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Alive and well in the Arkansas Valley

Thriving again after a brush with ecological disaster, the river and its surroundings beckon boaters, anglers and others to the great outdoors.

June 08, 2003|Kyle Henley | Special to The Times

Salida, Colo. — I cast the fly rod, my right arm snapping back and then forward. The line curled through the air, and the imitation fly landed behind a rock 20 feet upstream. It swirled in the clear water for a few seconds, then gently drifted down the river.

The fly, a caddis -- meant to resemble the larva of the moth-like caddis fly -- bobbed and dipped as the current pulled it. It drifted past me, and I started to lift my rod to make another cast.

Wham! The line jerked, and the rod came to life. I fumbled for a moment before I realized what had happened and triumphantly hollered, "Fish on!"

For about five minutes, the fish and I danced. I reeled in a bit and then let it run, trying to tire it out. Eventually I worked it in close and was able to get the feisty fella near the fishing guide, who scooped it up with a net.

It was a fat, 14-inch brown trout. I gawked like a schoolboy. I've caught hundreds of fish, and I never tire of that feeling. With a surgeon's skill, the guide removed the tiny hook from the fish's mouth; then we set it free. Rod in hand, I waded back into the current to do it again.

This scene was unimaginable not long ago. The Arkansas River was so polluted from mining runoff that few trout lived here, and those that did were weak and scrawny. As wildlife dwindled, so did tourism in this classic Colorado river valley.

Today, thanks to a $75-million cleanup, the fish and game are back, along with the vitality of this region 140 miles southwest of Denver. Tourists are beginning to notice and are discovering -- or rediscovering -- the area's small towns and natural beauties.

I was among them that morning in late April. My wife, Jessica, and I had decided to leave Denver behind for a few days, so we piled a couple of suitcases into the Subaru and set off for a much-needed weekend of relaxation in the Rocky Mountains.

The Arkansas River is best known for kayaking and rafting. The thrilling rapids -- some rated up to a white-knuckle Class 5 -- attract more than 300,000 boaters a year to the Arkansas River Valley.

But it's the miles and miles of hiking trails and the challenge of climbing the high peaks -- 14 of them taller than 14,000 feet -- that lure me back most often. The recent day of fly-fishing on the river also opened my eyes to the other recreational possibilities in this rugged and beautiful land.

A visit to the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a 120-mile stretch of river valley in central Colorado, offers a chance to experience the real Colorado, unspoiled by high-rise condominiums, $100-a-round golf courses, overpriced restaurants and busy interstate traffic.

That's largely because about half of the land adjacent to the expansive river valley is protected wilderness. So while other parts of the state have turned into fashionable resort communities, with plenty of glitz and packaged, sanitized mountain experiences, the largely protected Arkansas River Valley quietly evolved into an offbeat and less expensive spot for those of us who crave the real deal.

Increasingly, mountain towns along the Arkansas River, such as Salida and Leadville, are shedding their backward images and dingy digs for contemporary restaurants, espresso bars, art galleries and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, all the while preserving the sense of history and adventurous spirit that make the region unique.

An inn with an infamous past

Jessica and I got a taste of the region's history when we spent the night at the Nordic Inn, a 19th century stagecoach stop that evolved into a brothel, then a speakeasy and finally a bed-and-breakfast. In the town of Twin Lakes at the foot of Colorado's highest peak, 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert, the inn is surrounded by jagged mountains.

It has a rustic feel, its 14 rooms filled with antiques and named for the infamous ladies of the night who once prowled its halls. My favorite was Cora's Room, honoring a happy hooker who had no teeth.

After breakfast, Jessica and I drove to Buena Vista, where I met Pat Chant, lead guide for Colorado Fly Fishing Guides. Jessica, who is working on her MBA, dropped me off and spent the day studying for a final. Chant and I hit the river.

A longtime Arkansas River Valley resident, Chant mixed stories of the valley's history with casting tips as we worked a stretch of water above Salida. The most intriguing tale was that we were fishing the river at all.

"In 1991-92, people told me, 'Oh, you're fishing the dead river,' " he said at one point. "I was fishing alone for years."

The river starts in the high mountains above Leadville, where melting snow spills down the steep slopes and forms the genesis of a mighty waterway that flows through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas before meeting the Mississippi River.

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