The beginning, and end, of my life as a guide
December 7, 2007
Back in 1979, when I was 17 years old, I was hunting elk with my father and brother on Elk Mountain near Marble. As I hiked up the trail, I saw a commotion ahead of me, and here came a wrangler jingling a pack string of about eight horses down the mountain. They were moving fast, and I stepped off the trail to let them pass.
The wrangler’s hat was covered with old sweat and dust, and he had a lever-action carbine in a saddle scabbard under his leg. He hadn’t shaved in quite a while. The horses, tacked up with riding saddles and packsaddles, were all tied off in a line, and they knew their job. Not one of them missed a step as he hurried off the mountain. He nodded to me and said, “Howdy,” as he rode by, and I said to myself, “I want to do that.”
Six more years passed until I graduated from college. I called my father and said, “Get me a job with an outfitter.” I ended up riding that exact same trail, and spent 40 straight days in the saddle, often from dawn to well past dark. I loved it.
So began my guiding career. In 1987, my friend Paul Jacobsen asked me if I wanted to guide fly-fishing trips that summer. I had never really considered it. I had spent the winter snapping ski pics for Ski Foto, and guiding fishing sounded pretty good.
At that time, the guiding business was just getting started in the Roaring Fork Valley. Taylor Creek and Frying Pan Anglers were little hole-in-the-wall fly shops in Basalt, and Fothergill’s had three or four guides working out of Aspen, including Chuck Fothergill, Andy Mill and Jeff Pogliano. I joined Paul working for Scottie Nichols at Aspen Trout Guides.
The first trip I guided, I took my two never-ever clients down to my parents’ place on the Roaring Fork outside of Carbondale. I had been fishing it hard-core since I was 6 years old. I took off across the river bottom and said, “Come on!” I looked back to see my clients floundering along on the round rocks, their ankles obviously not used to such an uneven surface. I had to slow down considerably.
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The next year, Paul and I decided to go out on our own, and we partnered for nine years. We called the business “Troutfitters of Aspen.” It worked great. He was an outstanding guide, until one day he called me up and said, “I’ve lost my patience.”
“What?” I said.
“I’ve lost my patience,” he said again. “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stand there and watch someone do it wrong.” Paul signed the business over to me, and I was on my own.
The U.S. Forest Service outfitting permits in Marble changed hands a couple of times and Leonard Lansburgh ended up with the business. Bless his heart, Leonard was overmatched. His wranglers took advantage of him and left some big messes up in the high country. One early summer day in 1999, he called me up and asked if I’d ride up to Lost Trail Creek and clean up a camp that had been left in the high country over the winter.
My dad and I rode up there to find a colossal mess. There was a 14-by-16 tent, four cots, a table, camp stove, dishes, foam mattresses and groceries for four hunters for a week. The tent had collapsed, breaking all the frames on the cots and ripping the tent. A bear had gone through the tent a couple of times, finding the groceries and strewing trash in a 50-yard radius around the camp. Almost all the gear was ruined, including a leather riding saddle that was covered with green mold.
We ended up finding 4 gallons of white gas, and we made a big pile and torched it all, including the saddle. We saved Leonard a $15,000 fine. Leonard called me up some time later and offered me the permits, which I gladly accepted.
Little did I know what a challenge I was in for. My wife and I were all set to build a house on some family property near New Castle, and all I had to do was pick up the building permit at the planning office. I called her up and told her to cancel everything, we were going to run the outfitting business in Marble.
Doris came along kicking and screaming, but did an outstanding job of being head wrangler, hostess, chief cook, bookkeeper, horse trainer and mother of two young boys.
Many people in the recreation and hospitality industry like to disparage their clients, telling stories about how ignorant or demanding they were. I don’t feel that way. Our clientele was first-rate, with some notable exceptions. I used to tell a new wrangler that I didn’t care if he was up late fighting with his girlfriend, had a tough night at the bar or was just plain grouchy, I wanted him to show up with a clean shirt, a close shave, a smile on his face, and a “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” Whether it was his 30th two-hour ride in a row, all blurring into one, it would be memorable for that family from Des Moines, and it might be the only time those kids ever rode a horse. I wanted them to have a great time.
But I’m done. Times change. Have you ever heard the term “wealthy outfitter?” It’s an oxymoron. I still like guiding blue grouse and ptarmigan hunts, so I’ll spend two or three weeks every fall doing that, and I may be coaxed onto the river to guide the occasional fishing trip. I’ve got a bunch of magazine articles to write, a couple of screenplays and novels kicking around in my head, and I’ve discovered a niche writing copy for websites. A local real estate company is starting a ranch division and they’ve asked me to come on board, so I’ll be working with them. Doris has a bunch of horses to train, so I’ll help her with that, and we’ll be raising hay on our ranch in Crawford. Plenty busy.
For all you folks who rode, fished and hunted with us, thank you. To all those horses, thanks for all you taught me. For me and my sons, the next 22 years are going to be a big adventure. If you see me in the mountains or on the river, I’ll share a cup of hot coffee at my campfire or a fly from my fly box.