I have lived in Montana for nearly 40 years. Even before arriving I tried to learn about my state. The people who invited me here hoped, even expected, that I would learn something about the state’s history; read the books they put in front of me; learn to close gates behind me every time I had permission to traverse private land; come to appreciate the long tenure of Montana’s Native peoples and cultures; and take a few back roads far from the interstate. In heart and soul I became a Montanan.
In the last two or three years living in Montana has become more difficult, and not just because of a pandemic. I can’t get a campsite where I used to drive up, find an empty spot and throw down my pad and bag. It takes thirty minutes to drive north through town where it used to take me fifteen. In some cases a dinner reservation must be made a week in advance. The median home price in Missoula recently hit $534,000. Sometimes there are more out-of-state license plates in parking lots than in-state plates with county numbers. When going fishing I have had to learn to dodge trailers and rafts.
With all this in mind I particularly admired the spirit of Tom Dickson’s Sketchbook essay in the May-June issue of Montana Outdoors (https://issuu.com/montanaoutdoors/docs/momj21). Like me he feels the pinch of change, but he found it in his heart to say, “Howdy, new neighbors.” To be sure, he had some recommendations for people from Utah, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida and California, things like not building a trophy home too close to a river or stream because of the impact of septic systems, or plopping one on a hilltop. But he even went so far as to propose that we give newcomers a welcome basket that contained a few things like a can of bear spray and a copy of the stream access law.
On a Wednesday in late June I pulled into a fishing access point along the shore of Flathead Lake. There were boat trailers and a car from another state. Under its open hatch a couple of women showered in a mist of bug spray. They launched an inflatable tandem kayak just ahead of me and began their own exploration along the shore. Meanwhile, I prepared to paddle out to Wild Horse Island, trying to remember every thing I might need, especially if predicted winds forced me to stay on the island until dusk when the wind usually drops.
Anticipating windy conditions I chose to bring my Werner Camano paddle because the blade gives me a little more bracing power in waves. But almost immediately I felt the absence of my Greenland-style paddle. More than I realized I have grown accustomed to being able to slide my hands up and down the loom for different kinds of strokes. I missed the faster cadence and the way the paddle is gentler on my joints. Adjusting myself to the unexpected, I crossed the strait to the island, made my way north to Skeeko Bay and pulled Bluebird ashore over a mass of floating driftwood. Even though Sélîs Kasanka Q’lispe dam is releasing over 50,000 cubic feet per second, the lake currently sits 5 inches above full pool as rain-swollen rivers pour into the basin.
Once ashore, I found a big log where I could sit, eat a peanut butter sandwich and change clothes for a hike. Even on a Wednesday several pontoon boats had already run up onto the gravel shore and disgorged a pile of passengers while more of these vessels approached from Big Arm and Dayton: I would not have the island to myself.
After loading a fanny pack with water, my first aid kit, and an already-peeled orange, I started up the trail. At the saddle where an old cabin still stands in the wind I turned left and took the Overlook Trail. Along the way I passed several families with young children. A toddler fell in front of me and scraped his left knee. I offered a band aid but his mother assured me that they had what they needed to comfort their crying child. I caught up to a couple heading toward the ridge, and as I passed, greeted them and asked if they were going to see the bitterroots. When they seemed mystified, I explained that bitterroots are the state flower and that they grow in the most inhospitable places like the rocky ridge ahead of us. They seemed interested but were not in good enough condition to continue up the steep trail.
During the day I saw lots of other people, talked with some whose accents I could not place. People asked, “Did you see a horse? A sheep? A bear?” I was tempted to say, “Only a lion,” but out of respect, held my tongue. On my way up to the top of the island I kept wondering, how do we do this? How do we welcome the people who are coming despite the changes they bring to a place we love and want to protect? How do we teach them that an animal is not an object to be counted but a particular expression and member of an incredibly complex community? How do we show them that a black-backed woodpecker is evidence of a combination of fire and insect populations; that a bald-eagle kiting in the wind is not something you see every day; that fire can be a friend to the land; that cheat grass is a problem? As I sat under a ponderosa clinging to its rocky footing I reminded myself of how Shoshone peoples must have felt seeing Lewis and Clark approach.
From the top of the island I looked in all directions, marveled at how the lake looked purple under shadows cast by cumulus clouds and a sunny turquoise where sediments in suspension from upstream rivers colored the water. I found several scrapes where animals had bedded down, but saw no deer or sheep. Near the top of the island I found sago lilies in a shady spot.
Watching gusts of wind race across the surface of the lake, I began to feel anxious about crossing back to the mainland, so I headed down the mountain. Along the way I found an Inuksuk, a reminder to act responsibly as a human being. Back at my kayak I changed clothes again and launched as two more boats sought to come ashore in front of me. They focused only on a place to land, not my vulnerability in a kayak.
Despite headwinds and the gusts that tore at my hat, I made it safely back to shore, though I did have to avoid flying hooks and worms cast from the dock. The changes we face won’t be easy to integrate. Yet, I hope to find a way to be friendly, knowing I, too, was once a newcomer, never quite native to this place I love.