Lucky For Me - By Ricky Tims

The driveway at Autumn Rock crosses South Fork Creek, a small spring fed stream flowing through the middle of our forty-acre parcel. The stream persists as a trickle even in the driest of months. In order to gain access to both sides of the property a road was built creating a sort of dam over which vehicles could drive. The culvert that was installed under the road is about three feet above the stream bed thus creating a small shallow pond where the water backs up before rising high enough to flow though the culvert and on down the creek. There are always fresh bear tracks in and around the pond so that is how it came to called Bear Pond. Get the picture?

Now think about it. If this standing water with it’s tiny trickle were on your property wouldn’t you suspect that mosquitoes might use it as a breeding ground? With the West Nile virus plaguing the nation, Justin suggested that we purchase a few feeder goldfish at the local pet superstore to alleviate the possibility of the little bloodthirsty boogers from getting a strong hold at Autumn Rock. Good idea, don’t you think?

During the next jaunt down to the property, I waltzed into the pet shop and quickly found a tank swarming with little one-inch goldfish. Justin had waited in the truck, but suggested that I get about a dozen or so. I chose the ‘or so’ part of his suggestion and bought fifty of the critters spending a grand total of five dollars.

That five-dollar investment meant that I was now a caretaker, protector, overseer, and steward of fifty of God’s humble creatures. For the next hour and a half, I cradled the plastic bag in my lap to keep the precious cargo from sloshing about, banging into each other and getting carsick.

Upon arriving at the pond the plan was to climb down to the edge of the water, float the bag for a few minutes to equalize the water temperature and gently free them. I mean literally freeing them as I was surely saving them from the jaws of somebody's pet turtle.  So much for best-laid plans.

As we drove up the mountain, ominous clouds had turned the lingering twilight into a vast dark and impenetrable fortress warding off any useful light and lowering the temperature by about 30 degrees. By the time we reached the pond it was utterly dark, rain was pouring, the wind was howling, and our plans were going down the tube as fast as our trickling stream had turned into a rushing river which was now roaring through the culvert.

Miles away from civilization, without a proper container in which to keep the fish alive for later release, Justin decided to brave the elements and release the goldfish anyway. He got out of the truck, sloshed across the muddy road, slid halfway down the embankment and landed on top of the protruding culvert. While a persistent icy drizzle began soaking his clothes, he managed to maintain his balance (slippery muddy boots and all) perching about four feet above water level. Using his pocketknife he quickly slashed the bag and flung the entire contents as far out into the blackness as he could. So much for water temperature equalization and a gentle release.

Thus begins the story of our attempt at ridding the world of misquotes while at the same time saving a small school of innocent goldfish from certain doom. We had hoped to provide a better place for the little guys to live and at this point I’m thinking, “We did - fishy heaven!”

The next day the sun was bright and temperature warming. It was still fairly early when we made our way up the mountain and reached Autumn Rock.  The rain had turned the pond into a muddy puddle and there were no goldfish in sight. I assumed as much. Surely they had washed through the culvert and by now were well past South Fork Creek, through Yellowstone Creek and far enough down the Heurfano River that they would soon reach the Arkansas River where they would eventually end up being spat out of the Mississippi River into the murky depths of the Gulf of Mexico. If by then they had escaped every peril up to that point, the salt water would surely do them in and the next sight they would see would be the pearly gates. What had I done? I was riddled with guilt. God had put me in charge and I had failed - utterly and miserably failed! My stomach sank in despair.

Later that day on a four-wheeler jaunt we drove by Bear Pond hoping against hope to see a flash of gold darting through the now clearing pond. But alas, nothing.  Then, just as we started to pull away, Justin shouted, “There’s one!”  “Where?” I scanned the surface. My heart raced.   “There!” he pointed, “Near where the stream trickles in. There's two. There’s three!”  I was overjoyed. There near the edge were three - count them - three goldfish. Our mission was not a total loss after all. Right there, swimming in Bear Pond, were three feisty, thriving, happy goldfish wagging their fins and darting around as if they really were in fishy heaven. It was a sight to behold.

Over the next couple of days we counted about 20 goldfish. While I was sad that many of them had disappeared, at least we had a good group that would feed on mosquito larvae and perhaps grow into large beautiful specimens that would entertain and mesmerize anyone who ever gazed into Bear Pond.

As summer waned, I began thinking about the approach of winter. At 8900 feet, freezing weather tends to stick around for a while and I began to have visions of a totally frozen Bear Pond. This fishy heaven would no doubt turn into a fishy hell that literally was “frozen over.”

The new plan was to set up a fish tank at the house in Denver, seine the fish out of the pond and give them a safe harbor until spring arrived. It would be about two weeks before we could make a return trip to get the fish so we had plenty of time to do our homework and learn all about purchasing and setting up an aquarium. The added bonus that a fish aquarium provides a calming and hypnotic atmosphere and is medically proven to help reduce blood pressure and relieve stress confirmed that we were making a wise choice.

After the dust settled from the kachinging of the cash register the VISA card had taken a four hundred dollar hit. Suddenly, I’m beginning to see the folly of this endeavor. A mere five dollars brought a precious little school of goldfish into my life but a four hundred dollar investment had been required to save the slimy bastards from becoming popsicles. Nonetheless, It was my duty. I was their protector, steward and caretaker so there was no other option.

Decorated with a half dozen plastic plants, a fabricated fake piece of driftwood and two real rocks from Autumn Rock, the aquarium looked pretty impressive. It also looked very desolate because there were no fish swimming around in it. The opportunity to save the Bear Pond goldfish was still twelve days away and my need for instant gratification required another trip to the pet store. The next day we bought two expensive fancy goldfish (kaching, kaching) and named them Libby and Lester.

The investment rose higher but at least we weren’t staring at an empty aquarium. Believe it or not, satellite TV took a back seat for a few days.  The following week I had a commitment for a teaching tour in Alaska, but once I arrived back in Denver I found a mesh bag and made a makeshift seine.

Mom, Dad, Justin and I headed back to Autumn Rock. After a couple of days of winterizing the Bertie Marie cabin, the time had come to capture the goldfish.  Dusk was approaching and the temperature was falling. We knew this would be a momentous occasion so I asked mom to take photos and dad manned the video camera. We had planned to bring shorts or swimsuits for the event, but had forgotten to pack them. The only reasonable option was to shed our jeans and tackle the job in our boxers.

Peering down into the crystal clear water we easily spotted them - the remaining twenty to twenty-five of the original fifty; huddling in a nice compact school lazily basking in the cool water near the entrance of the stream. Bear tracks lined the bank and divots covered the bottom; evidence that a bear had recently been sloshing around the pond. I wondered if the bear was after our goldfish or just taking a quick dip to help relieve the midday heat. Although the fish had grown a half an inch I doubted that they were big enough to actually be caught by a bear.

Donning tennis shoes and bearing my skinny white legs, I stepped into the cold clear water. The sudden shock of cold was expected but sinking ten inches into mud wasn’t. The more I tried to move the deeper I sank. With seine in hand I struggled to keep my balance.  As I slowly forced my foot up out of the muck, the other foot began to sink. I should have realized then and there that my efforts were doomed, but I continued with the plan.

I diligently made my way forward until I was just within a few feet of the fish. If I could lower the seine without startling them they would be easy to catch. I struggled with each step realizing that I was creating muddy swirls that clouded the water. It became obvious that the fish would have to stay out of the troubled areas or I wouldn’t be able to see them. I fought the mud, but managed to get very close.

When I carefully lowered the seine the fish perked up. I’m sure the leader said, “Hey guys, there’s the creeps that tried to kill us. Run away, run away!” and they darted in every direction. With this flurry of activity, I made a fast move and swished the seine back and forth trying to catch as many of the slippery rascals as I possibly could. When I raised the net. Nothing.

The muddy water I had created provided a cloak of protection for the fish. Justin, who was standing on the bank coaching my every move, said that they went behind me. I walk blindly the other direction, dragging and scooping the net.

Nothing. I was thigh high at the deepest part of the pond having visions that I was about to fall over and becoming the first polar bear at Autumn Rock. Fortunately I remained upright. Justin decided to step into the water and began walking toward me hoping that he could herd the fish into my net.

Nothing. The whole pond was a muddy, murky mess. It was impossible to see any fish and my feet and legs were beginning to freeze. “Damn fish,” I thought, “Fine. Just freeze for all I care!”  Then Justin saw a flash of gold near the bank to my left.  “There!” he cried, “Hand me the net!” I moved so fast in his direction that my body moved faster than my feet and I could feel myself beginning to topple. I started to panic but somehow managed to keep myself from plunging beneath frozen baptismal waters of Bear Pond.

The little goldfish shot toward the bank and Justin and I were able to shoo and corner him into the net. “We caught one, we caught one!” I shouted. I reached into the net, grabbed the fish, fought my way out of the pond, ran along the muddy bank and flung the fish into the container that we had prepared in order to haul our catch to the new aquarium. I made such a racket whooping and yelping that you’d have thought it was the first fish I’d ever caught.

When I looked up I realized there was no possible way we were going to save any more fish. It was getting dark, our feet were numb and the pond was opaque with silt and mud. It was over. I thought to myself, “If the rest of these fish are going to survive, they will. If they don’t, they don’t.” We washed the mud off, got dressed, warmed our toes under the heater vents of the truck and made our way down the mountain just as night was falling. A small sense of satisfaction welled within me knowing that at least one fish had been saved from an icy grave and was well on his way to the safety of the aquarium where Libby and Lester were waiting to greet him.

As I reflect on the situation, I’ve concluded that I probably wouldn’t have done anything differently even though the expense of the ordeal exceeded five hundred dollars (that includes gas, lodging and a new pair of tennis shoes for Justin). Putting aside the cost, I will rest assured knowing that, for now at least Autumn Rock has been saved from the West Nile virus.

No doubt I will be wondering if the remaining goldfish are managing to survive beneath the icy crust of the pond and hoping that spring will find them thriving in their remote wilderness home. Regardless of the outcome, I have peace of mind knowing that a lone survivor named Lucky has a safe haven and seems to enjoy his place in the aquarium frolicking with Libby and Lester through a maze of plastic plants.

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