rob roberts prepping to stare down some fish under a montana river

How to Stare Down a Trout

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Underwater World: River snorkeling in southwest Montana

This article appeared here in Outside Bozeman, and I thought I’d share it with all of you. 

“Whoa, big fish,” my husband, Rob, exclaimed. We were halfway through an eight-day backpacking loop in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and had stopped to rest. “Let’s see what they are.”

He skidded down to a cobble beach, whipped out a well-used snorkel and mask, and dove in naked. I followed more cautiously, and arrived just in time to hear, “It’s a school of rainbows!”

He tossed me the mask, and I dove in for my first-ever freshwater snorkel. I was immediately enveloped in a surreal, super-charged world. At least two dozen torpedo-shaped trout rushed around a glacier-green pool that seemed depthless. Asan avid angler, sailor, packrafter, and hiker-of-riverside-trails, I’m no stranger to watery exploits. But I’d always thought snorkeling went hand-in-hand with tropical islands in exotic locales. That first up-close encounter changed my tune—it was magical.

Bri snorkeling in rivers - brianna randall, photo by rob roberts

Snorkeling brought a new intimacy to my relationship with rivers and creeks that running rapids or matching the hatch never could. There’s the muffled silence, marred only by the slow gurgle of water tumbling over stone; the dull hiss of sediment scratching its way downstream; and the slanting rays of afternoon sun, bouncing off cobbles and fish scales that appear super-sized (thanks to the 33% magnification effect of wearing a mask underwater). Motion becomes your sixth sense, and your breath the metronome that anchors you in the current.

Now I’m not about to give up my other water hobbies anytime soon, but river snorkeling has become a welcome addition to my water-sport quiver. A quick dip with a mask can add character to a day hike or turn a raft into an exploratory platform, where I pretend I’m the Rocky Mountain incarnation of Jacques Cousteau. Rob and I are not alone in our love affair with snorkeling: it’s becoming a popular pasttime all across the West, partly because it’s an easy-access, few-skills-necessary sport that’s fun for the whole family.

talon randall roberts getting ready to play with a snorkel at the creek

In fact, “snorkeling” is a bit of a misnomer, as all you really need to become one with the fish is a pair of goggles and the ability to hold your breath. This is especially true when swimming in large, wide rivers like the Madison, which can top 70 degrees, making for a relaxing environment while you peer around boulders and investigate pocket eddies.

On the other hand, most of western Montana’s waterways are bone-chillingly cold, even on the most sweltering summer days. Snorkeling in high-mountain streams can take your breath away, as the water squeezes the air from your diaphragm with an icy punch. Wearing a wetsuit will extend your time in the water, but a drysuit is better at keeping the shiver-factor away.Regardless of whether your nude or fully neoprened, it’s wise to wear good river shoes and leave the fins at home, in case you’re stuck hopping a sudden logjam or traversing slippery boulders.

Our hometown waters offer a variety of snorkeling venues, from placid pools on meandering rivers, to rapids that up the ante and the adrenaline. Take “Fishman” Mike Kasic, a river swimmer and snorkeling aficionado who lives in Livingston and regularly looks beneath the Yellowstone for cutthroat trout. Kasic’s underwater whitewater runs through Yankee Jim Canyon were featured in this BBC-produced video. Inspiring stuff, although I plan to stick to Class I waters myself.

rob roberts checking out trout under the water line

Pat Byorth, Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project director and previously a state fisheries biologist, agrees that the Yellowstone is a fun place to snorkel once spring runoff clears. He also recommends the upper Big Hole and the upper Madison, particularly above reaches with heavy boat traffic. If you can access them, spring creeks are prime spots for underwater viewing. According to Byorth, the best time to snorkel is between 10am and 2pm to maximize the most light penetration underwater. Summer is obviously the best season, but die-hards snorkel year-round.

Once you’re in the river, it’s all about patience and adjusting to a new perspective, like looking at one of those 3-D pictures that were popular in the ‘90s. Once your river-vision locks in, a whole new world comes alive. Stay in one spot, holding onto a rock or root and letting the river pass you by, or if the current is too strong and you feel like going with the flow, bob downstream watching fish dart out your path.

Regardless of your pace, the rivers in southwest Montana are full of life, from the 20-inch rainbows and cutthroats hanging in feeding lanes, to the gossamer caddis larvae, firmly ensconced in protective casings of sticks and stones.

rob roberts prepping to stare down some fish under a montana river

Click here to read more stories about rivers in Outside Bozeman.

Top 10 Photos of the South Pacific

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Community and Culture, Family and Friends, Fishing, Hiking, Ocean Tales, Outdoor Adventures, Sailing, Traveling

As we leave the Pacific for Southeast Asia, it seems like a good time to reflect upon what we’ve seen this past year.  Here are a few of our favorite photos, which give a taste of sailing, swimming and living across the South Pacific islands.  Note: This Top 10 album is also available on our Facebook page.

[anything_slider title=”Top 10 Photos of the South Pacific” column=”full-width” autoslide=”2″ slider_id=”3667″/]


Kids fishing on the shore

Our Desert Oceans – South Pacific Fish Part 3

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Fishing, Ocean Tales

This is Part Three in a multi-part series on my observations of the state of the South Pacific fishery. Click here to read Part One. Click here to read Part Two.

Kids fishing on the shore

You remember those 3D pictures where an image pops out of the static if you look at it just so? That’s what the ocean is like for me in Vava’u now. At first, I was disappointed that I didn’t see giant fish each time I swam, and that there weren’t any megafauna jumping out at me the minute I put on my mask. But then I realized that if you just adjust your eyes a bit, a whole new dimension appears.

Now every time I go swimming, I see something magical. Something that makes me laugh or scream or hold my breath until my lungs burst just to get a closer look. It’s only a desert if you can’t see the urchins through the sand.

I snorkel around the tiny 3-acre Fetoko Island nearly every day. It’s a ritual now, after five months living in Tonga. And also a challenge to try and see something new each time in this small area. It’s fairly unremarkable, as far as underwater seascapes go: there’s no pass, no drop-offs, no caves or reefs or shark breeding gounds. It’s just a flat sandy area dotted with echinoderms like sea stars and urchins, interspersed with the occassional coral-head and sea grass patch. Yet I’ve noticed more new creatures here than I did in some of the premier diving spots we visited while sailing across the South Pacific — all because I know it so well.

The best part about staying put is truly getting to know a place. That’s what we loved about living in Missoula, that intimacy with the land, the water, the air, the trees, and the knowledge of how those parts of your home change with each season. It’s the same here in Vava’u: I can feel the water get warmer or cooler, notice more of less grass, exclaim over the new fan that appears, mourn the loss of the beautiful lionfish that moved to a new territory. It’s home.

Here’s what I’ve learned while underwater in Tonga: if you can imagine a creature — no matter how bizarre — it probably lives in the sea. Long snakes with 20 antennas that fold up inside their bodies Slugs that turn into flamenco dancers as they float on ruffled red skirts across the sand. Pencil-thin flounder with eyes that migrate from top to bottom and wave like little aliens from a camoflauged body. Gobies that look like they’re ready to walk ashore. Coral that looks like a brain, and fans that look like mermaid’s hair. Moray eels, bizzare clams, unicorn fish, box fish, stone fish.

Even during my delight in the small stuff near Fetoko, I still feel overwhelmed at the scale of human consumption from the sea. But I no longer feel quite as hopeless about the state of the sea. I’ve seen baby coral gardens blossoming. I’ve seen sea grass patches growing. I’ve seen thousands of tiny newborn baby fish huddled in sea urchin spines.

I’ve found hope sprouting at the bottom of the sea.

I have faith in the resiliency of our oceans. I believe at my very core that the oceans and all their wondrous creatures will be around long after humans have vanished from the planet. And I have this hunch that humans are smart enough, creative enough, motivated enough to find a way to more sustainably balance what we take from the sea.

It’s all give and take, in the end. The algae gives energy to the coral, the shells give grit to make sand, the small fish feeds the bigger one. Humans just have to learn how to give as much as we take. It doesn’t seem so impossible, when I think about it like that.

Click here to see trevally swimming underwater.

Our Desert Oceans – South Pacific Fish Part 2

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Fishing

Part Two in a multi-part series on my observations of the state of the South Pacific fishery.  Click here to read Part One.

It had become a sunset ritual to swim along the shallow reef off Fofoa, an island on the western edge of Vava’u where Rob and I stayed for a week. I liked to see what was new each evening, and if I could find my favorite fish from the previous evenings: a nosy orange clownfish that left its anemone to check me out, a few small blue trevallies cruising for prey, a big red soldierfish that hid under a coral shelf.

The fish along this inside reef weren’t huge. And the diversity of species wasn’t as high as we’d seen off remote islands in the South Pacific. But it was a vibrant little reef, which have been hard to find our first couple of months in Vava’u. I’d even seen a couple of blacktip sharks cruising the shallows this morning, and predators are always a good sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Click here to see trevally swimming underwater.

As I swam back to the beach in the fading evening light, I turned to see an old fishing boat behind me. Four Tonganas were aboard, getting ready to cast a net overboard. Damn, I thought. There go all my fish. I turned to ask Jack, the 11-year-old resident we were visiting on Fofoa, if he knew who was in the boat and how often they came.

“Oh, they’re from Hunga, the neighboring island. The come all the time to fish here,” he told me through his snorkeling mask.

Back at the house in the fading light, I stared at the floats that held the 100-meter net suspended just below the deck. It would stay there until at least dawn, passively trapping all the fish I visited each evening. It bothered me that all those fish were floundering in the net, their gills caught, struggling and flailing and gasping for deliverance. I felt their struggle viscerally. I wanted to go cut through that net and free the fish.

But I talked myself out of my monkey-wrench urge, reasoning that the Tongans from Hunga have been fishing this spot for thousands of years, and I have no right to deprive them of dinner. According to this recent Seattle Times article (discovered thanks to one of our blog readers), one-sixth of animal protein consumed by humans comes from marine fish — in many remote villages here in Tonga, nearly all of their protein comes from fish.

I love to eat fish, and we’ve caught our fair share this past year. Yet something about that net niggled at me all night. It left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, sad, angry. No amount of reasoning erased my feelings, even if I logically understood the social or economic need for catching and eating fish.

The net was gone before sunrise. My morning investigation found that the reef still had fish. Fewer, no doubt, but plenty of colorful critters flitting about. That afternoon, we kayaked through the lagoon to visit friends on neighboring Hunga island. As Caroline doused us with delicious coffee and passion fruit, she and her husband talked about the changes they’ve seen over the past 14 years in the waters off Tonga: mega-long-liners from Japan that caught hundreds of mahi-mahi each day, leaving none of these beautiful fish in Vava’u for two years. No more spinner dolphins visiting the lagoon. Fewer turtles, since the locals eat any they find. Over 200 fishing ships en-route from China this year, each one measuring 400 feet long with its own fish processing and packaging plant aboard.

Suddenly, when faced with 200 commercial fishing boats offshore, the measly 100-meter net that hung off the beach last night didn’t seem so bad. The overall state of the ocean fishery, however, felt even more dire. (Watch the video below for a great synopsis of what’s up in the seas.)

The depletion of our oceans makes me feel helpless. And hypocritcal, since I enjoy my fish. Even if I boycott everything but what Rob and I catch ourselves, how do I deal with the knowledge of dwindling fish populations? And what about the other several billion people in the world that eat fish regularly, who depend upon fish to survive?

Can the oceans keep up with human demand? Not at this rate. Not with this technology, that allows us to catch, kill, clean, package and ship to your plate in the blink of an eye.

Something’s gotta give.


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.”

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