By Paul Queneau
“I hurryed down the hill, which was about 200 feet high and difficult of access, to gaze on this sublimely grand spectacle …the grandest sight I ever beheld.”
Meriwether Lewis wrote this in his journal after viewing the Great Falls of the Missouri on June 13, 1805. It is arguably the first instance of an acclaimed outdoor writer “hot spotting” a favored location in Montana. It’s since become a time-honored tradition, but those last best places for which our state is so renowned aren’t always what readers want rhapsodized in print.
In June 2013, Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney ran headlong into this hornet’s nest after writing about the wonders of floating the Dearborn River on the Rocky Mountain Front for the newspaper’s Outdoors section. In it, he quoted floater Greg Daly: “It’s still off the grid, but it’s getting more crowded.”
But Chaney’s eloquent and appetizing write-up put this stream that much further “on the grid.” And readers immediately lobbed verbal grenades.
One called and told Chaney, “You never should have written that story about the Dearborn River. Now everyone will know about it and it’ll be ruined.” He recounted the conversation a month later in another landscape profile for the Missoulian about Glacier’s Kintla Lake.
“Sitting on the shore of Glacier National Park’s most remote frontcountry campground,” Chaney wrote, “I sympathized with my reader fuming over the phone. The lake I used to think was lonely enough to haunt now needs reservations to visit.”
Even so, Chaney says he doesn’t regret writing about the Dearborn.
“It’s on the map,” Chaney says. “There were 20 rigs in the fishing access site that we put in at. Obviously somebody had figured it out.”
Chaney feels that publicly accessible locations, which appear on maps, signs, or other forms of legal documentation, are fair game. But he limits himself when it comes to undocumented personal hideaways.
“If it’s somebody’s personal spot that doesn’t have a landmark, that doesn’t have some kind of major public access or opportunity, I think in my writing I owe it to that person not to give away No Name Lake or Hidden Valley,” he says. “I’m perfectly comfortable respecting that.”
Missoula native and University of Montana journalism graduate Nate Schweber now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he freelances for The New York Times. When he travels, though, it’s often with his fly rod in hand. In 2012, he authored “Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places.”
As most Montanans can attest, fishing and hunting honey-holes are among the most closely guarded of all outdoor hot spots. Schweber knew he needed to ply his spotlight carefully. He developed a three-pronged strategy.
First, he wrote only about places that had already been written about in other guidebooks, trying to look at them from new angles. Second, he tried to stay as broad as possible, profiling large stretches, like the entire Gibbon River and Lamar Valley, rather than specific fishing holes. And last, when he had to narrow his focus, he looked for backcountry spots limited by difficult approach.
“One example is the Yellowstone River downstream of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone but upstream from the Black Canyon. The fishing there is kickass and pretty much everybody knows it. But that does not change the fact that it’s hard to get at, with many miles and many hours of hiking down 1,500 feet and then back up 1,500 feet to get there.”
Schweber interviewed many people for his book. The person who told him of the backcountry stretch between the canyons had fished it for 40 years and, having witnessed it decline in popularity, hoped to actually see more people there thanks to the book’s attention.
“He saw sharing with me how good that spot is (would) encourage or even goad people into getting out into some of these far-flung spots, so they’d know what an incredible
one-of-a-kind place it is and be vigilant about standing up for it.”
Therein lies the balancing act for outdoor journalists, especially here in the Montana. Aldo Leopold shed light on the paradox in his conservation masterpiece, “A Sand County Almanac,” writing that “to cherish, we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
Is the written word more likely to destroy a place or help protect it? Lewis’ exaltations about the Great Falls of the Missouri helped place them on Montana’s state seal in 1893 and inspired the city that now bears their name. But in the long run, it did little to stop the construction of dams that have largely erased four of the five cascades to produce hydropower.
Yet Lewis’ words remain the best peek into the grandeur that once existed — and illustrate what can be lost despite such praise. Clearly there is power in reporting the natural wonders of our state, but it is up to the writer to find the delicate line between telling too little and telling too much.
Paul Queneau is a 2002 graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. For 10 years he has worked as an editor for Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula. He is also a freelance writer and photographer with credits in Outdoor Life, Montana Quarterly, and other publications.