That Moment

IMG_0649A couple of weekends ago we needed to get out and test a boat. Almost November, our chances were dwindling. We put the word out, but everyone was hunting, or recovering from knee surgery, or on to another season. So we went, the two of us and Beans. Nothing heroic, just popped over the pass to the Yellowstone, put in on the edge of Livingston, paddled 40-some miles down to Big Timber.

You know the scene. Driftwood fires, hot drinks held close, geese overhead through the nights, deer taking refuge on the islands, ice in the jug at dawn, the cottonwoods browning and brittle. Not dawdling, really, but not pushing either. The pace of the river, the short days, the lining up of our strokes. Strolling around on gravel bars, heads down, looking for agate. That.

But then, on the second night, camped on the inside of a gravel bar along a narrow side channel, evening coming on, Marypat stoking the fire, I wandered down to the edge of the flow with a pot to fill. I stood there in the wet sand. The current swung into the narrows at the tip of the island, funneled down to a deep, green ribbon. On the far side water chattered over a shallow gravel bar, joining the flow. And how the river was, there, with the small roar of water dropping into the main flow, and the line of current curving and bending, the sense of joining and going on, and how I pictured our boat being carried along by that thin power, the small joy of it. Jesus, it made me salivate. That sliver of beauty with me standing nearby.

And now, weeks later, that’s what stays clear. That one moment, on the way for water, when the slick of river ran pure and heedless in front of me, and knowing that it is still running there, while the ice starts to form and the days shorten toward winter and the eagles shift in the snags, thinking of food.


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Half a Day

IMG_0445It wasn’t much. I didn’t even leave the house last Saturday before noon. A 45-minute bike shuttle, a couple of hours alone in a canoe on the lower Gallatin. Nothing much, except the music of water, the sleek heads of mergansers, the croak of raven, the sweep of river pushing against bank, leaves beginning to yellow, the rattle of kingfisher, a side channel I’d never tried before, a floating lunch at the pace of current, at rest in the late fall warmth. And, near the end, a sheath of glass-clean river pouring molten over a step of ledge, small beauty enough to make the heart yearn.

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Awards and Film Clip – Breaking News!!

Yes, I know, I can’t be accused of overdoing my blog posts. Life gets in the way, and that’s mostly a good thing. Occasionally, though, something happens that deserves a post.

First, a couple of awards I’m proud of. I won a first place and a third place award at the annual Society of Professional Journalists competition for 2014. Third place for my story about the tiny school in Bynum, Montana where every kid knows how to dance and how to play an instrument. In fact, every school day begins with an hour of dancing to old-time tunes. The story was titled, “No Child Not Dancing”. First place for my story about Kari Swenson and the sport of biathlon in Montana. Both stories appeared in issues of the Montana Quarterly.

Second, a film clip that just went live. Marypat and I were invited to take part in a Seasons film project, highlighting different outdoor activities in a seasonal format. We were Spring – Paddling, and the short clip is as much philosophy as season, but it’s quite beautiful (in spite of us). Have a look, enjoy and pass it on if you see fit.

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Mid-Winter Update

The dilemma for a blogger – if you are busy blogging, you aren’t busy living.

And yes, this is my excuse for not posting since late summer . . .

The threads of life keep weaving through the days and months.

Fall was a lingering and lovely season that went on into mid-November, both a blessing and an ominous portent. Blessing in that we were able to get out and enjoy mountain biking along the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota for a long weekend in late October, and a paddling jaunt to Bighorn Canyon on the Montana/Wyoming border two weeks into November.

Winter arrived on our way home from Bighorn Canyon. We went from the take-out boat ramp at 60 degrees, to snow and zero late that same night. That afternoon, while winter was dropping in, we scooted up high in the Bighorn Mountains to visit the Medicine Wheel there, and then, on the way home, also drove over to visit Plenty Coups State Park, south of Billings. Both were sweet, sacred spots and worthy visits. I’ve inserted a piece I wrote about the Medicine Wheel, and which was published by the news syndicate, Writers on the Range. Read below for my take on that remarkable spot.


The riddle of the circle of ancient power

Walk left, the sign says, at the entrance to the roped-off site.

It’s a place that hammers me in the chest. The world spills away, down into the Bighorn Basin, across Wyoming and north into Montana, a huge gallop of space. Brown miles stretch out veined with river courses, serrated with ridges and mountain ranges. Gray clouds bulk up on the horizon.

The Medicine Wheel is made of stones and rests close to 10,000 feet on the exposed northern end of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. It is mid-November, the end of a lingering fall, but it feels like storm. Wind tugs across the bare ridge through tufts of brittle grass. A skiff of snow sticks to the ground, blowing in hard pellets.  I fight the urge to return to safety, to lower ground, to pavement and the warm car.

I’ve been instructed to walk left. So I do.

I edge around the roped circle, looking in, wondering how to be here. Hundreds of offerings flap in the wind: Knotted scraps of red fabric, intricate bows, medicine bags, beaded necklaces, a pottery bowl, a buffalo skull, a hawk feather, a jaw bone. They are the artifacts of prayers and stories, gratitude and pleas, all gathered to this airy perch so starkly moving yet mysterious.

The wheel is nearly 100 feet across, a ring of stones seamed with 28 spokes, which some think might represent the lunar cycle. Stone markers sit at the four directions; including the points where the sun rises and sets on summer solstice. All laid out in this most remote, most wind-bitten, most grand perch. What it means, no one knows, or is saying, any more than anyone knows what Stonehenge in England means. What the Forest Service says is that circles like this one reflect the 7,000-year-old occupancy of Native Americans on the continent.

The Crow Tribe has a legend of a young man with a burned face who traveled here on a vision quest, and who first laid out this wheel. It has been noted that this site forms one point of an equidistant triangle, the other points being Devil’s Tower and Hell’s Half Acre, near Casper, Wyoming.

There are a great many stone sites scattered across the Great Plains – sacred hoops, altars, animal designs – some added to over many generations. Few are preserved. Most are unrecognized. Many have been plowed up or paved over or otherwise destroyed — another part of the legacy of oppression. Some are kept secret. The Medicine Wheel has been recognized and made a National Historic Landmark, for better or worse.

I walk left all the way around, looking in, then out across the sweep of distance, and close up, into the mountain valleys. The wind hammers my face, and then my back. I contemplate the offerings, imagine the people and lives they signify. I pull out my bandana and knot it around the rope, thinking about Mother Earth. It flaps in the wind. I imagine it fraying and fading along with the rest of these tattered prayer flags. It is inadequate, I know, not properly considered. It is also an impulse I can’t deny.

We lap once more, lingering, our faces cold, the wind rising. It had been an effort to come here, up the winding miles of 10 percent grade, out the snow-crusted dirt road and slippery track to the ridge. I think of the ancients walking up the long river valleys, climbing past the last tongues of trees, emerging into the exposed high country.

To do what? To sit? To fast? To dream? To sing? To pray? To dance and celebrate? To be grateful? To find solace? To understand?

It isn’t the impulse to be of that culture that I feel, standing here in this raw wind. Nor is it the voyeuristic urge to peek at forbidden sanctuary. It’s more the sense of emptiness and yearning in the cradle of the earth, the lack of ease or context as I walk around the ancient ring perched against sky. And also the ignorance about what to do with it, what ceremony to bring, how to act, what tradition to uphold.

All I have is the abrupt command to walk left, and to make what I might of this lonely circle of stone humming with power on the lip of the earth.


Since that weekend in November, winter has been capricious and odd. I’ve been bike riding in January and February. There is really no snow on the ground, and in the backcountry, even high up, things are thin. Marypat and I skied on crust into a Forest Service cabin in early Feb., a place usually buried under snow, and we saw bear tracks in the snow – bears out of hibernation in February! Strange stuff.

And family circumstances have become a looming factor, with Dad’s health sliding. He is now in Denver at a hospital, where he’s had a toe amputated and blood vessel blockages removed in his legs. Ann Noel is with him this week, but his prognosis, now, seems pretty dire.

So yes, blogging seems a strange and surreal luxury, and who knows when I’ll post next.

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Trip Reports!

Far-flung, epic, road-tested, calamity, hardship, triumph, break-through, satisfaction, disappointment – all of it applies to this summer and its slate of journeys. Of course, it went by in a flash and already we’re back into another school year. Already it seems like a fading memory, but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of the experiences, both for the kids’ expedition and for ours.

First, the kids . . .

47a4d622b3127cce98548a5a9d070000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rgIMG_5467From left to right – Ruby, Sawyer, Kelly and Quinn. And below, the parental unit posed by the venerable Honda Odyssey (333,000 miles and still ticking), adorned with swallow stencils applied 20 minutes before departure – a vintage Marypat touch.

The kids pulled off a truly gargantuan northern expedition from Yellowknife to Baker Lake in the Far North, following a trail across Great Slave Lake, Artillery Lake, the Hanbury River and the Thelon River. Their journey covered 1,000 miles in 41 days, a pretty stout pace, especially considering the conditions.

They ran into persistent ice on Great Slave Lake, which delayed them by nearly a week. The Northwest Territories experienced the worst fire season in history, and they encountered smoke so thick they couldn’t see more than 1/4 mile and several spots of open fire. Headwinds battered them for 15 consecutive days. At one point they considered turning back, given the circumstances, but chose to push on, driving themselves to paddle day or night, whenever windows of opportunity presented themselves.

The pace was exhausting, the conditions daunting, but they managed the expedition in great style, loving the tundra, seeing wildlife from musk ox to grizzly, baking cinnamon rolls, and continuing the family tradition of northern expeditions. As parents, it was a breakthrough moment when we welcomed the crew back home after their first self-reliant deep wilderness expedition.

47a4d622b3127cce98548ae29dbf0000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rgSecond, our “empty-nest (canoe)” expedition:

We set off from Old Forge, NY to paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in a beautiful new boat provided by Wenonah (the Spirit II). It was a back-to-the-future feel – back to the way it used to be, when the two of us occupied a boat hull and carried on across miles of watery backcountry, and to a future of trips together again without the kids.

All went well for more than 100 miles. We were cruising, averaging 25 miles a day despite frequent portages, using portage wheels when possible, handling lake crossings, rapids, locks and falls, navigating across “wild” country, New England style, which is a very different wild than the Far North – think ostentatious houses on lakeshores, motors of every stripe, Adirondack chairs on lawns, flags flapping from porches. Still, we were making great time and finding our tandem rhythm.

IMG_5523All that came to a screeching halt part way down the Saranac River, when we wrapped that pretty canoe around a rock in a heart-breaking accident. How did it happen? Kind of a long story, but it was a combination of unusual water, a less than complete route description, and some inaccurate expectations on our part.

We ran several sets of Class II-III rapids upstream without problem, carried around Teft Falls, and proceeded down to a set of ledges we hoped to line past. Only the river at that level was unlineable and we were forced to bushwhack a rough portage through nearly a mile of dense woods and swamp to avoid a long section of ledges and heavy water. At the end of that, we assumed we were past the worst of it, and loaded up again. Only the rapids continued, unabated. We ran the lines we wanted but kept taking on water in the drops. Several times we eddied behind boulders to bail and assess, until we went over a bigger drop, took on a big dose of water, and started to wallow. We tried to ferry to shore, but the boat was unwieldy and slow. In a terrible, slow-motion moment, we rode up on a rock and the boat folded into a hairpin around it, leaving us chest-deep in the eddy below.

For the next several hours we set up a handline and ferried everything to shore, including the wrecked craft. No amount of duct tape would fix that canoe. Both gunwales were snapped, there was a 4-foot tear in the hull, and a side-to-side crease folded the boat in half. As I say, heart-breaking. Nothing like that had ever happened to us on a trip. Very emotional, very lonely moment.

We camped there on the riverbank. That night we sat up late in the tent, going over maps, trying to decide on a Plan B. In the morning we bushwhacked with everything through the woods to the nearest road and hitched a ride to a phone. In one very long day full of wonderful people, we were able to get ourselves shuttled back to our Honda and make our way to my sister’s house in western Mass., and her offer of a loaner canoe to pick up our journey.

We decided to rejoin the canoe trail again in northern Maine. A week later, following some wonderful visits with friends and family, we launched again on Flagstaff Lake. For the next three weeks, we paddled the waters of northern Maine – upstream, downstream, connecting drainages, seeing moose, meeting people, navigating epic portages, getting our mojo back in a canoe together.

IMG_5642In the end, we spent a month on the waters of northern New England, paddled roughly 350 miles, hiked up to Avery Peak along the Appalachian Trail, navigated the Allagash Waterway, coasted past camps once occupied by Thoreau, to finish up at Ft. Kent, Maine on the St. John River along the border with New Brunswick.

As an unexpected benefit, our changed itinerary allowed us to indulge visits to old friends, college roommates, family, new acquaintances and to take care of our New England visitation obligations for the next decade!

So, not exactly according to plan, but when does life cooperate with our schemes? Back home with more than 6,000 summer miles on the old Honda, rich with family and fueled with a new batch of memories, new country, and plans to come.

This weekend – an overnight paddle on the lower Madison River. Next weekend – Marypat is part of a Dragon Boat crew competing on Flathead Lake. The week after that, two jaunts on the Yellowstone River with out-of-town visitors. Oh yeah, some work in there, some writing deadlines, some house projects . . . Life is good!



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Summer of Expeditions

get-attachment-1Imagine a small house, crammed with all three kids and various friends/partners, and the gear-up for two, 40-day wilderness expeditions going on simultaneously. That’s the scene here, while MP and I get ready to take on our first big expedition as a couple since 1991, and Ruby and Sawyer prepare for their 40/50-day trek in the Northwest Territories. Add in the demands of work, my mom’s memorial, and all the loose ends that need tying up before a summer of travel, and you get pandemonium with a tenuous lid on it. Right now, all of us are enduring the frenzy, asking ourselves whether it is really worth all this, and anticipating the relief that comes when the umbilical cord to home is finally cut, and we set off for the horizon.

For Ruby and Sawyer, their cousin Quinn, and friend Kelly, it will be their first serious wilderness expedition without parental oversight. They will paddle two folding canoes from Yellowknife to Baker Lake, NWT – more than 900 miles featuring Great Slave Lake, the Hanbury River, and the Thelon River. It is a classic route full of tundra, wildlife, open water, fast current, Inuit artifacts, all the elements of the Far North we’ve come to love. Their hope is to leave around June 10 (depending on ice-out).

MP and I are doing something very different. We’re heading for New England, where we will take on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It’s a 740-mile route from Old Forge, NY to Ft. Kent, ME, a system of loosely-cobbled together traditional water routes through the Adirondacks, up into Canada, and angling for about half its length through Maine. Along the way, a whopping 60 portages. It is different because it will be far more civilized than we’re used to, more like a European canal boat trip than an immersion in remote wilderness. We’ll have to wrap our minds/hearts around that reality. We’re hoping to complete the route in 40 days, but it may take a bit more (we’re not 25 anymore!!). So, the plan is to pull out of Bozeman on June 9 (garden planted, bills paid, kids hugged, house cleaned), and drive east.

Stay tuned for adventure reports, whacky stories, and whatever else might come from these twin expeditions. We should all reconvene in Bozeman by early August, just in time to gear up for the next school/work cycle. Meantime, Eli and his girlfriend, Sam, will be taking care of the house and working. Eli has a sweet job at the Marlboro Ranch in Clyde Park, MT, as part of the zip-line crew. An adventure in its own right.


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In Memory of Chelsea Kesselheim


Twenty miles south of Meeteetse, Wyoming, going seventy miles an hour, I top a rise and see the hitchhiker. Middle of nowhere. Empty two-lane. Gray, fall day – clouds clipping along, sandstone bluffs pocked with juniper, a raven sailing the updrafts, a skiff of snow in the hollows. A full backpack leans against his thigh. Thumb high. Nice smile. Some road wear, but presentable enough. Reminds me of me – forty years ago. I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in decades. All of this ticks across the mental screen, then he is in my rear view mirror.

In October my mother died. It happened suddenly, at home, without violence. She was there, then not.

Nothing prepares you for losing your mother. It’s like having children. No test drive available.

Ever since, I have been yo-yoing the 14 hours back and forth from Montana to spend time with dad, who is alone now in the house he shared with Chelsea for a quarter-century. He is not ready to leave. He may never be. My sense is that, much as he appreciates visitors, the condolences, the demonstrations of community, he is also keen for his own company, and for the tart solitude of grief. When he says goodbye, and turns back inside, it is with relief.

My cousin happened to be visiting on the day mom died. He said that Chelsea had been disoriented for a day or so, had dizzy spells, lost track of things. He sat with her after breakfast the last morning of her life. The night before she had woken my dad and asked him to take her to the kitchen so she could reorient herself to the house. That morning there were birds at the feeder outside. Sun pooled in the room. She had come to the point where so much about life was burdensome. She hated her mind, her looks, her fragile skin, the pills in weekly trays, her dependence. The nagging about using her cane, the fact that we took the car keys from her. She kept apologizing for her halting speech, her search for simple words. But she was lucid.

“I believe there is good in everyone,” she said to my cousin. “I have always believed that.”

Chelsea was famous for picking up hitchhikers, even into her 70s. An old lady, alone in her car, on some desolate Wyoming road, she would pull over and pick disheveled strangers up. Drove us crazy to think of her doing that. More than that, she would take people in, inviting them home for a meal, letting them stay a few days, giving them odd jobs, paying them wages worthy of the oil patch.  Did they take advantage? Sure, some of them, sometimes.

“So what?” she would say.

The hitchhiker is still there in the rear view, his silhouette tiny, shimmering slightly in the windy distance. No cars in sight. I find myself downshifting, looking for a wide spot on the shoulder, then swinging an abrupt arc across the highway, heading back.

I clear junk off of the passenger seat while he wrestles his pack into the back. We shake hands, start talking. He is from Montreal, a college student. He was tired of endless school, decided to take six months and travel until his money ran out. He bought a plane ticket to Seattle and started hitching from there, stringing together a web of geographic highlights he’d researched online. The usual suspects – Yellowstone National Park, Devil’s Tower, the Black Hills, but also some off-the-radar nuggets even I wasn’t familiar with.

“Hell’s Half Acre,” he says, when I ask where he’s going. “It’s a little park halfway between Shoshoni and Casper that sounds really cool.”

“I can get you to Shoshoni,” I say.

We talk about hitchhiking. I tell him I used to hitch when I was his age, that it was commonplace back in the 60s and 70s. People did it all the time. Now it seems more desperate, the people generally pretty sketchy.

“I want to keep the tradition alive,” he says.

He speaks with a slight French accent. I look over at him. I think what I would be feeling if he were my son saying that. Honestly, I don’t know, but I like him a great deal for the sentiment. And I think back to the gritty roads I waited on at his age, with the heft of my pack resting against my thigh, with the frontier of pavement and unscripted encounters gaping ahead across Arizona, or California, or Pennsylvania.

He is unabashedly excited at the sight of pronghorn. I pull over so he can get a photo to send home. Half a dozen graze in the sagebrush across a line of fence. In the distance, the swell of peaks, the piles of cloud, the roll of space. “I told them I was seeing antelope,” he says, “but I don’t know if they believed me.”

Fifteen years before my mother died, she wrote her epitaph.

It was an exercise at a writing retreat. She had been thinking about energy. When her own mother was dying, Chelsea stayed with her so she could be at home. In the last weeks, her mother traveled. You never knew where she’d come up. France in the 30s. New Orleans. Puerto Rico. Mid conversation with someone on 42nd Street, New York.

One day my mother asked her about God, what she made of it all. She was quiet a long time, barely breathing. She had come to the point where she hardly ate or drank. Already half gone. Hard to say whether she had heard, whether she was sleeping, where she’d slipped off to. Chelsea was used to waiting.

Then, abruptly, her mother said, “It’s all energy. That’s what I think about God. Energy.”

In the years since, Chelsea often referred to that notion, a web of nebulous, unfathomable, but quite real forces mingling and transforming and intersecting throughout the universe. And so, her epitaph, scrawled on a white page of lined paper.

Nothing is lost, only transformed.

Look for me in your memories,
In the generations past and to come.
See me in the blowing grasses,
The flowing rivers,
The spring mud and winter snows.
See me in the sage and the grazing antelope.
Nothing is lost, only transformed.”

We slow down for Thermopolis, then enter Wind River Canyon. My passenger, whose name I never learn, takes movies through the windshield. The canyon walls rise in craggy ramparts. The river, low now, feels through the bends.

I know he is thinking about what’s next, when I leave him again on the side of the road. What time of day it is, how much light he has, whether he’ll have to walk out of town to find a good spot, what he’ll have for dinner. Hitchhiking requires uncommon faith, the belief that needs will be met, that you will survive the bad spots and accept the good ones.

Shoshoni is visible from ten miles out. I think about rides I had, a generation back. Drunks in ramshackle vehicles that needed oil more often than gas. A semi hauling 65,000 pounds of popcorn. A band of hippies in a day-glow micro bus in Glacier National Park. I remember the day-to-day of it, the yearning, the edge of mishap sheer and close, the sweet and heady loneliness.

In her last morning my mother kept talking, apologizing as she searched for words, but clear enough. My cousin sat with her.

“Inside everyone there is a pure jewel of light,” she said. “Everyone is born with that. Our job, through the years, is to keep that light clear. Things happen to obscure and hide it. Scars and wounds cover it up. Our work is to keep it clear so that it shines out on the world.”

She got up then, my cousin told me. She made her way to the couch where she lay down to prop up her swollen legs. She rested against pillows.

“Five minutes later, she was gone,” he said.

We stop in Shoshoni. I turn toward Casper, drive to the edge of town, drop him off at a rest area. It’s a good spot. We shake hands. He heads for the bathroom before resuming his journey. I wish him luck. He waves.

So I turn around, head back west, toward my father, who is waiting for me in the house still so full of her. And all the way to him it is full of her. In the wind burring across the reservoir. In the late sun firing the Wind River Range. In the fleet antelope standing watchful in the twilight, preparing for night.

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Breaking News – High Plains Book Awards

On a recent October weekend in Billings, Montana, two of my books – Let Them Paddle and Montana: Real Place, Real People were finalists for awards. There were more than 200 books entered in the various award categories, which ranged from poetry to cookbooks, and I was honored to find that both of my books made the top three in their categories (non-fiction and art-and-photography). The high plains region covers half a dozen western states and several Canadian provinces and the event culminates in a celebratory weekend featuring readings, performances and discussions. Thomas Lee and I gave a reading/slide presentation from Montana: Real Place, Real People on Friday, and I read from Let Them Paddle  on Saturday. At the Saturday night dinner all the finalists were honored and the winners were announced.

The event is a community affair, marked by its generosity and an atmosphere of respect and good-will, a real testament to the organizers. Corby Skinner, Director of the Writer’s Voice, in Billings, has been an instigator and driving force behind the event since its inception, a dozen years ago, and his energy infuses the celebration. The party at Corby’s historic home in Billings caps the weekend.

It is an award I cherish, and an honor I am very proud of.

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Ruby’s Graduation Expedition – June/July 2013

Ruby riding bow on the Marias River in Montana, a few years before high school.

Waiting for high tide on Hudson Bay

A few years ago Ruby made it very clear that she had no interest in the usual high school celebrations or gifts. What she wanted, more than anything, was a return to the Far North, on an expedition worthy of the occasion. Ever since Eli’s coming of age expedition on the Kazan River, when Ruby was barely 10, she has held an abiding flame for the tundra lands and the exhilarating environment north of civilization.

Who were we to resist? So, this June, we’re heading north to Yellowknife, NWT, and will take off for a month in the boreal/tundra wilderness north of Great Slave Lake. At this point it looks like we’ll paddle up the Yellowknife River roughly 150 miles, and spend whatever time we have exploring the tundra near the head of that drainage. We’re still weighing options for the return route to Great Slave – back down the Yellowknife, down the Snare, or one of several other possibilities. All depends on time, ambition, preferences, and which way the wind blows.

The big thing is that we will be there reveling in that great beyond Ruby fell in love with as a young girl. Stay tuned for more reports.

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Don’t Wait!

Kazan River lunch during Eli's coming-of-age expedition.


Call it parental revelation.

The three of them range out in front, dots of colorful energy bushwhacking across the tundra above 10,000’, deep in the Washakie Wilderness of northern Wyoming. Ruby, 11, Sawyer, 13, and Eli, 14. They look so small. At the same time, they exude confidence and zeal. We can hear them calling to each other, urging each other on, eager for the next corner. Their exuberance and independence is absolute, obvious at 100 yards.

We are 25 miles from the trailhead, on our way to the summit of Younts Peak, which overlooks the forks of the Yellowstone River from better than 12,000’. The ramparts of the blocky summit rise above the valley, intimidating and enticing. First, though, and more important, we seek the literal headwaters of the Yellowstone, that first drip of river off of the snout of snowfield, the river we have come to know intimately as a family. A month earlier we finished canoeing its entire 550-mile navigable length, from the Yellowstone Park boundary to the confluence with the Missouri in North Dakota.

To get here the kids carried full packs up the trail, up thousands of feet, over several days. Hiking ten miles a day with a few thousand vertical thrown in has been routine. They have earned this unburdened ramble to the summit, and this quest for the source of the river so fresh in our collective experience.

I watch them, savoring their energy, the distant snatches of their banter; savoring how at home they all are here. And I think, what if we had waited?

What if we had followed that cliché of American conventional wisdom to ‘Wait until they’re old enough’? If we had, we might just now be ramping up the first outing, pulling them away from their other commitments – soccer, friends, the city pool. We might be lucky or persuasive enough to wrench them out of their comfort zones and lure them down the trail, into a canoe, up a mountainside, but it would be a struggle. And once there, we would only now be starting the education in how to live comfortably in the wilds, how to pace yourself with a pack on, how to detect and take care of a budding blister, how to set camp and pack up in the morning and cook food and start a fire. The learning curve would be steep, the discomforts problematic, the competing distractions compelling. We might not pull it off at all.

And what we would have missed! All the places we have been with them, already. All the adventures they have woven into the synapses of their beings, that have made them who they are. The collage starts up in the theater of my memory.

Sawyer losing an appalling number of baby teeth on a two-week trip down the flooding Yukon River, in Alaska. Eli pulling lake trout the size of his leg out of an eddy along the Kazan River in Nunavut. Ruby cajoling the boys into swimming in each frosty lake on a 40-day tundra expedition. The summer Marypat instituted a peak-bagging club with the kids and their friends, and became a Pied Piper leading packs of short people up the craggy slopes of southwestern Montana . . . bike rides, desert blooms, ski trails, whitewater runs, Forest Service cabins.

The memories are a wealth — gratifying, full of heart and drama — but what comes with those memories matters more. How the kids, each in their way, learned the bigger lessons by being in wild places since birth. How to endure through difficulty. How to support each other. How to put one foot in front of the other, or plant another paddle stroke in a day of thousands, to get to camp. How to appreciate the other creatures who live with us on the planet. How to make a fire with wet wood. How to hunker down in the face of a storm and be patient and secure.

I remember talking to Sawyer after a long expedition in the subarctic. He was still in middle school. “I can’t talk to my friends about the trip,” he said. “Whenever I start to tell them about it, they say, ‘oh yeah, I went to a hunting camp with my dad last fall’, like it’s the same thing. It’s not their fault, but they just don’t get it.” When he said that, I ran the image of my son, barely 100 pounds, toiling across a two-mile long, muskeg portage, dwarfed by his load, waving black flies out of his face, twenty days into an expedition that was only half over.

“Yeah,” I said to him. “It isn’t their fault, but you’re right, there’s no way they can relate.”

That’s the other thing — what these three young children have brought me. Sure, we’ve taken them on some big trips. Yes, we started them young, literally at birth. Eli went with us the first time down the entire Yellowstone River at nine months. Sawyer joined a trip down the Green River in Utah at three months. Ruby went on a horsepack trip into the Spanish Peaks of Montana as a one-year old. But what stands out from those experiences, and continues to this day, are the lessons and insights they teach me.

Watching Eli explore the texture of warm sand for the first time before he was one. Sawyer finding a mud wallow in a river bank and going full-body immersion, and getting everyone else to join him. Ruby playing air guitar by a sputtering fire on a drizzly, hypothermic day in the Far North. The games they invent, the treasures they find, the questions they ask, the observations they make, the fortitude and joy with which they embrace the experience. More than anything, the take-home lesson is that, from the get go, they have been absolutely unfazed by being in wild places. They never for a second questioned it. In fact, as they have gotten older, they keep raising the bar.

Here, in this alpine day, Ruby forges out ahead of the pack, disappears around the shoulder of a ridge, hiking fast. The boys scramble to catch her. Marypat and I pick up the pace. There is something ineffable, enticing, mysterious about the source of a great river. The lure is primal, universal. It has to be close. Around the corner the low, gentle divide separates the flow. A small snowfield is pasted against the steep talus slope. At the base, water drips off in the summer warmth, filling a shallow basin, trickling across a bedrock sill.

Then I see Ruby.

She is sprawled on her belly, her face over the icy water as if studying her reflection. Her lips are pursed, she drinks deep, filling her belly with the first drops of this storied river. We all follow her lead, one after another, lining up prone on the sun-warmed rock in this high country that is so thick with bears, drinking the river that carried our boats across the plains of Montana. It is absolutely the right thing to do. Ruby may be barely out of elementary school, but she knows unerringly what is called for in this wild moment.

The day at the headwaters, and scaling Younts Peak, is long. It is twilight before we are back to camp, eating dinner, perched near a small lake around the corner from Marston Pass. The kids discovered glissading on our descent from the lofty perch on Younts. The same snowfields we had carefully kick-stepped up, they schussed down on their boots, whooping and giggling. And all the way back around the headwall, they scampered up every little snow bank for more. Fatigue? What fatigue?

After dinner, they all head to the far side of the lake to another small snow patch. They strip to their undies and camp shoes, then start yo-yoing up and down the slope, each run ending with a bracing splashdown in the shallow lake. Then, in the gloaming, Sawyer and Marypat walk together to a nearby knoll to study the peaks and ridges that seam the horizon, with the Tetons floating in the purple distance.

A full moon rises. It is absolutely silent. Only the hum of the earth, the hum of summer, and the grace of pale light pooling in our high camp. I think what our adventures used to be like, without them, what they might again be after they leave. And I see, clear as the moonlit beauty of this evening, that it has never been about what we have provided for the three of them, but rather, about everything that they have led us to.

A slightly different version of this appeared recently in High Country News.

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