July 16th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

The Making of "Montana's Last Best River"

By Paul Vang, Butte, Montana

The publication of Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole and its People is the culmination of a multi-year project by author, Pat Munday, and the Big Hole River Foundation.

As Munday relates in the book's introduction, the initial idea came from a casual conversation among Munday, Charlie Harris and Todd Collins who were, at the time, the Foundation's executive director and president, respectively.

From this beginning began what became a three year labor of love for Munday as he began his research into the Big Hole and worked with others to come up with the final concept for the book.

I had several conversations with Munday, recently, and he shared some of the creative process involved in the writing of the story of the Big Hole.

First, let's take a closer look at Pat Munday. He's 46 and professor of history and philosophy at Montana Tech. He's a native of Bradford PA, near the headwaters of the Allegheny River. He's a graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia, with graduate degrees from Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Cornell University, including a doctorate in history and philosophy from Cornell.

Before coming to Montana Tech in 1990, Munday taught at both Cornell and RPI, including one summer session when he taught chemistry. Munday and his wife, Jan, have a daughter, Emily.

The outdoors has always been important in Munday's life, and he grew up hunting and fishing. Southwest Montana's hunting and fishing opportunities were a prime consideration when he joined Montana Tech's faculty. In fact, when he came to Butte for a job interview, the department head took him to the Jefferson River for an afternoon of fishing.

Munday says his initial concept of the book was to write a cultural history of the Big Hole Valley, telling how people came to the area and built a life for them and their families. There were others on the planning committee, however, who pushed for a more narrow focus to the book, emphasizing the angling resources of the area.

Munday resisted the idea of writing a fishing book. "The last thing I wanted," he says, "was to send another 100,000 anglers to the Big Hole." From these varying ideas came the final concept of developing a cultural history of the Big Hole area, along with telling the story of the Big Hole as an angling resource. Munday's emphasis is on the development of conservation, particularly the contributions of George Grant, and the River Rats, the local fledgling Trout Unlimited organization. He then goes on to the efforts of Butte residents who did so much to develop access sites and to shape Montana's stream access laws.

Once the basic concept of the book was developed, Munday began the daunting job of research. He took a sabbatical for the 1997-98 academic year to research the book. He spent untold hours reading histories of the area, plus had access to unpublished papers and manuscripts in state and local archives.

The next step was to interview families with roots in the Big Hole. "With some 2,000 residents in the whole Big Hole area," he says, "it was theoretically possible to interview every single resident." He quickly determined, however, that such a goal was not realistic. He says, "It's like I tell my students. Nothing is ever finished, but there are due dates."

After a year of research, he began writing. The year of research, incidentally, wasn't all work. "I think I got in some 30 days of elk hunting, that fall," he recalls, "which was about as much as I could handle."

Once Munday began writing the book, the challenge was to keep the narrative moving along, as his goal wasn't, necessarily, to write an exhaustive history of the area. He also found he had to break some of the material into smaller chunks. For example, a major part of the book covers the evolution of agriculture in the Big Hole, from the early homesteaders to modern ranching. "Initially, that was all one chapter, but we ended up breaking it into three chapters."

While Munday is the book's author, he gives credit to many for their help in developing the book. He singles out some special contributions. Dr. Neal Rogers, for example, served as the project's business manager. Rogers, who is, himself, a nationally known photographer, developed the 'coffee table' book concept, on the basis that quality photographs add value to books. Rogers then contributed many of his own photos, plus obtained the rights to photographs by many other well known photographers, including his wife, Dr. Linda Rogers, R. Valentine Atkinson, Richard Brown, and others.

Matt Fischer volunteered to research the historical photograph collection of the Montana Power Company and the state archives.

A casual conversation with a fellow Montana Tech faculty member, Andrea Stierle, led to a series of drawings of Big Hole scenes and wildlife that appear throughout the book.

Even as the book's manuscript moved to completion, a final change had to be made. Nick Lyons is a famous writer who, for many years, wrote the "Seasonable Angler" column in Fly Fisherman magazine, as well as many books on fishing. Lyons founded Lyons Press, though his son, Tony Lyons, is now the president and publisher of Lyons Press. Nick Lyons, a frequent visitor to Montana and the Big Hole, read the manuscript and said, "I'm not going to publish this without a chapter of fishing stories."

Munday says he wrestled with this idea before adding the chapter. "I'm involved with recreation conflict management, so I didn't want to be in the position of writing about the 'sizzle,' unless," he adds, "the reader first had a taste of the steak."

Munday treasures many experiences he had while interviewing people of the Big Hole area, such as pioneer educator, Margaret Hagenbarth.

He cites another interview that he says brought home to him the wealth of environmental knowledge that many Big Hole residents have. He mentions an interview with North Fork rancher, Ray Weaver. "I was impressed with Ray's passion for open space." He tells, "Ray took me out on a high point where we had a wide view of the valley. He pointed out the route of Clark's party on the return trip from the Pacific. He indicated where pioneering families established their homesteads and other historical landmarks. Then, "Munday said, "he swept his arm across the panorama and said, 'There's not a goddamned house in sight-and that's the way it should stay.'"

Munday said that, time after time, when interviewing Big Hole residents, he was impressed with the fact that so many people's concept of personal space took in everything to the horizon, a concept inconceivable in the East where Munday grew up.

Another aspect that Munday values is documenting the contributions of many Butte area residents, such as Jerry Manley, Tony Schoonen and Tom Bugni, in shaping today's access laws. "These people gave up five or six years of their lives, where they'd get up every morning and focused every waking minute to stream access, or water use." With admiration, Munday said, "Butte has this incredible history of activism-this 'na´ve idea" that if you keep showing up and looking people straight in the eye with a goal of making a difference, you can make an impact."

In researching the book, Munday developed a friendship with George Grant, the pioneering advocate for conservation. "I really have to admire Grant-he had a lot of foresight," as he relates stories of Grant's call for fishing access sites, his editing a statewide Trout Unlimited newsletter, "The River Rats," which advocated for conservation, and his founding, in his late 80s, of the Big Hole River Foundation. Something not well known is that Grant sold his personal library of books on fishing, and his collection of classic bamboo flyrods to begin the foundation. Still, Munday says one surprise was to learn how many fish Grant killed, back in the 1930s.

As a fundraising project for the Big Hole River Foundation, Lyons Press will publish special editions of "Montana's Last Best River" in advance of the nationwide release. The special editions will include a limited edition print by a famous writer and artist, Dave Whitlock. Describing Whitlock as "an old friend of George Grant's," Munday said Whitlock agreed to create the painting, titled, "Big Hole Brown," and dedicated it to Grant. Grant signed the first 885 copies of the print.

The Big Hole River Foundation is presently taking orders for the special edition of the book (see the Big Hole River Foundation, (http://www.BHRF.org) for ordering information) which Munday anticipates will be delivered in late July. Lyons Press will release the trade edition in August. The special edition with the Dave Whitlock print, signed by George Grant, numbered 1 - 885, is priced at $59.95. The special edition, including the Whitlock print, numbered 886 - 2500, is priced at $49.95.

Munday believes the process of writing the book has made an impact in his life. He has had previous articles been published in scholarly publications. However, he talks of these articles as "something that would be read by 100 people, of whom 10 might understand what he was saying, and five might care." With this book all but complete, he already has ideas for future books in the same vein. [the book is currently being printed.]

After getting to know so many people of the Big Hole, Munday says he is now much more sensitive to the concerns of ranchers than before he started the project. "Something that really impressed me," he says, "is how Big Hole ranchers treasure the natural resource of the area, even if they don't hunt or fish."

Finally, Munday says, "It even makes me think of fishing in a different way. I can't go to the river without thinking of the contributions that so many people have made, over the years. ~ Paul Vang

Publishers Note: For the review of Montana's Last Best River see our Review Section.

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