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A Yankee Notebook

July 1, 2013


NEAR CRAIG, MONTANA – The adolescent Missouri River flows clear here, headed northeast, downstream of a couple of impoundments that control its flow and temperature. Our fiberglass drift boat glides over a wide riffle perhaps two feet deep. The river bed is of slightly rust-colored fine gravel studded with an occasional boulder and patchy with bright green river growth. Neale, the guide, eases the boat slowly down with its heavy oars, his eyes constantly looking left and right for rising fish. Baird, at the other end of the boat, beyond Neale, stands with his fly rod in his hand, as intent as any duck hunter with his shotgun. “There’s one,” says Neale quietly, and Baird instantly lays out a tiny dry fly a couple of feet upstream of the fading swirl. I can hear him muttering to the fish: “Come on! Come on! Take it!

For someone like me, accustomed to the deep woods and limited vistas of New England, Montana is always a surprise: rolling short-grass prairie stretching to the horizon and studded with cedar and pine; sagebrush thick on the hillsides; long climbs and descents on the roads over high passes; distant peaks still snow-clad at the end of June. At the start of long highway ascents, signs designate a pullout for putting on tire chains, and on the far side, removing them.

This river valley runs through torturously contorted, massive beds of ancient lava. Softer than granite, the rock erodes into pillars, cliffs, conical volcano-looking hills, and cavelike abscesses far above the river. I think we’re just south of the southernmost extent of the last continental ice sheet. So, while our New England valleys were scooped out by ice, these were river-cut, then filled flat and fertile with river sediment from range to range. Bison once were plentiful here; now they roam in Yellowstone to the south and on Ted Turner’s vast ranches. The far-off moving black objects we see nowadays are Angus cattle.

Neale’s done a stomach pump survey of a couple of fish we’ve caught, and is trying to match the results with flies he tied last night back at his home. They’re no bigger than a green pea. Laying them on the flowing water so they look and act like the real thing is a bit of a practiced art, which I haven’t mastered, and at my age am not likely to. So occasionally I just put my rod down, sit in the swivel seat at my end of the drift boat, and take it all in There’s so much to absorb.

The Fish and Game Department has set up osprey nesting platforms all along the river, some of them practically in people’s front yards Every one seems to be occupied by an osprey family. Down on the river, common mergansers herd their improbably large flocks of chicks out of our way. Neale opines that they probably combine their families. If that’s so, some of the mothers are getting a day off. Canada geese are everywhere along the banks or out in the river, tipping bottoms-up to feed on the river greens in the shallows. Occasionally a dominant flock member, self-appointed as its defender, launches himself toward our boat, clucking at us. When it’s clear we’ve retreated, he rejoins the flock importantly. Magpies flutter like flapping towels in the Russian willows. Bank swallows pick emerging bugs out of the air around us; cliff swallows flutter into their strange little hanging mud globes with treats for their kids. We watched about 30 of them at work in their pottery, gumming up clay from the shore for home improvements.

We’ve seen two minks headed for home, one with a small fish, the other with what looked like a mouse. A bank beaver swam by underwater near a lodge of sticks in the willows. Bronze beef cattle share the bank with white-tailed deer. Baird stopped his truck yesterday to let a herd of bighorn sheep ewes and lambs get out of the way and scamper improbably up a roadside cliff.

“Got ‘im!” hollers Baird – a primal cry if ever I’ve heard one – and begins a struggle with an amazingly strong big brown trout. Neale pulls up the anchor to avoid its fouling the line and gets ready with the big landing net. Once he’s netted the fish, he’s almost touchingly solicitous of its pain and discomfort. He releases it as fast as he can, once he’s sure it’s good to go.

Baird and I go back over half a century. He was only ten when I moved to his tiny Adirondack village. I was an exotic outsider with an old Plymouth, a beard, a guitar, and a first edition of On the Road. We climbed together then, and since then have paddled Arctic rivers swarming with lake trout, grayling, and Arctic char. He and his wife have moved out here now, so I don’t see them as often as I’d like. But we have a great time recalling stories about the old-timers we once knew, catching up on our respective families, and sharing our pessimism about the future of civilization – especially if the Republicans somehow manage to get back into the White House.

The river, to my eyes, seems alive with white swans, until I notice their ridiculous bills. They’re white pelicans, cruising smoothly here and there on the water or soaring, very high up, in formations like performing military pilots. They fly as smoothly and with as little apparent effort as any other bird I’ve ever seen.

Except for the obvious signs of development – riverside roads, an abandoned rail line, an occasional bridge, we’re looking at what the Lewis and Clark expedition saw when they ascended the Missouri over 200 years ago. They poled and towed their boats over this stretch, in constant fear of Indians and grizzly bears; and the sight of the snowy mountains in their path as winter approached must have been daunting. Now, white drift boats and laughing kayakers and tubers float downstream where their canoes slogged slowly up. We cast tiny flies to big trout, smear sun block on our arms, and marvel at the courage of those long-ago searchers for a Northwest Passage.

Photo by Willem lange