Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Skwala Skwala

I knew prior to moving to Montana from Florida that winters were going to be quite an adjustment...


But Jesus Tapdancing Christ

They just go on, and on, and on

Every time you think maybe it's over and beginning to warm up, it dumps more snow or just gets bitterly cold again. Friends and family back home begin sending you pictures of sunny 80 something degree weather. Meanwhile it still resembles Hoth in the backyard.

By March everyone's chomping at the bit to get out and fly fish. The sun is finally starting to show itself again, and it shouldn't be long before the first bugs on the year start showing up.


Skwalas.

In all honesty it's sort of an over-hyped hatch. Everybody and their brother is out there trying to catch the Skwala hatch. I don't think it's because it's some stellar hatch, I think it's because it marks the beginning of a new season, and it's a perfect excuse to get outside.

But the Skwala hatch can be a bit of a tease. My first winter in Montana lasted approximately an eon and then, come late March, the sun came out and along with it, the Skwalas. I was overjoyed. It was warm (in the 40's but comparatively still warm), bugs were out, and the fish were biting.


I'd done it. I'd survived my first winter outside of Florida and it was gonna be smooth sailing from here. Warm days and lots of fishing with summer right around the corner, right?

Wrong.

With warm weather comes snow melt, and with snow melt comes run off. The rivers swell and get muddy and the fishing pretty much sucks. It just so happened that my first experience with run off was a record breaking quarter century flood that lasted until late June.

So although the Skwala hatch was enjoyable, it really was nothing more than a brief tease before everything was put on pause again for another 2 months. With that said, however, I don't think I'd be able to keep my sanity without the Skwalas.



You get a brief window to get out and get that fix and with any luck, it'll be enough to hold you over till summer.


As with any fishing, I didn't get to do as much of it as I obviously wanted during the Skwala hatch. I currently manage a fishing/marine department in a retail store and if you aren't aware, retail hours are the actual Devil. On the odd days off, weather typically sucked. And if I had a real weekend off, there was no way in the world you could get me out on the water with everyone else in Missoula. Like I said, everyone's chomping at the bit to just get outside and that usually means 14000 boats all floating the same stretch of water.

But I feel lucky. I've now made it through not only one, but two Montana winters. The fishing is actually starting to really take off as I write this, and I've got big news to announce soon.


There's a lot more fishing on the horizon. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Summer Storms

Terrifyingly beautiful and violently calm. 

The old boat launch was empty. Abandoned, practically. Mildewed picnic tables and a sanded-over concrete boat ramp showed obvious signs of neglect. Not unwarranted neglect, mind you. Yellow caution tape haphazardly strewn between two posts served as a warning to keep visitors off of the dock beyond. With large sections missing, posts leaning, and splintered slats half peeled away, the wooden structure had obviously seen better days.

But the coffee black waters of the Saint Johns felt good, and the short swim to the only intact section of dock proved relaxing after a hot summer day in the sun. With and no ladder for help, it took some effort to climb onto the broken dock from below. Effort well rewarded, however, as the view of the massive river opened up to the north. The company of a close friend alongside was more than welcomed, and a relatively cool, slightly sweating beer still tasted good on a muggy evening.

One of the many nice things about having close friends is the ability to just enjoy each other's company. Sure there's plenty to be said, but there's a time and place. Often simply sitting in relative silence is just as enjoyable as deep conversation. And so the evening was spent less in conversation, and more in staring out across the calm waters while slowly sipping lukewarm beer.

It wasn't really the water that was being stared at, however. It wasn't a pretty sunset, or passing boats. Nor was it even an attempt to soak up the final few hours of sunshine. The sunshine was long gone.

In the distance to the North slowly moved a massive storm. Your typical Floridian summer afternoon storm, but are they ever really typical? Though they're practically a daily guarantee, each remains different than the next. Every day, around mid morning, you can watch as a tiny puff ball of a cloud begins to build as it lazily moves across the sky. By lunchtime the puff ball has become an actual rain shower, and by the afternoon, a full fledged thunderstorm.

This storm was no different. In fact, it hadn't been long since it had moved over this abandoned boat launch. Gone was the sweltering sunshine. Gone was the gentle lapping of waves against the shore from a hot summer breeze. Gone was the quiet clanking of the nearby sailboats' rigging as they slowly rocked in the water. And gone was the deafening buzz of cicadas in the trees.

Instead the waters ahead lay mirror flat as the still, humid air slowly settled in now that the breeze was gone. From the dark woods on shore came a gentle white noise from thousands of raindrops as they fell from the Spanish moss draped Live Oaks, signaling that the storm had passed through. And in the distance came the occasional flash of lightning, reflected off the river, followed by a low, trembling report. The storm rumbled steadily away to the north like a giant, dark purple/blue wall, with occasional lightning flashes from within outlining its growing, irregular shape. To the West, the sun was blotted out by the anvil-like shear which cast a shadow on the old boat launch. And to the South, other afternoon storms shined brightly as their white and orange shapes quietly approached in the evening daylight.

And so the evening was spent sitting on that broken dock, watching a storm slowly roll away. Ironically, the entire reason this dock sat half destroyed and abandoned was because of a storm. And it's strange to think something so powerful and violent can set a scene so peaceful and calm as the one this particular evening.

What is it about a storm?


Much like staring into a fire, there's no accurate way to explain what it's like to watch a thunderstorm. No words can describe the slight flutter of nervous excitement as the all-too-familiar buzz of the emergency broadcast system blares through the radio mid-song, or flashes across the bottom of the TV screen. Nor can they describe the startled flinch that's received when a lighting strike comes a little too close. Or that feeling when a strong, cold gust of wind pierces through the humid air of a summer afternoon, signaling the approaching weather.

Storms are something terrible to be in, yet a joy to watch from a distance. There's no controlling them, and perhaps its their raw power and fury that makes them awe inspiring.

One thing's for sure; there are few things in this world as humbling yet exciting as a summer storm.

They're terrifying, beautiful, violent, and calm. All at the same time.





Friday, March 1, 2019

From Beach Bum to Mountain Man

It had been a good day, all things considered. The tourist season was just beginning to take off again and I'd happily spent my morning taking tourists kayaking in Salt Run off of Saint Augustine Beach. With the warmer weather already here, I was looking forward to a nice long season of guiding. 
 

Things had changed a little bit from my time living in Casa De Pantelones. I still hung out with all my usual friends, but as crazy as it sounds (really crazy actually), now that I simply lived on the other side of A1A with no regular beach access, I hardly spent time on the actual beach. If anything, I'd walk down to the neighborhood pool and relax there. So yes, I lived within 600 yards of the ocean, but no, I rarely wandered across the highway, down several blocks, and then over the sand dunes to the water. When you're that big of a bum, you can't be bothered. 

We were living in a gated community just off A1A and given that it was gated, we were the youngest residents in the neighborhood by about an eon. There were a few decent neighbors, but absolutely no shortage of nosy ancients who had nothing better to do than watch our every move and write HOA about the slightest infractions. Nastygram letters never ceased to arrive in the mail, and we even had one neighbor who went so far as to dig through our recycle, discover we were putting pizza boxes in said recycle bin, and write us a letter explaining how we aren't supposed to do that (you can recycle them, FYI). 

There was one afternoon, in fact, where my roommate Brad and I were swimming at the pool and enjoying a beer. Two older men walked into the pool deck, picked where they were going to sit, then proceeded to give us the stink eye for a while. After finally realizing that awkwardly staring at us wasn't effective, one of  them finally piped up. 

"How'd y'all get in here?" he asked, rather uppity. 

"Through...The gate?" I responded, taking a swig of beer and motioning toward the pool gate. 

"No, smartass. How'd you get into Seagate (the community)?" 

And with giant grins, both Brad and I responded, 

"We live here"

"Where?" asked the now grumpier old man

"Clambake Court", I told him flatly. (Yes I realize all the jokes you can make from Clambake, we already made them all)

It took the old man a second to register what he'd heard, and he disbelievingly removed his sunglasses to reveal a pair of untanned, sunken, and wrinkly eyes. 

"Holy shit. There's people living in Seagate under the age of 50?"

Interactions like this became relatively common. At least until the whole neighborhood knew who we were. But the nosiness and rude letters never ended. 

It wasn't until I got home from my day of guiding that I checked my mail to discover a letter from our landlord. And upon reading it, my day went from pretty good, to pretty awful. For the SECOND time, our landlord was reneging on our lease agreement and kicking us out early so he and his wife could move back in. 

I won't bore you with the details of the following weeks, but just know that Bruce Philips of Saint Augustine is right up there was some of the biggest pieces of shit I've ever had the misfortune of dealing with. 

So we were all set to be homeless. Again. And the thought of going through the motions of finding a new place made me physically ill. 

From the time I moved away for college in 2009 until this particular day in 2017, I had moved at least twice a year, every year. I didn't own many things, in order to make moving that much less painful. But it's painful regardless. I was exhausted. 

Over the past two years I had visited Montana a couple of times and began seriously wondering if it was a place I could live in. I knew the winters would be brutal for someone like myself, but the place seemed awesome. So I told myself if I had to move one more time, I was going to just pack it all up and go to Montana to give it a try. 

So as I sat there, reading the letter informing us that we were getting kicked out, I realized what was about to happen. 

"Looks like I'm moving to Montana". 

------

Everything from that point on happened pretty fast. I sold the Gheenoe along with most of my other junk. I kept a dresser, some clothes, my kayaks/fishing gear, and my fish tank. I shotgunned my resume out to a bunch of different employers within the Wildlife Ecology field (I spent all that time getting the degree afterall), and within a couple of weeks had received an offer from the Bureau of Land Management in Butte, MT as a seasonal wildlife technician. 

Aside from being two hours from Missoula MT, I knew nothing about Butte. And to be honest, I didn't really care. It was a job that I managed to land before I even had a place to stay. So I took it. I soon found a place to rent in Missoula and before I knew it, I had loaded everything into the truck and was driving west.   

If you've never physically driven across our great country, consider yourself lucky. Its terrible. Just fly for Christ's sake. 

I lucked out in that I have friends scattered all across the country. So I made the drive from Saint Augustine to Pensacola to see my family. Then Pensacola to Bentonville Arkansas to stay with a friend. Then Arkansas to Denver to stay with others. Finally Denver to Missoula. 

When I finally arrived in Missoula, I swore to myself that I'd never drive anywhere ever again. I really didn't enjoy the drive. But I was now in a new city, and excited to be there. Sure I'd moved a ton in Florida. But aside from -barely- living in southern Georgia, I'd never resided outside of the sunshine state. 

My "new" place was (and still is at the time of writing this), just an old house right in the middle of town. But it's close enough to downtown to walk, and I have a little yard with a garden, and a garage for my kayaks and my brand new toy:


No sense in having a Gheenoe out here, so why not a raft? Over the years I learned to not only appreciate but also enjoy coldwater fly fishing, so it only seemed logical to own a raft. 


--------

The job with BLM was actually pretty fun. I dealt with Aspen research and to make a long story short, I essentially got paid to hike around the mountains with a chainsaw. 


The only drawback of the job was that it was in Butte. Not only is Butte and pretty terrible town to begin with, it's also two hours from Missoula; a daily commute I couldn't commit to. So rather than drive back and forth, I opted to use the camper shell on the back of the truck for its intended use and actually camp. I'd leave Missoula at 4am Monday mornings, camp out of the truck Tuesday through Thursday night, then drive back after work on Friday evening. 

The whole concept doesn't sound too terrible on paper. But the logistics and reality of it got old VERY quickly. I'd wrap up a long day of working in the woods only to drive back into the woods again to camp. I was lucky enough to have access to a shower at work, but there's certainly no toilet out in the woods. Fun fact: it can start snowing in AUGUST. I woke up one morning to discover snow had built up enough outside to seal the tailgate shut and trapped me inside. Cooking? I either had to pick up fast food while I was in town, or...


Bottom line, it got old. So as thankful as I was to have had such an easy transition across the country, I was thankful when the job ended and I found myself back in Missoula full time. With hunting season right around the corner, I looked forward to what this new change in lifestyle would bring, and couldn't help but think how different things were going to be now that I wasn't a beach bum anymore.