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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Morning on the River

January Morning on the River

 

“I think it is about cold enough for the river to be crowded with geese. Are you interested in a cold Wednesday on the river?”

 

“You missed an incredible day on the river in terms of cold, ice, ducks, and geese. The two of us limited on geese (I don’t get them to decoy that well very often) and ended up with 12 mallards.”

 

“So what is the best way to contact you should another waterfowl emergency occur?”

 

“I have a boat. I’ve got all the gear we’ll need. I know a place where the ducks and geese sometimes fall out of the sky like rain. And I have a yellow lab who wants to retrieve all of the ducks you may happen to shoot.”

 

That is the string of emails I received from friend Elrod over the last couple of weeks. He was persistent. He finally got my attention with the yellow lab part. Ever since the dozen years I spent with my old pal Buster, I have had a weak spot for yellow labs.

 

Now, I want to make it clear that I have never been really serious about this waterfowl hunting business. Yes, every year for the last forty or so, a group of us has gathered to mark the opening day of waterfowl season up in the Swan Valley. And there was a time when we all tried to be real serious about doing it all right, at least for that weekend.

 

We built blinds and put out decoys in arrangements that Homer and Erwin assured the rest of us would be most attractive to the real birds we hoped to lure in. We deferred to Homer and Erwin, and to Dr. Brooks and Dr.Demento in those early days when it came to the business of waterfowl strategy because they all came from the Midwest where everyone hunted waterfowl from cradle to grave. These days, Homer and Erwin are the ones who still put in a thoroughly professional opening day of hunting. I, on the other hand, have drifted away from waterfowl hunting.

 

Until I started receiving those emails from Elrod, I had not even thought about the fact that waterfowl season lingers deep into winter and after the New Year.

 

Then, all of a sudden I heard my alarm ring at an unusually early hour last weekend and a while later I was loading my gear into the back of Elrod’s truck which was already packed with stacks of decoys, and bags and buckets of other hunting paraphernalia. Kirby, the yellow lab, sat on the back seat of the extended cab, squirming and panting a little with excitement for the day ahead. It would take us an hour to drive to the spot where we would put the boat into the river. It had the feeling of whole new experience for me, like a kid on his first day at a new school.

 

Stepping out of the truck we were immediately greeted by the deep pure sounds of several owls signaling back and forth from upstream, downstream, and across the river.

 

“Barred owls,” Elrod said. And I assumed he was right, him being a wildlife biologist by trade, and all.

 

It was still dark and plenty cold when we slipped the boat, now piled high with gear, into the river. Once Elrod, Kirby, and I had settled in, we headed downriver, Elrod expertly guiding the boat without benefit of artificial light. He knew the channel.

 

Ducks and geese rose from the shadows as we moved past, gabbling and honking. We could make out their dark forms against the overcast sky that was just faintly beginning to lighten.

 

Fifteen or twenty minutes downriver Elrod guided the boat to shore where we disembarked and unloaded the entire cargo. Elrod had some clever portable blinds stashed in the brush a couple hundred yards away. The blinds were wire cylinders maybe three feet in diameter and five feet high with willows and other vegetation woven through the mesh. We carted those to the riverbank and installed them near enough to each other that we would be able to communicate with a stage whisper. Elrod provided a plastic bucked with a padded seat for each blind.

 

Next we set out decoys. I think there were two-dozen big goose decoys that we arranged in a row right along the edge of the water upstream of the blinds. Directly in front of the blind were another dozen floating goose decoys. Upstream a dozen mallard decoys bobbed along in the current. Elrod also located a robo-duck among the mallards mounted on a stake its wings churning away in response to Elrod’s remote control.

Too Good To Resist

Too Good To Resist

 

I was all set to go, but Elrod wasn’t quite done.

 

“In the bucket there is a camouflage net to put over the blind, and some camo for you, too.”

 

It hadn’t dawned on me that my regular old green and brown camo wouldn’t do the trick. The camo in the bucket for the blind and for me was mottled white and brown, like the snow on the ground.

 

Birds were already showing interest in the decoys be the time we were set up. It didn’t take long for groups of ducks to get a little too close to Elrod for their own good. When they did that, Elrod’s shooting was generally true. Yes, I had a few chances too. I consoled myself by deciding this was just a time do get in some practice.

 

Kirby was in lab heaven every time Elrod dropped a duck.

 

It was not a day when the ducks and geese fell like rain. But there were plenty of them in sight almost all day long, often teasing us by checking out our decoys closely then dropping into the river in a backwater a couple hundred yards upstream. When geese were in the air, Elrod produced another tool that I had not seen before. On an old casting rod he had mounted what looked like a black kite of some kind. He held high in the air an waved it in a way that made it appear to be the flapping wings of a Canada goose. And it worked!

 

Geese actually paid attention to it, though very few geese came within range during the day, there were many close calls. And there was one goose that came a little too close. Elrod insisted that mine had been the shot that knocked it down, but I was not so sure of that. And Kirby didn’t care who shot it. He took it straight back to Elrod.

 

Now it can get a little cold, sitting more or less motionless in a blind along a river on a January day, and after a while I noticed that I really could not feel my feet any longer. My insulated waders were still hanging on a nail in the garage up at Swan Lake, and I was wearing a pair of thin hip boots with a couple of extra layers of socks. By early afternoon, as near as I could tell, my feet had become blocks of ice.

 

Meanwhile, Elrod and I had been watching as what appeared to be hundreds of ducks and geese settled into some still water below a steep bank, perhaps a half-mile distant upstream.

 

“If your feet are cold, maybe you ought to walk up there and see if you can jump those birds. That might get the blood moving in your feet, and maybe you’ll get a shot or send them this way, at least, Elrod suggested.

 

I eagerly abandoned the blind and with little feeling in my feet began the task of post-holing my way through crusted, calf-deep snow a few yards back from the river bank and upstream toward the birds.

 

Slowly, the feeling came back to my feet, but every step seemed to echo across the water. Elrod later told me that he could still hear my crunching steps when I was a quarter-mile away. And the birds did, too. Even though I was out of sight behind a screen of trees and brush, I made enough of a racket to chase them all away. When I stepped out onto the bank above where the birds should have been on the river, they were long gone.

 

Back at the blind, things were quieting down. A few more birds came in. Elrod took a couple more. I got some much-needed practice. And Kirby earned his keep.

Kirby and Elrod  Waiting

Kirby and Elrod Waiting

 

When the time came to pick up the gear and head for home it came with great sense of satisfaction for a day well spent with good company, a fine dog, in a beautiful place.

 

I might just have to get serious about this waterfowl thing again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m too old for this.

That is exactly what I was thinking last Sunday morning while picking my way carefully up a steep and rocky streambed. Footing was difficult. My path took a sinuous route weaving back and forth across the little creek, every step among loose and slippery rocks requiring conscious placement. Downed logs frequently blocked the way, and I sometimes had to climb out of the creek bottom and around the log to get past it. In other spots, I was able to crawl beneath or straddle the log and sort of roll across it. My beat-up knees complained loudly to me with each step.

My route would take me roughly two miles along the stream to a faint hint of an ascending finger ridge. There I would leave the stream and hunt my way up another thousand feet through some great elk country before topping out and perhaps running into one of my hunting companions.

At least, that was my plan.

There was just the little matter of the weather that I had not factored in to my personal equation for the day.

It’s not that I didn’t have fair warning. “Snow, arctic outbreak in forecast,” blared the Missoulan headline on Saturday morning. The mild autumn days we had been enjoying were expected to give way to rain, wind, snow, and bitter cold, and not necessarily in that order.

Even so, my niece Jenny and her son Will, elk camp first-timer Elrod, and I had all been excited and enthusiastic about the hunt when we gathered at camp Saturday evening. Saturday, you may recall, was a beautiful, blue-sky day. Just the kind of day that makes you excited to see what the next one will bring.

Elrod, by the way, was duly impressed with the setup at elk camp, which I am sometimes tempted to rename Sparky World. That’s because most of the niceties related to camp are the results of Sparky’s ingenuity. The very nicely-appointed shower just a few steps from the door of the tent may be his crowning masterpiece, but there are also the combat-grade tarpaulin that protects the entire canvas wall tent, the state-of-the-art wood stove that replaced the leaky, folding pack stove we used to depend on for warmth, the wood rick that doubles as platform to hold a five-gallon water jug, and, oh, yes, the prayer flags that flutter on the guy line above the front flap, visible from the road a quarter mile away. Sparky and Walleye, my partners in the camp, had home duties last weekend, thus making camp available for our little group.

“Do you really use that shower?” Elrod asked in disbelief.

“Some of us do. Sparky and me, anyway. Walleye hasn’t used it yet, “ I replied.

During dinner, we sketched out a plan for Sunday’s hunt.  We planned one of our standard assaults on the elk country above camp with hunters converging on a spot where elk are known to cross from one little drainage to another. The hope, of course, was that if one of us moved some elk around, the elk might just head straight for the other hunters. Simple enough.

When Elrod stepped out of the tent on Sunday morning to assess the weather, he came back in quickly.

“Man, those clouds are really moving up there this morning. Something’s coming our way pretty quick,” he warned.

The weather came a couple of hours later when we were all toiling along on our separate paths toward the place where those paths might converge.

I heard the approaching wind before I felt it. The noise rumbled off the rockslides and slopes above the little creek where I was moving along ever upward. It reminded me of the sound of one of those bombers that used to come over us while pheasant hunting east of the mountains, except that the sound did not come and go in an instant. Instead, the rumble kept building until it became a fierce, relentless wind.

Trees along the creek and up the steep slopes began to wave wildly. The wind was now punctuated with the cracks and pops of stressed fiber, branches, and twigs breaking away as the trees were rocked violently.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was not in a good location for such a wind. The number of great trees, uprooted and spanning the little canyon, was a testament to that concern. So, with each step I not only watched where I put my feet, I also looked up to size up which tree might potentially come crashing down on me and where I might run to escape it. Of course, I also realized that the notion of running was a bit wishful. “Scramble out of the way” would be a more appropriate way to think of it.

I became much more concerned about the present danger than about keeping my eye out for movement or elk shapes. Soon, it dawned on me that it might be safer on the slope above than down in the creek bottom. The diameter of the trees would be smaller, and there was room to move on the elk trails that crisscross the slope for nearly a thousand feet to the ridge top. I left the streambed and began to climb.

And it started to rain.

The din of the forest shuddering in the wind continued as I climbed, but when I looked up to the over story to assess the danger of falling trees, I was relieved to see that trees were spaced well enough that I would be able to scramble out of the way if one fell.

That’s when I saw the elk, and all other concerns fell away. Two cows stared down the slope at me from perhaps seventy yards. They certainly couldn’t hear me or catch my scent with the wind heading away from them. But they did see me, and they watched curiously for the moment. I could see flashes of the tawny sides and creamy rumps of several other elk in the brush.

I raised my rifle to my shoulder to examine the elk through the scope and tried to determine whether there was a bull in the bunch. I had no cow tag, so I needed antlers with brow tines. I couldn’t see any antlers in my scope. But the proximity of elk had me on high alert. My heart was beating so loudly that I thought someone standing next to me might hear it.

Then the elk, apparently satisfied that I was not something they wanted to be associated with, hurried off up the slope and away from me. I, in turn, began to climb more quickly, hoping to get ahead of them and cut them off as they crossed the ridge high above.

Rain continued. Wind continued. And my way finally leveled out. I walked through patches of snow with a week’s worth of old elk tracks, but no sign of the elk I had seen.  I tiptoed back and forth from one side of the long, relatively flat ridge to the other. On either side, I could look down through the tangled forest where elk could be, just out of view.   I am not a fan of hunting in cold, sleety rain, but I figured I needed to keep going in case our strategy actually worked.

Time flies when you are elk hunting, even on those cold, wet, windy, and generally miserable days when you wonder if you are getting too old for the whole deal. But as morning slipped into early afternoon, those thoughts had blown away with the wind.

Even so, I was tickled to see a couple of hunter orange stocking caps bobbing my way through the forest. I knew it was Jenny and Will.  There were three big grins when we got close enough to see each other’s faces. We swapped stories, and later,  when Elrod joined us, we told them all again.

Too old for this? Not a chance.

HUNTING CAN BE FUN

 

The plan was to be where we think the elk like to be this time of year at daylight. Of course, that’s always the plan. The idea is to be up there among the elk while they are still out in the open or on the edges of open areas feeding on lush grass. We want to get to them be there before they move into the thick cover of dark timber on the north sides of the ridges.

Sometimes it works out.

We hit the trail a good two hours before daylight to complete the long climb in time. After an ungodly early alarm and a wolfed-down breakfast of yogurt and toast, we climbed into the truck and left camp with Sparky at the wheel. He slowed and stopped, we bumped fists, and I slipped out of the truck and headed off uphill. Sparky continued up the road a couple of miles before parking the truck and beginning his own long dark climb. We had loose plans to rendezvous in the general vicinity of a familiar trail junction in early afternoon. Failing that, I knew where the truck would be parked.

Even after more than fifty years of those solitary early morning walks in the darkness, my mind still dances with one imagined scenario after another of what awaits somewhere near the top of the mountain.

In one, a bull elk has taken up residence beneath a huge, gnarly old Doug fir that stands alone in the middle of a grassy park just below the high point on the south side of the ridge. The bull does not sense my approach. The wind is downhill, in my face. My footsteps are almost soundless. I have plenty of time to prepare to shoot. The haul out will be relatively direct and downhill. Sparky and I will be able to get the quartered elk out of the woods in two trips each up and back down the long hill with pack frames loaded with meat.

In another, I walk through that meadow and settle in at a good vantage point on the north side of the ridge where elk will pass as they move from grassy slopes to cover for the day. I watch as a gang of elk files by forty and fifty yards downslope,  oblivious to my presence. I wait after the last cow and calf move on into the woods and the young bull trailing along behind shows itself.  I will have plenty of time to take a good shot. This elk will be a bit more difficult to retrieve. We will have to haul it uphill before we take it back down the other side of the mountain. But it still won’t be too difficult.

In between these pleasant imaginings, I move upward in the predawn fog, keenly aware of my legs, my sometimes-aching knees, and my breathing. I stop frequently for short breaks and to scan the way ahead in the beam of my headlamp. I listen for the sound of broken twigs and branches and the thumping of hooves of alarmed animals.  I take note of the chattering of squirrels and the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. I pay attention to the direction of the wind, hoping the downslope breeze will continue.

By daylight, I am above the blanket of fog that laps at the surrounding mountains like a lake far below. The imagined bull elk does not materialize in the meadow where I had placed it in my minds eye. After waiting for some time at the spot where I planned to watch the elk parade past me, it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen.

That’s when I remembered a discussion with Sparky the previous evening.

“You know, as we get older, it might be a good idea to give some thought to changing our tactics from trying to walk elk into submission to just finding a good spot and watching and waiting as long as we can stand it,” I had suggested.

“I know we should do that, but it’s real hard for me to sit still that long,” Sparky replied.

“What about if we had something to read? I was watching one of those awful hunting shows on the whispering channel the other day and saw a guy sitting in a deer hunting blind reading a book. Maybe we could try that.”

“Well, I did bring along a couple of issues of The Economist for bedtime reading. Maybe that would work. Do you want one ?”  I took him up on it.

So, on Saturday morning, when I came to a spot I thought might be good to just sit and watch, I sat down and pulled The Economist out of my pack. I read, watched, read some more, watched some more, and maybe snoozed some. I couldn’t help wondering what somebody who happened by and encountered me reading the magazine would think. The thought mad e me smile. But I couldn’t sit as long as I would have liked. Eventually, I had to get up and start moving again. After all, an elk might be right around the next corner.

Much later in the day, I was quietly making my way across the broad back of a long e ridge when I heard a gentle whistle . I turned to see Sparky heading my way. We exchanged reports. Sparky had actually seen a couple of bull elk but had no decent opportunity for a shot. He was pretty excited about that, and his excitement was contagious. I felt reinvigorated when we headed out on different paths.

Ten hours after we had parted ways in the early morning darkness, we converged on the truck. We again swapped stories and then headed back to camp, tired and satisfied. Sparky allowed as how he was glad he hadn’t filled his tag on the first day of the season.

“This is too much fun. I don’t want it to be over that soon,” he said.

I feel that way, too. The fun has just begun.

 

BLAZING ELK

 “MISSOULA ELK SEETHE, MOISTURE FANS BLAZE!”

That, folks, was the headline for a story about western Montana local hunting prospects in a regional outdoor publication twenty-five years ago this week. That would have been the week before the opening day of general hunting season just as it is this year. I remember that even way back then when I may have still had most of my marbles, I found the headline incomprehensible. Of course, the accompanying text didn’t have anything to do with “seething elk,” but I felt bad for the guy who wrote the story because he would be held responsible for the headline. You see, the people who write the stories, or columns like the one you are reading do not write the headlines. That comes from somebody at a desk who is manufacturing headline after headline and may not have even taken a close look at the story or opinion piece in question. I find it interesting that I remember that headline after all these years, and that I still want to advocate for a somewhat calmer approach to general hunting season that stars this weekend.

I know that’s a difficult thing to ask of folks who have been waiting months, or even years for this weekend if this happens to be their first hunting season.

The waiting and complaining for lots of folks who have been chained to desks all year is just about over. Most of my friends got the permits they were hoping for, so there isn’t much griping about the fairness of it all this year. Sparky and I sighted-in our rifles earlier this week, and saw several friends out at the range doing the same thing. Other friends have been doing some pre-season scouting and I’m sure they will share everything they learn with those of us who haven’t done any. And now it’s just get the gear together and get ready to go.

Which brings me back to the headline I mentioned.  What is going to be seething in the next few weeks, and especially on the opening weekend and a few days thereafter, are the woods and prairies of Montana.  They will be seething with eager, excited hunters, many of whom have spent little or no time afield the rest of the year.

Farmers, ranchers and other landowners who live much of the year in relative seclusion, with occasional visits from friends and neighbors, will suddenly find themselves besieged by strangers, seeking permission to wander their property with loaded guns. For many of those folks, this is probably the most stressful time of year, rivaled perhaps only by the days of calving, lambing, or harvest.

For lots of good reasons, many of those landowners no longer grant permission to everyone who comes along. That is a sad state of affairs that, in turn, tends to squeeze many hunters onto public lands. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We do have lots of great places to hunt on public land around here. Even so, hunters should be prepared to deal with the fact that the solitary hunting experience isn’t all that easy to come by. Solitude becomes greater as the distance from the roads and the trailheads increases, and that takes time and effort.

So I’m just telling you, if you happen to be kind of new to the game, and if you plan to hunt in a popular area, be prepared for crowds, and don’t get upset because others have showed up at your favorite spot.  They have a right to be there just as you do.

While I’m at it, let me assert the privilege of age and provide a few more pearls of unsolicited advice.

Be courteous and be safety conscious. Know exactly what your weapon is capable of, what you are shooting at, and what lies is behind your target. DO NOT POINT IT AT ANYTHING YOU DON’T INTEND TO SHOOT!

If you are lucky enough to hunt private land, close the gates, don’t drive off the roads, stay away from the livestock and buildings, and be twice as cautious and conscientious as the landowner asked you to be.

If you wound an animal, follow it until you can’t follow it anymore, whether you have managed to convince yourself it is just a nick, or not.  And if you happen to mess up a kill, and destroy meat, that’s too bad, don’t you dare abandon that animal in the field.

Never forget that the business of hunting and possibly killing another living thing is serious business, indeed. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in this age-old ritual of autumn and we are obligated not to screw it up for other people.

So, do not be one of the bozos who start plugging away from the highway at a bunch of confused elk in the middle of a rancher’s posted alfalfa field.  If you do it, you are a bozo forever, and it makes it hard on all the rest of us.

A much better option is to get out of your vehicle, however distasteful that may be, and bust your way up some thick, overgrown drainage that nobody in his or her right mind would want to visit.  That’s where you are likely to find the deer and elk anyway, once the season begins.

Now, if my pal Sparky’s alarm clock works next Saturday morning, we will be getting up a couple of hours before dawn in the comfort of our palatial wall tent at the end of a picturesque valley somewhere in western Montana. We will have a nice cup of coffee and maybe a bowl of oatmeal. Then we will step out the front door of the tent into the chill of the mountain dawn and march off into the hills for one more hunting season.

I’m pretty sure the elk won’t be “seething” in our hunting area, but I know there will be a few around. That’s all any of us can really ask.

Good Hunting.