The Stump Ranch Fish
We had an old gray Ford van. Not a minivan, but a full-size passenger van, except my father had removed the third seat so he could put a dirt bike in the back. It was that kind of van. The color was a literal primer gray—no final coat of paint, just the primer.
When we would drive to the Stump Ranch, Dad would lay down an old mattress in the back. The mattress was sort of a puke yellow spotted with drawings of red dogs. The night before we left he would load the van, surrounding the mattress with knapsacks full of clothes and a Coleman cooler. The next morning he would wake his four children in the blackness of 4 a.m. We would stumble out to the van, throw open the sliding door, pile onto the backseat, and try to go back to sleep. My sister would take the first shift on the mattress. Dad would ease the van out of the driveway and head north.
During that first hour of travel I often tracked the sky from my window, watching it go from black to deep blue until finally a dawn blue gradient would force its way over the mountain horizon. The fireball sun would crest the Wasatch peaks, providing enough light that I could begin reading whatever Stephen King paperback I had stashed in among the gorp and the beef jerky.
Around the time we got to Ogden, Dad would dig a box of eight-track cassettes out from under his seat and we would listen to 60s surf rock and Simon & Garfunkel. Eventually the August sun would begin to cook the inside of the van and we would crack the windows. When we reached Salmon—eight hours later—we might stop for ice cream.
They called it the Stump Ranch because many of the trees at the front of the property had been cleared, leaving only the stumps. This was standard practice when early settlers came West—clear the land, leave the stumps. There are probably hundreds of “Stump Ranches” across the Rockies.
Seeing the old place now you wouldn’t get any idea that it was ever called The Stump Ranch. Now, Boy Scouts from Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Washington camp on the hillside where my brothers and I dodged sagebrush and played baseball with rocks and sticks. They call it a “High Adventure Base,” but the word “adventure” seems like a misnomer. The whole place seems less wild to me now than it did then. Sure, they float the river and they climb the rocks behind the old cabin. But it all feels as if the land itself has given up, resigned to whatever fate humanity has in store for it. When I was a kid it felt like that mountain country had reached some sort of uneasy truce with my grandfather, a peace that could be lost at any moment with a single miscue from either side.
Grandpa bought the land from a Midwestern couple. He got a good price because the river split the land from the road—there was no good way to access the property. At some point someone had built a small one-room cabin about halfway up the hill then gave up on making the place habitable.
This was the lesson my grandfather taught my father: you can make anything work, even if you have no idea how.
Grandpa was a builder. Things started in his imagination, then he willed them into existence. In 1963, when my father was 23 years old, he and grandpa built a wildfire lookout on the top of Middle Fork Peak, overlooking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and some of the wildest, least-disturbed land in the lower 48 states. The lookout is still there, perched on the rocky top of a mountain like a hawk ready to take flight. They worked all summer and into the fall until the snow forced them out of the high country.
The road to the lookout ends fifty yards or so from the structure itself because the mountain steeps heavily at the last. The trickiest part of the build was getting the materials up that last incline. My grandfather solved this problem with a pile of lumber, a long cable, and his Studebaker pickup. The forest ranger in charge of the project stood by and watched nervously as his new cement mixer was pulleyed to the mountain’s top on a makeshift wooden slide powered by a Studebaker, but everything went off without a hitch.
Grandpa could see solutions instead of problems. And he didn’t let a lack of experience deter him. When they laid the brick for the lookout, my father was impressed that his dad could do the job so well.
“Where did you learn to lay brick?” He asked his father.
“Right here,” the old man said without stopping.
On those summer evenings, the stars and the mountain air carried radio waves of Vin Scully’s tenor all the way from California. The signal came in best when the Dodgers were playing a night game. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale led the team to the series where they beat the Yankees. Dad and grandpa would sit on the top of that mountain and listen to baseball. When he was older, my father talked about those nights as if they were the very moments when he came to actually know his father, in a place where they could begin to understand one another. Curtained by a sky washed with stars, Vin Scully’s voice riding the night air, and a mountain beneath them, pushing them heavenward, they talked and laughed and listened to each other. Something happened on top of that mountain that made my father understand his father, something that drew us all back to the Stump Ranch each August.
They built the trolley at the Stump Ranch using the same spirit they used for the lookout and a cable as thick as my twelve-year-old wrist. They snaked the cable across the river as tight as they could get it and wrapped it around a boulder the size of a small car. Then, as if this was the kind of thing happening in suburban garages across America, they built a trolley car.
The seat of the car was a terrifyingly thin piece of plywood bolted into a metal frame that grandpa dreamed up and talked a welder friend into welding together. He welded in handholds up by the trolley wheels, but there were no guard rails on the sides. Passengers were advised to sit in the middle.
When we arrived at the cabin my dad would honk the van’s horn and we would pile out and stretch, looking down the steep slope between the road and the river. Gazing across the water, we could follow the trail my grandfather’s boots had worn into the brown grass and dirt up the hill from the river to the cabin. The cabin door would open and out would come grandpa in a cowboy hat and a flannel shirt. It didn’t matter that it was 100 degrees and climbing, grandpa wore flannel. He would wave and start down the hill towards the trolley platform. Once he boarded and shoved off, the cable would hum and moan like a drunk violin. Down the slope to the middle of the river the note would hold steady—one long groan. Then, once he hit the middle and started on the upslope, the cable sounds became a series of violent coughs timed with each great jerk as he dragged the car up to civilization. My grandfather had massive hands. He would wrap them around the cable between the trolley wheels and pull. The car lurched forward as if it had been kicked from behind.
Once he had landed, we would stack some gear onto the plywood, then five or six of us would climb onto the trolley car, which seemed to me as if it could only safely hold four. My mother, sitting at the back, would unhitch the chain that anchored the car to the earth and we would roll out away from solid ground, above the river, and begin speeding the downslope toward the far bank.
The river crossing took place high over the green water. Looking down was generally a poor choice. The car raced a blur down the slope of the fat cable to the middle, where it would pace back and die if not pulled up the other side by my father’s own calloused hands. Unable to help myself, halfway across, I would look down at the water below and then squeeze my sister till she couldn’t breathe. I was sure that I was going to fall off that trolley car; it was only a question of when. Only when the platform appeared below would I finally take a breath.
Grandpa turned 80 when I was a boy, but he could still pull himself across the river on a piece of plywood. To my twelve-year-old mind he was simply too strong to ever die. He used that over-sized pulley to connect himself to his neighbors and the world of pavement, as a transport between the world of mountains and the world of roads. It was the way he went across when he wanted to buy groceries or tools or a new fly rod. It was the way they hauled lumber and bags of cement across to build the cabin. They even took a jeep across the river using the trolley, a system of come-a-longs, and a healthy dose of confidence. The old jeep was dying a rusty death in the sagebrush near the cabin when I last visited.
Once we were across we had free run of the place. The cabin was nestled into a draw where the mountains steeped and climbed, flanked by a ridge of black rocks forming a cliff. In the heart of the draw, a finger of water danced its way back and forth down the mountain from a spring near the top of the ridge. My grandfather had installed a series of pipes from the spring to carry the water down the hill, using 1,000 feet of gravity to create water pressure for the cabin’s indoor plumbing and the sprinkler system. In front of the cabin he had a patch of grass and a cadre of giant Rainbirds throwing arcs of spring water that stung my siblings and I like drops of ice on August afternoons. That same water nursed the wild raspberry patch that twisted and blossomed on the south corner of the property.
One year rattlesnakes got into the raspberries and we were told to stay near the cabin as grandpa and dad soldiered down the trail armed with shovels. They returned with a bucket of fresh red berries and bloody shovel blades. Grandma Tommie turned the raspberries into jam. She baked rolls and pies, cooked whatever meat we trolleyed across the river, and played gin rummy with my mom in the afternoon.
Sometimes the water from the tap would go brown. This was a sign that a bear was in the spring—drinking, playing, bathing, whatever bears do with fresh water. Once the water cleared, Dad and Grandpa might take us up the humid, leafy trail to visit the spring and make sure the pipes were okay. Sometimes, a fresh bear’ print was pressed in the mud, water collecting in the palm. Dad liked to stamp his own boot print right over the top of the bear’s track. Back then it scared me. What if the bear comes back and gets mad? I thought. But now it seems fitting. This was the bear’s place, but it was our place as well. A shared territory—wild and tame like the spring water in the pipes, the wild raspberries cooled by sprinklers in the heat of summer, the untamed river straddled by a contraption of cable, wood, metal, and willpower. A borderland between wildness and civilization, the closest thing he could find to a frontier, this was my grandfather’s home.
Now, the High Adventure Base has replaced the old trolley car with a fancy all-metal car that holds six or seven scouts easily and has high side rails and benches to keep anyone from falling out. But they haul most of their people across the river by raft to reduce the number of trips. When it does cross, the new trolley car still rides the old cable, strung across the river and anchored to a boulder the size of a Volkswagen my father and grandfather buried deep in the earth.
Grandma Tommie was my step grandmother, if that is a term people use. My Dad’s mother—Grandpa’s first wife—lived alone in the Salt Lake Valley, about 20 minutes from our house. On Sunday afternoons we would pile in the primer-gray van and negotiate the stoplights and intersections across town to her small home. A plate of cookies was always waiting on the table. Her home was modest, but her backyard was a wonder of flowers and garden. In high summer it looked like a private sanctuary. The space was limited—a small oval lawn flanked on all sides by dozens of different flowers and shrubs, the whole thing boxed by a chain link fence. The smell was sweet and wet. The flowers were cultivated and proper. Grandma worked for hours—crouched or kneeling under a wide-brimmed sun hat—spreading top soil and peat moss, spading wild weeds, and trimming bushes, taming branches into place. There were always a handful of spray bottles just inside the backdoor. My brothers and sister and I would commandeer the bottles and turn the nozzles to force the water into a tight stream. Then we would chase each other through the flowers and the lawn, the old garage, the basement, and around to the front of the house firing beams of water and laughing.
As a child I never thought much about my grandparents being split up. Yet some part of me seems to know that my Grandfather entered into an agreement he could not live up to. He was a wild-raspberry patch on the side of a mountain, and she was a flower garden in a concrete city. I’ve no doubt that she tried her best and that his stubbornness carried him away in the end, away to a place where he felt more at home, perhaps more alive—but certainly more apart. A place where a man could forget about his mistakes while killing rattlesnakes with a shovel—or fishing for steelhead.
One interior wall of the Stump Ranch cabin was devoted to cowboy hats and fishing rods. When we arrived we were allowed to select a hat from the wall and wear it for the rest of the week. The rods were spinning and casting rods. The fish in the river had to endure ice jams in the winter, raging muddy flows in the spring, and bathtub-warm water in the peak of summer. Most of the hatchery trout died quickly or were harvested. The river was left to the Northern Pikeminnows (known locally as squawfish) and the steelhead.
Grandpa bought the cabin for the fishing. One corner of the front room was dedicated to photos of steelhead—often pictured in groups of four or five. Black and white images of my grandfather and my father (with hair?) grinning from opposite ends of a stringer, the fish spread out between them, cleaned and gutless, throats cut, the massive jaws turned up at a 45 degree angle. As a teen, my newly minted catch-and-release sensibilities didn’t know what to make of all that death and my self-indulgent rock-and-roll angst didn’t know what to make of those men. But I looked longingly at those fish.
More than anything, fishing was the line that ran through the men in our family. My grandfather taught my father to fish steelhead. My father taught his sons to fish for trout because no steelhead ventured close enough to city home to make such fishing more than a dream or a once-a-year excursion. As we grew older, fishing tied my brothers and me together. We taught ourselves to tie new flies and how to double haul a fly rod. We loaded up our own cars in the dark blue dawn and drove our father to rivers flung across the West. All of this was in front of us when we pulled ourselves across the trolley each August. Without the Stump Ranch those trips would probably never take place. The Stump Ranch was the place that showed us how to connect to wildness. Those pictures on the wall signified possibility while simultaneously telling us where we came from. We were anglers; that was clear. We were left to decide how to fit ourselves into that tradition. Those pictures let us imagine what had happened before and what might come next.
The year they built the cabin my father would walk down to the river in the evenings with a casting rod. The rig of choice was a lead weight the size of a healthy night crawler, trailed by a spin-glo and an actual night crawler or a classic steelhead fly like a green-butt skunk. He would stand on the gravel bar beneath the trolley and fling his line out into the swift current, let the heavy lead drag the rig toward the bottom, and hope. That fall he hooked a fish nearly every night. Grandma Tommie would come down and cast the same rig and catch nothing. If you include my Grandfather, the three of them must have fished that gravel bar a thousand times. But it didn’t matter because steelhead are so different from trout. For the steelhead, that section of river was merely a waypoint, a rest stop on a thousand-mile journey home. If those fish won’t eat the green-butt skunk today, don’t worry, there will be new fish in their place tomorrow.
When I was twelve, my grandfather and I stood on the sun-bleached river stones and dried moss of that same gravel bar. Given the time that had elapsed and the nature of freestone rivers, the bar’s location was nominally the same, but the stones under my feet were certainly different than the rocks my father stood on those fall evenings when he came down after a day’s work on the cabin. Over the years, Dad’s rocks had been picked up by runoff-tinted water, muddy and cold, and carried downstream to pile up behind a dam. New rocks tumbled from upstream and the river lodged them into my grandfather’s gravel bar, beneath the trolley platform, across the river from the primer gray van.
That morning on the riverbank I was casting a spin-glo and a worm to indiscriminate patches of river. It was high summer and the rocks were nearly white from the sun, from the high spring flows that scoured the riverbank then left it naked as the water receded. Crickets buzzed in the sage and the day was working its way towards a dry desolate heat. Behind us the trail snaked up the hill to the cabin.
We were there because I wanted to go fishing before we left the cabin for another year. The pictures on that wall must have done something to me that year. I wanted to go fishing and he was my grandfather, so he took a rod down from the rack and pulled a can of worms out of the fridge. We walked down the hill, past the rusting jeep, around the old outhouse, to the bank of his river.
I remember Grandpa smiling at me and at the river from under his sunglasses. Thinking of that moment now, I imagine him recalling some evening with my father, maybe noticing how my brown hair was the same shade as my dad’s, how mine cowlicked over my right eyebrow just like my father’s—back before he went gray and bald. I imagine he was thinking about nights on that gravel bar, of fish lost and landed. I imagine he was even fleetingly carried back to moments and places that framed my understanding of him: the old house in Midvale with the flowers and my grandmother, the front seat of a Studebaker pickup, the night stars gleaming over Middle Fork Peak.
Thinking of that moment now, I imagine it was somehow significant for him, but of course, I am only guessing. Perhaps he was smiling simply because it was a beautiful day in a place where he felt at home. Maybe he was glad to be away from the noisy cabin that was usually so quiet when it was just him and Grandma Tommie. Maybe he was happy to hear the sound of the river, the background music for so much of his life. I don’t know. I do know that moment has stayed with me. That morning always resurfaces when I think of him or hear his name at family reunions. I know that moment in that place, somehow connects me to him now that he is gone, stretching like a trolley cable or a fishing line between myself to my father and on to the lined, smiling memory of my grandfather. To me, that day is one intersection in the spider web of my own identity, a complex map of who I have become: a father myself now, a fisherman, yet still a boy casting into an unpredictable, opaque river.
The worm and the spin glow were well out into the milky green water when the fish took and leapt in a rush of spray, bucking like an angry horse. My heart sped and my mind lost its bearings and I convinced myself for a moment that it was someone else’s fish. This was madness because grandpa and I were alone and my grandfather was not even fishing. I felt the pull and I set the hook but when the steelhead jumped (arching above the river’s surface for a moment and forever) it didn’t seem possible that it was my fish, it didn’t seem connected to me at all.
But we were linked. For a mere second that is in memory somehow both an eye’s blink and an eternity, I was tied to that fish. I was expecting a ten-inch trout or a squaw fish. But this was a steelhead, an ocean-run rainbow trout maybe two or three times more powerful than any fish I had ever hooked or landed. A fish that traveled a thousand miles coming and going, leaving and returning home. A fish as wild as the wilderness that rose up the mountain behind us. As wild as the bear muddying spring, as the rattlesnakes in the raspberry patch. A fish that had somehow negotiated four dams on the lower Snake, had maybe paused a beat at the mouth of Salmon river before sensing the familiar and bursting into its home stream in a magnetic rush to a square yard of riverbed somewhere upstream where it was born and where it would die. A fish not unlike the rows of fish in the photographs on the cabin wall, framed by grinning younger versions of these two men whom I loved and revered and wondered if I really knew. A fish not unlike my grandfather, who needed wild places and cold water and chafed under the collar of civilization. A fish unlike any fish I had hooked before or since.
And then—in another blink—it was gone, back to the river, back to the wild soupy green of the Salmon’s deep current, back to the ocean for all I knew. The rod went dead, the line limp. I reeled up, too confused to be angry.
“That,” my grandfather croaked with a grin from beneath his hat, “was a real fish.”
Quinn Grover lives in Idaho Falls with his wife and two daughters. He teaches English at BYU-Idaho while he pursues a PhD at Idaho State University. He spends the moments between classes thinking about whether trout might be rising in the nearby Henry’s Fork.