Whenever I cross the bridge over the Two Medicine River on Highway 2 near East Glacier I start looking around. I know I’m in Ivan Doig Country, and I’ve convinced myself if I look hard enough I’ll pick out that imaginary ridge at the base of the Rockies where Anna Ramsey and Angus McCaskill — the tragic couple around which Doig’s novel “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” is built — confessed the love that family obligations, then death, would prevent them from reaffirming in the flesh.
In the past I’ve usually crossed the bridge at first light — either in the mad dash to make it to Great Falls in time for warmups before the 11 a.m. kick off of a Saturday soccer doubleheader, or on my way to the Sweet Grass Hills for a there-and-back all-day road trip to hunt sharptails.
But on a recent weekday I hit the bridge at the much more gentlemanly hour of right about noon. It seems listening to Johnny Cash while drinking whisky the night before isn’t a formula that produces early starts (you’d think I’d have figured that out by now). I was OK with getting on the road late, though. All I wanted was three or four hours on Duck Lake. When you’re trying to reach out 50 or 60 feet on every cast, that’s about all my shoulder can take these days anyway.
In my golden years ibuprofen has become the steadiest of friends.
The fishing at Duck was good, not great. I caught a few trout that will surely measure 20-plus inches, if I catch them again in the fall. The fish fell for scuds stripped back along the south shore.
At Duck, sight casting for big rainbows is all the rage in the spring. But as the suggestion of summer starts creeping over the Rockies the fish abandon their hopeless quest for an outlet stream where they can spawn, and head for the deeper part of the lake. They’re still catchable, but it takes a fair bit more work.
Driving over the mountains and through Browning on your way to somewhere else is always a bit sad. Doig Country is some of the most spectacular in all of Montana. Basement rock has been sent skyward by the eons, fracturing into the rugged Rocky Mountain Front that is the spine of Montana. Those mountains loom over the landscape. But no amount of over-the-top scenery can mask the poverty of that biggest town on the Blackfeet Reservation. It makes me wonder if there’s some path to a better place for the people who live there. But I am utterly clueless to suggest an answer.
I know this much about the Rez. When you head north out of Browning toward Duck Lake, once you’ve left the town in your rearview mirror, it becomes clear what this country is best suited for: growing cattle. I’ve been a critic of the livestock industry in my time, but I’m fond of beef on my plate so I tolerate it where I play. Besides, it’s not cattle’s fault we insist on putting them out in places better suited for growing timber, or trout, or gila monsters.
What better use is there for land so harsh of wind and weather that it can’t grow a proper tree?
Grass grows forever out there. Let some cows, or their semi-wild analog, bison, loose on that country. All one needs to do is keep the numbers reasonable, make sure there’s plenty of water, and move the hooved beasts around a bit so you can mimic the disturbance regime grasslands evolved in response to. Do that and you’re good to go.
“Rascal Fair” depicts a time that may not be remembered fondly by many of the present-day inhabitants of Browning. The real-life analogs of Anna and Angus were only able to “settle” the Two Medicine Country because the Blackfeet had been driven off or slaughtered. That doesn’t make the stories created by Doig any less moving or important. But it does place them in context.
The despair of Browning suggests it’s a context still to be reconciled.
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