What Makes a River Sacred

Many years ago, Eugene helped his dad build a cabin on the edge of a melted glacier.

Eugene’s family lived in Kalispell, Montana. When his dad’s butcher shop prospered after WWII, his dad purchased two acres on a low rock cliff on the west shore of Flathead Lake. The view of the Mission Range to the east is spectacular as a few of the alpine peaks shoot up to ten thousand feet. The cabin became a family home, and it still sits on this rocky perch.

Eugene eventually moved to New York City and later to Baltimore for graduate work. He ended up serving as a pastor for nearly three decades near Baltimore. Then he worked as a professor in Vancouver, B.C. I got to know Eugene later in his life, but he says he never really left his two acre homestead overlooking Flathead Lake. He explains:

    I have lived sixty years of my adult life in cities and suburbs in other places, but most of those years I returned for at least a month, sometimes more, once for twelve months — an entire sabbatical year—to clarify and deepen my pastoral vocation on this sacred ground. And even when I was not here physically, the internalized space grounded me.

I can relate.

Since moving from Montana to a Chicago suburb a decade ago, I often return to the places that keep me grounded. For me, these are two mighty rivers of the West and their tributaries – the Yellowstone and the Madison. I have been able to return and fly fish them at least once a year since I moved to Illinois. But even when I’m not able to walk along the banks of the Madison or to float down the Yellowstone, I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

What Makes a River Sacred

At the end of his novella, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean says, “I am haunted by waters.” In my case, I am grounded by waters. These rivers inspire me. They awaken a longing within me. They stir up thoughts and ideas and dreams about the future.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I have made the three or four mile hike (it gets longer every time we talk about it) up the Yellowstone River below Tower Fall a dozen or so times in the last few years. Sometimes, we talk. Often, we’re lost in our thoughts. It’s during these times of silence when my mind solves problems or generates new ideas.

These rivers bring healing, too.

When I’m catching trout, or trying to catch trout, I’m in the moment. But sooner or later, I’ll look around and get caught up in the surroundings. It’s then that I experience what novelist Leif Enger describes as “peace like a river.” After a stressful stretch of days or weeks, there is nothing like standing in the Madison River casting a size #18 parachute Adams to rising rainbows while the snow falls softly and melts into the river’s film.

Stress has a way of evaporating in those conditions.

The beauty of sacred ground is that you do not need to own it or live on it. It’s a unique gift if you do. But all it takes is an annual pilgrimage or (better yet) two for those rivers to ground you as they bring fresh perspective, clarity, and energy to your life.

If you don’t have a place like this, you will, as long as you keep fly fishing.

Your sacred ground — or river — may or may not be the stretch where you’ve landed the most rainbow trout.

But it will be the stretch which seems to breathe new energy into you like no other place. Keep fly fishing, and you’ll find it.

In one sense, it’s every river into which you wade and cast. Yet there will be places that stir your more than others. When you find one, keep returning. Look around at the landscape. Experience it in morning light and dusk. Fly fish it in the spring and the fall.

And during those cold winter days in an office cubicle or warehouse, spend some time there in your mind.

Fly Fishing’s Unbidden Grace

Tower Fall in Yellowstone Park is one of my happy places. It’s a beautiful waterfall of Tower Creek that cascades into the Yellowstone River. Upstream from the confluence is a stretch of the Yellowstone River where Steve and I have caught so many cutthroat trout that we’ve dubbed it “Hopper Run.” During the peak of the terrestrial (grasshoppers, for example) season in August, we’ve had a handful of days through the years where for a few hours the frenzy of catching and releasing fish causes time to stand still.

Several years ago, though later in the season, we made our way upriver towards Hopper Run, alternating the best runs. It was about noon early fall, not long before the Park closed for the season. This year, we fished on a slightly overcast but warm September day, perhaps in the sixties. Days later, the landscape of Tower Fall would be dusted in snow.

Steve was thigh-deep in the river, dropping a fly around a boulder, and I was eating lunch, watching him cast. I saw movement across the river and said, “Hey Steve, look at that coyote over there.” The animal was making its way down from the higher elevation to the bank of the river, almost directly across from us.

“That’s no coyote,” Steve said. “It’s a wolf.”

Sure enough. It was almost twice the size of a coyote, lanky, and unafraid. Only forty yards wide, the river was impossible to cross, but the wolf’s curiosity was unnerving. It lay near the bank for about 20 minutes, ostensibly watching us, and then got up and ambled back to the ridge. No anxiety. No hurry.

Most likely, this wolf was a descendant of one of the Lamar Valley packs, introduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995, amid a cacophony of controversy. The Lamar Valley was the next drainage system directly to the east of us.

Harbinger of Grace
In the West, the wolf is either hated or worshiped.

Many western ranchers rue the day the wolves were introduced back into Yellowstone and elsewhere in Montana. Wiped out as fast as the bison in the nineteenth century, wolves often prey on exposed livestock. There is also likely an inverse correlation between the number of wolves and the number of deer and elk in an ecosystem. Other than environmentalists, few celebrated the return of the wolf to its native habitat. And in movies and literature, the wolf is often a symbol of evil, a harbinger of darkness.

But on this day, the wolf was a symbol of grace, a pause in the way the world operates. In all my years of fishing in the West and hunting in the Dakotas, I’ve had less than a handful of moments like this, where the fear between what is wild and what is domestic dissipates. Fear is replaced with curiosity, if only for a few seconds. It’s a “wolf lies down with the lamb” moment, which anticipates the New Heaven and New Earth. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s a “New Earth moment,” where the curtain is pulled back and I see the mystery of something that is perfectly wild.

Rick Bass, one of my favorite authors of the wild places, writes, “How we fall into grace. You can’t work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you, unbidden.”

On this day, an unbidden grace lay across the Yellowstone.

Episode 16: Weathering the Weather on the River

A River Runs Through It

Weather on the river can be unpredictable. Now that’s a patently obvious statement. But it needs to be said. Some of the best days fly fishing are miserable (in terms of weather) for fly fishers. Listen to Episode 16: Weathering the Weather on the River.

Listen to our episode “Weathering the Weather on the River” now

At the end of each episode, we have a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What unpredictable weather have you encounter through the years? Tell us about your worst weather on the river but best fishing day ever?

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The Tenuous Nature of Life in the Outdoors

Every year, Steve and I fly-fish a stretch of the Yellowstone (the ‘Stone) River near Tower Fall, a 132-foot waterfall that empties into the Yellowstone. We generally park at the General Store at the top of the canyon and hike the switchback trail to the bottom. Then we hustle up river three or four miles, trying to leapfrog any fly fisherman. The farther you hike, the better the fly fishing (and the greater the risk for encountering a grizzly bear). This is simply part of the tenuous nature of life in the outdoors.

One year, while returning at dusk, we plodded along the trail along the river and looked up to spy a herd of bison lying like lazy milk cows in the trail. Maybe eight or nine bison, including a calf or two. I’m terrible at judging distance. Perhaps the bison were 150 yards ahead of us.

“What do you think we should do?” Steve said.

There was no alternate way back to our car at the top of Tower Fall. The swiftness of the ‘Stone’ and its slippery rocky bottom was too treacherous to cross, even (or especially) with waders. And there was no route around herd to get to the switchback that would take us to the top of the canyon. There was no going back upriver. Darkness was falling.

“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “They’ll get up and move up the ravine.”

Sauntering Curiosity

We did, and they did. Well, at least all of them except one. One of the bulls.

He did not appear overly anxious with our oncoming presence and when he finally scrambled to his feet, he switched his tail and began to saunter toward us.

It is now conventional wisdom that the male brain does not fully mature until its mid-twenties and even thirties, and my over confidence simply confirmed that the prefrontal cortex brains of our late forties had more room for development.

There was an uncomfortable silence between us after we stared at each other, at the river to our right, and at the oncoming bull, who seemed curious to meet his new trail mates.

We edged our way to the few feet off the trail to the bank of the ’Stone and held our collective breath. We could wade out only a couple yards into the river before needing to turn back. There was no escape hatch.

I don’t remember who blinked. But at about 50 yards (again, I’m a lousy judge of distance, just as I am the size of trout I catch), the brawny beast simply switched its tail and turned up the ravine to catch up with the rest of the herd. Steve and I hiked in silence most of the rest of the way to the top of the canyon, which was still almost an hour away.

Tenuous Reality

Like many, I’ve always found a greater sense of the grandeur of God while in the outdoors than while sitting on a pew in a church. The pew has its role, though maybe more of a kind of Puritan stocks to force discipline on my restless mind than anything else. And while feeling close to God in nature is always pleasant, there is another dark and important narrative to the outdoors. Beauty is over-rated when you think you’re going to die. I really could die out here.

There is the bison, the grizzly bear, the snow squall, the slip of your boots while wading into the ‘Stone, the rattle snake bite with no bite kit, or the turn of an ankle four miles upriver with no cell coverage.

It’s not morbid, just a reality that strangely helps me see the tenuousness and beauty of life.