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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.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

I was chatting with Homer the other night, comparing notes about our latest outdoor adventures and doing some preliminary horse-trading about what we might do together in the near future when the subject of hunting and fishing licenses came up. We had both been off in search of steelhead in neighboring states, since we don’t have those beautiful silver giants in our Montana rivers, and we had several weeks of questing to catch up on. But when that was done and we began to throw out some possibilities for hitting the rivers closer to home, it dawned on me that I had failed to take care of one of the basics.

 

“I’ve got fishing licenses in Idaho and Oregon now, and I just realized I don’t have my Montana license yet,” I said.

 

“Jumping Jehosophat! Me too! I’ve got a Washington license but I haven’t re-upped at home yet. And I’ve already been fishing a couple of times. I better trot on down to the sporting goods store and correct that tomorrow morning,” Homer replied.

 

Okay, he didn’t really say “Jumping Jehosophat,” but I wish he would some time. And he really did admit that he had been doing some fishing and had forgotten to get himself fully licensed ahead of time. I am certain that by the time anyone reads these words, if they ever do, Homer will have rectified that situation, and any legal ramifications would be based on my word against his anyway.

 

Regardless of the license situation, which I will get back to in a minute, I intend to bring the subject of Jumping Jehosophat up sometime when we are in a boat together and spending time between reeling in slab-sided trout lamenting the demise of the English language in general. Somewhere in there, I will just slip in the question, “Where do you think the phrase Jumping Jehosophat came from?” I expect we will then engage in some interesting speculation that will provide a pleasant sort of intellectual counterpoint to the non-stop action with trout that we are sure to be distracted by.

 

But, what I really wanted to say here was that, subsequent to that conversation, I rounded up my son Sander and we went out together and bought our licenses so we would not find ourselves in any uncomfortable situations on or near the water involving Fish, Wildlife and Parks law enforcement personnel. But, that’s not the only reason we went out to take care of those annual fishing and hunting license matters.

 

You see, I really do believe that we who are lucky enough to live right here in Montana are doubly fortunate to be able to enjoy the countless pleasures afforded by the abundant fish and wildlife resources of this wonderful state. I have felt that way every time I have walked up to a counter in a sporting goods store or fly shop where I could buy a license since that very first one 55 years ago. I can still feel how proud I was to stand at the counter at Q’s Sporting Goods in downtown Billings and ask for a fishing license and carefully provide all the information necessary. When that was done, I slipped the $2.00 of hard-earned paper route money across the clear glass countertop and folded the license to fit in the tiny manila license sleeve to keep in my wallet.

A ticket to paradise makes everyone happy!

A ticket to paradise makes everyone happy!

 

It was probably the best $2.00 investment I ever made. And in the years since, though the prices of licenses have climbed dramatically, those prices have not kept pace with the other kinds of inflation that we have experienced in every other facet of our lives.

 

Just for your information, a few years earlier than that day I bought that first license, in the year I was born, 1947, the entire budget for the then Montana Fish and Game Department was $90,000. That was all the money that went into managing fish and wildlife resources across this entire state. I don’t know if there was such a thing as any kind of protected wildlife species in those days. In fact, the woodland caribou season may still have been going on in northwest Montana. The whole discipline of wildlife management was really still in its infancy. Elk were only then starting to reappear in substantial numbers around the state after nearly disappearing entirely in the early part of the century. We had already begun messing with things by introducing brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout into the wonderful native cutthroat and bull trout fisheries, with no idea what that might portend for the for the future of native species. The mining industry was still pouring poison into the rivers and streams in the Upper Clark Fork country, something that we are still working to correct today. What I’m really trying to say, though, is things were different then, and we really didn’t think much about what we were doing to the fish and wildlife and their habitat in Montana because the seemed like there was just so much that there would always be plenty to go around.

 

Well, things have changed plenty since then, and the present day Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is tasked with protecting and managing those fish and wildlife resources in a way that assures that future generations of Montanans will be able to enjoy them as we do. It is an extremely difficult job, one that is often thankless. And if you have been paying attention while you are in the field, hunting, fishing, watching wildlife or engaged in other kinds of outdoor recreation around the State of Montana, then you know that FWP is struggling to stretch the resources it has to attend to the job it is tasked to do.

 

That’s why remembering to buy that license is so important, and why I think of it as an honor to put my money down every year for a new one. After all, it is the absolute best recreational dollar you can spend. In my case now, yes, with some benefits of advancing age, an investment of less than $70.00 provides me with an entire year of fishing, big game hunting, an elk tag, a deer tag, upland bird hunting, recreational access to State Lands, and even a tag good for one wild turkey. That’s less than dinner for two at a nice restaurant, or a day of skiing or a round of golf at lots of places. In fact, it’s not much more than a tank of gas cost until the recent price drop. That license is nothing less than a little ticket to paradise, if you ask me.  Oh, by the way, Naomi, the lady who took care of getting us those licenses at Bob Wards this week, made it a smooth as silk operation.

With license in hand, you might just find one like this.

With license in hand, you might just find one like this.

 

So, if you haven’t already done it, get out there and pick up your Montana fishing and hunting licenses. it will be pure pleasure.

 

As an added incentive, I am reprinting a column I wrote for the Missoulian that appeared on March 20, 1994, detailing some of the inconvenient and embarrassing consequences that might result if you let that license matter slide too long. Here it is:

 

The balmy weather of late has made it real hard to concentrate on the business at hand. The thought of fishing keeps getting in the way. Erwin called and we agreed to try to get on the water later this week. Meanwhile, friend Mike stopped by on Friday and suggested we steal away for just a couple hours to see what was happening on the river close to town. One of the many wonderful things about living here is that you don’t have to go more than a few minutes from the front door to find a piece of water with trout in it. I gave in.

I hurriedly grabbed my gear from the pile in the basement, threw it in the back of Mike’s car, and we were off. I had just two hours until I would have to pick up my son Sander from day care, so we didn’t waste any time.

It felt good to be out there. A few high clouds moved through the sky and the slight breeze was enough to remind me that it would have been nice to have worn a jacket. We dabbled here and there along a little channel, trying an assortment of big road kill variety wet flies because there wasn’t much in the way of bug life visible.

Mike caught a couple of nice fish in fairly short order, but that was about it. We chatted and watched each other cast. Mike made a few derogatory comments about my technique, which is something few of my fishing partners can resist. Then it was time to go.

I was strolling along a high bank, heading in the general direction of the car, and looking down into the cold water just to see if I could spot a fish. Because I was dawdling, Mike was a hundred yards or so ahead. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of somebody coming in our direction through the trees. Something on the person’s chest glinted in the sunlight. A second look told me it was a game warden coming in our way.

My first thought was that it was a bit unusual to see one of those folks out here on a weekday. In fact, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks enforcement people are spread so thin, that is not all that uncommon to go through two or three seasons without ever encountering one afield.

My second thought was “AARGH!”

That’s because it suddenly dawned on me that the game warden was going to ask me for my license, and I didn’t have one that would satisfy him. March 1 was the date when new licenses were required, and I had forgotten all about it. Don’t laugh!

I immediately set about trying to make myself invisible. These days, when fishing attire makes us all look like some weird cross between a frogman and a drugstore cowboy, it is not an easy task to blend into the natural surroundings. I had the strange sensation of growing bigger instead of the opposite.

My next frantic wish was that he would stop Mike, check his license, and then wander off in the other direction, ignoring me altogether. If there is such a thing as a guilt pheromone, I am sure my body was manufacturing them at a record rate. The game warden must have had his guilt detector switched on, because by the time I reached the car, he was done with Mike and coming, inexorably, my way.

I tried to be casual about it, but in my embarrassment, I failed miserably. I was absolutely mortified. Dan, the game warden, could tell how extremely uncomfortable I was, and he did his best to be nice about the whole thing. It didn’t help.

A few days later, when I lined up in court to face the music, the judge was understanding as well. He didn’t do anything to make me feel like a hardened criminal. And he saw fit not to levy the maximum fine that I had envisioned. That didn’t help much either.

Anyone who pontificates as much as I do about things like sporting ethics and our obligation to know and follow the regulations should at least know enough to have a license when it is required. I have tried to think up a good excuse for my failure, but there really isn’t one I can think of.

I am one of those who think that we don’t have enough people in the field enforcing fishing and hunting regulations. And I still think that, but there were certainly enough wardens out last Friday to find me. It kind of reminds me of those people like Lee Trevino, the golfer, who have been repeatedly hit by lightening. The chances of being hit even once are infinitesimally miniscule, but they get hit again and again. I’m like that. If it’s wrong and I do it, I get caught.

On the brighter side, I am also one who contends that our fishing and hunting licenses are the absolute best entertainment bargain around. I have often been heard to say that I would gladly pay twice as much, or more, for the privilege of hunting and fishing.

This year I had to put my money where my mouth was. In fact, considering the new license and the fine, I paid substantially more than twice the going rate for my license. If you don’t want to end up in the same boat, I suggest you run out and get your license right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Canyon

Into the Canyon

So….did you find out this week whether or not you, someone in your family, or one of your nearest and dearest friends hit the jackpot and landed a date for a launch on the Smith River for this coming summer? Just asking.

 

This is the time of year when a common question among many Montanans of the outdoor adventure persuasion goes something like this: “ Did you get a Smith permit?” That question has become almost as familiar as the standard hunting season query:“Did you get your elk yet/”

 

When I started this blog, my pal Walleye announced quite publicly, well, to the few but loyal readers of this blog anyway, that there would be trouble if I used the new avenue of communication to inform readers about the deadlines for things like Smith River Float Permit applications. The idea, of course, was that there are already enough people vying for those precious permits, and there was no point in reminding the forgetful ones and limiting our chances for a permit at the same time.

 

Well, the deadline for those permit applications has now come and gone. Just today, before I began to tap out this missive, I checked the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website (or is it just the Montana State Parks website now? I forget), and discovered that the results are now available on line. So you can check, too.

 

Now that we are done with that, I think it will be okay to mention the Smith River in print again,  at least until the next application deadline in February 2016. That’s good because this is the time of year that Smith River dreams start to swirl in at night for those of us who have come to know and love that river.

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

 

It is 35 years ago now that I first floated the Smith, a river that I had only heard of in stories told in hushed and reverent tones by friends who had seen it and fished it themselves.

 

It was a much simpler time on Montana rivers back then, and especially on the Smith. There were no permits. There were no official camping spots. There was barbed wire strung across the river in a number of places over the sixty-mile float from the put-in at Camp Baker to the take-out at Eden Bridge.You didn’t have to check in or check out.People floated the river in whatever craft they could muster from Joh boats to military surplus rafts to the flimsy yellow “rubber ducky” rafts available at sporting goods stores in those days. Everything was makeshift.

 

On that first trip, I was working as a fishing guide for my pal Johnny, who happened to be co-owner of a fishing outfitting business. I had never been down the Smith before, but Johnny had been down it once, so I counted on him to keep me apprised of what to expect. It turned out that his memory wasn’t as good as I would have liked, so it was more of a case of the blind leading the blind. And it turned out to be a good learning experience for both of us.

 

We had scheduled that as a five-day trip, and each of us carried one customer, sitting on the front seat of the homemade wooden raft frames we used. All of our camping gear was piled high behind the rowing seat. We carried no camp chairs, no tables, no dining flies or big kitchen boxes. We slept on the ground in two-person tents and cooked cans of beans and Dinty Moore beef stew on our Coleman stove. There was nothing fancy about it.

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

 

Except for the river that is.

 

That first trip was a voyage into wonderland for me. As we slipped those miles further and further into the canyon, the world we had left behind almost ceased to exist. The canyon walls looming overhead, colors of the rock constantly changing with the light, eagles, hawks and falcons soaring overhead. I was nearly slack-jawed with awe for the whole trip. I tried to act like this sort of thing was old hat to me, but couldn’t hide how moved I was by the beauty of the place. I guess it didn’t matter because my customer, and Johnny’s customer were both blown away, too.

 

We barely noticed the occasional cabins, the fences across the river, the old ranch buildings, and other signs of human activity that occur there. And on that first trip, we didn’t know about the signs of Native American activity there, the cave paintings and pictographs on canyon and cliff walls that we became familiar with later.

 

The river itself, sometimes seeming to be a ribbon of molten silver in just the right light, otherwise a crystal clear stream, carved its way through the canyon, filled with places for trout to hide, and flies to be cast.

Looking Down On Indian Springs

Looking Down On Indian Springs

 

I don’t know now how many times I have made that float. I guided on the river for quite a few years before I ever had time during the summer to float it for my own recreation. And I have tried to take advantage of every opportunity that has come up to float it since I last took a customer down the river. So I guess I have been down way more than my fair share.

 

In all those years, and all those times down the river, no matter how nasty the weather, how bad the fishing, or how challenging the human companionship may have been from time to time, I have never failed to be awed and transported by the Smith. It’s one of those special places on the planet that just does that to people.

 

It has been that way for several generations now of my family, and my friends and their families. With my pals Homer and Erwin and Johnny, and many other leathery old hands, I spent all those years guiding on the river, and many more just enjoying it with family and friends. In recent years, another generation, my son Sander, and Homer’s kids, Malcolm and Metta have all toiled on the river as camp cooks, freighters and camp tenders, and guides themselves. The same, I imagine, is true for many other Montana families who have known the Smith, or other places that link us all to each other and to the natural world.

Three Generations

Three Generations

 

It is by now ancient history that once fly fishing and fly fishing in Montana in particular became a growth industry, the Smith became more generally known to Montanans and others from far and wide, and it suddenly was in danger of being loved to death. Overuse, conflicts with the many private landowners along the river, conflicts among river users, increased commercial use, and other factors all led to the regulated system of management and use we see today. There was no choice if the river was to be protected and the rights of the private landowners were to be respected.

 

And every February, we pay our money and we take our chances on the permit lottery.

 

But, it doesn’t end with that for those who love the Smith and those who recognize that we must protect that river and the many other irreplaceable natural treasures that we are so blessed with in Montana. That means we must never be complacent and assume that those places are safe and protected and in good hands. Rather, it is our obligation to be ever vigilant.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden

 

Now, a new menace looms over the headwaters of the Smith River in the form of a copper mine proposed for construction in the Sheep Creek drainage in the upper reaches of the river, near the put-in at Camp Baker. The legacy of hard rock mining in Montana is by and large not pretty when it comes to the environmental devastation left behind. Far too often, even in relatively modern times, with assurances and promises that especially our precious cold water resources and the living things they sustain will be protected, they have been instead despoiled, often almost beyond restoration. Required reclamation bonding proves meaningless when the mines close, the mining companies disappear, and the costs of whatever reclamation is possible far outstrip the bonds and have to be covered by the taxpayers of Montana. It has happened time and time again. And a stream, poisoned by heavy metals and toxic wastes of mining can take years or even generations to recover, if recovery is possible. History should have taught us something about this.

 

It never rains on the Smith

It never rains on the Smith

But, even as this mine has been proposed in the headwaters of one of our Montana treasures, and the promises keep coming that the mine will be safe and environmentally benign, and Montanans are again lulled to sleep with those assurances, the mining industry has recently lobbied against the stronger bonding requirements that might have provided important incentives for mining companies to keep their promises to the people of Montana. That should tell us something. There is good reason to fear for the future of the Smith River.

 

To really get the scoop on the proposed mine and the threat it poses for the Smith River, take the time to get informed, and then think about getting involved with the effort yourself. Check out the Montana Trout Unlimited website dedicated to the protection of the Smith at www.smithriverwatch.org.

 

By the way, and I know you are wondering about this, no, I did not draw a Smith River permit this year. I will have to rely on the kindness of others if I hope to see that wonderful river up close this year.

 

If you were among the fortunate ones, cherish that permit, and do what you can to protect the river.

Last Day-Going Out

Last Day-Going Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

We have a white Christmas morning!

The street in front of my house is quiet and dark. Standing outside on my front steps, I can see a few stars faintly visible for a moment or two as gaps open and close in the overcast. A block to the East of my house, rising abruptly from the valley floor the slopes of Mount Sentinel are draped in clean, white snow, shining above the roof lines of the shadowy UM student housing structures nestled at the base of the mountain. Standing outside a few minutes ago, I could hear none of the usual ubiquitous traffic noise, or the heavy clanging and thudding of train cars coupling and uncoupling that can so often be heard when all else is silent in the valley. For those few moments, our town, the mountains around us, and the world beyond all seemed to me to be in an uncommon state of peace.

Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, or even lack thereof, this is a time of year when we tend to remember that even in what many of us experience as a life of relative comfort and freedom from want, and abundant opportunity to partake of the blessings of living in such a place as we do—even here—there are many among us who do not share in that abundance.

We all know that this time of year has become the season of self-indulgence, over-consumption, and crass commercialization, but we also manage to remember it is a season of giving and sharing beyond our friends and families. Now, I know that our town is not unique. I like to think that given the opportunity, people the world over share in a sense of common concern for each other’s well being. But what I see every day is what I know best. And I see something wonderful in our town.

I have been thinking about this for the last couple of weeks. It began for me on the day of the grand opening celebration for the new Poverello Center facility on West Broadway. I was among the throng attending the brief ceremony commemorating the event. I went, first, of course, because I thought it a worthy effort and cause. Second, several close friends of mine had been actively involved in the project from the beginning, and I wanted them to know that I was proud of them.

It turned out that there was more to it for me. Something that felt new and very special was in the air in that crowded building on the sunny December afternoon of the grand opening. I am almost hesitant to try to describe what I felt, for fear that it was just my own imagination getting away from me. But the feeling has endured now for a couple of weeks, so I am going to trust it.

I probably need to back up just a little bit here to tell you that I have spent much of my adult life engaged in activities related to conservation, particularly protection of land and water and wildlife. So, one of the first things I noticed about the new Pov was the natural light pouring in from the windows on all sides and the views those windows offered of all of public or otherwise protected lands that surround our town. Beginning many decades ago, private individuals, community groups, and public officials have worked together to protect the natural values that we are so proud of here, and enjoy so much.

I can tell you from experience that those conservation accomplishments so evident through the windows of the new Pov were not done simply to make sure we all had a place to have fun, or something nice to look at every morning. No, those things, and most conservation work that people struggle to accomplish every day, no matter where in the world they happen to be, is done because in some way, the future of humankind and of life on this Earth depends upon all of us accepting the responsibility of taking care of it in some way, rather than simply taking from it. In the end, it’s not about safeguarding our right to shoot elk, catch fish, hike, ride, camp, or float anywhere we want. It’s not about those views. In the end, when all the dots are connected, it’s about protecting the planet that sustains us.

I was thinking about that as I looked around the room on the day of the grand opening, and I saw many there who had worked on those conservation projects around our community. I saw many others who I know to be avid in their interest in the joys of the natural world who spend their lives in other ways, often in direct service to or attending to the basic human needs of others. I listened as Governor Bullock and Mayor Engen offered their thoughts on the community accomplishment now represented by that wonderful new building. When the Mayor talked about he “relentless” commitment of the volunteers who saw the project through to completion, I was filled with pride for my friends who had been involved, and for our community. But it was when the Mayor talked about his response to a question about why the building had to be in such a public and visible place that the light really went on in my aging brain.

“There is no better place for an emergency shelter and soup kitchen in Missoula, Montana, than in our gateway. There’s no better place for us to acknowledge that everyone in this community counts,” Engen replied to the questioner.

Of course, I thought, taking care of this place, this valley or this planet, doesn’t mean much to us in the long run if we don’t pay just as much attention to taking care of each other. After all, we really are in this whole thing of life on this planet together. And many, many people in our town know that, and live that truth every single day.

Which brings me back to the shared feeling in the new Poverello Center that afternoon. Did I tell you it was almost palpable? I could see it in people’s eyes. I could hear it in their voices. It was an intoxicating concoction of joy, gratitude, plain old unadulterated love, and hope for the future.

There was something symbolic in it, beyond the great accomplishment itself. It filled me with hope that I still feel, and gratitude for being able to call this place home and you who live here my friends.

It is full daylight now and still, not a single vehicle has passed on the street outside my office window since I sat down to write a couple of hours ago. Nobody on the block has gotten up yet on this Christmas morning and raced out to shovel the sidewalk. It is warm in my house. I’m listening to Christmas music. The coffee is good today. Later, Sander and Grace will come by and we will hike to the top of Sentinel in honor of the day. Then I will head off to Christmas dinner with Jenny, Winsor, Will and Iris, and their new pooch, Trigger. All is well with my little part of the world.

May the rest of this day, and the days and the year ahead be filled with just such an abiding sense of peace and hope for you and those you love.

A white Christmas indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye and Hello!

Twenty-seven years ago last June, Brian Howell, then City Editor of the Missoulian, asked me if I was interested in writing something personal about my experience as a new father for a Fathers’ Day feature. I had begun that year, 1987, as a reporter covering cops and courts and assorted wrecks and crashes for the paper. However, the arrival of son Sander on the scene converted me into a stay-at-home-dad once his mom Anne had used up her maternity leave. I agreed to give it a try.

That first effort must have been satisfactory because a few months later, just before waterfowl season, Brian called again to ask if I had would write something about hunting traditions I shared with my friends for the weekly outdoor page. I was pleased to do it.

I wrote about the annual get-together at Swan Lake that my pals had come to refer to as Goose Camp. We had been gathering there on the eve of the waterfowl opening for fifteen years at that time, and we were beginning to think of ourselves almost as old timers. Of course, we weren’t even close. Now, after nearly three more decades of Goose Camp, we really are mossbacks.

After that first yarn, I began writing a regular column for the outdoor page that has appeared more-or-less weekly ever since. It all just sort of happened.

When Thanksgiving Day rolls around every year, one of the things I am always most thankful for is that little series of events that led to me being able to share with you some of my adventures, my family and friends, my thoughts and opinions on things from soup to nuts, and my love of this place we call Montana.

Computers were a brand new deal in 1987. I would scribble a draft of my column on a legal pad, and then hammer out a hard copy on my typewriter. That done, I took it down to the Missoulian where I typed it into the system at one of the computer terminals. The notion of sending it in from a home computer was still science fiction then. This column, however, will go to the Missoulian without me having to leave the house or even get out of my bathrobe.

A lot of other things have changed, too. The world seems a more dangerous and confusing place now, for one. Civility has become increasingly rare in our public discourse. And things that seemed black and white to me once now have a lot more gray area in the middle. And, yes, I believe our world is in imminent peril due to our own thoughtless actions and insatiable appetite for the earth’s resources, the energy they can produce, and the temporary riches that those activities may provide.

Even with those dark thoughts hovering, none of this has altered the fact that I can still wake up every day and be glad to live where I do, and feel blessed to have the family and friends who have surrounded me and shared my love of this place for all these years.

Those friends, the ones who have populated my life and many of the stories I have related here, have been extraordinarily gracious and generous in allowing me to write about them, sometimes in ways that were not particularly flattering. Long ago, Erwin put his foot down and instructed me to leave him out of my column after one too many stories about him losing his Thermos or breaking his fishing rod. For a while, I referred to him as Formerly, as in “my pal, formerly known as Erwin.” Eventually, though, he relented and Erwin reappeared as a frequent brave companion of field and stream, never to complain again. They are all dear friends, and wonderful people, I might add. I am forever in their debt.

I am writing today about my gratitude for these things not only because it is Thanksgiving. I am also doing it because this will be the last column that I write for the outdoor page of the Missoulian. This may seem abrupt, but it is something I have been pondering for quite a while, and now seems to be a good time to make this move. By way of explanation, perhaps I could paraphrase the Dude in The Big Lebowski when trying to explain something he couldn’t explain: “ Certain information has come to light, man.” The reality is that it is just time to move on.

I am so grateful for the chance I have had to connect with all of you through these words on the printed page for so long. Many of you have written to me over the years suggesting that you feel as if you know me and my family and friends. In truth, I feel the same way about you. If you happen to be one of those who has written me or emailed me and I have failed to respond, please know that I fully intended to write back. Kathleen, I’m thinking of you here, but there are others also. And I sincerely appreciated every note, every letter, every phone call, and every single person who said something nice to me in the line at the grocery store. It has been a wonderful ride.

Over those twenty-seven years, there has been lots of weather of all kinds in the lives of each of us. There have been tragedies in my life and in yours. There has been darkness aplenty. And there has been great joy. One of my greatest joys has been in being able to share some of vicissitudes of fatherhood with you, from the very first words on that Fathers’ Day in 1987 about pushing Sander around in his stroller, to more recent observations about his journey into adulthood.

In that Fathers’ Day piece, I remember thinking about the fact that in previous years, I would have likely been guiding fly fishermen and women down Montana trout streams on that weekend, rather than tending to an infant boy. And I expressed the hope that some day, Sander would have the same opportunity to explore and enjoy the wild places and moving waters of Montana the way I had been able to, and that those things would fill his soul as they have filled mine. Sander, like the rest of my friends, has tolerated being used as column fodder so many times over the years that I could not begin to count them.

These days, in addition to working on a graduate degree and being an aspiring educator, Sander is also a fishing guide on those same cold, clear trout waters during the summer months that I once plied for pay. And he and his very recently announced fiancé, Grace, spend much of their free time out there on the rivers and in the hills.

Maybe that’s why it is the right time to now to move on. I can’t do that without again thanking the folks at the Missoulian for making it possible for me to share my thoughts every week for so long. I will be always grateful.

I do have to let you know that, at the insistence of Sander and Grace and my friend Patrice, along with many others, I am not about to stop writing. Rather, beginning next week, I will continue with my weekly missives in a blog that you will be able to find at gregtollefson.com. As an extra inducement, I will be occasionally allowing guest appearances from some of my pals who want to prove to the world that they are more literate than I have portrayed them. Walleye and Homer, in particular, have let me know that they have a few things to say.

So, until we meet again, thanks so very much. Or as my old friend Bull Molina used to say in parting, “Congratulations. Thanks a lot. And goodbye.”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY 50th to MONTANA TU

In Montana, so much is about the water, the water and the rivers.

That’s what the quiet celebration was all about a couple of Saturdays ago when folks from across the state gathered at the mouth of Rock Creek to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU).  Among the men and women present there to savor the rich conservation history of TU in Montana were many of the old warriors who long ago saw the need, got themselves organized and educated, and joined the battle to protect the rivers and lakes so essential to the quality of life we enjoy here.

It was humbling to look around at the crowd and see the many people who had worked hard for years to protect our precious cold water fishery. I listened to the laughter and heard some of the war stories and marveled at the talent and energy that was so evident in the people around me. I was reminded how easy it is to forget the amount of passion and selfless hard work it has taken to restore and protect the fish and wildlife resources we enjoy. I suspect many folks new to the scene or from generations just coming up have little notion of that history.

The location was fitting, a fact that was not lost on most in attendance.

Rock Creek, you see, was for decades the focal point for stream conservation and cold water fishery protection in western Montana.

In the long years when the Clark Fork was a near lifeless river poisoned by our own hand and the Blackfoot was on its knees with its once-vital fishery barely hanging on, it was Rock Creek that remained  the legendary Blue Ribbon trout stream in western Montana. It was Rock Creek where conservationists threw down the gauntlet and held the line for decades, and where the template for collaboration created in no small part by the efforts of TU was forged and refined and carried forward to pump life into the rest of the river system.

Of course, the work of TU didn’t start there. The great trout rivers of Montana all seemed to be under threat and in need of champions fifty years ago when a group including fly fishing legends Dan Bailey, Bud Lilly, and Bud Morris  held the first organizational meeting for a Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited at Chico Hot Springs.

Dams were the big issue then. Although lessons learned from the construction of major dams all over Montana and the resultant impacts to native trout should have been fresh in the minds of all Montanans, new dam proposals loomed large. One after another, dam proposals for the Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River, the Reichle Dam proposed for the Big Hole River, and the Allenspur Dam on the Yellowstone all had to be challenged and defeated.

Other challenges loomed large and had to be met as well. As new TU chapters formed across Montana, the efforts of these groups broadened to address threats to water quality and fisheries from municipal sewer discharges to sedimentation of tributary streams due to logging practices. The organization supported efforts to protect native trout species and lobbied Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to suspend fish stocking in the great trout rivers and, instead, to work to sustain wild trout populations.

Recognizing the importance of habitat protection, TU members worked to convince the Montana Legislature to pass a landmark streambed preservation act that requires agency review and approval for any stream modifications. TU also joined with FWP to help establish minimum instream flows in the Yellowstone and other rivers and streams to prevent dewatering and protect critical fishery habitat.

Again, working with FWP and a number of other conservation groups, Montana TU joined in the decade-long effort to codify a stream access law that is now recognized as the best in the nation and a point of pride for Montana anglers and all other river recreationists.

When the lessons of past mining activity, so evident on the rivers in western Montana, were forgotten and the threat of major mining development loomed again in the upper Blackfoot, TU joined the fray and helped lead the effort to defeat Initiative 147, which would have opened the way for an open-pit, cyanide heap leach mine in the headwaters of that iconic river.

These things are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to efforts by TU, including TU’s national organization, Montana TU, and the local chapters to protect what is critical and what we hold dear.

Every one of us who floats a river or casts a fly should remember that if it were not for the work of many dedicated people and organizations like TU, our days on the water would be much less rewarding.

Now, each day brings new concerns and challenges. That’s why the celebration at Rock Creek was a quiet one. It was good to reflect upon the past for a moment, but then it was time to look ahead at the work that remains to be done.

Vigilance will always be required when it comes to protecting the water that flows through our valleys and our dreams.

Happy Anniversary, Montana Trout Unlimited!