On the Wild River

The first night—when the giants begin leaping from the mountains, and the air becomes heavy and injected with electric potential, and there are nothing but burned, white snags all around me—is the first time I feel small and vulnerable on this adventure.

I am huddled in a tent with my wife in the middle of the Bob Marshall Wilderness—the largest wilderness in Montana. We feign sleep but are alert, listening to bounding thunderclaps and watching for flashes. The rain comes down in steady patter. We move our heads and feet from the well-worn walls of our tent that are already seeping moisture.

Nearby, two other couples listen to the storm from their tents. At home, tucked in our insulated houses and warm, dry beds we all might not hear this storm. But in this wild place, we return to our animal alertness. We are reminded of our smallness. It is one reason we go on adventures such as this: to remember how large and full the world is.

I venture into the wilds of Montana often. Living here, I am lucky enough to be on the doorstep of millions of acres of public land. I am lucky enough to have the time and resources to explore these places. I am lucky to be able to make part of my living taking students out into these wild lands and teaching them about their ecology, function, and value.

I have chosen to spend this summer vacation with my wife and friends, backpacking and packrafting through 75 miles of wilderness. We follow the South Fork of the Flathead River from one of its small tributary headwater creeks almost all the way to its outlet at Hungry Horse Reservoir.

After the thunderstorm and an 18-mile slog with mammoth packs on our backs, we are rewarded by putting in on Youngs Creek. We watch the miles slip by effortlessly as we float with our loads downstream.

The creek, however, has its own obstacles to navigate. We float through a canyon late in the day, as a chill settles on the air. Boulders populate the riverbed like pinball wheels. They threaten to flip or puncture our boats. We try our best to avoid them but bounce off many. We gather up at the bottom and assess our losses: We’re all intact and our boats are still floating.

Just downstream we camp where Danaher and Youngs meet and form the South Fork of the Flathead. My friend and I fly fish as the day stills and the bugs emerge. On the second cast I hook a beautiful cutthroat—brilliant orange slash along its jaw. I work it through the current, unhook it, and release it back to the babbling river.

For two more days we soak in this wild space. Our daily worries dissolve. We become accustomed to looking downstream for white water, forecasting the river’s curves and dips like a road. We learn new things about each other—the rawness of the place pulls out bits and pieces of our inner selves that we have not shared before. On the last night we celebrate my wife’s birthday with costumes, cake, and bountiful laughter.

I return from this adventure pulsing with gratitude: that I live in a place as wild as this, that I am surrounded by such good and whole people, and that I can go out on these renewing adventures again and again.