

The following two days were pleasant and beautiful, but burdened with the weight of that fish that should have remained deep in Avalanche Lake. I did no more fishing on that trip, but expedited our return to prevent spoilage. Although I had packed snow in around the fillets in addition to the salt and sugar mixture, I wanted to get home and get these fillets on the smoker as soon as possible. After loading the mules in the trailer at the trailhead, I headed down toward home. As the road wound down around the shoulder of Mt. Sopris, opening up a view of the valley below, we saw a huge smoke plume blowing up the valley from down toward Glenwood Springs. I turned on the radio just in time to hear "The South Canyon fire has just been declared the largest wildfire in Colorado history! With the fire racing across the neighborhoods of south Glenwood Springs, it is likely to be the costliest fire in state history as well! A death count is, as yet, unknown!"

My compost operation was located up South Canyon at the City of Glenwood Springs landfill. There was very little other activity in South Canyon and compost facilities are notorious for starting fires through the spontaneous combustion caused by anaerobic decomposition of organic matter. It seemed almost certain that my facility had caused this "largest wildfire in Colorado history" along with the death and destruction that was being reported on the news.

I was immediately overwhelmed by guilt and remorse. I had let my facility grow too large, get out of hand! My compost operation, my greatest source of pride, was now a thing of shame and guilt. I had exceeded my capacity, like I had fishing. It seemed that while I was worrying about smoking fish, I had smoked Glenwood Springs.

We had our mules and dogs with us and the only other important ones in my life were my two daughters who were at their mother’s house. I assumed that my beautiful home on the river, my lucrative compost business and my happy life in general would all be swept away in compensation for the destruction I’d caused. Although I was still an actively involved and loving father, I didn’t see how I could be of any use to my girls (or anyone else) when I was totally destitute, disgraced and probably even behind bars. I mention all this to Kathy and suggested that it might be best to just keep going down the road with all our critters and head to Mexico. If it hadn’t been for my girls I might actually have done so.