Sometimes the fishing is secondary to other priorities. The author of this fine reminiscence with his father, Gordon VeneKlasen.
By Garrett VeneKlasen
Feb. 5, 2018 Twenty years ago today, the single engine plane my father was piloting went down in the mountains east of Taos. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Dad was flying from Santa Fe to Angel Fire to pick me up for a quail hunting trip we planned in the Texas panhandle.
It was a huge snow year and it took three days of intensive searching to find him. There were so many wonderful people – friends, family, volunteers and state & local officials – involved in the frantic search.
A state police helicopter finally found the plane on a high ridge line overlooking El Rito Quién Sabe (such irony), which is a tributary of Rito de la Olla.
The NTSB never did figure out why the plane crashed, but there was a storm front passing through that day and they suspect the crash was caused by extreme turbulence in a climatic event called a mountain wave (the acceleration of wind as it speeds up across a mountain range).
It was later determined that dad was killed upon impact. His two trusty labradors, Jake and Duke were also on board the plane that day. Duke was killed but Jake somehow survived the crash and stayed by my dad’s side for three days in freezing temperatures faithfully guarding his body. The search and rescue team had to physically drag the dog away from my father when they removed his body from the plane.
The faithful Jake.
Jake lived for six years after the crash and helped ease my mother’s grief. Jake was also my charismatic ‘co-host’ on the Fly Fishing America tv show I had back in the early 90s.
Dad and I were very close. He was an avid outdoorsman and we spent countless days together in the field and on the water. He was crazy about songbirds, wildlife of all kinds, wildflowers, wild country and the wild world in general. He was an Aldo Leopold kind of guy in every sense of the word. He opened my eyes to the wonders of nature and made me fall in love with all things wild, untamed and untrammeled.
He taught me many things and gave me many gifts, but this was the one that had the most impact in my life.
Every Father’s Day I drive over to Rito de la Olla and spend the morning fly fishing on that beautiful little river. Something he and I did together countless times. I fondly remember watching him fish – completely lost in the embrace of that beautiful, wild high mountain stream. A Cheshire cat grin on his face, the trout didn’t stand a chance. The river and the wild was his place of healing. They beat back his demons that followed him home from the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau he liberated during WWII.
After I catch a couple trout, I climb up the steep hillside through the groves of aspen, Douglass fir and spruce towards dad’s crash site. And I know the names of all the wildflowers, plants, wild mushrooms, songbirds and geology of the mountain, because he taught me all these of these things and so much more.
His plane is still there today resting in a place that affords a most remarkable view. Looking down into Quién Sabe, the town of Taos, Taos Plateau, the Gorge and the mountains around Tres Piedras. All country we both knew so well, because he took me there so often.
Each year I bring dad a Snicker bar, an Arturo Fuentes cigar and a tiny bottle of Knob Creek. These were his guilty pleasures in life. I sit by the plane, take in the stunning view and tell dad how proud I am to be his son and thank him for teaching me about the things in life that truly matter. The things in life that will truly endure.
Rito de la Olla.
Thanks dad. Missing you terribly today, and every day.
Garrett VeneKlasen was the host of the “Fly Fishing America” show on ESPN and former Southwest Regional Director of TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. He is currently running for the office of New Mexico Lands Commissioner.