Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Mothers are special creatures in all of nature, and if that’s true, then grandmothers fall right into the same category. That’s why it was always such a sweet privilege for me to share my thoughts about mothers and grandmothers in my weekly column for the last 27 years each Mothers’ Day. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a couple of those columns from many years ago. Of course my mother and my grandmothers are long gone from this mortal earth, but the gifts they gave and the spirit they shared with me and the rest of their progeny are with all of us every day.

 

From 1988:

 

My mother lives just down the street. We talk regularly. The other day I told her I was going fishing.

“Fishing? Haven’t you heard about the winter storm watch?”

“Yes mom, I know about the weather, but the trip is on.”

“You’re not going alone are you? There’s nothing more hare-brained than going off hunting or fishing by yourself, you know. They might not find your corpse for months.”

“No mom, I’m not going alone, I’m going with Erwin.”

“Well that’s reassuring. He has about as much common sense as you do. Neither one of you knows enough to come in out of the rain. Well I hope you have life jackets.”

“Of course we have life jackets.”

“And you wear them?”

“We’ll keep them handy Mom.”

“A lot of good that will do. You be careful!”

Such exchanges have been taking place between my mother and her children for upwards of forty years. My friend Erwin, who was full-grown when he met her, has been a target of her admonitions for nearly twenty of those years. I guess that’s because his mother lives in Minnesota and can’t get at him.

I never thought much about it before becoming a parent, but after a short career as a father, I marvel at human survival. How children manage to make it in one piece to adulthood, after plunging from near disaster to dangerous precipice to sure collision all along the way, is a matter of continual amazement. Here in Montana, the seductiveness and myriad dangers of the natural world make that survival all the more miraculous.

Admittedly our children here in Montana don’t face, at least to the same degree, the dark forces that confront children in an urban setting. No, but we do have steep cliffs, fast dark water, unpredictable weather, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, guns and all sorts of wild and exotic things waiting just outside the nursery door. Thankfully, we also have mothers to guide the way.

For many who grow up here, this is all the stuff of dreams, but for mothers, mothers like mine anyway, these same ingredients have probably been responsible for many a nightmare. Mothers after all have been saddled with the glamorless part of steering the kids through the early stages of outdoor experience.

While the dads are concentrating on the how to’s of fishing, hunting, canoeing and skiing, the moms have more often than not ended up handling the hygiene, safety, first aid, common sense and tender loving care departments, often without getting to enjoy the outdoors themselves. For this usually thankless job, mothers clearly deserve most of the credit for survival of our species. In my case anyway it happens to be so.

It was mom, after all, who got me ready for my first camping trip. She inventoried my kit and made a few suggestions, like spare socks, a raincoat and some food besides candy. When I got cold feet, she buoyed me by telling me what a good time I would have. And when I came home, elated, tired and filthy, she hugged me, told me how she missed me, and then made me disrobe and sprayed me with a garden hose before letting me in the house.

It was mom who tended the blisters and sprains, poured salve on the sunburns and scrapes and mended and replaced the tattered clothing. She’s the one who tolerated the animal carcasses in the garage, and cooked the meat, despite a distaste stemming from a childhood with wild game to eat every day.

She was the one who waited and worried when an outing went too long. And she is the one who always, always, always reminded each of us to be careful with guns, to wear our lifejackets, to watch the weather, and to drive carefully.

When we returned from one outing or another it was mom who listened to the tales of beauty and adventure with a combination of delight and wistfulness. For even as she always encouraged our comings and goings, she must have yearned to see those places and things her children had seen and she had only dreamed about.

To be sure, there was a time when her wanderings were farther, wider and more adventurous. I have seen faded photographs of her in her youth, perched on rocky summits and lounging among the wildflowers of a high, windy pass. Somehow though, with the coming of family and the tenor of the times, she left that behind her, and did her adventuring vicariously through her children. It was expected in those days.

The only thing she saved for herself was huckleberry picking. She still attacks a huckleberry patch ruthlessly and recklessly, unmindful of the scratches and scrapes from tangled brush, ignoring the burning sun. She picks huckleberries like the future of western civilization is in the balance. Her children do not advise and do not interfere.

Her grandchildren are growing up in a different world. It is a world where it is easier, more often expected for mothers to participate in the main events instead of the support roles. Those children get to share the exhilaration of the wild with their mothers, and when their mom exhorts them to tie on that life jacket, she ties her own on too, then takes the oars.

So for the mountains they never got to climb, and for the bends in the river they have not seen, I want to thank my mom and all the others just like her out there. It was they, after all, who enabled us to love this place. Happy Mothers’ Day!

 

********

From 1998.

 

The other evening, son Sander and his Grandma Helen, my Mom, went off to a band concert together at the University Theater. As they walked away together like old pals, I found myself musing on grandmas. Sander is friends with his two grandmothers in a way that I never was with mine. I admit to being just a bit jealous of the opportunity he has had to get to know them.

But I did have a grandmother who exerted, unbeknownst to her, a powerful force on my life and, I am sure, on the lives of her other 14 grandchildren.

She had lived sixty jam-packed years before I became aware of her. Those years included the trip from Norway to a homestead shack in the United States as a young girl, with intermediate stops in Iowa and Minnesota before moving to the wild country of north central Montana and happening upon a teaching job over in the Blackfeet country. Then came a chance meeting with the handsome young homestead locator who had come from the same area of Norway she came from, Telemark Province, via the gold mines and trap lines of Canada. As they say, the rest is history.

I can’t pinpoint my first memory of my grandmother. It could be the image of her, apron-clad, leaning over the wood cook stove at the family cabin up at Swan Lake. She is forking doughnuts out of a grease-spitting, cast-iron frying pan, and dipping them in a bowl of powdered sugar. She is humming the good Lutheran hymns familiar to all of her grandchildren, but especially to my siblings, and me since our dad happened to be a Lutheran preacher.

Of all her many grandchildren, I may have been the most appreciative of her doughnut expertise, I still suffer from a strong, almost irresistible, attraction for doughnuts, but nothing today compares to the anticipation I felt in the thick, sweet atmosphere of that kitchen on a summer morning.

More likely though, my first image of her is probably the one where she is sitting cross-legged on the edge of a low cut-bank at a place we used to go on the Swan River. She has on a pair of hip boots, and she is wearing a fishing vest, pockets stuffed with hooks, flies, leaders and whatever else she may have kept in there. She is topped off with one of those red felt hats we call “crushers” now. Cradled in her hands is handsome split bamboo fly rod with a black metal automatic Perrine reel.

As I remember it, Grandma is surrounded by a pack of grandchildren in the same general age group as me. The older kids and the men have disappeared up and downstream in search of trout and solitude, but Grandma seems content to hang around with the little kids and do a little fishing.

My Grandma fished with worms. That was bad enough, considering the top-quality fly gear that she used. Even worse, she couldn’t stand to bait her own hook.

The eager gaggle of grandchildren vied for the opportunity to bait Grandma’s hook. And when she caught a fish, which was common on the Swan in those days, a wave of excitement swept through the entire entourage. It was not unusual for Grandma to catch the biggest fish of all on those expeditions. The returning purists would discount it due to the means employed, but we kids and Grandma would know the truth.

When the time came, Grandma and Grandpa took me out, as they did with each grandchild, to catch my first trout on the Swan River. Grandpa didn’t even complain about me using worms. When I landed the first trout, both grandparents emitted those distinctly Norwegian chortles of glee that you can still hear sometimes at potluck dinners in church basements. Both grandparents were there, but for me it was clearly a Grandma event.

There have been many rivers, much laughter and lots of wonderful hours afield since the days with my own Grandma. But she is still with me whenever I venture out into the wild world that I have come to cherish so. She is always there, tempting me with fresh nightcrawlers. Even now, forty-five years later, I can still find the exact spot where I caught that first trout and I can remember the sound of their laughter.

I thought about this the other night when Sander marched off to that concert with his Grandma Helen.

It won’t be memories of fishing that connects him with either of his grandmas. It probably won’t be doughnuts either. But there will be something that stays with him.

With grandma Helen, it could be huckleberries.

Sander has loitered in that same kitchen at Swan Lake that I knew as a child, waiting for the next batch of huckleberry pancakes from his grandmother, and he has scouted ahead for her as she commanded a battalion of berry pickers.

Or it could be a hundred other things that she has been for him. She has cheered him on through years of basketball and soccer games. She has dutifully attended the school programs and concerts and has glowed with pride when he could finally toot a tune on his saxophone. She has nursed him through homework and treated him like visiting royalty when she thought he needed it.

Whatever the case, his grandmothers will always be there as part of who he is and who he will become. He’s a lucky kid.

And I was a lucky kid before him.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

I had just hung up the phone after negotiating a day on the river with my old friend Erwin when the phone rang. It was Erwin again.

“Did we decide who’s bringing the boat tomorrow?” he asked.

“No. I guess I didn’t even think about it.”

“Well do you have a boat we can use?”

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

I could see out the living room window from where I stood and my pickup was there with my son Sander’s fly fishing skiff sitting proudly on the attached trailer.

“Yes, I have a boat,” I replied.

“A drift boat?”

“Yes, Sander’s skiff is here. He’ll let me use it.”

I couldn’t help thinking that Erwin was getting a little picky about boats. There was a time when any floatable craft was acceptable. These days, when the water levels warrant, Erwin prefers the stability and comfort of a hard-bottomed riverboat to a raft. I do too.

It is about this time of year that boats become a topic of discussion and the focus of daydreams for me and many of my friends. With the heart of floating season looming in the weeks and months ahead, there is often a lot of activity in the boat business, buying, selling, upgrading, and adding to the fleet.

As I write these words, pal Slats is thinking about his next boat. He just sold his most recent drift boat and he’s in the market for something in more versatile raft. He almost bought on he found on Craigslist last week, but it was sold out from under him. He claims that the seller agreed to wait a day until Slats had a look at it. But money talks.

I’m always looking, and dreaming a bit, but right now I am happy with a good raft rigged for fishing. My pals have plenty in the hard boat department, and son Sander doesn’t complain too much if I borrow his once in a while.

Even so, just as I know Slats is suffering from a fairly serious case of boat lust right now, I can feel it sneaking in on me, too.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.

 

BOAT LUST is a disease folks. Modern science has not determined whether its causes are genetic or environmental, but all who study it agree that once B.L. takes hold, there is little a victim can do but ride it out or knuckle under.

I don't know how this speedboat got in here.

I don’t know how this speedboat got in here.

B.L. is characterized by an intense desire to have a boat. Not just any old boat will do. In fact, most victims, myself included, already have a boat or two at their disposal while the overwhelming urge to have another boat clutches at the chest. The disease creates a strong feeling in the victim that all future happiness is dependent upon owning and operating a new boat.

We called this the "Lead Sled," slow but sure.

We called this the “Lead Sled,” slow but sure.

The obstacles to owning the boat in question are usually significant. The first one is always money.

An easy way to spot a B.L. sufferer is to take a quick look in the back yard or garage. There you will see things like canoes up on sawhorses, usually more than one, or boat trailers and raft frames heaped unceremoniously about. Scattered around in the garage you will find oars and paddles, an outboard motor or two, and life jackets of all kinds hanging from nails and rafters. If the stuff looks like it hasn’t been used lately, look around some more. There is sure to be new gear around.

That’s because B.L. usually strikes people who use boats regularly. The particular strain of lust I am referring to involves fishing boats. I don’t know about B.L. as it pertains to ski boats or sailboats, or even white watercraft generally, but it is safe to assume that it has plenty of victims in those areas as well.

I have suffered from B.L. all my life. I have always been around boats. One boat that came into this world the same year I did, an aluminum and wood model, still bangs its way over the sandbars of the Swan River every year with me at the controls. It is a 1947 model Larsen rowboat, crafted from heavy aircraft aluminum stockpiled at the end of WWII.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

So it’s not as though there hasn’t always been a boat available at almost any time in my life, except when I was marooned at various Marine bases or stuck in a dorm in the middle of Minnesota cornfields at St. Olaf College. If I had looked around hard enough, I would have found boats in those places, too.

Early on though, I recognized a need for specialized craft. The first manifestations were crude log rafts, lashed together on the shores of mountain lakes with lengths of the heavy old phone wire left along mountain trails when lookouts were abandoned. With the advent of cheap inflatables it was a long procession of canvas and rubber concoctions.

The first was a red and white striped “two-man” model ordered from a catalog. It’s maiden voyage was down an irrigation ditch in Billings, with a portage required every hundred yards or so when the water squeezed into a culvert for a street crossing. Then came the yellow “rubber duckies”.

Those “duckies” became the stuff of barter. As long as they still held air, they were like currency. One big old “duck” for two smaller, newer ones, for example. Or maybe it was two small ones for a battered canoe. Once I even lost one to Erwin in a cribbage game.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

But usually there was a reason for any alteration of the fleet. There was a particular stretch of water, or certain water conditions, or some new comfort consideration like a place to sit, that made a new boat ideal.            With time, of course, the shortcomings of each new boat became evident. It might be tippy, or cramped, or sluggish in fast water. There was always something. So the fleet grew and changed quite often.

As Erwin has said at least 1,000 times, ” You can never have too many floatable craft.”

Not a single one in my crowd of outdoor pals disputes that. I certainly don’t, but I also know that monetary considerations sometimes interfere. Things like food, clothing and shelter are necessary for the family, for example. And that’s why, over the years, I have had to fight B.L. when it comes along. That’s why I never got a Barnegat Bay Sneak Box for duck hunting. That’s why I never got one of those folding boats to take along on trips like a piece of luggage. And that’s why I didn’t have a drift boat for a long, long time, even though I was filled with lust.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

That was going on long before drift boats became as common as magpies in Missoula. People would stop to watch when one floated by on a river, noting the graceful, pointy ended, flat-bottomed design that have long since become standard among the ever growing army of fishing guides on all of Montana’s rivers. They are easy to handle, roomy, comfortable and provide a nice stable place to stand and cast. And they are often beautifully crafted. I never knew what I was missing until the day I finally asked Stuart Williams to build me one.

For years, I had been shopping; making some calls; memorizing brochures; contemplating the accessories; and I had tried out a couple. Erwin and I carefully looked over several production models complete with waterproof dry boxes, swivel seats, handy foot-release anchor systems, the works.

One of the unwritten laws relating to dealing with BL is that a friend should generally never try to talk a friend out of buying a boat when the moment of truth arrives. A new boat, you see, is a joy to be shared by many. And, if I can convince Erwin or Slats or Homer to buy a particular boat, well then I won’t have to buy one for a while.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

The thing about B.L. is that if you can get over the first few weeks, it goes away for a year or so. Once the fishing gets really good, you don’t worry about boats. You just use what you have and get out on the water as often as you can. But you never quite forget that it’s out there, waiting to strike when the time is again right.

After all, it is a well-known fact that you never outgrow your need for boats.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

New Year's Eve-from Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-from Deer Creek Road

 

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

 

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

 

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

New Year's Eve-Deer Creek Road

New Year’s Eve-Deer Creek Road

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

 

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

 

Progress took time.

 

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

Let’s get out there and enjoy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue HeronWelcome to my new blog. On this Thanksgiving Day of 2014, I count myself blessed to be making my first posting, signifying an exciting new step in my writing life, while at the same time moving on from twenty-seven years of contributing weekly columns to the Missoulian’s Thursday Outdoor Page. My farewell column is appearing in the Missoulian today, and if you haven’t already, you can find it at Missoulian.com.

As I write these words, I cannot do so without mentioning the passing of a true champion of the wild nature that we all cherish here. I’m sure you know I’m referring to Bill Ohrmann, whose artistic vision and skillful renderings in steel, wood, and on canvas comprise a legacy that celebrates our natural world and challenges us to do much better at tending to it. I am one among many who are grateful that Bill was here for a while, and feel fortunate to have known him. I smile every time I drive past the Ohrmann place south of Drummond and see the beautifully crafted menagerie of wild critters that guard the premises. My favorite is the great blue heron.

Beginning next Thursday, I will continue providing my weekly musings, in celebration of the wonder of our great outdoors and the experiences that wait, just out there beyond our doorsteps. Meanwhile, just to provide a bit of a teaser, I have dusted off a Thanksgiving column from twenty years ago. I was surprised to find that the sentiments expressed in this old column are little changed in me today. I hope you enjoy this little trip down memory lane.

 Thanksgiving Gift

 

When I’m hunting elk or deer, it usually takes me a little while to get into the “silent running” mode.  That would be the part where I creep along at a snail’s pace, sweeping my eyes over the woods around me for a tawny patch of rump, the wiggle of a fuzzy ear or the glint of an antler in the sunlight. Each step is carefully planned and placed so that not a twig will be snapped if it is humanly possible to avoid it.  What generally happens is that I go into the serious hunter mode after I have stumbled into the only elk I will be seeing on a particular day. Most often, I happen upon those elk at about the same moment that I have determined that, for one reason or another, I will not be seeing any game at all.

That’s what happened on Sunday, when, ten minutes after I had stepped out of the truck into an absolutely spectacular late-fall morning, I happened to catch a glimpse of a bunch of elk, moving quickly away from my loud and stumbling form. In the thick brush, I had to crouch down to see a collection of legs and rumps hurrying off down the slope into a snarl of dark timber. I got the make, but I couldn’t get the model on any of them, and wouldn’t have had a clear shot if I did. After I saw those elk, I became a quiet, stealthy hunter real quick.

I hadn’t expected to see anything at all.  Friend Mike and I got a late start and didn’t even get to the place we intended to hunt until mid-morning. But there wasn’t another soul in the area when we got there, which can be a good, or a bad sign, depending on your point of view. We chose to take it as a good one. It’s always nice to have the place to yourself, whether there is game in the offing or not.

Two or three hours was all we had so we hurriedly made up a little scheme where we would hunt in circles in opposite directions, with the ultimate goal of swinging back toward each other, and just maybe chasing an animal or two in each other’s direction. I don’t know about you, but those plans never work for me. Somebody always ends up going off in an unplanned direction for some reason. This time it was me, following what may, or may not, have been the tracks of the elk I had seen.

The snow was long gone in the place we were hunting, so when I saw those elk, I began to try to make sense of where they had gone by finding places where they had kicked up the dry, pine needle duff as they hurried away. When you are working in an area that has had more than a few elk pass through, tracking them under those conditions is not a particularly exact science, at least for me.  I could have gone off in almost any direction and followed sets of elk divots. But I chose to believe that the divots I was intent upon were the freshest.

Once I am locked in on something like that, everything else, every care, every worry, every thought that does not relate directly to the place and the elk, is suspended. The minutes fly by, and the hours are gone so quickly that it is hard to believe when I glance at my watch and note that my day is almost done, when I thought I had only been at it for a little while.

For that short time, I take temporary ownership of the little patch of the world that I am searching for game. Uphill and down, weaving through deadfall, around rock slides, slowly, cautiously, I make my way over the land drinking in the feel of it under my feet, and the smell of it. The lingering musky scent of elk stops me every once in a while, but in the light, shifting breeze, the smell just teases me, then disappears.

Twice during the few hours of hunting, I hear coyotes join in a frantic yipping chorus. At least I think they are coyotes until I hear deeper, longer notes that are unfamiliar. I don’t know the first thing about wolves, including how they sound in real time, in the real world, but I find myself wondering if I am hearing wolves celebrating a fresh kill. My imagination runs with that one, and I begin to think about what a wondrous thing it would be to actually see a wolf in that place.

Both times I heard the howling, a whiff of elk brought me back to the business at hand.  The second time, the whiff of elk was accompanied by a movement caught in the corner of my eye. Slowly, I turned my head to see what it was. A pileated woodpecker swooped silently to the base of a great old ponderosa snag, and began sizing up spots to dig away for bugs. In a moment, the “tap-tap-tapping” began in earnest.

That gaudy red woodpecker is such a stark contrast to the muted browns and yellows of the day that it takes a moment to register as a real bird. It also causes me to look at my watch and note that it is time to get back to the truck.

On the way home Mike and I talked about the coyotes we had heard, and speculated about the possibility of wolves. We talked about elk and deer and the country that were driving through, and we talked about how lucky we are to live where we do.

There are lots of good reasons to be thankful for the blessings of this life. There are family, friends, and moments of peace and happiness when they come. And there is, right up there among the good things, the chance to have a piece of wild country to yourself for a few hours on beautiful November day.

Happy Thanksgiving!