‘He was more than a friend’
Everything in life is temporary, including life itself. As I grow ever older, I am increasingly aware of this most fundamental fact. There is no escaping it. All things must end.
With the recent passing of a dear friend, I am again reminded of the fragility of life and how, for each of us, a prolonged subsistence is never assured. At best, we are but short-term tenants here, and the length of our stay, as with all living things, varies by circumstance. Be it of fate or divine authority, some simply live longer than others.
Bruce Keep lived 52 years and was my friend for the past 20. In fact, he was more than a friend. He was kith and kin, my best buddy, a fanatic fishing companion and true ally in life. He was intelligent, articulate, kind and soft-spoken, yet his uncanny wit amused all who knew him, as it spared me the weight of a life led too seriously. I cared deeply for Bruce, and he cared deeply for me.
For more than two decades, Bruce worked with his brother, Rex, in a thriving photography and photo-finishing business in and around Vail. Rex, as a prominent professional photographer, focused primarily on his work, while Bruce assisted in the day-to-day operations of three photo-processing labs. He specialized in E-6 slide processing, while developing his own aptitude in still photography.
But, beyond a skillful E-6 processor and talented photographer, Bruce was a consummate flyfisher and the best fly-tyer I have ever known. We met and became fast friends in Vail, but even in the days before our first fishing foray together, he had already established himself as the local expert on aquatic entomology. As an on-call commercial fly-tyer, he devoted much of his spare time to creating durable and effective flies for a select list of clients, while refining his angling expertise in the name of “essential streamside research.”
Our first outing led us to the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs, in November 1986. Bruce, at 6 feet 4 inches, picked me up in his enormous old four-door Plymouth and drove to a Glenwood restaurant. Over coffee, as I described my limited success in previous trips to the Colorado, Bruce discussed flies and tactics and assured me we’d catch fish. He was half right.
I caught several trout that day, two of which were my largest ever to that point in time, while Bruce failed to hook a fish at all. Of course, he knew that stretch of water well, and made certain that I cast to the most productive pools. He, meanwhile, stood by, camera in hand, and captured my many triumphs for all the world to see.
In the early years of our relationship, Bruce processed slides, tied flies and taught fly-tying classes. I, as a fledgling outdoor writer and photographer, wrote newspaper articles, guided fly-fishermen and held assorted winter jobs to keep up with rent and groceries. We guided together occasionally and fished every opportunity, except on the coldest January days, and the Eagle River became our beloved home water.
As time passed and our friendship matured, interests turned to conservation efforts. We volunteered in support of Trout Unlimited (TU) and the Federation of Fly Fishers. In our community and among clients, we advocated catch-and-release fishing with single barbless hooks, and preached the end of littering and stream contamination.
In the wake of decades of mining pollution, we toiled in the fight to restore health to a beleaguered Eagle River.
As I gradually shifted to freelance magazine work and related slide photography, Bruce began writing fly-tying articles for a local newspaper. When I became a regular columnist for a national flyfishing magazine, we traveled over a five-state area, fishing, studying aquatic insects and shooting photos for bimonthly publication.
Some of our travels took us to Montana’s Bighorn River, the San Juan below Navajo Dam and the Green River in Utah. We went to Idaho and the Lochsa, Selway and Clearwater rivers and we covered all the major rivers in Colorado. Whether float-fishing or wading the currents, we visited some beautiful places, fished amazing waters and had tons of fun.
On occasion, the owners of a new and upcoming backcountry lodge would hire me as a consultant to assess the quality of their fishing resources – no doubt, hoping for a little national publicity in return – and I nearly always persuaded them that Bruce’s expertise was crucial to a precise evaluation. More often than not, the two of us went, all expenses paid, plus salary.
Of all our angling escapades over the years, certainly too numerous to delve into here, the most enjoyable and enlightening were the many jaunts to remote tributary streams in the higher elevations of the Colorado Rockies. While seldom encountering another soul in such places, we found quiet and unparalleled beauty in all natural surroundings, where time slowed to a crawl. The only things of importance, aside from our close camaraderie, were those which stimulated our senses, bringing peace and fulfillment to our hearts.
At times we fished emphatically for hours on end, while at others, we sat in the shade, joyfully observing, as trout fed unwaveringly in the braided currents of a placid pool. Sometimes, we walked long distances without uttering a word, hearing only the sounds of our footsteps, the singing of birds, or a soft breeze wafting through the trees. Many times though, we laughed and carried on, as if we had all the answers, while the rest of the world simply floundered, seemingly unaware of our great wisdom.
But mostly, we enjoyed being together and doing what we loved. Today, I sorely miss my friend and undoubtedly always will.
I am not a religious man per se, but I am, nonetheless, deeply spiritual. Perhaps similarities between the two are greater than their differences, but in my understanding of the Great Mystery which I call God, there is reason and order, perfection and balance in everyone and everything.
Our existence is not simply the product of happenstance. Rather, we are the embodiment of spirit and our souls are the pure result of all our worldly experiences, personal relationships and love.
Perhaps, as we pass from this world to the next, love is all we’re able to carry along. I believe it is so. After all, there is purpose, and what could be more important?
Chuck McGuire is a Pagosa Springs resident and a columnist for the Pagosa Springs SUN. This column was first published in the Dec. 14 edition of the SUN.
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