Never in my life have I woken up so sore. It’s like I’ve gone to hockey camp for two weeks, only now I’m 30 years old and overweight. After making sure my body is functioning properly, I realize the sun is shining, not a cloud in the sky. It’s a perfect day.
As I drink my coffee, I look over our maps and plot our course for the day. I can’t be satisfied with the distance we have traveled or the fish we can catch 100 yards from my tent. I want to go “just a little bit further.” George is of course onboard and we figure a short 2-hour hike should put us just above Salmon Lake, and what is rumored to be the best fishing on the entire river.
Chow and Luke reluctantly agree to go along. So we pack as light as we can, clean up camp, and once again we’re hiking down the trail. The terrain changes from tall full pines and shade to dead burned over land. The sun begins to cook us. Montana doesn’t have New Jersey humidity, but it feels like we we’re walking on the sun itself. It’s miserable. At this point, I believe if they had the energy, Chow and Luke would have put their previous threats to kick my ass in to action. I force us all on, promising the best fishing is just a bit further.
Instead, what we come upon is grand fucking central station. We look at a mile and half of prime river, with a fisherman in each pool. My perfect wilderness fishing trip is looking like a complete failure. I’m furious. How could we have traveled so far only to find so many people? I contemplate throwing my rod into the river, giving up fishing all together, and walking back to New Jersey.
Instead, due to my frustration and Pops will to make the best of the situation, we decide to go a little further down the trail in search of open water. We come to a spot at least 100 yards above the river. We decide it’s here or nowhere in order to save the day. Our only path is a steep slope filled with burnt timber, blowdowns and brush. My father is always warning us about being careful when we are out in the wild, but when the time comes, he doesn’t seem to give a shit and throws caution to the wind himself. As we barge our way down that hill I keep thinking how bad our descent could end. We’re days away from a hospital, and the descent down is the most treacherous action I’ve yet to attempt in the wild. Heather, my mother and my mom-mom would have a heart attack as we slid, jumped and climbed over all kinds of shit. Each of us blazing our own path.
We eventually all meet at the bottom, and waiting for us along this perfect stretch of river is more fisherman! Obviously, we couldn’t see them from our vantage point when we began our descent. We’re now bloodied and exhausted. I feel completely defeated. The perfect wilderness I had promised is nowhere to be found and it’s all my fault. Everything I had promised evaporates. I sulk on the ground, trying not to snap my rod in two and drown myself in the river. It’s an ultimate low for me. But instead of drowning myself, I pick my head up to the sound of Chow and Luke laughing hysterically. “Look at him…He’s gonna cry!!!! BAHAHAHAHA!!” I can’t help but begin to chuckle myself and say, “Well fuck you guys. Let’s get outta here.”
We’re all pissed. But because of Chow and Luke’s ability to make fun of me, and subsequently find the lighter side of our situation, our spirits are high. We come to the realization that this place just is not as “wild” as advertised, and devise a plan to hike the hell out and fish a different part of Montana.
As we begin our 2-hour hike back to base camp, all we can do is laugh some more when it begins to pour rain on what started as a perfect sunny day. The trail is a slop of horse shit and mud. Chow’s feet get so bad that my Dad trades boots with him. When the boots get too bad for George, the crazy old man decides to walk about a mile of the trail barefoot back to camp. I’ve never seen someone on so many occasions put his own comfort or safety aside and press forward. The three of us can barely finish the hike, our feet are so bad and our bodies so sore, yet here is the old man trudging along barefoot.
Before we make it back to camp, the rain stops and the sun has returned. When we reach camp only two hours of daylight remain. We then realize that we never bothered to put the tent fly’s on before leaving that morning. Everything we had is completely soaked and once again, we find ourselves in a dangerous situation. While the day was blistering hot, night time temperatures would dip to about 40 degrees. George gets pretty serious as he instructs us to gather as much wood as we can find. He begins rigging up a clothes line so we can dry our bags. Luke, Chow and myself gather firewood and then proceed to drink any bit of alcohol we can come up with.
It’s the worst sleep of my life. Chow and I share a sleeping bag while wearing every dry item we have. My dad once again shows sacrifice and perseverance. He sits up burning wood until 2am until every bag is dry, before he climbs into his tent. Maybe when I have children of my own, this instinct my Dad has will just appear within me. I doubt it, but seeing him in action I at least know it’s possible.
We wake up miserable and hell bent on getting out of this “wilderness” as fast as our feet can take us. We begin hiking back in the direction of the car, passing more pack trains and people as we go. About six miles in we come to a spot we had passed two days before. It looks very fishy, and most importantly, there isn’t a damn person in sight. We take a vote and decide to spend our last two days in Montana fishing this stretch of river.
We pitch our camp and catch trout after trout out of a large bathtub pool 25 feet from our fire pit. As it gets dark, we decide to keep a few fish for dinner to supplement our Ramen noodles.
About five minutes into those fish cooking over the fire, Chow insists the fish are “fucking done” and slides one of the trout out of our pan and onto his plate. George and him pick away at that fish while Luke and I wait for ours to cook a bit longer. We’re full and tired. As we lay down in our tents on what was apparently the most clear night sky we had yet encountered on the trip, we’re all blown away by the stars. I’ve never seen anything like it, it seems there were more stars than sky. This is almost worth the trip alone.
We wake up with our batteries recharged and head down river to fish for the day. We fish over some amazing water, catching trout from every spot a trout could wedge itself. All dry flies, all averaging 8-16 inches.
About halfway through the day, Chow heads back to our camp. He’s having some pretty bad stomach issues and goes tent bound. I check on him, make sure he has water, and go back to fishing. Alone on a nice stretch catching fish after fish when out of the corner of my eye on the opposite side of the river come more goddamned fishermen. They keep creeping up closer to the hole I’m fishing. I want to say something, or wade across and knock their fucking teeth out. But I’d just caught and released a picture perfect 18-inch cutty on a hopper. Satisfied, I concede the hole and leave to search for George and Luke.
The two of them had wandered further down river and were catching fish on nearly every cast. To see them so content and happy with the fishing makes my day. The three of us take turns on a pool and decide we should head back to camp to check on Chow. As we make our way back, we pass the fishermen that had crowded me earlier. From what I can make of them, it’s a father and his two sons. Only the one son, looking about my age, has a prosthetic leg. An hour ago I wanted to kick all of their asses for crowding me, now I realize that the guy was probably a Veteran and out here to find the same peace and wilderness that we had come for. I feel humbled, and foolish for getting angry earlier over a stretch of water. I tried then, and still do now, to draw up a witty “life lesson” to take from the experience. Frankly, the situation engulfs so many possible revelations that I cant sum it up in one. But regardless, the guy deserves to fish that water more than me.
Chow on the other hand, had no such revelations back at camp. He can hardly move from his tent, and when he does, it’s only to our makeshift bathroom. While we begin to set up camp for dinner, floating down the river come another group of fishermen. Shocker! However, these clowns decide to set up camp directly across river from us. They wave as if we’re best friends out fishing together. They even began chopping and sawing down stream side trees and brush to make way for their elaborate camp. I again thought about ripping someones head off. But knowing how wrong a fight could go in the wilderness I took a deep breath and moved on mentally. That was about it for me. I’m sick of seeing so many people in “the wilderness.” Content with the fishing we had experienced, we decide to get up with the sun and hike out.
When we get up the next morning, Chow is still sick, and now George has joined him. The only link between the two illnesses is the fish that two nights ago Chow had declared “fucking done”. I make sure to mention this to him multiple times during our hike out. Luke and I attempt to shoulder as much of the load as we can, and we all trudge up the hill and back onto the trail. With six days in the wilderness wearing on our bodies, the hike out is worse than the hike in and I worry about Chow and Pops. We pass party after party of people heading in the direction we’re coming from. Solidifying our frustration with the Bob Marshall Wilderness population.
Two years I spent planning my perfect trip. Paradise in the Montana Wilderness. The trip tried our patience, our companionship, and pushed us to the limit physically. I put so much pressure on the outcome of the trip. I wanted everything to be perfect, I saw the trip as a stepping stone, which upon return home would have better prepared me to become a grown ass man. In this respect, the trip fell short of my enormous expectations.
On the hike out, I finally realize that life is not broken up into steps, we don’t move on from one milestone to the next, passing or failing. As cliche as it may sound, I’ve come to believe that I will just continue to roll, flow, and tumble on like that crystal clear river that flowed 100 yards below me for a week as I hiked through Montana.
Most importantly, I think about how I’d frequently advertised and sold this as the “trip of a lifetime”. I realize that there will never be THE trip of a lifetime. Every trip will be challenging and at times not worth the frustration. No trip will ever be perfect. And it’s high time I stop burdening myself and the rest of the world with expectations. This will not be the last trip my brothers threaten to kick my ass (they can’t do that anyway). But I will still drag my father and brothers through bogs, blowdowns and logging roads. Because that’s what we do. It may not make sense to other people, I’m not sure it even makes sense to me. But we have to keep pushing, keep exploring and keep living this life.