Best Wild Places: Exploring the Yaak (Day 1)

On the sixth and last stop of our Best Wild Places tour, Tom Reed, of Trout Unlimited, spent a few … Continued

On the sixth and last stop of our Best Wild Places tour, Tom Reed, of Trout Unlimited, spent a few days fishing and hunting in the Yaak, situated in Northwest Montana. Here is Reed’s report from day one.

The Yaak. Never, “the Yaak Valley,” or even, “Yaak, Montana.” Always just, “the Yaak.” In Montana, it goes like this: “You ever been up to the Yaak?”

“No, but I hear they’ve got some really good whitetail hunting. Always been meaning to go.”

I’d been wanting to go to the Yaak ever since I started reading the works of novelist and essayist Rick Bass. He wrote of hemlock and larch, of places where ferns and huckleberry grew thick, where three species of grouse burst from darkened coverts, and big buck whitetails flagged white and were gone into the deep woods before your gun could come to your shoulder. Bass’s stories made me think of knee-high lace-ups and red-and-black checked wool jackets, of L.C. Smith side-by-sides and iron-sighted lever rifles. Places more like northern Wisconsin or New Hampshire than Montana.

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Now Ike and Echo, my two big male setters and I were here, in the thick of it. Literally. It was our first day and while I waited for the arrival of photographer Kevin Cooley, I decided to take the dogs out for a spin up an old logging road behind the cabin where I was staying. It had been eight long hours on the road to get here–all in my home state of Montana–and the dogs were wound tight from all that kennel and road time. I was anxious as well because after half a decade of living in Montana, I was finally in the extreme northwestern corner of it, in a place that is fabled among Montana sportsmen. Today, and for the next several days, we would fish and hunt the Yaak and get to know her, just a little bit. Here, within a holler of British Columbia, perhaps we’d catch a rare redband trout, or shoot a spruce or blue grouse. Perhaps we’d discover the allure of the Yaak and get to know what Bass wrote about. Call it Yaak Magic.

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There was an old logging road behind the cabins and immediately I was on public land of the Kootenai National Forest. I followed the dogs through dense vegetation, listening to the tinkle of their bells as they burst out into the soggy forest–it had been raining ever since I drove into the Yaak–and cradled my shotgun in hopes of a point, and a shot.

I was staying with outfitters Tim and Joanne Linehan, good friends who came to the Yaak 20 years ago and never left. Tim came first, those many years ago, to guide fishermen for a summer. He’d never been there, but it immediately felt like home.

“It reminded me of New Hampshire, you know what I mean, pal?” Tim is a quiet, honest man who is passionate about hunting and fishing and showing his clients a good time. Within a few weeks, he knew he’d never leave. He ended up starting the business and now the Yaak is in his blood.

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So much so, in fact, that Linehan is on the front end of an effort to keep the Yaak and her mountains just the way they are, and perhaps make them even better.

Two decades ago, the timber industry was going strong in the valley, cutting larch and hemlock and spruce, and bringing jobs to towns of Libby and Troy. Getting out the board-feet. But then times changed. People with divergent interests fought each other in courtrooms and barrooms. Then Montana’s timber industry fell on hard times and the market fell apart and the jobs went away. When that happened, Linehan and a few others decided to get together and plot out a plan for the Yaak’s future. What if, they wondered, we all worked together? If we diversified? What if sportsmen got together with the few remaining loggers who were around and tried to do something as partners rather than adversaries? Don’t we all live here for the same reasons–the fishing and hunting and fresh air and Montana lifestyle?

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Thus was born a partnership that was called the Three Rivers Challenge: a coalition of sportsmen and conservationists and loggers and motorized recreationists, all working together for a shared future on a shared forest. Ninety-seven percent of the ground in the Yaak is public land, forests that Linehan depends upon for game and fish, and that loggers depend upon for a reliable supply of timber. The concept was this: set aside some of the Yaak as wilderness under the Wilderness Act. Set aside some of the Yaak as a National Recreation Area where motorized users–ATV enthusiasts and snowmachiners–would be welcomed, where loop trails could be built and riders ride. Designate some of the forest for sustainable, long-term logging where companies could harvest some trees under a tool known as stewardship logging. This kind of logging would mean that the money could come right back to the woods instead of going to Washington, D.C. In the forest, the money could be put to use on the ground to repair places in the forest where past practices had left hillsides shedding sediment into bull trout streams, where culverts blocked fish migration, where road densities harmed elk hunting success.

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We’ve got far more in common than we have differences, said the folks in the Yaak and they brought their plan to Senator Jon Tester, a freshman Democrat in D.C. Tester, a practical, likable man with a distinctive flat-top haircut, and the only active farmer in the U.S. Senate, saw something practical in the proposal. Moreover, there was a common thread between the work of the folks of the Yaak and that of two other Montana groups. Indeed, three proposals with the same theme simultaneously came across his desk in his first months in office: people working together.

“I saw people in Montana working together and that’s exactly why I came to Washington in the first place: to work together and get something done,” said Tester.

In July of 2009, Tester introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a proposed bill that would mandate 100,000 acres of stewardship logging on three national forests, designate more than 300,000 acres of motorized national recreation areas, and add some 670,000 acres of wilderness for the state of Montana. Backed by groups such as Trout Unlimited, and thousands of working Montanans, the bill covers much of western Montana and includes lands of the Kootenai, Lolo, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests. The Yaak is a part of the bill.

Over the next few days, we’re going to explore what the Yaak is all about, and learn more its magic.

In the two hours the dogs and I spent up the overgrown road, we didn’t see any grouse, but we walked right up on a nice whitetail buck, his antlers dark and thick. He watched us and then trotted off. Bow season was open, but apparently the buck knew a bird dog man from a camo-clad archer and he waved his tail lazily and faded into the sodden underbrush.