“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charley”
Author John Steinbeck composed this line on October 14, 1960, in the midst of a beautiful fall day between Billings and Missoula on day 22 of his 10,000 mile journey across America. While one journalist in particular, Bill Steigerwald, author of “Dogging Steinbeck,” has placed into question the veracity of Steinbeck’s effusiveness regarding Montana since he spent only a total of 55-60 hours in the state, (straying off what is today’s Interstate 90 only twice, once to Yellowstone Park, the other to the Battle of the Bighorn site), even Steigerwald has conceded that “how he (Steinbeck) figured out Montana and its people so quickly testifies to his superior power of observation.” Given the date, the cottonwoods and quaking aspen along the Yellowstone River near Columbus, Montana, must have been as gloriously gold and yellow as they are today. Likewise, the riparian habitat sheltering the Clark Fork River between Deer Lodge and Missoula would have been, barring an early frost, as scenic as it is for today’s travelers. Many readers of “Travels With Charley” (his dog) have lamented how unfortunate it was that his “2-night stand” in Montana didn’t materialize into a week-that Steinbeck could have pressed on to Ravalli, turning North past the current Bison Range, viewing the Mission Range, a sight that many travelers suggest is unsurpassed in Montana. Snow would have surely covered the highest peaks, contrasting with the colors in the broad valley below. Thence on to Flathead Lake, taking the East Shore Highway where he could access Glacier National Park via Bigfork and Columbia Falls. Given his natural inclination for adventure, Steinbeck would have been remiss in not hiking Glacier’s Highline Trail with its brilliantly, blazing red swathes of huckleberry bushes just beneath the snow-covered, knife-like arête of the Continental Divide, the “Bishops Cap” looming directly overhead and Mt. Gould in the distance. Dodging hyperphagic Grizzly Bears (a period of 2-4 months when bears intensify their calorie intake before winter denning, gaining as much as three pounds per day), Steinbeck could have hiked the 3 miles to Haystack Butte (a feature visible from the top of Northwest Peak in the Yaak), or another 4 miles to Granite Park Chalet, catching the Loop Trail back down to the Going-To-The-Sun Road.
Of course, had Steinbeck continued West on Highway 2 through Libby and Troy, surely he could not have resisted entering Montana’s “best last place,” the Yaak Valley. It is here that Steinbeck would have encountered a wildness that he would have undoubtedly found both enchanting and intimidating.
“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
“Archipelago: Notes from an Inland Sea,” is a 2000 publication featuring a variety of essays from those who are either residents of, or by those who love the Yaak Valley. I could never pretend to replicate the artistry of a Jeff Ferderer, who wrote “A Couple of Spring Times,” or “Respect,” by Tom Horelick; “Notes from the North Fork,” by Bud Journey;” Lief Haugen’s “Mount Henry;” Bill Martin’s essay entitled “Planting;” Laura Wilde’s “A Day in the Yaak;” Tim Linehan’s “Diversions:” “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson,” by John Wickersham; Wayne Kasworm’s “Obituary for a Grizzly Bear;” Bob Butz’s “Up on Hensley;” And one of the most poignant essays of all, “The South Fork,” by Robyn King, where she goes to that “underneath place,” describing so vividly the “twilight” colors of Pink Mountain from her abode on the South Fork. From my near-daily excursions into the Yaak, although vast, it has an intimacy unlike most other valleys. One can experience panoramas from the top of Mt. Henry, Northwest Peak, or Buckhorn Ridge with pockets of alpine larch and wild mountain ash (the domestic kind are no match), but I prefer my Yaak in the many and varied lower reaches, hiking trails along the North and West Forks with my Golden Retriever, frantic to flush a grouse—places where the musky odors of decomposing leaves from red dogwood, golden aspen and cottonwood leaves, brilliant red chokecherry, organic detritus for the following spring , drift along in those “oh so soothing” streams. Late in the fall after the predictable frost, the larch become the “glory” of the Yaak, most pronounced (if you are driving) in the early morning sunlight above the Brown homestead, Zimmerman Mountain, and from Boyd Hill Cemetery to Caribou Campground. Coming South down the Yaak Highway in the evening, one sees a pink grove of quaking aspen on Saddle Mountain (obviously where a pocket of water exists), immersed amongst the golden larch.
Over the years, I have traditionally chosen the day before hunting season to hike and fish the most remote of Fish Lakes which is 5 miles in. Many people are unaware of this lake, one that sits in a narrow gorge approximately one and a half miles beyond what is considered the “main” lake. Since the daylight hours are short, being on the trail by 5:00 a.m. is a necessity, arriving at Turner Falls (3 miles in), passing a “marsh” surrounded by “old growth” larch reflected in the water, arriving at the “main” lake by 7:00 a.m. The going around this lake is treacherous (shale rock) in the best of circumstances, but at this time of the year the rocks are thoroughly frosted. Thus, it takes approximately another hour or so, if not longer, to reach ones destination. In some years, the days have been either rainy or overcast, but on one trek in particular, the day was perfectly clear, but cold. The fishing for West Slope Cuthroat was excellent throughout the day, and the sunlight made handling fish in that very cold water bearable. As all fishermen (and women) know, time slips away when the fishing is good, and I failed to realize the extent of the sun’s position, especially in a ravine that isolated. As the valley quickly darkened, and each end of the lake became invisible, I readied my headlamp and began to crest above the lake when the setting sun appeared in a blaze like a campfire, reflecting the golden larch singularly at a specific point along the lakeshore. Turning off my lamp, I sat mesmerized for the next hour, a shivering Golden Retriever with her head in my lap, but unable to leave until the last ray of light disappeared behind Mt. Henry.
I have witnessed the sunset while resting at the base of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, watched it set on both rims of the Grand Canyon as well as at the bottom, entered the great Gothic cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame, marveled at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, sat spellbound on the marble steps of the Parthenon overlooking Athens, flown over the Greek Islands on a night flight to Israel, and twice was in Carnegie Hall with my family to hear my sister perform, and yet this dying blaze of sun at upper Fish Lake was as exhilarating as any event I’ve ever experienced.
I knew that my way out that night with my headlamp would be long and difficult (and it was), but I’ve never failed to give thanks for the remoteness of the Yaak Valley and that memorable experience, one that I wouldn’t ever expect to repeat.
“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face”
John Donne, The Complete poetry and Selected Prose
Tony Smith has been a longtime member of the Libby and Troy communities. He is a teacher, a coach, and a friend to many.