At dawn the woodpeckers start in, hammering heads against tree trunks, and you wonder if there’s a better way for a bird to make a living. Oh, the avian migraines. Twilight lingers till nearly 11 p.m.; if there’s a decent moon, you can fish in the silver light of Montana’s longest days.
When the sun is high, you swing from a rope tied to a cedar tree and drop into the great grip of the Kootenai River current, then swim back to the raft, to float and cast a fly line and look at ospreys and take in the grandeur of this land — your land, my land, an immense national forest.
Teddy Roosevelt left his initials on the outside wall of the community hall of Troy, a little shrug of a town along the river. But he left much more than that here in the far corner of northwest Montana and all over the West: an endowment to every American, rich and poor alike, their inheritance of public land.
Unlike the beaches in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, you can’t just “close” the 2.2 million acres of the Kootenai National Forest. The grizzly bears, the elk, the bobcats, the wolves, the swift predators and the stealthy ones, they prowl and sniff as always, far outnumbering humans in a place where a cellphone signal is a distant rumor.
But for a time, the Kootenai National Forest fell into the wrong hands. The barbarians nearly destroyed a land that was meant to remain a place of wonder for our children’s children’s children.
The mountainsides were skinned in industrial clear-cuts, the end result of public servants colluding with corporate plunderers. After the forests of larch, cedar, fir and pine were leveled for timber, the hillsides could no longer hold the ground during times of heavy rain and snowmelt. Tons of sediment slid into the Yaak River, which flows into the Kootenai.
For trout in the Yaak, it was a catastrophe. A healthy river bottom is layered with polished rocks of rainbow striations, and gravel crushed during another geologic age. But a river bottom thick with sediment is just a graveyard.
So you wonder, between hikes to nearly unknown waterfalls that would be national park centerpieces in any other state, how this place could have been so abused. It’s a public trust, not unlike the White House. No one person, no one interest group, owns it.
People come here for Tom Sawyer summers, for sleep induced by the white noise of that same Yaak River, for perspective. A city person like myself has very little in common with someone who lives off the grid, eating what they kill, drying what they forage, warming themselves through the interminable winter with wood downed in a storm.
In the Yaak Valley, there are two bars and three preachers, or maybe three bars and two preachers, depending on how much misery there is in the tank. One of the bars is the Dirty Shame. It’s not unusual to hear somebody start a conversation thus: “I was getting hammered at the Shame two nights ago when …”
The forest is the one thing those on opposite sides of the cultural divide hold in common. My nephew Riley is a Western Tarzan. He hunts for deer, elk, grouse, catches rainbows and cutthroat, hikes into the wildest pockets of Montana, jumps from cliffs into icy river pools. He guides people who pay a lot of money to do what he does naturally. He gives me crap because I can’t hold the rifle perfectly steady when we shoot at targets, and I couldn’t tell the two major deer species of the Kootenai forest apart. Hey, when you stare at the headlights, no one knows if you’re a white-tailed or a mule deer.
He wears a T-shirt emblazoned with words that every American should live by: Public Land Owner.
That land is always under threat. The current White House occupant has never been in the Mountain time zone, nor the Pacific, since he’s been president. His habitat is a golf course under heavy guard. And yet he’s ordered up a survey to see if he can take away from all of us some of the lands that were protected under powers created by that president who left his initials on the side of the Troy town hall.
The good news is that the Kootenai forest is on the mend. Trout, mostly small, rise for caddis flies on the Yaak River. There are almost enough new-growth trees to keep the sediment load down. This special place, this empty place, is healing, and feels ever more wild with every passing summer.
“We need wilderness to protect us from ourselves,” wrote Rick Bass, who was born in Texas, and found his voice after moving to the Yaak Valley some years ago. That sounds like the kind of thing somebody might say around a late-night campfire. But it’s true in the morning. The enemy of this last best place is us. We are also its savior.