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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

The Balm Of Adventure

Updated: Mar 4

It's mid July, hotter than hell, and the AC in the truck is out. We're cruising the highway with the windows down and the music up. At least we have moving hot air. The west is in the midst of a serious drought and record-breaking heat. Many of the local rivers have already shifted to hoot owl hours, so we are on the road in search of cold water and willing trout.

I'm in Montana with my two sons, Kyle and Blake. Kyle moved here in 2018 to attend college and Blake moved in with him for the summer (which has now extended into the fall) after graduating high school this year. It's been awfully quiet in the house without those boys and even more since our German shorthair of 13-1/2 years crossed the rainbow bridge last week.

A heavy blueish-grey haze has hung over me for the last month, much like the valley we now travel through. Missing the boys. Knowing a small tin of ashes that used to be my faithful dog is waiting for me back home. Feeling my age and the eerie emptiness of a quiet house.

Watching the passing landscape I'm reminded of a quote by Gene Hill. "Remember when time was cheap? The songs we sang about it told us that we had time on our hands, that time stood still, that tomorrow would be time enough. And now we find it was not. Suddenly times to come have become times past, and we must hoard it and spend it cautiously as the tag ends of a small inheritance . . . which is what it really was all along–except no one told us."

I'm fighting a lump in my throat and tears that threaten to leak out at any moment. I'm fighting to be present. To not spend this inheritance of time frivolously.

Gene again comes to mind. "The good thing about adventures is that they mostly just happen, hopefully when you need one to stir up your life. But you have to be there. You have to get up and go, you have to try to live your life so you can sit back in years to come and say 'I remember when...' instead of 'I should have...' It's not easy, but then nothing worthwhile is."

I need the balm of adventure to heal some of the fresh wounds; the breeze of moments in mountains with loved ones to clear out some of the haze. We have six days, and I'm determined to make them count.

We develop what could best be termed a "loose plan." Today we'll head to the Tobacco Roots and backpack into a productive and remote alpine lake that the boys fished earlier this season at ice out. Cutties, hammocks, food from a camp stove, and bourbon from a flask. Just what the doctor ordered. We'll stay overnight, take our time packing out, then hit the road again chasing blue lines that haven't been as affected by the heat. Going wherever the path leads.

The hike in isn't bad. After a small creek crossing, it's maybe four miles, mostly uphill. The boys lead the way and, despite the caboose slowing the train a little, we make it to the lake in about two hours. There are a few other fisherman. Day hikers. So we ditch the packs, pitch the tent, grab snacks, stretch the hammocks, and take our time stringing the rods. A few tales from their last outing here has my excitement building. I take a deep breath of pine and lake, look over at my kids, and smile for what feels like the first time in a while.

Eventually the day hikers melt off and we have the place to ourselves. The basin quiets and the water begins to glass out as evening sets in. The search for feeding fish begins. A few small rings begin to dot the placid surface and I turn a fish on my fist cast that puts my heart in my throat. A miss.

But Kyle hooks up. It's a solid mountain cuttie. I celebrate his catch and curse myself for whiffing. It's pretty well established that the boys can out fish me, but I still need to muster at least an illusion of competitiveness.

We work our way around the shoreline, each eventually putting a few in the net as the sun slowly dips below the peaks, turning the smokey sky into a diffused pinkish-orange haze that, for some reason, makes me think of a Fuzzy Navel.

We eat our fill of freeze-dried beef stroganoff and instant mashed potatoes, empty the flasks, and share a pipe as nightfall sets in.

And that's when story time begins. The boys fill me in on some of their summer adventures and I share a few anecdotes from my youth that I have held close to the vest until they are "age appropriate." Doling them out judiciously over time, like rations on a lifeboat, in a way dads tend to do. We relive memories of the dog, family trips, previous hikes and hunts, and more than a few fishing debacles. Before I can even realize it, we are all laughing. A bit of the haze hanging over me begins to lift.

Somehow we make it safely into the tent before passing out for the night. Kyle doesn't get far, finding a spot on the tent floor, arms wrapped around his sleeping pad that covers him like a sad orange blanket. Blake at least makes it halfway into his sleeping bag and manages to partially inflate his sleeping pad. But he has the hiccups. I worry about beef stroganoff being served a second time in a small tent. I manage to get my sleeping pad inflated, and mostly into the sleeping bag before balling up an old puffy for a pillow and cashing out.

The next thing I remember is morning. It's already pretty bright. A quick check of the watch. Seven-thirty. I'm up and exploring the lake before Thing-One and Thing-Two can beat me to it. I need every advantage the situation affords.

I manage to trick a couple small ones before I see the boys rustling along the shore, rods in hand. My head start doesn't last long and they eventually catch then pass me in the fishing department. I hear about it. Smart-asses. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

We complete the circuit of the lake, refill water bottles, and pack up to make our way back down. Our time already moving too quickly.

I can tell you for certain that a caboose rolls much faster downhill than up, especially when the promise of real food lies at the end of the tracks. And by real food, I mean a couple of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, some Pringles, an orange, and a cold beer.

After our late lunch we point the compass northwest and hit the road for the next phase. We have a general idea of where we want to go. It's a long hot drive. I drop a text to my buddy Dan from Whiskey Leather Works to let him know we'll be passing through and he invites us to stop by. We need to keep moving to hit our destination before dark, but I've never seen Dan's shop and we decide to make the trip. It proves fortuitous.

We share our plans with Dan and he's shaking his head. No no. It's all wrong. He's frantic. Pulling up maps and photos, throwing out names and directions faster than I can process them. He's like a demon-possessed auctioneer. I'm trying desperately to bid, but he just keeps on rolling. In the end we leave with inside intel on two locations that will make up the rest of our trip. Car camping and plentiful trout assured.

We roll into our campsite well after dinner time, but anxious to fish. We're in the water before the dust from the two-track has even settled, working promising tail-outs and deep cut banks.

I'm with Blake hucking streamers and move a giant in a sneaky pocket beneath a tree, tight against a boulder. I hit the spot again and hook up. A nice brown. He's giving me a good fight in the fast water and goes airborne before coming unbuttoned. Shit! Another shot into the spot and I'm hooked up again! This fish feels more substantial; holding in the heavy current, challenging me to move him. I lean into the six-weight to muscle him out and come unpinned. Shit, shit, shit! I fumble to light a cigarette to unfrazzle my frazzled nerves, but Kyle is shouting at us from upriver. He's into a good fish and needs help with the net. We flail upstream as quickly as possible in the quick current and polished rock bed – Blake manages to make the scoop.

I can't believe how good the fishing is. Kyle and I each land a few more before we all reluctantly leave the river, set up camp, and start dinner. Elk brats with beer and baked beans. A delicious but toxic combination, particularly when small tents are involved.

Kyle elects to sleep in the truck bed (a smart call after the dinner we just finished) and journals the day's activities while Blake and I play cards by lantern as caddis fight to draw closer to the flame.

It's been a therapeutic 24 hours that has moved me into the realm of not knowing or caring what day or what time it is. Into the realm of living in the moment. Of being present. For the adventure. For the boys. For myself.

I wake up the next morning to stirring outside the tent and find Kyle brewing coffee in the old percolator and cooking eggs and sausage for breakfast on the camp stove. The smells mingle with that of fresh mountain air in a delicious harmony that draws me back to every camping memory of my last 47 years. It's a perfect moment. I close my eyes and soak it in.

For the next couple days we explore the miles of river in our backyard. Busting through brush, climbing hills, driving the gravel track along the river to find the next "hot spot." Riffles and slicks, braided sections, boulder fields, and deep pools. It looks like fish nirvana, and the fishing matches the expectations, landing cutties, browns, bows, brookies, and even a couple of surprise bulls. All carefully released back into the swift current. It's all magical. The setting. The fishing. The wildlife. The sounds and smells. More than anything, the time together in the outdoors.

But we've saved the best for last. The spot shared with us in hushed confidence. A gift from a friend. One that promises big trout and has pictures to prove it, including a giant 22-inch brown from just a week ago. The anticipation is palpable as we make the drive. Dan has given us a treasure map and marked all the juicy spots with a giant "X."

We unload and quickly rig up, walking the faint trail to the first honey hole. It looks incredible. Blake's luck had been a little slower on the last stretch so we give him first pass at the fishy run. He's throwing streamers and the first cast leads to a follow from a fish that had to have gone two feet. We all gasp and hold our breath as it darts back into the deep hole.

Another couple casts and he's hooked up. A nice upper teens brown, but not the monster we had seen. The boys work the spot a little longer and I head upstream to explore. I find a nice cut bank and pull a few casts through, hooking up with a smaller trout. Meanwhile downriver Kyle has already caught and released a fish and I can see that Blake is into something pretty serious. I fish my way to them and they fill me in; a beefy cutthroat. We continue to fish down, moving a few, but things seemed to have slowed.

Then we find ourselves at a wide bend that creates a sharp drop-off and a deep whirlpool. Blake makes a cast and is into another nice brown. Then another. And another. And Kyle too. I'm working the same spot but can't manage to even get a follow as the boys land fish after fish and make it look easy.

All I can do is laugh, net fish, take pictures, and endure the verbal taunting I've earned. The sun is going down and the mosquitos are ravenous - each slap of the arm or neck or shoulder taking out three or four of the bloodsucking ear buzzers. We're reluctant to leave such great fishing, even more so knowing it's our last night, but eventually the bugs and Dan's warning of "lots of bears" chase us out of the water and back to the truck.

It's a long drive back to camp. I look down at my legs, shredded from bushwhacking. I see the bug bites covering my hands and arms. I feel the sunburn stinging my neck, the dull ache in my knees and the kink in my back from sleeping on the ground.

And I know it's just the balm I needed. My body is battered, but my heart is healing.

I'm grateful for the inheritance.

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