At the beginning of November I had become overwhelmed with posts on Facebook about the situation that was happening up in North Dakota at Standing Rock. I am sure that I am not the only one whose feed was full of posts and shares about what was going on up there. I had just spent time with some good friends and my family and I was full of happiness. I read all that I could in various sources to try and figure out what was fact and what was fiction regarding the pipeline and what the Lakota people were doing what they were being subjected to. I decided I needed to go there and see for myself, I also came to the conclusion that I couldn’t go against my nature and simply do nothing. I raised some money to buy medical supplies and headed North. One of the things I was looking for was to reshoot a photograph that I had taken back in late May or early June along that stretch of the Missouri River. I drove up the Eastern side of the river so that I could shoot that image again and see if there was a difference, there was. A lot more new fences and some razor wire was now in place where I had been before. I continued up to Bismarck and figured I would head down hwy 1806 to Cannonball. Just North of Fort Rice I was stopped at a road block that was manned by sheriff’s deputies and armed National Guard soldiers and an armed Humvee alongside of the Jersey barriers that were blocking the road. I still don’t understand why they were there. I doubled back to Bismarck and took county road 6 down to hwy 24 and cut over to 1806 where I was able to get to my destination. I set up camp and headed to the Sacred Stone Camp to deliver the supplies I had bought to the medics and healers there. The main camp, Oceti Sakowin was where I found what I was looking for. The camp is big complex of teepees, tents, campers and various structures. The sense of prayerful intention and human kindness was everywhere I turned and every person I met was kind and generous. I was able to pitch in and help the camp organizers a little tiny bit and that was good. At one point, I came across a guitar teacher from Minnesota who was building a traditional wigwam for some Native Americans coming down from his neck of the woods to spend the winter at camp. I had a very good experience helping Geoff build this structure and talking with him for a couple of days. I was reminded that it is important to be kind always, to accept kindness always and to be open to other perspectives. I didn’t stay as long as I perhaps should have, I made some pictures with the 5x7 camera that captured the landscape and some of the particulars of the point in history that I was a witness to. I was not allowed to bring the airstream into camp for reasons that I understood and agreed with so I was set up down the road and despite being there early and staying late for those days I never felt as though I was fully engaged. It nagged at my edges and I decided to leave. I had come and been a witness, I had discovered for myself what the truth was and I had helped one very kind man to build a shelter that I knew could withstand the North Dakota winter and would keep the occupants warm and dry. Regardless of where you are politically, when you take it down to a human to human level, what is happening there at Standing Rock is an outrage. There are thousands of American Citizens being denied their constitutional right to assemble and to peacefully protest. The Water Protectors are interested in saving the Missouri River from a future oil spill that could result in the poisoning of my own mother’s water supply. I have seen firsthand the level of militarized positioning that the local law enforcement is deploying against the American people in North Dakota. It troubles me greatly.
After leaving Bisbee AZ I headed North again and visited Roswell on the way to Pueblo to fish the Arkansas River on my way back to Kansas City to meet up with my friends and participate in the American Royal World Series of BBQ. Roswell was as weird as I had hoped it would be but I didn't get to see a ufo in the sky or meet an alien but I still believe.
The weekend of friendship and competition was a wonderful reunion of old friends and chance to meet new ones. I had the pleasure of meeting the guys from Smokin Yankees, a competition BBQ team from Belfast Northern Ireland, they were in the states to compete in the big Jack Daniels contest and the American Royal. Michael Connor and Stuart are good guys who make one hell of a good slab of ribs. They have been traveling the states relying on the kindness of others for their equipment, a hail Mary of an adventure that I whole heartily support. On Saturday morning I was over talking with them and was able to put the pieces together that they didn't actually have anything to eat other than BBQ. Now some of you might be thinking that what's the problem with that? I can tell you that after days of smoking meat one sort of looses an appetite for it to be eaten at every meal. My team had secured a big enough booth space that I had parked the airstream in our spot and we were using it as our kitchen and bunkhouse. I had eggs, bacon, tortillas and a couple of skillets and my Coleman cook stove handy so I just took the whole mess over and asked that they return the pan and stove at some point. On Sunday morning I was able to find a Youtube video of a Northern Ireland pipe band playing Amazing Grace so I hooked it up through my teams old school Yamaha stereo amp and blasted out our corner of the speedway for the guys from Ireland. They appreciated the gesture immensely. Neither of our teams scored very well but that's how it goes in BBQ, you never know what the judges are going to like from one event to the next.
After finishing up my month long volunteer gig in Lincoln Montana I headed South as the first snows of the season were falling. After a round-about way of getting there I ended up in Bisbee Arizona. I stopped first in Laramie Wyoming to see a friend’s exhibition at the art museum on the campus of the University of Wyoming, Waste Land by Brando Ballengée was a great installation of work that Brandon has created over the years and it was so nice to see the evolution of his work and his process. The next stop was at the Flaming Gorge dam on the Green River, to look around and fish for Colorado River Cutthroat there in the tail water. The fishing was good and the scenery was breath taking. I had never driven highway 191 south before, I recommend that drive and encourage you to take your time on it. The desert and canyons are beautiful and ever changing. I experienced driving south during the golden hour and seeing Monument Valley off on the horizon backlit and gorgeous. Too many nights I ended up finding a place to stop after dark, occasionally I awoke to a beautiful scene at the edge of a canyon. I made a stop at Cottonwood Campground at Canyon De Chelle for a couple of days to give the Dodge a brake job and I wanted to visit the White House ruins that were made photographically famous by Timothy O’Sullivan and then again by Ansel Adams. I was not quite ready for what I found. The ruins are but a tiny speck on a giant canyon wall. Those guys really used their cameras to create something that could only exist in a photograph. My image is much different than theirs. Just about to Bisbee I decided to stop in Tombstone for a visit to look around and shoot some film. The whole reason for heading South and my discovering the wonderful things that I did along the way was a ceramic pit firing happening at Cochise College in Douglas Arizona, South of Bisbee right at the border with Mexico. Tate Rich runs the ceramics program down there and is an old friend of Dave Turillo who I met in Lincoln a few weeks before. The pit firing was an interesting experience and true to my way I showed up early and offered to lend a hand. I beat Dave there by a few hours so I helped out with loading their brand new, just finished, wood kiln. Once Dave arrived we sorted pallets for the rest of the day to make it easier to build the bonfire the following day. On Friday we helped out with the construction of the giant bonfire built atop the pit where all the pots were buried. It was a huge pile of wood. To my surprise the fire didn’t last all that long that night. It flared up and got incredibly hot for about half an hour and then settled into a slow burn that lasted well into the night. The weekend in Bisbee also corresponded with the annual Bisbee 1000 race. Bisbee is built in a canyon and there are staircases all over the place. Apparently part of the race involves 1000 stair steps. I didn’t run the race, my hours of wading rivers and hiking are not enough training to take that on. I met some wonderful people down there and made many new friends. One potter that I met is a real sweetheart, her business is called picklepottery and can be found on Instagram and etsy. Look her up, her work is good and it hits my sweet spot for form vs function and a level of craft that I really appreciate. Bisbee is a very cool town and has things that remind me of several of the places I’ve stumbled into on this journey. Good people, interesting landscapes, and a sense of community where people know each other and care about what’s going on.
I have been involved with a nonprofit in Lincoln Montana for the last several years, the Blackfoot Pathways Sculpture in the Wild is an international sculpture installation featuring some of the world’s foremost artists making land art and environmental sculpture. Go to www.sculptureinthewild.com to learn more about the artists and this amazing project. I spent the month of September in Lincoln volunteering my time to help construct the new pieces by Chris Drury and Tyler Nansen, mostly working with Chris and our intern Dave Tarullo assisting with the building of “Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Whirlpool” that is a 45 foot diameter piece comprised of native logs and rock.
Since I started full-timing in the Airstream back in April I have had a limited income stream so I was unable to financially support the project as I have in the past and since I am wandering around the continent making photographs and chasing trout it was an easy decision to come to Lincoln for the month and give my time. Over the course of the project I donated over 200 hours of labor running tractors, peeling logs and solving logistical problems. I had a lot of fun! Lincoln is located in the Blackfoot River Valley not very far away from where I lived in Helena and home to the Blackfoot River, one of my very favorite places to look for Cutthroat and Brown trout. I managed to get in a couple of days on the river and enjoyed reconnecting with this landscape and the animals and fish that live here. Moose, elk, deer, beaver, mink and eagles we all my companions on the river at one point and the trout did not disappoint either. My time here was wonderful and I was able to make a few photographs as well as meet many new friends. This adventure has become as much about meeting people around the country as it is about making photographs. People are what matters, seeing the world through their eyes and understanding the little that I can about who they are and what matters to them has become the joy in my adventure. In Lincoln I was able to meet Chris Drury and his wife Kay Syrad who are from Brighton, UK and get a glimpse of our country from their view during this weird time where we have two people trying to be president that most people aren’t very excited about. It was a nice perspective and then there is Kevin O’Dwyer the Irishman who is the artistic director for the project. Kevin is a remarkable silversmith and artist with a vision for Lincoln that I am still in awe of, he is passionate and energetic to the point of being contagious to those around him. He also has an interesting perspective on our country during this time, many evenings were spent with CNN on the tube and Kevin reading Huffington Post articles aloud while arguing with the talking heads on the screen. I found it all very entertaining. I spent a month with an Irishman who is more passionate about, and interested in, our politics than the average American that I have met on the road.
This adventure is a great experience for me, I have started to have a deeper understanding and love for myself and grown more aware of the need for community that I have in me. As I move around the continent I find that I am engaging with folks who have a strong sense of and love for their community and I am finding ways of being helpful or useful to them. It is a great feeling to briefly be a part of a community and lend a hand, make real and meaningful connections and then move on. I hope that I am able to be of some help in the places I visit and by photographing the people who make up these communities I am collecting a document or a body of evidence that ordinary people working together are what makes our communities great, not the media hyped individuals who are trying to tell us what we think and what we should care about.
I am heading South now that snow has started falling this first week of October and it’s a sweet sorrow for me, I love this place and my friends here but I am looking forward to being on the move again. Next stop, Bisbee Arizona.
After leaving the upper Midwest I headed back to my adopted home in Montana for a couple of days before heading up to Canada for a few weeks of wilderness camping and some serious fishing. Crossing the border turned out to be a bit of an ordeal as I apparently set off every red flag with my answers to the questions Where do you live? Nowhere, I live full-time in my Airstream so wherever I’m parked is home. Where do you work? I’m currently unemployed but actually I’m a photographer working on a project. Are you a professional photographer? I suppose I am. Do you have permission to shoot photographs in Canada? No, I didn’t know that I needed to ask permission. The conversation went on like this for a while and eventually they searched the entirety of the truck and the Airstream. There was nothing to find. It turns out that they just didn’t believe that I didn’t have any guns with me since both vehicles are tagged and registered in Montana. Lesson learned.
I initially landed in Fernie BC but quickly decided to head over Crowsnest Pass and explore the Oldman, Livingstone and Highwood rivers. The landscape up there is beautiful and the few people that I met were kind, generous and easygoing. On the Livingstone River the Cutthroat were like no others I had encountered, the fish were very picky and extremely bug specific on top of being wary and shy due to the amount of fishing pressure that the river sees in the summer. After a day of watching and looking under rocks I came up with a series of fly patterns that worked like a charm, a greenish sparse bodied nymph with no flash and a wisp of a thorax, a wonderfully fun to tie emerger using a Klinkhammer hook so the majority of the fly is under the surface tied in the same colors as the nymph and a dry that is based on a traditional Wolff pattern but using the same muted colors of the other two. All three were tied on size 18 hooks. All over central Alberta where I camped I continued to see cow patties covered in mushrooms, I also found campsites that had been recently used and throughout the woods around them I found random rocks painted in bright colors...Three weeks of random camping in the Canadian Rockies was a great break from the heat and humidity that I had been experiencing since late May but I needed to get back to Montana for a volunteer gig helping to build some sculptures in Lincoln. I had never explored Alberta before, it is an amazing landscape that I only just scratched the surface of. I will be going back.
Summertime. For me, the heat and the long days bring a flood of memories along with the bugs and sweat. I spent a lot of time at the pool when I was a kid, it was just up the street on the other side of the high school and we could walk there. Our public pool had just completed a new olympic size pool with lanes that were divided by the long strings of floating red and blue plastic pearls and it was about the coolest thing I had seen. Underneath the diving boards there was a big room where giant brown paper sacks of chlorine were added to the water and the air around that room smelled like acid and grapefruit. I remember vividly laying on the floor one summer evening, in the living room, with my eyes so inflamed from chlorine that I kept them closed and was only listening to Star Trek on the TV as mom cooked dinner in the kitchen. That was also the same summer that my brother brought home the first motorcycle and I got a Daisy 770 pump action BB gun to replace my trusty Red Rider and I started, in earnest and with serious intentions for the first time, to stalk squirrels in the back yard. Life was great, being a kid in Prairie Village KS in the early 70’s I had it all. A creek to play in, fields to watch my brother learn how to ride wheelies on the Elsinore and a small lake full of bluegill and bass to keep me busy, and curious. I have never outgrown my love of the aroma of two stroke exhaust, swimming pools where the concrete decking is too hot to walk on and figuring out how to catch a particular, individual fish. Most importantly, I am still curious.
Wisconsin started getting hot and the fishing in the Driftless was turning off, it was time to move and look for cooler weather. Cooler waters too. I headed North and found the Peshtigo River, it’s a beautiful bit of water running through a visually idyllic landscape near the Dunbar Barrens State Natural Area in upper Wisconsin, but I was there about a month or two too late to catch any trout. I managed to catch some small mouths out of that English Breakfast Tea colored water but not even very many of those.
I checked the maps, the Pike and Menominee Rivers were just a few hours away and roughly along the path I was taking to get to Lake Michigan and the U P. I was realizing that I was just too late to catch trout in these rivers, they were warm water fisheries now. I could head over to central Michigan and fish some tail water but it’s hot over there and looking likely to get even hotter. I headed Northeast and was aiming for Copper Harbor on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula but that was simply a destination on a map to give me a general heading. Via Facebook I found that there was a bluegrass festival happening an hour away so I headed over there for a very long weekend. I eventually made it into the Ottawa National Forest and landed at Bond Falls, north of Watersmeet and pretty close to the small town of Paulding, there the landscape was beautiful and the campground is free. I spent a few days scouting for photographs while watching the thermometer climb ever higher and the barometer drop. The weather system that was settling in was bringing thunderstorms and high winds along with a forecast for multiple days of the same. The people were nice enough in the area but not too keen on being photographed, that combined with the relatively poor fishing for me without a boat once again had me on the move. I wanted to head further north, and went down to Ashland where I stumbled upon the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center and the Aldo Leopold Land Stewardship Trail. I had been reacquainted with the writings of Aldo by a friend and had with me the copy of A Sand County Almanac that she had given me. I made a nice photograph of the trailhead and after posting the scan of the film to Instagram I was contacted by the folks at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. They will be using the image for some of their social media communications.
Sometimes navigating the rig through the landscape is the adventure and I’ve learned to let it happen and not worry about destinations or miles traveled in a day. I found myself wandering through The George Washington State Forest and over through Cloquet Valley seeing the towns of Togo and Bear River and further east through Brimson and Toimi ultimately ending up on the shore of Lake Superior near Tofte. The microclimate of the shore was wonderful place to hide from the heat, the winds coming off of Lake Superior are cool and refreshing. Unable to find a reason to keep moving I settled outside of Grand Marais for a few weeks, first camped at Devil Track Lake but repeated visits from a black bear to my camp encouraged me to look for another spot. I spent a day scouting and settled on Mink Lake, sort of out in the middle of nowhere but close enough to town that groceries were not going to be an issue. On Mink Lake I was befriended by Kevin Sutton who runs the Coldwater Foundation and operates the Mink Lake Wilderness Camp. He and his family are kind and generous, loaning me a canoe to use while I was there and sharing in wonderful conversations about life, the environment and ideas of self-awareness based on experiential learning through immersion in the wilderness. One of the things I am doing on this journey is listing and facing my fears. While out here at the edge of the boundary waters I was able to use that borrowed canoe to overcome my fear of deep water and small boats, I eventually got to the point where I was able to paddle across the middle of the lake to the far shore and back without a panic attack. For me the final step of conquering this fear was paddling out to the middle, capsizing on purpose and getting the canoe righted and back on board and paddling back to shore. I no longer have that fear and have moved another step closer to being fully self-aware and completely self-confident. Based on my own experience I encourage everyone to identify your fears, and with intentionality, create opportunities to face them and conquer them.
The Driftless region of Wisconsin is a place that reminds me of other places I've been but is like no place I've been before. The area is actually a Paleozoic Plateau noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys and includes elevations ranging from 603 to 1,719 feet and covers an area of 16,203 square miles. The region's peculiar terrain is the result of its having escaped glaciation in the last glacial period. The place is covered with trout streams, small family farms and small rural towns inhabited by a wide variety of people. I've met descendants of families who homesteaded the land, old hippies who landed here in the late 60's and never moved on and young folks who have only recently moved here to be a part of the green energy and organic farming community that is growing here. The national food supplier Organic Valley, has its headquarters and distribution center in La Farge and Cashton. Just about every major grocery store chain I have been in over the last 5 years sells Organic Valley products and they all come from here. Their producers are independent growers, small family farms that include a lot of Amish families , and some COOP's. I have been in the area for a few weeks and I now pass people on the road that wave at me out of familiarity and friendliness and have formed friendships with folks from all walks of life. Many of the small towns here are facing the same issues that small towns everywhere I have been seem to be dealing with like stagnant wages, a lack of jobs and a young population that leaves and seldom returns. Even out here in a place that looks idyllic and wholesome the issues of meth and opioid addiction are here, just under the surface. There is an increasing number of people moving here to Vernon County to create a life in this beautiful landscape and the newcomers and the long-time residents all share in the knowledge that they live in a unique landscape and they all appreciate it and to varying degrees, guard it.
Come to the Driftless and see for yourself,
Visit Matt and Geri at the Driftless Angler and buy some flies and go catch brook Trout in one of the hundreds of miles of trout streams in Vernon County, Tell them I said Hi.
Come see Tiffany and Matt at Deep Rooted organic farm and learn about how they grow some 30,000 pounds of tomatoes in 9,000 square feet every year. Every small town I went through or wondered around in has interesting shops, antique stores and places to buy local cheese and products.
Just come here and see it.
Driving into Fort Benton Montana on an overcast and cool Friday afternoon in late May I stopped and visited the Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center and then drove down to the old levee district. Along the riverfront where steamships once unloaded their cargos of goods from St. Louis and Kansas City the old Grand Union Hotel is still in operation and has been restored to the original 1882 aesthetic. Just downstream from the hotel begins a city park and walking trail full of historic markers and informational plaques detailing the history of this important location. Montana was born here.
I was lucky and met Tommy Willson and his friend Matt. The two of them were coordinating and kicking off the annual Spring Classic Fishing Derby that afternoon. The two of them and a handful of volunteers would, over the course of the weekend, register a couple of hundred fishermen and women, provide free hotdogs and drinks to anyone who wanted them in the cold wind and periodic rain showers, weigh and record about a hundred fish of assorted varieties and give this community a wonderful family centered tradition. An event like this was too much for me to pass so I volunteered to help out if they would let me. I witnessed how the kindness of a few people and local business sponsors were able to create something that the community looked forward to and brought them together. The best part of the weekend for me was seeing the kids come in for the weigh in of the fish they had caught, the excitement on their cold wet faces was contagious and their smiles were certainly of the ear to ear variety.
I parked the Airstream at the end of the old levee in front of the Old Fort Benton Museum and when not hanging around the derby tents trying to be useful or helpful I wondered around town and visited the shops and talked with the people I met. Most of the dining options were in the local bars, always a good place to hear, and have, conversations. Everyone knew about the derby. Everyone I talked to about it loved that Tommy put this together for the town. I don’t know what his motivation for starting this 8 years ago was but I see why he keeps doing it. The kids of Fort Benton. Every kid who participated walked away with some kind of prize, not a “participation” trophy but a real prize. There were a few dozen fishing rods, a few dozen tackle boxes and lots of derby t-shirts handed out to the kids. The business sponsors provided over a dozen bicycles of various styles and sizes that were given as prizes for the fishing competition in the kid’s categories. The whole weekend led up to a very windy Sunday afternoon with a park full of kids who were excited about fishing. It was a sight that I am so happy that I got to witness. It reminded me of my childhood and participating in the fishing derby that they used to hold at South Lake Park in Overland Park Kansas. I won a Zebco rod and reel and a tackle box, just like these kids did this weekend in Fort Benton Montana. Tommy and Matt are making a difference in the lives of the kids in this town and by Sunday afternoon they both looked pretty tired but both were all smiles. It’s a safe bet that they will be right there again next year. Fort Benton isn’t a big town, it has a population of about 1500, but it has a couple of guys with hearts the size of Montana.
The Missouri River was always there in the background as I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. Here in Montana the river has been a constant in the foreground. Most weekends Mark and I would be found just outside of Helena below the Hauser dam fishing for giants. Most of the largest trout I have caught out here were caught below that dam in the stretch above Beaver Creek. There was always the thought in the back of my mind that if I floated downstream far enough I would eventually end up back home in Kansas City. Mark could just call my mom and have her drive over to KCK and pick me up.
I headed out of Helena and drove North up to Craig Montana. My timing was perfect, the Caddis hatch that usually arrives around Mother's Day had come a little early this year. This time of year had always been a busy time of year at the museum so I had never been able to be up here for this remarkable event. There are swarms of these bugs so thick that the banks of the river become swallowed by clouds and they crawl all over you and get in your ears and up your nose. It sounds horrible but the discomfort is well worth it when the trout are rising and feasting on these bugs. For me there is no greater joy than casting to rising fish for hours on end, up here in Craig it's even better. The fish that are rising are rainbows and browns that average 18 to 20 inches. The lure of Montana is still strong, I guess I wasn't in a big hurry to leave the state but being out of Helena has done wonderful things for me. Standing waist deep in the Missouri for a couple of weeks now has deepened my appreciation for this amazing river that Lewis and Clark followed. I hope they liked to fish too. The river has suggested that I follow it home, I know my mom would like that too.
May 10, 2016 Craig Montana