Visions of Heaven

By Lenny Wells

The only redeeming quality of August in south Georgia is the boiled peanuts whereas Yellowstone cutthroat trout are one of God’s gifts. Thus every year, in search of a reprieve from the gnats, humidity, and suffocating heat of my homeland, I join my friend Matthew in the mountains of Southwestern Montana for a week of August fishing for cutthroat trout along the rocky streams of paradise. 

Copper-hued with dark spots spread like dim stars over its body, clustering near the tail and that characteristic red slash along the jawline, cutthroats are native to the Yellowstone and Snake River watersheds cutting across the continental divide. Like many of the treasures to be had within Yellowstone country, they are but a remnant of what once was. Originally occupying 17,800 miles of stream in this region, they now are found within a length of only 7,500 miles of flowing water. But, what a 7,500 miles it is. 

Matthew and I normally fish a wide circle from the Eastern reaches of Yellowstone National Park, West through the Paradise Valley, to the other side of Livingston. All, thanks to public land. One year we made our way to the north side of Livingston and turned right onto a road that carried us over rolling pastured hills, composed of ranches, old and new, blessed with views of the distant Crazy mountains in one direction, the Absarokas in the other. It was dry that year and the hillsides were parched golden brown. Now, on our return visit, the land appeared as green as Ireland, for it had been a wet year and the grass was tall. The ranchers were still cutting hay. 

Our destination was the West Boulder River near McLeod. As the road climbed to reach it, , the alpine conifers, aspens, and all that comes with them began to populate the hillside in greater density. We spotted movement to our left and stopped to watch a velvet-antlered, ten-point whitetail trot down a slope to emerge from the trees, fat and happy, into the roadside meadow, where he strutted for all to see. The West Boulder River originates high in the Absaroka Mountains and flows through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness we would hike to reach the stream access. The flow continues on down through the private ranchland over which we had passed and empties into the main Boulder River near McLeod. The sky there is a different kind of blue. More dense and rich with color than can be found at sea level. Even the clouds have the sheen of pearls as they crawl across all that blue. 

About twenty-four miles into that mix of ranchland and wilderness one comes to the West Boulder Trailhead. The trail climbs through the shade of conifers for a mile or so and then the sky opens up to long views. The forest burned in 2006. Life’s habit of rising out of death is on display there: standing skeletons of burned trees, lush-green vegetation where the light now has free reign, new aspen growth, their leaves fluttering on the breeze. Red-shafted flickers glide back and forth between standing dead timber void of branches and green needles. Wildflowers, Indian paintbrush, mint, little purple asters, and sunflowers litter the ground as do old fallen, rotting logs. 

On our first trip in here, Matthew and I stopped to fish at the sturdy footbridge crossing the river. We scrambled down the steep bank into the stream and fished for an hour or so, intending to hike another couple of miles to the West Boulder meadows. As luck would have it that day, a thunderstorm slid over the mountains and was headed our way, so we clambered back up out of the river and hiked back to the car. This time, when we reached the bridge, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we proceeded past the bridge, climbing the switchbacks that led up and over to the meadows. We flushed a ruffed grouse from a thicket of young aspens, sounding for all the world like a whole covey of quail as it rose and peeled off to our left and out across the valley below. A few hundred yards on, we rounded a bend on the hillside and looked out over a broad, green meadow at the bottom of the valley through which wound the West Boulder River, the Absaroka mountains looming around us. From that height, looking down on that scene, it was hard not to simply stare. I was so overcome that I told Matthew, “That’s what heaven looks like to me”.

Down in the meadow, the stream ran slowly with the current barely perceptible from above. The West Boulder River, so aptly named in its more narrow stretches, now settled into the meadow’s lap. The muddy bottom was visible in the translucent water.  Only a few lonely rocks were found where a trout could find shelter. It was a great spot to “sight fish” but unless there was a hatch on, the chances of catching a trout here may be slim. Still, we had walked three miles to get here so we decided to take it all in before casting flies back where the river channel narrowed into a small canyon and the water grew more rocky and rapid. Bright purple thistles and golden sunflowers colored the green, marshy carpet of tufted hairgrass and Kentucky bluegrass in the meadow. 

The tracks of elk, deer, and raccoons stippled the muddy banks of the river. This area is well known for its Grizzly population, so we kept our eyes peeled. Lion Mountain rose at our backs,  its raw rock cliffs ringing the meadow,  full of caves cut into the steep walls by the hand of God. I stared up at them, trying to conjure what manner of men or beasts, if any, may have been brave or desperate enough to scramble over the talus and take shelter in these palisades through the years.

After taking in the meadow, we turned back to the roar of the water in the canyon and the task at hand. Matthew took the first pool and I ventured a few yards further downstream to cast into the seam along the water’s ripple. We hop-scotched each other working our way downstream and then back. We landed few fish that day. Matthew caught a brown trout that came sparkling from the water with garish red spots on its golden-brown body. There were a few cutbows (cutthroat-rainbow hybrids), which I later learned predominate this river, but the lack of further success was no fault of the stream. We had our chances, hooking at least a dozen fish each, but failed to land any true cutthroats. It wasn’t meant to be that day. Still, I wouldn’t trade a day like that for all the world.

After three hours or so, we sat on a rock amid all that wild glory and enjoyed the late lunches we packed before heading back up and around the switchbacks. At the last curve around the mountainside, I paused and looked back for a few seconds at my vision of heaven, beaming with gratitude for the day.  Then we walked on through the old, grown-up burn zone alive with new vegetation, across the bridge, into the conifers, and eventually back to the parking area. 

There was an old cowboy there who made the trip in and back out ahead of us on horseback. The black gelding was now unsaddled and grazing nearby. The cowboy had a grey handlebar mustache through which he greeted us with a smile and a big Ruger pistol strapped to his hip. He told us he’d spooked a bull moose beside the trail on the way in and asked us if we had seen all that bear sign. Hailing from Georgia, where Grizzly bears are not a common occurrence, I replied, “Ummm, no”.

Recognizing our southern accents and getting our backstories, the cowboy replied, “Oh, you’re from Georgia! Yeah, you may not know. Did you see all those old logs torn up along the trail?” 

“Yeah, we saw that”. 

“Well, that’s from bears tearing the rotten logs apart looking for grubs!” 

Grubs. It just goes to show you, life is hard out here in the wilderness of the high country. The apex predator of the continent feeds on grubs. Kind of like a bag of boiled peanuts back home. Not for everybody but to some, maybe they taste pretty good. Grubs must be an appetizer for old Griz’ before the main entrée. The thought made me reach down and place a hand on my can of bear spray. 

I may be just some guy from Georgia out in the mountain wilderness, a stranger here myself, like a lot of other people from every corner of this country. But, that’s ok. I’m learning. In the part of the world I’m from public land seems almost a myth. You hear about it but you don’t see it. I’m glad it’s out there. Tens of millions of acres of it. For you and me. For the whitebark pine, the cowboys, and the bull moose. For the cutthroats, the browns, and cut-bows. For the ruffed grouse, the grizzly, and the grubs. It’s a blessing to know it’s there.

Forty-eight hours later I was back in south Georgia, sitting in the bleachers of a High School football stadium watching my oldest daughter cheer the home team from the sidelines. While my body was in that stadium, my head was still somewhere in the Absarokas. The things we sacrifice for our children. But, I did have a pack of boiled peanuts. Now, there’s something you can’t get in Montana. I cracked the shells in my teeth and relished the salty taste while visions of heaven replayed in my mind.


About the Author
Lenny Wells is a Professor of Horticulture and Extension Pecan Specialist at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus in Tifton, GA. He writes and farms pecans on a little over 100 acres of family farm.