Am I making a mistake? The question nags at me as I drive past ranches, cattle and grassy uplands en route to meet a total stranger.
On my podcast a week prior, I had mentioned that I was road tripping through Colorado and asked if anyone knew where the trout were hiding. Someone named Kevin Grunewald responded, “Longtime listener, first-time caller,” claiming that he is a wildlife biologist who manages a “1,200 acre wildlife wonderland” about 45-minutes south of the Wyoming border.
The email was written professionally enough, and everyone knows that serial killers use poor grammar and all caps. I weigh my options carefully. In other words, I ask no further questions and respond: “Hell yeah!”
High winds can blow cars into head-on collisions on this single-lane highway, so I drive slowly, with both hands on the wheel, a growing line of 18-wheelers on my tail. I imagine that my sluggishness is irritating, so I speed up, feel a gust of wind, then slow down dramatically, repeating the process until I finally pull off to the side of the highway and let the vehicles pass. It’s not only my erratic driving that I’m self-conscious about. It’s the fact that I’m approaching cowboy country driving a Subaru Forester with California plates and a sky box—the choice of left-leaning campers everywhere.
The entrance to Phantom Canyon is a simple ranch gate, and I could have easily missed it. Kevin is waiting for me. He is a sturdy, auburn-haired 28 -year -old with a trimmed beard and soldier’s posture. I size him up and quickly submit that he would likely overpower me in hand-to-hand combat. But he’s also driving a Subaru Forester, so perhaps our shared love of practical, all-wheel-drive vehicles will be enough for him to choose friendship over murder.
I drive through the gate and then follow Kevin along a well-maintained dirt road away from the highway for about 20 minutes. Pronghorn antelope flank my Subaru. (A few nights later, Kevin will bestow my vehicle with the name “Jodie Forester.”) We make it to a visitor center, which is painted dark green and blends in almost seamlessly with the surrounding grasslands. Schools, volunteers and donors normally frequent the preserve, but since COVID-19, Kevin manages this property alone, and I am his only visitor.
We get out of our cars, walk down a dirt path and step into a postcard. The grasslands give way to a narrow 600-foot-tall granite amphitheater. Below us is a valley between the cliff and a snaking trout stream that appears, at least from here, to be the fly-fishing equivalent of J-Bay. I let out an involuntary, “Pshhh! Whaa?” Kevin looks back at me smugly and says, “It gets me every time, man.” Any fears of deceit I may have had about Kevin blow away like a warm breeze to the canyon floor.
I see black bears, golden eagles and mule deer at the bottom of this valley in the coming days.
The lodge sits at the top of the valley with a perfect view. It resembles a dormitory with a tall ceiling and spacious common areas. I throw my duffle bag onto a bed, Kevin sets up my fly rod, and I climb into waders. I have been hunting for the past few years, but angling is new to me. My eyes follow the fishing line as it tapers to the point of invisibility where the fly is tied. We walk down a steep switchback trail into the valley.
“Watch out for rattlesnakes,” he says. I haven’t spent much time in rattlesnake country, so I ask what he means by this. (I have a habit of asking people to reiterate clear advice.)
“Just don’t step on one,” he tells me.
Kevin uproots a plant along the side of the trail. It would go nicely in a bouquet. “A lot of invasives were brought in because they’re beautiful,” he says. He points out a weed called “cheatgrass” and instructs me to pull it out whenever I feel inspired. An environmental nonprofit purchased this preserve in 1987 primarily because the foothills ecosystem supports the Larimer aletes, a rare member of the parsley family, which grows nowhere else on Earth except in Boulder and Larimer counties. Phantom Canyon harbors perhaps the largest remaining population.
We make it to the bottom of the trail an hour before dusk and wade into the river. The water is calm and insects hover around the bank in clusters. “Pretend that your elbow is connected to the side of your chest and only cast moving your forearm,” he says, then he wades up the river to find his own eddy. Fish like eddies because food is more plentiful and they don’t need to swim against the current. I also learn that fish can both see and hear you. Experienced anglers creep around with the sensibilities of a hunter. I cast a few times to signal my independence, tangle the line, then wade up the river to watch Kevin cast with the precision of a lion trainer cracking a whip.
The next morning Kevin leads us on a run down the trail to cold plunge in the river. “I’ll let you lead, so the snake bites you,” I call ahead jokingly. The loose rocks on the switchback feel precarious and the last thing I need is a twisted ankle. Kevin is a fast runner and I am redlining to keep pace. As we round one corner about halfway down, I hear a rattle close to my foot and I jump like an NBA player on PCP. “First guy wakes ’em up, second guy gets bit!” Kevin says. My lungs are on the verge of collapse from the altitude. He later tells me that he runs the canyon daily.
I step into the icy river, take a deep breath, and grab hold of a large stone to secure my place underwater. As I lay at the bottom of the river, at the lowest point of the canyon, miles from civilization, the water rushes past me, and I feel like I’m flying forward.
In the coming days, Phantom Canyon reveals its moods. One day it rains, and the cliff walls become a smoky grey. When it clears, a rainbow spans the cathedral. Cell service is spotty, so I keep my phone off, which seems to add hours to each day. I spend my time fly fishing, reading Bird By Bird, a fantastic book on writing by Anne Lamott, and staring blankly at a wordless document on my computer, wondering how Lamott makes it look so easy.
After an arduous back and forth, I finally cajole Kevin into a podcast interview. During the recording, I learn that the 28 year old has already worked as a bear guide in Ketchikan, Alaska, conducted wetland research in Australia, and worked for the International Crane Foundation in Texas, supporting the endangered whooping crane. Now, he manages Phantom Canyon and works as an elk-hunting guide in the fall and winter.
He also seems to be oblivious to the concept that any of this is unique or interesting.
I learn that a big part of Kevin’s job is promoting conservation work with ranchers. “How so?” I ask.
“Conservation easements,” he says. “Think of a ranch as a bundle of sticks. Each stick represents a right associated with that property—mineral extraction, timber harvesting, water rights or road construction. A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land-trust organization where a certain amount of those sticks [or rights] are acquired by [us]. We’re trying to protect the conservation values of that landscape, and often that restricts development or mineral extraction in perpetuity.”
Kevin also installs wildlife-friendly fences on some of the ranches. “Pronghorn antelope are great at running, not so great at jumping.” he says. Their horns can get caught in fences, and when that happens, they usually die. The fences he installs have an 18-inch gap at the bottom so the animal can scoot beneath.
A few days later, Kevin’s girlfriend, Kelsey, arrives. Kelsey grew up ranching and now works as a large-animal veterinarian, and in passing mentions that she recently delivered a baby calf.
I am writing inside the lodge one gloomy afternoon while Kevin and Kelsey are out hiking by the river. Kevin rushes into the lodge. He’s alone and out of breath and looking very serious. “Kelsey got bit by a rattlesnake,” he says. “It’s game time buddy, let’s go.” I jump up from the computer and we sprint down the switchback trail together.
Miraculously, Kevin gets service and calls 911. A helicopter is on the way. Kelsey is sitting at the edge of the river beneath a Juniper tree. She looks calm, and I half expect her to be reading a book. Apparently, she and Kevin were walking through tall grass with their dog. Kevin was in front and unknowingly stepped over the snake. Kelsey stepped right on it. Her foot is now bare, puffy and scarlet, and the bite mark is clearly visible on her lower ankle. It was a prairie rattlesnake, but likely didn’t release all of its venom because Kelsey is still coherent, even sanguine. If the bite is bad enough, a victim can drop right on the spot and start vomiting. Kelsey keeps her foot as still as possible so the poison doesn’t circulate through her body.
The chopper arrives and medics put Kelsey on a stretcher. Kevin and I walk up the trail. The adrenaline has worn off, and I’m breathing heavily now. Along with the chopper, about 30 firefighters showed up for the call. Many of them didn’t feel the need to hike down the trail once the chopper arrived and instead are hanging out on the deck, snapping photos of the view.
Kevin’s response to his girlfriend’s near-death experience was remarkably pragmatic and mirrors his approach to conservation. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the immensity of global environmental issues, he focuses on what he can control. He once told me, “If my work allows another two dozen antelopes to exist on these plains, that makes it worth it.”
The storm gives way to a rapturous evening sky. The sun is setting behind us and paints the canyon with a glowing burnt-orange hue. The firefighters leave, and soon, Kevin will drive to the hospital to stay with Kelsey for the night, which is my cue to pack my duffle bag and continue north into Wyoming. I stand on the deck to take in the scene one last time. Kevin walks onto the deck, looks up, and says, “Not another fucking rainbow.”
By Kyle Thiermann