Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

CHAPTER ONE – MAY: TRADITIONS

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

This year it is a week into May before I cajole Marypat into joining me in a canoe on the upper stretch of the East Gallatin River. I’ve checked the gauge and it’s running about 200 cubic feet per second (cfs), nothing like peak runoff, when it could barrel along with 1,000 cfs or more, but enough to get us down. I’ve run this river for some 35 years, and this uppermost bit I’ve probably been down a hundred times. I used to think nothing of taking it on solo, but as I’ve aged, and gotten less nimble, I prefer to go tandem to cope with the inevitable, repeated moments when a downed tree or beaver dam or fence suddenly appears around a bend and it’s a mad scramble to cope. The knees just don’t unbend the way they used to.

It isn’t that MP is unwilling. She’s game, but with life getting in the way as it does, we don’t always line our schedules up. We load the 16’ red boat on the rig, drive a mile north to the edge of town, and park. It isn’t a sanctioned launch and never has been. We pull off the edge of the side street, unload the boat, and lower it down the bank under a spreading willow tree with roots thicker than my thigh. I have stepped into the boat here in downpours, at bankful flood stage, on sunny spring days, at dawn and dusk, with feelings of joy and relief and anger and worry.

It was the first thing I did after I was cleared of cancer from my eye tumor, a decade ago. We got the all clear from the doctor, I went to each of the kid’s schools and got them out of class to share the news, and then I put the canoe in this water at this spot with my partner of so many years, so many shared bends of current, and for the next couple of hours full of sluicing river, hairball adventure, circling hawks, looming mountains, we celebrated.

The first time we paddled this section we had been invited by fellow paddlers who were volunteering on a river cleanup day. Why not? Although we’d lived in Bozeman a few years, knew the small river as a local feature, running right through town, we’d never considered paddling it. That day in the early 1980s there were six or eight of us in canoes and we put into the flow at precisely the same spot. Back then the local animal shelter was across the street, a nondescript industrial district sat across the way, and a dilapidated trailer park bumped up against the stream bank. Nobody noticed our launch. A mournful howl drifted across from the animal shelter.

In the decades since, some things have changed. The shelter has moved to another location. The business park has been built up. The trailer park is the same, but there are trails, foot bridges, a nearby public park, groomed ski trails during the winter. Back then it was the nondescript, somewhat decrepit municipal border that no one much noticed.

The East Gallatin gathers itself from the Bridger Mountains, the Hyalite Peaks, Bear Canyon. Rocky Creek, Bear Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Bozeman Creek, Bridger Creek and a handful of other mountain streams join together to create the flow that meanders for 35 or 40 miles across the Gallatin Valley until it joins the West Gallatin and proceeds down to the headwaters of the Missouri. The precise headwaters are vague. Some maps put it at the confluence with Bridger Creek, a few turns down. Others have it at the confluence of Rocky and Bear Creeks, a few bends up.

It is a storied piece of water, in its way. William Clark made his way up the East Gallatin riding horses on his way to the Yellowstone River and his rendezvous with Lewis near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri the summer of 1806. Clark remarked on the plentiful beaver, which made travel boggy and difficult, and noted the ferocity of mosquito life. The Indian peoples of the region called the Gallatin Valley ‘Fat Valley’ for its bounty of game and edible plants. I’ve heard that indigenous people set aside the valley as a safe zone of peace and plenty.

In the time since the Shoshoni and Blackfeet and Crow, since Lewis and Clark and the fur-trade era the region is so famous for, the East Gallatin has been, from all evidence, a garbage dump. That became clear within the first bend. We started picking up the detritus of generations of people who operated on the out-of-sight-out-of-mind theory of waste disposal. Our canoe hulls filled up with rubber boots, old tires, Styrofoam coolers, lawn furniture, soccer balls, fishing bobbers, scraps of metal, hoses. Never mind the stuff we couldn’t fit into our hulls – stoves and refrigerators, old cars imbedded in the banks as riprap, tractor tires. Our canoes transformed into garbage scows, precarious with muddy trash.

It was appalling. These creeks and rivers make the valley the lush and verdant place it is. Without them Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley, local agriculture, towns and settlements, none of it would be tenable. The bends full of beaver William Clark complained about are what make the soil fertile, the vegetation thick, the habitat rich. And here’s how we expressed our appreciation, by dumping our cars, our kitchen sinks, our junk over the banks, not to mention trapping the beaver to near extinction.

Towns everywhere have located along streams like this. Without the water flowing past, these communities couldn’t function. Creeks and rivers like the East Gallatin bequeath the water that runs out of taps, flushes away wastes, waters lawns, irrigates crops, lubricates industry. They provide the everyday lifeblood that makes settlement possible. And yet, time and again, these life-giving flows are polluted, littered, exhausted, ignored and taken for granted. They deserve reverence, gratitude, respect, and yet, they are universally abused.

To my surprise, a few bends in, the small river began asserting its magic. Sullied, yes, but also fun, heads up, full of life. Warblers flashing in the willows, sandhill cranes calling from the banks, white-tail deer in the brush, red-tailed hawks screaming overhead. At stops to gather more garbage, raccoon prints stippled the mud. Every bend held a surprise. More than once a log jam or beaver dam or wall of vegetation blocked the way, forcing us to drag around or over or through. The current ran headlong into corners, through overhanging brush. In spite of the accumulating heap of garbage weighing down the boats, despite the insulted river, we were giggling with the goofy challenge like kids on a joyride.

The next week, that spring, I went back. I kept gathering garbage, but more than that, I started using the East Gallatin like a gym workout. A gym work out and, in a way, my church; the place I went to for solace. I could bike the shuttle and be self-sufficient. Again and again, that spring, and the next, and the one after that, I kept returning, sometimes several times a week, until I knew that little flow on the outskirts of town as well as the dog walk I took every morning. And it was mine alone. I never saw anyone else on the water.

Marypat hasn’t paddled the East Gallatin nearly as often as I have. She has her own, different, adventurous compulsions. But she knows it well, and appreciates the elements of surprise that are inevitable, especially on the first run of spring. Some surprises are gifts, like the log jam I expect two bends down that has been swept away in the year since I paddled it. Other surprises, not so pleasant. Around a corner with little chance to react we come upon a log across the channel. Marypat draws the bow into shore, I swing the stern around and paddle hard upstream, into the bank, where MP grabs a fistful of willow and hangs on. I grip a branch while she climbs out and scouts a way around through the thick vegetation. There are old patches of snow still in the dry cattails. We shove the canoe through the brush, over a log or two, and back to the river below the obstruction.

The river is dynamic. I know this conceptually, but also viscerally, by virtue of all the years I’ve watched it change, and by reacting to those changes. A log jam of thick-hulled cottonwood trees seems absolutely permanent, lasts for years, gathers bulk, and then, one spring, is miraculously gone. But a new one appears two bends down. Beavers come and go with their matrix of dams. Oxbow bends become more and more pronounced, until, one spring, a new channel cuts the ‘bow’ and straightens the channel. A river bend erodes under a barbed wire fence that drapes dangerously over the channel. I admit to carrying fencing pliers and cutting a few strands of wire. Every year and every water level has its mix of beneficence and hazard.

This year with Marypat is no exception. We sweep around corners, hugging the inside of the bends, craning for the next surprise. Passages are hemmed in by overhanging willows. We duck under branches that brush our backs. A homeless camp slides past, old tarps, a flannel sleeping bag draped in the underbrush, a cable spool for a table. A Canada goose flushes from its nest. Rambler station wagons jut out of river banks. We whip around a corner next to a golf course fairway and another log blocks the channel. Again, Marypat plants a strong draw, the canoe swings into shore, we both scramble for a hold before the canoe is swept into the tree.

“Hey, is that Al and Marypat?” I hear from across the river. “What the hell are you guys doing?”

“Oh, hey Bob. Hi Susie,” I recognize friends from town out playing a round of golf. “Just out for a little float.”

“Of course you are,” Susie laughs, watching us heave our boat across the log.

A large measure of what makes this run sweet is the through-the-looking-glass feel of it. It goes past subdivision back yards, by several golf courses, within view of the old town dump, under roads. It is delicious to sneak up on someone lining up a putt, or out on their patio, or tending horses in a corral and surprise them. “Is this the way to St. Louis?” is my stock greeting. This is not one of those popular floats full of yellow inner tubes towing six-packs of beer. Good thing, because if you don’t know what you’re doing with a paddle, you’ll get hurt.

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

By the time we go under the side road that marks the halfway point, we’ve had to hop out and pull around something four times. I have never had a clean run down this section, but it is particularly gnarly this year.

“I’m glad I’m not solo,” I say to my partner. “Thanks for coming.”

For years I stuck to this upper piece of the river, over and over again. I’m nothing if not a damn creature of habit. Then, one May, my friend Scott said that he had Mondays off. “What if we did it all, section by section, every Monday in May?” he asked. Why didn’t I think of that? I chided myself.

We did just as Scott suggested. The river is sectioned off by bridge crossings at convenient intervals so that we could bump down the watercourse a couple hours at a time, once a week. I introduced him to my well-worn section the first Monday. Then, week by week, we entered the unknown, past more golf courses, through housing developments, across agricultural land. The next two sections were as prone to hazard as the first one, pocked with downed trees, low bridges, sudden choices on the fly. We felt our way around bends, navigated log jams, found gaps in beaver dams, avoided fences, had more than a few close calls. Over the course of that month we did it all, down to the confluence with the West Gallatin.

Since then, I’ve been repeating all the sections, finding my favorite bits, becoming as familiar with the lower river as I was with the upper. The winding section with different views on every bend, fed by spring creeks that keep the channel open even in mid-winter. The last piece that remains runnable all summer long and is especially beautiful in the fall, when it feels wrapped in gold. Each section has a reasonable bike shuttle, so I can do them solo.

Emboldened by Scott’s out-of-the-box perspective, I decided one year to do the entire river in one go. The first time I went solo, up at five a.m., coffee mug stuffed down the front of my life jacket, pushing down through the tangled upper half, then stroking on through ag land, with views opening, cranes calling in the fields, herds of deer flashing away. It took me a solid 12 hours of constant paddling and I was hit by a wall of thunderstorm within minutes of pulling the boat out of the water. A year or two later, I did headwaters to confluence again, this time with my son, Sawyer.

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

Anymore, it’s enough to complete a top to bottom run every year, bit by bit. I no longer hit the river as often as I used to, but I get it in, starting with the original fraught piece of water on the edge of town, and bumping my way on down, with friends, on my own, in any season. It’s a treat to introduce friends who know how to handle a boat to my favorite sections. “This isn’t the kind of thing you bring your Uncle Frank from Dayton down,” one friend said. “You could get in trouble on this.”

Near the end of this year’s run with Marypat, there is a choice. The river splits and one channel speeds down an ‘S’ curve obscured by willows, where obstacles often hang up. The other leads into an irrigation canal for a golf course, goes through a culvert, and returns to the main channel below the curve. At the right water level, and with the right amount of gumption, it’s possible to slide through the culvert on a fast tongue of river. It is barely wide enough for our canoe. You have to lie down flat, holding the paddles along side, and then pop up quickly to brace against the main current where the culvert spills out. It’s a dicey, amusement-park, thrill. The kids love it. I considered it for years, every time I went by, before I finally tried it.

We choose the diversion, and also elect not to go through the culvert. We have been in and out of the canoe seven times in a run that takes two hours, tops. A couple of spots were more sporting than comfortable. One more thrill seems unnecessary. We drag the canoe past the edge of a close-cropped golf green and slide back into the river.

Where we pull out, several bends farther along at another bridge, people, some of them neighbors, drive past, looking over at us strapping the canoe on the roof rack. No doubt they are wondering what the hell we’re doing, but that’s our secret.

 

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Traditions come and go, at least in my life, and paddling traditions are no exception. My yearly start-to-finish run of the East Gallatin will, one spring, not happen, but while it is still going, the power of my 30-plus-year commitment keeps me honest. Without that expectation, I could easily let it slide, or skip a segment or two. I feel some obligation to the task, to the river, to that magic made up of boat and paddler and current.

With my same friend Scott I maintained a series of May “boy’s trips” that emerged out of an off-handed suggestion to paddle the Dirty Devil River in central Utah. We noticed how it ran through some isolated slickrock canyon country when we were driving past one time. Turned out we didn’t do it that year, because the water never came up. Nor did we get to our second choice, the Owyhee River in Oregon, because the water there came up too much. That first May we ended up doing a week on the Little Missouri River through the badlands of North Dakota. Every year after, in May, we took on another river. We ended up with four or five companions, and the tradition lasted five or six years, until, for one reason or another, we didn’t pull it off one year. Good while it lasted.

More recently, I’ve been caught up in another budding series I call Three Rivers. The impulse rose out of a long-standing fantasy I’ve nurtured to spend the better part of May bumping around Montana and running ephemeral rivers in the state, rivers that only have enough water in them to paddle for a month or two every year. I had this cozy image of myself, camping in riverside sites, figuring out my shuttles, and wandering here and there around the state, led by the scent of the next tantalizing bit of spring flow.

At some point I realized that the fantasy was unlikely to materialize anytime soon. As a stopgap, I sent out a whimsical email to a bunch of paddling friends suggesting a Memorial Day outing during which we’d paddle three different rivers, one on each of the long weekend days, and camp out between – sort of a miniaturized version of my month-long dream. I was shocked when most of the people I’d contacted jumped at the idea. Once I realized what I’d unleashed, I established some protocol. First, I would choose the itinerary. Second, there would be no micro-managing endless email chains discussing who would bring hamburger buns. Third, the expectation was that people would show up, be self-contained, take part in whatever portion of the weekend they wanted to, and have fun.

Damned if it didn’t work. The first year I sent out a general itinerary for three bits of water, the camps we would travel to between rivers, and set a time for everyone to show up Saturday morning at a wide spot on a rural state highway in central Montana next to Belt Creek. Sure enough, at 10 a.m. in a drizzle, a respectable crowd wheeled in, ready for the weekend. The tradition is now six years on. If anything, the event has gathered steam. We’ve had as many as eleven inflatable canoes strung out in parade formation snaking down little creeks and rivers all over Montana. Members show up from as far away as Arizona. We’ve had to limit participation.

Rivers and conditions have run the gamut from gorgeous and sedate to unlikely and hilarious. So far, no one has gotten seriously hurt. There have been hot moments of escape to river banks to avoid downed trees, a few capsizes, some boat punctures due to lethal hawthorn thickets, borderline cases of hypothermia, bridges so low we had to turn our heads sideways as we slid under to save our noses, sudden downpours so pelting that we’ve literally been blinded. Some stretches are nice to have done, but not worth repeating, ever. Others are ones to mark for a return. Some of the best have been the ones we’ve known the least about, or that seem the least likely – places like Silverbow Creek, downstream from the Superfund site in Butte, Montana, or Big Spring Creek, from the gushing headwaters above the town of Lewistown.

Part way down Big Spring Creek, after spending several hours stuttering through the first two miles, miles full of fences, downed trees, low bridges, portages around obstacles, thickets of thorny brush, Marypat turned to me. “This is the kind of thing I would have killed to do when I was a kid!” Luckily, everyone in that group remains a kid.

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

What has made the series satisfying is the overall competence of the crew, and the willingness to take what comes in stride. People have, in fact, shown up ready to go, self-contained, more or less on time, with their poop in a group. They take part in the rivers that appeal to them, pass on the ones that don’t. We caravan from spot to spot, take over campgrounds. There is no pressure, but once we get on the water, everyone is all in.

It’s gone on long enough now that finding suitable prospects has become more challenging. The last two years have required some scouting to ferret out the trio of rivers to target. In April I took a road trip to the deep southwestern corner of Montana, and across the divide into Idaho, checking out candidates.

I began with Grasshopper Creek. It had been suggested by my brother-in-law, Andrew, who lives in Dillon. We were on a ski outing with him in mid-winter. I’d been talking about finding good rivers for this year’s outing, and as we drove over this small, snow-bound creek, he said, “What about Grasshopper Creek?”

It had some of the qualities I’d come to seek – off the radar, no route descriptions, quirky, scenic. What about it? When I came back in April I drove to Bannack State Park to have a look. The flow was adequate, if not plentiful. All I could see were the first few bends through the gold-mining ghost town. Then it disappeared toward a low canyon. I talked to a maintenance guy working nearby. “Could be a fun float,” he said. “I’ve been partway down the dirt road along it in a Jeep. There are a couple of canyon sections. Pretty quiet country – ranches and a mine. Never heard of anyone doing it, but who knows?”

I drove around to the take out, a fishing access on the Beaverhead River near the confluence with Grasshopper Creek. Again, not much visible. I could see a bend or two upstream into ranchland, low hills, a distant canyon. Still seemed like enough water to float a boat. We’d have to slog upstream on the Beaverhead to get to the access point, but doable. Problem was, the entire flow between glimpses was a mystery. Edgy. Problematic. Maybe perfect.

I covered a lot of ground that day. I scoped out such mainstream paddling destinations as Big Sheep Creek, the upper reaches of Red Rock Creek, a section of Horse Prairie Creek, along with some of the Lemhi River over in Idaho. All of them thin, boney, crammed with problems. I came home discouraged. But I couldn’t get the seductive glimpses of Grasshopper Creek out of my mind. I really wanted to get a boat on that little mystery.

A month later, shortly after breakfast on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, people gather on the riverbank adjacent to a campground in Bannack State Park. I have been repeatedly amazed that this crew of smart, old-enough-to-know-better folks keeps following me to these unlikely spots. The day before we ran a new section of the Big Hole River. It was a nice warm up. Sunny, pleasant, easy water, no surprises. Today, in contrast, everyone understands that this is the marquee event, the void. Thunderstorms are predicted. The sky is gray, temperatures cool.

Several people have downloaded our route onto their phones. “It’s between 10 and 11 miles as the crow flies,” says one of them. “But this river doesn’t fly like a crow!” He holds up the screen to show a tortured, twisting blue squiggle.

“Okay,” I say, “here’s the orientation talk. I have no idea what the fuck we’re getting into. That’s the whole of it. I’ve seen the top three bends and the bottom two bends. I know where we start and end, but nothing between. Let’s keep each other in sight and take our time.”

It is a moment when a reasonable voice could interject, bring up some doubts, start the whole house of cards shaking. I half expect it, but it doesn’t come. This group of college professors, physician assistants, art teachers, lawyers, photographers, nurses start milling around, topping off inflatable boats, shrugging into life vests, and then we are on the river. The line of blue canoes snakes around the first few bends past the ghost town buildings, under a footbridge. Tourists watch us go past.

Bannack was founded in 1862, when gold was discovered along Grasshopper Creek, and it served as the Montana territorial capitol for two years, before it was relocated to Virginia City, another mining boomtown. At its height, Bannack had some 10,000 residents who supported three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmiths, two meat markets, a grocery, restaurant, brewery and four saloons. It was a violent town, famous for its vigilante justice and spontaneous, no-trial hangings. In the first year more than a ton of nearly pure gold was pulled out of the area, but the easy pickings quickly dwindled and interest shifted to other strikes elsewhere in Montana, places like Alder Gulch and Last Chance Gulch. Still, Bannack boasted a few permanent residents into the mid-twentieth century. In 1954, the town’s last resident, C. W. Stallings, sold the whole enchilada for $1,000 to citizen groups interested in maintaining the historic character of the area.

Not long after the weathered buildings and wooden boardwalks maintained by the state park are out of sight, the first canyon swallows us. Valley sides steepen, the creek picks up speed, runs through rock-choked channels. A boat hangs up on a rock and in short order three or four more boats pile in. People hop out, horse the rubbery craft past overhanging brush, through minefields of boulders. Subdued chaos ensues. Several of the younger members are doubled over laughing at the sight of gimpy elders hot-footing around in knee-deep water. This goes on for a mile or two. Eventually we figure out the spacing better, get more proficient at navigating the obstacles, but it remains a circus.

Then the valley flattens out. The creek loops in tortured bends back and forth. On the outside of every corner prickery brush hangs over the flow. Boats drag past or through the branches, depending on teamwork. There is no time to lay back and enjoy the float. I can’t even find time to clean my glasses. Several hats are lost to overhanging branches. The bends go on and on. A low, funky bridge made out of what looks like flattened car bodies requires a portage around.

Marypat and I find ourselves in the lead, just in time to see a cow moose and calf cross the river, flounder up the steep bank, and crash off into the willows. Out of nowhere, a cowboy on horseback appears, watches us go past, and spurs his horse away. It starts to rain. Everyone pulls on weather gear. It comes down hard and cold for a while, long enough to get tiresome. Then it quits and we decide to pull off and have some lunch in a spot of sun. Those with maps on phones report that we’re maybe a third of the way down. We’re a motley crew, munching sandwiches, taking pees in the sagebrush, drying gear. Someone has a shirt that is ripped to shreds by the vegetation. He looks like a victim of self-flagellation. More hats are reported lost.

Right after lunch we enter the second canyon. Immediately one of the boats gets hung up in some shrubbery on a tight bend, the next boat runs into them and capsizes. We regroup. The canyon, it turns out, is a lovely couple of miles past overhung walls, rockbound corners, largely free of obstacles. Magical and unexpected. But then, immediately following, the stream cants downhill through rock-strewn stretches that call for strenuous maneuvering and evoke even more strenuous conversations between bow and stern paddlers. More hilarity among the younger set. Another portage around a crude ranch bridge and over a fence. Suddenly, a mining operation with a sign requesting that visitors have appointments. No one around. We coast past.

It goes on. Another slow and winding stretch, followed by an absolute hairball section of fast water with several thick cables strung inexplicably over the channel, with logs across the pushy current, with fast tunnels of water through face-slapping willows. An occasional eddy or small gravel bar provides momentary respite where we can gather up and make sure everyone is accounted for. We are more than halfway, but it’s late afternoon and no telling what challenges lie ahead.

People are tired. Clothes are tattered. Hats are in short supply. We continue. The day wanes. Every outcrop of rock worries me – another canyon, a waterfall . . . The creek winds past some pasture. This ten-mile postage stamp of Montana backcountry, with a state park on one end and an interstate highway on the other, where nobody goes, reveals itself in a slow motion scroll. Several times I think about all the similar spots in this state. This isn’t federal land, a park, any kind of designated wilderness, just a patch of country with some ranches, some off the radar enterprises, difficult access, also full of lovely canyons, a thriving population of moose, all of it sitting quietly in the middle of things.

The parade of blue boats bobs around the bends like a gaggle of ducks. Another moose and calf heave out of the river and trot away. Rain showers come and go. We have headlamps, I think. Someone said they brought matches. I measure the sun against the horizon.

Then, unexpectedly, I see a semi-trailer going past on the interstate that I know runs alongside the Beaverhead River. Another couple of bends and the Grasshopper joins the Beaverhead. We turn up against the larger river, paddle hard, then step out of the boats and slosh on foot, towing boats upstream along the bank the final hundred yards to our take-out. Everyone straggles in, beat, disheveled, grinning like fools.

Someone with a phone announces the total distance and time – 22.5 miles in nine and a half hours. In the gloaming, thunderheads going pink with sunset, a bottle of rum gets passed around. The hot, burning liquid goes down like sweet fire. People are pounding each other’s backs, recounting mishaps, showing off bruises. Relief rises from the group like steam.

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

 

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Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

WATERSHED – INTRODUCTION

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            I was ambushed by how agonizing it felt to hit ‘send’ when I finished the email. I let it linger there on the screen, pulsing faintly. I read through the short thread of correspondence leading up to my response. I got up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee while it sat there, waiting.

The email was an answer to a simple, breezy, routine request from the coordinator of the college department I taught for. How many classes did I want in the fall? Every semester, about halfway through, I’d gotten a similar request. For fifteen years roughly half of my professional time had been taken up with teaching freshmen seminar classes at Montana State University. It was a gig I’d happened on to augment my erratic and unpredictable freelance writing career.

I was a lowly adjunct professor, that class of teacher colleges have gravitated to in order to save money, reduce benefit costs, and escape saddling tenured professors with teaching lower level courses. It offered few benefits, no long-term security, and pitiful pay. Every semester, especially early on, felt like a crapshoot – whether I’d be asked back, how many sections I’d be offered – all up to the whim of an administrator or department head who might decide new blood was needed, or my evaluations weren’t up to par, or that I didn’t match the seniority of someone else on the roster. Adjunct faculty are both the institutional grist that keep colleges and universities running, and about as institutionally valued as grist.

And yet, that email remained on the screen until I finished the cup of coffee, all the while pondering what felt like a monumental step. You’d think it would have been easy. I had expected, contemplating my plans, that it would be easy, liberating even. I’d made up my mind, hadn’t I? My finger hovered. I punched ‘send’, stood up, and took a nervous, pacing lap around the room, swinging my arms.

The fact was, inching into retirement at 66 was a decision fraught with ambivalence and worry, tangled up in a messy nest of self-worth, self-doubt, ambition, notions of legacy, concern about making ends meet all the way to whatever the end is, health concerns and that overworked quality-of-life calculation.

To begin with, I knew I’d miss teaching. The department was nice enough to say that if I regretted my decision, I’d be welcomed back, but I’d shut a door. Despite the unglamorous and underappreciated nature of adjunct status, I liked the work.

The weekly faculty meetings, intended to keep us a week or two ahead of the class syllabus, were part of the job I’d initially dreaded as bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. In fact, those weekly discussions about Socrates, or Martin Luther King’s letter from jail, or any number of readings on the environment or social justice or indigenous people were stimulating as hell. They modeled the very style and energy we all strove to foster in our classrooms.

Around the table sat fellow teachers who had all arrived at the same adjunct ingredient in their recipe for economic survival as I had. There were newspaper editors, musicians, vegetable farmers, philosophers. Many had taught for decades in a variety of settings. No one was shy. They were smart and articulate, with real life experiences, and they were worth listening to. The fifteenth time we discussed MLK or Socrates, I was still gaining insights into what was meant by an “examined life” or by “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That hour around a conference table was always lit by a burst of intellectual fire.

I liked the students too. College freshmen are at a cusp of life. They are, for the most part, navigating independent living for the first time. They come, mostly, believing what their parents believe. They wear the narrow blinders of their parochial lives. They are floundering toward what they believe in, who they love, what they might do in life, what, if any, god they accept, how to handle money and responsibility and friendship and ambition and the inevitable episodes of failure and fuck up. They reminded me of my own three children, all busy living their own versions of the above. It’s fun and excruciating to watch, by turns.

We sat in a circle. We put phones away. We had books open on desks in front of us. And we talked about justice, about climate, about wisdom, about war, about politics. We strayed off on a great many tangents along the way. We looked at each other. We used first names. Inevitably, we learned a lot about each other as the weeks passed. At least for some the blindered view of the world opened noticeably wider.

At the beginning of each semester I asked for a show of hands of all the people who signed up out of a burning desire to be in the class. No one ever raised a hand. Not one in fifteen years. This was one of those ‘core’ classes that everyone was obligated to take. Then I told them that it would end up being the favorite class for at least a few of them. I also said that it was a rare luxury, to be in a circle of strangers who get the chance to talk and share ideas in a direct, respectful, exploratory way, especially these days, when everyone texts instead of talking face to face. I said that this class was a gift, if they chose to open it.

Students ran the gamut. It wasn’t always pretty or comfortable. The student who showed up to an 8 a.m. class still very drunk from the frat party the night before. The young Chinese exchange student who could barely speak, much less write, in English, but who never missed class and who struggled heroically to stay afloat in foreign academic seas. The Iraq War veteran who never spoke, but instead, shouted. Worst of all, the students who refused to speak.

Each of them, even the unexceptional, seemingly run-of-the-mill students, had their dramas and their brilliance. The young woman from a tiny Montana community who rarely spoke in class, but who, near the end of the semester, ripped out an unbelievable tap dance performance on the linoleum classroom floor that left everyone’s jaw hanging. The young man who lived out of his car, who could never be counted on to show up on a powder ski day, but who seemed to have his life perspective on remarkably firm ground. The young woman who revealed that her sister had recently been shot and killed by a police officer at a traffic stop.

Every semester was a new concoction of chemistry, a fresh experiment in social dynamics. A gaggle of young people who shambled together with their triumphs and tragedies, their challenges and gifts, their naiveté and wisdom, their curiosity and resistance, and for thirteen weeks we’d look at each other and try to talk about stuff that meant something.

As years went by I got incrementally better at teaching. I assembled the arrows of technique in my teacherly quiver. I got more comfortable. And I genuinely liked my students. That effort, and that mutual regard, went deep with me.

That I had the luxury to agonize over my decision to quit teaching, to even have that decision to consider, is a mark of my privilege. Call it a first-world problem. Anything could happen, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have to sling hash in a fast-food joint to make ends meet when I’m 75.

I own my house outright, by dint of having bought at a propitious moment when a person like me could afford a house in what has become a hot real estate market, and by dint of having parents capable of acting as my lending institution for a down payment. I’ve put money aside over the decades. I received a share of the sale of my parents’ home after they died.

More to the point, I was born white and middle class in an affluent country and have benefitted from the safety net perks that come with that status – from a college degree to good health care. Pure luck, nothing more or less, the hand of cards laid out when I popped into the world. How I’ve played that hand is another thing, but luck has put a heavy thumb on the scale of my fate. No small matter.

Still, ambivalence and hesitation loomed over the next phase of my life like a cloudbank. Losing the structure and satisfactions of teaching was some of it, but only part, and not the existential part. Conventional hype casts retirement years in a halo of sunset decades devoted to travel, relaxation, comfort, open horizons to explore, enjoyment and indulgence. Believe the ads and it’s all about learning new languages, cruising the rivers of Europe, playing pickleball and yucking it up with friends over a glass of cabernet. That’s not how I felt. I wasn’t at all confident that I’d live up to the promise, or the challenge, of that freedom.

There are things about me I don’t trust.

For one thing, that cozy image of sipping a glass of wine and chumming it up with fellow retirees spells trouble, in my case, and the potential vacuum of retirement is fertile ground for that trouble to flourish.

Drinking has played a prominent role in my social life and identity since I was a teenager. I was the one who could hold his liquor at high school beach parties on Lake Michigan. I drove everyone home with a bullshit display of control. Drinking beer was what loosened me up at parties, what got me on the dance floor, what lubricated interactions from dinner parties to work happy hours.

I never succumbed to the barfly syndrome. I drank with friends or at home. But I drank steadily, habitually, and, over time, compulsively. It became an issue. It made me irritable, moody, manic depending on the day.

I played mental games with myself, reasoning that it made sense to buy a bigger, cheaper bottle of wine because it would be more economical, but still drinking it all in two nights. I tried going to hard liquor, thinking it was all about beer. I tried limiting my drinking to weekends. None of it worked for long. We’d go out to parties and the first thing I’d locate was the cooler with drinks. The last thing I’d make sure of was grabbing a final beer for the ride home. That habit drove Marypat crazy, but it persisted.

Then, in 2007 I had a revelation. I had been asked to attend a conference on Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia. I was invited as a writer to report on the event, hosted by the Haida people and run by indigenous elders from Greenland to New Mexico. It was an invitation for non-Indians to be exposed to Indian reality and traditions. I was honored to go, to experience the ocean-infused geography and to witness the event.

For four or five days the group of Indian and non-Indian people met, talked, drummed, sang, shared their visions and experiences. Slowly I found myself less and less an objective outsider observing the phenomenon, and more and more a participant pulled into the subtle, powerful spell of place and culture. Also, there was no alcohol.

There was humor. There was a great deal of hugging. There were tears and confessions and sorrow. There were stories and wisdom and a window onto another way of being human in the world. We ate food from the ocean and the forest. In a nearby workshop a Haida craftsman was fashioning a traditional ocean-going cedar canoe out of a single tree.

Each day began with a ceremonial fire on the beach at dawn. A designated Haida was the keeper of the fire. A prayer was said. Offerings were made. We stood in a circle. People spoke, deeply. A simple thing, standing together around flames. Simple, but intense and sacred. In the silences the Pacific rolled in, ravens landed on totem poles, bald eagles coasted over the cove.

Some days these dawn fires would last hours. Other days were brief. On the final morning there was a long stint of heart-felt sharing of emotions and intentions. All the while a young Haida man stood quietly outside the circle. When the talk ended, he was introduced. He was a man who had brought back, through visions, many ancient Haida songs and stories that had faded with time, with genocide, with cultural change.

When he stepped into the circle he began to cry. He said how much it meant to witness the sharing and openness at the fire, how important that authentic interaction was, and how rare. He went on to talk about how difficult it was to stay on a true path. He talked about the many distractions and pitfalls that pull us off course – drugs, addiction, alcohol, abuse, material baubles, electronics, all of it seducing us away from our true trail.

As he spoke, through tears, I understood, in a vivid way, that he was not only speaking about his experience as an Indian, or about a phenomenon impacting Indian culture generally. He was speaking about all of us, each on our difficult and elusive personal pathway through life. He was speaking to me.

I stopped drinking as a direct result of that epiphany at the dawn fire. I had no idea that might happen, but I came home and I didn’t drink anymore. Ironically, it turned out that my sister had also made the decision to be sober that same week, across the continent and unbeknownst to me. After we put that coincidence together we made an annual September phone call to commemorate our shared resolve.

I didn’t drink for the next six or seven years. Long enough that I came to think of myself as permanently sober. Long enough that my social community considered me a non-drinker. Every September my sister and I reinforced our solidarity. She used AA meetings to stay on top of it, found real support in those groups. I attended a few, but didn’t find them compelling.

My social life changed. It was almost certainly my own reading of things, but going to parties, even meeting friends for dinner, wasn’t the same. I lacked that social lubrication, the slightly manic energy that a little buzz produces. I found most social scenes boring, especially watching other friends enjoying a drink, revving things up, getting silly. From my perspective, I wasn’t part of the fun.

A little voice started up in me. Why can’t I be a social drinker? I’d proven I could stop. For years I’d controlled my impulses. Why couldn’t I take part from time to time?

I resisted that voice for a long time, but one summer night, out for dinner with friends on the patio of a local restaurant, I ordered a Scotch ale. It tasted just as good as I remembered. And it produced that familiar flush of energy I’d been missing at these moments. Especially after years of abstinence, that flush was exhilarating, dangerous but exhilarating. Marypat gave me a long, assessing look, but I ignored her.

The story of my slide back into the clutches of alcohol is as predictable as it is boring. Within a few months I was back to the old habits, back to hiding evidence, back to daily beer runs and zeroing in on the drink cooler at parties. I sometimes paused, considering my behavior, that I was back doing the same old things I thought I’d never do again, but only a pause.

I remained functional in terms of maintaining my life, keeping up with work, meeting deadlines, but I knew very well that I was back under the hold of that dulling, compromising spell. Also, I was sheepish with my sister, despite her reassurances and understanding.

So there’s that. The open horizons of retirement could be filled with that specter of addiction and blunted potential.

 

Overlaid like a layer of sediment on top is the business of how I spend my time. What gives life purpose? What holds meaning? How do I serve as more than a placeholder in the march of time? And is it pretentious to entertain such existential pap? I can’t imagine elder elephants or aged ravens waste much angst over their purpose in life. Why should I presume any more elevated status?

But it squats there like a boulder in the trail of life. And I don’t think I’m the only one struggling with these questions. Seems to me, based on a very unscientific, intuitive reading of things, that a lack of purpose, coupled with thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, explains a lot of cultural dysfunction. How else to explain well-off young people signing on to Isis or the Taliban? Or entire communities falling prey to the scourge of opioids? Or the burgeoning number of suicides? Or the mundane daily acts of popping open another beer, lighting up another joint, or sitting, anesthetized for hours in front of a droning television or computer screen?

The day after Donald Trump was elected I showed up in front of a very split group of young college students in class. “Half of you,” I said. “can’t believe your good luck. That the crazy dude who nobody gave a chance has just won the election. The other half of you are thinking – holy shit, what just happened?”

“I’m not going to weigh in politically,” I went on. “but here’s the thing. All of us, no matter what side we’re on, need to pay attention.”

I haven’t heard what those students have been doing with my professorial tidbit of advice, but in the years since, I’ve been following it like a damn zealot. I’d always kept up with the news, but after that election, it ratcheted up to ridiculous levels – podcasts, streaming news shows, checking media posts multiple times a day.

The fact that Trump’s grotesque administration fed that obsession with daily, sometimes hourly, new outrages only encouraged it. I know I am not alone. I’m amazed when I admit my obsession to friends to find that many of them are doing exactly the same thing. Over the months it got to the point that I’d spend hours a day surfing news sites, reading articles, streaming late-night comedy shows. Ostensibly I’m following my own edict to be a good, informed citizen and witnessing the sad drama of our crumbling democracy. In fact, I’m squandering big hunks of life to the relentless treadmill of political crap that resulted from that questionable election.

I worry about myself.

More available time in retirement could easily be vacuumed up surfing news and indulging my outrage, when I could better serve myself and, arguably, my country, doing almost anything else. Maybe paying attention is a duty of citizenship in whatever remains of American democracy, but it is also a trap. And I am deep in its grasp.

I’ve watched, with self-serving interest, more than a few friends and acquaintances forge their way into retirement. Strategies range from picking up shifts at Costco to stave off boredom to self-absorbed navel-gazing; from peripatetic travel and activities to spending time with grandkids; from turning hobbies into full-time occupations to diving into volunteerism.

Some of it seems appealing, some seems vacuous, some outrageously expensive, some heroic or pleasant or boring. It’s anyone’s guess what blend of opportunity, necessity and attraction will emerge as my path into the coming frontier.

Tragic turns of circumstance also punctuate my world, like hazards on a golf course or maybe more accurately, like hidden land mines. Friends who have been paralyzed by tragic falls, or struck by an obscure cancer, hit by memory loss, burdened with unexpected family obligations, laid low by a stroke. This is that phase of life when hospital visits and memorial services have taken over for weddings and graduation ceremonies. I’ve had my own brushes with mortality – an ocular tumor that left me blind in one eye, a childhood accident that led to deafness on one side, and the usual run of aging complaints, from back pain to arthritis. Life’s aperture is tightening down, the sands in the hourglass running low. People I know appear in the local obits with disheartening regularity. Time and the ability to do something with it is, more and more, an urgent, precious matter.

What I do know is that at these turning points in life, moments of uncertainty and decision, what has sustained and directed me, again and again, is time in nature. The summer before my junior year in college, I spent nearly a month in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. At that point I’d already declared and then dropped several academic majors. Geology, which I found fascinating, but which got into more math in the upper level classes than I could handle. American history, which was also interesting, but what would I do with that?

Over the weeks I hiked the alpine meadows, climbed the serrated peaks, camped on the shores of mirrored lakes, and a slow dawning of purpose crept up on me. What I was passionately involved in at that time was wilderness adventure and outdoor education. As a sideline of my academic experience I had been pulled into outdoor programs, building ropes courses, taking part in outdoor group challenges. Why not make that my major?

I returned to campus, wrote up my own major, and two years later, graduated with a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education with a much higher GPA than I’d maintained as a floundering underclassman. Unlike most of my classmates, I went on to work in my field for the next decade.

Years later, married and living in Montana, where we had become fledgling home owners and where my freelance writing career was just gaining some traction, Marypat and I were struggling with starting a family. For more than four years we rode the monthly emotional roller-coaster trying to get pregnant. We both endured medical tests, tried various and sometimes ludicrous fertility techniques, and suffered through repeated miscarriages. It seemed like every time we grew hopeful enough to start a list of baby names, within days Marypat would find telltale blood, followed by crushing disappointment. Our failure to succeed at this basic natural function, a function we’d both zealously guarded against ever since becoming sexual beings, took a toll. It sapped our resilience, cast our future in shadow, strained our ability to console and encourage each other. Something had to give.

What we came up with as a means to spur us on to the next phase in our lives was to take a really long wilderness expedition. We decided to paddle a canoe across Canada, spend the winter in an inaccessible cabin on the shores of Lake Athabasca, and return, more than a year later, with what we hoped would be renewed purpose and a vision of our future together.

Months later, months full of dehydrating food, gathering equipment, planning logistics, saving money, we set our red canoe in the roiling current of the Smoky River in Alberta and set off, alone together on a quest to save our partnership and find a direction forward.

Fast-forward to January of that journey, at the dark depths of a northern winter along the frozen shores of Otherside Bay in northern Saskatchewan, some 300 miles from the nearest paved road, when Marypat missed her period. By that point we were so spooked by our history of failure that neither of us mentioned it. We both knew, but we weren’t about to jinx our chances. Every time Marypat came back from the outhouse, I studied her face for clues, but never said a word.

Weeks passed. Weeks of -40 and -50 degree cold. Weeks of indescribable northern lights. Weeks of wolf howls and lynx tracks and pure white willow ptarmigan bursting out of snow burrows. Not until nearly four months had gone by did we bring it up. Even then, we never talked names, never dared confidence. We slid past the dangerous topics the way we snuck past the edges of whitewater in our canoe. At night, I held my partner, my hand resting on her rounding belly, and said nothing.

That expedition began our family. We completed our journey across the tundra barrens of northeastern Canada. Marypat returned home seven months large. We found a midwife and in late October, our son Eli, our child of the North, was born in our bedroom.

Two more children followed in the coming years, disputing the medical wisdom that we’d have little luck following our initial success. No telling what matrix of factors contributed to that isolated, boreal triumph, but in our minds and hearts, there is no doubt that immersing ourselves in wild space, months on end, had absolutely everything to do with it.

It isn’t that wandering around in nature is always a revelatory panacea. Nor do I anticipate any Siddhartha-like levels of enlightenment. The fact is that things come clear when I strip away the distractions of life. Dreams become more vivid. Insights emerge. Confusion subsides. The clamor of news and deadlines and conflicting information and life’s details – from forgetting my login for my bank account to signing up for Medicare – recede. In the relative mental calm that ensues, priorities shuffle into place, my perspective comes into focus, the things that seem so all consuming in the thick of urban life look minor and a little pathetic from afar. Life on the trail isn’t always easy or comfortable. There are times when I long for creature comforts like a warm bed, good pizza, or a door to close against the storm. But, time and again in the arc of my life, the sharpened view that resolves in wild places has helped me find my way.

Interestingly, the longer the wilderness immersion, the clearer and calmer my state of mind becomes. After a three-day weekend out on the trail I feel refreshed and reinvigorated. But on our trip lasting 14 months, paddling a boat across the continent and hunkering down in a remote cabin for ten months of winter, that calm center kept deepening. There was a plateau a few weeks in, that point when I became aware of having achieved ‘river time’, but on Day 400, the clarity and mental peace were still growing more profound.

 

My teaching duties ended in early May. Over the next week or two I wrapped up grading final papers, submitting course grades online, finishing evaluations. Summer stretched ahead, as usual, but at the end of that hiatus, this time around, there would be no resumption of classes, no bike commutes up to campus, no staff meetings, no class prep. Instead, the next phase of life opening on the horizon, with its special mix of anticipation and angst. What would I do with it?

I did have some plans. A family reunion, some writing projects I’d been waiting to get to, people I’d like to visit. I realized, too, that every month of summer I had a river trip on the calendar. It just developed that way – invitations, opportunities, traditions – from May through August, river trips were already booked. What if, I thought, I continued that theme? What if I tried to schedule some sort of river trip every month of the year, from May to May? For one thing, it would give me a framework on which to start cobbling together my retirement. More important, that time on the water, time away from distraction, might clarify some more coherent intent and direction. Along the way, I might find some level of contentment. It might also help me cope with the tendencies that might otherwise create my personal mine field.

On the one hand, the idea seemed frivolous – a first-world solution to a first-world problem. Then again, what more meaningful exercise might I take on than to immerse myself in the environments I’d always found so profound and life-affirming.

I know well that wild journeys never go according to plan. That is part of the plan, to be surprised and challenged, delighted and daunted, entangled and set free. It isn’t called a frontier for nothing.

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Anticipation!

I know, it’s too early. I can’t help it. Still February, still shoveling snow, still out skiing, still thinking about pipes freezing. Nevermind. I’m starting to feel that pulse. The sun is inching back. Warm, bright days punctuate the winter gray. Despite everything, despite knowing better, despite falling prey to this trap every winter, I feel the faint pulse of flowing water start to beat. Inside of me, that pulse is ticking quietly away, even as I ski the snowbound trails under the white peaks burdened with snow.

Every winter, when this feeling surges up, I am transported north, back in time to our winters spent on the austere, hushed shore of Lake Athabasca. There, after the dark burial of brutal cold and unrelenting darkness, month after month, the sun began to boom back into the sky. Still cold, still buried, but the light came back in great bounds, expanding our days. By early March the eaves dripped on warm days. The nearby river began to beat back against the armored vise of ice. The sounds of current whispered faintly in the distance.

Then, as soon as the narrowest lane of water opened in the bay, birds came back. Bald eagles, loons, ducks, song birds. After the muffled silence of winter, the air was full of sound, that spring symphony. When the bay opened, birds came in flocks. Geese, ducks, tundra swans. I remember a sun-drenched morning full of what sounded like flapping canvas in a wind, and looked out to see 60 tundra swans lifting off of the bay. God, what a rush!

There, still trapped by the season, with months to go before the ice on the big lake would finally disappear, the beat of running current, the urgency to participate, the ache to feel the pull of paddle, the dance of whitewater, the hushed peace of a mirrored lake at dawn, became almost unendurable.

And now, decades later, farther south, less in touch with my surroundings, I am still prone to that flush of restlessness in the blood, that urgency to be in on the burgeoning flow, to see what comes around the bend. The promise is there, the light is returning, soon the snow will melt off the eaves, run off the hillsides, fill the green valleys, and I will be there in a boat, dancing down the miles.

Yes, too early, I know, but how sweet the anticipation.47a4d622b3127cce98548ae29dbf0000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rg

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Patterns

Think of it like a river. (I know, it’s my go-to metaphor, but bear with me.) Like life, the currents in a river are constant and steady and timeless, made up of simple forces of nature. In a river it is an act combining coalescing water molecules, gravity, and topography, acting together in a dynamic choreography. At the same time, the formula is ever-changing, responding to obstacles, weather, season, the ponderous interplay of natural forces punctuated by occasional dramatic events like a flash flood. Constant, yet dynamic, like life.

Our move to Butte a few months ago was akin to a flash flood washing debris down a side canyon, depositing boulders in the main stem of river and creating a new rapid. The flow of water adapts, feels its way through the new obstacles, finding paths, damming, momentarily checked, moving things, making noise, and setting off ripple effects, new fluvial dynamics, felt up and downstream.

As with our move, the river persists, largely unchanged, and yet, in subtle ways, in new patterns, in tremors felt throughout the watershed, it is fundamentally altered. That constancy, with variations, is what makes moving current so mesmerizing, so fascinating, so engaging and surprising and refreshing, and also so tricky and deceptive. It has a way of keeping you awake.

Ever since August, when the flash flood event of our recent lives roared down the side canyon, we’ve been adapting and establishing those new patterns. Many of the old ways remain unchanged – our family connections, our partnership, our shared ambitions, all the things we brought with us. But the ripple effects of that move keep playing out, emerging to surprise and challenge and confront us. Like new boulders to work around, we feel our way into the contours of this new life.

Each morning, in the winter pre-dawn darkness, we settle into the sunroom facing south, hot mugs of coffee warming our hands, and greet the day as the sun rises over the East Ridge. Every day at breakfast I randomly pick a poem to read – Mary Oliver reminds me to pay attention, or Billy Collins chides me not to take things too seriously, or W.S. Merwin offers something both inscrutable and insistent, or Robert Frost chimes in with a time-tested nugget of wisdom. We mold ourselves into the contours of our new home, letting it dictate its terms while we assert ours, finding favorite spots, the warm pocket by the heater on the landing, the sun-washed afternoon napping chair, the view over town, the way winds flap the exhaust fan in the upstairs bathroom. We reach out toward trailheads, ski hills, new rivers, find our resources and friendships. The neighbor we buy a car from. The guy across the street I just met, both of us leaning on our snow shovels in a welcome respite from the labor of 6″ of overnight snow. The couple with matching appetites for outdoor adventure who take us to their secret spots. The new slate of radio programs, the budding community food co-op, yoga classes, the favorite bakery and coffee shop, the neighborhood birds coming to our feeders – resident flicker and downy woodpecker, bright chickadees, throngs of house sparrows.

All of it so familiar. All the same forces at work on our lives, and yet, so altered. And, like the new rapid on a river, we approach with trepidation and excitement in equal measure. What will we find? How will it challenge us? Will we stay upright and dry, or learn our lessons the hard way?

The river, and life, rolls on, carrying us, waking us up, bringing us joy and challenge and the simple daily interactions that are inevitable, predictable, surprising, all of it worth facing each day to see where the new flow will bring us around the next bend.

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Little Bubble . . . Big Bubble

“In my personal bubble, I’m doing fine. Pretty good, actually. But when I think outside of my space, when I think about the wider world out there, it gets really depressing. I can hardly go there.”

I’ve been hearing this sentiment a lot. And I’ve been feeling it myself.

In my world, my little personal reality bubble, life is good. As good as ever, really. I have my health (knock wood). I’m not struggling financially. I have my partner and my family for support and company. I have projects and outdoor activities and a sweet daily routine. I have nice neighbors and a solid house and food in the fridge and money in the bank and good books to read and Montana to play in. No complaints. More than that, plenty of reason to be grateful and content. In fact, I said as much to Marypat not long ago. “I think the word that best sums up my state of mind right now is contentment.”

And yet.

Widen the view, pan out, even just a little, and it goes to hell pretty quickly. Obituaries cite Covid-19 as the cause of death for someone local almost every day. Our regional climate is dry and warm and often slightly alarming. Elsewhere it is truly alarming, like, apocalypse alarming. Politics are so far beyond appalling that we have to create new terminology to account for the antics. A few years ago, who would have thought it could get this bad, this crude, this cynically mendacious, this untethered from anything approaching normal? Millions of our brethren are falling through cracks into desperation every day – financial, emotional, nutritional, psychological, physical. And they are left to flounder.

In this existential context, what normally would rise to the level of tragedy gets lost in the immediacy of general emergency. A friend in Bozeman dies suddenly, unexpectedly, too young, and it is quickly obscured by the shitshow in front of us. What might normally constitute a crisis – heart surgery, a cancer diagnosis, jobs lost, a failed marriage, cancelled careers – all of it, no doubt, as personally fraught as ever, is subsumed by the ongoing hurricane of horror.

So I am left with this split-screen duality. I head out for an afternoon ski on sparkling snow, with views of mountain peaks and lovely lodgepole forest glades to glide through. I come home to my partner. We share dinner together. We read books and talk, maybe watch a show. While all around me, as wide as the view can get, things fall apart, lives end every few seconds, politicians play with the survival of masses while they profit corruptly, and another storm/fire/flood hits another part of the world.

I suppose this is a universal tension. Everywhere and in every moment, while one person feels content another faces peril. It has always been so.

As Mary Oliver wrote:

“So many notions fill the day! I give them
gowns of words, sometimes I give them
little shoes that rhyme.

What an elite life!

While somewhere someone is kissing a face that is crying.
While somewhere women are walking out, at two in the morning –
many miles to find water.
While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.”

Yes, only now, that conflict is so heightened, so crushing, so pervasive, that it feels as if those of us who have been spared, the elite, are really just hanging on to the driftwood after a shipwreck, hoping that some, as yet unidentified, rescue will arrive.

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Unplugged!

The morning after Donald Trump got elected in 2016, I faced an 8 am college seminar class. Roughly half the class was giddy with the fact that their crazy candidate had somehow gotten himself elected. The other half of the students were saying, “What the hell just happened?”

I suspect they all knew how I felt, but what I said that morning was more or less this. “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on. What matters, going forward, is that you pay attention. That’s your responsibility as a citizen.”

I have no idea how many of those college kids followed my advice. But there is no doubt that I took it to heart. I have spent these past four years obsessively following the news. I didn’t know how bad it would get. I began by just selecting a news outlet and checking in several times a day. Before long, though, as events kept piling up and appalling bits of news emerged, I added talk shows, podcasts, and a medley of news outlets that I’d click through many times a day to see what was happening. The demoralizing thing, and the thing that kept me going, was that I was sadly gratified by my efforts because more and more unbelievable things kept happening almost daily. It was like watching a slow moving train wreck, absolute morbid fascination and horror.

The Trump presidency, and the descent of the country into a tribal, angry, fractious dissolution, has been a terrible, and also addicting, ride. By turns demoralizing, unbelievable, shocking, sickening and unfathomable. How can this be who we are? I found myself asking.

In 2020, when the election was finally called for Joe Biden, the national sense of relief was palpable. That a candidate who spoke complete sentences, had a plan beyond self-interest, cared about other people, spoke about unity and understanding as opposed to division and discord, and who operated within the bounds of norms we have come to expect, was like spring arriving after a brutal winter.

To hear an acceptance speech that was coherent, upbeat, predictable, understandable, even a bit mundane, was a dose of sunshine and laughter. What will come is daunting. It will be contentious. The forces Trump has unleashed are real and threatening. But maybe, at long last, I can let go of the daily need to dive into the ugly vortex of our country going down the drain. It will be a challenge, especially during the transition, but maybe I can return to the days before politics became a reality horror show.

Fingers crossed!

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Team SOAR! Team SOAR!

For 23 days we got more and more deeply into the groove of River Time. Starting on September 7th, seven of us paddling SOAR inflatable canoes launched on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, near its source at Boundary Creek. On September 29th, 5 of us completed the through journey, down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, and on down the river to its confluence with the Snake, where we took out at Heller Bar, just upstream of Lewiston, Idaho. All in all, more than three continuous weeks on the river, traveling some 330 miles, down one of the classic waterways in the West.

By the end, the core group of five paddlers had lost the clamor of the outside world, the political insanity, the daily stresses we all face, the distractions and confusions of the current state of the world. Instead we noticed fledgling great-horned owls on a sandbar as evening fell, we scouted and ran intimidating whitewater, we stayed put during rainstorms and held court under a rain fly, we watched a month of moons wax and wane, we watched a black bear on a slope above camp, we talked about our lives and passions, we played cribbage, we remembered times on the same river with our families. We lost the frenzy of life and instead, embedded ourselves in the flow of a great western river that runs free of dams, prone to floods, full of unexpected surprises, as it gathered itself over the miles into the formidable natural force it is.

It was surprisingly easy to pull off. Sure, we had to secure a permit for the Middle Fork a year ahead of time. We had to navigate the permit process virtually due to the virus, we had to figure out the vagaries of a complicated shuttle regime and some food resupply options. We had to figure out how to get rid of poop now and then. All of that went smoothly, aided by a few companions coming and going as we went down the sections of the river.

What stands out is the gathering filaments of water coursing under the hulls of our boats, from a bony shallow flow at the start, to a powerful force by the end. What stands out is the simple and profound satisfaction of running a river from top to bottom without a break. What stands out is the simple pleasure of sharing that sort of adventure with companions who are competent, spirited, flexible, humorous, careful, honest, upbeat, and true.

The most common refrain we heard from people we saw along the way was, “Wow, that’s epic! I’ve always wanted to do that.” Our response . . . well, then, get going. It’s not that hard. And it’s totally worth it.

As with all worthy river journeys, ideas for future major trips were hatched along the way, so stay tuned. At the take-out at Heller Bar, the 5 of us joined in a messy group hug. “It’s been a while since I got to the end of a really long trip and felt like it was still ending too soon,” I said.

The only down side was that Marypat and I picked up the first presidential debate on our way home. We lasted about 10 minutes before we had to turn off that abomination. And we very nearly turned the car around and headed back for more river time!

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Through the Fog

Everything feels hazy these days, like the smoke-filled skies of Montana lately. Whatever we do, going about our lives, is overhung with the pall of uncertainty, tainted by an air of anxiety. We all keep going, because what else are you going to do, but nothing feels clear, nothing feels unburdened. While we make decisions, take leaps of faith, think about the future, whatever is left of our democracy is chipped away, corruption of public figures goes on in plain sight, normal assumptions of behavior are turned upside down, and predicting the surprises that lurk down the road is a blindfolded crapshoot. One day I can easily imagine our country becoming as corrupt and morally bankrupt as any banana republic on earth. The next I see a glimmer of hope that we might turn the corner and re-establish some semblance of a country and culture we can flourish in and be proud of. Never has the cliche, anything could happen, seemed more apt.

But we keep going, count our blessings, assume that a future we can accept will emerge out of this fog of disheartening circumstance. For Marypat and me the single most profound change is that we have actually pulled the trigger on our long-threatened move out of Bozeman. We had been working toward that decision for the past year – working with a realtor, sprucing up the house, filling up a storage unit, getting ready. Then Covid came along. Given circumstances, we put things on hold for a couple of months. I began thinking that we might want to put things off until fall. Then I talked to our friend Jake about it. He shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “If it were me, I’d be pretty leery of what’s coming down the road this fall with the election, the economy, the virus. If things look good now, I think I’d go for it.”

It had the ring of truth. Who knows what things will look like in the fall? We pushed forward with our plans. Anyone who makes light of moving from a home after 30 years of making it ours, raising our kids, building a community of friends and neighbors, either doesn’t have a clue or isn’t doing the work. It is an excruciating, laborious, disheartening, anxious process. In our case, after months of incrementally preparing for the big leap, it all happened in a rush.

Suddenly the house was ready. Our realtor scheduled a photo shoot of the property, put it on the market the next day, and told us to leave town. “Come back at the end of the weekend and we’ll look at offers,” she said. “Yeah right,” I thought.

Well, she was right. Within 24 hours we had 5 offers. 3 days later we were under contract. A month later we were homeless. For the past year or more we’ve been weighing different places to move next. We also considered being vagabonds for a while. We looked at NE Oregon, various towns in Montana.

Over July 4th weekend a realtor in Butte, Montana sent us a listing in town that we’d looked at previously, liked, and that had unexpectedly come back on the market. The next morning we drove over, pulling our trailer behind us. We put in an offer and went camping for the weekend. That strategy of making a move and then leaving town seems to do the trick. By the end of the weekend we were under contract. Suddenly we were hitched to another community, more house projects, and the other laborious half of making a move – the moving in part. In early August we made it official, moved to our new home town, and started getting settled.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster, filled with moments of doubt, but every day feels better as we meet people, explore new trails and terrain, become familiar with the contours and quirks of our new house and the neighborhood that surrounds it. The other day I was driving down W. Platinum, our new street, with the window down and sneezed. “Bless You!” someone yelled from their front yard. This town’s alright, I thought.

More to come on our transition. As for the future, who the hell knows!? Anything could happen . . . right?

And stay tuned for my September on the Salmon report. We will be paddling top-to-bottom from the Middle Fork to the Snake during the entire month!!! Maybe that will clear the fog.

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The 3 Rivers Tradition in these Viral Times

It’s tempting to just give in. These times are so strange and fraught that it’s easy to just put things off, cancel, wait for the next shoe to drop. I wasn’t sure how to handle this year’s Memorial Day, 3 Rivers challenge, the sixth. I had a slate of rivers I’d picked out months ago, a loose plan, because loose plans are always best, for how to pull it off. But then . . . this all happened and I was teetering on hitting the pause button, putting it off for a year, picking up again when whatever passes for normal down the road becomes clear. About then Scott Gill weighed in with a suggestion.

“What about just doing three day trips from town and not camping?” he asked.

What about it? And why didn’t I think of that?

It isn’t as if we don’t have a handful of river sections close to home that make good candidates. I started thinking that through, put out an email to gauge interest. Another person in the group suggested that we pick rivers with bicycle shuttles so we wouldn’t have to share the confinement of shuttle vehicles together. That seemed reasonable. That limited the choices.

Eventually I came up with some likely suspects, including my old favorite, the East Gallatin, because most of the group had never done it and the sweetness of sharing that river with friends was irresistible. Still, the usual balancing act ensued, juggling water levels, weather conditions, difficulty, the right blend to make it challenging enough, different enough, engaging enough.

What shuffled together in the end was a trio of floats within a two hour drive from town – the Boulder River of the Jefferson drainage, my favorite section of the East Gallatin, and the seasonal stretch of the main Gallatin from the Yellowstone Park boundary to Red Cliff campground. The first morning it snowed in Bozeman, but the Boulder looked like it would be better weather. The conditions made everyone question the bike shuttle wrinkle, and folks figured out how to combine with family or friends they had already been in contact with. Based on that ingenuity, for the remainder of the weekend, bikes shuttles were scuttled.

The Boulder had that hidden gem, off-the-radar quality. Hardly anyone floats it. The paddling window is a few weeks long. The section we paddled leaves the road and descends through a pretty valley with tight corners, occasional snags, a low bridge to portage, a dramatic diversion dam to line. The weather cooperated – cool and gray but dry. Everyone stayed upright and entertained. Because we’ve all been distanced and cooped up lately, the best part of the time was a shore lunch full of catch-up conversations. We ended up with a few miles on the Jefferson, running at a good clip, to the take out.

The East Gallatin was next, and I’ve written more than enough about the qualities of that watershed, so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say that I ushered a group of locals into the select company of the East Gallatin Fan Club. The day turned beautiful. We lounged through another lengthy lunch full of good conversation, and there was plenty of dodgy challenge on the tight corners, narrow passages, snaggy deadfall to keep us on our toes. Part way along someone said, “I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived here as long as I have and had no idea this was here!” And again, everyone stayed dry and happy.

On Monday we tackled the upper Gallatin River, from the shallows coasting past the Yellowstone Park boundary sign, to the miles of constant rock-garden rapids below, again past familiar landmarks and country, but with people who hadn’t ever probed this far up. And you guessed it, good company, boisterous fun, constant maneuvering, and a distanced gathering in the campground at the end to savor the interlude of community.

So, some things continue, slightly tweaked to adapt, but continue nonetheless. The tradition lives – six years and eighteen stretches of water in the books, and no intention of stopping there.

In fact, since the water is up, the energy keeps fueling more outings. Just yesterday a group of us took on lower 16-Mile Creek, another watershed hardly anyone goes down. A watershed that is such an unbelievable gem of limestone canyon, brilliant green spring color, a black bear watching us coast past, a few interesting moments in the water, all shared with good friends, family, and the blessing of this spring landscape rising up in defiance of the insanity we’re living through.

The take home lesson? Don’t give in, adapt, and persevere. Keep those paddles in the water and eyes on the next bend.

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Mother’s Day

It is familiar, these local outings on the East Gallatin River. Every spring for 35 years I’ve done all or some of this small stream that runs fresh and boisterous for a month or two each year. We’ve already done the first link a few weeks earlier, a sketchy two-hour run on the outskirts of town, full of surprises. We had to hop out of the boats and pull around obstacles six or seven times in a few miles.

This day, Mother’s Day, in the midst of the uncertainties of life in the time of Covid, we talk Eli into joining us in a solo canoe. The river is up. The day is cool but pleasant. Everything in the valley is greening, budding, birthing, bursting with the season, while in the distance, the mountain ranges are still coated with white, cloaked in clouds.

It is as familiar as a local dog walk, but every year it is different. Around the first corner, a channel that opened up last spring is closed again. We sweep wide around a bend, dodge past a side channel blocked with a beaver dam. The eddies are deceptively strong, boils bloom up on the surface, pushy and treacherous. Eli switches to a kayak paddle for more stability. Marypat and I keep our paddles in the water, ready to brace, paddle hard to avoid sweepers and overhanging shrubbery. Just a few bends down a bull moose looks up at us from the bank, antlers just budding out, grazing in a stand of willows.

We settle in. The view switches from farm fields to golf course greens to mountain ridges. Geese flap away, drawing us from their nests. Sandhill cranes, belted kingfisher, killdeer, pelicans, red-tailed hawks. It is challenging, fast, tricky, really fun. We dive through a small diversion dam, pick our way past snags, edge around corners, ready for surprise, ram through a narrow gap in a log jam. About halfway, we stop on a gravel bar for snacks and a hot cup of tea. It is sweet to share this day with Eli, and it makes Marypat’s day.

Almost done, within sight of our car, a tree blocks the entire river. We pull in above, ready to drag around, but realize that a short haul to the road avoids the whole mess, so we go to Plan B. Same old changeable but constant river, strange new human world, a reminder of what’s going on all around us, and despite us.

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