Rivers, Rods and Rails . . .

“The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.” – Norman MacLean.

Missoula lies in a dead flat valley in northwest Montana, tucked among several surrounding mountain ranges – the Sapphires, the Garnets, the Rattlesnakes, the Reservation Divide, the Mission Range, and the Bitterroots. Glacier National Park (154 square miles) is the backdrop for Whitefish and Flathead Lakes two hours north of Missoula; Yellowstone National Park (131 square miles) is a few hours south; and Blodgett Canyon, a collection of two dozen massive granite chasms, “Montana’s Yosemite”, is just an hour southwest. Several enormous national forests surround and buffer these parks and canyons between Glacier and Yellowstone, some spilling over the line into Idaho. These are – Flathead; Lewis & Clark; Bitterroot; St. Joe; Kootenai; Custer-Gallatin; Nez-Perce; Payette; Salmon-Challis; Beaverhead-Overlodge; Sawtooth; and Coeur D’Alene. An astounding 35,000 square miles of forestland – by far the largest concentration of forestland in the United States, dwarfing the area’s national parks by a hundred fold – all managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Explore Montana: Hike Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot ...
Bitterroot National Forest – Blodgett Canyon

The trains run all day and night through downtown Missoula – long lines of cars loaded with coal, timber, gas, cattle, agricultural products; running as far as the eye can see. These are Montana’s historic industries, commercial interests organized to tap the region’s resources, growing steadily over the past century and a half, to their modern, highly engineered, logistically advanced, corporate present.  Missoula has a handsome western downtown, a working man’s Aspen; prominent bank, city hall, hotel, land title company buildings surround the 1901 Northern Pacific Railroad station, a national historic landmark, an enormous antique “iron horse” locomotive displayed in the public square adjacent, well more than a full story high. This cluster of structures is a testament to the development of the region’s rich land and natural resources in Missoula’s early days. The hotel lobby holds a large restaurant, “The Depot”, with three separate bars, including, by local lore, the first, the largest, separate, with its own side entrance, fit up plainly with wood plank floors, for roughhousing cowboys, ranch hands and gamblers; the second, two steps up and to the left off the lobby, smaller, more refined, carpeted, polished wood bar, for cattlemen and ranch owners; the third, up another two steps to the right, a small, elegant bar adjoining the restaurant, with cut glass and brass rails, for railroad men, land speculators and their bankers – industry dealmakers.  

History of Montana Rail Link's Gas Train – Historical Railroad ...
Northern Pacific Railroad – Flathead National Forest

Missoula’s center holds the University of Montana campus, surrounded by a handsome, intact historic residential neighborhood, entirely in the “Craftsman” architectural style, variated house by house. The town now is full of young people, usually on bikes, or with packs, some students at UM, some long term after-college hangers-on, some sojourners who wandered in and did not leave, a “Seattle Grunge” tinge to the crowd, collared shirts rarely seen in its restaurants.  And sure enough, a river, the Clark Fork, runs through it; surfers take turns all summer long riding a permanent wave beneath a small waterfall, watched continually by spectators along the downtown riverfront park.  

The University of Montana | Cappex
University of Montana

“A River Runs Through It” consists of three related, semi-autobiographical novellas written by Norman MacLean, its central character. The stories revolve around two boys growing to men in Missoula in the early twentieth century, sons of a strict Presbyterian minister, a devoted fly-fisherman, who passes his obsession on to his sons, who eventually grow to tough, smart young men.  The stories illustrate great detail about the lives, work and character of northwest Montana’s early loggers, fishermen and forest firefighters; the extreme conditions and dangers of their labors in the field; the rough culture of the remote work camps; and the rugged, hard-drinking character of the workmen, practiced gamblers all.

The MacLean brothers spend most of their time along the Blackfoot River, in the Mission Range, and in the almost impassable, rattlesnake infested, Blodgett Canyon.  One son, Norman, works as a logger and then a firefighter summers for the U.S. Forest Service while earning college and graduate degrees in literature back east.  The other, Paul, collects his degree locally at the University of Montana, works as a local reporter, once interviewing Calvin Coolige visiting for a fishing trip, and earns a reputation as one of the premier fly-fishermen in northwest Montana, as well as becoming a hard drinking, unsuccessful gambler.  As the story moves along, Norman falls in love with a local girl, and takes her with him to teach English at the University of Chicago.  Paul, responding to his older brother’s invitation to go with him, tells his brother he will never leave Montana, continues his drinking and gambling ways, falling in debt to the area’s bad men, criminals, who eventually kill him.  

I had always wanted to read this book, so I did, between well-guided hikes south, to the head of the rugged Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot Mountains; then north past the Mission Range, peaks constantly in clouds; past Flathead Lake, 50 miles long, to Whitefish Lake, smaller, Glacier National Park its backdrop; then into Glacier as far as Avalanche Trail, where the “Going To The Sun” high road was closed for winter weather – in June. Then northeast, along the Blackfoot and Swan Rivers for a hundred miles, then many miles more up increasingly steep, narrow and rough gravel roads, high into Flathead National Forest.  Unknown to our guide, these were the very locations featured in the book, the draw of these places as strong as ever.

New Flathead National Forest Plan Will Shape Future Grizzly ...
Flathead National Forest – Glacier National Park

The United States Forest Service was created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt, with legendary Gifford Pinchot its head. The Forest Service today manages 155 National Forests in 44 states, consisting of 193 million acres of land, representing 25% of all federal lands, and equivalent to a full tenth of all the land in the continental United States. The Forest Service is charged with balancing preservation of these forestlands with commercial interests. Additional agencies, with complementary functions, followed creation of the National Forest Service, including the National Park Service in 1916; the Bureau of Land Management in 1946; and the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1956. The current mission of the National Forest System is to protect and manage the forest lands so they best demonstrate the sustainable multiple-use management concept, using an ecological approach, to meet diverse public interests including grazing, timber, mining, recreation, wildlife habitat, and wilderness; more than a third of the agency’s budget, $2.3 billion annually, is committed to fire fighting and prevention.

Mission Mountains - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Mission Range

The closing of the American frontier, around 1870, represented the conclusion of the expansion of the geographic territory of the continental United States, following its exploration, mapping and connection by river and rail, and leading to rapid commercialization of its useable land and exploitation of its known mineral resources. The steady progress of the territorial charter and statehood process provided a proven path to the political unification of the continent. But completion of these stages of the nation’s physical and political development also brought increasing awareness of its geographic limitations after a century of steady expansion, and, for a few, brought into focus the vulnerability of the country’s most scenic areas to industry forces relentlessly pursuing commercial development, extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, and the mass deforestation that had characterized Europe.

The work of three influential, non-governmental conservation groups initiated the political momentum that eventually brought about creation of the National Forest Service and its subsequent sister agencies. The first was the Appalachian Mountain Club, established in 1876 by MIT Professors Charles Pickering and Samuel Scudder, to advocate for protection of the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. The second was the Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, to advocate for protection and expansion of Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and Montana. The third was the formation of the Sierra Club in 1892 by John Muir, to advocate for protection of Yosemite Valley and its environs in California.

Hungry Horse News
Yellowstone National Park

“A River Runs Through It” winds up with Norman MacLean, on old man at the end, returning to Montana, where he goes back to his roots, fly-fishing the Big Blackfoot River, and the story concludes:

“Most of my friends are all gone now; I call to them still.  Now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and I usually fish the big waters alone, although some think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana, where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul, and memories and sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise.  Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” 

Big Sky's Big Draw: 5 Treasures of Helena-Lewis and Clark National ...
Lewis and Clark National Forest

Missoula’s surrounding landscapes are dramatic – mesmerizing. The preservation of these natural wonders provides inestimable value to the nation, and is a testament to over a century of careful public management of conflicting commercial and conservation interests, so that today we can see, and well imagine, the world of the MacLean brothers, much as it was a century ago when they lived, fished and worked in the region. This is due entirely to the efforts of The U.S. Forest Service and its subsequent sister agencies, and, preceding them, to the vision, the determination, and the political will of a handful of prominent and influential citizens. As the nation raced, helter-skelter, to maturity in the last quarter of the 19th century, the drive to political consolidation of the continent was completed; the tremendous growth of its industrial base created a global economic powerhouse; and the nation rose to become a major diplomatic and military power. In the midst of this tumult, a handful of individuals maintained a vision for protection of the nation’s most scenic landscapes, and were able to overcome greater political and economic forces, and forge a system for their public management that has preserved them in perpetuity. These precious environments belong to the nation, but their enduring legacy belongs to them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s