Adopted on Palmerston Island

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travel south pacific islands brianna randall and rob roberts

Palmerston is the kind of place where people shipwreck. And stay, because of its odd, friendly charm. Or hop the next ship passing by, because of its odd, too-friendly charm. This island holds first prize for being both the weirdest and the most beautiful place yet on our voyage. You can only visit by sailboat, or via the supply ship that stops 3 times a year. All visitors are “adopted” by a family who feeds you and welcomes you — no one is allowed on the island unless accompanied by a host. Whoever makes the first contact with a boat becomes the host — and its a race among the locals to adopt foreigners.

A bit of natural history: Palmerston atoll is part of the Cook Islands, a country that contains 15 tiny islands that are scattered between America and Australia in the smack-dab middle of the Pacific. The closest island is over 100 miles south. Palmerston, like all atolls, is a volcanic ring of land surrounding a beautiful shallow lagoon. Unlike other atolls we’ve been to, Palmerston atoll is mostly submerged, and only a handful of small islands are visible above the water. The only inhabitated island is a whopping two square miles — you can walk around the whole island in 20 minutes. Birds, fish, sharks, whales, and turtles are plentiful, since human impacts are minimal.

travel south pacific islands brianna randall and rob roberts

A bit of human history: it was settled in 1863 by William Marsters, a British dude who brought three different Maori wives to start his own colony. His progeny now number in the hundreds, scattered across the Pacific from the Cooks to Australia. The majority of the islanders still have the last name Marsters. The island is divided into the three sections originally bequeathed by William to his three wives. Each of the three families has a “leader,” and the island also has a mayor. The cemetery is full of headstones honoring dozens of beloved past Marsters, most of whom are remarkably long-lived. The Palmerston natives are also remarkably well-traveled, and most of them marry someone from another island (so inbreeding seems minimal).

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As of August 11th, when we arrived, 62 people lived in Palmerston, almost half of which were children. Only two residents were “outsiders” from the Marsters’ clan: the Fijian nurse, who was on a one-year travel stint, and the English school teacher, who wanted to see first-hand where her father shipwrecked in the 1950s — he spent a year on Palmerston rebuilding his ship before returning home. Speaking of which, the first thing we saw upon landing with our host on the island was a shipwreck from a sailboat that washed up on the reef in 2009, ironically from Rob’s hometown of Philadelphia. (After all the shipwreck stories, we triple checked our anchor chain during our four night stay.)

travel south pacific islands brianna randall and rob roberts

The two main “streets” are dirt, but they have street lights. There is no store, but there is an empty “Palmerston Yacht Club,” built by Bill Marsters and some yachties a decade ago. No one has a car, but most families have a big aluminum motorboat. About half of the island plays volleyball at 4pm every single day. We played with them for a few nights. The kids are welcoming, curious, and love to play “hit, bat, run,” which I tried to convince them was the same as baseball. They were enamored of my strangely colored hair and eyes.

south pacific travel fishing islands brianna rob

No one uses money on the island, as there’s nothing to buy. But they do need money to purchase food, gas, diesel and other stuff when the supply ship comes every few months. The rest of the money goes toward traveling. People make money two ways: 1) selling parrotfish to Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands; or 2) working for the government. Government jobs include: running the diesel generator that powers the ~15-20 buildings on the island (and the streetlights); teaching the 25 students at the “Palmerston Lucky School,” who range from age 5 to 17; working in the Customs and Quarantine Administration to check in the 40-50 sailboats per year and the occasional cargo ship that stops at the island; selling telecommunications services from the tiny booth set up next to the satellite (internet arrived on the island two years ago, along with cell phones).

south pacific travel fishing islands brianna rob palmerston

Since we arrived on Sunday, we had to anchor outside the atoll and wait until the next day before checking in. Nothing except church is allowed to happen on Sunday in Palmerston. Our host was Simon, along with his incomprehensible and confusing array of nephews, brothers and cousins, most of whom were named “John.” I spent quite a lot of time listening to stories told by Simon’s 85-year-old toothless mother (but can’t remember her long Maori name, embarrassingly). She has 14 children, and long ago lost count of the number of grandchildren. Only 3 of her children live on the island currently, and the rest are mainly in New Zealand and Australia.

south pacific travel fishing islands brianna rob palmerston

Imagine living with all of your extended family within two city blocks. Now imagine that those two blocks are in the middle of a huge ocean, with no one else to talk to for hundreds of miles. Suffice it to say that Palmerston is the most communal place I’ve ever been, where everyone is literally and figuratively one big family — a family like all others, marked by love, quarrels, support, grievances, understanding and sloppiness.

south pacific fishing travel islands

As for the ecology of Palmerston, it rivaled the social dynamics in its intensity. Here are a few highlights:
– We were welcomed to the atoll by three humpback whales that breached only 15 meters from our boat. Each sunset was punctuated by a whale spout or a whale tail.
– I saw two turtles mating (yes, having sex!), and was greeted during each morning swim by the same big turtle that swam up to say hi.
– Rob shot a beautiful parrotfish beneath the boat (which was delicious). Mark tried shooting a few squirrelfish that night, and abandoned the mission as several of the resident sharks swam over to investigate.
– The biggest groupers I’ve ever seen hung out on the reef outside the lagoon — easily 40 pounders. Rob saw one eat a two-foot parrotfish in a single bite.
– We took the dinghy to visit a few of the outer deserted islands, which sported the whitest sand and lushest coconut trees you can possibly imagine.

south pacific travel fishing islands brianna rob palmerston

And the water? Too many colors to describe. I’ll poach from a book I just finished instead, “The Wave” by Susan Casey, which sums up the ocean around Palmerston perfectly:

If heaven were a color, it would be tinted like this. You could fall into this water and happily never come out, and you could see it forever and never get tired of looking. There could be no confusion about who called the shots out here, at this gorgeous, haunted, lush, heavily primordial place, with all its unnameable blues and its ability to nourish you and kill you at the same time.

rob flyfishing palmerston


saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Fly Fishing the Tuamotus (Part 1): Bonefish

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saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Before we left on this adventure, I spent some time on the internet looking for information on fly fishing opportunities in French Polynesia. Besides a few random and out of date blog posts and a couple of websites for resorts or fly fishing businesses, I didn’t find much to go on. However, I could tell from aerial photos andsome time spent on Google Earth that there were endless sandy flats in the Tuamotus. Often called the Dangerous Islands, the Tuamotus are a string of coral atolls that stretch several hundred miles. With a peak elevation of about 10 feet, the islands have been feared by mariners for centuries because of their shallow, fringing reefs and the fact that they are hard to see until you’re practically on top of them. This, of course, sounds like heaven to someone interested in chasing fish..

The Tuamotos are quite simply what most people dream of when they think of the term tropical paradise. The islands are small – just sunken volcano craters that just barely break the surface of the ocean. Most are covered with coconut trees and surrounded by deep, blue water on the ocean side. The interior lagoons are protected, accessible usually by one or maybe two narrow passes and the clear, warm water runs in shades of blue, green, turquoise and even yellow in the shallow, sandy edges. To top it all off, the islands are sparsely inhabited, if at all. Most of the islands we visited had very small towns or villages that subsisted on fishing, coconut harvesting or maybe some sparse tourism. Otherwise, these narrow strings of sand and coral are the domain of coconut crabs and not much else. The activity lies beneath the surface.

Because we are essentially backpacking across the ocean, I have scant resources for my underwater investigation: some snorkeling gear, a speargun, and an underwater camera. My fishing quiver has been pared down to the bare essentials: a handline for trolling while under sail and my fly fishing gear. I have a 9 weight Orvis T3 fly rod and an Orvis big game reel. The combo is about 10 years old but is solidly built and has endured expeditions in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, the Florida Everglades and elsewhere. My fly line is a new 10 weight Royal Wulff Triangle Taper saltwater line. I used to think saltwater flats fishing was about precise 100 foot long casts to spooky fish in shallow, calm water. And while that does happen, my experience has proven otherwise. My saltwater fly fishing has necessitated quick, powerful casts in often very windy and sometimes overcast conditions. Visibility in the water is often scattered and the fish are moving fast. I need to react fast and I’m often making fairly short casts, not much longer than I would if I were trout fishing back in Montana. The Triangle Tape, along with overloading the rod helps me do that. The rest of my gear includes one extra fly line, two fly boxes, tippet from 10 to 50 pounds and a few tools and gadgets. I would, of course, love to have more.

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Our first stop in the Tuamotus was on the island of Kauehi, where we were anchored just off of Kauehi “City” and traded with the locals for freshly caught grouper and snorkelled straight from the boat.. We also happened to anchor within spitting distance of a mile long sand flat that was in the lee of the island (sheltered by the prevailing easterly winds). Dodging friendly local kids (my first polynesian entourage) and mean dogs on my first excursion, it took me several hours of slow wading to find a shallow bay in the flat where scattered coral heads were sandwiched between the flat and deeper water. As five to six foot long lemon sharks patrolled the water around me (a good sign), I eventually found a pod of bonefish (“kio kio” in Tuamotan) in about a foot and a half of water. I paused, because this is a crucial moment: after travelling, 4,000 miles during about 38 days at sea on two different passages to get to this point, my temptation is to cast as quickly as possible. But that would be folly. If I spook this pod of fish, it could be the last shot I get at them. I have no idea how many others are out there.

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Even though I have found that most bonefish in these remote destinations are not picky about fly patterns, I tried to calmly tie on one of my go to flies: the Corey Fisher Supercrab. A cruising bonefish will usually take just about any fly that is put in front of them, as long as they aren’t spooked by the cast, but I’m not taking any chances. My technique at this point is pretty simple: find out which way the fish are going, cast about 10 to 15 feet in front of them, wait and then twitch the crab as they get close. After a few attempts and misses, I finally hooked up with a 5 pound polynesian bonefish, took a few pictures and with trembling hands, slipped the fish back in the water. The fish in Kauehi were fairly spooky when the sun was up and they were in the shallows. If I had refusals on 10 or 15 pound tippet, I had to drop down to 8 pound test to get them to take.

If you had told me 10 years ago when I bought this saltwater fly rod that I would be alone on a flat in the Tuamotus, casting to bonefish, I’m not sure I would have believed you. During the next couple weeks, we visited several more islands, all of which had remarkable, picturesque flats and coral reefs. Not all of them led me to bonefish. On Fakarava, despite some of the most georgeous water and variable depth flats that I have seeen, I was shocked when I didn’t see any bonefish (I had also read a sailing blog talking about large bonefish on Fakarava) I did, however, have some fun catching a handful of other saltwater fish species (you’ll have to wait for Fly Fishing the Tuamotus: Part II).

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

We also visited a mostly uninhabited island called Toau, just north of Fakarava. The pass into Taoa is on the east side of the island and can be pretty ornery depending on the direction of the wind and status of the tide, which may be why we spent several days on Toau and had the place entirely to ourselves. North of the pass there is a small tidal river and lagoon fringed by mangroves. I spent two afternoons prowling this area and the adjacent sand flat. I found that the bonefish in Toau ran in pods of 2 or 3 fish and were generally eager to chase a fly or at least follow it. I caught a handful of fish on Toau and I’m sure some of them were pushing 8 pounds. They took small shrimp and crab patterns and pretty much everything I put in front of them if it was presented well. The fish seemed to prefer a slow twitching motion and often took the fly when it was motionless. The bonefish were close to shore in a foot or so of water. Despite not seeing very many people, they were quick to flee the area if I misplaced a cast or was too loud when wading. I could have spent weeks on this atoll fishing, snorkeling and exploring the rest of the island, but unfortunately, we had to leave this little gem and take advantage of a weather window to get to Tahiti.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever get to visit the Tuamotus again, and I’m still coping with the fact that I only got to spend a few weeks there. We only got 3 months on our immigration visa in French Polynesia and I would have gladly spent all 3 months in the Tuamotus. Bri and I biked along sandy coastal roads with our snorkeling and fishing gear strapped to our backs, lunched on coconuts and wandered along reefs that were in better condition than most places I’ve ever visited (watch this underwater video from a past blog on the marine life in the Tuamotus). With friendly locals and a laid back vibe, I was easily within my comfort zone. The Tuamotus are not easy to get to and the services are pretty sparse, but if you’re into some excellent flats fishing and water time in the backcountry of the South Pacific, this is the place for you.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

Playing with Sharks

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scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

I’ve come to peace with sharks. They still give me pause when I see them coming toward me underwater, and they definitely earn my cautious respect. But I’m over the hump on my fear factor. The turning point — besides the shark immersion at Kauehi pass — was scubadiving the so-called “shark wall” at Fakarava’s south pass. This world heritage site is famous for those interested in swimming with the sharks. We watched hundreds of sharks hanging out along the wall, cruising through the shallow flats, and hovering in blue depths at 100 feet. I spent long minutes simply studying the slow rhythm of their big gills flaring in and out, in and out.

Sharks are smart. Graceful. And not dangerous, unless you do something stupid.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

It’s kind of like the peace I made with bears after living in Montana for a couple of years. Respect the bears’ space, don’t harrass them or tempt them, and they are awesome to watch in the woods. Same with bees, when I helped Rob extract honey from his hives a couple of times. Respect the bees’ homes and personal space, don’t swat at them or make them angry, and they’ll give you delicious honey instead of sting you.

The sharks in the Tuamotus are mostly blacktip and whitetip, known to be curious but not dangerous. Now, if I see a ten-foot hammerhead swimming toward me, I’m not going to feel peaceful at all. But these motu sharks are kind of like pets at anchorage. They come check out the boats, circle the anchors. Plus, they know that humans often go fishing, and learned to follow along.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

Rob is extra careful spearfishing, since the sharks will come up and snatch the speared fish right off his pole. They’re not interested in eating him, but if his arm got in the way of their snapper supper … well, I doubt they’d complain much. Spearfishing is definitely a group activity here, just in case. On the other hand, Rob’s also had a blast flyfishing for the smaller-sized sharks. He hooks them as the patrol the shallows at low tide, so he can study them up close before releasing them back to the sea.

I don’t really want to catch a shark, even if I do feel more comfortable swimming with them. Same with bears and bees: I have no need to contain the things that might harm me, but I do want to understand them enough to appreciate their purpose, their beauty, and their role on this grand blue globe we all share.



on the horizon line - sailing and traveling blog in mexico

Embrace the Now

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on the horizon line - sailing and traveling and fishing blog in mexico

Rob pulled himself into the dinghy. “Man, I sure wish I’d had our GoPro down there,” he told me, pulling off his mask. “How cool would it have been to get video of those sea lions side-swiping us?”

We’d just snorkeled off Los Islotes, a small rock outcropping north of La Partida island where we were anchored on our friend’s boat, Sea Raven. It’s famous for the sea lion colony that lives on the ammonia-scented, guano-stained rocks. And the fame is well-deserved: it was unbelievable to have humongous slippery mammals skyrocketing past us in the sea.

The lions, called lobos del mar or sea wolves in Spanish, honked and barked, blew bubbles when we got too close, and chomped on the millions of tiny bait fish shimmering like a silver wave just beneath the surface. This marine reserve looked like the Sea of Cortez must have looked a century ago – ripe with fish of all colors, shapes and sizes. It was quite a contrast to the more barren underwater scene near the rocks at our anchorage a mile south, where only a handful of smaller fish dodged hungry fishermen’s nets and lines.

on the horizon line - sailing and traveling blog in mexico

We put some distance between ourselves and the clutter of tourist boats at Los Islotes, and snorkeled again at the next rock island. Rob swam around for 20 minutes, then jumped into the dinghy so I could do the same. This time, he didn’t say a word about missed opportunities behind a camera. He was full of stories of the world below: “I saw tons of trigger fish, and a huge surgeon fish! Did you see that sea lion glide in off the rock? This place is seriously awesome.”

That evening, we both stretched on the foredeck as we watched the red light of sunset roll down from the mountains and break across the sea. Rob pointed out turtles as they popped up to breathe (he’s seen approximately 43 turtles this past week, compared to my 2), and we followed a young sea lion that was playing between the catamaran’s hulls.

on the horizon line - sailing and traveling and fishing blog in mexico espiritu santo sunset in baja

“You know,” Rob said, “I’ve been thinking about my time in Madagascar. I didn’t have any of that shit we just lost. I keep thinking it’s a blessing in disguise that our electronics got stolen. If I’d had the GoPro today, I would’ve been fiddling with cameras instead of just enjoying the dive, and I’d probably be inside editing the video right now instead of watching turtles swim in the sunset.”

It definitely still stings a lot that we lost all of the gear we so carefully researched and assembled. Mostly, though, it stings that we made dumb mistakes that led to that occurrence.

That sunset, Rob and I came to agreement that we don’t need to prove how cool and interesting this trip is, to ourselves or others. Sure, it’s natural to want to share our experience, and to capture remarkable moments to enjoy again later. But then you lose the now. The cost of recording those events means we’re behind a computer, camera or recorder, rather than fully experiencing how cool they are. The universe may well have been telling us that it’s our time to embrace the now.

on the horizon line - sailing and traveling and fishing blog in mexico

big red - the red rider truck - rob roberts and trout unlimited - pushing through the forest

So Long, Big Red

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Since tomorrow is my last day at Trout Unlimited, it seems fitting that I handed over the title to our 1994 Dodge Dakota pickup this morning.  Trout Unlimited bought the truck for $1 back in 2009 and, because of its stamina and sheer willpower, we dubbed it the “Red Rider” or just “Big Red.”

big red - the red rider truck - rob roberts and trout unlimited - pushing through the forest

So what if the wheel wells were corroded, the passenger side door only opened from the inside, or the windows didn’t roll down, the Red Rider was my trusted companion, alongside my dog – Abe – for countless hours of fieldwork.  It was the best work vehicle a guy could ask for.  Together, we steamrolled through brush covered roads, forded streams, and carried some ridiculous loads.  Watch this video to see one of our exploits.

big red - the red rider truck - rob roberts and trout unlimited

The Red Rider was truly legendary because it had its own sense of humor and personal charisma.  It didn’t drive well in the snow or, really, even the rain, but I took pride in showing up at meetings with the Red Rider.  Parked alongside the shiny new trucks of state agencies or  high dollar consultants, I admit that the much smaller Red Rider looked a little bit silly.  But the Red Rider always held its own, kept its head high, and never let me down.  It always reaffirmed my belief in being part of a lean and mean non-profit, maintaining TU’s focus on efficiency and results and not getting caught up in posh and posturing. Would I have liked 4 wheel drive? Sure.  Did I wish that the interior lights worked consistently? Of course.  Would it have been easier to drive if I knew what gear I was in?  Always.  But I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I envision the Red Rider spending its remaining days as a cared for farm vehicle, soaking its old bones in a sunny pasture and going out for Sunday drives.   So long, Big Red.  We’ll miss you.

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Stitching 2 Creeks Back Together Again

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As a perfect follow-up to the “typical office day” video I shared earlier this week, here’s the front-page article in the Missoulian newspaper this morning.  It’s all about the job we finished, which reconnects two creeks.

It’ll be my last on-the-ground project before we take off to sail and explore for a couple of years.  Watch the video for an up-close look at how I rebuilt the stream.

80 years after it was diverted, Twin Creek steered back into Ninemile Creek

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

NINEMILE – It took 58 minutes for Twin Creek to flow 400 feet and reconnect a waterway severed for the last 80 years.

“That’s pretty awesome,” David Pontrelli yelled as the first muddy cloud from Twin Creek’s new channel bloomed in the clear waters of Ninemile Creek.

On a freezing Friday morning, he saw the result of six weeks of earthmoving and landscape engineering repair a bit of family history.

“My grandpa was a miner up here in the ’30s,” Pontrelli said. “I’m working on some of the same projects he did, putting them back together. We’re making a positive impact, and I’m extremely proud to be a part of that.”

Shortly before World War II, gold miners patented a four-mile stretch of the Ninemile Creek bottom and started dredging the floodplain. Their machines scooped up the creek’s cobbles and gravel into berms 20 feet high, seeking a layer of clay where the valuable minerals hid. Ninemile Creek’s winding oxbows were shunted into a straight-line ditch.


Twin Creek flows into the Ninemile from the hills to the south. When it reached the dredging zone, the miners forced it into a ditch that eventually poured into a pond and percolated away.

“No one’s blaming the miners – they were trying to survive just like the rest of us,” said Trout Unlimited project manager Rob Roberts, who organized the work with cooperation from Missoula County, the Lolo National Forest and the University of Montana. “There’s a lot of debate about how much they found. I think they paid their way. Now we’re trying to create a new legacy for the valley, and return things to the way they were.”

Sort of. To connect the two creeks, Roberts’ crew had to rearrange 16,000 cubic yards of old dredge berm into a causeway across some of the mining channels. That put a pile roughly the size of a football field in a miner’s clearing, with the new creek running 20 feet above the old dredge channel on either side.

Pontrelli and his Streamside Services LLC coworkers hand-placed hundreds of rocks in a series of pools and cascades to mimic the natural contours of a creek. Then they scattered sand, gravel and clay in the bed and blasted the whole mix with water hoses. The goal was to armor the new streambed so water wouldn’t leak out before it reached Ninemile Creek.


Rock and River Co. partners Chance Kirby and Ray Trollope did most of the heavy lifting with their excavator and dump truck. In three weeks, they lifted and moved 1,600 dump-truck loads of fill. On Friday, Kirby got to pull the earthen plug that kept Twin Creek in its ditch. A single bucketful of dirt at 11:31 a.m. was all it took to send the stream tumbling into its new path.

A veteran of the Milltown Dam removal with a dozen years of streambed experience, Kirby used his huge power shovel to re-landscape the area around where Twin Creek used to run. While he transplanted loads of living plants into the old ditch, UM Wildland Restoration students Mark Fogarty and Mark Marano scrambled through the mud seeking stranded fish.

They returned with a 4-inch trout and a handful of minnows for the new channel. Roberts said a stranded population of westslope cutthroat existed in Twin Creek, and now will mingle with the fish in Ninemile Creek. Like first-time homebuyers in a new subdivision, Roberts said fish will flock to the new reach for a while.

Fogarty, Marano and classmate Danielle Berardi also put together a squad of 30 fellow students last weekend to plant thousands of trees and bushes along the new streambed.

Twin Creek was just one of a half-dozen tributaries to the Ninemile diverted for mining. The upper stretch of Ninemile Creek remains trapped in an unnatural channel.


Lolo National Forest soils and water program manager Traci Sylte said Twin Creek didn’t have any serious hazardous waste issues, although other mining-affected creeks higher in the drainage did.

“So far, we’ve done work on Little McCormick, Eustache, Mattie V, St. Louis, Twin, Kennedy and Josephine creeks,” Sylte said. “It’s been great that a lot of private folks have the ethic and desire to give us permission to do this.”

The Twin Creek project cost about $200,000. All combined, the Ninemile drainage streamwork has brought close to $1 million for area excavators, contractors, nurseries and laborers. And there’s been some unpaid labor involved as well.

Over the years, beavers have built ponds that backed up the water and flooded into parallel dredge channels, returning a bit of braiding to the waterway. But lots more work would be needed.

“The only problem is we don’t have enough money to do this for the entire four miles,” Roberts said. “It’s so disturbed in this area, we don’t even know where the floodplain was. It’s completely altered.”

Typical Day at the Office

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Everyone always asks what I do for work, and it’s always a little tricky to try and explain it in words.  So, I took our new Go Pro to work this week to make a video of a typical day in the field, where I get to rebuild streams as part of my job for Trout Unlimited. As you’ll see, that means driving in the woods with my dog, moving boulders, and directing heavy equipment.  Fun stuff.



Ode to the Smith River

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Community and Culture, Fishing, Hiking

After several backpacking trips this summer, car camping feels like staying at a 5-Star Sheraton Hotel.  After work on Friday, we loaded up the Honda with our thick, cushy Thermarests, big, comfy down sleeping bags, the roomy tent, real pillows, musical instruments, chairs…and beer!…and headed east toward the Smith River.

The Smith is one of Montana’s premier floating and fishing rivers.  Normally, when someone says they’re “going to the Smith” they mean they’re floating the windy canyon, launching their drift boats, rafts or canoes near White Sulphur Springs and spending 4-5 days floating 50 miles north toward Great Falls.

But that’s only during the spring and early summer.  Montana has a competitive permit system to divvy out coveted float trips during those precious few weeks when snowfall subsides, the runoff from spring thaw calms down, and before the river shrivels from irrigation withdrawals and hot, dry weather.  We’ve snagged a permit many years during that narrow perfect window. (Check out this sweet canoe setup from our 2011 Smith trip!)

No one really floats in September, since the flows drop drastically.  This weekend, the river was flowing at a meager 100 cubic feet per second.  Luckily, though, September is a great time to camp and fish.

Our friend, Mike, is the son of a smart, smart man who chipped in with friends to buy property along the Smith River years ago.  Mike invites his friends to enjoy this remarkable riverside property during the last weekend in September each year to celebrate birthdays, whiskey, trout, and the onset of autumn.  Lucky us.

And celebrate we did.  We caught big trout, shot rifles to bone-up for hunting season, played guitar boisterously, ate like royalty, and sat around with good friends telling funny stories.

This particular outdoor adventure–like most we undertake–underscored the bottom line for how to return home with a satisfied glow.  It’s the people.  The community.  The shared experience is what brings the rivers, forests, fish, and wildlife into sharp, 3-D focus in our memories.

On the September Smith trip, that means repeating the same inside jokes, eating Corey’s Stupendous Smith River Chili, singing along to Mike’s rockin’ set list on guitar after dinner, and giggling when we hear Ryan’s booming Fireball Whiskey-inspired laugh.  It means creating new traditions due to campfire restrictions, like roasting marshmallows over a Coleman lantern and snuggling like inchworms in our sleeping bags around a single candle. Most of all, it means simply being with each other with no “real world” distractions near a clear stream, under a full moon, beneath a big, bright Montana sky.


Check out photos from this past weekend’s camping and last July’s float down the Smith River.

From Smith River Camping, posted by Brianna Randall on 10/01/2012 (29 items)

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Solo Backpack from Our Home to My Headwaters

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Bear hangs in the wilderness are like anchors at sea — it’s what let’s me sleep comfortably in the middle of the woods.

I made this connection during a solo journey into the Rattlesnake Wilderness the first weekend in August.  Rob was busy driving a forklift and playing with power tools, helping our friends build a cabin in Southwestern Montana.  So, I seized the glorious summer weekend, threw some gear in a backpack, threw a trailer on my bike, and headed out the front door at 3pm after work.

I ride my mountain bike up 5 miles of pavement, and then 16 miles of bumpy trail along Rattlesnake Creek, towing my heavy pack.  Around 7pm, I reached the Wilderness boundary, locked the bike to fir tree, and strapped on my backpack.  I hiked up Wrangell Creek about 5 miles, and reached Little Lake, a gorgeous high mountain lake, just as night fell.  Which meant I had to HURRY to set up camp, make dinner, and then get dinner hung out of the reach of hungry bears and curious critters. 

For me, I have to hang a rope right away, so I know my food will be out of range of hungry bears.  That way I can sleep more soundly, especially when I’m all alone in the middle of the woods.  Plus, I suck at throwing, so I figure I should get the dreaded (but critical!) chore out of the way first.

I finally found a good snag halfway around Little Lake (high elevation areas = subalpine firs = tiny branches that don’t hold the weight of my hefty food bag).  Whew.  Food safe for the night.  I settled in my sleeping bag to read, and fell asleep as a lightening storm gave way to gentle rain in my cozy tent.

The next morning, after retrieving the food from it’s bear-proof spot, I decided to hike to the next lake, Glacier Lake.  The first day alone in the mountains I’m usually jumpy, clapping and singing to scare away lions, tigers, and bears (and moose).

But then I settle into the rhythm of silence. By day two and day three, I almost forget I’m not a part of the forest, and rarely make noise.  Maybe this is just because I feel slightly invincible by not getting killed on the way in.

On the second night, my comfort level was tested by 5 mountain goats that interrupted

the silence of sunset as the scrambled over a sheer cliff about 100 yards from my tent.  Awesome creatures.

On the hike out, I catalog what I forgot in my rush to leave my home for the headwaters of my backyard creek: a compass, a utensil (good thing twigs make good chopsticks), a bandana.  And what I was most glad to have with me: a fly rod, my bear hang rope, and a good book.

The reason I love backpacking–and sailing, for that matter–is that you must live in exactly that moment.  You’re only mission is to survive, to plan the next meal and find the next shelter.  There’s a beauty in that, a simplicity and a purpose that leaves me satisfied…and ready to do it all over again.



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