When you do something every year at the same time
and in the same way, it becomes a tradition. Such is the
annual fly fishing vacation I take every June, on the Bighorn
River in Montana. I time this vacation to coincide with the
longest day of the year, reasoning that the increased
activity of certain members of the trout's food chain will
bring good fishing. The extra hours of daylight are merely a
Since I make this trip every year, it has become a
tradition. Like most traditions, I've also come to expect that
certain things will remain the same every year. You know
what I'm talking about, don't you? I expect to see the same
people running Cottonwood Camp, where I stay anytime
I'm on the river. I expect to encounter the same cloud of
saber-tooth skeeters that never seem to tire of the taste of
my blood. It just would be the same if any part of the
tradition changed. I've come to expect things to be that
That's where my problem comes to focus, things are
changing on the big river. I'm not talking about minor
changes like river channels or water temperatures either.
The changes are big and threaten to change my whole
experience in permanent ways. I'm afraid that this year will
be much different than last year, and last year was much
different than the one before.
The first change I noticed was that many of the old
guides have left the river. I used to enjoy saying "good
morning" to Kip Dean, a Rapid city native who made his
living guiding fishermen on the Bighorn. Last year he gave
up a major part of his life, a part I know he loved, to pursue
other things in the Black Hills. It just wasn't the same
without seeing his boat drift past me in the morning and
hearing him ask if I was having any luck. Part of the
tradition is gone.
The next change is in the only good eating establishment
on the river. Polly's Place offers good food to hungry
fishermen and their guides after a long day on the river.
But, Polly has cancer, and she probably won't be with us
this June. Another part of my treasured tradition is slipping
When I roll into Cottonwood Camp, I'm always greeted
by Booney, their 'official' greeting dog. He's been there
fourteen years, wagging his tail and welcoming visitors in a
way only a good dog can. But last year was a little different.
Booney is so crippled by arthritis and too many hard years,
that he was real slow to greet me. He's lost a lot of weight,
and his limping gait told me that another tradition is in it's
autumn days. Once a proud bird hunder and one heck of a
racoon chaser, he now spends the majority of his days
soaking in sun.
Before I climbed into the pickup for the trip home, I
followed tradition by slipping Booney half a cinnamon roll
and giving him a pat on the head. I said the traditional
works, "See ya next year, old buddy." I know the odds are
against that prediction remaining true, but it's hard to break
a tradition as strong as the annual parting of old friends.
If I'm able, I'll make my traditional trip to Cottonwood
Camp and the Bighorn River this June. Some of the
traditions will remain only as a memory of good times past.
I'll think of friends, human and canine, that I've enjoyed
time with while exchanging lies about the one that got
away. I'll dedicate a fish to every friend who failed to keep
the traditional meeting - though some of them will be there
in spirit. I'll sit on the porch and sip coffee while I talk with
old friends about times past and big fish waiting to be
caught. I must do this, it's a tradition I don't want to break.
I must do this because, if I failed to show up at the
traditional time, I'd be missed and another part of the
tradition of the river would end. And too much has already
changed. ~ Al Campbell (April 27th, 1998)