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Matt Dickerson: Glacier National Park Diaries 2 — Middlebury meets Montana

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Posted on June 29, 2017 |
By Matt Dickerson



Matt Dickerson col 5878.jpg
THE GLACIER NATIONAL Park visitor bushwhacked through bushes and alders to the Flathead River to land a 15-inch cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson

Glacier National Park is a big beautiful place. At roughly the size of Rhode Island, it is one of the largest national parks in the United States. The world, by contrast, is small.

At the end of my first week as artist-in-residence, I gave a public presentation. At the end, a bearded man in a ranger uniform introduced himself as John. “I grew up in Middlebury,” he said. “I used to read your columns.” I was delighted to meet somebody from back home (even if he was only being polite in claiming to have read my columns.) And his next words were pure music: “Want to go fishing with me while you’re here?”

It took a week and a half to come together, but at noon on Sunday I met Ranger John Ceballos for an afternoon and evening of fishing and exploring. By then I had been in the park almost three weeks. It had been a fascinating experience, with time to sit, write, learn and be attentive. What I had done little of, however, was fishing for the native cutthroat trout I had come in part to write about. Snow still buried the high backcountry and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road hadn’t even opened. The major creeks were flooded and unfishable with silty water from melting snow. Hiking distances to lakes with good fishing, and being alone in bear country, were additional limitations. Mostly, though, I was just focusing on writing and getting a sense of place.

So my arms were itching to cast a fly for native west slope cutthroat. We loaded our gear into his Subaru, threw a canoe on the roof, and took off northward out of the park into the Flathead National Forest along the North Fork of the Flathead River, the dividing line between park and forest. Our plans were fluid. John had explored a lot of trout water in his four years as ranger, but was always interested in exploring new waters. We both wanted to start by wading the North Fork (which was finally coming down, though there was still plenty of snow left in the mountains to melt in the weeks to come), and end in a canoe on Bowman Lake.

Along the drive we talked about Middlebury, people he went to high school with at MUHS whom we both knew, and his early experiences fishing in Vermont, which were for pike in Otter Creek. (John took up fly-fishing for trout when he moved west.) We also talked about his enjoyment of being a park ranger in a dramatically beautifully place. His job involves a lot of educating and interacting with the public, and the delight of sharing what he loves with a curious and engaged audience — often younger people learning about important ecological concepts. We talked about stupid things park visitors occasionally do, often involving bears, as well as interesting work being done here to protect native species like cutthroat and bull trout, which are imperiled from climate change, invasive species and habitat loss. It is important collaborative research and work that is possible largely because it is a national park.

We also spoke about how the entire annual budget for a million-acre national park with hundreds of employees is only $12 million. John put that into context: It is less than what many good receivers in the NFL makes per year. So a lot of important conservation and research projects are underfunded.

We arrived at a creek mouth on the west shore of the North Fork — the national forest side — where John had fished in the past. The view looking downstream was stunning, across an emerald green river and wide valley toward the skyline of Glacier’s famous northern peaks, splotched with snow. The sky was blue and cloudless. A few kayaks and inflatable rafts drifted past us, and a car or two wandered along the dirt road as folks stepped out by the river to take pictures. Overall, though, it was quiet, remote and beautiful.

And no fish were biting. So after an hour and a half, we packed up and drove downriver to the village of Polebridge, along a poorly marked dirt road over an old bridge, and back into Glacier National Park. Just above the bridge, Bowman Creek flows into the Flathead. Scouting it out, we decided to try the upstream side of creek confluence. This required some adventurous bushwhacking. I sent John first in case we ran into bears hiding in the bushes we whacked. 

This was the least scenic place we fished. Our backs were to the mountains, and bushes and alders blocked our view. However, an enticing gravel bar stuck out above the water where Bowman flows into the Flathead, and behind was a deep pool of calm water, with current flowing down both sides. We fished, waded, and bushwhacked our way down the Flathead to reach this gravel bar, and there I proceeded to land a half dozen cutthroat trout plus a mountain whitefish. The second-to-last cutthroat was the fattest: a 15-inch fish that rose from the bottom of the pool to slam a caddis imitation.

We finally pulled ourselves away from the hole, scrambled back through the bushes and alders, and drove seven more miles up a bumpy gravel road to Bowman Lake. We spent the last two and a half hours of daylight in one of the most scenic places in the park. Water, with a tint of glacial green, at moments as calm as glass, reflected the famous spires and jagged peaks of the park’s northern portion. Thrushes sang to us from the woods.

The lake is several miles long, and we never got out of sight of the western end where Bowman Creek flows out. For much of the evening a lot of small cutthroat rose for mayflies that were falling to the surface to lay eggs. Unfortunately, we saw very few big cutthroat rise, and those that did were sporadic and spread far apart. We landed no fish, but it didn’t matter. We had already caught fish for the day, and both of us thought of the excursion as a sunset canoe trip in a beautiful lake watching the alpenglow on distant snow-covered pinnacles that rose like crow’s beaks pecking the sky. We just happened to have fly rods with us, and we cast them from time to time. 

By the time I got back to my cabin it was already midnight. I had come a long way to meet somebody from Vermont with the same passions for beauty, fly-fishing and education. In the midst of many wonderful days and stunning beauty, it was one of the very best.

NATIVE TROUT RISE from the bottom of a deep pool of water to feed in the waters of a national park in Montana.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson

Editor's note: Click here to see the first entry in Matt Dickerson's notebook from Glacier National Park.

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