LAUGH­TER RANG OUT

THE WRITER GREW UP IN MON­TANA, WHERE FISHING, HUNT­ING AND HUNGER PER­ME­ATED HIS LIFE

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By SHANN RAY

Climb­ing moun­tains for fish is a spir­i­tual en­deavor for the au­thor, whose par­ents pointed him to­ward a fuller way of life on Mon­tana’s North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion.

At night from the rims above Billings, Mon­tana, stars pat­tern the vault over the Beartooth Range. The Yel­low­stone River roils un­seen in the dark­ness, and the sky is dusted white by the Milky Way, turn­ing a slow wheel. I was lucky to get there early with my fa­ther; at sun­set, a blood red line on the edge of the world parted the hori­zon un­der a gran­ite swath of cloud, the whole sky lit from above, light blue be­com­ing vi­o­let, be­com­ing black.

Then night­fall, and he and I are seated on rim rock, look­ing south to­ward the star fields over the moun­tains. In my mind’s eye I’m a boy again, and in the dark he’s calling me to­ward some­thing I can’t see.

“Go­ing to Syl­van Lake to­mor­row morn­ing,” he says. “You want to come?”

It is a five-mile hike up switch­backs as steep as teeth. I don’t want to make the climb, but my fa­ther per­suades me. We were a fishing fam­ily, as com­fort­able with fly rods as we were with hand­shakes. For years, fishing put food on the ta­ble. This was one of the first times I re­mem­ber be­ing hun­gry for some­thing other than food. I couldn’t put a name to it, but it was fiercer than any phys­i­cal hunger.

Grow­ing up, the sen­sa­tion only strength­ened. I felt it equally in the trailer houses we lived in, on the hard­wood my brother and I flew

over on our way to col­le­giate and pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball, in the rivers we body-floated un­der white Au­gust suns, and atop the moun­tain pas­sages our fa­ther led us through. I felt it on the North­ern Cheyenne (Tsit­sis­tas) reser­va­tion in south­east Mon­tana, where I lived for part of my child­hood, and at the mouth of Par­adise Val­ley just out­side Liv­ingston, Mon­tana, where I went to high school.

We fished and we hunted, and hunger per­me­ated my life.

My fa­ther woke me at 4 a.m. His voice was quiet. “You ready? Time to get up now.”

Bright light burned over the kitchen ta­ble. We poured ce­real into thin white bowls. He’d flirted with al­co­hol, tempted di­vorce. Drank more. Fought in bars. Di­vorced my mother for a Crow (Ap­sáalooke) woman in Plenty Coups south of Billings. Fled the fam­ily. Felt bro­ken by the loss of his sons. Left the Crow woman. Re­mar­ried my mother.

He leaned over his ce­real. Ate his toast. Opened his Bi­ble as if split­ting wood. He read from Proverbs.

There is a spir­i­tual qual­ity to climb­ing moun­tains for fish. From the trail­head at Syl­van to the first in­cline, the hik­ing is easy. From there it’s a grind to the top. We wore day­packs and toted fly rods in dented alu­minum tubes, climb­ing with a light rest­less­ness and hunger inside. I was 14, he was 40.

We rose through ma­ture lodge­pole pine forests, flared at times by stands of aspen, un­til we left trees be­hind and moved through switch­backs carved into the moun­tain wall. We stopped, leaned into the rock and drank wa­ter, ad­mir­ing the beauty be­low, and kept on.

Syl­van Lake is a gem more than 9,000 feet high, hold­ing, un­com­monly, Cal­i­for­nia golden trout. Stocked in 1938, the fish in Syl­van re­main so ge­net­i­cally pure that Mon­tana’s Fish and Game still gath­ers the eggs to stock other lakes. The gran­ite faces of Syl­van Peak as­cend an­other 3,000 feet above the wa­ter.

The gain is so pre­cip­i­tous in the first four miles of climb­ing that I start to hate wilder­ness, de­spite my best in­ten­tions. My fa­ther is pleas­ant the whole way, not to spite me but be­cause he’s al­ways taken de­light in mov­ing steadily into the sky, a thing com­mon to him nearly his whole life in Mon­tana.

A few hours in, we rest again. Far be­low we see East Rose­bud Lake, the Phan­tom Creek drainage and, far off, the hard span of Froze to Death Plateau, a bar­ren­ness cov­ered in snow and ice 11 months of the year, where win­ter winds blow spin­drift at hur­ri­cane speeds.

To­day is a blue-sky day, the sun high and hot. Ar­tic gen­tian blooms min­gle with lichen and tough grasses. Crow Lake re­mains un­seen from here, as does the West Rose­bud val­ley and Mys­tic Lake with its long, dif­fi­cult rock field.

To cut time, my fa­ther moves us off trail to tra­verse the edge-wash of a shale as­cent, where we grab at rock and root and scram­ble on all fours for a few hun­dred yards un­til we top the lip of the bowl. Finally, we stand, star­ing down at the bright blue di­a­dem of wa­ter set in the crater. We find sparse trees and hearty scrub brush in the gran­ite swales of the moun­tain.

Syl­van is po­si­tioned at the apex of the Hell­roar­ing Creek drainage. The de­scent from lip to lake is steep, but within the hour we stand near one an­other set­ting our lines on the air,

schools of gold­ens vis­i­ble be­low the lake’s sur­face in a great clar­ity of wa­ter and light.

To curb all kinds of hunger, my fam­ily hunted the moun­tains and fished the rivers. Both pro­vided sus­te­nance, but fishing was more el­e­gant and re­fined. Fishing was ro­mance slicked with wa­ter. A fish felt like quick­sil­ver, cold and elec­tric.

Hunt­ing was vis­ceral and vi­o­lent. We cleaned an­i­mals in the field, al­ways for food but also for tro­phy. We split the an­i­mal from pelvic crown to neck­line and peeled the hide from the body hot. We re­moved the quar­ters and the ed­i­bles, us­ing the rec­tan­gu­lar bone saw as needed. We re­moved the head from the spine. If the an­i­mal was large enough, we kept the cape for taxi­dermy. Our hands were steeped in blood.

Fishing could be dan­ger­ous, but rarely so. The Yel­low­stone tried to kill me twice, but

I’m sure the death would have been de­clared hu­man er­ror.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, our hunt­ing dog, a high-strung Brit­tany, was swept into rapids. Flail­ing, he dis­ap­peared a mile down­stream but even­tu­ally came back, his tail be­tween his legs.

Fishing meant walk­ing the river in jeans and ten­nis shoes, mov­ing out shirt­less into the pool­ing wa­ter be­low rock. Lean­ing back into the flow, my fa­ther and I made casts that felt like per­fec­tion in a world of im­per­fect things.

Peo­ple of­ten ask me what it was like liv­ing on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion. “Scary in the be­gin­ning,” I say, “but good in the end. I made great friends. They taught me a lot about courage.”

With an alchemy of bold­ness, fear, grit and loy­alty, they over­came heartache, both his­tor­i­cal and present. I cher­ished the broth­er­hood they of­fered.

Trace my fam­ily a gen­er­a­tion or two, and you’ll find al­co­hol in ex­cess, bar fight­ing, jail time and poverty. You’ll also find love and an affin­ity for wilder­ness. Much of that love came from the North­ern Cheyenne peo­ple, who showed us more grace than we de­served.

Be­fore I was born, my fa­ther ran with Cleve­land High­walker, a tal­ented Cheyenne bas­ket­ball player who was revered through­out Mon­tana. He and my dad won a num­ber of tour­na­ments in their late 20s.

Cleve­land’s grand­mother spoke only Cheyenne and lived alone, far from any­one. My fa­ther vis­ited her once deep in the snow­bound hills with Cleve­land. He brought two deer, a go­pher and a mag­pie, in trade for the moc­casins she made for him and my mother. Af­ter she’d dried the skins, she chewed the leather to soften it, then sewed pre­cise stitches and set her im­mac­u­late bead­ing into the sur­face. The friend­ship be­tween Cleve­land and my dad was un­com­mon. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a stel­lar ath­lete, Cleve­land was loyal and gen­er­ous. He had a good job. He didn’t drink. But be­fore he turned 30, he com­mit­ted sui­cide. The small church funeral was filled to over­flow­ing. Peo­ple wit­nessed from the out­side too, look­ing in through the win­dows to where the Cheyenne women wailed and pulled their hair, and the men wept and beat their chests.

My dad is still haunted by the loss. He keeps those moc­casins like a tal­is­man, a touch­stone. He hopes for the chance to see Cleve­land again.

What do we do with our most in­sa­tiable hungers? When my brother and I were young, our fa­ther was a teacher with a small salary. For ex­tra money, he taught fly-fishing dur­ing the sum­mer at Mon­tana State Univer­sity. The class spread out in a long line on the edge of a close­cut field above the cam­pus. Cast­ing ver­ti­cally to­ward sun­set, gold light set the lines afire.

I loved the rhythms. The ac­cor­dion-like mo­tion through the ch­est, cast-hand from 10 to 2, draw-hand like a bel­lows mov­ing line be­low, the cast length­ened to a par­a­bola that re­leased and fell soft as a wish flower on open grass. The days were robin’s egg blue, the high plateau of the col­lege held in a sun-gold crown of moun­tains on a full ra­dius around us.

We fished the Yel­low­stone, Gal­latin, Jef­fer­son and Madi­son, but we loved the East Gal­latin above all rivers. To get there we walked through a farmer’s field, avoided a black bull, leapt a low barbed-wire fence and made our way to a set of rif­fles cas­cad­ing among cot­ton­woods, open­ing on wa­ter where fish sparked to the fly.

We were ser­vants of the body, wa­ter and light. We cleaned our fish on the bank. Home­ward, fish in the creel, the fly rods rat­tled in the truck bed.

In the even­ing light of the trailer, we made sim­ple meals: deer or elk steak, rain­bow, browns or cut­throat shaken in a bag of flour with salt and pep­per, fried in a cast iron skil­let with sticks of but­ter that made the meat glis­ten as the coat came up. We ate qui­etly and well, smil­ing over the day’s catch. Af­ter­ward we re­called the river, where we flew Para­chute Adams or Royal Wulffs, or wooly bug­gers. The fly rod bowed, the line at­tached at a fierce an­gle to the wa­ter; the fish flashed be­low the sur­face like light­ning. The fight was a gift of heaven, and my fa­ther’s bold laugh­ter rang off the canyon walls.

My mother and fa­ther loved and fought and lost each other and re­turned to each other. They made moun­tains and wa­ter their places of de­vo­tion. They in­flu­enced me to­ward a fuller way of life. Like an in­ti­mate dance, they helped me move from me­chan­i­cal func­tion­al­ity to some­thing more fluid.

As a young man, fly-fishing was a cru­cial part of this ex­pres­sion — the hunger for the per­fect cast a de­sire even more in­stinc­tive than the catch. In­creas­ingly ev­i­dent in the fast pace of ev­ery­day liv­ing is the fact that beauty is too of­ten miss­ing from our lives. When I fish, I search for an echo of the grace­ful­ness we see in wa­ter. I view wilder­ness not as some­thing to fight against or de­feat, not as a mas­cu­line ad­ver­sary but some­thing wor­thy of re­spect, in­fi­nite af­fec­tion and our deep­est lis­ten­ing.

As my fa­ther has aged, he has grown more at­tuned to wilder­ness and more ten­der with his sons. I can see the peace it has brought in his eyes.

I re­flect on the dis­tance be­tween fa­thers and sons, the phys­i­cal­ity and the af­fec­tion. Wa­ter qui­ets the soul but never quite over­comes the empti­ness.

That day on Syl­van Lake my fa­ther and I touched moun­tains, wa­ter and sky. But we caught no fish. Life hum­bles us, just as love calls us to this place.

A man who’d come up ear­lier gave us a few of his gold­ens be­fore he as­cended and topped the ridge and was gone. To­ward late af­ter­noon, my dad and I sat to­gether, eat­ing over a small fire. Broth­er­hood and kind­ness ap­peared in the wilder­ness, and we were happy to re­ceive the food. What losses change the arc of a life? I be­lieve in the gen­eros­ity of Cleve­land High­walker, my mother, fa­ther and other fam­ily mem­bers, and of the wilder­ness — press­ing into my hand like the taut body of a cut­throat I slip on the stringer and clean be­side the wa­ter at day’s end.

Yearn­ing for a full life keeps us vi­tal, strikes the soul, makes fire, keeps us search­ing. Even now when I look to the night sky, I re­call a thou­sand nights with my fa­ther. The star fields over these moun­tains lead me home.

Syl­van Lake.

Fishing was ro­mance slicked with wa­ter, more el­e­gant than the hunt­ing the fam­ily did.

Hunt­ing, fishing and bas­ket­ball de­fined Shann Ray Ferch (play­ing for Mon­tana State Univer­sity), his brother and fa­ther, who coached high school bas­ket­ball on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion.

The writer with a nice brook trout taken from a se­cret moun­tain lake. A long-ago hike for golden trout re­mains fresh in Ray’s mem­ory.

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