The friendly bearded man stationed along the rutted dirt road informed my father-in-law and me that the route ahead was closed due to firefighting activity. After we assured him that we would drive straight through the closed section on our way to the lower river, he glanced at our fly rods and let us pass with a smile. Our Toyota RAV4 rumbled deeper into the haze.
Farther on, fire crews waved us down and told us to fish as we pleased but that we might not be allowed to drive back up the road on our return trip. A few miles later, we waded into the stream as the world burned in the near distance, smoke clogging the valley and filling our nostrils. The jarring dichotomy between the life-nurturing possibilities of rushing water and the dark realities of scorched mountains gave the morning an eerie magic.
Flames and uncertainty had long ago punctured the fragile armor of summer, but it was that Labor Day weekend when the region’s scattered wildfires seemed to coalesce into a unified front, with new blazes erupting and existing ones doubling in size. Suddenly, Northwest Montana’s skies turned into an opaque canopy of hazardous smog. Evacuations were ordered and multiple shelters were established.
But my father-in-law and I, propelled by a combination of blissful naivety and obsessive concentration on the task at hand, fished that entire Saturday without fully grasping the severity of the natural disaster unfolding around us. The next morning, however, as I edited fire story updates on the Beacon’s website, the big picture came into focus. As with any event that displaces people and animals, destroys homes and landscapes, and sows widespread unrest, it was both frightening and heartbreaking, casting a pall over the normally festive holiday weekend.
August and September in the U.S. have been defined by nature’s fury. From hurricanes in the south and east to wildfires in the west and north, tales of tragedy and loss have dominated news cycles. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, suffered its strongest earthquake in a century. At times, the relentless destruction has felt surreal, with photos and videos providing an endless reel of human powerlessness in the face of inexorable natural forces.
Outdoor pursuits like fishing can be a temporary escape from the world’s troubles, a clear-headed break from the disturbing images on TV and the dreary dinner conversations. Of course, I had the luxury of only figuratively running from them, unlike the evacuees who were literally fleeing.
When I catch myself complaining about smoke restricting my daily routine, I remember my fellow Montanans whose lives have been completely upended. Perspective, if you allow it, anchors your equilibrium; to weigh your situation’s relative shakiness against others’ dire instability is to recalibrate your own sense of balance. Smoke is a nuisance and potential health hazard for many of us. But for others, it’s a menacing threat to their homes and livelihoods, to their very being. It behooves us to keep that in mind.
Wildfires shape the land, and in turn the land shapes us as Montanans. Next year, when I return to the same river, the terrain will look different. It will bear the scars of a harsh fire season. Hopefully, the air will be free of smoke, and we will all be able to breathe easy.