Frio: Hiking and Fly Fishing the San Juan River, New Mexico with Halley Roberts
Halley Roberts is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon. This winter, Halley returned to New Mexico –her childhood home– to fish the scrappy waters of the San Juan River.
The second my feet crunch into permafrost I know I’m already dehydrated. My lips are starting to crack so I stuff my mouth with snow. I’m standing on a hill in the San Juan Basin Badlands surrounded by a raven nest and giant circular blobs of iron, all on a smoothly cascading landscape of ombre grays turning gently to brown. We drive, endlessly, through Navajo Country to find these unmarked geologic masterpieces. Range horses grazing on the frail ejections of native New Mexican grasses stare at us, unimpressed. I am here to fish, and I’m always here to explore.Toner Mitchell is outside, and I can hardly see his face in the pitch New Mexico sky, the San Juan River moving next to us in the dark like quiet traffic. Toner is teaching me to fly fish and invited us to the Soaring Eagle Lodge this January winter to crash his annual man trip. The Soaring Eagle is owned by Larry Johnson, who has offered to take us on a guided trip of the San Juan. I know I’ll be eternally grateful for both fly fishing on the famous river, and the time with this famous fly fisherman. Toner invites us inside to their riverside cabin, where i’m surprised to meet five of my dad’s former Varsity soccer players. Each hello turns into, “How old are you now?” These gentleman reunion here every year, and now they’re tying huge, white leech flies after an unsuccessful time with the San Juan’s usually reliable small gnats. Coors, backgammon, cards, football, environmentalists, fly fisherman.By 6:30 am I’m walking the stunning property of The Soaring Eagle, two rabbits stand munching on grass looking out of the corners of their sideways eyes, until they see me and zig zag away.
By 8 am we are eating a breakfast typical for my family: bacon, eggs, green chile, coffee.
By 9 am I’m in my Filson waders, wearing wool base layers, a flannel shirt, finger-less gloves, wool socks in neoprene booties stuffed into big nearly watertight shoes.
It’s a sunny and perfect 29 degrees.
I assemble my rod, stash extra flies into the front pouch of my waders and jump into Larry’s trusty white Bronco, layered in stickers, pulling our drift boat into the stepped staggering orange mesas that are Northwestern New Mexico.
Larry calls himself the Sergeant, but he has no idea how much I appreciate every “mend upstream” or his orders to “San Juan Clean”: when you pull in your line and whip it around in a circle so that it smacks the surface of the river shaking off the collected moss from the slime of the river, which is normally as clear as gin. When the temperature drops, all the silt in the lake above the Navajo dam drops down and turns so that the river becomes like muddled hot chocolate. Even so, trout are flirting with the surface of The Texas Hole, and by 10 AM the black flies are blindly skimming the surface. I catch two medium-sized rainbows almost immediately. When I gently tug the trout out of the water it slides, shocked, into the net. I wet my hands and try again and again to tightly hold it’s tail while gently grabbing it’s midsection. Finally it relaxes, or it just can’t breathe, and I proudly hold it so that we can take my quintessential trout photo. When I drop it back into the river, it stays on the surface for a second until shooting away back to the bottom of the muddy blue river. As we float down, we pass beautiful open caverns, a descanso, the grey purples, mustard yellows, lichen greens.
We stop for lunch, ravens overhead, flickers are rocking, clinging to the edges of willows and the vehemently hated and invasive salt cedar.
By 12:30 pm we’re eating, and the wind has barely started.
By 1:30 pm the wind is pushing deeply into our backs from the west, howling down the canyon against our jackets. We pass a few friends,
“They stopped biting. We’re not getting anything, the barometer just dropped.”
At that moment I can almost feel the temperature of the air plummet. Clouds that so innocently napped on the mesa tops have built into jagged razors across this once blue bird sky.
“Looks like snow.” I say.
“Might snow tonight.” Says Larry.The wind is now so intense, that we’re hardly moving in the boat. We get out and walk the trail adjacent to the river while Larry, impressively, rows as hard as he can. Dead Mallards are floating in the water from ill-mannered hunters, their feathers displayed up the embankments alongside empty shotgun shells. Every crumbling boulder looks like a face, each Labrador print sticks in the red soil of my homeland. The snow storm comes in so suddenly I almost don’t see it. Whitecaps are on the river, and the thick powdery cloud approaches us around the Northwestern side of the mesa. As it passes over me I can’t help but laugh, snow stinging me in the face. It’s not impossible to predict weather in the southwest, thunderstorms in monsoon season coming with assurance every hot August day, but a freak snow storm is rare.We clamber back into the boat, and finally return to the loading dock. I stay on shore watching our trusty drift boat, while Larry fetches the car, decorated on it’s bow with two grey skull and crossbones. Even though the wind chill is 10 degrees, the outside temperature in the teens, I decide to keep fishing. I wade out into this 45 degree river, as it loops around my legs, slowly casting. I immediately pull in a small trout, delicately keeping my rod high letting it do the work for me. I reel and pull and kneel into the river taking my gloves and stuffing them into my front pocket. The trout is hooked perfectly around her jaw bone, staring at me through one emotional eye. I pull out the hook as quickly as I can, counting to thirty, remembering to re-submerge this gentle fish. As I drop her back in, she swims away and my hands are very, very numb. I shake as I put my gloves back on and wait, shivering under the cottonwoods. This place where I’m from, described so lovingly by Cormac McCarthy, romanced so fluidly by outsiders, is at any moment dangerous and unforgiving. I’m overcome with the feeling that I can’t wait to go home, and I can’t wait to come back.