I was selected as one of the Artists in Residence for The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area which gave me the opportunity to stay at Spruce Park Cabin along the Middlefork of the Flathead River for two weeks. Backcountry, off-the-grid, solo.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and honored that I was chosen. These two weeks gave me the space to finish my next poetry collection, start another, work on some essays, and gather. Gather. That was my goal and theme for this trip. I didn’t want to force myself to work on anything in particular. Instead, I just wanted to be present, to experience it, and to gather as much as I could (and to hopefully give back in some way). Below are just some diary-style entries along with some photos of my two weeks as a way to share some of the experience.
Thank you to The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Hockaday Museum of Art, Swan Valley Connections, and the Flathead National Forest for giving me this amazing opportunity. Big thanks to Frank and his mules for carrying all my stuff to and from the cabin!
Day One – Saturday
I met Frank and Meg at the Bear Creek Trailhead around 9. Frank is a packer/mule skinner and is on The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation Board. Meg works for The BMWF managing their trail crews. She introduced me to the mules as Frank started weighing and balancing my gear – Saltese (gentle, but a troublemaker), Star, Honey, Penny, Rev, and Morley who’s blind in one eye. They packed my gear within an hour and we started hiking up the Big River Trail. I hiked behind the mule string, and since Morley was in the rear, we got to know each other pretty well. I forgot how good it is to hike in the rhythm of a mule string. They kept good pace. Every once in a while, Frank would turn and tell a story or point out some trees. We passed through some larch that were over 100 years old, survivors of the last burn. You could still see fire scars at their base. Imagine holding a scar that long, growing with it.
It took us about two hours to get to Spruce Park, which is, in some ways, a bit like a compound. It’s got an outhouse, a fenced in yard for the mules, a workshop shed for trail work & tools, and the cabin. Frank and Meg unloaded my stuff, we had lunch on the porch, and they went on their way. I busied myself opening the windows, getting water, unpacking my food, settling in. Of course the first thing I did once I was settled was go to the river and fish the two big runs right below the cabin. It felt good wading in sandals. It felt good to be here. It felt good to catch whitefish and cutthroats on dry flies. Whitefish are incredible fighters, don’t ignore them.
A group of paddlers showed up just as I started swimming and they camped behind the cabin. Another group of hikers showed up towards evening and they camped down at the beach. I sat on the Spruce Park Ledge and watched the day fade into night. It’s a good spot.
Day Two - Sunday
My first morning and I quickly fell in love with how the light first touches Java Mountain to the southwest and slowly crawls down its face until it hits the water and the trees behind me, which then cast these big tree-shadows across the river. I love watching the day unfold like this. Mornings and evenings. They are beautiful times in the day.
I drank coffee and watched the sun crawl until I couldn’t stand it anymore and hiked downstream to the start of the Spruce Park Rapids. This is a slot canyon that once you enter, there is no getting out until you run it. I fished back up to the cabin and had my first afternoon alone. I was surprised at how easy it was to catch fish. Just throw anything with purple in it and the cutthroat would reach up from the clear water and take it. I had trouble getting my timing down because I wasn’t used to being able to see a fish reaching that far and that long for a fly. It was beautiful.
The afternoons are the hardest – they are hot and the flies are relentless. I napped, I read, I convinced myself this was going to be all worth it.
I went swimming at the hottest part of the day, made dinner, and watched the evening settle on my ledge. This ledge will be where I spend my mornings and evenings. It’s my anchor to the world. My timepiece. My home.
Day Three - Monday
Another morning, another beautiful sunrise. I left the cabin around ten after listening to the fire lookouts report in on the radio and made my way to Long Creek. I crossed the Middle Fork and scrambled around, making my way up Charlie Creek, until realizing I missed the trail. I bushwhacked up a pretty steep hillside until I found it and worked my way up Charlie Creek trail until its junction with Spruce Point. I quickly hit switch backs and gained quite a bit of elevation until finally reaching a knoll full of wildflowers and concrete abutments that used to hold a fire lookout.
One false peak after another, but each one with a better view of the entire Great Bear Wilderness. The last three miles of the trail was along a ridge that ended with quite a long scramble to Spruce Point which looked out over Mt. Baptiste, Red Sky Mountain, Prospector Mountain, Mt. Bradley, Vinegar Mountain, and Hematite Peak. It was an incredible hike that kicked my ass. Well worth it. I got back to camp around 5 and went swimming and sat on the beach behind the cabin. The cold water felt good on my sore muscles.
It felt good to finally gain some elevation and to see out across these mountains, to get my bearings a bit. To the west, Mt. Baptiste sat up high, cradling Cup Lake where its trees started to grow. I quickly fell in love with that mountain and how it sprawled across the horizon. Mt. Baptiste. A good guardian of this wilderness.
Day Four – Tuesday
I woke up a bit later than normal with my muscles sore from yesterday’s hike. The sun had yet to reach the river, so I quickly got my fishing stuff ready, brewed some coffee, and headed upstream. I started with a purple haze in the low light of dawn and had consistent hook-ups. Once the sun hit the water, right around 9, caddis started popping so I switched up flies and it was pretty much game-on for the next hour. Every other cast a nice cuttie to hand. I hooked a solid 18” at the head of a pool and was about to land him when he shook me off. Damn barbless hooks. I’ll go back this evening.
I spent the afternoon lying in the hammock along the ledge, reading, letting the wind rock me back and forth. The wind was pretty fierce all day and it brought with it the smoky haze from fires out in Oregon and California. The closest thing I have to news out here, I guess.
I went back to the river in the evening and had a solid time throwing caddis. I’m loving using my 7’6” 4 weight fiberglass rod. It covers just enough water and throws dries beautifully. I landed a solid 16” cutthroat right before the rain. They seem to be really keyed in on dark bodied caddis flies. I went back to camp and sat on the porch and wrote postcards and little poems until a young mule deer came into camp. She wasn’t sure of me at first, but quickly got used to me and we hung out for an hour or so, talking about the rain and the fires and the horseflies. It was a good evening. I fell asleep to the thrumming of grouse.
Day Five – Wednesday
“We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.”
I woke up to rain. A nice subtle steady rain. Which meant that my original plan of getting on the water early quickly changed to sitting on the porch and drinking coffee and watching the rain and just being here in this wildness. That’s one thing I love about being back here – my time is sculpted by the world around me – I wait to wake up until I see the sun touch the top of Java Mountain, I know I should be finishing my coffee by the time the light hits the river; if it rains, I sit on the porch; if it’s hot, I go down to the swimming hole and spend the hottest part of the day in the cold water – my life is shaped and sculpted by this wildness.
I went to the river late morning while it was still raining, but once the sun hit the water, the cutties started looking up. They were on anything purple or caddis all day. I fished upstream until I hit a trib which I hiked up a bit until I found a nice set of plunge pools. There’s something intimate I love about small streams. I found some solid little cutthroats and then turned back when it got too brushy. I think I’m the weariest when I’m in thick brush in this landscape – if I can’t see around me in order to have an idea of what is out there, I’m quick to move on. There are only so many Warren Zevon songs I know that I can sing to keep the bears at a safe distance.
I headed a bit further up the Middle Fork into another large, emerald pool. These pools are so deep and so clear that they seem best just for looking at and swimming in. A fish sees you long before your sight even reaches bottom. But Lord are they beautiful to watch. The last remnants of the ancient sea this landscape used to be. I’ve found that most of the fish hold up in the runs coming into these deep pools because of the low river levels. Since it was a bit later in the day, I tied on something big, foamy, and purple and within the first three casts I hooked a solid 16”-18" fish that took me downstream through almost the entire long pool. I finally worked it into the shallows and released it. I landed a few more in the 14”-16” range and decided that the day had been good, it was time to go back to camp for my daily swim.
Day 6 – Thursday
I hiked up the Big River Trail a good bit today to see more of this drainage. The trail stays pretty high up off the water so you get some really great views of the river, its tributaries, and the surrounding mountains. I had lunch at Lunch Creek and was hoping to see the infamous dead elk and to have a conversation with it; however, they had just floated it down to the next bend (there’s an outfitter that uses that place to take people back on horses and to have lunch for day trips). I was bummed about that, but it’s all good in the backcountry. I had lunch, fished for a bit, then headed back downstream to another tributary that I saw on the way up. I noticed some really sweet long deep riffles that I wanted to fish. I bushwhacked down to the stream from the trail, switched my hiking boots for sandals (I find that my Bedrock sandals are just as good for wading as my wading boots are), and tied on something purple. When in doubt, tie any fly that has some purple in it.
I fished up through the deep riffles, landed multiple fish in the 12”-16” range all on a big purple foam fly. It was a blast. I’m finding that my 7’6” 4 weight fiberglass rod is the perfect rod for this river. Though it is pretty low right now so maybe with high flows I would need more rod. Who knows? I’m fishing what I have and having a blast. Fish what you have. Have a blast. (Someone should put that on a t-shirt). I made it up to the last run at the edge of a deep emerald pool (there are so many) at a bend in the river when I notice some dust and scurrying upstream and I see my first grizzly scampering down a scree slope about 50 yards upstream of me. The wind turns and is at my back and it finally notices me, stops, stares, then tucks itself behind a few white pines where we watch each other for a bit. We have a nice conversation about our favorite Tom Petty songs (he loves “Even the Losers” while I love “Walls” and we both agree that Echoes is an incredibly underrated gem of an album) and then he turns and saunters upstream and I stumble back downstream where I fish for a few more minutes before putting my rod away, lacing up my boots, and hiking back to camp.
Guess what I did when I got back to camp? Yup. My daily ritual of swimming in the river behind camp. It’s cold, but damn does it feel good. I made some dinner, read for a little, then sat on my ledge looking over the river and wrote all through last light.
First light and last light, they are sacred times. I’ve been catching them every day.
This backcountry living is simple – tie something purple on, saunter up some streams, lose yourself in the deep woods, watch the light crawl its way over mountains, watch the mountains, cover yourself in river, repeat.
Days 7 & 8 – Friday & Saturday
The last couple days have been a blur, in a good way. They have just melted into each other. I’ve spent my time hiking, fishing, exploring around camp. I’ve caught some beautiful fish and have seen some beautiful mountains. I’m past the halfway point of this residency. It’s been wild. It’s been amazing. It’s been inspiring. It’s been hard. It’s been full of all the emotions – which I guess it should be for it to be a full experience – fear, self-doubt, contentment, wonder, gratitude, loneliness, sadness, joy. I’ve felt them all at various times and I will continue to do so. That’s life. To say I’m not looking forward to home would be a lie, but I’m trying to live deliberately here, now, while I can. I’m going to take the next few days to hike up a new mountain and explore some more water, and go back to some places I went the first week. I’m reminded of that A.R. Ammons line from Corsons Inlet –
“…but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”
Each day I remind myself that this is all new – even the trail I’ve already hiked or the run I’ve already fished – there is just so much to see and notice and be part of it. I try to be present for as much of it as I can. I try.
This place will forever be with me.
Day 10 - Monday
Ah our first real rainstorm! Deep thunder! Relentless rain! All socked in, nowhere to go. Yes! I was hoping for a couple of days like this. The rain settled in Sunday night and stayed pretty steady throughout the night. I sat on the porch Sunday night and wrote and listened to the water falling. Lucy, the whitetail deer, came back through the meadow at dusk. We discussed our shared love of rain and how it pounds down the horseflies. We both lamented the moment it would stop and the mosquitoes that would follow, but we didn’t hover on that too long for we wanted to enjoy the rain as much as possible. I fell asleep to it and woke to a morning full of fog and clouds lolling around the valley. I made some coffee and sat in my chair on the ledge at the end of the meadow and for four or five hours, simply watched the fog cling to the tops of pine and fir before lifting skyward.
That evening the valley was still filled with fog so I did what I did earlier and sat on the ledge and watched as the river steamed and exhaled these long clouds that wrapped their way around the curves of the mountains. They seemed to linger much longer than the ones in the morning. Perhaps they didn’t want to go moonward, perhaps they liked it along the river, like I do.
That was my day. Watching fog and clouds drift off the river, sitting in the cool misty breeze of the remnants of the rain storm.
Yesterday, I found elk antlers cradled against a rock, crick water holding its tips submerged.
Today, my world grew smaller, but denser, submerged in a wet cold front.
Day 12 – Wednesday
It smelled like smoke all day today. There must be fires somewhere, though I haven’t gotten any news in almost two weeks. I listen to the radio almost all the time while I’m at camp. It feels good to be part of conversations even when I don’t know any of the people and never say anything other than my daily check-in at noon. One of the best stanzas I’ve heard was just last night –
“It just goes on and on and on with nothing
getting done but a bunch of hard work”
Yup. That’s life, isn’t it? Such a beautiful thing, this life we get to live. It just goes on and on and on with nothing getting done. Shit, that might be the epigraph for my next poetry collection.
Today, my nothing-that-got-done was hiking up Vinegar Mountain, which sits right behind camp. I’ve been looking at it since I got here. The trail meanders up through a couple of little ravines before hitting one last switchback which draws you out across the long face of the mountain. At one point, you hit a slight ridge that lets you peak over to the other side of the mountain down into Elk Lake. The wildfire haze was pretty thick so I couldn’t get too far of a view. I passed a few fresh signs of bear scat, but I didn’t see any bear.
The trail eventually hits a slight scree slop and you’ve got to watch your footing or else you’ll slip and slide for quite a while. The rock reminds me of shale – crumbling, breaking in long sheaths. I love when you get to the alpine point where trees start to get stouter and the flora changes. I wish I knew the names of all the plants and animals I see. There’s a Gary Snyder stanza about that… learning the plants…
Anyway, there is no clear trail up to the actual peak of Vinegar, the main trail circles around it before venturing further south towards Mt. Bradley or you can hit a junction and drop down into Elk Lake. I found the longest, slightest grade up to the peak through a ridge of mountain grass (I’ll have to find the proper term for the plant, but it looked like grass to me!) and picked my way slowly up to the highest point. Someone built a little cairn at the top. The peak had lightning charred logs strewn about it and the remnants of still-standing-dead-fir blanketed the northern slope. God, I love being at the top of mountains. I become undone, completely open to possibility, stitches unstitch, routines dissipate into rituals.
I ate a lunch (an everything bagel with almond butter and Nutella, an apple, some beef jerky) and leaned against my pack and dozed a bit as the smoke finally cleared and the flies found me. Since I was the only living thing up there, once the flies found me, they became relentless in their attachment. I decided to head back down, which I did. Going down was quicker, but I find that hiking down mountains is harder on my feet and knees than going up. Nothing that a nice long swim in the cold river couldn’t ease up. It did.
Three more nights. I’m going to make some burritos, lay in the hammock, and watch the last light slowly come.
Last night I woke to mice in the attic (it sounded like they were playing soccer) and went outside and saw a shooting start streak across The Milky Way.
Day 14 – Friday
I’ve spent the last two days fishing. It’s been spectacular. On Thursday, I took my 9’ 5 wt. upstream and fished a good few miles of the river, all the way up to a tributary near a dead elk carcass and back where I saw the first grizzly. All day I fished a purple hopper with a purple haze trailing it and all day I was picking up really nice Westlope Cutthroats. It was good, simple fishing. My favorite stretch was where the stream narrowed, with a bank of alders to my back and a giant piece of Belt Rock full of ripples and waves across the stream. How did this rock erode like this? Man, what a massive force of water and glacier and time it had to take to cut the stream like this. I stayed in the run for quite a long time – fishing, looking at the rock, trying to take it all in. I fished all the way up until I got hungry. I stopped and ate lunch and laid across a rock eddy for a bit and then put a streamer on to fish back down.
My favorite lunchtime/afternoon rest time along the stream game is “pick a rock across the river and see how many times you can hit it with rocks.” I’ve spent many hot afternoons playing this game. You have to find various ways to entertain yourself when you are solo in the backcountry for two weeks…
I haven’t been fishing the streamer much, but I felt like a change of pace and it felt like the right move with the wind coming up from downstream and me fishing back that way. There were also so incredibly deep pools I just had to gauge with it. Almost immediately I had cutthroat chase the streamer. I worked my way downstream like that - swinging the streamer, fighting cutthroats, the release. The simple motions of half circles and trout flicking out of your hand once unhooked.
On Friday I took my morning nice and slow, drinking coffee, watching the river, writing. I hiked down to the start of the Spruce Gorge and fished my way back with my 7’6” 4 weight glass rod. I tied on a purple hopper and fished that all day. In the first run I fished, I had a Bull Trout take the hopper. A nice one at that. You aren’t allowed to target Bulls on this river, which I wasn’t. It seems like it’s inevitable you’ll get into one here and there just while you are fishing for cutthroats. I was blessed to have a few nice encounters.
I am full. I am content. I am blessed and so incredibly grateful for this experience. I can’t even begin to fully know how much this has affected me. A few things I do know: I’m going away with no “I wish I had” statements – I fished, I wrote, I explored, I sunk in, I climbed mountains, I opened myself up to this wild place and let it shape me. I hope I can give back to it. I hope I can honor it.
These wild places, they are sacred. They are necessary. They are beautiful. They are intrinsic to our humanity. Without them, we lose all sense of our ecological past, present, and future.