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

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

I knew right away what he was talking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All connected by the water

All connected by the water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I feel the same way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Bunny, Not Always As Mean  As He Looks

Bunny, Not Always As Mean As He Looks

 

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

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

With Homer in a beautiful place, not too long ago

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sander and Grace find treasure at the "M"

Sander and Grace find treasure at the “M”

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The message is universal

The message is universal

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The other rig is ten miles upstream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Steelhead River

A Steelhead River

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Solitude is hard to find

Solitude is hard to find

 

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

 

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

 

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

Time to re-rig

Time to re-rig

 

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

Keep Casting

Keep Casting

 

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

 

AARGH!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

"Fish On!"

“Fish On!”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

"Duck!"

“Duck!”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

But the trip was complete.

 

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

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin after a good day.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin
after a good day.

 

Now we are making plans for the fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Canyon

Into the Canyon

So….did you find out this week whether or not you, someone in your family, or one of your nearest and dearest friends hit the jackpot and landed a date for a launch on the Smith River for this coming summer? Just asking.

 

This is the time of year when a common question among many Montanans of the outdoor adventure persuasion goes something like this: “ Did you get a Smith permit?” That question has become almost as familiar as the standard hunting season query:“Did you get your elk yet/”

 

When I started this blog, my pal Walleye announced quite publicly, well, to the few but loyal readers of this blog anyway, that there would be trouble if I used the new avenue of communication to inform readers about the deadlines for things like Smith River Float Permit applications. The idea, of course, was that there are already enough people vying for those precious permits, and there was no point in reminding the forgetful ones and limiting our chances for a permit at the same time.

 

Well, the deadline for those permit applications has now come and gone. Just today, before I began to tap out this missive, I checked the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website (or is it just the Montana State Parks website now? I forget), and discovered that the results are now available on line. So you can check, too.

 

Now that we are done with that, I think it will be okay to mention the Smith River in print again,  at least until the next application deadline in February 2016. That’s good because this is the time of year that Smith River dreams start to swirl in at night for those of us who have come to know and love that river.

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

Getting Ready-Camp Baker

 

It is 35 years ago now that I first floated the Smith, a river that I had only heard of in stories told in hushed and reverent tones by friends who had seen it and fished it themselves.

 

It was a much simpler time on Montana rivers back then, and especially on the Smith. There were no permits. There were no official camping spots. There was barbed wire strung across the river in a number of places over the sixty-mile float from the put-in at Camp Baker to the take-out at Eden Bridge.You didn’t have to check in or check out.People floated the river in whatever craft they could muster from Joh boats to military surplus rafts to the flimsy yellow “rubber ducky” rafts available at sporting goods stores in those days. Everything was makeshift.

 

On that first trip, I was working as a fishing guide for my pal Johnny, who happened to be co-owner of a fishing outfitting business. I had never been down the Smith before, but Johnny had been down it once, so I counted on him to keep me apprised of what to expect. It turned out that his memory wasn’t as good as I would have liked, so it was more of a case of the blind leading the blind. And it turned out to be a good learning experience for both of us.

 

We had scheduled that as a five-day trip, and each of us carried one customer, sitting on the front seat of the homemade wooden raft frames we used. All of our camping gear was piled high behind the rowing seat. We carried no camp chairs, no tables, no dining flies or big kitchen boxes. We slept on the ground in two-person tents and cooked cans of beans and Dinty Moore beef stew on our Coleman stove. There was nothing fancy about it.

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

First Night-Upper Rock Garden

 

Except for the river that is.

 

That first trip was a voyage into wonderland for me. As we slipped those miles further and further into the canyon, the world we had left behind almost ceased to exist. The canyon walls looming overhead, colors of the rock constantly changing with the light, eagles, hawks and falcons soaring overhead. I was nearly slack-jawed with awe for the whole trip. I tried to act like this sort of thing was old hat to me, but couldn’t hide how moved I was by the beauty of the place. I guess it didn’t matter because my customer, and Johnny’s customer were both blown away, too.

 

We barely noticed the occasional cabins, the fences across the river, the old ranch buildings, and other signs of human activity that occur there. And on that first trip, we didn’t know about the signs of Native American activity there, the cave paintings and pictographs on canyon and cliff walls that we became familiar with later.

 

The river itself, sometimes seeming to be a ribbon of molten silver in just the right light, otherwise a crystal clear stream, carved its way through the canyon, filled with places for trout to hide, and flies to be cast.

Looking Down On Indian Springs

Looking Down On Indian Springs

 

I don’t know now how many times I have made that float. I guided on the river for quite a few years before I ever had time during the summer to float it for my own recreation. And I have tried to take advantage of every opportunity that has come up to float it since I last took a customer down the river. So I guess I have been down way more than my fair share.

 

In all those years, and all those times down the river, no matter how nasty the weather, how bad the fishing, or how challenging the human companionship may have been from time to time, I have never failed to be awed and transported by the Smith. It’s one of those special places on the planet that just does that to people.

 

It has been that way for several generations now of my family, and my friends and their families. With my pals Homer and Erwin and Johnny, and many other leathery old hands, I spent all those years guiding on the river, and many more just enjoying it with family and friends. In recent years, another generation, my son Sander, and Homer’s kids, Malcolm and Metta have all toiled on the river as camp cooks, freighters and camp tenders, and guides themselves. The same, I imagine, is true for many other Montana families who have known the Smith, or other places that link us all to each other and to the natural world.

Three Generations

Three Generations

 

It is by now ancient history that once fly fishing and fly fishing in Montana in particular became a growth industry, the Smith became more generally known to Montanans and others from far and wide, and it suddenly was in danger of being loved to death. Overuse, conflicts with the many private landowners along the river, conflicts among river users, increased commercial use, and other factors all led to the regulated system of management and use we see today. There was no choice if the river was to be protected and the rights of the private landowners were to be respected.

 

And every February, we pay our money and we take our chances on the permit lottery.

 

But, it doesn’t end with that for those who love the Smith and those who recognize that we must protect that river and the many other irreplaceable natural treasures that we are so blessed with in Montana. That means we must never be complacent and assume that those places are safe and protected and in good hands. Rather, it is our obligation to be ever vigilant.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden

 

Now, a new menace looms over the headwaters of the Smith River in the form of a copper mine proposed for construction in the Sheep Creek drainage in the upper reaches of the river, near the put-in at Camp Baker. The legacy of hard rock mining in Montana is by and large not pretty when it comes to the environmental devastation left behind. Far too often, even in relatively modern times, with assurances and promises that especially our precious cold water resources and the living things they sustain will be protected, they have been instead despoiled, often almost beyond restoration. Required reclamation bonding proves meaningless when the mines close, the mining companies disappear, and the costs of whatever reclamation is possible far outstrip the bonds and have to be covered by the taxpayers of Montana. It has happened time and time again. And a stream, poisoned by heavy metals and toxic wastes of mining can take years or even generations to recover, if recovery is possible. History should have taught us something about this.

 

It never rains on the Smith

It never rains on the Smith

But, even as this mine has been proposed in the headwaters of one of our Montana treasures, and the promises keep coming that the mine will be safe and environmentally benign, and Montanans are again lulled to sleep with those assurances, the mining industry has recently lobbied against the stronger bonding requirements that might have provided important incentives for mining companies to keep their promises to the people of Montana. That should tell us something. There is good reason to fear for the future of the Smith River.

 

To really get the scoop on the proposed mine and the threat it poses for the Smith River, take the time to get informed, and then think about getting involved with the effort yourself. Check out the Montana Trout Unlimited website dedicated to the protection of the Smith at www.smithriverwatch.org.

 

By the way, and I know you are wondering about this, no, I did not draw a Smith River permit this year. I will have to rely on the kindness of others if I hope to see that wonderful river up close this year.

 

If you were among the fortunate ones, cherish that permit, and do what you can to protect the river.

Last Day-Going Out

Last Day-Going Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a recent wintery evening I had the opportunity to watch the movie version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In case you have not seen it, I can tell you that it has little to do with the short story of the same name by James Thurber that was required reading when I was in high school fifty years ago. In case you have neither seen the movie, nor read the short story, I am not spoiling anything if I tell you that the character Walter Mitty was a man who had a very active imagination, and his imagined life was chock full of excitement and adventure of all kinds. It comes to mind right now because of a conversation I had with my pal Casper this morning.

First we talked about the almost spring-like weather of late, which quickly led to speculation about the local cross-country skiing prospects for the next few days. Not so good, we agreed. And that, for some reason, led to us recalling another day a few years back,

That day, maybe eight or ten years ago, had started innocently when Casper and I began to talk about how our ski-touring equipment had changed over the years. We were in the parking lot at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center getting ready to take a turn on the ski trails up there.

We commented on each other’s sporty equipment and remembered back to our first forays into the cross-country ski business. It turned out that both of us had bought our first pair of cross-country skis sometime in the early or mid-’70s, right here in Missoula. Those skis were long, beautiful, dark, shiny, wood things made in Norway. They required a coat of pine tar to be laid on before applying one of a confusing array of waxes necessary for smooth operation.

“Do you remember how much time it used to take screwing around trying to get the right wax? And when you finally had a good one, the temperature would change and you would have to start all over again?” I asked.

“Yeah. It was a pain, all right. But I still have those skis,” Casper said.

“So do I. They’re just too pretty to get rid of.”

Soon, we were sliding along the trail, side-by-side, getting the feel of things on our up-to-date, light, waxless, composite skis. A light dusting of new snow squeaked and squished beneath our skis.

Since Casper and I have developed a habit over the years of engaging in a bit of good-natured one upmanship, I took the opportunity to get in a few last words.

“I suppose you know that I am genetically well-suited for cross-country skiing since my people in Norway more or less invented it,” I announced in an authoritative tone.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

“No, I don’t know that,” he replied.

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who  Is Not

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who Is Not

“They all came over from Telemark, you know. That’s a province in Norway. That’s where this whole business got its official start. Sure, people have been skiing forever wherever they had to travel over snow, but someone from Telemark gets credit for perfecting the Telemark turn, and that led to downhill skiing and the whole recreational skiing end of things. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my people,” I said.

Then I explained to him that my son Sander had been doing some research on the whole thing for a school project, and I had learned all of this from him.

“And of course you remember the movie, “The Heroes of Telemark,” don’t you?” I asked.

“Not really.”

So I proceeded to tell him about the 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II who skied down from the almost inaccessable mountains and glaciers of Telemark to sabotage a hydroelectric plant where the occupying Nazis were manufacturing the heavy water they hoped to use to produce a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t know how the science part works, but I do know it was a race against time, and the Norwegians were able to do it because they could get around those mountains on skis. It really happened,” I explained.

The next thing I knew, I was telling Casper that he could be “Knut” – that’s Richard Harris – and I would be “Rolf” – that’s Kirk Douglas – and our lap around the big loop on the ski trail would be the race to save western civilization.

“Why do you get to be Kirk Douglas?” he asked.

“He was just a short little guy with a weird dimple in his chin. Richard Harris is much better,” I explained.

Sister Sally Shows How It's Done

Sister Sally Shows How It’s Done

It wasn’t long before Casper, now Knut, was moving out ahead. Soon, he disappeared around a bend and it was 10 or 15 minutes before I again caught sight of him, waiting patiently on the side of the track.

“You’ll make it, Ole. I mean Kirk, or Rolf, or whoever you are. But aren’t you the one who knows how to blow this thing up?” he asked in a serious voice, without a trace of smile.

“I think I must have explained it all to you, just in case I didn’t make it through,” I responded.

Casper was into this now, and he didn’t wait for me to catch my breath before he took off again.

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

“Come on, Rolf! We have no time to waste!”

When I next caught up with him, he was standing at one of the trail markers with a map and a “You are here” arrow on it, trying to ascertain exactly where “here” was. Two young women skiers were standing there, also looking at it.

I pulled to a stop beside the three of them. Since I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t spot the location arrow, so I asked one of the women to point it out for me. But Casper was impatient.

“I know it’s tough, Rolf, but we have a heavy water plant to blow up. Let’s go!”

And he was on his way again with me in hot pursuit. The two women were left standing by the sign wondering, we presumed, what that was all about.

“Knut! Wait! I forgot, I’ve got all the explosives with me,” I shouted after him.

But he didn’t wait.

“I’ll do it with my bare hands if I have to!” he shouted back.

On we went until we had completed the loop and the warming hut and visitor center buildings had come into sight.

“Well, Rolf, we did it. It would have been bad for the world in general if we weren’t such top-notch skiers, and fearless to boot,” Casper said with a grin.

“We’re not quite done, Knut. In the real story, they had to ski another 400 kilometers to Sweden to get away from the Nazis.” I made that up on the spot.

Knut, As He LooksToday

Knut, As He LooksToday

“Well, that’s nice, Rolf, but I think we’ve done enough for one day. I know this skiing is in your blood and all of that, but the escape to Sweden will keep. Right now, I want to get out of these skis and get something to drink,” he said.

On the way home, we decided that one of these days it might be fun to break out those old wooden skis and save the world one more time, the good old-fashioned way.

It was not until later that old friend Noah dropped by my place to give me a book he thought I might be interested in.

“I think this book is about your people. I thought you might find it interesting.”

The book, “Skis Against the Atom,” by Knut Haukelid, told the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth. He was the very Knut who Richard Harris played in the movie. You bet I found it interesting! And when I had a chance to visit Norway and see some of the country where this story took place, it only served to fuel my imagination all the more.

No, I do not spend all my time imagining I am someone I am not, involved in some daring adventure somewhere else. I am not particularly dissatisfied with who I am, how I got here, and what life has to offer. But, from time to time, I find it to be invigorating to slip away into that other world just for a little while like Walter Mitty.

And sometimes it’s nice to have a comrade in arms, just like Casper, if only to provide a little assurance that I am not completely bazoots.

Oh, the family pictures are only marginally connected to the text, but they were fun to include.