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Montana Menagerie

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

The state captivated me immediately, and Montana has been my escape-from-it-all dream respite ever since. Not that I’ve returned frequently — eight or nine times in 20 years — but when I have fantasized about settling into a cabin beside a mountain stream to write the Great American Novel (or perhaps only a good one) and to love the right woman (or
perhaps only a good one), that cabin has always been beside water that flows through Big Sky Country.

My most recent visit to this sparsely populated Western expanse did nothing to dissuade me of my ultimate Montana goal. As a guy used to Southern California’s weather, I’d have to adjust to the extremes of climate I would face anywhere in the state, were I to move there, but I’m sure the adjustment to the jagged peaks of the Rockies and the gin-clear, trout-filled rivers would happen instantaneously. In fact, my hankering for Montana’s outdoor charms was ratcheted up during this latest summer visit, since I had a fantastic time river rafting, fly-fishing and finding dinosaur bones.

In the small tourist-saturated town of West Glacier, surrounded by the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park in the northwestern section of the state, I signed on with Glacier Raft Company to float the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Although almost everyone who visits the region will head directly through the park gates to explore Glacier’s lakes and trails and to glimpse its abundant wildlife, tourists should consider floating the Middle Fork, which forms much of the park’s southern boundary. RVers who stay outside the park in any of the numerous campgrounds along U.S. 2 are just minutes from slipping into Personal Floatation Devices, then scooting into a raft.

A Glacier Raft Company bus disgorged us would-be rafters, including many children, in a parking lot near Moccasin Creek River Access. We organized ourselves into groups, were assigned a guide, then shoved off into the cold, clear water. Since it was late August, the current in the Flathead was running at only about 750 cubic feet per second, as opposed to the 13,000 or so CFS that races down the canyon at the beginning of the summer season. Rafters seeking huge rapids and will-we-make-it thrills should plan their trips accordingly. As it was, I mustered the requisite adrenaline rush on the 8-mile float, negotiating rapids such as Bonecrusher, Eye of the Needle and Screaming Right-hand Turn without mishap or panic. Our guide, Graham Coppes, a personable college student who handled the boat well, asked at one point if anyone wanted to jump into the water. A few people took him up on the offer, splashed in, then — with shocked expressions on their faces — frantically dogpaddled back toward the raft. I had to haul a teenage boy aboard, a kid who was somehow surprised that the freezing water that had been splashing us for the previous 5 miles would be insufferably cold when immersed in it.

A few days later I met Russ Hadley at Lakestream Fly Fishing Shop in Whitefish, about 40-45 minutes from Glacier’s west entrance, and we were soon gliding down the main stem of the Flathead River, after putting in at Presentine. The day was gorgeous, and Russ’ drift boat was equally pulchritudinous. The 16 1/2-footer was custom-made for Russ, and he maneuvered it with consummate skill. We were searching for north-slope cutthroat trout, Russ said, so he handed me a setup that his years of experience indicated would do the trick: a 5-weight, 9-foot Sage rod with weight-forward floating line. I started with a prince nymph with an egg pattern tied beneath it, all under a strike indicator. After I quickly boated a couple whitefish (and released them, as everyone must do with all fish on this stretch of water), Russ tied on a big parachute hopper with a black ant trailing it, and this combo brought up a couple big cutthroats, but I missed them.

Russ takes his fishing very seriously, and although I would rather have boated a large fish or two, I was content because I was within eyesight of the rocky spires of Glacier and in the outdoors fishing on a beautiful river in a state I find invigorating. Russ seemed far more upset than I was that I kept missing fish, and I’ve never seen a guide hustle so much to make up for an angler’s ineptness. He rowed us upriver time and again so that we could float through a hole that a fish had risen from minutes before. Although Russ and I don’t see the world similarly, he is a nice, hardworking guide, and he put me onto three different species of fish: whitefish, cutthroat and rainbow. All in all, a pleasant, memorable day.

As much fun as these two Montana experiences were, however, they were not nearly as special to me as the time I spent with Dave Trexler, a paleontologist based in Bynum. In this tiny town on Highway 89, southeast of Glacier, Dave runs the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, a small establishment that holds a model of the world’s longest dinosaur — a Seismosaurus — within its walls. Visitors have a right to be impressed by the behemoth, but I was far more mesmerized by the center’s other displays, including a fossilized skeleton of a baby dinosaur and an 11,000-pound section of earth called “BOB,” an acronym for “block of bones.” Within this 11-foot slab lie more than 100 dinosaur bones from at least three individuals and two species.

Though I found the exhibits within the center to be educational, Dave provided context to the static displays. He is a scientist’s scientist, and he expounded on a broad range of subjects — from botany and plate tectonics to evolution and zoology — without once showing off or condescending. I am inquisitive, so accompanying a renowned paleontologist into the field to find — as I did, and you can — dinosaur bones strewn across the Montana soil satisfied my curiosity and my thirst for adventure.

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