Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain


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


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

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

August Night on Scapegoat Peak


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park


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


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




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 Gifts That Last Forever.


As we close in on the eleventh hour and more than a few of you are still trying to decide on the perfect Christmas gift for someone you hold dear, I have decided to ride to the rescue. I sent out an all-points bulletin to friends and family for what they would consider to be important, great, or wonderful book title suggestions for people who are having difficulty finding just the right Christmas gift. Many of those friends have generously responded with thoughtful suggestions for books in the very broad categories of Montana and the natural world, fiction and non-fiction alike.


Christmas would not be complete for me if I did not have a new book or two waiting on the bedside stand when the Christmas things are all over. It’s always been that way, even in my earliest memories.


Each of the five kids in our family got at least one book for Christmas, and sometimes more. I still have many of those books. I have lugged them all over the map, packing and unpacking them in dorm rooms, apartments, military barracks, farmhouses, and more recently, a few houses right here on the city streets of Missoula. A place never feels quite like home until at least a special few of those books are out and accessible. And the wonder of those new books on Christmas is a special memory. There is something magic about the smell and feel of a brand new book, and the promise that comes with it of taking you to new and amazing places or introducing you to unforgettable characters.


Turning to my bookshelf as I write these words, I can immediately see the familiar cover of the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I received for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. Right next to it is Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton and Marie Sandoz’ Crazy Horse. All Christmas presents long ago, all reread from time to time since, and all influencing my view of the world in some way or another.


Most of my pals have been readers, too. I suppose that appreciation for the written word and the beauty of language and the shared enjoyment that comes from wonderful stories of all kinds were part of what made us friends in the first place and has kept us that way for all these years. I can’t remember the last time one of my pals or family members pointed me in the direction of a book that I didn’t end up enjoying, although there must be some.


Homer was the first to submit his suggestions. He is always working on reading at least one book. He wrote, “Two that should be on the required reading list for all Montanans are The Rape of the Great Plains – Northwest America, Cattle and Coal, by K. Ross Toole, and Last Stand at Rosebud Creek – Coal, Power, and People, by Michael Parfit. They are not casual reads, as you might guess or remember. Of course, there’s Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it and Other Stories, but I suppose everyone has read that. One of my all time favorites is Journal of a Trapper, 1834-1843, by Osborne Russell. And, I think we should all have a bedside copy of New and Selected Poems, Vol. One by Mary Oliver.”


Gabby provided his suggestions quickly and without commentary, but I happen to know exactly why he chose these two books. Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin, by Paul St. Pierre is a wonderful collection of honest but gentle stories about the people who carve out their livings in a remote and beautiful corner of British Columbia. Goodbye to a River, by John Graves is a deeply personal and beautifully told story of change, loss, and enduring beauty on a legendary Texas river. These are both the kind of books that you may find yourself buying extra copies of whenever you run across them in a used bookstore. You want them to give away to your friends. And that’s exactly what you do.


My son Sander also offered his suggestions without additional commentary. Guiding Elliot, by our own Robert Lee is a local favorite, especially among the guiding community. Sander is a guide, but as far as I know he does not aspire to write about any of it. He also recommends Fire and Brimstone-The North Butte Mining Disaster, by Michael Punke, a chronicle of the worst hard rock mining disaster in American history, that tells the story against a backdrop of political and social events across the State of Montana and the country, and around the world in 1917. Despite my best efforts, Sander has never really been a person who waited impatiently for the next book to come his way. So his recommendations here should be considered high praise.


Val, my older brother who may be dabbling in becoming a book reviewer now that he’s retired, offered these books: “The Painter, by Peter Heller is a compelling story, with great detail given to the fly fishing obsession of the protagonist. Also great insights, I think, into the creative process, and into one view of a shallow southwestern art market. And, Let Him Go, by Larry Watson is a good and quick read, a short double love story set in Northeastern Montana and Western North Dakota. You know some of these folks.”


Sister-in-law Mary Ann had some ideas, too. “Just slipping my addition in here, Greg – hope you don’t mind – you can take it or leave it.  The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich…biologist/observer of the homing instinct in animals but ultimately the effect it has on human happiness.  It’s Maine, not Montana, but a great reference to ‘Deer Camp’ which may ring familiar with you or your readers.”


Gimpy, who does not effuse too often about books, was firm in his assertion that, “Your list would not be complete unless you include A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.” No, it certainly wouldn’t.


Brother Steve down in Berkeley, California offers his own suggestion of just one book, Wide Open Town, by Myron Brinig. Steve says that this novel of life in a Butte-like town called Silver Bow contains writing that “is often very beautiful. And it’s especially interesting because this book was published in 1931.”


Nephew Winsor pushed the envelope with his suggestion, “The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings…for kids and adults. I just loved the setting – very different from Montana, but so rich.” Okay, Wins, it is a wonderful book, and another one of those oldies (1938) that stands the test of time.


Niece Jenny was more expansive. She suggested Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt, “A vivid picture of life on the remote Montana prairie, a woman attempting to live a traditional role, and eventually bucking tradition and leaving the ranch.  A book that both honors a life that is deeply connected to the land and shows us how hard that life is.” And she followed that up with The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. “A riveting autobiography, it’s the story of four children growing up in the West with parents who teeter on the line between non-conformism and just plain irresponsibility.  It is great storytelling, and also shows us that family love can persist, unconditionally, even in the face of terrible difficulties and questionable parenting.”


Patrice was short and to the point. “Right now, if I have to pick two of them, they would be Fools Crow, by James Welch and Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. I’d use the same three words to describe both:  haunting, rich, and beautiful.”


Roper, who happens to belong to five, yes five book clubs that I know of, could hardly be expected to pick just a couple of titles to recommend, but she gave it at try with, The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle, and Montana 1864: Indians, Immigrants, and Gold in the Territorial Year, by Ken Egan Jr.


Over dinner last weekend I asked friends Slats and Ruth what they would suggest. I already knew that one would be Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews because they had just given me their dog-eared copy of the book with instructions that I needed to read it, and I will. Maybe I’ll even provide my personal review right here when I get it read. Meanwhile, according to the cover blurb “Above all, it is a celebration of the breathtaking wilderness and the satisfaction of hard work on some of the harshest, most beautiful land in the world.” That sounds good enough for me. Then the discussion wandered to other books and, of course, James Welch came up, and the question of “how can you pick just one.” So we agreed to suggest folks read them all or choose from “Winter in the Blood,” “The Death of Jim Loney,” and “Fools Crow.”


And last, but certainly not least, Erwin, my pal of forty some years since the days when he was assigning his wrestling team to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, had just two suggestions. “I think the most important books to read about Montana, for me anyway, were This House of Sky, by Ivan Doig, and The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle. ” I don’t need to add anything to that. People will know why they’re important books once they read them.”


As for me, I’ll save my suggestions for another time. This is a pretty good list to work on right now. I’ll bet you can find a copy of almost every one of these books in one of local independent new and used bookstores. There must be a book on this list that would please even your most persnickety friend. I want to thank my family and friends for humoring me and taking the time to make some suggestions. And if anyone asks why you decided on a book for Christmas this year, just direct them to this poem from Emily Dickinson:


There is no frigate like a book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll:

How frugal is the chariot

That bears the human soul!












Above The Clouds

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

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

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

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

Lake in the Sky

Lake in the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the top

On to the top

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

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

Patrice was waiting at the top.

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

“Yeah, he told me.”

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




















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 had forgotten about all the leaves over here.”

That’s what my friend Homer said one autumn day as we crunched through a carpet of leaves on the sidewalks along one of the tree-lined streets near UM. Back in the early days of our friendship, Homer lived in Missoula, but he had been living over in the bigger sky part Big Sky Country by then and his visits to this side of the Divide have become comparatively rare. There aren’t many leaves to crackle and pop under foot on the street where he has lived since he moved away from here.

I remember noticing the same thing upon my return to Missoula and the University Area after several years away. Living where I do now near the foot of Mount Sentinel, it is hard not to notice them.

It is a bittersweet thing, of course, after those far too few short weeks of blazing color in October, that the leaves descend to ground level and demand attention.

If there are kids around all those leaves on the ground offer all kinds of possibilities. When my son Sander was a kid and we happened to be walking through the neighborhood in October, it was necessary to find the sidewalks that were deepest in leaves so we could plough through them like human ice-breakers leaving a clear path in our wake. Sometimes Sander decided to go back and forth several times to be sure we have moved them all around.

As soon as enough leaves started to fall, Sander and his friends wanted me to rake up big piles to frolic in. There were leaf forts to build, leaf caves to hide in and leaf wars to wage. The crash landings, explosions, and blizzard of thrown and kicked leaves generally redistributed the whole mess  around the yard so they were  ready to be raked again.

There were science and art projects at school involving collecting different kinds of leaves and displaying them in imaginative ways on colored paper that found a home on the refrigerator door for a while. As I recall, many of the leaves that didn’t end up there managed to sneak into every nook and cranny in the house and every article of clothing Sander had.

When I first moved to the place I live now, I tried to keep the leaves in my yard at bay by raking a few every day as they fell. I thought maybe if I didn’t, my neighbors Nancy and Jean would complain about my unkempt yard. That lasted one year.

I learned that a little breeze would replace every leaf I collected with three new ones, either falling from trees not yet shed of their colorful burden, or just blowing in from somebody else’s yard. I also noticed that my neighbors were not especially worried about getting behind on the raking.

When I was a tot living on Brooks Street, we burned the leaves in the fall. My parents did, that is. I remember my dad and mom both standing by smoldering heaps of leaves tending the smoky fires with rakes, adding more leaves until the piles burned down. I still like the smell of burning leaves.

My friend Gigi once told me about how her mother made a big production of things by baking  potatoes in the glowing ashes of burning leaves when she was a kid. She liked the smell of burning leaves, too, she said.

Those days are gone. Burning leaves has long been unthinkable in our town, and for good reason. Nowadays the City of Missoula collects those leaves. All we have to do is rake them right into the street.

The leaves on my street are all down now and the trees are bare. Many that have been raked into the street have  been fluttering back onto the lawns they were raked off of. Others have become sad and soggy piles due to our October and November rains.

One morning soon, the leaf removal army of the City of Missoula will come rumbling, clanking, and wheezing down our street. I hope when that day comes, I will have remembered to move my vehicles off the street so that I don’t have to rush out in my pajamas to get them out of the way.

Pajamas or not, it’s fun to watch the whole operation with scoops and dump trucks, sweepers, and water trucks working in a well-choreographed display. But once the army departs and the leaves are gone, the bare trees and lawns in the neighborhood sadly signal the end of something magical.

I remember another thing Homer said on that day so long ago. It went like this: “You know, it’s pretty neat to have leaves. It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid back in Illinois.”

And, it reminds me of when I was a kid right here in Missoula.