When our Southern-California visitors included twin five-year-old sons, I realized that having been the mother of girls wasn’t going to help me.
“They’ll go exploring in the woods,” I announced, hoping such non-activity on my part could result in my sipping tall, cool drinks on the back patio while they built stick forts, watched for wildlife, and pretended they were Davy Crocketts.
“For about ten minutes,” their father stated just after they’d arrived, video games in hand. Uh-oh. What do little boys do in the country that won’t kill them? I wracked my brain to prepare a plan.
Fishing. They’d never been fishing. Of course, my only fishing trips have been to Rock Creek where I wade and grip with all ten toes to hold my ground. Recent reports had warned of high water. I called around: “Where’s a good place to take little kids fishing?”
The unofficial poll indicated Frenchtown Pond and McCormick Park, with a distant third being where Petty Creek meets the Clark Fork. “There’s a little beach there,” said one friend, “but there’s still a lot of water—you’d have to watch them carefully.” That didn’t sound like iced beverage and a good book.
No sooner had we opted for Frenchtown Pond than I picked up the paper and read about “swimmer’s itch,” the parasite hosted by snails in shallow water. To swim or not to swim? “No swimming in parasitic waters?” asked another informant who has a three-year old and has lived here forever. “You’re no fun!”
Showering immediately and rubbing down vigorously with a towel was the surefire antidote, the news reported, so our visitors decided to risk it for the reward of watching their kids forsake concrete and chlorine to jump wholeheartedly into a natural pond. They took to the water like ducks, their mother and father at the ready with soap. I’ve just had an e-mail from California thanking us once again for the vacation of a lifetime—no residual itch.
Fishing was a lesson in patience more than technique, as we fisherman know. Still, we all learned something: canned corn is substitute bait for worms, which were sadly out of stock all over town that day. And we did manage to witness a bit of a piscatorial ballet when two fish jumped near one line, even if not onto it.
“These fish are smart,” I explained to Connor and Ryan.
“Then why do they like corn?”
Back into the car and a “scavenger hunt for wild animals,” their father wisely put it. “I spy with my little eye—a deer! A horse! A llama??” That took some explaining.
We had taken our nature walk in the Ninemile valley the day before. The trail leading from Grand Menard campground had revealed nothing wilder than our own dogs. But the boys loved the bridge over a running stream—not something you can cross in suburbia.
On a tour of the Ninemile Ranger Station the highlight had been the snapping wristband from the gift counter. Still, they’d seen where the mules “get their hair cut.” Not to mention they were able to ring that fire bell.
We drove to Fish Creek, parked the car at a pullout, crossed stone beds to come to the water’s edge, watched the current pull driftwood, made boat leaves, and skipped rocks. My husband told them his Montana story—how before he lived here, when he would come only for the summer, he would select the prettiest rock he could find, take it home with him and place it on his bedside table. “That way, each time you look at it you will remember this spot in Montana—right here, right now.” Ryan and Connor took a long time looking.
Sated for one day, we headed back to the Huson woods, barbequed bison burgers and roasted marshmallows over the campfire. The portable video games lay silent.
On departure day, we toured town. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was a must for little male hands that wrap around antler racks, fingers that reach for black bear claws, and feet that run along nature trails.
What’s a trip to Missoula, Montana without the Caras Park Carousel? I expected the usual array of horses on poles and barely enough to interest a five-year old. What I got instead was the ride of my life! The sign that boasts of being the fastest is an understatement and more like galloping horseback. Connor and Ryan thought so too.
Their mother was the lucky winner to accompany them down the Dragon House slide while I contemplated lunch (always the best part of this kid’s day) at an establishment that might span the generations: Biga Pizza, of course, followed by a sloppy double cone from the Big Dipper. The perfect ending to a child’s perfect dream come true—and the five-year olds liked it too.
“Can we stay here forever?” asked Ryan at the airport.
“Wanna know my favorite part?” Connor looked up, eager to outdo his brother and reveal his rating on the vacation contents. I was guessing it would be the Dragon House—maybe the swimming.
“That river where I found my rock.”
Kathleen Clary Miller is the author of 300 essays and stories that have appeared in such publications as Newsweek Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant, The Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, Orange Coast Magazine, Missoula Living Magazine, Flathead Living Magazine, The Johns Hopkins Memory Bulletin, and The Christian Science Monitor. She was a regular columnist for The Missoulian—Western Montana’s Daily Newspaper for the last two years. Her current monthly column “Peaks and Valleys” appears in Montana Woman Magazine. She has contributed to National Public Radio’s On Point.
She lives in Huson, Montana.