Ripping Lips in the Land of the Lost

Imagine, you have an invitation to join a (semi)exclusive fishing trip, to a truly remote location, within a six-hour drive from your home. The destination has limited access because of its geography and has propensity to become completely inaccessible during any foul weather. It is not widely known but local lore speaks of spectacular catches. You have been cooped up in quarantine for 3-months. Your partner has given you the green light. The window of opportunity is now. Of course, you are going.

So, it began, an eastbound push into central Nevada to link up with a group of which I knew almost nothing. The pandemic has rendered 2020’s travel plans shattered for most North Americans. This is my first sortie of the year. I am excited to get wheels turning again and make the 1st seasonal whip of the fly rod.

We rendezvous in Winnemucca, where I first met Andrew and Jim. Tony, I have known for many years. He has a history with Jim and Andrew making me the +1. We made the normal introductions and pleasant hello’s in a parking lot, then reviewed our backcountry travel route. I made a random off-color joke for the sole purpose of gauging the response. Being the odd-man, I needed to reconnoiter the group’s flavor of humor. Team chemistry can make or break any excursion. As the FNG, my responsibility is to align with their expectations and culture.

Jim has family history in this geographic area. They have been northern Nevadans for several generations. His family still operates a ranch in the region, and he is well connected in these parts. It is always good to have an inside man. 20 miles off pavement we stopped at a ranch where Jim was recognized as a neighbor. The rest of us were welcomed as members of Jim’s family.

It was here that Tony and I first met Bonzer, the 5th member of our team who had been waiting for us to catch up. I am not sure of Bonzer’s real name, nor how he received this nickname. That is how we addressed him throughout the trip and how I will remember him. 

The folks at the ranch gave us ominous news that we were quite late to the party. Many vehicles had already passed and were headed up to the lake. More than they had seen in past years. Weather was expected to deteriorate over the next 36hrs as well.

The trail climbs to roughly 7000ft before descending into what is called ‘the bowl’ at 6400ft (lake level). A desolated and picturesque climb to the bowl is steep but hardly technical.  The high clay content soils make the trail impassable following any precipitation. The crew had stories of finding wrecks of rollovers days after rains had passed. The reservoir was previously situated on private property, completely restricted for decades until the Nevada Department of Wildlife purchased the 500-acre-foot lake in 1988 and built a dam that resulted in the reservoir’s current size.

Fortunately, our climb was dry. The four-vehicle convoy crested the rim without incident. We did take a photo op moment once on the inside of the bowl. The granite spires and outcrops stand rampart about the reservoir, as if to hide a secret that lies within. Their prominence in the landscape is a dramatic contrast from the sage spotted rolling hills we had traversed over 14 miles.

My rig’s transfer case refused to disengage from low range despite several attempts and shifting tricks.  Not to slow progress I decided to punt on mechanical resolution until we had reached camp.

All local information we had received proved true. The secret was out. Everyone in-the-know had made the journey for this scheduled opening. Well sheltered camps were all occupied. We chose a spot as high and dry as possible and circled the wagons in preparation for inbound weather.

Without delay, revelry commenced, libation flowed, and neighborly bonds quicky tightened. Northern Nevada is a small place. Jim, Andrew, and Bonzer had connection to folks in many of the other camps. The collective of camps transformed into a backcountry reunion of sorts filled with energy and comradery.

As the evening progressed, fires burned intensely. The winds came up, the rains came down. Unphased, the reunion continued to howl late into the evening.

Daybreak was unkind. Wind driven rains poured through the night. Temperatures plummeted and left snow covering the peaks surrounding the bowl. Some water had infiltrated the camper. Poorly stowed gear became soaked. Tony had not secured the gear tent. Everything was waterlogged, rendered a good portion of our sundries useless.

The stormy weather put ambitions in check around the lake. No one ventured onto the water. Andrew started coffee. Jim struggled to get his home-made wood stove to burning. Bonzer was doing his best to get warm. I wrung out my clothes.

Intermittent rain pelted us throughout the day. Camp was reconfigured and made-fast several times to thwart the frigid wind. No-one moved quickly. All were uncomfortable. By mid-morning it was clear this would be a slow camp day punctuated by storm-watching.

Special care was taken to respect each other’s space and preferences. Dry space, warmth, music, gear, discussion, genuflection of past travels, all mixed in a confined environment. Tony and Andrew, who had the longest relationship ended up in a squabble later in the afternoon. Bonzer napped out. Jim grabbed his fly rig, turned to me, and proclaimed that the time for fishing was upon us.

Several rainbow and tiger trout hopped on the line making for a successful session and a personal victory. Tony and Andrew settled down and toasted to days past. The cold front continued to push across the range illuminating the landscape under a platinum sky, leaving behind gossamer bands of fog that cast a blanket across the water only to be shredded by the granite outcroppings.

An eventual return of sunshine lifted the spirit of anglers in wait. The energy of the first night reappeared in full force. Bonzer turned out to be a master storyteller. He had an ability to transform a tale of afternoon hay cutting into an epic poem rich with vivid imagery, laced with scientific fact and wit. The Bonzer was out on the lake early in his micro jon boat. Andrew took on coffee duty by the time I joined the crowd. Jim hit the water at first light. Tony and I planned to work the shoreline in waders. My morning produced no results, so I returned to the task of salvaging and drying gear.

A happy day spaced out and erased any intra expeditionary frictions. Jim gave a nod that I came to understand meant “grab your gear and get your ass in the boat”. Jim had been knockin-em-dead all morning. After coming up empty handed at the shoreline this was an opportunity of redemption which amply paid off.

Less to say a team effort to get my rig back into good working order was unsuccessful. Jim and Andrew possess a lifetime’s hands-on experience in mechanics. Even their knowledge was not enough to figure a field repair. Tony and I were now guaranteed a long, slow departure in the coming days.

As raucous as the first night started so it resumed on the last evening before the team parted ways. The informally assembled crew had been challenged by unfavorable conditions and still proved successful together. Tony and I reflected on the group dynamic (we had a long ride home). Superseding the form-storm-norm-perform lifecycle that all teams go through, what were some of the critical contributors to team cohesiveness that we observed?  This is what we came up with:

Please consider – we had no defined organizational structure or identified leader. All significant decisions were made by consensus.

In no order:

  • Shared goal(s)
  • Flexibility in process
  • Shared risk tolerance
  • Respect for individuality
  • Caring for teammate well being
  • Varied and complementary skill sets
  • Willingness to bring resources to the team
  • Respectful challenging individual or group approach

As we waded into an academic analysis of the tangible application of skills and personality in adventure settings, two things become important to note:

  1. The format of the experience we had just shared was intended as a short duration, good times – excursion with relatively low risk albeit in a remote location.
  2. In the development of a more formal expedition or extended duration journey into similar terrain the impact of team makeup around skills, experience, and personality type are greatly amplified and have real safety and survival implications.

Regardless of your weekend getaway or transcontinental voyage, the points above should, at some level, become part of your cognitive planning process.

Good luck and have fun!

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