The ledge upon which I balance is slightly narrower than
my wading shoes and it ends an arm's length shy of a sharp
bend in the vertical rock face. Leaning into the wall as
best I can, my left hand wedged into a hole in the rock at
waist level, I violate a cardinal rule of wildwood
wisdom - do not reach where you cannot see. Nonetheless,
I grope for any sort of handhold so that I might proceed
to a spot that will permit me to cast to the head of the
very deep run. The cork grip of my fly rod is in my teeth,
offering a free hand, and a reminder, via the pull of the
trailing fly line, of just how swift my trip down river
will be should I slip. Everyday stuff for a kid and, for
ten days, a dozen or so companions, and I are kids again.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana will do that to you.
It all starts with a call from John Elmer, college roommate
and fraternity brother, with whom, for many years, I have
shared the woods to hunt and fish and wander. Two spaces
are open for a July, ten-day, outfitted horseback trip into
a Continental Divide straddling wilderness in northwestern
Montana. I agree immediately. John tells me we are already
signed up since he knew I would go before he even called me.
"Pack light. Jeans, riding boots, five, six or seven weight
fly rod, toothbrush, extra skivvies, rain gear and your
lightweight sleeping bag. "You tie up your Prince nymphs and
I'll do the elk hair caddis dries. "Flathead River, the
longest wild river system in the states and it is full of
big westslope cutthroat trout - you'll love it." (Scots
on his mother's side, the call is just this brief).
Shave for the last time and board the plane for Montana.
Crusty hat, Justin boots, two fly rods and a camera. We
gather a promising mixed bag at the Missoula Airport - Two
mustachioed lawmen from Texas, some paper makers and paper
users from the woods (and shrubbery) of Michigan, New York
and New Jersey, an attorney, and a peddler. A quick check
reveals mostly scuffed olive drab luggage, no jewelry, no
styled hair or fashion statements, and some already bordering
on scruffy from the plane trip. An excellent beginning. Our
baggage, in the bed of the large pickup, is uniformly
road-dust tan on our arrival at the Seeley Lake main lodge,
100 paved, gravel and dirt miles north of the Missoula Airport.
At dusk the carmine-colored Swan Mountain Range fills the
horizon and towers over the lodge...warmly smiling now in
the evening sun, yet at the same time taunting from 8000 feet,
as we sip our pre-dinner libations and try to gauge the high
pass we will ride through on the morn. Then, the women arrive.
We have already met the tattooed, female cook who will
accompany our group, but we are not ready for the four
ladies from the Chattanooga Highlands. Neither is the
outfitter. Tumbling out of a van, bejeweled, perfumed,
"Orvised" and bubbling, amid what seems like the total
inventory of several tack, spirit and fly shops, they
pile a mountain of gaily-colored gear on the back porch,
introduce themselves, spill some gin and join us for dinner.
Our gemeinschaft is threatened. Aware of the many normal
male activities common to field and stream, deer camp and
duck blind that are generally frowned upon in your typical
office or Sunday School setting, we are now faced with
certain constraints where none should exist. But, our
initial concern is soon proved much ado about nothing.
The women are, pleasant, well traveled, well read and
almost as unpretentious as we. We laugh at each other's
foibles to be sure, but mostly we laugh together, share
the conversations and the spirits, and enjoy each others
company. Albeit tenuous, camp life will assume a slightly
One enters "The Bob" on foot or on horseback. Our first day
begins early with a big breakfast and a twenty-odd mile ride
over and through the Swan Range to get to our tent camp.
We travel with a long, winding string of seventeen horses
and as many pack mules, and the going is slow, hot and dusty.
At its worst, I can only see one or two horses ahead in the
clouds of fine trail dust. Those riding nearer the rear, hats
pulled low, bandannas covering their faces, cannot see beyond
their own horse's head. Riding a mountain-bred horse on narrow
switchback trails takes a little bit of getting used to even
if you trust the animal, ignore precipices, enjoy scenery and
get off occasionally to rearrange your compacted and warped
parts. "Horse ridin' ain't but a little bit better'n walkin',"
was a wise old Colorado wrangler's observation some years
ago - he was right.
A guidebook says that, "The Bob Marshall Wilderness is 2,400
square miles of rugged, unspoiled wildness that could change
your life forever." Another describes the 1.5 million acres
as; "Land and rivers and mountains still pretty much the way
that God had fashioned them." For once, guidebook palaver
understates reality. This wilderness does not cautiously
ingratiate the visitor - she challenges, then overwhelms
the senses. She threatens with jagged, crimson mountain peaks
and fiery, rolling cannonades of thunder; then courts with
scented, purple-flowered meadows and breezes soughing through
the spruce. At one moment, the raw wildness calls forth the silence
of respect, yet at the next an echoed primal roar. She stirs the
soul and sparks swirl up from somewhere deep within, to dance
with grace and majesty and kindle atavism.
Wranglers who rode ahead have set our camp up one hundred
yards shy of my total skeletal failure. Clustered around a
small clearing are four, big, lodge-pole, wall tents, a
leaning, bark covered privy and a rough corral - home itself
never looked this good. I dismount uncertainly - panache be
damned, a leap would end badly. We unbend and unkink our bodies,
hurriedly bathe in frigid Shaw Creek - so cold I scan for
floating ice - then stash away our meager gear for the
two-day stay. Except for the Texans, who find sadistic mirth
in our discomfort, we mostly stand or lean for cocktail hour.
The pains assuaged by single-malt and liberal dose of aspirin,
a meal, a cot, a sleeping bag, speeds body's restoration.
From now on the morning drill is to splash in the creek, eat
breakfast, pack a light lunch, set out your fishing gear for
the pack mules, and saddle up for the ride to that day's
selected river. My daily fishing trip thus begins and ends
astraddle old, hardheaded, sure-footed Duke, my equine
sport/utility vehicle. We tolerate each other, Duke and I,
and with few complaints, he faithfully carries me through
this breathtaking wilderness to wonderful fishing.
The fourth day's ride to the outlying camp, on the banks of
the Flathead River, is far easier than our first. I am either
getting "saddle-broke" or my threshold of pain is rising to
meet the daily abuse of horse and leather. We stop to fish
the Gordon along the way and quickly take several nice westslope
cutthroat trout. John takes a 22" cutt on a nymph. I break
one off under a log pile that I suspect was larger
still - aren't they always? We take a quick dip in a cold
pool to flush away the grit, then vault into the saddle for
the final, mostly level, miles to the Flathead camp.
We set up our own small tents and again sort out our personal
gear - which likely smells like mules by now, but I cannot
tell anyway. Neither photographs nor words could frame this
spot. Tall spruce line the gravel banks, with mountains as
their backdrop. Trout are rising to the evening hatch and
mule deer wade but a long cast from my tent, pitched farthest
from the cook tent. There are grizzly hereabouts, but I
sometimes snore loudly, they say, so I am in no imminent
danger. The July sunset lingers late and the river turns
to gold, then to deep copper. The darkness comes, yet in
the moonlight I can still see the occasional rising
trout -- no sound but the murmuring river and a distant
The Gordon, Youngs and Danaher are all feeder streams of
the South Fork of the Flathead and we will fish them all
in the days that follow. All are icy-cold and gin-clear,
with deep runs, tumbling falls, limpid pools and sparkling
rapids, all home to the westslope cutthroat trout. From
these waters I drink and fill my canteen while watching trout,
ten feet down, holding in water only hours from its source.
The wading is mostly easy, with only the occasional logjam
with which to contend. This is the best of times. To be in
this vast untainted wilderness alone, and at one, with the
river, the trout, the mountains, the wildlife and my
thoughts; to walk beneath ancient trees on needle-cushioned
ground where possibly no man has ever trod before; to drink
water from glaciers that are hundreds, maybe thousands, of
years old; to gently hold silvered, wild trout in my hands,
just long enough to imprint their beauty and offer thanks,
before returning them again to their river. Solitude like
this, without loneliness, is a gift of the Gods and these
moments command silence, reverence. There is a place, in
time and in mind, where grace and atavism merge without
contradiction...and I have been there.
Six of us ride to tumbling, rocky, Youngs Creek and split up.
I wander upriver to fish alone and come upon a narrow run so
deep that the water is indigo. The only approach is the
narrow ledge along the far side abutting a vertical rock
face. "I dare you!" sings the river and the wall, and the
inner little kid accepts the siren's challenge. There is an
unoccupied hand-hold around the blind corner, and just enough
sloping ledge to support both heels, after swinging round,
fly rod still clenched in my teeth. My first cast lands
right on the edge of the seam and the weighted nymph sinks
deep and bounces along the bottom, then hesitates. I raise
the rod tip and feel the fish, not large but fast -- it is
only a small Rocky Mountain whitefish. I quickly reel in the
slack line and almost fall while doing so. As the whitefish
darts past I notice movement beneath and behind it...and I
freeze. Something, as long as my leg, that looks like a
brook trout is now in pursuit of the whitefish. The whitefish
escapes three or four serious rushes and the large fish
disappears again into the depths. I am surely saved a dunking
for I have willingly ridden waterfalls to land trout far smaller
than that mysterious fish. After describing the incident to
Virgil Burns, our outfitter, (Bob Marshall Wilderness Ranch,
Seeley Lake, Montana) he tells me it was a Bull trout,
a carnivorous and endangered variety of the Dolly Varden, now
found in the United States only in the headwaters of the
Flathead - "Yes, Ed, some of 'em are as long as your leg."
Fishing the Danaher, the next day is a highpoint of the trip.
The Danaher is a beautiful, mostly gentle, mountain river
that is open and easy to fish with room for casting. I walk
upriver thereby sparing a long stretch of inviting water for
a trailing friend. I am solo once again, I am becoming a
river recluse. I have stopped packing lunch - talk and food
dulls the edge, dilutes the experience, breaks the spell.
By mid-afternoon, when I reach the meadow where old Duke
stands browsing, I have caught and released over thirty
bright, fat cutthroats all over 15", four over 20" - all
on my own home-tied flies. My friend, John, is waiting
by the meadow pool, and he has had a successful day with
his flies as well. He watches as I land my last trout and
then takes my picture holding it as the first drops of rain
begin to fall. A fusillade of thunder roars through the
mountains and the rain engulfs the forest and turns the
river to froth. Nothing dampens my glow on the long ride
back to camp. Clop, clop, squish, squish...Duke is an old
buddy this evening and I sing to him. He likes "Tumbleweed"
best and walks in cadence to it.
Later, back in camp, the Chattanooga ladies, who have taken
to calling themselves "The Buffalo Girls," express their
wish to have trout for breakfast. A couple of us, still
rain-soaked, venture forth and kill a few small cutthroat
each from the nearby Flathead and then swap trout for
brimming tin cups of the ladies' secretly hoarded Wild
Turkey bourbon. I suspect simple barter of this sort led
to untold trouble for the Indians in an earlier time, yet
it seems equitable to us. Their demands have been few,
and, we can gloat slightly as they devour our catch, like
in days of old, hunkered about the morning fire. We are
still showing slight deference to the women but, true to
the old grade B, Republic Pictures westerns,
only the lawyer and the young "sheriff" are shaving. Talk
about a decent group to travel with - not one of the men
has packed a mirror - the two shavers are scraping by
We repack in the morning and mount up for the ride back
to the Shaw Creek halfway camp. It is getting easier every
day, not routine, but easier. Camaraderie. We
all know first names (including the horses); a little
biography about each other and the spots to needle
(and not); the fragile ones, and the ones with the bark
still on. The dust and rain, the creaking leather saddles,
the icy rivers, the trout, the daily kindnesses and the
mountains have sloughed off some layers from each of us,
and as it turns out, we discover that we are a pretty
decent bunch. I recall a noisy, late evening horseshoe
game. Those not actually playing are involved in cheering,
kibitzing, officiating or offering dubious technical
guidance. What are the odds of such an assortment of
mature personalities all thoroughly enjoying after-dinner
horseshoes in the semi-darkness of a northwestern Montana
wilderness in the 1990s? It is simply the magic
of the place casting its spell.
Our next day in "The Bob" we spend on the upper end of the
Gordon River with the most wary and skittish trout of the
week. We each take a few, but they are well earned - from
between roots, under logjams, beneath drooping spruce limbs.
Our inflated, imagined fly fishing skills are jolted back
into perspective - maestro to tyro in stunning
surroundings. An old burlesque comic's line comes
to mind: "If it was raining soup, I'd be out there with a
fork!" We have one final day to redeem ourselves on the
Gordon so four of us opt to fish while the others ride to
the top of the highest peak in the area for a final "fix"
on the Rocky Mountains. The sweeping vista from the top,
we are later told, is spectacular - the fishing is not, but
I do not care, for it was still a wonderful day. A final
icy dip to scrub off the grit and then a long, hot, dry ride
back to camp.
Across the log bridge, through the muck, the trail bends right,
and finally, up the steep hill leading towards camp. The scant
water remaining in my canteen is hot and my horse is grunting
and slipping as we climb. We tug our hats eyebrow-low and
squint, yet the trail dust filters through the bandannas
covering our faces. Grit sticks to sweat and I chafe with
Duke's every lurch. I am riding "drag" so am last to see
the "Buffalo Girl" abathing. Through grit-filled narrowed
eyes and dust a wood nymph doth suddenly appear, with
silver-blonde hair, wet skin and suds, alabaster front and rear.
Each in his turn the riders pass, a touch of brim, a nod of head,
no looking right or left, all gents for sure within this group
except for trailing Ed. Duke's head's alert, his ears perk up,
he snorts with mild confusion, while words to speak crowd
rider's head in delectable profusion. The lady strikes a
timeless pose, the one that's one hand short - and where
Duke and Ed once stood before, a grinning satyr snorts.
A jaunty nod and snap of brim, a "hello darlin'", not loud,
I marinate in what might have been, but Gary Cooper'd be
The ride back to base camp is long, and dusty, and hot, and
painful, and tiring yet wildly beautiful. We retrace our
steps past three aquamarine, alpine lakes, through the many
fields of wildflowers, down the narrow switchback trails
and across the icy brooks amidst the towering spruce - but
always surrounded by the snow-capped Rockies. The late
afternoon thunderclouds form yet we wait until the first
drops fall to rinse the dust before we unlash our slickers.
The lightning fingers to our left and thunder roars, rolls,
and echoes. The rain comes in sheets of giant droplets.
Then, almost as suddenly, the evening sun breaks through
the clouds and dances up the valley. And, as the mountains
turn to carmine, the sky beyond turns deep purple, and once
again, it is all as clear as rinsed crystal. Shining times.
~ Edward Laine