21 September 2011

On the Road to Find Out 5

(Continued from Part 4.)

The end of the summer travels could be summarized as the tale of three passes: the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, and the Col de l'Iseran. To make a week-long trip out of crossing those three mountain passes was not my intention. However, all of my intentions failed and I need something to call a success.

As two-thirds of the family up and left for Idaho I found myself with some time to kill. If I couldn't be back in some of the places I love the most I decided that what I should do was try to experience some of those activities from summers long ago right here in the Alps. I set out with the dogs and a car full of camping and fishing gear for a week-long European road trip that, I was certain, would rival anything we used to do through Montana's Bitterroots, the Idaho and Canadian Selkirks, or Utah's Henry Mountains and surrounding desert.

I knew secluded, private camping would be difficult to find and there is very little information about trout fishing the rivers and streams that flow from the glaciated peaks of the Western Alps. Still: see some new country, catch a few fish. How difficult could it be? It's the Alps. If worse came to worse I knew I could find an organized campground or hotel room for a night, and if the fishing was bad I figured I could go for a hike or a run or hang out by the river and read a book. I packed the car, loaded the CD player, and hit the highway autoroute.

Stage One was to head toward Martigny then up the Vallée d'Entremont toward the Grand St. Bernard Pass. I thought I would try to fish the Entremont River before going up and over the pass into Italy. Then I remembered that my pal, Silas, has told me at least twice now about his food experiences at La Clusaz, a restaurant and inn just over the border in the Aosta Valley. The fish could wait.

Crossing the pass was uneventful save for the beautiful day and nice views. The area around the hospice was crowded with tourists and souvenir stands and I wanted nothing of that. I passed through, pulled over farther below to let the dogs out, took a couple quick pictures, then down the road. It was noon and lunch was served.

Silas was right, La Clusaz was fantastic. Everything was locally grown or produced and reflected the specific cuisine of the Aosta Valley--though through a slightly more elevated and less rustic lens than what is typical. It's easy to while away two to three hours of eating and drinking when every bite is a learning experience. At just over two hours from our house (maybe less if I was to drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel), lunch at La Clusaz will be remembered as one of the better meals during my time spent here.

In addition to the food, lunch sparked a new love affair in the form of the Prié Blanc. Indigenous to the Aosta Valley, the Prié Blanc has grown for a millennium or so on vines trained on the Roman style called pergola bassa, or low pergola. Arbors are linked together by stone pillars that serve the purpose of strengthening the pergola as well as retaining heat. An example of pergola bassa at Caves Cooperatives de Donnas near the village of Pont-Saint-Martin:

Most of the bottled Prié Blanc comes from the two-commune, awkwardly named DOC Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle. At 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) and about 12 kilometers from the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the Prié Blanc grown between the communes of Morgex and La Salle are the highest vineyards in Europe. The weather is extreme in this area--snows come early and stay late. The low pergola system reduces direct exposure to the elements, protecting them from both the wind and snow, as well as maximizes contact with the fleeting sunshine.

The Prié Blanc has adapted well to this climate. The grape ripens early, grafting is almost never necessary, rootstocks last up to 100 years and average about 60, and because of the long, cold, hard winters, pests like phylloxera are a non-issue. Produced from these grapes are clean wines redolent of the minerals that flow in the streams from the glaciers above. Add to this the addition of delicate wildflowers that bloom for a short period in the high alpine meadows. This is mountain wine in its most clear and refined expression. I left La Clusaz with a half bottle of Piero Brunet's excellent example of Prié Blanc and a giant smile on my face. A great way to kick off a road trip.

And then the struggle began. At three o'clock on a Friday afternoon I knew the weekend traffic would soon pick up and I had best find a place to pitch my tent soon. I spent the next two hours driving up and down the Buthier River above the village of Valpelline looking for anything that resembled a flat, cleared plot of earth away from the road and somewhat out of sight. I finally settled on one that was spotted previously but occupied by a couple of Italians making-out in their underwear. On the second pass they were gone and I took their place.

It was hot so I tucked the remaining half bottle of wine in the river to cool immediately, loaded the fly rod, and took off casting. The water was fast and cold and still a touch cloudy from either snowmelt or a high concentration of minerals. Within five minutes I caught my first European brown trout on a small, hare's ear nymph. The trout, too, was small, but no matter; it was healthy and pretty and it capped off a good day. I hadn't arranged for a license yet and wasn't sure what kind of regulating system to expect while fishing small, cold streams in the Italian Alps. I wasn't even sure they had a regulating system in Italy. For that matter I'm still not sure.

The next morning I set out to answer a few questions of mine about Italian regulatory systems before I threw any more bead head hare's ears into streams. Generally, a tabacchi, or a tobacco/newspaper shop is the place for info. Not only can you find books and maps from the region but these mini-convenience stores sell bus tickets, stamps, snacks, and, apparently, fishing permits. Fishing permits, yes, but for a fishing license I would have to go down two doors to a bar, buy the general license, and then back to the tabacchi for the day's permit. Why both required documents aren't sold at the same place I do not know.

Buying a general Italian fishing license allows you the permission to fish anywhere in the country. In order to throw a hook in the water you must buy a day's permit for whatever region you would like to fish, in my case the Aosta Valley. I opted for the tourist license at the bar and a three day permit at the tabacchi.

I was asked if I would like to fish the reserve just outside the village. Reserve? The reserve is a section of the river designated "no kill," or catch and release, and available to fly fishing and artificial lures only. Hearing this made me recall the Silver Creek Preserve and the fat, savvy trout that inhabit those waters. Sure, I said. That'll be an additional 18 euros per day, I was told. After already approaching 60 euros for my three-day privilege to fish in the Aosta, I reconsidered and declined.

At that point it was approaching noon so I decided to hightail it toward the other side of the Aosta Valley and fish bigger waters. On my way out I passed by "the reserve." This stretch of river, no more than a kilometer long and defined by an upper and lower bridge and a few ragged signs posted to trees, differed from the rest of the river only by its proximity to the main road (a little farther away) and the slope of its decline (a little more gradual). Unlike, say, the Silver Creek Preserve, which is special because it protects the headwaters of the spring-fed creek and accounts for a unique ecosystem of flora and fauna, the Buthier River reserve, to my eyes, appeared to offer nothing more in terms of brown trout habitat than the sections of river directly opposite either side of the boundary bridges. I drove away confused and slightly frustrated and would remain in a similar state of frustrated confusion for pretty much the rest of the trip.

Next stop was the Vallée de Cogne and fishing on the Grand Eyvia. First I had to drive through the town of Aymavilles which, as luck would have it, is also home to the beautiful vineyards of Les Crêtes. It was lunch so the tasting rooms were closed. That didn't stop the dogs and I from picnicking among the vines on their property. The castle of Aymavilles, Cave des Onze Communes production facility, and some of the Les Crêtes vineyards:

Syrah plantings and famous tower on the Côteau la Tour vineyard:

The day was hot and I still had a campsite to find. I was lucky and spied a faint, overgrown road just off the highway that turned down toward the river. It was perfect and I felt like I had accomplished something. I grabbed the fly rod and hit the river in search of both fish and a nice swimming hole. Annabelle anticipates the payoff:

Though picture perfect, after beating the river for a couple hours, I had no reason to believe that a single trout swam in those waters. Dry fly, wet fly, upstream, and down, I fished hard and well (or so I thought) but saw no sign of life. I ditched the fly rod and swam for a while before the clouds began to build and roll over the peaks.

Morning brought intermittent rain and cooler temperatures. I sighed. Then I made coffee. European dirtbag camping at its finest:

I found it hard to believe that there were no fish in such a beautiful river so the dogs and I drove upstream toward the village of Cogne to fish a different section. The results were the same: not a fish, not a strike, not a ripple in the water, or the slightest tug on the line. It occurred to me then that I was a stranger in a strange land, a Pisces flailing in foreign waters. I needed local help. To Cogne I went.

First to the tourist office where in my most desperate French I pleaded, "Who can tell me about fishing around here? No. I don't need a license. I need to know how to fish the rivers." I was sent to another bar to find signore someone-or-other who is the head of the local fishing something-or-other. Off I went.

I found the bar, found signore someone-or-other, and, again, in my most desperate French, pleaded my case and asked for his expertise. In his most confident and helpful French-Italian he asked to see my flies. I gave him my primary box, the one with all my favorites: hare's ears, prince nymphs, pale morning duns, and elk hair caddis'. "No," he said. "These are all too small."

I opened my second box, the one with the oddball collection of grasshoppers, ants, spiders, stimulators, and goofy, ugly things with elastic legs, faces, propellers, and neon colors. Flies you buy at a truck stop in Kansas or Chateau Drug in Ketchum. Flies that you never intend to use because 90 percent of the time a prince nymph or elk hair caddis works like a charm and the other 10 percent of the time you would just as soon sit under a tree with a cold beer and a good book than work too hard to stir the trout. "Sì," he said in Italian. "Ces. Comme ça," he said in French.

He pulled out an olive woolly bugger and a big black and red mess of a thing I've never used and wouldn't know what it's pretending to imitate anyway. A drowned tarsier? "You need something big,” he said. “These others are too small. Something like a streamer. The fish are at the bottom of deep holes. They are small fish and they stay on the bottom. You need to fish downstream and sink the fly as deep as you can."

"Where have you fished," he asked. I described the sections to him. "And you haven't caught anything? Ah, it must be the weather." Yes, it must, I thought.

"Where are you from," he asked. This always forces me to go through the Now and Originally routine. "Right now I live near Geneva," I said. "Originally, I'm from the Rocky Mountains: Colorado, Utah, Idaho."

"Ah," he said. This was accompanied by a fairly typical European hand gesture that seems to signify something like, I get it, I understand, or of course. "There is wonderful fishing there. You won't find fish like that here." I figured as much. I thanked him for his time and turned to leave the bar. "Buona pesca," he said with a smile and a wave.

By the time I returned to camp the clouds settled in for good. A steady light rain fell. I took an hour to try the pools again. I could feel the big black and red mess of a thing scrape along the bottom of the pool bumping itself on rocks or tree limbs but never trout. The dogs and I surrendered under a tree to focus on the classic European dirtbag dinner.

The night was long and wet and the rain didn't stop. I took a mid-morning break in the weather to pack the car. It was time to go. Better to move during bouts of bad weather rather than to waste days sitting in a tent. Leaving Italy meant forfeiting my last day's permit but wet, tired, and staring at a river that should but wasn't, I didn't really care. If the French Savoie produced streams that bulged with trout then nine euros wouldn't mean much. Of course there was the issue of negotiating another fishing license but at that point my interest was coffee and the highway. Goodbye, old Paint, I'm a-leavin' Cheyenne.

To reach the French Savoie, the most direct route was to go up and over the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard. This would constitute the second significant mountain pass crossing of the trip and place me above the Tartentaise Valley. Less than two hours from camp to pass, the drive should have provided a range of views looking back down into the Aosta Valley, across the valley toward the Grand Combin in Switzerland, and farther up the valley near the Mont Blanc massif. Instead, I saw raindrops on the window and grey fuzz outside. The benevolent Saint Bernard and the gateway to France:

Drop straight down through the ski town of La Rosière and further still to Bourg-St-Maurice. Take a hard left turn and you follow the Isère river toward its headwaters somewhere near the multi-plex ski resorts of Tignes and Val d'Isère. From Val d'Isère there is no place to go but up and the only way over is the Col de l'Iseran, the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. The rain did not quit.

The summit and the sturdy Col de l'Iseran chapel:

The nice thing about bad weather in the Alps is that the steep vertical relief tends to trap storm systems and hold them in place. It is not uncommon to experience whiteout conditions in one valley only to cross a crest into another valley and see nothing but blue skies. While this wasn't exactly the case, as I crossed into the Maurienne Valley the clouds lifted, rain ceased, and I could finally see just how steep the country was below me and just how narrow the road I would drive. I listened to music, took my time, and imagined what an incredible ski tour it would be to take the lifts up from Val d'Isère to the Col de l'Iseran then ski the valley on the Maurienne side all the way down to Bonneval-sur-Arc.

Besides the thoughts of giant ski tours, the memories of our last trip into the Maurienne Valley kept me happy, healthy, and on the road. The skiing was fun then; this time I was after trout. And I remembered them because I could see them; and if I had a fly rod back in April I would have caught them. So I drove down thinking I would complete my story.

But I was getting ahead of myself. First I had to find a campsite, then I had to buy a license. This would require a return to a confused and frustrated state of mind, this time in France, which is nothing if not a confused and frustrated country.

Finding a place to camp was easy. The area between Bonneval-sur-Arc and Bessans is famous for its 80 kilometers of cross-country ski trails. Many of the winter trails are dirt roads that meander in and out of the forest and along the river. A small, secluded pullout came quickly. Even without a license the allure of the river was too hard to resist. At dusk I tucked myself into a section out of direct view and within minutes came up with my second brown trout, about the same size as the first, and on the same hare's ear fly. I did not want to press my luck so I called it quits for the day.

The next morning the process started all over again. First to the tourist office in Bessans where I could buy a permit for the day but would have to possess a French fishing license beforehand. Could I buy that at the tourist office as well? No. Could I buy it somewhere in Bessans? No. Where could I buy it? "I don't know," I was told by the smiling attendant. "Maybe you could try the tourist office in Lanslevillard."

Lanslevillard is down the valley, only about ten kilometers away but twenty minutes on the curvy road. "Oh” she said as an afterthought. “Where would you like to fish?" On the river. "No, ce n'est pas possible," she said. "Only the ponds are open to fishing." I can't fish on the river? Why? "I don't know," she said. "Maybe there is a reason."

Twenty minutes down the canyon I walked into the tourist office in Lanslevillard. Yes, I was told by the younger, smiling attendant, I could buy a permit to fish around Lanslevillard but I would need a fishing license first. Yes, she knew where I could buy this: at the Hotel L'Auberge Do Ré, five minutes down the canyon in the village of Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis. Are the rivers open to fish? "Um," she said. And with a cute but confused French look on her face she added, "Yes, I think so.” Then, “Pourquoi pas?"

Five minutes down the canyon I walked into the bar at the Hotel L'Auberge Do Ré. Yes, I could buy a fishing license. What kind did I want? I had no idea. Both the bartender and waitress tried to explain all my options but the conversation stalled when I tried to ask questions about fishing on the river or only in ponds. By this time, ten-thirty in the morning, I attracted the attention of the three brandy-drinking customers at the bar. The bartender turned to one of the customers for help. "Je ne sais pas, je ne suis pas un pêcheur," he said. He didn't know. He wasn't a fisherman. "Attendre," I was told, and the smiling waitress disappeared behind the bar.

Five minutes later my answers arrived in the form of a tall, barrel-chested Savoyard whose breath also smelled like brandy and a bit like cigarettes, too. I don't know if he was a fisherman but he had patience and he explained to me what I needed to do in order to throw a legal fly in the rivers of the Maurienne Valley. For this he took out a piece of paper and a pen.

He drew a squiggled line diagonally across the page and wrote "l'Arc" to signify the river Arc that I wanted to fish. "You need a license," he said. And I knew that. "Then you need a permit." That, too, I understood. At the top of the diagonal he drew a small circle and wrote Bonneval-sur-Arc. Spaced evenly across the line he drew five more circles to represent the sequential villages downstream of Bonneval-sur-Arc: Bessans, Lanslevillard, Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis, Termignon, and Sollières-Sardières.

In a tone that seemed to indicate waning patience he said, "If you want to fish around Bessans, you need a permit from the commune of Bessans. If you want to fish around Lanslevillard then you buy a permit from Lanslevillard. You want to fish here in Mont-Cenis? I can sell you a permit. Comprendre?"

"Oui," I said. "Je comprends." I understood that within a twelve mile stretch of river, six communes each play a part, at least on a superficial level, of managing and regulating sport fishing within their tiny dominion. How much management each commune is charged with I don't know, though it appears at least to be some, for example, Bessans and their ability to close their section of the river for unknown reasons.

I thought about six distinct communes in a short stretch of river playing the game of fisheries management and I cringed. Then I understood that my increased state of frustrated confusion was directly related to my decreased chances of rewarding days throwing flies. I purchased my license and left the hotel. "Bonne pêche," I was told, and I thought I would first need better luck.

I opted to fish the area around the village of Termignon. Why? Because the smaller Ruisseau River flows into the Arc at the village of Termignon and the ability to fish a second river might help my odds. Also, just below the village is another mysterious "no kill," catch and release section. This I was told by the cutest of the three tourist office attendants I visited that day. And, unlike Italy, the catch and release section was available at no additional cost. "Bonne pêche," she said. And by noon I was ready to fish.

Though the day was as sunny as it had been in three days, the temperatures were significantly cooler and a cold wind whipped up canyon. Casting was a challenge. So was catching fish. The upriver limit of the no kill zone is positioned curiously at some sort of masonry mill and I can only imagine the industrial fallout, not to mention the disruption of the riverbed, that flows downstream. I spent two hours beating the water without a single strike.

Back at the car I ate lunch and tried to think what it was I was doing wrong. Another fisherman approached, the first I had seen the whole trip. He was French, a French fly fisherman, in fact. He asked how I was doing. "Très mal." He laughed. He asked what kind of flies I was using. I showed him the usual suspects of mostly nymphs. "Yes, those are good," he said. "Must be the wind."

"Where are you from," he asked, and I could sense the recurring pattern.

"Ah," he said. "There is wonderful fishing there. You won't find fish like that here. The rivers in France are very poor." This last sentence he spoke in English and though syntactically awkward made precise sense. I sighed and drove up the Ruisseau.

Another series of perfect pools; another stretch of pretty water that should by anyone's account hold plenty of small to medium-sized trout. Instead, it was another two hours of failure. By that time the wind turned cold and the sun's warmth was blocked by the peaks to the west. I was tired and more than a little disappointed.

Back at camp I could feel a chill coming on and my body start to ache. I needed to warm up and I needed to rest, so I laid in the remaining sunlight and tried to nap. Not five minutes passed before another one of the Savoyard types (barrel chest, short and stout, square head like a steer) burst into camp. "Bonjour," he said. In Western Europe, no matter how much trouble you're about to find yourself in, you can always count on a formal and polite introduction.

From there the conversation degraded. I couldn't understand everything but with enough hand gestures, a raised voice, and what French I know I surmised that he wanted me out of there immediately and that what I was doing was illegal. I asked why and he said something about a communal forest. I thought that if camping wasn't allowed maybe there should be a sign that says as much. "Oui," he said. "There is one." And he waved randomly off into the forest. Well, no, there wasn't one because before settling on my spot I drove along the roads looking specifically for signs to tell me I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I didn’t see any of those signs and there are plenty of those or other similar signs in Europe.

There was nothing I could do or wanted to do. He kept slapping his wrist and talking about calling the police and I assumed his wrist slap symbolized handcuffs I would wear as I was escorted to la prison. I didn't argue but stood up slowly and prepared to leave. He stomped out of camp, told me he'd be back in fifteen minutes, and drove away in his green Forêt Communale van. The scene was ridiculous but to argue would not have helped.

My trip was over. I entertained the thought of staying, scrambling around for some hole-in-the-wall dugout. The Maurienne Valley was probably on high alert for a rouge camper by then and anyway I was beat, defeated, tired, and on the brink of some sort of sickness. I felt I had crossed a psycho-physio threshold and even the possibility of turning things around and somehow catching a bucketful of trout the next day held no interest for me. By eight o'clock that evening I was on the road home. By midnight I was asleep. The next morning I had a fever and body aches.

There are times when my life seems to roll by at breakneck speed. The weeks and months prior to the last trip of the summer felt that way. Times that you would like to slow down in order to savor the moment. Times that move so fast that you don't have time to realize you are not savoring the moment. Times you wish you could repeat again.

The Franco-Italian fishing and camping trip was not one of those times. The clock pushed forward at an alarmingly slow pace. Every movement, every bend in the road, every cast of the fly rod seemed like a moment stuck in time. This summation tells me that I worked awfully hard for very little reward and if it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere it was because, in fact, I wasn't getting anywhere. Every hour felt like three and the action-packed rejuvenation of college-era road trips I wanted to relive never materialized.

I wouldn't say I regretted the trip. I traversed (by car) three significant passes, caught three fish, ate one excellent lunch, tried several new wines, traveled through unknown country, and listened to music that always leaves me satisfied and happy. I swam a memorable river and I spoke in a different language about fly fishing to total strangers. Apart from the car and the tent I spent almost an entire week outside. I appreciate that. I also appreciate that I've camped and fished in some of the most beautiful and empty places in the world. The fly rod and the tent are back in the storage den and they probably won’t be used for some time to come. I will appreciate the next time I'm able to break them out for a good reason.

No comments: