Goodbye and Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Thanksgiving Gift

 

When I’m hunting elk or deer, it usually takes me a little while to get into the “silent running” mode.  That would be the part where I creep along at a snail’s pace, sweeping my eyes over the woods around me for a tawny patch of rump, the wiggle of a fuzzy ear or the glint of an antler in the sunlight. Each step is carefully planned and placed so that not a twig will be snapped if it is humanly possible to avoid it.  What generally happens is that I go into the serious hunter mode after I have stumbled into the only elk I will be seeing on a particular day. Most often, I happen upon those elk at about the same moment that I have determined that, for one reason or another, I will not be seeing any game at all.

That’s what happened on Sunday, when, ten minutes after I had stepped out of the truck into an absolutely spectacular late-fall morning, I happened to catch a glimpse of a bunch of elk, moving quickly away from my loud and stumbling form. In the thick brush, I had to crouch down to see a collection of legs and rumps hurrying off down the slope into a snarl of dark timber. I got the make, but I couldn’t get the model on any of them, and wouldn’t have had a clear shot if I did. After I saw those elk, I became a quiet, stealthy hunter real quick.

I hadn’t expected to see anything at all.  Friend Mike and I got a late start and didn’t even get to the place we intended to hunt until mid-morning. But there wasn’t another soul in the area when we got there, which can be a good, or a bad sign, depending on your point of view. We chose to take it as a good one. It’s always nice to have the place to yourself, whether there is game in the offing or not.

Two or three hours was all we had so we hurriedly made up a little scheme where we would hunt in circles in opposite directions, with the ultimate goal of swinging back toward each other, and just maybe chasing an animal or two in each other’s direction. I don’t know about you, but those plans never work for me. Somebody always ends up going off in an unplanned direction for some reason. This time it was me, following what may, or may not, have been the tracks of the elk I had seen.

The snow was long gone in the place we were hunting, so when I saw those elk, I began to try to make sense of where they had gone by finding places where they had kicked up the dry, pine needle duff as they hurried away. When you are working in an area that has had more than a few elk pass through, tracking them under those conditions is not a particularly exact science, at least for me.  I could have gone off in almost any direction and followed sets of elk divots. But I chose to believe that the divots I was intent upon were the freshest.

Once I am locked in on something like that, everything else, every care, every worry, every thought that does not relate directly to the place and the elk, is suspended. The minutes fly by, and the hours are gone so quickly that it is hard to believe when I glance at my watch and note that my day is almost done, when I thought I had only been at it for a little while.

For that short time, I take temporary ownership of the little patch of the world that I am searching for game. Uphill and down, weaving through deadfall, around rock slides, slowly, cautiously, I make my way over the land drinking in the feel of it under my feet, and the smell of it. The lingering musky scent of elk stops me every once in a while, but in the light, shifting breeze, the smell just teases me, then disappears.

Twice during the few hours of hunting, I hear coyotes join in a frantic yipping chorus. At least I think they are coyotes until I hear deeper, longer notes that are unfamiliar. I don’t know the first thing about wolves, including how they sound in real time, in the real world, but I find myself wondering if I am hearing wolves celebrating a fresh kill. My imagination runs with that one, and I begin to think about what a wondrous thing it would be to actually see a wolf in that place.

Both times I heard the howling, a whiff of elk brought me back to the business at hand.  The second time, the whiff of elk was accompanied by a movement caught in the corner of my eye. Slowly, I turned my head to see what it was. A pileated woodpecker swooped silently to the base of a great old ponderosa snag, and began sizing up spots to dig away for bugs. In a moment, the “tap-tap-tapping” began in earnest.

That gaudy red woodpecker is such a stark contrast to the muted browns and yellows of the day that it takes a moment to register as a real bird. It also causes me to look at my watch and note that it is time to get back to the truck.

On the way home Mike and I talked about the coyotes we had heard, and speculated about the possibility of wolves. We talked about elk and deer and the country that were driving through, and we talked about how lucky we are to live where we do.

There are lots of good reasons to be thankful for the blessings of this life. There are family, friends, and moments of peace and happiness when they come. And there is, right up there among the good things, the chance to have a piece of wild country to yourself for a few hours on beautiful November day.

Happy Thanksgiving!