Montana, 1973: An excerpt from Cassandra Kircher’s Far Flung

Foreword Reviews calls Cassandra Kircher’s Far Flung—the latest title in WVU Press’s series In Place—a set of “intimate and moving essays on nature, family, and adventures in the wild,” noting that “Kircher, who was the first woman to patrol the remote, isolated backcountry of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, writes about how love for the earth’s wild places is intimately tied up with who we are.” We’re pleased to share an excerpt from this perfect summer read, and encourage you to see the author on tour this July and August.

I’m eighteen. My dad, my mom, my brothers, and I are on vacation driving across Nebraska and Wyoming in our Ford LTD before making a right-hand turn at Colter Bay and heading up to Glacier National Park. Behind the Ford, we’re pulling a wooden pop-up camper, one that is hand built and swerves in the wake of our exhaust like a water-skier. My father has picked it up from the want ads.

My father has picked up a lot of new equipment for this trip: five down sleeping bags, five foam air mattresses, five rectangular backpacks, and a whole fleet of plastic containers recommended—according to my father—by camping experts: a tube for peanut butter, another for mayonnaise, a carton molded to nest half a dozen medium-sized eggs. He buys everything one afternoon from The Backwoods, the only mountaineering store in Omaha. He also purchases an expedition tent in which my youngest brother and I will sleep. The tent features a snow tunnel and a little half-moon panel that can be zipped out of the floor in case you want to light a stove indoors and brew a cup of tea during a blizzard.

“I think,” my brother says with a maturity way beyond his twelve years, “that Dad might be feeling his midlife.”

I’m not sure about anyone else, but my father seems to be thinking of this vacation as our family’s own kind of manifest destiny, our great northern adventure and a step above the Teton National Park area where we have camped for several years. At a gas station south of Flathead Lake, he picks up a copy of Night of the Grizzlies for all of us to share during our next two weeks of relaxation. He’d heard of the book back in Omaha, and even though he knows it focuses on two bears that maul two different park visitors in two different areas of Glacier National Park on the same night, he buys it, because he thinks somehow it will help familiarize us with Glacier’s topography and emergency procedures—not to mention the park’s flora and, especially, its fauna.

After we arrive, the three of us kids register complaints, as if that’s our job: “The tent is too small,” we say. “The air is too cold.” “The sky is too dark.” My parents don’t respond—just get quiet in a way that’s typical. The bottom line is we really don’t have much to complain about. It’s true that our fluffy sleeping bags aren’t rated for Glacier National Park temperatures. It’s also true that the trout just aren’t biting. But a bigger truth is probably that we are suffering from a case of growing older that keeps us from enjoying a camping trip like this one this particular year. In the past, fly fishing was our number-one activity, and all three of us were always ready to go out as a group and cast by our father’s side like shadows. This year he’s lucky to have one of us following along for a few minutes. My youngest brother, in what I guess is a show of solidarity with his teenage siblings, even refuses to wear his waders.

Most mornings my father fishes alone, coming back for lunch empty-handed and frustrated. Most afternoons we hike Glacier’s trails. By day two when we surprise a grizzly eating huckleberries beside Hidden Lake, all five of us have read through chapter four of the Night of the Grizzlies, and my father finally decides to purchase the bells we have seen other hikers wearing. These little backpacking gems warn bears you are present, sort of like a doorbell, but instead of being frugal, my father overbuys and ties several bells to each of our fanny packs so we look and sound like Santa’s reindeer, or a small, moving cathedral.

After dinner most evenings, we walk over to the amphitheater and listen to the free campfire programs offered by the park service. It’s my father who makes us attend these productions. I’m not sure about my brothers, but I resent sitting on a log looking at slides of tundra and granite when most kids my age are attending rock concerts somewhere. On our fourth night at the amphitheater, I know we’re in trouble with a program called something as boring as “Animal Friends of Glacier Park.” The ranger in charge—a real go-getter—talks about how he’s been fishing a place called Goat Lake on his days off. It’s hard hiking to get there, he says, but worth every uphill step. He even recommends using a fly called, for God’s sake, the Yellow Humpy, and he shows us a couple slides of other flies he has wasted valuable time tying. Not two minutes into the program, I notice my father taking notes in the margins of our park map.

When we return to the campsite, my father radiates enthusiasm. “Goat Lake, anyone?” he asks in a happy voice, spreading the map out on the picnic table. In the glow of our Coleman lantern, I follow his index finger over masses of topographical lines up to a tiny blue oval.

“Dad,” I say after a few minutes of studying the situation, “Goat Lake is eight miles into the backcountry—it’s in Canada.”

“It’s nothing but a personal theory,” my father says, “but I think fishing another country’s waters will bring us luck.”

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