Longtime friends who have been at our sides for the rigors of graduate school and the isolation of living in a far away, harsh, and at times dangerous place like Alaska, hold a very special place in my life and heart. Either too poor in grad school or too far away in Alaska to go home for many holidays, we clung to our friends, blended our children, and made them all family for Halloween parties, Thanksgiving dinners, Easter egg hunts, and Fourth of July fishing trips.
Last year while on a trip back to Alaska, John and Mary Beth mentioned a desire for a Montana horseback riding adventure. John and Mary Beth go way back with us, back to sharing lab and office space in the forestry building at the University of Washington in the early ’70s. We all migrated north to Alaska at about the same time, simultaneously experiencing the wonders, frustrations, and adventures of getting to know our way around such a vast, demanding, and fascinating state. We went through it all together: the births of our children, our moves to various places in the state, learning the do’s and don’ts of fishing and hiking and boating in remote locales, and our many Alaska work adventures.
John had grown up on one of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. His parents owned some property, and he had a horse, a part-Tennessee Walking horse. He still has his saddle and still feels the pull. Dunrovin is the perfect place for John to get a horse fix!
Our move from Alaska to Montana (we sold our Alaska house to John and Mary Beth!) came at a time when a number of our friends were also retiring from the State of Alaska and looking for the next chapter of their lives. Lucky for us, Montana has great allure for retired Alaskans, as it is in many ways a kinder, gentler form of Alaska that is also way more horse-friendly. Chris and Loreen moved south to Helena, Montana, within months of our setting up at Dunrovin, and Colleen and Larry followed within a couple of years, settling in Missoula. Loreen and Chris purchased horses right away, while Colleen started as a member of the Dunrovin Equestrian club before purchasing her own horse.
Chris, Colleen, Larry, John, Sterling, and I were all Alaska Department of Fish and Game colleagues. We all share a strong conservation ethic, and we all feel the need to struggle against strong forces that steadily chip away at both Montana’s and Alaska’s incredible wildlife resources. Many times we stood up in the face of political assaults that would degrade Alaska’s environment, and many times we felt the professional blowback. We supported one another through difficult periods of poor leadership. Each of us wears battle scars after decades of pulling together for what we value.
So, naturally, if John and Mary Beth were coming down to join us for a Montana horseback riding adventure, we would gather up the others for a group adventure. An early September Dunrovin wedding weekend offered just the right opportunity to escape and head to a Forest Service Cabin. Sterling and I took several opportunities to check out Fleecer Station in the Deerlodge National Forest to make sure it was a suitable place for all of us and six of my horses. It sits on the edge of the forest, about 20 miles south of Butte, Montana. I know the country well, as this is my home turf. In fact, I remember stopping at the Fleecer Station when it was the home of Forest Service employees. It’s a great place for a rendezvous, with running water, electricity, an indoor bathroom, and a horse corral. Perfect in every way.
As mentioned in other parts of this and the August issue of our magazine, western Montana was ablaze with wildfires which filled our valleys with smoke. We were very disappointed that John and Mary Beth’s first trip here coincided with Montana’s worst fire season in decades. Yet, we persisted and ventured forth to Fleecer Station, meeting Chris and Loreen at the trailhead for our first ride in the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management area.
The quality of the environment was not what we wanted it to be. Montana was not at her best, with her soaring peaks and lingering late-summer sunsets hidden by smoke. The cabin was clean inside, but the outside wore a thick layer of ash.
But the quality of company could not have been better. Each couple agreed to be the chief cook and bottle washer for one evening, and everyone was gunning to outdo the other, which made for some unique and delicious meals. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were an afternoon staple on the front porch, and the conversations, laughter, and reminiscences flowed like water over a cliff.
We timed our riding around the ever-shifting wind, trying to find periods of light smoke when exercise would not be hazardous to our horses, and we chose trails that did not involve long, steep climbs to prevent the horses from having to breathe heavily. We lucked out in that we were able to ride every day except one. We even had a couple of fairly clear mornings when the tops of the mountains stood out against a nearly blue sky.
This uncertainty, this waiting to see literally which way the wind was blowing, can be very stressful if you are trying to show everyone a good time, but not with Alaskans. Anyone who has spent much time in the wilds of Alaska knows about waiting for conditions to change. Winds can kick up and send a boat scurrying for safe harbor, not to poke its nose out for days. The fog can roll in, a winter blizzard strike, and small airplanes are hugging the ground, waiting. Alaskan backcountry travelers are exactly the people you want to be with during any kind of emergency or forced waiting period. They have patience. They bring extra gear, a good book to read, and food for just such occasions. They don’t fret, and they certainly don’t look askance at the hostess when things don’t go exactly as hoped or planned.
Our waiting game actually enhanced our trip. It sent us to the cabin early, with energy to spare and time to spend catching each other in the act of telling tall tales or remembering only the good things about escapades we had shared in our youth. The time sped by. We all wanted more when it ended. We are planning another trip this coming May.
If it is one thing that I am learning as I get older, it is that many of the tired old clichés are spot on. Time well spent with loved ones is priceless. There is no substitute for old friends who can go back with you in time and dredge up the triumphs and the failures and the lost causes, dissect the reasons for each, help you put it all into perspective with humor, and share the sorrow of youth’s abilities lost to age while at the same time delighting in those that remain. We look forward together. We trade information on our children. We keep in touch. We continue to tilt our lances at windmills. And most of all, we turn to each other to laugh at ourselves and appreciate one another for sharing the journey.