Shining Times
Bob Marshall Wilderness - Montana

Westslope Cutthroat Trout

By Edward Laine

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).

Regional Map

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.

Swan Mountains 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 different tone.

8,000 ft. elevation

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.

Chinese Wall of the Bob

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.

Breathtaking Wilderness

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.

Upper Flathead River

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 lonely owl.

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."

Danaher Creek

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 Braille.

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 proud.

One more alpine lake 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

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