A River Runs Through It

Every so often, whether we’re watching Yellowstone wolves through scopes or traversing a lonely trail in Bear Trap Canyon, or landing a gleaming brown trout from the Madison River, I’ll turn to my wife and smile impishly.

It’s a curled-lip look laced with one part guilt, one part hubris and one part incredulity. By now, she already knows what I’ll say.

“We live here,” I murmur anyway, as if by saying it any louder the blissfully unaware elsewhere would somehow be alerted, thus beckoning a human stampede.
One Meriwether Lewis once described southwest Montana — our backyard — as, “Beautiful in the extreme.”

The intrepid explorer could easily have been describing what is now the Lee Metcalf Wilderness — 259,000 acres of sparkling rivers, shimmering lakes, rugged mountains, vivid meadows, and all the wildlife species that were here when Lewis and his pal William Clark arrived by boat two centuries ago.

For me, the soul of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is the Madison River. It’s 140 miles of geological, geographical and historical vignettes so riveting that its fishing faithful make regular pilgrimages from the world over to savor its rhythms.

The Madison is surrounded by the Lee. It’s also the river that quite literally runs through it.

One one of the Madison’s best-kept semi-secrets is that some of the best fishing is not in the famed “50-Mile Riffle” or the wading section upstream at Three Dollar Bridge but in the heart of Bear Trap Canyon, one of the Lee’s foursections.

Anybody who has ever cast a fly to a rising trout knows of the Madison. Anybody who has ever cast a fly to a rising Madison trout has been humbled by its fickleness and awed by its spirit. Anybody who has ever taken a 20-inch brown or rainbow trout from the Madison’s nutrient-rich depths on a fly can’t help but be moved by the stroke of good fortune.

It’s akin to hitting a home run off Koufax, intercepting a pass from Unitas, dunking over Jordan. You don’t celebrate. You genuflect. As I bounce nymphs along the Madison’s slick-rock bottom, often catching and releasing a trout every 15 minutes or so, I contemplate this riverine marvel and gave a silent thanks that I was born early enough to cherish its treasures.

After all, who knows what the future will bring from a burgeoning culture at once hungering for more natural resources and thirsting for a primal connectedness to the land?

I reflected on a miles-long traffic jam a few years ago in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I saw fathers hoist young children onto their shoulders and mothers brandish video cameras, joining dozens of wide-eyed tourists converging like a flock to a preacher’s tent to see … two deer.

I thought about the game farms of the Southeast and Texas, the crowded salmon rivers of the Northeast, the exclusive pay-to-play streams of Europe.

The sign over my shoulder in the Bear Trap warned of grizzly bears on the trail. Eagles screeched overhead. Two deer swam the lake channel amid pelicans, geese and osprey. I pondered the possibilities of seeing a wolf.

Who was it that said you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?

As I released yet another trout, I watched a teenager depart, three monster browns on a stringer in one hand and a spinning rod with treble hooks and worms in the other. While not begrudging a meal, or the way it was caught, I wondered if he had any sense of appreciation for the aquatic shrine at his doorstep or the incomparable wildness of the surrounding fir-bathed mountains.

Did he have any understanding of the relentless cultural assault on nature that is driving people like me to this wonderland? Did he view a complex system that haunted Norman MacLean as little more than a free lunch?

I wondered if he could fathom its limits, or appreciate just how rare it is to walk out of a canyon with trout so large in such solitude, or understand what a mob scene such a place would elicit elsew

here. As dusk settled over the canyon, the day’s entomological orgy stilled and the trout returned to the safety of their pocket water, I thought about how quickly it can all disappear and how fortunate I am to be in a place that people like Lee Metcalf had the vision and fortitude to protect for my kids and grandkids.

I silently vowed never to take this geological Sistine Chapel for granted. Then I looked at my equally entranced partner. Another hour of daylight remained; we could still catch many more trout.

“We can leave,” my friend said, shrugging.

Incredulity quickly gave way to guilt and then hubris, and I smiled impishly. Oh yeah, we can come back any time. We live here.

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