Notes from Montana … and Back

Not knowing what to expect, from the time we left Listening Stones until we reached our first camping spot at a state park near Madera, ND, our camper rode like a poorly built hay wagon, whipping across the rear view mirror like the shawl of an energetic belly dancer. Jack Griffin said later over the campfire at Madera that he had never driven his camper in such heavy winds. Radio reports estimated the wind was blowing crosswise at 40 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph. And this was my first day.

“If you can drive through that,” he said, “you can drive it through anything.”9.16.20-montana96

Up until this trip I’ve been a tent camper, then Mary spent much of the Covid lock down researching campers, and we liked the layout of this one so much that I traded 20 acres of Missouri timberland to buy.

There were lovely moments despite the tension. Over the many miles of North Dakota plains we saw several murmurations, and each brought a lovely smile to Mary’s face. Murmurations are a theme in her paintings, and these were just as poetic. None were excessively huge, yet large enough that the “bird clouds” were impressive. Murmurations seem to play out more poetic than chaotic, and each offered a moment of wonder and delight, a pause from our wind-whipped stress and tension.

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Shortly after passing Billings in our search for Cooney Reservoir State Park we encountered our first snow of the coming winter. It was Monday, September 7. It wasn’t so much a blizzard as a snowfall, and the Pilot and R Pod bounced heavily on the washboard gravel. Then we crossed a hill and saw our first mule deer, with their huge ears held high like tall, elongated antennas. The park was interesting, although we dined inside that chilly night with Trish’s delicious chicken drumsticks and rice. Our camper was cozy, and for the second night I was pleased not having to pitch a tent considering the elements.9.16.20-montana12-1

The following morning the reservoir was alive with migrations. On a dead tree were perched dozens of blackbirds, and in the long, damed reservoir, hundreds of geese trailed through the deep center of water. Geese was an educated guess since they were too distant to catch a good identification even with binoculars. There was a singular loon, and a pod of white pelicans, too.

Later, as we drove away we drove past the reservoir dam and below, deep in the valley, was the remains of the beautiful, winding river … a small tributary to the Yellowstone, perhaps. It meandered through a picturesque valley of ranches, peacefully green and poetic, a visual postcard of early morning beauty. It offered a view that rendered the reservoir obscene. Sadly so.

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It turns out the first day of wind wasn’t our bigger problem. When we arrived at Placid Lake State Park, our Montana destination, we discovered that our “slide” wouldn’t slide, We were surrounded by the other six couples with either family ties on Mary’s side, or those who had been in college together at the University of Minnesota-Morris. All hands came to help us try to solve the slide issue. At this point I wasn’t overly impressed with the camper that also had door latch issues, a non-charging battery and a few loose screws. And, I couldn’t find the “D3” or towing gear, so we were averaging about 8 mpg from Minnesota to Western Montana. Yet, we were able to sleep comfortably and make our meals. If only we didn’t have such cramped quarters!

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Jack Griffin, Joe Jost and I decided to ply the nearby rivers with fly rods. Jack was using the Powell 5wt I inherited from my late uncle, George Cowan. George and my aunt Helen, known by her friends as Satch, were both instrumental in the Manhattan Project, and lived into their 90s. They had been instrumental in building the Santa Fe Opera House, and were world travelers. Then George, by then a widower, apparently died after losing his balance going down the steps into his wine cellar. My cousin, Nancy Burke, grabbed the rod for me because of my passion for fly fishing.9.16.20-montana29

Joe was using a St. Croix I had built, also a 5 wt. This left me with the 3 wt I had also wrapped. Incredibly the river we were closest to was the Blackfoot, one of the iconic Montana trout rivers. The Blackfoot was the river used as the backdrop in the movie “The River Runs Through It.” When I posted on social media, my former exchange student and fly fishing fanatic, Erlend Langbach, seemed to shed tears back home in Norway, and posted this message: “I am haunted by the waters.” Norman Maclean would have been proud!

As we traversed Montana into Idaho later in the week we would cross the Yellowstone and the Madison, and several places we scooted over the Missouri. The Blackfoot yielded two small rainbows, meaning I’ve caught trout in three states and still three countries … Norway (thanks to Erlend), New Zealand and the U.S.

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I was hesitant to say anything, for it appeared from my seat in the back of Jack’s Volkswagen that we had passed a painted but weathered stump. There seemed to be more peeking through the Montana woodlands so my eyes weren’t playing tricks. Jack broke our momentary silence by asking if I had seen the painted stumps.

“Larch trees,” he said. “A cousin of our tamarack trees. They were cut near the turn of the last century and people have painted them to commemorate their past.”9.16.20-montana59

Joe Jost, sitting shotgun, added.” Sap from the trees settled near the base, so when they tried to float them down the river the ends would sink. They wouldn’t float. They would cut a notch in the base about three feet up and insert a ‘spring board’ where the sawyers would stand to saw through the tree, some of which were six feet across. It might take them 10 to 15 minutes to saw through.”

Now those stumps, standing for more than 100 years, are painted as spirits of the forests, poking through the pines.

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The fellow at the fly shop gave us a elongated map showing the access points along the Blackfoot, and suggested we use hopper flies. He circled in pencil the accesses where we could walk along the bank since none of us had waders. Our first stop, noted by two mail boxes, one white and the other black, was the Scotty Brown Bridge. I would fish until my ankle pain proved to be too painful from the uneven terrain, and I climbed back up the bank to rest. I spent the next hour or so just sitting and looking at the scenery, listening to the sounds of the river below. Purer meditation likely doesn’t exist. For the first time in what seemed like years I felt a perfect peace, sitting there at the Scotty Brown Bridge.

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Our Friday was almost pure purgatory, a state of consciousness between the unknowns of heaven and hell. Mary was experiencing uneasiness because we were “freelancing” a possible destination which I described as “somewhere along the Snake River beside the Tetons” as well as both the elation and sadness of selling her home of more than 30 years back in Minnesota. My hopes was to meet old friends from Idaho at West Yellowstone for lunch on Saturday. We were nearly there and feeling tired of driving when I pulled into a private campground just short of West Yellowstone. The woman ahead of me got the last camper spot, and the proprietor suggested a quicker route to the Tetons was found by taking a highway about ten miles back up the road. Which we did … but not before passing Earthquake Lake with white weathered trees standing in sparkling blue waters for seemingly miles on end.9.16.20-montana62

“Ninety minutes, top,” he had said. A conversation I would play mentally for what felt like endless hours because 90 minutes later Google Maps indicated we were still ninety minutes from Jackson. Mary found a possible campsite at a state park some 20 miles off the highway, so we turned and started up a beautiful two lane paved road with the back of the Teton range to our right. We passed huge sweeping fields of grain being harvested, and valleys blessed with beautiful quaking Aspen … all before learning that the state park didn’t allow camping. We had at best spotty cell phone service, and seemingly finding any campground was impossible. Eventually we passed, did a quick turnaround, and pulled into a US Forest Service campground several miles down the highway. There were no sites available, the camp host told us, but we could make camp in an overflow meadow at the end of the road.

There we discovered we had no battery power, and there was no electrical hookup. We shared the meadow with two tent campers, a parked and humming  semi tractor and us with our battered camper. Both of us had hopes our day would end up heavenly, which would have played well with the metaphor. Our pillows were securely planted in purgatory!

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Ah, the Tetons! As much as meeting up with the Morris crew in Montana, and the unexpected thrill of fishing the Blackfoot, my personal intent was seeing the Tetons once again. We were turned away from the National Park byway, and had to return to Jackson and take the commercial highway. I wasn’t pleased, for the byway offered tremendous photographic opportunities. One of those images that would haunt me was late in the afternoon when the range would be in an evening blue and possibly reflected in the quiet waters of the Snake River.

Neither of us wished for another day of purgatory, so we remained positive and continued up the highway. We stopped for some bison, and for several views along the way. Then I saw the first “picnic pullout” and was intrigued. Picnicking isn’t something we do much of anymore as a society. When I was a child picnics were a big deal. Mom would prepare at least a day ahead of time, and our picnics usually included cold, fried chicken, crunchy vegetables and either cookies or one of her incredible pies. What happened? Fast food chains? Not enough free time? No “picnic pullouts?” Mom always brought a picnic blanket and placed the food in the middle of the blanket, and we sat on the edge making sure our feet were nowhere near touching the picnic blanket.9.16.20-montana86

Far up the valley, and perhaps only a few miles from leaving the Tetons and entering Yellowstone, we pulled into perhaps the last of the picnic pullouts. While Mary gathered the edibles I sat out our camping chairs, and we took our sweet time with our first picnic with the view of the northern most peak of the Tetons reflected in the lake. Mom would have appreciated the moment … the taking of a break, the view, and most of all, the sense of peace that was pure Zen like.

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Gaining a day offers both pleasure and regret. While I didn’t get my late afternoon picture of the Tetons, there was the goodness of being through Yellowstone and on the way home. Our stop: Wapiti, Wyoming, just short of Cody. Mary found a nice cabin in lieu of camping, for the lodge had no more camping sites available. We would rest in harmony within a log cabin, with the only downfall a yellow jacket sting on the lip. Who knew those bastards liked Cabernet?

We had a great overview of a bend of the Shoshone River, yet as equally fascinating was a ridge across the way that appeared to have three distinct geological eras showing. I wished to have Carrie Jennings at our side to translate, as she does so well.wyo copy

Years ago I read the interesting John Mcphee book, “Rising from the Plains,” where he traveled throughout Wyoming with geologist David Love and reported the dialog they shared along the way. Before we left Wapiti I was able to make some interesting images of the nearby mountain scapes, although I kept returning to the distant ridge and the three different “landforms.

After an overwrought breakfast that included a deep pile of scrambled eggs, two sausage patties along with two biscuits smothered in a rich sausage gravy, I kept stalling in hopes of photographing all three of those landforms with ample sunlight. Below us the Shoshone bubbled over fields of rounded river stones. My only downfall was the swollen, droopy lip, although the knowledge that I could eat without food falling from my mouth was welcomed. Then the sun came out!

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Our drive home was to be about 12 hours from Wapiti, not including the time zone change. Yes, we were a day ahead of where we might have been had we found an open spot in the Tetons. But we were basically limping home with a hurting camping trailer and a weariness that comes with too many long days on the highways. After an overnight in an Aberdeen motel noted for Covid cleanups, we were still two to three hours from the farm. Although we had seen hints of autumn in North Dakota, Montana and along the Snake in Wyoming, we were still taken back a bit. If those murmurations in North Dakota, and the birds congregating in trees and resting in the reservoir of the Montana state park hadn’t been fair warning, the ravines in the Coteau told us all we needed to know … the seasons were changing.9.16.20-montana90

Not far from the town limits of Summit we started passing the ravines of the Coteau where autumn was in full swing. Leaves were turning, which added to the hundreds of geese and duck we had seen in the wetlands and lakes along the highway near Webster. It was fair warning that fall was encroaching, and that those wonderful times afield might be coming to an end. We hold hopes of having a repaired camper by October, for we have a  dream of camping in Maplewood State Park before the real snows come.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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