Outside: The Getaway

A thick column of black smoke rose downriver, cooling into a thin layer across the horizon and contrasting starkly against the late October Montana sky; a good metaphor for the splitting headache that was hammering in my otherwise clear head. The smoke distracted me for a moment. Why would someone be burning tires? My focus returned to the listless bobber 10 feet off the left side of the boat indicating that the fish had no interest in the flies dangling below it. And, like the fish, my energy level was not high. It was the last morning of a three-day trip on the Missouri River, and perhaps a bit of melancholy was setting in due to the impending return to reality.

I often think about the emotions that I experience on trips like these: a rare three-day escape to spend time on the water with friends, free from the normal strides of life. Enthusiasm, apprehension, hope, disappointment, redemption, and desire all seem to surface in me at some point on these excursions. My optimism was high on the first night as we settled into the riverside campground, prepping for the next day, unsure of what to expect, but looking forward to it just the same. The reality on any trip like this is that the best I can hope for is one good day of fishing out of three, tucked away to recall at a later time when those memories of rising fish get me through a day.

And one out of three is what we got. The first day was spent prospecting the Missouri, becoming reacquainted with the moody river, revealing little in its methodical northern push through Montana, the incoming front keeping the wind up and the fish down. Days like these lower one’s expectations and offer a more contemplative approach. Looking up from the water, I noted that the cottonwoods and bankside willows were transitioning from yellow to red, their colors reflected in the burnished steel surface of the river that was fringed with bright green algae mats. The rustle of dry leaves on the wind coupled with the scent of water, made for a full-sensory experience.

Every river is unique in this regard. It’s amazing how a sound or smell can take one back to a time and place without warning. If we are able to be open to it all in the moment, we’d have a better chance of allowing the memory to come back later. Putting thoughts to sleep for the night, we drifted off with our optimism high, knowing that our luck might turn with the weather the next day.

And indeed, we awoke to perfection: a steady rain mixed with low battleship clouds skirting the ridges and cliffs along the river. On days like this, my chest tightens with hope, filling me with excitement for what I know could happen if the weather holds.

With the day’s progress, the Baetis mayflies emerged with increasing intensity, the fish responding in pods as the insects struggled to break the surface film, floating into lemming-like piles along the algae mats and filling every couple square inches of open surface. The browns and rainbows ate with the ferocity of bears fattening up for the coming winter. (Trout and bears are not that different in their response to a bountiful food source on the shoulder of shortening daylight.) We fished until the light faded, soaked to the core, hands knurled into crab claws clenched around the wet cork of our fly rods.

Not wanting to suffer a soggy camp, we ended up at a bar in the small town of Cascade, opting for long necks, burgers, and a place to dry out. Montana is a place of contrasts, with destination rivers flowing next to ranches and the folks that work them. The bar was mostly occupied by the latter, men dressed in canvas jackets and neckerchiefs sat at the tables around us. There we were: three guys clad in soaking-wet fleece, smelling of decomposing river, campfire, and fish. The occasional crack of a pool cue interrupted the cadence of play-by-play balls and strikes coming from the playoff game on the TV in the corner, a steady chatter of calf-price prognostication and a fly-selection debate mixing freely above it all.

By the time we wandered back to camp, the weather was lifting, and we celebrated with a great rumpus around the fire, our shadows dancing across the rocks behind the camp. As the clouds moved east, the stars appeared to celebrate with us; what warmth was left in the earth slipped away as the fire faded. The next morning — the day of rising smoke and headaches — was postcard-pretty, with the clear blue sky contrasting a landscape encrusted in crystal hoarfrost. Everything was frozen, including a pair of boot-foot neoprene waders we had left standing upright like a silent camouflaged sentry.

As we returned from the morning float to break camp and head our separate ways, we noticed our rubberized guardian was gone. Who would steal a pair of neoprene waders, we wondered. Although a mysterious theft for sure, it was not a great financial hit to the owner.

But our mystery ended in a moment of clarity as we noticed a black pile of ash in the distinct shape of two legs. Near what could have been the feet, we found two small embossed chunks of metal: steel shank, all that was left of the bottom part. Clearly the frozen waders had warmed in the sun and fallen prey to the still-hot coal’s we’d left behind. Was that the smoke we’d seen downriver that morning? I am not sure sheepishness is an emotion, but if it is, we were full of it as we drove off with the recovered mementos from what was apparently one hell of a wader fire.

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