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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere in the dead of winter when folks start to feel a little cranky and the mullygrumps come creeping in, or perhaps when the simple yen for a balmy ocean breeze becomes too much to resist, there is a quiet exodus from the land of the Big Sky. It’s the time of year when people who can, often sneak away to warmer climes for a week or two, and return later, refreshed and revitalized, to finish out the winter and charge ahead into the rest of the year.

 

Some go to Hawaii, Mexico, the Bahamas, or Belize. Others just head to southern Utah, Arizona, or even Florida. And some of us go to California. That’s why I am sharing these thoughts with you from a house in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay and the City of the same name.

 

It has become something of a mini tradition for me to travel to the Bay Area about this time of the winter to visit my brother Steve, celebrate his birthday, and take advantage of his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, traipsing all over the wonderful public lands close to his home in Berkeley. Steve has been exploring that country nearly every weekend since he finished college and went to work teaching at UC Berkeley somewhere close to four decades ago, so he knows lots of what he calls “secret” places. And I get to be the beneficiary of that knowledge on my annual trips.

 

We had barely finished our hug of greeting at the Oakland airport last week when he launched right in.

 

“Do you want to go home and take a nap or anything, or should we plan on heading right out?”

 

He’s always eager to see me, and to hit the trail.

 

So, barely six hours after son Sander had dropped me off at the airport in Missoula, I was hurrying to keep up with Steve as he followed a winding trail through oak and buckeye toward the sinuous spine of the long ridge that stands guard over the cities of the East Bay. We were only ten minutes by car from his front door, but we could just as well have been miles from civilization. We had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

 

Over the years, Steve has gotten into the habit of serving as my personal interpretive ranger, providing plant identification, interesting historical tidbits, and occasional humorous cultural observations.

My personal Ranger

My personal Ranger

 

“I’ve told you this before, but just for fun, pay attention when we meet people on the trail. Here in the East Bay, people don’t like to make eye contact. Down on the Peninsula or over in Marin and up along the coast, people are all smiles and always exchange a nice word or two,” he had instructed soon after we started our walk.

 

Sure enough, the first few people we met either looked down at the trail or straight ahead when we tried to make eye contact. Eventually we did encounter a middle-aged couple who both met our hopeful looks with smiles and the international standard words of trail greeting, “Great day to be out on the trail!”

 

“They must not be from here,” Steve suggested.

North to Sacramento Delta

North to Sacramento Delta

 

At the high point of our walk, near the northernmost end of the miles-long ridge we had climbed and followed, we stopped to take in the view. In the distance to the North, just beyond the last hills we could see, we knew we would find the expanse of the Sacramento River delta.

To the East, perhaps 10 or 15 miles distant as the crow flies, Mount Diablo presided over the surrounding hills. Beyond that, a smoggy haze enveloped the Central Valley.

Mount Diablo

Mount Diablo

 

“On a good clear day we might be able to see the golden orange tint of the fields of California Poppies on the slopes of Mount Diablo from here. And, of course, we would also be able to see the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras. That is, if there is actually snow up there to see this year,” he said, adding his reference to the ongoing drought that seems to be on the minds of everyone we talked with during my visit.

 

That first hike was in Tilden Park, one of a number of public parks and natural areas that provide miles of linked public lands along the boundaries of Berkeley, Oakland, and the other cities of the East Bay. Early in our walk, we came upon a rustic building that was identified as “Nature Lodge”, and was apparently the home of a group called the “Junior Rangers.”

What could be better than a private clubhouse for Junior Rangers?

What could be better than a private clubhouse for Junior Rangers?

 

“I seem to remember that you were pretty much of a Junior Ranger yourself when you were a kid. You were always digging around in the muck for bugs and collecting things you found in the woods. You were always more inclined to pay attention to the science of things than I ever was. Maybe when you really retire, you should become a ranger,” I said.

 

Each day of my visit, Steve took me in another direction, always seeing something new, or an old place with a new twist. And everywhere we went, there was invariably some new and unexpected beauty to experience.

 

We wandered around the Coast Range on the southern San Francisco Peninsula, where we could look down to the East on Palo Alto and the Silicon Valley from among stately redwoods, including one old monster called Methuselah. To the west, down winding canyons, we could see rugged and undeveloped reaches of coastline. That’s the day I saw my first Indian paintbrush of the year, along with a dozen or so other species that Steve rattled off, but I cannot remember.

 

Later, we headed north to poke around in cool, moss hung canyons above Bolinas, and explore along beaches and reefs between Bolinas and Point Reyes national seashore. And we returned, as we usually do for at least one day, to the high windswept slopes of Mount Tamalpais that overlooks San Francisco Bay from the South. I do had e to report that Steve’s observations regarding the friendliness of hikers and others encountered away from the Berkeley Hills was right on the money. Almost everyone we ran into seemed to ready to say hello and gush about the beauty of day and place.

Amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais

Amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais

 

Not far from the top of Tamalpais, just a short distance from a open air amphitheater where folks gather one weekend a year to enjoy an outdoor play, is quiet place that affords a commanding view in all directions. There one can find a rock bench, lovingly crafted from nearby stone, and built into the slope that I always like to visit. The bench was built in honor of Richard Festus “Dad” O’Rourke, recognized by many as the Father of Mt. Tamalpais,  the hugely popular natural and public recreation area dominating the skyline of Marin County. On a plaque above the bench, these words appear:

Give me these hills and the friends I love, I ask no other heaven. To our Dad O’Rourke in celebration of his 76th birthday, February 25, 1927, from his friends to whom he showed this heaven.” 

O"Rourke's Bench

O”Rourke’s Bench

Looking north from O'rourke's Bench

Looking north from O’rourke’s Bench

Bolinas Bay from O'Rourke's Bench

Bolinas Bay from O’Rourke’s Bench

When I see that bench, or sit there and look out at the mountain below and the ocean beyond I am reminded of the beauty and wonder that can be found almost anywhere, if we only take the time to look for it. I am glad my brother Steve has done exactly that during his years in California.  I feel real lucky to have a brother who takes the time to share something he cherishes so much with me. And it all reminds me again, how incredibly fortunate we are who live amid in the matchless beauty of Montana.

Thanks, Stevie. I think I’m ready now to come on home.

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

 

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

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

Mt. Sentinel January Bitterroot

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Solving World Problems

Solving World Problems

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Challenge

The Challenge

A Kind-Heaerted Solution

A Kind-Hearted Solution

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

 

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about wilderness and wild country. First, of course, I spend far too much time just daydreaming idly about the wilderness adventures I have been fortunate enough to experience in my time. And, when I’m not dwelling on the past, I get involved in scheming and planning future trips to favorite haunts or places I have always wanted to visit and haven’t gotten around to yet. With the years winding down now for me, I know there’s not much time to waste in marking those trips off my bucket list.

 

Many of my most wonderful memories are of the days I have spent with friends and loved ones in wild places around Montana and the west. My first tastes of such places came at a time when there was not yet a Wilderness Act or even a wilderness movement that I was particularly aware of. But from an early age I was aware that there was adventure, magic, and wonder waiting out there where the roads ended and the trails into mountains began. Many of those places have since become designated wilderness, some have not, but very clearly should be, and too many other places, once wild and beautiful, have fallen to the always-reaching tentacles of civilization. The places that remain wild keep calling me back.

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

 

Besides dreaming of, remembering, and finding new adventure in wild country, I also spend a good bit of time thinking about, reading about, and talking with friends about just what wilderness is, what it means for a place to be “wild”, and why that seems to be so important to us. Then there is the business of thinking, talking about, and strategizing to assure that more and more of it is protected. By now, several generations of wilderness enthusiasts here in Montana have spent much of their lives engaged in exactly those efforts.

 

So it should follow that I and my many friends of like mind, and the many, many Montanans who have been the foot soldiers and the grass roots movers and shakers for wilderness here should have been universally pleased by the long overdue Congressional approval of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (RMFHA) and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act (NFWPA) as 2014 drew to a close.

 

I can only speak for myself, officially anyway, and I have to admit today that I am not easy with how the whole deal played out. Yes, of course I am glad that the Front and the North Fork are now much better protected. And I really do honor the work that so many put in over so many years to realize the dream of protecting those wonderful landscapes. But, for me, the cost of protection this time seems to have been way too high. We should not have to mortgage the future for our children and grandchildren to protect something in nature that is already worthy of absolute protection on its own merits with no strings attached.

 

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was a model of collaboration and compromise, providing something for all the stakeholders while also protecting the principal economic asset for every community along the Front and a great recreational asset and tourist attraction for the entire State of Montana. Besides its tremendous and unquestionable wilderness values being protected, it seemed like everybody won on this deal. And that was before the last-second backroom machinations.

 

For those who truly believe, as Thoreau suggested, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” the RMFHA could only be faulted for not going far enough in providing protection for all the acreage that might qualify as wilderness under the letter of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Under this bill, a comparatively small area of 67,112 acres was added to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness, while an additional 208,000 acres was designated a conservation management area allowing for more flexible management and the continuation of some traditional uses not compatible with designated wilderness. Most conservationists and wilderness advocates I know supported the bill, though some wished for more protection.

 

The same goes fore the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. This legislation seems to have been hanging out there becalmed in the Horse Latitudes of lawmaking for years, waiting for something to come along to push it out of the doldrums and over the finish line. Like the RMFHA, the NFWPA (sorry about that) seems to be something of a no-brainer politically. The health of the North Fork of the Flathead River, its impossibly clear waters and near pristine water quality, the rich wildlife habitat it provides, the recreational opportunities, the integrity of Glacier National Park, and its spectacular beauty are nothing short of essential for the economic stability and prosperity of the entire Flathead Valley. So,”Duh,“ is all I can say when it comes to the logic of supporting the effort to protect it.

 

Instead of legislative horse-trading to secure the passage of these bills, this should have been a perfect example of our Congressional delegation dusting off the long-forgotten art of reaching across the aisle to join hands in accomplishing something that was clearly in everyone’s interest.

 

Now, I have no idea if the organizations or the individuals who worked so hard for so long to get these bills passed knew what was finally included in the rider to the defense appropriations bill where all of this was tucked away. But, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more than a few second thoughts had they known that wilderness study areas in eastern Montana were sacrificed, or that the possibility of much greater coal development on public land in the Bull Mountains had been encouraged and facilitated by the deal.

 

That’s because most of the people I know who believe in the importance of protecting wild country and natural systems also know that encouraging fossil fuel development flies right smack in the face of those efforts. To my way of thinking, mindlessly encouraging coal development isn’t much different from knowingly dumping toxic waste into a healthy river.

 

So often, we hear politicians and economic boosters suggesting that we always need to have a “balance” between environmental protection and economic development. I know that Senator Daines has characterized this legislation as just such a nice balance. But, if you have been paying attention to Montana history, or human history for that matter, you are probably aware that the balance between environmental protection and economic development has been out of whack since the beginning.

 

Now, even as clean water, essential for life and for economic activity as well, is becoming more and more precious and rare every day, and clean, healthy air is similarly becoming the exception rather than the rule, we continue to fall for the old “balance” argument. All one needs to do is think about the legacy of mining in Montana and the unending and extraordinarily expensive job we face of cleaning it up. Future generations are always saddled with the consequences. The legacy of coal development in Montana, by the way, has yet to be fully assessed. Despite vaunted claims about reclamation successes, I don’t think I have ever heard about a mining company that has asked to have its reclamation bond back, signifying completion of reclamation. But I do know enough about climate change to know that coal has to go sooner than later, and I have heard about polluted ground water in the wake of coal mining with desperate ramifications for residential uses and traditional agriculture as well. We don’t hear about it much these days over here in the western part of the state because it happens in eastern Montana where urban legend has it that nobody lives, or wants to, either. Truth is, some of the wildest and most beautiful country in our state lies out there in the empty part, where the Tongue and Powder Rivers bring life to the thirsty land, but not the sex appeal of the Rocky Mountain Front or the North Fork of the Flathead River.

 

For folks who think like me, wildness is indeed the preservation of the world, as Thoreau suggested, not just because of its beauty and the awe it inspires, nor because of the recreational opportunities it affords, or the spiritual nature of those experiences. It’s because we depend on wild country as the source of clean water, as reservoirs of biologic diversity and natural systems functioning relatively free from the influences of our human activities. It is in those wild places that we are able see and learn about the ways all of this creation is connected and interdependent and how it works best when we humans are least intrusive.

 

Wilderness or wildness does not exist in a vacuum. It does not stand alone and retain any lasting value other than as an artifact of some bygone time. The fabric of our landscape here in Montana and all over the world is a mosaic of the built landscape and the steadily disappearing but still interconnected and relatively untrammelled natural world. In the final analysis, it is that natural world that sustains us here on this planet. Taking care of wilderness is part of the responsibility we share in taking care of this planet and each other. It’s about keeping and being good stewards of all the parts that make this planet livable.

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

 

I really do believe this, even though most people in the world never get to experience and know wilderness in a first-hand sort of way. To many people, I’m sure wilderness is an abstract idea and little more. Yet, I think that in some way, all human lives are sustained and enriched by what wilderness or wild country provides. And I believe I could convince almost anyone of this with a few short hours atop the Continental Divide at a place like Haystack Mountain at the south end of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or perhaps from the summit of Scapegoat Peak where the Big Blackfoot, Dearborn, the South Fork of the Sun, and the South Fork of the Flathead Rivers all begin in the melting snows. Making it a priority to protect what is left of that natural wild world first and foremost, for the good of all mankind, makes perfect sense to me. Trading wilderness protection for coal development does not.

 

Wilderness is not an amenity. It is not a luxury. Wilderness is essential to our very existence.

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Creek

The Creek

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ben's after-Christmas rainbow

Ben’s after-Christmas rainbow

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

New Year's Eve-from Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-from Deer Creek Road

 

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

 

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

 

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

New Year's Eve-Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-Deer Creek Road

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

 

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

 

Progress took time.

 

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

Let’s get out there and enjoy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above The Clouds

Maybe lockdown came a little early this year. Today it seems more like a January or February thing, but I honestly don’t remember how it goes. I just know that when the days are the short and daylight is at a premium, it sometimes seems as if we have drifted into some sort of eternal twilight zone down here on the valley floor.

On the worst days, it feels as if I can taste the air I am breathing. I don’t know if that is real or imagined. But I do know that the fog and smog or whatever it is creeps stealthily into our valley, curling and twisting through the streets, enveloping trees and houses, and swallowing the hillsides around town like a giant and malevolent runaway vine. First the mountains are swallowed up by the inversion, then the buildings down the street, and finally the street itself recedes into the mist.

When that happens, it is tempting to succumb to the feeling that the whole world beyond our little town and valley must also be shrouded in the same suffocating blanket of cold, stagnant air. And it is easy to imagine that there is no escape.

So, I am grateful to friend Patrice for suggesting a walk up Mount Sentinel one day last week that served to remind me that a few hundred feet above the gritty streets of Missoula, there is still a big, wide-open sky with air to breathe that tastes and smells like nothing but just plain cold clear air.

Lake in the Sky

Lake in the Sky

There was no hint of what lay ahead for the first few hundred feet of the climb. But it was clearly evident from the boot and shoe prints frozen into the ragged patches of ice on the trail that many others had come the same way since the last dusting of snow. Where the scattered sheets of ice were thicker in the trail, the human footprints tended to skirt slightly to the sides of the slippery areas in search of better purchase. It reminded me of the way a horse trail through a wet meadow can get wider and wider as one horse or mule after another finds the footing just a bit more pleasant and sure where none have stepped before. And I forgave myself for doing the same thing because I was not interested in doing a face-plant up there.

Because I happen to walk uphill at a pace that some of my best friends suggest is “slower than it is humanly possible to walk” I quickly began to fall behind Patrice. Soon, she was drifting in and out of the fog on the slope ahead, and then for a time, she disappeared altogether.

At one point, I heard the crunch of someone coming up behind me on the trail and I stepped aside to allow passage. A young fellow strode on up the hill past me, thanking me for getting out of the way and providing the usual comments on what a nice day it is, even though we were walking through what amounted to pea soup. Soon, he, too, disappeared into the mist above me on the trail, And I perhaps grudgingly admitted to myself that it really was good to be out, fog or not.

When the time came, it was not a matter of suddenly emerging from the fog into the glare of bright sunlight.. It sneaked up on me when I suddenly realized that I could make out the contour of the fire road that girds the west side of the mountain from perhaps one hundred yards away. I could see Patrice standing there, waiting. Another couple hundred yards up the trail and I could turn around and make out the shape of the entire Missoula Valley yawning off to the west and south. When Patrice was satisfied that I was still plodding along and not lost forever in the fog, she gave a wave then turned back to the trail to continue her climb to the top.

I stopped for a moment on the trail at the point where the stone marker proclaims the high water line of Glacial Lake Missoula. With the valley below filled snugly with soft white clouds, it was easy to imagine what that lake might have looked like. My mind drifted for a bit to thinking about what it might have been like to be out on that lake on fine sunny afternoon in some kind of floatable craft, perhaps a wooden shoe.

When I returned to the climb, I could see Patrice far ahead and the young fellow beyond her, nearly to the top. From then on, I enjoyed a

On to the top

On to the top

delicious feeling with every step and every breath in that clean December air.

Before I made it to the top, I met up again with the fellow who had passed us on his way up. This time he stopped a moment on his way down, smiled, and suggested: “It’s sort of nice to see what Lake Missoula must have looked like.” I allowed as how I thought so, too.

Patrice was waiting at the top.

When I suggested to her that the fellow who passed us both seemed like a nice enough guy, she agreed. “When I mentioned how the valley filled with clouds looked like Lake Missoula must have looked, he thought that was pretty cool.”

“Yeah, he told me.”

You can judge for yourself the next time you start feeling like the world is closing in on you down here in the valley. Just take a walk up that mountain and find yourself a patch of sky.