Dieter H. Dahmen
California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are replete with lakes all of unimaginable beauty, at least by my standards. I have not been to all of them, in fact only to a few, but I know all are well worth the effort to become mesmerized by their beauty. Of those that have shown me their splendor all are also my favorite fishing spots. But Emigrant Lake is an exception.
To reach it you must travel through the mother lode and then beyond. After some two hours you come to Twins Lake, now called Caples Lake, where you can park your car. From there it is another two-hour kike, three and a half miles south, not as the deer gambols but as the crow flies.
The first two miles, southeasterly along Caples Lake’s western shore until you reach its headwaters, plus another half mile or so due south from there, are fairly easy to hike, but the last mile, continuing due south, serpentines and consumes the greater portion of the two-hour hike.
Roughly bean-shaped, about five football fields long and perhaps three football fields wide, Emigrant Lake, at about elevation 8600, is a little more than eight hundred feet above the lower lake, the recipient of its surplus waters. But the effort to reach it fades into total insignificance compared to the breathtaking splendor that awaits him who perseveres.
A cul-de-sac lake, it owns one of the most scenic alpine settings imaginable. Here the Almighty must have one of His vacation chateaus. A mountain range encircles the entire lake like an inverted, compressed omega, open to the north. Hugging the lake’s lower and a portion of its eastern shore, this master of the sky towers here more than a thousand feet above the lake. Here its northern face is steepest and is covered with snow most of the year which is the lake’s only, but constant, year-round source of water - enough water to overflow into a creek emptying its surplus waters through the opening at the north into Caples Lake, some eight hundred feet below.
Curling around the lake’s southern shore, striking northerly, and hugging the lake’s eastern shore for half of the lake’s length, the escarpment increasingly recedes here from the lake, while steadily losing its steepness, before its toe abruptly veers off due easterly at the lake’s northern end, where the entire range soon becomes lost among other mountain ranges.
Bending around the lake’s western shore, the range leaves the lake almost immediately to form a natural place for campers and backpackers between the water’s edge and the bottom of that precipitous slope. Just before reaching the lake’s northern end it abruptly ceases to dominate the sky losing most of its steepness before its toe veers off as well and just as suddenly as on the eastern shore, only into a westerly direction, where the entire range also becomes lost among other mountain ranges.
It is here where the trail from below all of a sudden introduces you to paradise. But the paradisiacal setting is not the only reason for my coming here. The little lake is brim full of brook trout, all eager to be caught by him who can speak a most exquisite patois of “trout”. And I can!
On August 1st, 1966 a young marine climbed the book tower of the university at Austin, Texas, and began to fan the fires of gun phobia, when he sniped at people for some four hours, killing fourteen, as I remember, and wounding more than twice that many. 1966 had unlocked the door to gun control.
Not quite two years later, April 4th, 1968, witnessed the Martin Luther King assassination and two months after that, June 5th, the Robert F. Kennedy assassination. In the wake of all that, 1968 saw the passage of the 1968 gun control act, fulfilling Mephistopheles’ long held dream of transferring sovereignty from the American people to their government and so turned out to be a most momentous year in our nation’s history. If 1966 had unlocked the door to gun control, 1968 had opened it, had opened it wide!
A year later, in August of 1969, Charles Manson had begun to healter skelter (sic) across the front pages of California’s, perhaps even the Nation’s, newspapers, exacerbating what the year before had begun to be a gun phobia with immeasurable effects, although now temporarily assuaged by fear and a clear demand for the right of self protection.
September 27, 1969, belonged to a Saturday. It was the first day of the hunting season in California and I had intended to make it the last day of my fishing season for the year, postponing my opening hunting day to the next day.
Having arrived at dawn at Caples Lake’s northern end, I had to make only minor preparations for the two-hour hike to God’s garden spot. My fishing pole was ready. All I needed was my eiderdown jacket and a small backpack with some food, drink, tackle, and a spare reel in it.
Having on more than one occasion seen the tracks of a mountain lion and a bear, in fact having once heard the latter, I always enlist, seeing I do not wish to share my catch with either predator, the company of messieurs Smith and Wesson and when I do, I always ask them to bring their most outspoken means of persuasion – 357 magnums, 158 grain Soft Points kissed by 15.5 grains of IMR 4227 – and to be ready to protect their master.
To make sure that I could not be accused of carrying concealed, I wedged the seam of my down jacket between my jeans and the holster, that day pressed into service to carry twenty-five rounds of magnum force.
When you reach Caples Lake’s headwaters and begin your climb, especially this time of year, you must be prepared to climb the more than eight hundred feet up without interruption, if you, like I, cannot wait for the thrill of a suddenly taut fishing line, while focusing on your trail lest you become lost. That is why, when you finally reach the top, it is like having climbed stairs for over an hour and now having reached the last and only landing. It gives you an incredible feeling of relief and elation. Only this day elation suddenly turned into terror.
I do not know how long they had been observing me. Judging by the way they had deployed themselves, it must have been for quite a while. They were prepared and waiting!
I did not see them until I was within sixty or seventy feet of them, where the trail had just flattened out. Five hippie boars! All seeming replicas of Blackbeard the Pirate! Three in queue to my right, between the trail and the mountain range coming up the lake’s western shore, just before it veered off toward the west. The other two stood to my left, facing me. The one closest to the trail and my left, except for jeans, was naked. No shoes, no shirt, only jeans and a beard. Standing spread eagled, he was swinging a heavy, long steel chain in his right hand mumbling audibly: “Come to papa, come to papa, come to papa!” Even if I had not heard these awesome and chilling words, I could clearly and easily have read them as they were coming from his lips.
I do not know whether I can do justice to the sensation that roars to full alert in a moment like this and after all these years I am still not certain, even though nearly thirty-four years did not come anywhere close to expunging even the smallest detail of that unreal and awesome day. It does not come constantly to mind, but when it does, it is there in all its details. It is so unique in all of its madness that no description can due justice to it. Not even those attuned to battle’s roar could describe it, understand perhaps, but not bring it to flesh.
You first believe yourself to be in another universe and this is a fata morgana, stimulated by long lost images of having sailed with Huckleberry Finn along the Mississippi into the land of the river pirates. But in only a flash you know this is real. For your chest expands to twice its size with every breath you take. Blood rushes through your body until it seeks to leave at every pore, duplicating in your ears waterfalls whose sounds you have never heard, sounds you can only imagine. You are now in a world that seems unreal; either time has stood still, for they did not seem to be moving, or you are moving at the speed of light, making it appear they were standing still. All this and more assails your perception of normalcy, for it is not normal, when you must realize that to everything there is a season, that there is a time to kill and today is that time.
No one can really comprehend the overpowering realization that intrudes with such unbelievable ferocity into your life and interrupts with equally unreal violence your entire world. Who is it that is not convinced he will use extreme prejudice, when finding an intruder in his home? But that is one thing! Coming face to face with it, is quite another! It is surreal and even that can only suggest what it is like, when skull and bones, brandishing a scythe, bar your path.
It is incredible how many thoughts do go through your mind in what cannot be more than the smaller part of a second. They appear to be simultaneous, yet they do have a chronology. I remembered in that moment never to show fear to an animal. It is said an animal can sense fear and will respond accordingly. I am not certain if there is any truth to that rumor, but I, believing these to be animals, reacted instinctively this way, probably reinforced by a total disbelief at what I was seeing before me.
You have no choice. You cannot run, because after climbing for two hours your boots seem to have come to weigh twenty pounds each. So without breaking stride, I walked toward them, only slightly increasing my steps and then came to see their camp some fifty feet beyond them: two tents, three sows scurrying between them, and a tethered German shepherd, strangely silent. The only sound I heard came from a crying baby.
Worried about my shooting skills under extreme stress conditions and not wanting to have to reload during a firefight, I had decided that the three standing to my right could be felled with a single shot, standing in queue as they were, and, therefore, would be the first I would have to attack. Only then could I pay attention to the one with the chain and then, and only then, to the remaining one.
That is when I realized that during that two-hour hike my jacket had worked itself free and had now covered my “357” completely. Not stopping, I popped the snap buttons of my down jacket, released the holster’s latch, drew the weapon, and cocked it. Only then did they see I was armed. And I am certain they also saw I was not only willing, but also highly resolved to kill.
And then everything became comical. Everything froze and to this day I am convinced I saw his chain freeze standing up, defying gravity. The two to my left hastily joined the three to my right and together all five stepped back to where they were about ten feet away from me. I reholstered the weapon and, keeping a firm grip on it, passed them without looking at them. Only my ears, then in better shape than today, sought to keep track of them.
I had thought it prudent to display a complete lack of concern, to the point of total contempt, lest they would mistake anything else for fear or weakness and let that persuade them to resume their intent to steal my life. And in all likelihood, had they been successful, they would have gotten away with it, because it is highly improbable that my body would ever have been found up here. Snowfall here can be incredible.
I also reflected then, as well as now, on the value of carrying concealed, beyond the notion of self-defense. They did not know I was armed and there is no knowing what other preparations they would have made, had they known that I had company. As it was they thought overwhelming numbers and a swinging chain to be more than sufficient and it worked to my advantage.
Another two hundred feet or so beyond them brought me to my favorite fishing spot. I leaned my pole against a tree, one of only a few that still grow at this elevation, removed my backpack, then my jacket, because I was soaking wet with perspiration now, unhooked the fishing fly from its keeper, and cast out to begin what I had come to do here that day.
It seemed no more than a minute or two, when I looked to my left where they had their camp, to see what they were doing. Then a strange surprise! They were gone! I still cannot explain how they could have broken camp so quickly and then have disappeared so completely, unless my perception of time had been utterly shattered.
I put my fishing pole down, drew the weapon again and cautiously went toward where their camp had been, constantly prepared for an ambush. But they were truly gone as though I had imagined it all. Only an incredible amount of debris and refuse, typical hippie offal, confirmed they had been here. Their campfire was out but smoldering. A large amount of ash let me know they must have been there at least since the day before, if not longer. It took a little time to clean up their mess and to make sure the fire was dead out. But nothing told me what, if anything it was, they had not wanted me to see. It could just as easily have been only a sporting moment for them, a time to have fun. And they almost had it.
Only then did I continue to fish and to relax. Not for long! For then it was that fear suddenly found me and got its revenge for having been rejected, when it sought to be the guiding force in my life only moments before. It is not that I am brave. I am not! I am just not smart enough to be scared, when circumstances demand it, because in moments like these there is simply no time to be scared! But I made up for it now; because now the consequences of had there been a firefight began to flood my mind, not continually, of course, only sporadically.
I continued doing what I had come here to do that day. Not with the usual intensity that normally imbues me, but I fished and perhaps in this I can find the only true comical moment of that eventful day: I can remember every detail of that daymare, but not how many fish I caught.
But, while the heat of the fear has cooled and time long ago dispelled its shock, except when bringing it to mind, I do remember its stark realities. Having killed the five males and assuming I had survived the fight, what would I have done with the three females? What would I have done to make sure that only my side of the ordeal was told? Would I have been forced to kill them too? Would I have been able to overcome the presumably natural reluctance to hurt another member of the human race, no matter how vile? What would I have done with the baby? Take it back to my car, secure it somewhere, and then alert the authorities? How long after their investigation would it have taken them to find me? And what would have been the outcome of a trial with government having become my master and I its slave. Fear for my life would not have allowed for a serendipitous healter skelter (sic) adjunct that would have granted me immunity.
You can see then how under such conditions, as they then began to prevail in the Nation, no euphoria from having put killers to flight could have stimulated anyone’s senses. It is the very reason, why I only very seldom talk about it and even after almost thirty-four years still derive no satisfaction or relief from it. And there is the ever-haunting vision that someone else, some other time, some other place may not have been so fortunate.
Such are the circumstances in our country today that fear of government is by far greater than fear of predators. For predators are the basis for government’s usurpation of the people’s power and thus are the lifeblood of its terror and I almost became one of its victims.
Dieter H. Dahmen
Body and Soul American
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