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My Worst Hike: Lost in the Dark

A nighttime fly fishing adventure goes awry.

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Thousands of lake run browns and kokanee salmon swim up the Dream Stream every October. This remote stretch of river on Colorado’s South Platte can feel busy with anglers during the day, but it gets even busier with fish at night. Anyone who knows the Dream Stream well knows the secret to catching big fish here is to fish once the sun has set—so that’s what I was doing.

My headlamp was a Nite Ize freebie I got at a tradeshow. It’s one of those lamps you charge with micro USB; decently reliable—unless you forget to charge it.

The Dream Stream is roughly three miles long. This calmly-flowing section starts at the tailwaters of Spinney Mountain Reservoir, where anglers can fish with views of the Collegiate Mountains in the distance. The stream meanders through grassy prairie before dumping into the granite-ringed Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir. The parking lot that I frequent is at a bridge, pretty much smack dab in the middle of these two lakes. The river itself feels like it is in the middle of nowhere: No trees, no roads, but plenty of well-trodden trails.

Many anglers fish at night here, but tonight I was alone. I had started the afternoon fishing at the bridge where I parked my truck and worked upstream. I fished all the way to the dam, caught a nice brown, took the obligatory fish selfie, and fished my way back downstream toward the parking lot. It was only about seven in the evening, but at this point in the night, I was completely alone and dependent on my headlamp. I was just a few hundred yards away from the parking lot when the battery crapped out. No big deal, I thought: My phone was stuffed at the bottom of my waist pack. Except, I realized as I rooted around for it, it wasn’t.

“Nothing sounded more quenching than a quick scroll through my Facebook feed. I pressed on.”

When I had landed that large fish and taken the selfie, I realized, I had placed my phone on a log and used the timer. That was also the point where I had turned around to start making my way back. My phone was still sitting on that log, almost three miles away. I had a decision to make: Go back upstream in the dark and scramble around in the dark looking for my black phone on a random log among hundreds of other logs? Or leave my Samsung Galaxy Note 8 behind until tomorrow? The phone itself was old and not particularly valuable, but without Google Maps, it was going to be hard to find my way back to my motel. As my stomach became queasy from nomophobia (withdrawal from being away from your phone), I decided there was just enough moonlight shining off the river to stumble my way back toward the dam.

Temps were nearing 40, the wind was howling, but no big deal; the plains-like terrain in Lake George, Colorado, is really not a dangerous place to hike or fish. There are a good number of sinkholes that surround the banks, but anyone with eyes would simply step over them.

As I slowly made my way upstream, the howling wind got louder, creepier and more indistinguishable from a hungry animal. “I could easily kick a coyote’s ass,” I kept telling myself as I inched forward.

Then I tripped in a sinkhole and fell over an undercut bank and into the river. Upon scrambling up to minimize the water gushing into my waders, I tried to decide whether to go back to the truck in wet, cold shame or continue forward.

At this point, I was having serious phone withdrawal. My throat was dry, my pupils were dilated, I was soaking wet and in pain with a tweaked ankle. Nothing sounded more quenching than a quick scroll through my Facebook feed. I pressed on.

And there it was; my phone, sitting exactly where I left it, on a log on the bank, moonlight glistening on the screen that was still propped up at the perfect angle from my fish-selfie. “Next time, bring two headlamps,” I told myself.