The truth about winter sets in by early January, after the rush of activity that starts at Thanksgiving, when general hunting season comes to an end by the way, and doesn’t stop until school starts again after Christmas vacation. That truth is that winter nights are long and dark. So it comes as no surprise to any of us that we do our very best to cram lots of stuff into those precious hours of daylight we do have. And, of course, we also find ways to make do in the dark when we have to, as well.


Even so, I still stop to watch when I look up to the dark slopes of Mount Sentinel late in the evening to see a glow of headlamps moving slowly up or down the icy M Trail, or the brighter glow of bike lights bouncing down the slush-clogged zigzag cycling trail on the south end of the mountain, above the golf course. Neither darkness nor weather seems to be much of a factor in people’s decisions about what to do for exercise these days. Maybe I’ll get used to those lights after a while, but I have to admit that I am still in the wonderment phase as I write these words. It is difficult enough for me to make it up and down that mountain with the aid of hiking poles and ice-grippers on my boots in broad daylight. So the idea of barreling down that steep slope on a bike, in the dead of night, and in winter is a still a bit outer limits for me.


As for the people I see jog by on the street in front of my house in the wee hours of the morning nearly every day, snow, ice, and bitter wind be damned, I try not to feel guilty about not being out there doing the same thing myself. And I am fairly successful at warding off that particular kind of guilt.


I think of these winter nights as a time of study, a time of reflection, and perhaps a time of personal renewal. To that end, I try to pick away at the stack of unread books that has been building up for me over the last couple of months. Many of them are the result of suggestions received from many of you in recent weeks. And since many of those books people suggested were about Montana and the West, there is a pretty good likelihood that the tales they contain will transport me, or whomever the reader may be, off into the vast and beautiful landscape around us here. If the writing is good, it doesn’t take long to be transported. When it comes to books, the long nights of winter provide proof to me that there can never be enough time in the night to read all the things one wants to read.


Reading isn’t the only thing that fills the winter nights for folks here under the Big Sky. This is also the time that much of the dreaming and planning takes place for adventures of all kinds in the weeks and months to come.

The Creek

The Creek


That doesn’t mean that this is the time and place to remind readers of application deadlines for floating and camping permits for rivers like the Smith, the Middle Fork, the Selway, the Green, or any of the other popular western rivers. My friend Walleye has taken the time to warn me in no uncertain terms that if I use this blog for such purposes, “there will be trouble.” Walleye contends, and most of my pals would agree, that there is already more than enough competition for those precious permits. So, I won’t do that, and readers like you are on your own when it comes to finding out how and when to apply.


But I will be happy to join you in any kind of daydream regarding what might be waiting out there once the skwala stoneflies begin to show up on local streams sometime in late February.


To that end, I have to tell you that over dinner with Sander and Grace the other night, we got into a lively discussion about how best to bushwhack to a particular high lake in the Missions that lacks an official trail access, and challenges the route-finding skills as well as the patience of many who venture there. Sander is sure there is one “right” path to get there among the maze of misleading game trails and failed human trails that people choose from when they make the trip. Grace doesn’t see it that way. Since I have never been there, I didn’t have an opinion, other than that I would be tickled if they would take me along next time. Either way, both of them agree that the lake is among their favorite places on the planet, but getting there is not as much fun as being there. Sander was left with the assignment of figuring out where the “real” trail is, if he’s so sure it exists.


Sander has also announced his intent to use some of his winter evenings to perfect his fly tying skills, but I’m afraid he’s falling behind on that front. He is still assembling his equipment for the job.


“What did you do with that fly-tying vise you gave me last year? It’s better than the one I have and I want to use it from now on,”


“You took it with you when I gave it to you. It must be with your other tying stuff.”


“Nope. I haven’t seen it. You must still have it in your gear closet.”


I looked for it. Not a chance. So, I’m not counting on Sander supplying me with any new woolly buggers for upcoming fishing season.


But talk of fly-tying and summer adventure does remind me of a little note I received from friend Slats soon after Christmas. Of course, these days a “little note” can just as often be a text message complete with photos, as it might be a carefully penned note on personalized stationery. Slats’ note was the former, and if I am not mistaken, it was the first text message with photos he has ever sent me. The note read: “Ben’s day after Christmas rainbow. The conditions are fabulous up the creek.” The accompanying photos spoke for themselves. By the way, I assume you all know what Slats means by “the creek.”

Ben's after-Christmas rainbow

Ben’s after-Christmas rainbow


As if I needed to remind any of you that even on these short winter days, there is absolutely no shortage of things to do, beginning at your front door. You might even be surprised to learn that there is still a little bit of hunting going on. I missed a chance just last week to spend some time shivering in a duck blind with my friend Elrod. That reminds me, I need to call him and let him know that the phone is still the best way to locate me for an adventure on short notice. Or maybe Elrod will read this.


I may have missed out on Elrod’s offer, but I have not missed many of the days when the ski trails up in Pattee Canyon have been at their best. Just as with hours in the day, there are never enough great snow days on the local tracks in winter, so it’s never good to miss out when those days come along, like they did for a while last week. In fact, I’m hoping that I’ll find some decent snow up there later this morning.


It’s just starting to get light outside and I don’t want to miss a bit of this day, so I’m putting this missive in the “out” box and heading out to greet the morning. See you next week.


























The Gifts That Last Forever.


As we close in on the eleventh hour and more than a few of you are still trying to decide on the perfect Christmas gift for someone you hold dear, I have decided to ride to the rescue. I sent out an all-points bulletin to friends and family for what they would consider to be important, great, or wonderful book title suggestions for people who are having difficulty finding just the right Christmas gift. Many of those friends have generously responded with thoughtful suggestions for books in the very broad categories of Montana and the natural world, fiction and non-fiction alike.


Christmas would not be complete for me if I did not have a new book or two waiting on the bedside stand when the Christmas things are all over. It’s always been that way, even in my earliest memories.


Each of the five kids in our family got at least one book for Christmas, and sometimes more. I still have many of those books. I have lugged them all over the map, packing and unpacking them in dorm rooms, apartments, military barracks, farmhouses, and more recently, a few houses right here on the city streets of Missoula. A place never feels quite like home until at least a special few of those books are out and accessible. And the wonder of those new books on Christmas is a special memory. There is something magic about the smell and feel of a brand new book, and the promise that comes with it of taking you to new and amazing places or introducing you to unforgettable characters.


Turning to my bookshelf as I write these words, I can immediately see the familiar cover of the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I received for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. Right next to it is Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton and Marie Sandoz’ Crazy Horse. All Christmas presents long ago, all reread from time to time since, and all influencing my view of the world in some way or another.


Most of my pals have been readers, too. I suppose that appreciation for the written word and the beauty of language and the shared enjoyment that comes from wonderful stories of all kinds were part of what made us friends in the first place and has kept us that way for all these years. I can’t remember the last time one of my pals or family members pointed me in the direction of a book that I didn’t end up enjoying, although there must be some.


Homer was the first to submit his suggestions. He is always working on reading at least one book. He wrote, “Two that should be on the required reading list for all Montanans are The Rape of the Great Plains – Northwest America, Cattle and Coal, by K. Ross Toole, and Last Stand at Rosebud Creek – Coal, Power, and People, by Michael Parfit. They are not casual reads, as you might guess or remember. Of course, there’s Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it and Other Stories, but I suppose everyone has read that. One of my all time favorites is Journal of a Trapper, 1834-1843, by Osborne Russell. And, I think we should all have a bedside copy of New and Selected Poems, Vol. One by Mary Oliver.”


Gabby provided his suggestions quickly and without commentary, but I happen to know exactly why he chose these two books. Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin, by Paul St. Pierre is a wonderful collection of honest but gentle stories about the people who carve out their livings in a remote and beautiful corner of British Columbia. Goodbye to a River, by John Graves is a deeply personal and beautifully told story of change, loss, and enduring beauty on a legendary Texas river. These are both the kind of books that you may find yourself buying extra copies of whenever you run across them in a used bookstore. You want them to give away to your friends. And that’s exactly what you do.


My son Sander also offered his suggestions without additional commentary. Guiding Elliot, by our own Robert Lee is a local favorite, especially among the guiding community. Sander is a guide, but as far as I know he does not aspire to write about any of it. He also recommends Fire and Brimstone-The North Butte Mining Disaster, by Michael Punke, a chronicle of the worst hard rock mining disaster in American history, that tells the story against a backdrop of political and social events across the State of Montana and the country, and around the world in 1917. Despite my best efforts, Sander has never really been a person who waited impatiently for the next book to come his way. So his recommendations here should be considered high praise.


Val, my older brother who may be dabbling in becoming a book reviewer now that he’s retired, offered these books: “The Painter, by Peter Heller is a compelling story, with great detail given to the fly fishing obsession of the protagonist. Also great insights, I think, into the creative process, and into one view of a shallow southwestern art market. And, Let Him Go, by Larry Watson is a good and quick read, a short double love story set in Northeastern Montana and Western North Dakota. You know some of these folks.”


Sister-in-law Mary Ann had some ideas, too. “Just slipping my addition in here, Greg – hope you don’t mind – you can take it or leave it.  The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich…biologist/observer of the homing instinct in animals but ultimately the effect it has on human happiness.  It’s Maine, not Montana, but a great reference to ‘Deer Camp’ which may ring familiar with you or your readers.”


Gimpy, who does not effuse too often about books, was firm in his assertion that, “Your list would not be complete unless you include A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.” No, it certainly wouldn’t.


Brother Steve down in Berkeley, California offers his own suggestion of just one book, Wide Open Town, by Myron Brinig. Steve says that this novel of life in a Butte-like town called Silver Bow contains writing that “is often very beautiful. And it’s especially interesting because this book was published in 1931.”


Nephew Winsor pushed the envelope with his suggestion, “The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings…for kids and adults. I just loved the setting – very different from Montana, but so rich.” Okay, Wins, it is a wonderful book, and another one of those oldies (1938) that stands the test of time.


Niece Jenny was more expansive. She suggested Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt, “A vivid picture of life on the remote Montana prairie, a woman attempting to live a traditional role, and eventually bucking tradition and leaving the ranch.  A book that both honors a life that is deeply connected to the land and shows us how hard that life is.” And she followed that up with The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. “A riveting autobiography, it’s the story of four children growing up in the West with parents who teeter on the line between non-conformism and just plain irresponsibility.  It is great storytelling, and also shows us that family love can persist, unconditionally, even in the face of terrible difficulties and questionable parenting.”


Patrice was short and to the point. “Right now, if I have to pick two of them, they would be Fools Crow, by James Welch and Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. I’d use the same three words to describe both:  haunting, rich, and beautiful.”


Roper, who happens to belong to five, yes five book clubs that I know of, could hardly be expected to pick just a couple of titles to recommend, but she gave it at try with, The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle, and Montana 1864: Indians, Immigrants, and Gold in the Territorial Year, by Ken Egan Jr.


Over dinner last weekend I asked friends Slats and Ruth what they would suggest. I already knew that one would be Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews because they had just given me their dog-eared copy of the book with instructions that I needed to read it, and I will. Maybe I’ll even provide my personal review right here when I get it read. Meanwhile, according to the cover blurb “Above all, it is a celebration of the breathtaking wilderness and the satisfaction of hard work on some of the harshest, most beautiful land in the world.” That sounds good enough for me. Then the discussion wandered to other books and, of course, James Welch came up, and the question of “how can you pick just one.” So we agreed to suggest folks read them all or choose from “Winter in the Blood,” “The Death of Jim Loney,” and “Fools Crow.”


And last, but certainly not least, Erwin, my pal of forty some years since the days when he was assigning his wrestling team to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, had just two suggestions. “I think the most important books to read about Montana, for me anyway, were This House of Sky, by Ivan Doig, and The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle. ” I don’t need to add anything to that. People will know why they’re important books once they read them.”


As for me, I’ll save my suggestions for another time. This is a pretty good list to work on right now. I’ll bet you can find a copy of almost every one of these books in one of local independent new and used bookstores. There must be a book on this list that would please even your most persnickety friend. I want to thank my family and friends for humoring me and taking the time to make some suggestions. And if anyone asks why you decided on a book for Christmas this year, just direct them to this poem from Emily Dickinson:


There is no frigate like a book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll:

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul!