Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

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

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

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

“Well do you have a boat we can use?”

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

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

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

“Yes, I have a boat,” I replied.

“A drift boat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Bunny, Not Always As Mean  As He Looks

Bunny, Not Always As Mean As He Looks

 

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

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sander and Grace find treasure at the "M"

Sander and Grace find treasure at the “M”

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The message is universal

The message is universal

 

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

 

 

 

Today, with a little blue sky peeking through the April clouds from time to time, I am plotting about my next day on a Montana river. Right now, it is a bit of a game of chance, with flows seeming to be hovering the last few days, just on the verge of slipping into spring run-off mode, but not quite. Any fishing plans are dependent on checking the current stream flow at the USGS gauging stations on the various rivers. That’s because the fishing is dependent upon stream conditions like flow and water temperature. And we all know the old fishing guide mantra, “You can’t catch fish on a rising river.” So, all of my pals have that USGS site bookmarked on their computers for easy access.

Once the river has been decided upon, the next issue is figuring out who’s driving and who is going to be responsible for the shuttle. Whenever you float downstream without a motor to push you back up, it is important to put just a bit of thought into how you will get your vehicle from the beginning of the float to the end of it. Over the years I have found that no particular scheme is foolproof.

This is not always an obvious concern to people unfamiliar with river travel. Once, many years ago during my guiding days,one of my customers caught me off guard with the simplest of questions. As I helped a gentle lady into the raft for a day of floating downstream on the Big Blackfoot, she turned to me and asked, “Will we be getting out here at the end of the day?”

I suppose I could have replied in the affirmative, as in, “Yes, after lunch I’ll be rowing you back up here.” But, instead, I told her as gently as I could that, no, we would be stopping a few miles down river and the vehicles we had come to the river in would be waiting there for us.

When I think about shuttles this time of year, I am often transported to another time, an April day long ago when I pedaled my bike twelve miles up a muddy road in a driving rainstorm and swore to myself that I would never do that again.             By taking that muddy bike ride I was simply handling the one pesky detail of river floating that, even now, I have never completely ironed out. It has something to do with the old adage about paying the piper.

The problem of the shuttle becomes especially complicated when there are large groups of people and several boats involved. Figuring out how to get the correct vehicles to the bottom of the float, then getting the drivers back to the start, then retrieving the vehicles that brought them back up, usually once the float is over, can become a logistical nightmare. It sounds like it should be simple, but it just isn’t always that way.

One might think, for example that taking two cars is a sure-fire solution for a simple one-boat float. It can be if you remember to put one vehicle at the bottom of the float for starters, and if you remember to send the other one along to bring the driver of the first one back before you start. There are other things to remember too.

For example, Homer and I are unloading at our take-out point and I ask him for the car keys so I can load up some stuff.

 “Just a minute, I’ll get ’em. They’re in my pants pocket…in the other rig!”

 The other rig is ten miles upstream.

  Another possibility is hiring it done, if there is somebody trustworthy around to do it.

 That brings me to the time Erwin and I were floating the Bow River up near Calgary. It was a three-day float. We made arrangements through a local fly shop to have somebody move our vehicle to the end of the float. Somewhere in the middle of the second day we passed an area that looked as if it was a developed campground. There were several vehicles parked in different locations among the cottonwoods along the north bank of the river. One vehicle looked vaguely familiar.

 “Hey Erwin, that looks just like your rig over there in the trees?”

“Kind of looks like mine doesn’t it? Well, I’m pretty sure they made more than one of those that year.”

The next day at the take-out, there was no truck in evidence. There were no cell phones in those days. So the first task was to hitch a ride to the nearest phone. That happened to be a farm house five miles down up the gravel road in the general direction of Calgary.

 “About the only people who stop by to use the phone are the ones who seem to be marooned down there where people take their boats out of the river above the dam,” the lady of the house said as she ushered me inside and showed me the telephone. It took several calls back and forth with the people at the fly shop to ascertain who, exactly, had finally moved the vehicle. That’s when it became apparent that the truck we had seen far upriver the day before, was the one we wanted.

 Erwin did the honors and stood by the road with his thumb out until another Good Samaritan came along to pick him up and take him to his truck. Meanwhile, I hitched back to the take-out to stand guard over our gear, as if someone might come along and rip us off. We had seen no other anglers during the float. There were no vehicles at the take-out. And I did not see another human being after being dropped off until I saw Erwin at the wheel of his truck several hours later.

Sometimes the shuttle can be just plain lonely business for all involved.

On another day, years ago, I was guiding on Rock Creek. Going on the recommendation of someone I had no reason to doubt, I handed my car keys to a young entrepreneur who was hanging around the Rock Creek Mercantile during the salmon fly hatch, trying snag jobs shuttling vehicles from put-in to take-out along various stretches up and down the creek. The young fellow seemed fine, and he assured me he would have the truck in the right place at the right time.

The road passes within sight of the stream many times on the part of of Rock Creek that we were fishing that day and it is common to see traffic on that road during that time of year, especially. Generally, that traffic is made up of vehicles, mostly trucks, towing rafts on trailers upstream, and towing empty trailers downstream. If it is particularly dry and warm, dust kicked up by those vehicles can sometimes hover over the road like a toxic yellow cloud.

 My customers that day were quite amused, I suppose, as they watched me watch my truck going up and down the road quite regularly throughout the day. We saw it again and again, usually at a high rate of speed, leaving a plume of dust in its wake. Only when a fierce, but brief, rainstorm dropped into Rock Creek in mid-afternoon did the dust from the road begin to abate.

 At day’s end, my truck was parked where it was supposed to be, but the short shuttle had somehow added about 120 miles to the odometer. The dry clothes my customers had left in the cab so they could get out of their waders at the end of the float had been thrown into the open pick-up box, apparently to accommodate extra passengers. The clothes were a sodden tangle. There were also a dozen empty beer cans rattling around on the floor of the truck, indicating that the shuttler and his friends had apparently made the days work into something of a festive event. And, of course, since those additional miles were on the Rock Creek Road which is know to be tough on vehicles, that day probably took years off the life of the truck.

Sometimes, of course, you can count on one-person hitchhiking back to get the vehicle at the end of the day, especially on bright, warm, sunny days when you wouldn’t mind the walk anyway. Those are the days when the rides come easily and people are always interested to know about the fishing and the floating if the hitcher is wearing part of the uniform, like a fishing vest or chest waders.

But I know from experience that you cannot count on hitching on rainy or snowy days, rarely in the dark, and never in the dark on the Swan highway near the Swan River Youth Camp in those days where that was operated as an extension of the Montana prison system. When the Swan River camp was in full operation, it was illegal to hitchhike in the immediate vicinity, anyway. Several very obvious signs warned motorists not to pick up hitchhikers. But there were a few times I can remember when my crowd just kind of let that little fact slip our minds. The Swan Highway can be a long, dark, cold and very lonely place to take a seven or eight mile stroll on a fall evening. We know that from bitter experience.

 The arrival on the scene of mountain bikes added a new wrinkle to the shuttle business. When there is any doubt about the shuttle, no drivers available for example, or just one vehicle, we would always just throw in the mountain bike and one of us would pedal one way or the other. The big drawback was that it was easier to put the ride off till after the float, at which time we were likely to be dog-tired and in no mood to pump a dozen or so miles in any direction. And of course, that’s when the rain always starts.

 For every shuttle story I repeat, two or three more occur to me, and each one seems to reflect more dunderheadedness than the last. I guess I’ll have to just saved the rest for another rainy day.

 Meanwhile, times have changed. Almost any river one chooses to float has a shuttle service or two available, offering to handle the whole process so anglers and other floaters can just concentrate on having fun. It has become a serious business for some, and the good ones take pride in having everything work out perfectly for the customer. Some I know even wash the windows and vacuum the vehicle for customers. And sometimes, the person who answers the phone at a shuttle service might just also be able to provide a tip or two about what to expect from a day on the water.

Joe Cantrell down in St. Regis is one such operator. He is always happy to arrange a shuttle and at the same time provide a rundown on what’s happening with the bugs on the river, what the water conditions are, and he might even share a story or two about the big ones that have gotten away lately. Of course he wouldn’t mind if you bought some flies or equipment in his fly shop, either.

 In the end, however you decide to handle your shuttle, if you are going to do it with your own sweat, or pay for it with actual money, it’s still a small price to pay for any day on the water. And it ain’t rocket science.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Steelhead River

A Steelhead River

I guess it’s no secret that steelhead fishing can have an addictive quality to it. I think I recognized that long ago, and maybe that’s why I waited until late in life to do more than occasionally dabble in the whole business.

 

Beginning almost thirty years ago, I made a few clumsy forays to the steelhead waters of the nearby Idaho panhandle, but never put in the time needed to feel like I had any real idea what I was doing.

 

I had never seen a steelhead until my first trip over to the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho one December day long ago with local experts Steelhead Steve Stergios and his fishing buddy, Pat Robins, the Doctor of Steelheading. Sadly, both Steve and Pat are gone from the river now, but their spirits endure in the hearts and memories of many who they introduced to the mysteries of the steelhead.

 

I don’t remember the name of the hole we stopped at, but all the places known to harbor steelhead have names that are generally used by the people who fish there. If you aren’t familiar with the long windy road, the highway closely follows the rivers all the way from the first encounter with the Lochsa west of Lolo Pass to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers at Lewiston. The river is often so close to the road that it would almost be possible to complete a cast to the river from the open window of a passing vehicle. The place we stopped had room for a couple of vehicles to park next to the highway. Steve and Pat stood atop the riverbank, just on the far side of a highway guardrail to give me my first tutorial.

 

We weren’t five minutes into the basic casting demonstration when Steve hooked the first steelhead of the day and I got to watch as he played the beautiful creature into the net, very adeptly handled by Pat. In no time, the hook was carefully extracted from upper jaw of the brilliantly colored fish and it was released back into the cold, dark water. It took my breath away.

 

Many years later, after another pair of steelheading friends, Butch and Sundance, took me under their collective wings and taught me at last how to get the job done, I finally landed my first steelhead on my own.

 

That’s what ruined me. Now I have to go every year when the time seems right.

 

Two weeks ago, Slats and I met up with old friends Erwin and Sleepy for a couple of days of steelheading. Erwin and Sleepy were alternating between fishing from a drift boat and wade-fishing, or “fishing by hand,” as Erwin used to refer to it. Slats and I were boatless, so we spent our time fishing water that allowed us room to wade and cast our fly rods without too regularly getting tangled up in the stream bank brush on our backcasts.

Solitude is hard to find

Solitude is hard to find

 

One of the things that an angler gets used to when heading to steelhead waters is that solitude is in short supply. There is often a fairly narrow window of opportunity when the big fish are in the part of the river easiest to get to from our side of the mountains. It sometimes seems like everyone from Montana shows up over there in Idaho on the same day and at the same hole.

 

The deal is that the anglers are all at the same place because the fish are, too. And, once you sort of get a grip on the protocols, and learn how to stake out a place on the river without creating conflict, it’s not so bad.

 

Then you just start fishing. You cast, and you cast again. Sometimes you might get your gear hung up on something on the bottom and have to replace a fly or two. And then you keep casting. You may cast a thousand times without getting so much as a nudge. You may do that while the person just upstream or downstream from you has landed a fish, or two or three of them. Or, you may be able to see six or eight other anglers and not one of them catches a fish for an entire day. But you all keep at it because you know the fish are there.

Time to re-rig

Time to re-rig

 

Slats and I worked a hundred yard stretch of river for six hours our first day. We watched several beautiful steelhead being caught and released just upstream of us. And late in the day I hooked up with one. The wonderful sensation of the big, broad shouldered fish, swiping at the fly, feeling the hook, and turning to head away and downstream in a fraction of a second. Two, maybe three seconds later, my line went slack.

Keep Casting

Keep Casting

 

My response to that turn of events was a unique combination of unintelligible profanity, arm waving and fist shaking, followed by me slogging ashore and sitting down in a heap on the bank to collect my thoughts. And, yes, I was pleased when I examined the end of my leader where the fly had been attached. The fly was gone. The squiggly bit of leader at the end of the line made it clear that my carefully tied knot had failed.

 

AARGH!

 

At the end of the day, we debriefed with Erwin and Sleepy and heard tales of the several steelhead they had boated, and Sleepy offered me some assistance.

 

“I’ll be holding a knot-tying clinic back in the motel tonight, right after dinner. It might be a good idea if you took it in. It doesn’t hurt to brush up on those things, you know,” he said.

 

Bright and early, we were back in our places the next day. For the first couple of hours, we cleaned ice off our lines and out of the line guides frequently. Then, with the day warming up, we kept at it, casting, casting, casting.

 

Standing there, feeling the frigid water wrapping around your legs, and imagining the fly you are casting as it bounces along the boulder-strewn river bottom, it is easy to slip into a sort of trance, where nothing exists except you and the river and the fish you visualize finning silently down there in the dark.

 

Late that afternoon, I had decided it was time to call it a day. I shouted as much to Slats a few dozen yards upstream.

 

“Just this last cast,” I said to myself.

 

That magical tug came again then. The line tightened and pulled away hard. I set the hook hard, three times. The line did not break. The knot did not fail. And Slats was soon at my side with the net.

 

"Fish On!"

“Fish On!”

That evening, there was no kidding about bad knots. It was just a little bit of joy shared by all. And I know that’s true, even though I was thinking that it would be awfully nice for Slats to hook up, too.

 

On the third day, he did. But this time, it was in the boat with Sleepy at the oars. Of course it became “Captain” Sleepy as soon as we were in the boat with him.

 

We were all surprised when Slats called “Fish on!”

 

And things got a bit confused as Captain Sleepy tried to handle the net from his place at the oars while I tried to snap photos of the whole event from my seat in the rear.

"Duck!"

“Duck!”

 

Slats deftly played the big fish. It made a hard run downstream and Slats had to work hard to get it back to the boat. I snapped pictures with my phone while Sleepy tried to duck out of the way and net the fish at the same time.

 

The result? Several photos of Slats holding a bending fly rod as he fought the fish, a photo of Captain Sleepy ducking out of the way, and several partial photos of Sleepy’s arm, part of a net with a fish in it, and several photos with my thumb obscuring almost everything. I did not get a photo of Slats with the fish before he slipped it from the net, and back into the river.

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!

 

But the trip was complete.

 

A week later, Slats and I went back and did the same thing again.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin after a good day.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin
after a good day.

 

Now we are making plans for the fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

After the big tussle, safely in the net.

After the big tussle, safely in the net.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Spots has a way of doing that.

 

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

 

I’ll fish with Spots anytime.

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

 

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

 

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

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Solving World Problems

Solving World Problems

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Challenge

The Challenge

A Kind-Heaerted Solution

A Kind-Hearted Solution

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.