Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

I had just hung up the phone after negotiating a day on the river with my old friend Erwin when the phone rang. It was Erwin again.

“Did we decide who’s bringing the boat tomorrow?” he asked.

“No. I guess I didn’t even think about it.”

“Well do you have a boat we can use?”

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

I could see out the living room window from where I stood and my pickup was there with my son Sander’s fly fishing skiff sitting proudly on the attached trailer.

“Yes, I have a boat,” I replied.

“A drift boat?”

“Yes, Sander’s skiff is here. He’ll let me use it.”

I couldn’t help thinking that Erwin was getting a little picky about boats. There was a time when any floatable craft was acceptable. These days, when the water levels warrant, Erwin prefers the stability and comfort of a hard-bottomed riverboat to a raft. I do too.

It is about this time of year that boats become a topic of discussion and the focus of daydreams for me and many of my friends. With the heart of floating season looming in the weeks and months ahead, there is often a lot of activity in the boat business, buying, selling, upgrading, and adding to the fleet.

As I write these words, pal Slats is thinking about his next boat. He just sold his most recent drift boat and he’s in the market for something in more versatile raft. He almost bought on he found on Craigslist last week, but it was sold out from under him. He claims that the seller agreed to wait a day until Slats had a look at it. But money talks.

I’m always looking, and dreaming a bit, but right now I am happy with a good raft rigged for fishing. My pals have plenty in the hard boat department, and son Sander doesn’t complain too much if I borrow his once in a while.

Even so, just as I know Slats is suffering from a fairly serious case of boat lust right now, I can feel it sneaking in on me, too.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.

 

BOAT LUST is a disease folks. Modern science has not determined whether its causes are genetic or environmental, but all who study it agree that once B.L. takes hold, there is little a victim can do but ride it out or knuckle under.

I don't know how this speedboat got in here.

I don’t know how this speedboat got in here.

B.L. is characterized by an intense desire to have a boat. Not just any old boat will do. In fact, most victims, myself included, already have a boat or two at their disposal while the overwhelming urge to have another boat clutches at the chest. The disease creates a strong feeling in the victim that all future happiness is dependent upon owning and operating a new boat.

We called this the "Lead Sled," slow but sure.

We called this the “Lead Sled,” slow but sure.

The obstacles to owning the boat in question are usually significant. The first one is always money.

An easy way to spot a B.L. sufferer is to take a quick look in the back yard or garage. There you will see things like canoes up on sawhorses, usually more than one, or boat trailers and raft frames heaped unceremoniously about. Scattered around in the garage you will find oars and paddles, an outboard motor or two, and life jackets of all kinds hanging from nails and rafters. If the stuff looks like it hasn’t been used lately, look around some more. There is sure to be new gear around.

That’s because B.L. usually strikes people who use boats regularly. The particular strain of lust I am referring to involves fishing boats. I don’t know about B.L. as it pertains to ski boats or sailboats, or even white watercraft generally, but it is safe to assume that it has plenty of victims in those areas as well.

I have suffered from B.L. all my life. I have always been around boats. One boat that came into this world the same year I did, an aluminum and wood model, still bangs its way over the sandbars of the Swan River every year with me at the controls. It is a 1947 model Larsen rowboat, crafted from heavy aircraft aluminum stockpiled at the end of WWII.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

So it’s not as though there hasn’t always been a boat available at almost any time in my life, except when I was marooned at various Marine bases or stuck in a dorm in the middle of Minnesota cornfields at St. Olaf College. If I had looked around hard enough, I would have found boats in those places, too.

Early on though, I recognized a need for specialized craft. The first manifestations were crude log rafts, lashed together on the shores of mountain lakes with lengths of the heavy old phone wire left along mountain trails when lookouts were abandoned. With the advent of cheap inflatables it was a long procession of canvas and rubber concoctions.

The first was a red and white striped “two-man” model ordered from a catalog. It’s maiden voyage was down an irrigation ditch in Billings, with a portage required every hundred yards or so when the water squeezed into a culvert for a street crossing. Then came the yellow “rubber duckies”.

Those “duckies” became the stuff of barter. As long as they still held air, they were like currency. One big old “duck” for two smaller, newer ones, for example. Or maybe it was two small ones for a battered canoe. Once I even lost one to Erwin in a cribbage game.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

But usually there was a reason for any alteration of the fleet. There was a particular stretch of water, or certain water conditions, or some new comfort consideration like a place to sit, that made a new boat ideal.            With time, of course, the shortcomings of each new boat became evident. It might be tippy, or cramped, or sluggish in fast water. There was always something. So the fleet grew and changed quite often.

As Erwin has said at least 1,000 times, ” You can never have too many floatable craft.”

Not a single one in my crowd of outdoor pals disputes that. I certainly don’t, but I also know that monetary considerations sometimes interfere. Things like food, clothing and shelter are necessary for the family, for example. And that’s why, over the years, I have had to fight B.L. when it comes along. That’s why I never got a Barnegat Bay Sneak Box for duck hunting. That’s why I never got one of those folding boats to take along on trips like a piece of luggage. And that’s why I didn’t have a drift boat for a long, long time, even though I was filled with lust.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

That was going on long before drift boats became as common as magpies in Missoula. People would stop to watch when one floated by on a river, noting the graceful, pointy ended, flat-bottomed design that have long since become standard among the ever growing army of fishing guides on all of Montana’s rivers. They are easy to handle, roomy, comfortable and provide a nice stable place to stand and cast. And they are often beautifully crafted. I never knew what I was missing until the day I finally asked Stuart Williams to build me one.

For years, I had been shopping; making some calls; memorizing brochures; contemplating the accessories; and I had tried out a couple. Erwin and I carefully looked over several production models complete with waterproof dry boxes, swivel seats, handy foot-release anchor systems, the works.

One of the unwritten laws relating to dealing with BL is that a friend should generally never try to talk a friend out of buying a boat when the moment of truth arrives. A new boat, you see, is a joy to be shared by many. And, if I can convince Erwin or Slats or Homer to buy a particular boat, well then I won’t have to buy one for a while.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

The thing about B.L. is that if you can get over the first few weeks, it goes away for a year or so. Once the fishing gets really good, you don’t worry about boats. You just use what you have and get out on the water as often as you can. But you never quite forget that it’s out there, waiting to strike when the time is again right.

After all, it is a well-known fact that you never outgrow your need for boats.

 

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“I am glad that I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

For some reason, of all the wise and wonderful things that Aldo Leopold had to say in “A Sand County Almanac”, those are the words that have stuck with me over the years.

I knew right away what he was talking about.

Each April, when Earth Day and Earth Week roll around, and, not by accident, I suspect, we also note with some gratitude the birthday of the visionary naturalist John Muir, Leopold’s words stir dreams and memories of wild places and the adventures found and shared there over more decades than I care to acknowledge sometimes.

Growing up in a place like Montana, it would be impossible to avoid, in some way or another, being touched or influenced by the wild land that surrounds us. Whether we spend all our waking moments scheming about where and when the next adventure in the hills or on the river is going to take place, or whether we bide all of our time in town and perhaps never even sling on a pack and start up a trail, our lives are affected by the natural world that surrounds us. On a piece of ground as vast and varied and sparsely populated as Montana is, there’s no way around it.

Who would not stop to make a ring around this magnificent pine tree? (Thank you Kristi DuBoise)

Who would not stop to make a ring around this magnificent pine tree? (Thank you Kristi DuBoise)

I know of few people in this part of the world, city-bound or not, who would not stop in their tracks on a street corner to look up in wonder at a skein of honking geese passing overhead, or crane their necks in a speeding car to catch a glimpse of an osprey nest or a red-tailed hawk soaring, or stop for a while to look at a herd of elk grazing the slopes above town. It is, after all, that natural world that has for generations shaped our communities, our economies, our social lives, our leisure, a healthy hunk of our political discourse, and our imaginations. And it is that beautiful, wild, natural world around us that has set us apart from much of the rest of this country and all those who so rarely have the opportunity to escape the concrete jungles and asphalt deserts of the built world.

For those of us lucky enough to have been born here, and for those fortunate enough to have found a home in this place later in life, the land has provided us all generously with adventure, joy, awe, solace and mystery.

If you did grow up here, it is easy to hark back to the “good old days” and rue the changes that have come to the land. Perhaps you remember when the rivers weren’t crowded and a simple knock on the door could get you permission to hunt or fish almost anywhere. Back then, you could camp where you pleased, you could cook over an open fire any old place, you could keep a limit of trout without an iota of guilt, and you really could find a good chicken-fried steak with cream gravy in almost any cafe in the state.

If you came more recently, the “good old days” may be the days before fishing outfitters began to show up west of the Continental Divide, or the days before local columnists committed sacrilege and actually mentioned the “skwala hatch”, destroying a well-kept secret and causing crowds of fly casters to rush to the heretofore uncrowded rivers. Or perhaps the line between the “good” past and the “not so good” present is delineated by the time between when you built your house on the hill and the date someone else built one on the hill above you.

Whatever the case, it is easy, now, to look out over our towns and our river valleys, our mountains and our state, and despair at all that we have lost, or are about to lose. The faces of our communities, and the lands that surround them are changing at a dizzying rate. Sometimes the whole landscape seems to be nothing but twenty-acre ranchettes and streamside palaces. The demands we make of our natural surroundings are increasing while the capacity of nature to meet those demands dwindles. It is real easy to think that the sky is falling, and there is nothing we can do about it.

When I start thinking that way, I have to stop to reflect for a moment on all that has happened since that first Earth Day was celebrated these 45 years ago now, that demonstrate our growing awareness of how fragile and vital that wildness that sustains us really is and the determination of so many to safeguard To do that, of course, I have to ignore, for the moment, the growing threats to the health and welfare of the natural world that appear from all fronts and proliferate like a cancer across the globe. That’s just for a moment, I hope you understand.

For that moment, I want to think about the people in our community and the people all over the world who so long ago realized that we humans were changing and contributing enormously to the degradation of the natural world upon which all life depends. And in coming to that realization, conservation moved from the shadows to the sunlight as a global imperative, and though we humans stumble and backslide and lose ground, the struggle to protect the natural world of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent goes on every day in small ways and large.

All connected by the water

All connected by the water

And we can see the fruits of those labors and efforts at conservation everywhere we choose to look in Montana. Sometimes it is only the lack of change we need to notice, like the absence of the Allen Spur dam once proposed for the Yellowstone River. Or the continued absence of the long proposed and monumentally ill-conceived Tongue River Railroad knifing through the family farms and ranches of the Tongue River Valley, one of the last places where a little bit of the old West still exists in Montana amid a rich and beautiful landscape. The fact that there is no dam on the Yellowstone is due in large part to the efforts of people who recognized what could be lost and were determined to prevent it. The same goes for the Tongue River Railroad so far, but that shadow still hovers threateningly over southeastern Montana.

Closer to home, we see two great rivers once ravaged by the hand of man and the effects of hard rock mining and other careless and short-sighted uses of the land, now being brought back to life by the determined efforts of people and groups who would not be denied in their efforts.

The Big Blackfoot River has risen from the near-dead because of the hard work of so many groups that have rallied to the cause and it now serves as model for community conservation efforts. If memory serves, that effort all began with the formation of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and now has grown beyond that and has resulted in the highly-regarded collaborative organization known as the Blackfoot Challenge.

One of the benefits of healthy rivers, Slat's birthday trout!

One of the benefits of healthy rivers, Slats’ birthday trout!

Not too long ago, the Clark Fork River ran red with toxic sediment and flowed virtually lifeless to its confluence with the Big Blackfoot at the site of the former Milltown Dam. That dam is only a memory now, and every day, that river inches closer and closer to the healthy cold-water fishery it once was. The first group that comes to mind when one considers the slow and steady resurrection of the Clark Fork is the Clark Fork Coalition.

One of the other benefits .Ahhh...there he goes.

One of the other benefits .Ahhh…there he goes.

And here in our town, all one has to do is step outside and look toward the slopes around town or the river corridors through town to see and appreciate what people have had the vision and foresight to protect. The open slopes of Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, the South Hills and parts of the North Hills are testimony to the vision and commitment of the people of Missoula through the work of the Five Valleys Land Trust and other groups to assure that generations to come will continue to reap the benefits of ready access to the beauty and wonder of the natural world around them.

 

When I think about that landscape that huddles around our town, Missoula, I often think about a letter I got from friend Janet many years ago during the community-wide effort to acquire and protect Mount Jumbo. That was at a time when people still sent little notes to each other once in a while, complete with a stamp and everything, She wrote: “Every time I go to these hills, I find evidence of God’s grace whether it be in the joyful song of the returning meadowlark, the shiny, yellow sweetness of the first buttercups, or the spectacular view of the other grand mountains that surround Missoula.”

When I remember her words, I am reminded of the fact that Janet, and hundreds of other people around our community and state are working tirelessly to protect those “blank spots on the map”, the waters that run through them, and the plants and animals that live upon them, that have given shape and substance to all of our lives.

In the forward to “A Sand County Almanac”, Leopold suggests, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” I don’t believe that. I think we all need a little wilderness in our lives, and in our souls.

I feel the same way.

Earth Week, and every other week, too, are good times to remember that.

I’m sure you have noticed that evening light is hanging on for a long time now. Spring has barely begun and it feels like we are suddenly almost racing toward the longest day of the year. Taxes are done, at last. Unfinished yard work beckons insistently. The spring street cleaning brigade from the City of Missoula has come and gone. Ticks are out in full force, showing up mysteriously crawling up my leg or down the back of my neck long after I have been sure that I had found them all. And, yes, the Montana Legislature is lurching clumsily to a close after a session that, as usual, seems as if it lasted about forty years and we have somehow managed to avoid the worst of the hare-brained schemes that the lunatic fringe brings forward every session. In the wild world around us, new life is everywhere we look, and spring and summer plans for river trips, hiking expeditions, and family get-togethers are falling into place.

This all amounts to a typical April for me, with some of the days busting wide-open under a clear blue sky and others staying stubbornly chilly and gun metal gray as if to remind us all that forces far beyond our control remain firmly in command. For most of my crowd, spring is always a time of anticipation and hope, and for me, it is also a time when I am inevitably carried back to a few precious spring times long ago in the Mission Valley. This year that’s especially true.

That’s because as I peck out these words on the keyboard, the aforementioned Montana Legislature is on the cusp of approving the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Water Compact with the State of Montana after years of good faith, but complicated and difficult negotiation, and more recently, a vicious and divisive campaign to derail the effort. Even many years ago,when I first showed  up in the Mission  Valley, the issues related to control and distribution of water were always percolating just below the surface in the valley. Now, perhaps,  if the Water Compact finally receives all required approvals and is fully implemented, maybe a little bit of peace will settle in over the Mission Valley at long last.

A couple of weeks back, I took an early spring drive around the Mission Valley and some of the neighboring country with my old friend Frankie. It’s beautiful country, as you certainly know if you have ever spent any time there. Forty years ago, I was teaching at Mission High School in St. Ignatius, and Frankie was one of my students as well as one of the star wrestlers I was lucky enough to coach. Back then, I wasn’t much older than my students, and Frank pointed that out during our drive.

“If you think about it, we’re more or less the same age,” he observed as we cruised along the gravel road between Sloan’s Bridge and Hot Springs.

He’s right.

I assume that most people, when they look back over the years, think of certain times in their lives as particularly wonderful. In fact, memory sometimes serves those special times up as almost idyllic in nature, though at the time, they may not have registered quite that way. But now, that’s exactly how I think of those Mission Valley years.

My sister Sally lived with me for a couple of those years. I was teaching and coaching at Mission and Sally, fresh from college and trying to plan her own future settled in to substitute teach, practice her bassoon, and figure out whether to go to law school, where she was already accepted, or do something else with her life.

We lived in a ramshackle little white frame farmhouse nestled among cottonwood, willow, and one weeping birch, all crowded into a depression shared with an algae-filled pond,with the fortress wall of the Mission Range looming a few miles to the East. We could see one other house from there, that was all. We called our place Rancho Deluxe.

Weekdays in April and May, after checking on the cows we minded for our rent, we were off to school before the sun’s first blinding rays exploded over the mountains. In the gray, still shadows we drove slowly toward town and a day of teaching with the windows of the yellow Volkswagen bug wide open so we could feel and smell those spring mornings and perhaps catch a few notes from one of the meadowlarks perched sentinel-like on fence posts along the back roads. There we spent our days in the high school, in the shadow of the Garden Wall and Mission Falls, which all of us who taught at Mission recognized as part of our compensation package, the spectacular view in lieu of higher pay. As with all small towns, the school and the local churches of course, were the focal point of all community activities, and even if you weren’t a churchgoer, anyone who taught at the school became immediately part of the community life. Even a city slicker like me was made to feel welcome and like I belonged right there in short order.

It was the weekends though, that made the real difference. On Saturday morning, we would haul our kitchen table out onto the ragged little lawn just as the sun transformed the crest of the mountains above us from a cold gray to brilliant, warming gold. There, surrounded by green grass and spring flowers, planted over a lifetime by Gladys, the woman who had lived there before us, and now lived a half-mile away in the only house we could see from Rancho, we drank coffee and worked our way through the week’s worth of newspapers and magazines amid the cacophony of waterfowl gamboling on the pond and songbirds calling and singing through the trees, always with the constant, barely perceptible hum of working bees in the background, the ones that lived in the walls of the house. We listened to Montana Public Radio, even back then, or to flute music from records on the second-hand record player. Sometimes, Sally would drag out her bassoon or oboe and spend an hour or two practicing while I snoozed. We felt like the idle rich.

Toward late morning the landlords, Pat and Glen, might stop in to make sure we hadn’t done in any of their cows, or maybe there was something else that was on the schedule, branding and vaccinating, fence work, ditch cleaning, or some irrigating. Sometimes some students might stop in to see how we were doing, maybe offer unsolicited advice on one thing or another. Always, the talk was always easy and unhurried.

Come late afternoon, other people would start to show up, teacher friends, mostly, but others, too. There was Willy, who might be passing through between jobs in Zaire and Alaska. And there was always Chuck who would try to generate interest in a big-time croquet match on the course we had set up in the upper pasture. Spread out over the green carpet we had a huge field of play requiring shots of a hundred yards between wickets. From a rise at the northern edge of the playing field, you could look out over much of the valley. As a friends filtered in, some gravitated toward the croquet course and others settled in in around the yard in an impromptu picnic.

Some evenings we carried the squat wood stove out from the living room, removed the heavy top and replaced it with a wire rack so we could use it as a combination bon fire and barbeque. Elk steaks or venison burger would always magically appear from someone’s freezer.

It would be after dark before the last loud crack from a wooden mallet would echo across the pond mixed in with Chuck’s victory shouts, or maybe some harsh words about the poor quality of the mallets. And when they came in from the dark to the circle of warmth around the stove, the music would be blaring, but now it would be Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

The evenings were filled with earnest talk about school, kids, the world, and if Gabby was there, the nature of truth and beauty. There were loud arguments sometimes, laughter for sure and always the music that seemed to pull those green-enshrouded evenings in around us, as bats ghosted past along the periphery of the glow from the stove. And there was a kind of tribal dancing that went along with it, often started by Gimpy, who wasn’t gimpy then, and was actually quite light on his feet before his hips went bad. I can see the faces in the firelight still, all young and full of hope. At one time or another, nearly everyone who was teaching at Mission in those days would stop by on a spring evening. We all knew we were lucky. We wanted it to last forever. We knew, of course, that it wouldn’t.

Those folks are scattered to the four winds now. Some of us keep in touch, and others of us have lost track of each other entirely. All the croquet mallets were finally broken before we left. And a few years later, Rancho Deluxe was torn down, and the little farm has long since been sub-divided and homes have been built there. I don’t often take the time to follow the gravel roads to the old driveway. I prefer to remember it the way it was. That way, I can summon it up on a spring morning, dust off the memory, and hear the call of a meadowlark or even a little bassoon music.

That’s what I am doing this morning, and I am keeping my fingers crossed for that Water Compact.

 

Homer, in the good old days on Scapegoat Peak above Half Moon Park

Homer, in the good old days on Scapegoat Peak above Half Moon Park

“Every time I look at this, I’m glad I don’t live over there on your side of the mountains any longer. I just couldn’t take that closed-in feeling.”

 

Those were the approximate words my pal Homer used last week as he stood in the front of the boat,  paused from his casting for a moment and swept his right hand across the skyline to the West. We were floating and fishing on the Missouri, downstream from the Gates of the Mountains where the river begins its long meandering way across the Montana prairies, and I had just commented for the umpteenth time in my life on the beauty of the Rocky Mountain Front, the sweet lonesome feeling that comes with gazing at a landscape that fades away to the East with the curvature of the Earth, and the pale blue vastness of the spring sky over it all.

 

When I met Homer, four plus decades ago, he was still living in Missoula, in one of those brick apartment buildings on South 5th East. He lived there with an ever-changing group of aspiring wildlife biologists, botanists, ecologists, range managers, and assorted hangers-on in an apartment that was known far and wide as “The Zoo.” The interior decoration for The Zoo was based on an all outdoors and wildlife theme. Antlers, hides, and beautiful photographs of all manner of wildlife hung from the walls. Skulls, feathers, assorted bones and interesting rocks filled the shelves that weren’t already filled with books. In season, there was always an elk, a deer or two, or an antelope carcass hanging on the back porch in the open air, and visible to passersby.

 

The Zoo was a hive of activity with residents always heading off to do wildlife surveys, botanical studies, environmental studies and impact statements, or just plain outdoor adventures. For when the residents weren’t working in the outdoors, they were recreating in it. Both the work that paid the rent and recreation that sustained the spirits of all involved took them to the farthest and most remote and unlikely parts of Montana, not to mention some of the more remote and wildly beautiful parts of the world far beyond the Big Sky Country.

 

As time went by and career paths caromed off in many directions, Homer’s took him East of the mountains where he would be closer to the seat of government as well as to the places he was doing much of his work, which meant the coal and oil country of eastern Montana. I was there, too, for a while, working with Homer and other friends in the environmental consulting business, but matters of the heart and a homing instinct for Missoula, the place of my birth, eventually brought me back where I had started.

 

Homer never came back. Well, he comes back on special occasions, birthdays, funerals, an occasional Grizzly football game, and our annual Goose Camp up in the Swan. He also comes over once in a while to humor Erwin and me by spending a day fishing with us on one of our local rivers. Never shy about reminding us of the superior quality of trout fishing he enjoys on his side of the mountains, he is always ready to extend his own version of Montana hospitality.

 

“Next time you really want to catch some fish, come on over. I can fix you up,” he will always offer.

 

And, yes, from time to time I take him up on it, and I know Erwin does, too.

 

You see, Homer is one of my several good friends who did not experience the wonderful luck of the draw that I did in being born and doing most of my growing up in Montana. Like our mutual friend Erwin, Homer grew up in the Midwest and he started his college education in the same small Minnesota town where I was going to school. In Northfield, Minnesota, “the town of cows, colleges, and contentment,” Homer attended Carleton College for a short while, while I stuck with it across the Cannon River at St. Olaf College for the full four years.

 

While I was eager to get college over with so I could return to the mountains, prairies and rivers of Montana, Homer couldn’t wait to get here for the first time. He had grown up hearing, reading, and dreaming about the adventures that awaited in the wilds of Montana. So he fled Minnesota after a couple of years and launched into wildlife studies at the University of Montana and a life of rambling across the whole beautiful landscape of the Treasure State.

 

By the time Homer and I really connected, he had already amassed a lifetime’s worth of those very adventures that he had been dreaming about. So when the time came, it was my pal Homer, from Illinois, who first showed me how to climb to the top of the Scapegoat Plateau. It was Homer who led the way the first time up Grey Wolf Peak. It was Homer who showed me, at a comparatively late date in my outdoor life how to hunt wild turkeys in the Tongue River Breaks. It was also Homer who introduced me to Bunny, the Tongue River rancher who happens to be one of the true knights of Montana’s southeastern corner, doing battle against reckless energy development to protect the land, the water, and the ranching heritage of that country for most of his adult life. That is a battle that Homer has long since joined as well.

Bunny, Not Always As Mean  As He Looks

Bunny, Not Always As Mean As He Looks

 

We have floated many a river together in those forty years. We have trudged countless miles under heavy packs to places of impossible beauty. Looking back, I know we were really just kids when all this started, and I’m not just referring to Homer and me, I mean all of us old pals, the ones who share this love of a place, and each other. We grew up together, and now we are watching our own children moving off in their adult lives. We have shared joys and we have been there with each other in times of unimaginable darkness and sorrow.

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

 

Today, this week, we are still scheming about the next adventure. A river trip? A turkey hunt? Or maybe another record-setting cross-country drive to New York to collect a canoe, a couple of old outboard motors, and some fishing gear for muskellunge. If we do that drive again, I know we will again feel exactly the same way when cross the border back into Montana, not far from Alzada.

 

We will be just plain happy to be home. It doesn’t matter which side of the mountains that means.

Just for good measure--it may not be in Montana, but it's close. Another beautiful place Homer showed me.

Just for good measure–it may not be in Montana, but it’s close. Another beautiful place Homer showed me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, many of you reported to me that you did not find the weekly offering in your email. Others pointed out that it was no longer possible to subscribe to this blog quickly, easily, and in a way that even we senior citizens could understand. That problem should be corrected this week, and if all goes according to plan, we will be moving along into the fullness of spring with sails billowing.

 

Meanwhile, several friends have been sending along photos to tantalize, tease, and tickle me, and I hope you, too.

 

Don’t ask me how this came to pass, but if you happened to be on Mount Sentinel, and visiting the “M” on the Saturday afternoon before Easter, you might have seen my son Sander and fiancée Grace hoisting this box over their heads in victory. It had something to do with Tony Hawk, skateboards, and a treasure hunt. That’s all I know.

Sander and Grace find treasure at the "M"

Sander and Grace find treasure at the “M”

 

Friend Bruce, despite his Bobcat proclivities passed along a photo that suggests a much more sensitive side, one that betrays a true sense of the beauty of nature, now coming awake on a hillside or along a trail near you.

Bruce called it "Bass Creek"s Version of a tulip."

Bruce called it “Bass Creek”s Version of a tulip.”

 

Any hike with Patrice when the first colors are showing up on the slopes means there will be lots of stopping to get a closer look, and to feel just a touch of awe.IMG_0903

 

Wandering the Mt Jumbo saddle with an eye toward the little things that are happening on the ground, Nancy might have looked right past this arrangement of stones had she not stepped back for a moment to take a look at the big picture of nature. The message, of course is simple, and eternal.

The message is universal

The message is universal

 

By the way, you can find that missing blog from last week on the blog page just before this one, that’s right, go to Montana, an Embarrassment of Riches if you aren’t already there. It’s the one titled “Shuttle”.  And this week’s blog is in the mail right now, too!

 

 

 

Somewhere in the dead of winter when folks start to feel a little cranky and the mullygrumps come creeping in, or perhaps when the simple yen for a balmy ocean breeze becomes too much to resist, there is a quiet exodus from the land of the Big Sky. It’s the time of year when people who can, often sneak away to warmer climes for a week or two, and return later, refreshed and revitalized, to finish out the winter and charge ahead into the rest of the year.

 

Some go to Hawaii, Mexico, the Bahamas, or Belize. Others just head to southern Utah, Arizona, or even Florida. And some of us go to California. That’s why I am sharing these thoughts with you from a house in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay and the City of the same name.

 

It has become something of a mini tradition for me to travel to the Bay Area about this time of the winter to visit my brother Steve, celebrate his birthday, and take advantage of his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, traipsing all over the wonderful public lands close to his home in Berkeley. Steve has been exploring that country nearly every weekend since he finished college and went to work teaching at UC Berkeley somewhere close to four decades ago, so he knows lots of what he calls “secret” places. And I get to be the beneficiary of that knowledge on my annual trips.

 

We had barely finished our hug of greeting at the Oakland airport last week when he launched right in.

 

“Do you want to go home and take a nap or anything, or should we plan on heading right out?”

 

He’s always eager to see me, and to hit the trail.

 

So, barely six hours after son Sander had dropped me off at the airport in Missoula, I was hurrying to keep up with Steve as he followed a winding trail through oak and buckeye toward the sinuous spine of the long ridge that stands guard over the cities of the East Bay. We were only ten minutes by car from his front door, but we could just as well have been miles from civilization. We had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

 

Over the years, Steve has gotten into the habit of serving as my personal interpretive ranger, providing plant identification, interesting historical tidbits, and occasional humorous cultural observations.

My personal Ranger

My personal Ranger

 

“I’ve told you this before, but just for fun, pay attention when we meet people on the trail. Here in the East Bay, people don’t like to make eye contact. Down on the Peninsula or over in Marin and up along the coast, people are all smiles and always exchange a nice word or two,” he had instructed soon after we started our walk.

 

Sure enough, the first few people we met either looked down at the trail or straight ahead when we tried to make eye contact. Eventually we did encounter a middle-aged couple who both met our hopeful looks with smiles and the international standard words of trail greeting, “Great day to be out on the trail!”

 

“They must not be from here,” Steve suggested.

North to Sacramento Delta

North to Sacramento Delta

 

At the high point of our walk, near the northernmost end of the miles-long ridge we had climbed and followed, we stopped to take in the view. In the distance to the North, just beyond the last hills we could see, we knew we would find the expanse of the Sacramento River delta.

To the East, perhaps 10 or 15 miles distant as the crow flies, Mount Diablo presided over the surrounding hills. Beyond that, a smoggy haze enveloped the Central Valley.

Mount Diablo

Mount Diablo

 

“On a good clear day we might be able to see the golden orange tint of the fields of California Poppies on the slopes of Mount Diablo from here. And, of course, we would also be able to see the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras. That is, if there is actually snow up there to see this year,” he said, adding his reference to the ongoing drought that seems to be on the minds of everyone we talked with during my visit.

 

That first hike was in Tilden Park, one of a number of public parks and natural areas that provide miles of linked public lands along the boundaries of Berkeley, Oakland, and the other cities of the East Bay. Early in our walk, we came upon a rustic building that was identified as “Nature Lodge”, and was apparently the home of a group called the “Junior Rangers.”

What could be better than a private clubhouse for Junior Rangers?

What could be better than a private clubhouse for Junior Rangers?

 

“I seem to remember that you were pretty much of a Junior Ranger yourself when you were a kid. You were always digging around in the muck for bugs and collecting things you found in the woods. You were always more inclined to pay attention to the science of things than I ever was. Maybe when you really retire, you should become a ranger,” I said.

 

Each day of my visit, Steve took me in another direction, always seeing something new, or an old place with a new twist. And everywhere we went, there was invariably some new and unexpected beauty to experience.

 

We wandered around the Coast Range on the southern San Francisco Peninsula, where we could look down to the East on Palo Alto and the Silicon Valley from among stately redwoods, including one old monster called Methuselah. To the west, down winding canyons, we could see rugged and undeveloped reaches of coastline. That’s the day I saw my first Indian paintbrush of the year, along with a dozen or so other species that Steve rattled off, but I cannot remember.

 

Later, we headed north to poke around in cool, moss hung canyons above Bolinas, and explore along beaches and reefs between Bolinas and Point Reyes national seashore. And we returned, as we usually do for at least one day, to the high windswept slopes of Mount Tamalpais that overlooks San Francisco Bay from the South. I do had e to report that Steve’s observations regarding the friendliness of hikers and others encountered away from the Berkeley Hills was right on the money. Almost everyone we ran into seemed to ready to say hello and gush about the beauty of day and place.

Amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais

Amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais

 

Not far from the top of Tamalpais, just a short distance from a open air amphitheater where folks gather one weekend a year to enjoy an outdoor play, is quiet place that affords a commanding view in all directions. There one can find a rock bench, lovingly crafted from nearby stone, and built into the slope that I always like to visit. The bench was built in honor of Richard Festus “Dad” O’Rourke, recognized by many as the Father of Mt. Tamalpais,  the hugely popular natural and public recreation area dominating the skyline of Marin County. On a plaque above the bench, these words appear:

Give me these hills and the friends I love, I ask no other heaven. To our Dad O’Rourke in celebration of his 76th birthday, February 25, 1927, from his friends to whom he showed this heaven.” 

O"Rourke's Bench

O”Rourke’s Bench

Looking north from O'rourke's Bench

Looking north from O’rourke’s Bench

Bolinas Bay from O'Rourke's Bench

Bolinas Bay from O’Rourke’s Bench

When I see that bench, or sit there and look out at the mountain below and the ocean beyond I am reminded of the beauty and wonder that can be found almost anywhere, if we only take the time to look for it. I am glad my brother Steve has done exactly that during his years in California.  I feel real lucky to have a brother who takes the time to share something he cherishes so much with me. And it all reminds me again, how incredibly fortunate we are who live amid in the matchless beauty of Montana.

Thanks, Stevie. I think I’m ready now to come on home.

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Erwin called the other day for a mid-winter check-in. We chatted about family and friends, and each of us provided a summary of our recent outdoor activities. We lamented the fact that we would not be heading down to Billings this weekend to take in the Montana State High School Wrestling Tournament, something Erwin has done almost every year since I first met him more than four decades ago. Other obligations and plans got in the way of that, this year, but we made a pact to be at the tournament together next year. And somewhere in that conversation, Erwin mentioned that our friend Spots and wife Marilyn had left town for their annual winter exploration of the Southwest.

 

Well, the mention of Spots got me thinking about the way sometimes, when we come across one of those people who become a friend for life, like Erwin did with me, how some of those friends bring friends of their own right along with them. And those people end up becoming lifelong friends of mine as well. And that’s how Spots came into my life not long after Erwin. Here’s what I wrote about Spots long ago:

“Most of my fishing pals handle fly rods as though they were born with one in hand. When we are fishing from a boat, each of them reads the water ahead for trout habitat and for floatability at the same time, and they deftly and expertly maneuver boats through the trickiest currents. They are serious fishermen first. They are generally pleasant company. And finally, and perhaps most important, they are all good friends. So it makes me a little sheepish to say I have met the ideal fishing companion, and he’s not like that.

He’s a Butte Irishman who goes by the name “Spots”. Everyone from Butte has a nickname. It was my friend Erwin who introduced us.

30 years later and still friends, Spots-taking it easy on the Smith.

30 years later and still friends, Spots-taking it easy on the Smith.

 

“I hope you don’t mind if I bring someone along,” Erwin offered tentatively as we planned our weekly fishing trip.

“Not as long as he comes with your recommendation.”

“Well, he’s a little different,” Erwin was cautious.

“I don’t know what that means, but as long as he has his own equipment it’s fine with me.”

“And he hasn’t been around boats much.” Erwin added.

“If he’s okay with you, he’s okay with me.”

 

So we went fishing together. Spots had a nice little hand-made fly rod. I don’t remember if he had built it himself or if it was a gift, but it was real pretty, though not designed for the big water we were fishing. The six or seven flies he had were the remainder of the supply his uncle Knobby had given him thirty years earlier when he took Spots out to the Big Hole River for some fly fishing. There were a couple of Pott Flies made in Missoula, a couple of George Grant specials, made in Butte by George himself, and perhaps one big sofa pillow salmon fly imitation that was not likely to be of much use until the next salmon fly hatch, not due for another nine or ten months.

 

Spots later told me the story of how he was so excited for that fly fishing trip that he spent several hours filling a Mason jar with houseflies so he would have bait for the trip. He was surprised to learn that real flies were not used in fly fishing.

 

For our trip, Spots was also sporting a new fishing vest that doubled as a self-inflating life jacket. He emerged from Erwin’s truck wearing the vest. He must have been wearing it for the entire two-hour drive from home to our put-in rendezvous. A gentle pull on a red plastic tag hanging from the left breast pocket would send him floating safely to the surface. I was tempted to give it a try, just for fun.

 

Spots was a congenial fellow from the start, full of jokes, funny stories from his youth in Butte and his many years in the Special Education profession. He also had lots of questions about our fancy gear. He was self-effacing and humble through all of it.

 

Spots took to the fishing with the same enthusiasm he must have displayed collecting a jar full of houseflies on that first trip. He flailed away from the front seat of our boat with that little rod, and whipped the water in front of him to a froth. In his defense, it was mostly an equipment problem, not technique, but either way he wasn’t overly concerned. His constant chatter and commentary on all aspects of modern culture was punctuated by frequent murmurs of appreciation for the day, the place, and the fishing.

 

I don’t think Spots caught anything on that first trip, but his excitement when Erwin or I caught a fish was genuine and fun for us. Clearly the word “serious” wasn’t in his vocabulary when it came to fishing. “Fun” was the word that applied for him.

After the big tussle, safely in the net.

After the big tussle, safely in the net.

 

I was apprehensive when Spots’ turn to row came, but we were on big, slow water, with no trouble spots. He took the oars on a long, flat stretch where all he had to do was hold the boat a short distance from one bank with an occasional sculling motion with one oar, and let it drift downstream.

 

Even so, it wasn’t easy for him. He handled the oars as if they were both left-handed fly swatters and he had two right hands. Moments after taking control, we were twirling all over the river, oars splashing in jerky, uncoordinated stabs at the water. One moment I would cast to a rising trout along the left bank and the next I would see the same spot over my right shoulder while trying to get my line untangled from Erwin’s.

 

“Hang on boys, I’ll have you in position in a jiffy.”

 

He was as good as his word, but we were barely there long enough to cast before the boat again swung drunkenly to one side, leaving one of us in the overhanging brush and the other staring down the middle of the river.

 

Spots resisted our offers to take over and our frustrations eventually melted into laughter as he regaled us with an endless supply of Butte stories, idle chitchat, and general social criticism. Were it not for his self-effacing good humor, his joy at being on the water and his sense of boyish wonder at the business of fishing, I might not have been interested in fishing with him again, but Spots got under my skin right away, and in a good way.

 

Because he and Erwin live a couple hours north of Missoula, I don’t get many chances to fish with Spots. It’s tough to get three schedules to mesh and Erwin and I often end up fishing without a third companion. But, I never avoid a chance to fish with Spots when that opportunity arises. His rowing, by the way, has even improved some, though he still has a long way to go.

 

Recently the Spots, Erwin and I made a trip to Canada to spend a few days on a well-known trout stream.          To our dismay, the river that greeted us was coffee-colored and full to the banks. Erwin and I were ready to throw in the towel before we even got started, but Spots would have none of our pessimism. He wasn’t bothered by the color of the water, or the levels. In fact, he was excited as usual.

 

“Hey fellas, we’ve got this creek to ourselves!”

 

He was right. By the time we were ready to go, the river level had peaked, and it began to drop and clear almost before our eyes. As it turned out, we didn’t see a soul for the entire trip, and the fishing was great.

 

Spots has upgraded his gear by the time we took that trip. He was now in the practice of maintaining an arsenal of fly rods for various purposes, just like the rest of us. And his fly selection was as eclectic as they come. But, though he knew it wasn’t in vogue, he was still wearing that fishing vest with the built-in life preserver in deference to a concerned family member. And I was still resisting the temptation to yank the red plastic emergency tag.

 

New look aside, Spots retained his enthusiasm and showed no burning need to catch the most or the biggest. His rowing was still exciting and often unpredictable. Sometimes he forgot what he was doing when he got caught up in a story, so his stints at the oars involved many strange locations for fishing. Despite his lack of a classical approach, our complaints were few.

 

With all that in mind, it was probably appropriate when, moments after commenting on the “fishy” look of a bank we were passing, Spots cast his grasshopper imitation close to the bank and tied into a brown trout that was big enough to scare all three of us.

 

We beached the boat and Spots stumbled out, somehow keeping his balance while maintaining tension on the line. Erwin and I were as excited as Spots as he gently cradled the big fish in shallow water until it was ready to fin its way back into the current. With no scale the weight would be a guess, but it was over twenty-five inches long, a monster by any standard. It turned out to be the fish of the trip by a large margin.

In hand just before release...not a catfish, really!

In hand just before release…not a catfish, really!

 

Spots has a way of doing that.

 

Only a few minutes later, with Spots at the oars and telling the story of his trip to the Super Bowl, I noticed that we were going downriver backwards, and the likely fishing water was thirty feet beyond my casting ability. Resisting the strong urge to reach over and pull the red plastic tag on Spots’ fishing vest, I sat back and enjoyed the story. And Erwin, in the front seat of the boat, and me, in the back seat were both reduced to tears of laughter when Spots got to the part where he was mistaken for the head coach of an NFL team and found his way into an exclusive party, where folks gathered around him top ask his predictions for the big game.

 

I’ll fish with Spots anytime.

(This column was originally published in the Missoulian on September 9, 1988)

 

Despite conflicting reports from some of the lesser groundhogs across the nation, Punxsutawney Phil had already made it abundantly clear that we should be expecting six more weeks of winter. Even so, I have to say that it didn’t look that way from Sue and Randy’s ranch in the hills above the confluence of Flint Creek and the Clark Fork River this week. If I had just awakened Rip Van Winkle style from a long, long sleep, and looked out across that broad valley under a slate gray sky that threatened rain, I would have guessed April.

 

Except for a few patches of dirty snow under the junipers on the shady sides of the draws, the foothills were bare and brown from a distance. Up close, however, little bits of green poked through the soggy soil, suggesting spring, not the middle of winter. It reminded me of the tiny bitterroot friend Stacy and I had found peeking through the soil on Mt. Sentinel just a few days earlier, but that’s another story.

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

 

Maybe Sue and Randy were starting to get a little cabin fever and were nipping at each other’s heels a bit too much. Or maybe they were just selflessly thinking of my well-being, and were doing what they could to provide me a needed change of scenery. Whatever the case, I was pleased to hear from Sue last week.

 

“Why don’t you come out for lunch next Tuesday? We’ll take a hike up in the hills so we can work up an appetite. I’ve also invited a friend I think you’ll enjoy meeting,” Sue had texted me.

 

I don’t know if my experience represents the general rule or just coincidental exceptions, but it seems to me that my friends involved in ranching or farming jumped on the technology bandwagon much more eagerly and sooner than the rest of my people. I’m sure it makes good sense for the business side of any agricultural operation, and when town is a ways away, those tools can bring the outside world within reach much more readily. Then, when solitude is needed, all that’s necessary is to hang up the phone or turn off the computer. The best of both worlds.

 

In the case of Sue and Randy, I think it’s Sue who is a techie. I know she likes to text, and I know I am more likely to get a quick response from her if I text rather than leave a phone message. At any rate, I clumsily texted back to eagerly accepted her invitation.

 

That’s how I came to be taking a little hike with Sue, Randy, and their friend Jeff on Tuesday morning.

 

There is never any shortage of things to talk about when you are out on the land with folks who are as tuned-in to the rhythms of nature, the vicissitudes of weather, and the dictates of the landscape as ranchers like these folks. And Jeff brought with him a whole new perspective from his career managing wildlife refuges, parklands, and other public resource lands, and later, consulting about the same things in many corners of world. By many corners of the world, I mean Nepal, Botswana, Alaska, West Virginia, Yellowstone National Park, and Custer County, Montana, just to name a few.

 

I got to be the fly on the wall as the talk ranged over so many things part and parcel to running a cattle ranch in western Montana, or anywhere in Montana, I suppose. In my very unscientific sampling of topics discussed, I noticed a lot of things beginning with the letter W, including: water, weeds, wildlife, wind energy, and, yes, wolves, too, always wolves these days. That’s the only letter I singled out, but there was much more.

 

It was calm, easy talk about those things, even when it came to concern about the lack of snow-cover and the relatively unwinterlike balminess of the weather. It was the talk of people who know and love the land and love what they do for a living.

 

I listened, mostly, and looked toward distant ridges to see if I could spot any elk or deer. At my feet was plenty of evidence that elk had been enjoying the grass up there since the cattle were moved off it last fall. And in many spots, the soil was still moist enough from the recently melted snow that it stuck to our boots in great clumps of mud and dried grass.

Solving World Problems

Solving World Problems

 

The hike was also an opportunity for me to complain, as I often do, about how tight Randy makes his gates, with one in particular that is always a challenge for me to open and close. In response, Randy quickly opened the gate in question and commenced upbraiding me.

 

“I don’t know why you say that. Sue comes up here and opens and closes this gate several times a day, and she doesn’t have any trouble with it. What’s the matter with you?”

 

Unchastened, I steadfastly refused to admit that it could simply be due to my lack of expertise, or strength. For the record, I do not intend to relent on that, ever.

 

By the time we got back to the house for lunch, we were all dragging along mud on our boots that made us look almost like we were wearing snowshoes. It was clear that we were transporting too much mud, even for the mudroom. Sue went into the garage and returned with a hand trowel and hand rake to clean up our footwear. It was a gooey and gunky proposition.

The Challenge

The Challenge

A Kind-Heaerted Solution

A Kind-Hearted Solution

 

Once out of our boots and at the dinner table near a window that commanded a sweeping view of the valley, conversation continued. Over beef stew, carrot cake, and cup after cup of coffee, we talked on well into the afternoon.

 

Quite often, this time of year, such a conversation might focus on the Montana Legislature and the off-the-wall, or scary stuff they cook up over there. But this year things seem to be a little bit quieter, so far anyway. There were a couple of exceptions to that, however.

 

First, the reasoning for proposed legislation to assure that college students could pack heat on campus had us all somewhat bemused. The obvious question to us: is it really good public policy to create a situation where testosterone, alcohol, and gunpowder can mingle freely?

 

Another one that seemed difficult to understand was the proposal to eliminate the requirement for hunters to wear fluorescent orange. I hadn’t heard about this one, and I have no idea of its fate, but it would seem to be an invitation for tragedy. I admit I don’t like the colors, and I take my orange vest off as soon as I can when I’m done hunting, but I really would like that other hunter to clearly see that I am not a bear, a coyote, or Sasquatch. And I would appreciate being able see him or her clearly, as well. I would go along with legislation to require something besides that awful color to delineate private property, but I will save that discussion for a time when it is more pertinent.

 

There were some other more serious concerns, particularly the question someone raised about the advisability of providing tax relief before agreeing upon a budget, which seems to be under consideration right now. Maybe that’s par for the course, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to any of us at the table. It sounded curiously like a cart pulling a horse.

 

Because we couldn’t find enough to carp about from the doings in Helena, we moved on to easier topics, like agriculture and stewardships in a time of climate change, the challenges of protecting water resources in a world where the supply of clean, fresh water is disappearing at an alarming rate, and how to get our collective heads around the whole concept of restoration biology.

 

I’m happy to announce that by the end of the afternoon, we were satisfied that we had most of the tough questions related to those issues well in hand. Just a few more details and we can all breathe a lot easier. Well, not really.

 

The time flew by, and it was with great reluctance that I realized it was time to leave if I wanted to get home before dark. So I said my thanks and goodbyes.

 

“That was fun, let’s do this again,” Sue said when she waved goodbye.

 

We all nodded in agreement. Maybe we’ll even get another visit in before winter’s over in six weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a recent wintery evening I had the opportunity to watch the movie version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In case you have not seen it, I can tell you that it has little to do with the short story of the same name by James Thurber that was required reading when I was in high school fifty years ago. In case you have neither seen the movie, nor read the short story, I am not spoiling anything if I tell you that the character Walter Mitty was a man who had a very active imagination, and his imagined life was chock full of excitement and adventure of all kinds. It comes to mind right now because of a conversation I had with my pal Casper this morning.

First we talked about the almost spring-like weather of late, which quickly led to speculation about the local cross-country skiing prospects for the next few days. Not so good, we agreed. And that, for some reason, led to us recalling another day a few years back,

That day, maybe eight or ten years ago, had started innocently when Casper and I began to talk about how our ski-touring equipment had changed over the years. We were in the parking lot at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center getting ready to take a turn on the ski trails up there.

We commented on each other’s sporty equipment and remembered back to our first forays into the cross-country ski business. It turned out that both of us had bought our first pair of cross-country skis sometime in the early or mid-’70s, right here in Missoula. Those skis were long, beautiful, dark, shiny, wood things made in Norway. They required a coat of pine tar to be laid on before applying one of a confusing array of waxes necessary for smooth operation.

“Do you remember how much time it used to take screwing around trying to get the right wax? And when you finally had a good one, the temperature would change and you would have to start all over again?” I asked.

“Yeah. It was a pain, all right. But I still have those skis,” Casper said.

“So do I. They’re just too pretty to get rid of.”

Soon, we were sliding along the trail, side-by-side, getting the feel of things on our up-to-date, light, waxless, composite skis. A light dusting of new snow squeaked and squished beneath our skis.

Since Casper and I have developed a habit over the years of engaging in a bit of good-natured one upmanship, I took the opportunity to get in a few last words.

“I suppose you know that I am genetically well-suited for cross-country skiing since my people in Norway more or less invented it,” I announced in an authoritative tone.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

“No, I don’t know that,” he replied.

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who  Is Not

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who Is Not

“They all came over from Telemark, you know. That’s a province in Norway. That’s where this whole business got its official start. Sure, people have been skiing forever wherever they had to travel over snow, but someone from Telemark gets credit for perfecting the Telemark turn, and that led to downhill skiing and the whole recreational skiing end of things. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my people,” I said.

Then I explained to him that my son Sander had been doing some research on the whole thing for a school project, and I had learned all of this from him.

“And of course you remember the movie, “The Heroes of Telemark,” don’t you?” I asked.

“Not really.”

So I proceeded to tell him about the 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II who skied down from the almost inaccessable mountains and glaciers of Telemark to sabotage a hydroelectric plant where the occupying Nazis were manufacturing the heavy water they hoped to use to produce a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t know how the science part works, but I do know it was a race against time, and the Norwegians were able to do it because they could get around those mountains on skis. It really happened,” I explained.

The next thing I knew, I was telling Casper that he could be “Knut” – that’s Richard Harris – and I would be “Rolf” – that’s Kirk Douglas – and our lap around the big loop on the ski trail would be the race to save western civilization.

“Why do you get to be Kirk Douglas?” he asked.

“He was just a short little guy with a weird dimple in his chin. Richard Harris is much better,” I explained.

Sister Sally Shows How It's Done

Sister Sally Shows How It’s Done

It wasn’t long before Casper, now Knut, was moving out ahead. Soon, he disappeared around a bend and it was 10 or 15 minutes before I again caught sight of him, waiting patiently on the side of the track.

“You’ll make it, Ole. I mean Kirk, or Rolf, or whoever you are. But aren’t you the one who knows how to blow this thing up?” he asked in a serious voice, without a trace of smile.

“I think I must have explained it all to you, just in case I didn’t make it through,” I responded.

Casper was into this now, and he didn’t wait for me to catch my breath before he took off again.

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

“Come on, Rolf! We have no time to waste!”

When I next caught up with him, he was standing at one of the trail markers with a map and a “You are here” arrow on it, trying to ascertain exactly where “here” was. Two young women skiers were standing there, also looking at it.

I pulled to a stop beside the three of them. Since I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t spot the location arrow, so I asked one of the women to point it out for me. But Casper was impatient.

“I know it’s tough, Rolf, but we have a heavy water plant to blow up. Let’s go!”

And he was on his way again with me in hot pursuit. The two women were left standing by the sign wondering, we presumed, what that was all about.

“Knut! Wait! I forgot, I’ve got all the explosives with me,” I shouted after him.

But he didn’t wait.

“I’ll do it with my bare hands if I have to!” he shouted back.

On we went until we had completed the loop and the warming hut and visitor center buildings had come into sight.

“Well, Rolf, we did it. It would have been bad for the world in general if we weren’t such top-notch skiers, and fearless to boot,” Casper said with a grin.

“We’re not quite done, Knut. In the real story, they had to ski another 400 kilometers to Sweden to get away from the Nazis.” I made that up on the spot.

Knut, As He LooksToday

Knut, As He LooksToday

“Well, that’s nice, Rolf, but I think we’ve done enough for one day. I know this skiing is in your blood and all of that, but the escape to Sweden will keep. Right now, I want to get out of these skis and get something to drink,” he said.

On the way home, we decided that one of these days it might be fun to break out those old wooden skis and save the world one more time, the good old-fashioned way.

It was not until later that old friend Noah dropped by my place to give me a book he thought I might be interested in.

“I think this book is about your people. I thought you might find it interesting.”

The book, “Skis Against the Atom,” by Knut Haukelid, told the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth. He was the very Knut who Richard Harris played in the movie. You bet I found it interesting! And when I had a chance to visit Norway and see some of the country where this story took place, it only served to fuel my imagination all the more.

No, I do not spend all my time imagining I am someone I am not, involved in some daring adventure somewhere else. I am not particularly dissatisfied with who I am, how I got here, and what life has to offer. But, from time to time, I find it to be invigorating to slip away into that other world just for a little while like Walter Mitty.

And sometimes it’s nice to have a comrade in arms, just like Casper, if only to provide a little assurance that I am not completely bazoots.

Oh, the family pictures are only marginally connected to the text, but they were fun to include.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

 

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about wilderness and wild country. First, of course, I spend far too much time just daydreaming idly about the wilderness adventures I have been fortunate enough to experience in my time. And, when I’m not dwelling on the past, I get involved in scheming and planning future trips to favorite haunts or places I have always wanted to visit and haven’t gotten around to yet. With the years winding down now for me, I know there’s not much time to waste in marking those trips off my bucket list.

 

Many of my most wonderful memories are of the days I have spent with friends and loved ones in wild places around Montana and the west. My first tastes of such places came at a time when there was not yet a Wilderness Act or even a wilderness movement that I was particularly aware of. But from an early age I was aware that there was adventure, magic, and wonder waiting out there where the roads ended and the trails into mountains began. Many of those places have since become designated wilderness, some have not, but very clearly should be, and too many other places, once wild and beautiful, have fallen to the always-reaching tentacles of civilization. The places that remain wild keep calling me back.

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

 

Besides dreaming of, remembering, and finding new adventure in wild country, I also spend a good bit of time thinking about, reading about, and talking with friends about just what wilderness is, what it means for a place to be “wild”, and why that seems to be so important to us. Then there is the business of thinking, talking about, and strategizing to assure that more and more of it is protected. By now, several generations of wilderness enthusiasts here in Montana have spent much of their lives engaged in exactly those efforts.

 

So it should follow that I and my many friends of like mind, and the many, many Montanans who have been the foot soldiers and the grass roots movers and shakers for wilderness here should have been universally pleased by the long overdue Congressional approval of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (RMFHA) and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act (NFWPA) as 2014 drew to a close.

 

I can only speak for myself, officially anyway, and I have to admit today that I am not easy with how the whole deal played out. Yes, of course I am glad that the Front and the North Fork are now much better protected. And I really do honor the work that so many put in over so many years to realize the dream of protecting those wonderful landscapes. But, for me, the cost of protection this time seems to have been way too high. We should not have to mortgage the future for our children and grandchildren to protect something in nature that is already worthy of absolute protection on its own merits with no strings attached.

 

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was a model of collaboration and compromise, providing something for all the stakeholders while also protecting the principal economic asset for every community along the Front and a great recreational asset and tourist attraction for the entire State of Montana. Besides its tremendous and unquestionable wilderness values being protected, it seemed like everybody won on this deal. And that was before the last-second backroom machinations.

 

For those who truly believe, as Thoreau suggested, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” the RMFHA could only be faulted for not going far enough in providing protection for all the acreage that might qualify as wilderness under the letter of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Under this bill, a comparatively small area of 67,112 acres was added to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness, while an additional 208,000 acres was designated a conservation management area allowing for more flexible management and the continuation of some traditional uses not compatible with designated wilderness. Most conservationists and wilderness advocates I know supported the bill, though some wished for more protection.

 

The same goes fore the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. This legislation seems to have been hanging out there becalmed in the Horse Latitudes of lawmaking for years, waiting for something to come along to push it out of the doldrums and over the finish line. Like the RMFHA, the NFWPA (sorry about that) seems to be something of a no-brainer politically. The health of the North Fork of the Flathead River, its impossibly clear waters and near pristine water quality, the rich wildlife habitat it provides, the recreational opportunities, the integrity of Glacier National Park, and its spectacular beauty are nothing short of essential for the economic stability and prosperity of the entire Flathead Valley. So,”Duh,“ is all I can say when it comes to the logic of supporting the effort to protect it.

 

Instead of legislative horse-trading to secure the passage of these bills, this should have been a perfect example of our Congressional delegation dusting off the long-forgotten art of reaching across the aisle to join hands in accomplishing something that was clearly in everyone’s interest.

 

Now, I have no idea if the organizations or the individuals who worked so hard for so long to get these bills passed knew what was finally included in the rider to the defense appropriations bill where all of this was tucked away. But, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more than a few second thoughts had they known that wilderness study areas in eastern Montana were sacrificed, or that the possibility of much greater coal development on public land in the Bull Mountains had been encouraged and facilitated by the deal.

 

That’s because most of the people I know who believe in the importance of protecting wild country and natural systems also know that encouraging fossil fuel development flies right smack in the face of those efforts. To my way of thinking, mindlessly encouraging coal development isn’t much different from knowingly dumping toxic waste into a healthy river.

 

So often, we hear politicians and economic boosters suggesting that we always need to have a “balance” between environmental protection and economic development. I know that Senator Daines has characterized this legislation as just such a nice balance. But, if you have been paying attention to Montana history, or human history for that matter, you are probably aware that the balance between environmental protection and economic development has been out of whack since the beginning.

 

Now, even as clean water, essential for life and for economic activity as well, is becoming more and more precious and rare every day, and clean, healthy air is similarly becoming the exception rather than the rule, we continue to fall for the old “balance” argument. All one needs to do is think about the legacy of mining in Montana and the unending and extraordinarily expensive job we face of cleaning it up. Future generations are always saddled with the consequences. The legacy of coal development in Montana, by the way, has yet to be fully assessed. Despite vaunted claims about reclamation successes, I don’t think I have ever heard about a mining company that has asked to have its reclamation bond back, signifying completion of reclamation. But I do know enough about climate change to know that coal has to go sooner than later, and I have heard about polluted ground water in the wake of coal mining with desperate ramifications for residential uses and traditional agriculture as well. We don’t hear about it much these days over here in the western part of the state because it happens in eastern Montana where urban legend has it that nobody lives, or wants to, either. Truth is, some of the wildest and most beautiful country in our state lies out there in the empty part, where the Tongue and Powder Rivers bring life to the thirsty land, but not the sex appeal of the Rocky Mountain Front or the North Fork of the Flathead River.

 

For folks who think like me, wildness is indeed the preservation of the world, as Thoreau suggested, not just because of its beauty and the awe it inspires, nor because of the recreational opportunities it affords, or the spiritual nature of those experiences. It’s because we depend on wild country as the source of clean water, as reservoirs of biologic diversity and natural systems functioning relatively free from the influences of our human activities. It is in those wild places that we are able see and learn about the ways all of this creation is connected and interdependent and how it works best when we humans are least intrusive.

 

Wilderness or wildness does not exist in a vacuum. It does not stand alone and retain any lasting value other than as an artifact of some bygone time. The fabric of our landscape here in Montana and all over the world is a mosaic of the built landscape and the steadily disappearing but still interconnected and relatively untrammelled natural world. In the final analysis, it is that natural world that sustains us here on this planet. Taking care of wilderness is part of the responsibility we share in taking care of this planet and each other. It’s about keeping and being good stewards of all the parts that make this planet livable.

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

 

I really do believe this, even though most people in the world never get to experience and know wilderness in a first-hand sort of way. To many people, I’m sure wilderness is an abstract idea and little more. Yet, I think that in some way, all human lives are sustained and enriched by what wilderness or wild country provides. And I believe I could convince almost anyone of this with a few short hours atop the Continental Divide at a place like Haystack Mountain at the south end of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or perhaps from the summit of Scapegoat Peak where the Big Blackfoot, Dearborn, the South Fork of the Sun, and the South Fork of the Flathead Rivers all begin in the melting snows. Making it a priority to protect what is left of that natural wild world first and foremost, for the good of all mankind, makes perfect sense to me. Trading wilderness protection for coal development does not.

 

Wilderness is not an amenity. It is not a luxury. Wilderness is essential to our very existence.