As anyone reading my columns know, I have long had a special fascination with the state of Montana–its history, its landscape and its unparalleled fly.fishing opportunities. Last night I watched the final episode of the Paramount television series, 1883, which follows a frontier family on their long journey to Montana. To my surprise, Paradise Valley was their last stop– the final resting place for Ilse, the main character. I know Paradise River Valley well from several visits over the years, including a fishing trip with my eldest daughter, Kara, in 1992. Kara had avoided the trip her sister Brooke and I took to the Bob Marsha It Wilderness Area in Montana a few years earlier. Our enthusiastic reports afterward of our many adventures may have swayed her, as had the photos from another trip with my nephew to the chalk streams in Yellowstone. This time, when I had the itch to go back to the Valley, Kara was all in. She wanted to experience it for herself-to see “Big Sky Country” and to learn flyfishing.
I was delighted with her change of heart and vowed our time together on this trip would be special. We left New York and landed in Bozeman, Montana, rented a car at the airport and drove west on Highway 90–a long stretch of road running east-west–turning off at Route 89 into Livingston. The town of Livingston is at the northern entrance to the Valley and at the time, some 30 years ago, it was nothing more than an old run-down movie theater, a vintage hotel, a grocery– and one of the best flyfishing outfitters in the west. We stopped in town to stock up on groceries and fishing supplies and then headed to our home base. I had secured a comfortable, furnished cabin to rent near the trailhead to the mountains. Our view from the cabin picture windows was the magnificent Gallatin Range –the western flank of Paradise Valley, which is the natural gateway to into Yellowstone Park.
Kara, surprisingly, made dinner that first night – I think her mom gave her some cooking lessons before we left. Afterward, we stepped out onto the deck to observe the evening sky. Millions upon millions of stars formed an elaborate tapestry of bright, twinkling lights. With no noise pollution, the distant howls in the mountains drifted across the Valley toward us, as if the coyotes were close enough to be in our backyard. Maybe some of them were.
Fishing was to start the following day with a float trip down the Yellowstone River, so we went to bed early for a fast start the next morning. I slept like a baby and awoke to a glorious, cloudless dawn. We met up with our guide, a young, long-haired fellow who was pleased to teach Kara, a city girl, how to cast. Kara had deliberately smudged up her brand-new wading pants so she would not look like a complete novice. She needn’t have worried because she took quite easily to casting in the first lessons at the bow of the drift boat. She had soon mastered those 11 to 2 swings essential in tossing a fly. Right off the bat she hooked a cutthroat trout on the bank. Excited as all hell, she kept crying out “Dad look at me!” The thrill of that first fishing experience has lasted nearly 30 years. Only yesterday we talked about our upcoming summer trip to camp in Maine. She and I and her husband, Peter, will fish for bass on East Grand Lake and take a float trip down the Baskehegan River.
These days, Yellowstone Park draws bigger crowds, and the town of Livingston has grown to accommodate them. Montana in 1992 was like a walk through the old west. Dinner on our last night was at a saloon, with cowboys in jeans and dirty boots and large hats that stayed on indoors. The next day, we stopped for lunch in Bozeman, where we would catch a connecting flight. Before going to the airport, we had a little time to stroll the wide main street, passing horses tied up outside where parking spots might normally be. We saw girls in denim with big hair and big belt buckles that represented star rodeo riders. Overhead the blue went on forever. Montana’s moniker “Big Sky Country” was apt.