There's something about going off the beaten trail. Walking into the unknown and seeing what's lies ahead. While some are content at sitting at their favorite hole, I prefer not to rub elbows. That can be a difficult on some of the Alley's streams as solitude is practically impossible. After a hectic week at work, I need to unwind and I prefer not to listen a person complain about the latest Browns loss or politics.
Along the Alley, you really don’t need to hike from one spot to the next. You can simply hop in a car and drive from one section to the next. That’s usually the case on the lower ends of the rivers as they run through urban areas. If you want to experience a hike than you need to go out far east or west. When it comes to epic hikes, the upper Grand is where I do it. The Grand is one of the longest of the Alley’s rivers. The upper reaches are rural and remote. Access isn’t easy and you need to be top shape if you plan to pull it off.
When I’m doing a hike, I’ll be on my own. The old sages I fish with, couldn’t handle the rigors of it, with bad knees and all. If I was in my 20s, I probably couldn’t do it, because I was woefully out of shape. Late night clubbing, drinking, smoking and sustaining on a diet of fast food, I probably couldn’t make it more than a quarter of mile before I would have to sit on a log hacking and wheezing.
I started getting into shape in my earlier 40s after my divorce. I went from 240 down to 195 and I started running, lifting weights and eating better. I’m in the best shape and I’m as fit as a bull. Today, I can leave the youngsters in my dust.
I love looking back at some the hikes I did and one of mine is a trip I did in late February several years ago. The eastern part of the Alley got a lot of snow during the week and the Grand had come down a fishable level. I leave home in the dark and make the drive to Harpserfield's dam. I exit the interstate and head south. I turn off to another road and make my way down the hill. It's first light as I drive down the hill and I can't see the river. As I turn the corner, the covered bridge going across the river is cloaked in a fresh coating of snow. The river above the dam is covered in ice and snow. I look over and the river is as prime as it can be and there's no slush. I’m stoked for a day on it. I park along road and get dressed. There’s a couple cars in the lot and I can see a couple anglers below the bridge.
When going a hike, I dress light and warm. I use an Under Armor cold base 2.0 shirt, long underwear and fleece pants. My feet are covered with polypropylene and wool socks. Anything that can wick away sweat from my body. I wear both Goretex waders and a jacket. I never wear a vest as that can weight me down. I bring along the bare necessities - hip pack with a small box of hooks, sinkers, and swivels. A tube that holds my floats and a couple of containers of spawn sacs. Despite it being chilly, I have a bottle of water in the side pocket and couple of protein bars.
I begin to walk across the field and the snow is deep. The air is crisp and I can see my breath. I’ll probably be blazing a trail through the woods. A couple of anglers are fishing a spot close by. I can tell they’re not dressed for an all day event. We exchanges pleasantries and I continue downstream where I cross over. The river is at a perfect flow as I don’t have any difficulty crossing over. In the distance, I see the cliffs and hemlocks covered in snow.
The snow is fresh and powdery, probably got about 2’ of it during the week as the area was hit with wave after wave of lake effect snow. I’m breathing a little harder, but if I was with another person, I could carry on a conversation with no problems. When it comes to doing a hike, you need to pace yourself. Depending where I’m fishing on the Grand, sometimes I’ll walk 2 miles before fishing a section and others I’ll start fishing a half mile downstream. I continue down the trail and I veer off into the woods. It’s a little more tricky here as the snow covers downed trees and branches. I huff and puff as I climb over them. My waders restrict my movement as several times I have to sit a tree and swing my legs to over. I climb down a bank and there’s the river.
I’m at the starting point as I’ll start working the entire stretch. Even thought I walked almost a mile in the snow, I haven’t worked up much of a sweat. The river has a tea colored stain and it moves at a leisurely pace. The air is crisp and I proceed to start fishing. I slowly get into fish, but it’s a long drawn out process. The number of fish this season has been low. This is the latest I’ve fished upstream and in better years, there would be the sounds of snapping twigs and voices behind as others make the trek downstream. Not today, with the exceptions of chattering chickadees and jays, the woods are a quiet place.
As the morning progresses, the bite starts turning on. The pools produce some beautiful fish in full winter colors. I could be content to sit on this spot, but I have the hunger to see what lies ahead. I’m at the last pool before the river makes a sharp turn. Now that I feel I’ve caught enough fish, I’m ready to cross over. As I step in, I feel the power of the current pull at my legs. Just 10’ down, the river narrows and the turns into a small set of rapids. I know the spot well enough that I walk slightly upstream towards the tail out. Years of running through the metro park back home, my legs are strong enough to buffer the current. I slowly cross over and step out. No time to waste as I quicken my pace downstream. It’s another spot that I’ve done well in past years. The river here is very narrow as it runs along a shale cliff. I work the inner seam and hook into a male. He’s dark with a mixture of reds, silver and charcoal. The spawn is not far away, probably another month, depending on the weather. It turns out to be the only fish from that spot. The river farther down flows too fast to hold wintering fish.
The hike is far from over as I’m past the two mile marker. There’s another spot where I must cross over. This is the trickiest place as the river runs over shale bedrock and the bottom is littered with rocks. Because it’s more narrow here, the current is strong even when its at fishable levels. I slowly wade across making sure I have a good foothold. The current pushes hard as I try to gain traction. I use the larger rocks as a buffer and I’m halfway across. The cleats dig into the shale and I shuffle around the rocks. I finally make it over and my legs are burning slightly. There’s a tail out below and I hook into several decent sized fish. So far this hike is paying off, as I’m hooking into fish at every spot and I haven’t seen one person so far.
It’s late morning and I resume the hike. In some sections of the Grand it can be an easy hike, because whenever it blows out the surrounding woods are scoured cleaned of vegetation. I climb up a steep hill and there’s a road that goes through the woods and right up to the river. Once again I cross over and this is a relative cakewalk. I plow through the water and over the bank. The cliffs here cloaked in snow and glisten in the sun. Huge shards of ice hang from the rocks and the sun is strong enough that they’re starting to melt. I intend to work the entire stretch all the way beyond the cliffs. I’m more than 3 miles from my car. I work the stretch and the fish are plentiful, I’m having so much fun that I start losing track of time. In this section of the upper Grand has some of the finest spawning gravel and fish often hold in the deeper pools. Once, I get done with that section, I look at the time and it’s almost three o’clock. I look downstream and there’s one more pool to fish. It doesn’t get dark until six. I have plenty of time.
The pool produces more fish and I’m down to last of my sacs. I’m well into double digits and I more than happy with the results. The sun is slowly descending among the trees and cliffs. I take a drink of water, eat a protein bar and look at the time, almost 4:00 and I’m a little over 4 miles. If I was with the other guys, we would be lucky to make it the one mile marker and we would be at home resting on the couch. I disassemble the rod and take a deep breath, time to head home.
Because it turned out to be such a great day, I have a little more pep in my walk. In order to conserve energy, I walk along the river. At the end of the day, every step on the rocks is a little harder on the back and legs. I feel a slight jolt whenever I step. My knees are getting a sore as I negotiate my way along the banks. I arrive at the crossing and I remind myself that I have three more before making it back. My legs are a little rubbery, I take a little more time wading across, the next one will be a killer.
My breathing is heavier as I slough through the snow. By now the shadows grow longer and the sun is starting to slip behind the cliffs. I’m working up a good sweat and I’m thankful for the years of exercising and eating right. If this was me 20 years ago, I would be huffing and puffing and sitting on a log trying to catch my breath. I reach the 2nd crossing and I gingerly move around the rocks. The cold water is a welcome relief on my knees. I make it across and I’m halfway there.
I see my tracks from earlier today and I was the only person to make this far down. It’s a quick hike up along the river and around the bend to the next crossing. It’s getting darker now and my stomach is growing. I hasten my pace some more. I cross over at the tail out above the bend. I’m sweating and breathing a lot heavier, because I still have a distance to go before the last crossing. My legs are starting to feel cramped and I can see the river and the last crossing. I get to the water’s edge and I take a deep breath. There’s no need to rush and I take my time wading over.
Its dark by the time I cross the field and there’s my car. Everybody probably left hours ago. I have no one to share what a great day I had on the river. The only thing I hear is the water going over the dam. I pop the back hatch and sit down. I grab a water from the back and guzzle it. I catch my breath and take my toque off, I can feel the heat escaping my head. I slowly take off my jacket, waders and boots. My back is aching when I stand up, it took a beating today. I’ve often wondered how much more can my body take? My mind is willing, but my body? I can’t imagine doing this in my 60s.
I sink into the car seat and it start it. I drive through the covered bridge and head up the hill. I stop at the gas station and buy some water and beef jerky to snack on. I seriously doubt I’ll have the energy to cook when I get home. I will be stopping at Chipotle for a burrito bowl. I get on the interstate and it will an hour drive home. I know I’ll sleep good tonight.