By Lenny Ackerman
Camping with Brooke
Recently I started watching an excellent television series called “1883”. Set in Montana during frontier days, the show called to mind a trip I took almost 40 years ago with my youngest daughter, Brooke, then 13 years old. It was summer of 1985. We ventured out west to Choteau, Montana, for a stay at Circle 8 Ranch, a Nature Conservancy property at the entrance to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Brooke, the youngest of my children, was easy to coax into a 10-day camping trek on horseback, with a group of strangers who, like me, were looking for adventure. She was as dauntless at 13 as she is now in her 50s. We were a great father-daughter team for this type of excursion. My late wife, Judie, and my oldest daughter, Kara, would have nothing to do with such a trip. Their outdoor adventure during that time would be a stay at the Westbury Hotel in New York City with shopping outings on Madison Avenue. I had learned of the Montana trip through my board membership at the Nature Conservancy in East Hampton, New York. At the time, I knew little of that part of the country, but the trip seemed like a terrific, once in a lifetime opportunity for us to learn about it.
The flight out to Great Falls, Montana was uneventful. We were met at the airport by a Circle 8 Ranch van for the threehour ride to Choteau. During the drive, we chatted with the other passengers who were some of our camping companions to be: an older couple in their 80s from California, retired but still active outdoorspeople, and a young family with two children—the father was an investment banker and fly fisherman. There would be a total of in our group, a mixture of city folk, suburbanites and country dwellers, all with one thing in common: the desire to experience and be tested by nature and the elements in some of the most beautiful country in America.
Orientation began almost immediately on arrival at the ranch because we were setting out on horseback the next morning. The planned trek was five days out and five days back through the magnificent Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. We would pitch tents at day’s end and cook our meals by Bunsen burner. One of the cowboy guides advised us not to unpack all our luggage, as there was only room for the bare necessities. Brooke and I went through our suitcase and left behind most of our clothes, keeping only underwear, socks, jeans, shirts, rain gear and dop kits. Pack horses and mules were already loaded onto the trailers for the ride to the entrance to the reserve. They would carry the tents, food, medical kits and cooking utensils.
In the morning, we had a quick breakfast and met up with our group and the guides, then were transported to where the horses were waiting for us, ready to go. Once everyone was settled into their saddles, we ventured off into the wild. We had no phones since cell phones didn’t exist then, and though we were as prepared as we could be with rations and supplies, we were, nevertheless, truly alone in the ever-deepening wilderness. The cowboy guides all carried revolvers and rifles to ward off predators and grizzly bears. There was no venturing off alone, even to the “latrines” off the campsite. This was no casual walk in the woods, but a total immersion experience in nature.
After the first day on horseback, I was unable to stand up. That evening I took a “bath” in bengay, which only helped a bit. Brooke was a trooper on her horse, Cody, who was excitable but steady on the tough trails up and down the mountains. She only cried once, and it was during a hailstorm that tested all the adults as well. After a few nights of camping, we became accustomed to the routine but when the cowboy guides asked if we wanted to spend a couple of nights in one place to relax from the riding we ALL said yes.
Despite the hail we encountered, the July weather in Montana had been very dry. The cowboy guides constantly reminded us about the risk of wildfires. The cloudless skies ensured our portable solar powered sun showers provided plenty of warm water when it was time to clean up. Most days the weather was clear with views for miles. The majesty of the mountain range along the Continental Divide is something I will never forget. We trekked in areas of such magnificent flora and fauna it was as if we were passing through an impressionist painting. I brought a fly rod along and at our campsites, always near a stream, Brooke and I would cast into the crystal-clear mountain water for trout. There were a few nibbles, then caught and released. Fishing in that idyllic environment instilled in me the sense of joy I feel every time I engage with the sport, no matter where I am casting my line.
Living apart from the civilized world for that brief time left lifelong impressions. Brooke and I strengthened our father-daughter bond, and for Brooke it was also a maturing experience. Her love of the outdoors that she always had, having grown up in East Hampton, deepened, as did her respect for nature. These days Brooke and I continue to share active, outdoors experiences, most often in Maine at my fishing camp, where she visits regularly with her own young family. Now we impart our love of nature to the next generation. For me, the trip to Montana was the beginning of what became my passion for fly fishing throughout the world, as well as for simple walks in the woods, always in search of fresh water and wild fish.