Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Mothers are special creatures in all of nature, and if that’s true, then grandmothers fall right into the same category. That’s why it was always such a sweet privilege for me to share my thoughts about mothers and grandmothers in my weekly column for the last 27 years each Mothers’ Day. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a couple of those columns from many years ago. Of course my mother and my grandmothers are long gone from this mortal earth, but the gifts they gave and the spirit they shared with me and the rest of their progeny are with all of us every day.


From 1988:


My mother lives just down the street. We talk regularly. The other day I told her I was going fishing.

“Fishing? Haven’t you heard about the winter storm watch?”

“Yes mom, I know about the weather, but the trip is on.”

“You’re not going alone are you? There’s nothing more hare-brained than going off hunting or fishing by yourself, you know. They might not find your corpse for months.”

“No mom, I’m not going alone, I’m going with Erwin.”

“Well that’s reassuring. He has about as much common sense as you do. Neither one of you knows enough to come in out of the rain. Well I hope you have life jackets.”

“Of course we have life jackets.”

“And you wear them?”

“We’ll keep them handy Mom.”

“A lot of good that will do. You be careful!”

Such exchanges have been taking place between my mother and her children for upwards of forty years. My friend Erwin, who was full-grown when he met her, has been a target of her admonitions for nearly twenty of those years. I guess that’s because his mother lives in Minnesota and can’t get at him.

I never thought much about it before becoming a parent, but after a short career as a father, I marvel at human survival. How children manage to make it in one piece to adulthood, after plunging from near disaster to dangerous precipice to sure collision all along the way, is a matter of continual amazement. Here in Montana, the seductiveness and myriad dangers of the natural world make that survival all the more miraculous.

Admittedly our children here in Montana don’t face, at least to the same degree, the dark forces that confront children in an urban setting. No, but we do have steep cliffs, fast dark water, unpredictable weather, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, guns and all sorts of wild and exotic things waiting just outside the nursery door. Thankfully, we also have mothers to guide the way.

For many who grow up here, this is all the stuff of dreams, but for mothers, mothers like mine anyway, these same ingredients have probably been responsible for many a nightmare. Mothers after all have been saddled with the glamorless part of steering the kids through the early stages of outdoor experience.

While the dads are concentrating on the how to’s of fishing, hunting, canoeing and skiing, the moms have more often than not ended up handling the hygiene, safety, first aid, common sense and tender loving care departments, often without getting to enjoy the outdoors themselves. For this usually thankless job, mothers clearly deserve most of the credit for survival of our species. In my case anyway it happens to be so.

It was mom, after all, who got me ready for my first camping trip. She inventoried my kit and made a few suggestions, like spare socks, a raincoat and some food besides candy. When I got cold feet, she buoyed me by telling me what a good time I would have. And when I came home, elated, tired and filthy, she hugged me, told me how she missed me, and then made me disrobe and sprayed me with a garden hose before letting me in the house.

It was mom who tended the blisters and sprains, poured salve on the sunburns and scrapes and mended and replaced the tattered clothing. She’s the one who tolerated the animal carcasses in the garage, and cooked the meat, despite a distaste stemming from a childhood with wild game to eat every day.

She was the one who waited and worried when an outing went too long. And she is the one who always, always, always reminded each of us to be careful with guns, to wear our lifejackets, to watch the weather, and to drive carefully.

When we returned from one outing or another it was mom who listened to the tales of beauty and adventure with a combination of delight and wistfulness. For even as she always encouraged our comings and goings, she must have yearned to see those places and things her children had seen and she had only dreamed about.

To be sure, there was a time when her wanderings were farther, wider and more adventurous. I have seen faded photographs of her in her youth, perched on rocky summits and lounging among the wildflowers of a high, windy pass. Somehow though, with the coming of family and the tenor of the times, she left that behind her, and did her adventuring vicariously through her children. It was expected in those days.

The only thing she saved for herself was huckleberry picking. She still attacks a huckleberry patch ruthlessly and recklessly, unmindful of the scratches and scrapes from tangled brush, ignoring the burning sun. She picks huckleberries like the future of western civilization is in the balance. Her children do not advise and do not interfere.

Her grandchildren are growing up in a different world. It is a world where it is easier, more often expected for mothers to participate in the main events instead of the support roles. Those children get to share the exhilaration of the wild with their mothers, and when their mom exhorts them to tie on that life jacket, she ties her own on too, then takes the oars.

So for the mountains they never got to climb, and for the bends in the river they have not seen, I want to thank my mom and all the others just like her out there. It was they, after all, who enabled us to love this place. Happy Mothers’ Day!



From 1998.


The other evening, son Sander and his Grandma Helen, my Mom, went off to a band concert together at the University Theater. As they walked away together like old pals, I found myself musing on grandmas. Sander is friends with his two grandmothers in a way that I never was with mine. I admit to being just a bit jealous of the opportunity he has had to get to know them.

But I did have a grandmother who exerted, unbeknownst to her, a powerful force on my life and, I am sure, on the lives of her other 14 grandchildren.

She had lived sixty jam-packed years before I became aware of her. Those years included the trip from Norway to a homestead shack in the United States as a young girl, with intermediate stops in Iowa and Minnesota before moving to the wild country of north central Montana and happening upon a teaching job over in the Blackfeet country. Then came a chance meeting with the handsome young homestead locator who had come from the same area of Norway she came from, Telemark Province, via the gold mines and trap lines of Canada. As they say, the rest is history.

I can’t pinpoint my first memory of my grandmother. It could be the image of her, apron-clad, leaning over the wood cook stove at the family cabin up at Swan Lake. She is forking doughnuts out of a grease-spitting, cast-iron frying pan, and dipping them in a bowl of powdered sugar. She is humming the good Lutheran hymns familiar to all of her grandchildren, but especially to my siblings, and me since our dad happened to be a Lutheran preacher.

Of all her many grandchildren, I may have been the most appreciative of her doughnut expertise, I still suffer from a strong, almost irresistible, attraction for doughnuts, but nothing today compares to the anticipation I felt in the thick, sweet atmosphere of that kitchen on a summer morning.

More likely though, my first image of her is probably the one where she is sitting cross-legged on the edge of a low cut-bank at a place we used to go on the Swan River. She has on a pair of hip boots, and she is wearing a fishing vest, pockets stuffed with hooks, flies, leaders and whatever else she may have kept in there. She is topped off with one of those red felt hats we call “crushers” now. Cradled in her hands is handsome split bamboo fly rod with a black metal automatic Perrine reel.

As I remember it, Grandma is surrounded by a pack of grandchildren in the same general age group as me. The older kids and the men have disappeared up and downstream in search of trout and solitude, but Grandma seems content to hang around with the little kids and do a little fishing.

My Grandma fished with worms. That was bad enough, considering the top-quality fly gear that she used. Even worse, she couldn’t stand to bait her own hook.

The eager gaggle of grandchildren vied for the opportunity to bait Grandma’s hook. And when she caught a fish, which was common on the Swan in those days, a wave of excitement swept through the entire entourage. It was not unusual for Grandma to catch the biggest fish of all on those expeditions. The returning purists would discount it due to the means employed, but we kids and Grandma would know the truth.

When the time came, Grandma and Grandpa took me out, as they did with each grandchild, to catch my first trout on the Swan River. Grandpa didn’t even complain about me using worms. When I landed the first trout, both grandparents emitted those distinctly Norwegian chortles of glee that you can still hear sometimes at potluck dinners in church basements. Both grandparents were there, but for me it was clearly a Grandma event.

There have been many rivers, much laughter and lots of wonderful hours afield since the days with my own Grandma. But she is still with me whenever I venture out into the wild world that I have come to cherish so. She is always there, tempting me with fresh nightcrawlers. Even now, forty-five years later, I can still find the exact spot where I caught that first trout and I can remember the sound of their laughter.

I thought about this the other night when Sander marched off to that concert with his Grandma Helen.

It won’t be memories of fishing that connects him with either of his grandmas. It probably won’t be doughnuts either. But there will be something that stays with him.

With grandma Helen, it could be huckleberries.

Sander has loitered in that same kitchen at Swan Lake that I knew as a child, waiting for the next batch of huckleberry pancakes from his grandmother, and he has scouted ahead for her as she commanded a battalion of berry pickers.

Or it could be a hundred other things that she has been for him. She has cheered him on through years of basketball and soccer games. She has dutifully attended the school programs and concerts and has glowed with pride when he could finally toot a tune on his saxophone. She has nursed him through homework and treated him like visiting royalty when she thought he needed it.

Whatever the case, his grandmothers will always be there as part of who he is and who he will become. He’s a lucky kid.

And I was a lucky kid before him.












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.







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


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.





















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.







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


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


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


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


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

The Creek

The Creek


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Ben's after-Christmas rainbow

Ben’s after-Christmas rainbow


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


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


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


























On this crackling cold New Year’s Day the first thing that caught my eye out the kitchen window was Stuart Peak presiding over the Rattlesnake Wilderness and the Missoula Valley. Against a pale blue sky the golden glow of the morning sun bathing the deep snows gracing the southeast face of the mountain created a momentary illusion of warmth that I thought I could feel in my toes. While I put the coffee on, I allowed myself to imagine standing up on that peak this morning, squinting in the glare, to greet the new day and the New Year. Then I wondered for a second or two whether there were people up there this morning doing that very thing. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that, considering where we live and what people do for fun around here, it would make sense that at least a couple Missoulians were on that mountain today.


New Year's Eve-Mt. Sentinel from head of Pattee Canyon

New Year’s Eve-Mt. Sentinel from head of Pattee Canyon

On a morning like this, it’s not so easy to think about sitting back and taking stock of the year 2014 when 2015 is already up and running and the siren song of the mountains is in full voice. But I guess I can spare an hour or two while I’m waiting for that morning sun to slip over the southern flank of Mount Sentinel and wash through the streets of my neighborhood. This time of year, that can take a while.


I have a cork bulletin board on the wall above my writing desk. It is festooned with photographs, a few select Christmas cards, an obituary or two, and a couple of buttons with photos of son Sander in one of his athletic uniforms from years long gone. The material on the board is now arranged in layers like old wallpaper, with more recent photos, cards, news clippings and other memorabilia tacked on over older ones. So, if I peel off the top layer I arrive at whole new layer of the past.


The common theme, from the top layer that I see every day to the bottom layer that I rarely visit is pictures mostly of friends and loved ones in the middle of some outdoor adventure or another that we either shared at the time or shared later via the photograph. One of the really nice things about that is the more layers I excavate, the younger we all get to be, and, unlike many of my friends and family who haven’t missed a beat on the fitness front, the more fit I appear to be. Then there is the matter of my disappearing head of hair.


Yes, there is an element of sadness in those layers of history, too. Some of the people who appear smiling and full of life in the older layers are no longer evident as the years go on. They are gone, and life for the rest of us goes on, but those who are gone are never forgotten by we who loved them. Memories of shared joys and sorrows, shared labors, and shared love of wild places do not depend upon photographic evidence to endure. And, as might be expected, in all but a very few of the photos, my people appear to be quite pleased and happy to be wherever they are and doing whatever they’re doing.


The only exception on the board right now is a photo of my brother Steve and my pal Homer standing under a rain tarp on a Smith River trip many years ago. It had been raining constantly for three days when the photo was taken, and our whole crew was wet, cold and cranky. For purposes of the photo, however, the two of them ginned up some false bravado and put on their best goofy grins for the camera. As I recall, that act in itself brought some much-needed joy to a miserable situation, and now, of course, that trip and that moment is a fine memory.


There are no photos from 2014 on my bulletin board yet, due in part to the fact that these days, we don’t often collect whole rolls of prints of all the photos we take. Now, we keep those photos in the digital deep freeze until it comes time to print out a few special ones, and I haven’t done that yet for the year just past.

New Year's Eve-from Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-from Deer Creek Road


I will get around to that eventually, but in thinking about what those select photos that make the bulletin board might be, I am reminded that photos are not really necessary to reconstitute those memories of wonderful days afield with friends and loved ones. All it takes is a few moments of quiet on a trail somewhere, or a distant glint of snow like I saw on Stuart Peak this morning. Or anything else that will kick in little memory.


Just yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, I broke out my cross country skis for the first time this year and took a little jaunt from the Pattee Canyon trailhead up and over into Deer Creek and was reminded of a time many years ago on New Year’s Day when I took that same route dragging son Sander behind me on a red plastic sled. He must have been three or four years old.


Getting the feel of sliding along on skis again, I recalled how it was a bit frustrating that day because

New Year's Eve-Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-Deer Creek Road

Sander was already something of a daredevil. He got his greatest kick out of falling out of the sled, at least when we were going uphill. So every time I would get up a good head of steam tugging away on my precious sliding load, Sander would bail out with a whoop, and I would find myself plunging along with an empty sled. Sander, meanwhile, would giggle with pleasure as he thrashed around in a cloud of snow


“Dad! Did you see that wreck? It was awesome!”


Progress took time.


Yesterday, when those memories began to wash over me on the track above Deer Creek, I had plenty of time to bask in them. Right now, however, the New Year is upon us, and I have idled away enough of this glorious day.

Let’s get out there and enjoy it!

















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!








The Gifts That Last Forever.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


There is no frigate like a book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll:

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul!