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.









There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

            The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

            The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

            Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

            I cremated Sam McGee.


            I suspect that most of you are familiar with the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” that has been recited around campfires for generations. I am often reminded of those words this time of year, with the rites of fall and hunting season upon us. This is when we join friends and family for time afield and around those campfires where we tell our own tales of strange things done right here under our big blue Montana sky.

Last week during our annual Goose Camp up at Swan Lake, we again heard the strange tale of Gabby and Gimpy and the hunting license. When the story is told, by either Gimpy or Gabby, there is always some discussion and even some disagreement about the sequence of events and the facts of the matter, and I don’t think it’s ever told in exactly the same way. So the old story always seems fresh and new enough that we can manage to laugh until we cry just about every time we hear it.

If you have read this column over the years, you may have heard this story, too. So this is a test of your memory. as well as my own.

Whatever the case, it must have seemed a strange thing when the three duck hunters heading home from a morning’s shoot rounded a bend in the Swan River one October day many years ago and saw a naked man running in place in the brush along the bank. Those hunters are probably still wondering about that fellow. If they chance to read this or have encountered a previous retelling of the tale, I hope the record will be set straight. That’s because I know who that naked man was, and what he was doing.

Gimpy and Gabby are pals of mine who have ranged the mountains and rivers of Montana together, hunting, fishing and adventuring since boyhood. In many ways they are as close as you can come to being identical twins without being related. In others they are as far apart as fire and ice.

Gimpy’s name comes from his peculiar gait, much like that of a three-legged dog, the result of old athletic injuries and multiple hip replacements. On a dance floor it makes him seem to be a better dancer than he really is. Gabby’s name comes from his enthusiastic conversational style and his keen and insightful observational skills.

Gimpy is a hunter with little or no blood lust. Hunting is an excuse to get out into the wild with his friends. He likes a good snooze in a shady spot, and is more excited about another’s success than his own. For Gabby, hunting is intense and purposeful. He has a strong sense of hunting honor and tradition, however, and sometimes when they hunt together, things get confusing, like the time I watched them both shoot at the same goose.

“Nice shot!” Gimpy shouted when the goose fell.

“What do you mean? You shot it.” Gabby shouted back.

“Couldn’t have been me, you shoot better.”

“No way, you shot an instant before me and it was a hit.”

“Nah, you got it.  I know I flinched.”

“Well that just can’t be.”

And so it went, until they finally agreed to share the kill.

On the day in question, hunting the sloughs on the Swan River had been slow so Gabby decided to explore some potholes on the far side of the river. With no boat, that meant he had to find a shallow spot to wade across. The river in that particular reach is deep and slow, so finding a decent ford took a while.

After crossing the river, Gabby reached into his pocket and found that his hunting license was not in its usual spot. He remembered he had given it to Gimpy the day before to hold while he was changing shirts. So he set off down the river to find Gimpy and spotted him snoozing on a grassy bank on the far side of that wide, deep channel.

“Hey Gimpy, you’ve got my license.”

“Huh?” Gimpy was startled from his sleep.

“You’ve got my license.  Throw it over here would you?”

The river was nearly thirty yards wide at that spot.

“What do you mean throw it over?  Get it later.”

“I might run into a game warden, throw it over here.”

Gimpy lost the argument. He carefully tied the license around a couple of shotgun shells with a piece of twine, wound up and let it fly toward Gabby.

Now Gimpy was known for having something of a cannon for an arm. So Gabby had no doubt that Gimpy would launch the license in a manner that Gabby would be able to gather it in like a high and gentle pop fly.

Instead of a pop fly, however, Gimpy had wound up and fired that missile at Gabby as though it were a fastball—no arc whatsoever.

Glunk!  It dropped short with a splash, just out of Gabby’s reach. It lit in a deep pool next to the bank and Gabby could see it drop through the cold, clear water until it was nearly out of sight when it came to rest.

“Why did you go and do that?”

“You told me to throw it.”

Gimpy watched for a while as Gabby tried unsuccessfully to snag the license with a branch but eventually lost interest and wandered away. That’s when Gabby took off his clothes and jumped into the icy water. It took three dives to retrieve the license. He was nearly blue with cold when he finally came up with the prize, so he started running in place to warm up and dry off before he put his clothes back on.

That’s when the hunters came around the bend in the boat. Startled, they gawked for a moment before coming closer to offer assistance.

“No thanks, everything’s fine here,” Gimpy kept running as he said it.

The hunters seemed unconvinced, but they headed away and out of sight downstream.

Gabby was still running in place a few minutes later when the concerned hunters reappeared from downstream and again inquired after his well being.

“No, really, I’m fine. Sorry you went to the trouble.”

Though they still seemed unconvinced, the hunters left for good, quizzical frowns furrowing their brows.

Later that day, when Gabby opened the license to dry it out on the stove, he noticed that it was Gimpy’s license, and not his own.

There are probably reasonable explanations, just like this, for nearly anything you see out there when you are on the hunt this fall.  After all, naked folks in the wild are a dime a dozen during hunting season. And if this story seems familiar, that’s good. It means you’ve heard it before, maybe more than once, and you’re not losing your marbles yet.

Whatever the case, enjoy your days in the field this fall, gather the stories, especially the strange ones, and cherish the memories.