A photographer friend recently revised my concept of the fall season. I had always thought of it as a beautiful waning of the year, when leaves withered on trees, rivers ebbed to anemic winter levels and the world girded itself for the harsh austerity of winter. Not at all, he said. Fall is the crescendo of health, when everything is at its peak. The leaves burst into a brilliant display, animals are at their most robust, the world is shouting with exuberance and well-being. Fall is the peaking of the fat season.

Ever since I have bounced back and forth between these realities. I see a stream dwindling and I think of the coming ice, the brittle time of year. As the trees turn skeletal and dark, I think of months of low light to come. And yet, his image is also hard to deny in the flush of fall color, or when I see a herd of sleek, fat elk lounging in a field.

The last couple of weekends have been indulgences in the robust version of fall.

First, a 30-mile, overnight paddle down the Yellowstone River between Columbus and Laurel, Montana, with cottonwoods fired up dazzling yellow in the sunlight. Tailwinds pushed us along down the miles. The river is bouncy and unpredictable there, even as it shrinks toward winter levels. We camped on a sweet sand island just below a set of high cliffs. Ruby and Everett, Martin and Billie, Marypat and I – our three canoes nested together below camp. Coyotes caroled in the darkness, geese lined out like elegant punctuation in the skies, the river murmured past all night. We sat by the fire in coats and hats, held mugs of hot tea close, listened to trains moan in the distance, and for two days with the river to ourselves, we forgot everything else.

Then, the next weekend, a visit with Eli and Sam in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. I had forgotten how stunning the larch are in western Montana and northern Idaho. The mountains were painted gold with flaring larch groves. While Eli and a friend went hunting on Saturday along the Idaho/Montana border, Marypat and I hiked in the opposite direction to Blossom Lake, a six-mile round trip through dense conifers. There, the trail was a shag carpet of larch needles. Sunlight filtered through the thick forest, lighting up the steady glitter of falling golden needles. Magical stuff.

Today there are two inches of slushy snow on the ground. Driving and walking are treacherous. It feels like winter has arrived. But there in the pocket of recent memory these two weekends of flaming beauty sending out the season in fine fashion. And with us lucky enough to be in the middle of it.

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