Ever since the Bobcat Fire razed our beloved West Fork of the San Gabriel, I’ve dreaded going back to take a look and cast a line. I remember taking my son roller blading here when he was around 8 years old. Now 38, that’s been a long time. The place for me was one of contradictions: like the Wild & Scenic designation, while tons of weekend trash overwhelmed the streams’ skeleton staff; or the designation as endangered for the Yellow-Legged frog that ended stocking of the West Fork, which continued to wow fishers such as myself in years to come — without stocking. Of the picture of a supposed steelhead caught above the dam that set off a stir among biologists and enthusiasts alike, only to later be categorized as another rainbow.
Through it all, I loved the West Fork and all the good times it brought into my life.
So, it was with some trepidation that I inflated the tires on the used Schwinn my wife bought me pre-pandemic specifically to visit the WF, oil its rusty chain, brush off its leaves and cobwebs and load it into my go-to adventure car, the 2005 Prius. My heart felt unsettled as I drove to get my $3 cup at Starbucks (actually a mere $2.80 if you bring your own mug …), and followed my familiar route, exiting the 210 at what was once the Miller Brewery exit, heading up the canyon.
I nodded my head as I passed my friend Analiza’s house, thought about the time I had dinner with a woman who I actually think was possessed at El Encanto, heard the words of another friend, Bernard, as he told me about pulling a giant from the lower river. It was like that driving all the way up — the blissful insistency of one’s own memories from a long life.
I almost turned off at the East Fork to avoid having to see what I didn’t want to see. Earlier pictures from braver souls showed a moonscape, where once thick, native trees had shaded much of the seven-plus miles of bike path to the Cogswell Dam. But, I persevered and pulled into the oddly quiet parking lot. Also, odd was the fact that I passed some three Highway Patrol cruisers at the bike lane’s entrance, and a fourth at the top end of the parking lot. Never in all the years of my visits had I seen cops there, nor received a ticket for forgetting to put my ancient Adventure Pass on my dash board. This was new.
As I looked closer, I saw why — several pieces of heavy equipment working hard, making noise, lumbering their way, foot by foot, up the canyon road.
But I thought “what the hell?” as I unloaded the bike and put on my sling, full of lunch, water, and a mix of dries and nymphs. “Maybe I can just stay casual and glide on by them.”
I was reminded on the clipboard scene in Michael Keaton’s journalist thriller, “The Paper,” in which he declares “Henry: A clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in the world!”
Of course, as I approached the gate and the oddly dressed big fella in the old car by the gate, I didn’t have a clip board, only a 4 weight Winston Ibis.
As he lumbered out of his car staring at me, I finally asked, “Can I help you?”
To which he replied, “No, I can help you.”
And he dropped the bomb, the one that let me off the hook of actually seeing what had become of my — our — beloved West Fork.
“It is closed for repairs to the dam.”
“Probably three to four months.”
He still eyed me with suspicion, and I returned the favor. After all the pats, I didn’t expect a guy dressed in old clothes, exiting a beater to be the security guard. But …
Then, I remember: when this closure began I’d run an incorrect headline a thoughtful reader caught. I’d written the WF would be closed on weekends and open on weekdays. It was the other way around. And … this was Tuesday.
Glumly I rode back to the car, stopping to watch all the grunting machinery do whatever they were all doing. But unlike watching big dump trucks and towering cranes gleefully as a kid, instead I felt the weight of loss once again on my shoulders.
To cheer myself up, I decided to drive north to Crystal Lake. In all those years, I’d never driven past the West Fork parking lot! I drove past the North Fork, and, as the elevation steadily climbed from 2,000 to 3,000 feet and beyond, tight valleys filled with the fall colors of yellow, auburn and burnished brown. And the chill was on, beautiful, just the right amount of cool on this cloudless afternoon.
See you on the river, Jim Burns