Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Trout Fishing in the Royal Gorge

I received a kind and interesting letter from one A.J.M., recounting experiences in the Royal Gorge, decades ago. The trail he describes is unmarked and gets very little use. I call it the Wabena Trail. Out of curiosity, I Googled Arnold Gamble and found he was killed in a shootout in 1963; a tragic end for one who knew and loved the North Fork.

The rattlesnakes remain.

While surfing the net I stumbled across your web site and the fascinating narrative and pictures which resurrected some of my fondest memories. It has been almost 53 years since I first traveled the Lost Emigrant Mine trail across Wabena Creek to the floor of the Royal Gorge of the American. I was introduced to this area by Arnold Gamble, who worked with my dad on the Sacramento Police Department. This is where I learned to fly fish and Arnold is the man who taught me. I was fifteen years old at the time of my first visit and subsequently went back there several times with friends and also on my own. Rattlesnakes were everywhere down near the river. I remember that we ran into fifteen to twenty on that first trip, so constant vigilance was the order of the day. Because of an earlier experience (Arnold reportedly found a rattler coiled on his bed roll when he returned to camp) we slept on hammocks. In those days we weren't very conservation-conscious, so they were all dispatched to snake heaven. Later, I learned to give them a wide berth and they would go their way and I would go mine. Fishing was outstanding for many years. During those early years, I never ran into anybody in the area. However, sometime after 1962 (I was in the military from 1958 to early 1962) I ran into a party bricklayers who were on strike and decided to spend their time fishing. They had also brushed the trail from the top all the way down to the bottom. They had spent a week on the river, and were on their way out when we came across them. My partner and I still caught plenty of fish.

My last trip down to the Gorge was some time in 1969. As we were descending along the trail we could hear the steady drone of a gas engine which grew louder as we got near the bottom. When we came out on the river, there were two guys operating a "Bazooka" dredge looking for gold in the crevices and sand at the bottom of the river. If you have never seen one of these things all it is a big suction device that sucks the sand and small rock up through a nozzle and over a catch basin with riffles and out the other side. The gold is collected on the catch basin. Sort of a mechanized sluice box. We proceeded on up the river and made camp on our usual sandbar. By the way, several years before my trip with Arnold, he had been down there and nailed a double spring, steel trap to a tree. It was still there in 1969. I wonder if it is still there? To go on, no sooner had we made camp then bunch of hikers (all the way from little kids to an elderly lady), about an eleven in all, came walking by on their way up the canyon. They were going to take a trail up and out the other side. I didn't even know there was such a trail. They must have found it because I never saw them again. By this time we were getting mighty discouraged and completely flabbergasted that this piece of heaven had been discovered. This wasn't the final shock however, because while fishing, we ran across two professors from UC Davis that we knew through our work, also fishing the river. They provided us with the explanation for the traffic. It seems that the Sierra Club in their infinite wisdom, had published an article about the area and told the readership to visit the area because it would soon all be under water when a proposed dam was built. We continued to fish, but it took a lot more work to limit out.

That was my last trip to the Royal Gorge. My friend and colleague went a couple of more times, but it was ruined for me. I would rather remember it as it was. That is why I really appreciated your description of the area. It sounded like it has returned to its pristine beauty and of course, the dam was never constructed. There use to be a mine shaft (which we called the Lost Emigrant Mine) right where the trail crossed over Wabena Creek. There were also cables stretching from the ridge near where the car was parked all the way down to this mine shaft. There were also large kettle-like metal gondolas which were used (not very successfully as I understand it) to haul the ore to the top for transport to a stamp mill. These metal gondolas were strewn about the side of the hill. Are these still there? Also, the trail down to Wabena Creek was a series of switchbacks originally constructed to accommodate the mules used initially and maybe later on to haul out the ore. When the price control was taken off of gold, and it jumped from $34 to $234 an ounce, there was some talk of reopening this mine. I think some surveying for a road was actualy done. Again, it apparently was all talk. That is enough for now.

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