rob roberts with a sailing canoe in Montana

Why ‘Scanoodling’ Is Our New Favorite Water Activity

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Sailing

First off, friends, apologies for the long radio silence. I let the blog lapse while I finished my book (hooray!) about sailing across the Pacific Ocean and the subsequent transition back to the U.S. as new parents. Fingers crossed that it finds a home with a publisher soon 🙂

I’ve also been busy writing for magazines and newspapers. You’re welcome to check out recent stories about travel and adventure-parenting here.

And now to the heart of this post: scanoodling, our family’s favorite new hobby.

Brianna Randall sailing a canoe in Missoula

What is scanoodling?

It’s a word we made up that means dinking around in our motorized sailing canoe. Sometimes we paddle. Sometimes we sail. Sometimes we rev up the 3-horsepower motor.

The name comes from the type of canoe we bought this summer, a 16.5-foot Coleman Scanoe. It’s a flat-bottomed, aluminum-framed boat with a square back that’s durable and roomy — a cross between a skiff and a canoe.

Why we chose a scanoodle

Since we returned from our big trip across the sea, Rob and I have struggled to figure out the best boat to fit our lifestyle in Montana. As water-lovers, boats are vital for increasing our happiness factor.

We have two Alpaca Rafts, super-lightweight inflatable kayaks, which have served us well for short day trips or solo missions on rivers and wilderness lakes. But they’re too small for our family to undertake multi-day trips, and hell to paddle into the wind.

talon in snow with packrafts on clark fork river 2

I used to share a 26-foot sailboat on Flathead Lake, but gave up that share when we set sail for the South Pacific. Since then, I’ve rented sailboats from friends for a few days at a time. But we missed the freedom of going sailing whenever I wanted. Plus, a traditional sailboat makes it tough to visit new places, since you’re either locked into one marina with dock fees or you need a big truck to tow a 5,000 to 10,000-pound yacht.

We looked high and low for good options, including small trimarans that our sedan could tow. Nothing seemed quite right.

Until we came across This little company makes nifty sailing packages that attach to most kayaks or canoes. The whole kit weighs under 50 pounds, and can be checked as luggage on airplanes. We were sold, especially since we’re planning to sail through Florida’s Everglades National Park this winter.

scanoe with sail rig

We bought the sailing kit before we bought our own boat, and tested it out on friends’ canoes. Then we found the Scanoe, complete with a little outboard motor, for just $800. Packing up after work one Friday, we drove to Sandpoint, bought the Scanoe, and sailed to a remote beachside campsite on Lake Pend Oreille at sunset, the water like glass under our bow.

It was a match made in heaven.

Why we love scanoodling

  • You can sail UP rivers, not just float down, which is uber-awesome.
  • When there’s good wind, you can fill your sail instead of ruin your arms.
  • And when the wind’s in your face and you can’t sail or paddle, the 3 hp outboard pushes the boat along at a good clip: ~8 mph without gear, ~5 mph fully loaded. One gallon of gas keeps us going over an hour.
  • With the pontoons and leeboards (courtesy of SailboatsToGo) and the beamy, flat-bottomed canoe design, the boat is super safe. We can walk around inside or stand up to fish, and not worry that Talon might topple overboard.
  • It’s a craft that can ply nearly any waterway in Montana. While I wouldn’t take it through Class III+ rapids or into the open ocean, the Scanoe does stay stable even when it takes on water.
  • At 80 pounds, Rob and I can easily lift the Scanoodle on top of our car with the sail rolled up under the crossbars. The pontoons, leeboards and steering oar fit handily in the trunk. (Note: We’re planning to buy a small trailer to make transport even easier.)
  • We can pack enough gear in the boat to stay out for a week and the three of us still fit comfortably.
  • You never have to worry about running aground, since it’s made to be beached.
  • Maintenance hours are negligible and dock fees are nonexistent.

sailing upriver in search of yellowstone cutthroat trout

Where we scanoodled this summer

  • Missouri River – 50 miles over 5 days
  • Lake Pend Oreille – 3 night camping trip
  • Lake Upsata – a day of snorkeling and spearfishing
  • Frenchtown Pond – where Talon caught his first fish
  • Clark Fork River – afternoon floats near Missoula
  • Cliff Lake – 2 night camping and fishing trip
  • Flathead Lake – hour-long joy rides from Big Arm campground with friends and family
  • Red Rock National Wildlife Refuge – across Upper Red Rock Lake and 2 miles up the Red Rock River
  • Blanchard Lake & Clearwater River – after-work jaunts to spearfish and snorkel
  • Next up: Everglades National Park in December!

catching rainbows in cliff lake

sailing canoes access back water fishing brianna randall fishes from the bow of the sailing canoe

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

How to Stare Down a Trout

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Outdoor Adventures

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.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The Wilderness of Mandalay

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Community and Culture, Traveling

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma. Our 11th country this year, and by far the least developed. This country is truly a melting pot of hundreds of ethnic groups and religions, it’s borders hugging Bangladesh, India, Laos, Thailand, and China. Burma was a colony of Great Britain until 1948, lumped together with India for the majority of English rule. It just opened to tourists after Myanmar’s brutal 50-year dictatorship formally ended in 2011. Many parts of the country are still “off limits” to visitors, and all foreigners must get a visa from a Myanmar embassy before arriving.

We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Mandalay, Myanmar’s northern urban center. Rob and I wanted to see Asia’s second largest country in Asia before tourism whitewashed its culture. And we were searching for a less trendy, more gritty destination than Thailand, which is overrun by foreigners looking for elephant rides, tiger-petting, and/or easy access to sex, drugs and alcohol.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

Our arrival in Mandalay’s deserted airport was heralded by enthusiastic taxi drivers in longyi, the traditional cloth wrap that men and women wear around their hips. We serenaded a half-dozen of these taxi drivers with a Johnny Cash song on our trusty Panamanian guitar in the parking lot. The men’s remaining teeth were stained blood red with beetlenut juice when they smiled, clapping along to the song.

In Thailand, we were constantly trying to escape the smoke of the summer burn season. We rode our rented motorcycle into the mountains near Chiang Mai, hoping to find moist forest and blue skies – to no avail. But when we drove into Mandalay at dusk, Thailand suddenly seemed like an environmental paradise. The dusky light of sunset revealed a scene more like India than Asia: a free-for-all of swerving traffic, people bathing in canals along the highway, food vendors selling from trays balanced on their heads, men pulling wooden carts loaded high and heavy. A cloud of choking dust from the dirt roads hung suspended in the air, mixing with wood-fire smoke and black exhaust.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

After chucking our bags into a government-approved tourist hotel room (ET Hotel), we set off to find dinner. Walking amidst the traffic and dust was an adventure, with no sidewalks and no streetlights to help navigate potholes, trash piles and the ubiquitous motorbikes. Breathing was a challenge, too, and our eyes stung as we watched the street scene over our fried rice and veggie platters.

Amidst the traffic and poor air quality, we made the potentially ridiculous choice to rent bikes to pedal through Mandalay the next day. They were hilarious bikes, old single-speed cruisers made for the barely-five-foot-tall tiny people that populate Myanmar. I felt like I was riding a unicycle, since the seat and pedals were so close together. Rob looked like two giant knees.

Turns out that it’s actually easier to bike than to walk in Mandalay. You feel a part of the impenetrable flow of traffic rather than at war with it. Setting off early, we headed to the ancient walled city to see the palace of King Mindon. We went slowly, taking in the sights: tiny stools where locals sat and spat beetlenut, tea houses, oily chapatis, orange juice stands, millions of scooters, a parade of Burmese girls with painted faces sitting in flatbed trucks, a game of hacky-sack volleyball. Everyone smiled and waved as we passed, still enamored by the novelty of white tourists in their midst.

We joined the endless streams of bikes and cars and tractors that edged out in clumps from intersections, using critical mass to cross main streets in lieu of a traffic light. A teak monastery was the highlight of our tour, intricately carved with thousands of buddhas and gargoyles and who knows what. After a lunch of delicious Shan noodles (khao suey), we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel before the 100-degree heat set in.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

That evening, we resumed the bike tour and headed west from downtown to find the Ayerwaddy River, the largest in the country. Rudyard Kipling called the river the “road to Mandalay” in his famous 1890 poem about Burma. And a road it is – a network of irrigation canals and transportation routes that link the north and south. This watery road was full of boats, people bathing, pipes collecting water and dumping waste, thatch huts lining the sandy shores. A busy and overwhelming place, far removed from my Montana-girl’s mental and emotional definition of “river.”

I realized as we biked home, coughing, in the growing darkness that Rob and I keep searching for the Southeast Asian version of “wilderness,” just as we searched out the South Pacific’s underwater version of “wilderness.” We seek out untouched nature to explore. But the pristine places we associate with our definition of wilderness – the back woods, remote rivers, uninhabited peaks of Montana – don’t exist here. People have been using every scrap of land and water for millennia to simply survive.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The real wilderness in Asia lies within its seething cities. This is where the raw, primal, impenetrable and vast exist – in the region’s humming mass of people who are, after all, very much a part of nature. The wilderness of Mandalay or Bangkok or Yangon is just as challenging to navigate as the wilderness of Montana. We need a different set of survival skills, but many of our tools are the same: a water purifier, a headlamp, a med kit, a map, a sense of humor, patience.

This realization was both humbling and helpful. It let me ease into the city just a bit, rather than hold it at bay. But it still didn’t make me want to stay in Mandalay. As we returned the bikes for the day and paid our $2 each, I was undeniably relieved to be getting on a train to Kyaukme in the morning to begin a trek through tea-growing villages in the mountains of Myanmar. Even if they are a hard-working landscape rather than a wilderness, mountains will always feel more like home than a city.

sunset over mount jumbo in missoula - on the horizon line blog

My Place in Space and Time

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Traveling

rainbow over Mount Jumbo in the Rattlesnake Valley of Missoula, Montana - on the horizon line

Picture yourself right now.  Close your eyes and visualize where you’re sitting, standing or lounging.  Now zoom out.  Do you have a map in your head of where you are located on this big, beautiful earth?

I do.  I’m a visual learner, and I feel disoriented if I can’t picture my place in time and space.  For instance, when Rob and I went to Philadelphia last month to visit his family, I had absolutely no visual map.  I was in unfamiliar terrain with no landmarks to guide me, and couldn’t have found north if my life depended on it (good thing it didn’t!).

For the past decade, the map in my head has been framed by mountains and rivers.  My place in space right this moment is bracketed by Stuart Peak to the north, Mount Jumbo to the east, the North Hills to the west, and Lolo Peak to the south.  I follow Rattlesnake Creek as my north-south axis when I’m navigating from home to downtown Missoula.  I’m guided by the Clark Fork River as I head west or east out of town.  My body can sense which knobby ridge the sun kisses as it rises, and as it sets.

sunset over mount jumbo in missoula - on the horizon line blog

But my body is about to leave the ridge lines, rivers and creeks that create my central axis.  My frame for pinpointing the cardinal directions will be fuzzy and out of focus as we shift between new horizons and new shores.  I’m going to have to accept the fact that I won’t always have a map in my head of where, exactly, I am — physically or mentally.  That feels overwhelming.  Exhilarating.  Terrifying.  Liberating.

Luckily, I know we will always have a well-marked and special place waiting for us in Montana, nestled squarely between the hills and creeks that so clearly define space and time.

rob paragliding with rattlesnake mountains in background - on the horizon line blog


Bri in Little Blackfoot River in Montana - on the horizon line - clark fork coalition

Farewell (for now) to Working for Freshwater

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Community and Culture, Reflections on Life

bri rafting the alberton gorge9 years.  5 legislative sessions. 100s of grant proposals.  28,000 miles of streams and rivers to speak up for. Dozens of floats, monitoring days, and presentations.  Thousands of meetings, laughs, successes, snafus, late nights, and learning moments.

That’s just a sliver of what working for clean water means to me.

Today is my last day of work at the Clark Fork Coalition, a kick-ass high-powered conservation group that does good things for great rivers in Montana.  I’ve worked for almost a decade in a variety of roles at the Coalition, and never once did I dread going to work.  In fact, walking in the front doors almost always made me smile in anticipation of what the day might bring.  This is due in large part to the remarkable people I was lucky enough to work with and for.

Bri in Little Blackfoot River in Montana - on the horizon line - clark fork coalitionIf you’ve ever worked for a small non-profit organization, you know that every employee is a jack-of-all-trades.  We are writers, lobbyists, fundraisers, counselors, janitors, technicians, scientists, lawyers, explorers, tour guides, comedians and engineers — all in the same day.  We are passionate and dedicated and motivated to make the world a better place.  And we’re really fun, too.

The Coalition taught me a lot about how to make change happen — not just for the spectacular rivers and landscapes in Montana, but in my community, my country, my daily life.  It taught me that water connects everything: big and small, urban and rural, personal and global, eating and drinking, forests and valleys, mountains and ocean.

IMG_0130Why, you might ask, would I quit such a fabulous job or pivot away from such an important cause?  Because it’s the right time, and I can feel that deep inside.  I don’t ever want to walk in the front door dreading the day, so I’m planning to leave while the smile is still on my face and the passion is still beneath my skin.

Plus, as I see it, we’re just moving downstream to explore.  Granted, the Pacific is a lot bigger pond than the Clark Fork River, but I’m comforted by the fact that all of the clean water I worked to protect will be a part of the ocean that floats my boat.

I think my husband said it best in his farewell email to his co-workers at Trout Unlimited yesterday, so I’m going to let his words close out my farewell-for-now to the world of freshwater conservation:

bri rafting the alberton gorge

I’m calling it quits.  Not because I think there’s a better place to work or because I could make more money somewhere else, but because its just time.  Its time for someone with a new perspective to take over my program, to infuse it with new ideas and enthusiasm.  This track is starting to get awful familiar, and it’s time for me to find a new one.

I’ll be basically wandering for the foreseeable future, seeing some new places and people and trying to figure out what I’ll do next in my life.  My wife and I have a once in a lifetime opportunity to cut ties and vanish for a couple years. We will be leaving March 26 with a couple of backpacks, some snorkeling gear and a desire to travel, sail and explore.  Hitchhiking the ocean, some people have called it.  

I don’t think that being unemployed will always be easy, but I’m sure it will be interesting.  I want to say thank you for taking a chance on a bright-eyed idealist and giving me the opportunity, the skills and the flexibility to succeed.  For that, I will be forever indebted.  I feel truly blessed to have been your co-worker and part of an organization that has an excellent mission, hires good people and is just fun to work for.  Keep up the good fight and remember that we’re all in that fight together.  I’ll miss you. 

– Rob

bri and rob by the clark fork river at our wedding in missoula - on the horizon line

The Meaning of Life from “EVST”

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Community and Culture, Reflections on Life

Tom Roy is the reason I moved to Missoula, Montana.  When I visited in 2002, he was the Director of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, which I was considering attending.  It was a big stretch for a California girl to even consider moving to winter-laced Montana, and I figured I better go visit in mid-January to see if I could handle all the white stuff.


Tom Roy was the Director of the UM EVST program for over three decades.


Tom started talking the minute I walked into his office, making jokes and waving his arms around.  He told me the history and purpose of the “the program”–or “EVST,” as students affectionately dub it–and took me upstairs to show me the landscape I’d be studying.  It was a whiteout.


All I could see was blowing snow on the UM Oval, no further than four feet from my nose.  Yet Tom kept talking and waving his arms, pointing out the Rattlesnake Mountains, Lolo Peak, Mount Sentinel, and the Bitterroot Valley.  I nodded along like I could see them.  And he kept telling stories.  Stories about students I’d never met, who wrote books, organized rallies, started new businesses, changed the world.  Stories about how EVST was my vehicle to change the world, too.


I walked outside that January day able to see through the clouds.  I saw unexplored peaks and uncharted river valleys.  I saw unbridled potential in myself and others.  I saw the kind of world I wanted to help create.  And I never looked back.


The people in the Environmental Studies program in Missoula helped me see through the clouds and find clear direction in my life.


Fast forward a decade later, where I just spent the weekend as an alumni “mentor” at an EVST graduate student retreat on Flathead Lake.  Tom was there, along with most of the other professors who helped me wind my way through graduate school goals: Neva, Phil, Len.  And I can safely say that I received more mentoring than I gave, from the fresh-faced, inspired students and from the motivated staff.


Tom reminded me why I moved here.  Why I do what I do every day for the Clark Fork Coalition, and for the rivers and lands in this wonderful state, even if it means I sometimes lose sight of the view through the clouds.


Here’s what Tom said on Sunday: “EVST has always had this edge to it…this  energy…coupled with moral imagination. This graduate program is not about making you the smartest person in one field.  You can go anywhere for that.  This program is about making you the smartest at what most interests you, and then asking you to act on your moral responsibility to be an agent of change.  Hope is not enough.  We want to give you the tools to actualize your hope.”


Later on, as the whole group struggled through an exercise focused on answering questions about our values, strengths, and life goals, Tom interjected: “You know, it’s not the answers that are the most interesting.  It’s the questions that are the whole point, and how you frame those questions.  Answers are just the end of a question.”


What a relief.  Thanks, EVST, for reminding me that my purpose in life is not simply to solve daily problems, but to continue searching for new questions–and new beginnings–instead of endings and answers.


Sailing back to the dock after the EVST Retreat on Flathead Lake this past weekend.


P.S. My friend and another EVST alum, Matt Frank, shared this poem with us at the end of the retreat, which sums up the meaning of life pretty nicely:

  The Way It Is 
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 
– William Stafford


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...