Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

August 1st, 2005

Backbone of the World

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of columns on Stouff's recent trip to Browning, Montana to fish for trout on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation for an upcoming episode of "Fly Fishing America" to be aired next spring.)

The Rocky Mountains were created between 50 and 100 million years ago, one of the major geologic events of the North American continent. Stretching from Colorado into Canada, these jagged mountains include Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. An ocean once lay here, and its marks can be found in the rocks that formed the mountains. From the airport where I landed in Kalispell I had to cross the park to reach Browning, Montana, where I needed to be.

The Blackfeet Indians call these mountains "the backbone of the world." As usual, the Indians describe things best. Geologic uplifting and ancient oceanography is good science and fascinating stuff, of course, and knowing the incredible age of the Rockies is valuable information...but once I was into them, I knew that no description could be more fitting: Backbone of the world.

Mick was kind enough to bring me right across the backbone, high into the Rockies and the most spectacular country yours truly has ever laid eyes on. It was also the most harrowing. Of course, someone who does not like to fly is often someone who suffers from acrophobia, fear of heights, and I certainly do.

Often people tell me, "But Indians aren't supposed to be afraid of heights, that's why so many Indians used to work building skyscrapers and suspension bridges." What a gross generalization! Let's straighten the record up right here: Those were mostly Navajos or the like, Indians who lived on top of mesas in Arizona, who played along the edge of rock cliffs as babes, even though that's a gross generalization in itself. South Louisiana Indians get dizzy when they get north of Alexandria. In fact, there's this hilly area along U.S. 90 just this side of Lafayette. That was in historic Chitimacha territory and we used to vacation there and come home to tell our friends about the time we spent on the peaks.

Montanans are accustomed to driving through mountains on roads that have only a guard rail separating their vehicle from a drop thousands of feet down. Louisianians are not accustomed to this. While Mick was driving across the park it was all I could do to look out the passenger window and see hundred-foot-tall fir trees down there looking like toothpicks. Instead I kept my eyes up and to the left, watching our climb far along the backbone of the world.

"See that speck of white up there?" Mick pointed. I did, and it looked like a patch of late snow. He explained it was ice, probably five miles across. I was beginning to feel like I was in the center of something enormous, something wide and reaching, something far distant from anything I had ever known before. Now and then, between mountain peaks, I could see almost into eternity, great expanses of earth, somewhere nearly into forever.

We stopped at the interpretive center for the park and Mick said now and then they close it down when there are too many grizzly bears around. This whole grizzly bear thing was starting to raise my hackles, but I kept my peace then. We did get to see a bighorn sheep right next to the parking lot, a beautiful creature that I hoped was coming by to welcome the Chitimacha to the backbone of the world.

Cutting those mountain roads and making the stone guardrails along them was a WPA project of the Depression era. They have weathered well all these decades since, but in many places major repairs are under construction. I was pleased to see this. Now and then we'd pass spots where trickles of glacial meltoff splattered into the road. Many hundreds or thousands of these would eventually form the streams, creeks and rivers I'd be fishing over the next few days.

Higher and higher we went and at some point, I began to discern our descent. We stopped at another spot the park service had built where a rushing, green-blue river chortled and grumbled at the tourists standing on the wooden decking overlooking it.

It was a fast beast, this river, growling menace as it went, crashing between and over gray boulders, exploding itself into a thousand sputtering droplets then reforming an instant later to continue its frantic, single-minded advance southward. It's determination was humbling, its power startling.

Here was a world my father always wanted to visit. He spoke of it often. He practiced visiting it, really. He would venture farther and father afield on his travels before he retired, giving his "talks" to school kids and other groups about the Chitimacha and southeastern Indians peoples. He longed for the Black Hills in South Dakota, for Montana and Wyoming, the places he saved pennies all his adult life to one day visit. He never quite made it far enough afield before the carbon black, sawdust, shell dust from jewelry-making and years of inhaling them to earn and save those pennies caught up with him. I carried him with me though along those mountain roads, into the valleys and along gin-clear streams. He had been to Europe in the second World War, grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, and traveled at least once that I remember to Georgia. But he longed for the mountains, wild horses and running water. Just once. Only once.

Everywhere I looked, nearly, there was water. Creeks no more than a trickle, like a cup or canteen overturned; streams like small veins, capillaries, tendrils of a larger whole. Streams surging, streams rolling over rocks of every color, shape and size, streams whispering, muttering, speaking and shouting; streams singing, chant-ing and weeping; streams and rivers, meander-ing, tranquil or hysterical. I was told you could live a lifetime and not fish a fraction of all the waters in Montana. These were Blackfeet rivers, long, long before Norman Maclean touched and fished them, but if there was anything that could possibly link the dichotomy of those so different persons, it was the love of these clear, speaking rivers.

When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come. ( ~ Leonardo da Vinci)

At last we emerged from Glacier National Park and descended from the backbone of the world into the plains and foothills of the Blackfeet reservation. The earth began to unfurl here, still full of billows and surges, but when I craned my neck around I could nearly see forever in all directions. I thought, perhaps, if I looked hard enough I might see to back when there was no concrete highway beneath Mick's vehicle, no mobile homes or cattle fences, only Blackfeet and grizzly bears and summer wildflowers. ~ Roger

It's out! And available now! You can be one of the first to own a copy of Roger's book. Native Waters: A Few Moments in a Small Wooden Boat

Order it now from www.iuniverse.com, Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble.com. Roger will also be giving away three autographed copies to readers. Stay tuned, for an announcement on the Bulletin Board on that soon.


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