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.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biresch3 cropped

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

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

I knew right away what he was talking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All connected by the water

All connected by the water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I feel the same way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Bunny, Not Always As Mean  As He Looks

Bunny, Not Always As Mean As He Looks

 

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

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back Into the World

I could feel it washing over me on the drive home from elk camp on Sunday afternoon.

The last day of November had dawned cold and clear, one of those sparkling mornings that come magically after unsettled days of snow and wind and plunging temperatures. On such mornings, we knew that elk would linger longer on the high open slopes where grass still pokes through the windblown and crusty snow and they can feel the welcome warmth of the sun. But thoughts of elk were fleeting for Sparky and me that morning. Our hunt was over for the year.

We did not arise in the dark and wolf down our breakfast before heading off a couple of hours before sunrise as we had on every other day that had begun for us in that canvas wall tent this hunting season. Instead, we took our time and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee, then began to methodically dismantle the camp that had been our home away from home for the preceding five weeks.

I am always surprised that we can get our entire camp setup into one pickup when the time comes to take things home. During the season, it seems to me that each week, there is more stuff in and around the tent because everyone who comes deposits a few new items to make the place just a bit homier. But, once again this year, we managed to get everything into the truck, albeit with little room to spare.

Okay, I do have to admit that this might not have been true this year had fate not intervened regarding Sparky’s very nice, but not compact, shower pavilion. The shower was fairly elaborate for a rustic camp like ours, and the pallet used for a base, the corrugated roof, and the seven-foot frame made for a bulky load. However, a couple of weeks ago, a particularly nasty wind visited our camp one day while we were out on the hunt. What was left of the shower on our return—lots of jagged shards of wood from the frame, a torn tarp flapping in the wind, and the pallet and the roof, all separated—suggested that the thing had nearly exploded. So, the parts of the shower that didn’t end up in the wood stove went home from camp earlier in the season.

A bit after noon on Sunday, Sparky and I headed down the road toward home, our hunting season behind us.

There was a time, a long time, in fact, when I experienced an acute sense of melancholy when the big game hunting season came to an end. We sometimes referred to it as the After Hunting Season Blues. I think it had to do with the weeks and months of anticipation that preceded hunting season, combined with the few short weeks of feeling the need to be out in the hills and on the hunt every possible moment, along with the intensity of paying close attention to EVERYTHING around you during those hours and days in the hills. When that was suddenly over, I faced a period of readjustment to shift gears and put it all behind for another ten or eleven months.

I said there was a time because I don’t feel that way any longer when hunting season comes to a close. Last Sunday, what I felt washing over me was something nearly the opposite of those After Hunting Season Blues. Instead, it was almost a feeling of relief, or at least of satisfaction, that I was heading home and back into the real world.

I am keenly aware of the perception among some of my friends and those who are nearest and dearest that I have demonstrated a habit of sort of checking out of daily life when hunting season rolls around. I admit that for many years I probably sacrificed much in my personal life and asked others to accommodate me to satisfy the yearning to be on the hunt.

Today, I am here to tell you that things have changed. I still have the passion to get out in the hills during the wonderful days of autumn and be part of the ancient tradition of the hunt. Those days are rich and rewarding, and the experiences shared with friends are the basic stuff of feeling alive. But these days, when the hunt is over I no longer experience that melancholy or symptoms of withdrawal. Instead, it’s a strange and delicious sense of satisfaction and calm that settles in.

That’s what I felt washing over me as Sparky and I drove home last week. In all directions, bright snowfields capped the distant ridges and the hills looked to be newly quiet and peaceful. Once we stopped to glass a promontory where a gang of elk grazed and basked in the late sun. Seeing them, I began to imagine stepping into my skis and visiting some of those high snowy places in the weeks and months ahead, where I, too, could bask in the sun and gaze off at distant peaks and valleys.

Later last Sunday, back at home, I unfolded a piece of paper my neighbor Jean had left in my door a few days earlier. It was a clipping from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader with the headline: “Good raspberry crop depends on thinning.”

Today, I am just happy to announce to friends who might have missed me over the last few weeks that I am back in the world and happy to be here. And, yes Jean, thanks for the reminder that I still need to thin my tangled raspberries.

There will be plenty of time for things like that now.