While other men spend their power decades harvesting money for their golden years, I've devoted the prime of my life to a swamp. And not even a real swamp, not some righteous nightmare of cottonmouths and feral pigs, but a mere backwater, a slough, really, that meanders through our place in western Montana, rising and falling with the Clark Fork River nearby. In the summer the main channel of this marsh oozes sweet and fragrant between its walls of red dogwood and offers an array of refreshing temperatures as you plunge deeper to flee horseflies and the heat. Around Halloween it freezes. Then, with the vigilance of a patriarch whose family business is on the verge of going public, I stand guard over this ice till it melts in April, plowing off the snow, sealing the cracks, polishing its surface in the quest for a kind of perfection that's just not possible anywhere else, at least not for me. And when it is perfect and my skates sigh across its water-colored sheen, I can almost convince myself that everything's going to be all right.
When my wife Kitty and I moved into Dark Acres, our slough lay concealed under a midden of agricultural squalor. The ranch family that sold us a slice of its empire, huddled in the shadows of Black Mountain, had used this wetland for three generations as its own private dump. When you looked at its main channel you expected water; what you saw was junk and decay. But since we had the river to play in and didn't need no redneck swimmin' pool, we figured to bury this eyesore with fill. Maybe even install a nice tennis court on top.
But one morning during our first spring, I was drawn from the house by the hysterical barking of Radish, our red heeler. I supposed the racket was about an insubordinate magpie or a treed cat. But the thing making the dog insane turned out to be a western painted turtle. The size of Atlas Shrugged, she'd withdrawn into her shell to wait for all the gnashing to go away. Behind her in a sandy depression glistened four leathery white eggs. The turtle must have wandered away from the river, I guessed, or one of our mosquito havens, and lost her bearings. After a while four clawed feet emerged from the shell, then an ancient head in yellow and green and red. Radish growled and the hair on the ridge of his spine stood up like a mohawk. I put my arm around him. There and so and well, I said, reciting the mantra that always calms him down. The turtle waddled down the bank of the slough, out onto a rotten railroad tie through an obstacle course of brambles and beer cans, and, to my surprise, vanished with a wet slap, proving that this water was still alive. I pulled sand over her eggs with the toe of my boot.
It took me three years to clean the slough. I went after the lightest stuff first, standing on the banks to wrestle things from the tangle with a rake. Then, surrendering to the inevitable, I waded chest-deep across an uncertain bed to extract what I couldn't reach from shore. What refused to come to hand I fished out with a chain hooked to my old pickup. Each month more water opened to the sun. This progress, satisfying in ways I wouldn't understand until later, had no immediate reward beyond the fact that it was progress.
When this first stage was finished, I took inventory: 289 tires, a tractor, two riding plows, a ton of farm implement parts and horse tack and barbed wire and rotten hay, a heap of dolls, a medley of overstuffed furniture, the carcass of a Hereford, the skeleton of a beaver, and much festive plastic jetsam. Then there were endless chunks of timber washed from the forest floor into the slough when the river flooded once a decade. As it dried I reduced it with a chainsaw and stacked it into pyres. The night the Blue Jays beat the Phillies in the World Series I went around with a can of gasoline. The neighbors must have thought I was some kind of Canuck. The fires were still smoldering three days later.
Soon, some of the slough's former tenants began to return. A mated pair of mallards came first, winging around till they finally landed in the skinny stretch of water I'd opened. Then came a school of tiny black fish, a spotted frog, and a muskrat, only his nose breaking the surface to leave a hallucinogenic wake. Once I surprised a great blue heron standing on a log, one leg tucked as it eyeballed the place for snacks. It issued an indignant squawk so loud it made my heart flutter.
I was close to being finished with the restoration. Only a half-dozen cottonwood trunks were still floating around in the slough, and they were so massive the pickup couldn't pull them ashore. Standing in the water, working like a tug, I maneuvered these hundred-foot behemoths against the banks and anchored them to the brush with yellow rope while Radish took rides on their backs. The next day I rose from bed creaking as if I'd been gang-tackled by the Oakland Raiders and made my way down to the slough with coffee and a lawn chair. For the first time since I'd discovered it, I intended to sit by this water without feeling the neurotic obsession to make it better. And, in fact, it could no longer be made better. There wasn't even a stray leaf to mar its seamless length. The hideous reek of rotten hay that had greeted us when we moved in had been replaced with a perfume of pennyroyal and wild roses. I counted 29 turtles that had climbed onto my cottonwood trunks to take the morning sun.
Since the act of cleaning the swamp had also restored its health, I named it the Mabel, after my mother's mother. When she worked as a public health nurse in the fifties, one of Mabel's stops was a squatter's camp on Hill 57 above the outskirts of Great Falls, Montana, my hometown. Her patients were Blackfeet and Cree who weren't welcome on the reservations or wouldn't live there. Sometimes when I drift around in my rowboat or sit in the broadgrass to absorb the Mabel's serenity, I'm reminded of my grandmother. I remember the photographs she loved to take, hanging on the walls of the house my grandfather built. Most of these pictures, which won blue ribbons at the state fair, were portraits of the denizens of Hill 57. One was of a woman so old she could recount scenes from the Indian wars. I used to get mesmerized by that face, by the depth of the wrinkles and their number, an infinite crisscrossing of lines that mimicked the pattern of game paths after a rain. And next to this picture was one of a landscape that captured a creek in a cold snap radiating mist as it cut its way through fresh snow. It was the purity of this scene that appealed to me then—and that still appeals to me, a summation of my earliest Montana memories, a place sweetly indifferent to the camera, innocent and absent of malice.
On a frozen Sunday when I was ten, I stood in my PJ's decorated with rearing stallions and glared with contempt at the church clothes I'd flung on my bed. Here were wool slacks, a starched white shirt, a bow tie, a checkered sport coat, a pair of oxfords, and a ludicrous black fedora.
"Jesus fucking Christ!" my old man suddenly bellowed.
When I opened my bedroom door and looked around the house, I discovered it was empty. Dad had disappeared, and so had my six-year-old sister, Laura. The back door had been thrown open, admitting a wall of frigid air, so I went there to see what I could see. And what I saw left me utterly bewildered. There was the old man, butt-naked, his breath rising in angry clouds, charging down the snowy slope behind the house to Sand Coulee Creek, a ribbon of wind-polished ice winding through the shabby rural sprawl we called Rat Flats. I wrapped my arms around my bony self and stared.
When he got to the creek he fell to his knees and skittered across it like a fugitive in a prison flick. Had he caught on fire like those people you read about who suddenly burst into flames? Was he drunk?
Then I saw the hole, a devious blue crease. Suddenly uncoiling, he plunged his arm into it, his 225 pounds of muscle and sinew straining as he groped for something within. The air stunk of smoke from the coal furnaces everyone used. Danny, our Labrador, was out on the ice too, barking at the crease the same way he did when he trapped prairie rattlers against the chicken coop.
Dad lunged twice and brought forth a steaming thing in a fleecy blue snowsuit. Although I had begun to sense the importance of what was taking place, I had only one reference for what I was seeing: the breech birth of a neighbor's horse I witnessed that ended well when the man reached into the mare and yanked her astounded foal into the world. What Dad was now rushing back to the house wasn't a foal, of course. It was Laura. As he strode by, the sodden little doofus yowling in his arms, one of her skates trailing a lace, I saw that his face was lathered with shaving cream. Laura had disobeyed the rule about skating alone and was saved only because the old man happened to glance through the bathroom window as she crashed through the ice.
The next day I lay beside the crease and studied its architecture, fascinated by the fact that the ice had become as dangerous as it was fun. In the summer, the Sand Coulee was a simple, good-natured yokel whose water was clean enough to drink and harbored sunfish, crawdads, and even the occasional trout. We dropped into it every day from a tire swing roped to a box elder and poled around in it on our rafts and constructed elaborate mud cities on its shores.
In the winter, the creek became a different sort of sanctuary. It was a snap to skate the 300 yards from our place to the lagoon where the Missouri accepted the stream, but what I yearned to do was skate to the creek's headwaters, where I would live in tree houses and steal chickens from ranches. It wasn't just the easy pleasure of forward motion that seduced me when I took to the ice, but also the chance to escape all the unpredictable emotional weather back at the house. Yet I never got farther upstream than three miles. When I was old enough to mount a serious quest, it was too late. The creek began running the color of old blood, poisoned by acids and heavy metals leached from the coal mines. The frogs and the fish disappeared first, and finally the turtles. And then it dried up.
Instant snow removal is the key to perfect ice. This is a fact of winter in western Montana that I learned the hard way. I'd been spoiled as a boy by wind that whistled across the Sand Coulee so incessantly snow just didn't have the chance to pile up. But here on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide, wet, balmy fronts slug it out all winter with arctic air pushing south from Canada. Midnight rain can give way to two feet of morning powder the afternoon sun reduces to slush, which freezes by midnight. After hissy, pathetic gusts announce a front moving in, all this weather usually happens in a dead calm.
There is even the odd season when most ice doesn't thicken enough to skate on. That's never the case, however, with the Mabel. Its bed is insulated by the brush that surrounds it, like a beer cooler, so once it freezes it seems to absorb more cold and freeze even deeper. Snow left to melt on the surface of the slough will eventually freeze as well, causing leprous disfigurements—welts and pits and hedgerows, or the crumbly, porous stuff we call Crackers, or even the bulbous, lumpy outrage called Casserole. The object of snow management is Glaze, that flawless, diaphanous glass that can only be laid down when rain or thaw is followed by a hard freeze. Or when I can summon the energy to flood the ice from a hole I've chopped.
Of course, I knew none of this the day the restored Mabel was finally frozen and ready for business. I thought I was ready too. It had been three decades, but I was convinced that skating was as indelible a muscle memory as riding a horse. For a week the weather had been clear and sharp, with subfreezing lows and small melts in the afternoons. I put on knee pads and went down to the Mabel with a pair of old hockey skates bandaged with duct tape. I laid the skates on my lawn chair and walked onto the ice in my rubber pig-farmer boots with the sort of mincing steps you'd employ on a ledge. Radish cocked his head like a bird and pawed at the hard thing his swimming hole had become. As usual, he started barking. After I'd gone a few steps there was a groan as the Mabel adjusted to my weight and a rumbling crack that echoed back from the Bitterroot Range on the other side of the river. But after this scare I walked the length of my ice without incident, and then back, looking for devious blue creases. What I did find was Glaze nine inches thick. My pulse was racing. There was no longer any excuse to put it off.
I laced my skates and stepped forth with ankles wobbling and feet that felt bound. From the start there was forward motion, halting at first, no faster than a runaway Rascal in a nursing home hallway, but velocity that increased as I gained confidence. Then it all came back: the angle of the stroke, the bent knees and stooped posture, the gliding rhythm. A neighbor doing breakfast dishes in her trailer looked up, startled to see someone in the backyard. Or maybe what alarmed her was the sight of a middle-aged man on skates. Her husband was off sleepwalking through a 12-hour shift at the paper mill. I waved, happy to be here instead of there.
I tried some backward skating, which I had begun to learn as a kid because not knowing how put you at a disadvantage in hockey. But when my feet nearly went out from under me, I decided I wasn't ready yet for anything in reverse. Plowing ahead, I skated six laps, about three miles, and then stumbled over to my chair, winded. My ankles would no longer support me. Sweat rolled down my spine. I whispered to my thudding heart, Whoa, there, big fella.
I woke up the next morning to discover that a foot of wet snow had fallen overnight, with a ton more still coming down. In the Jungle, a four-acre briar patch between the Mabel and the river, the fireberry hawthorns were bent double under the weight.
I didn't worry about the effect of the blizzard on the Mabel because I didn't know enough yet to worry. And besides, my feet were too sore to skate anyway. But when I walked down that afternoon to admire my fine green Glaze again, I was horrified to discover that not only had the snow not been blown away as it always was on the Sand Coulee, but the weight of it had fractured the ice and flooded the snow. That night the temperature dropped to zero. Next morning my Mabel was ridged and pocked and zitted, worthless to anyone except the whitetails that crossed it to get from the forest to our haystack. But by the end of the week a warm rain smoothed the Mabel's skin, and when the temperatures dropped again my beautiful Glaze was back.
The next time it snowed I was all over the Mabel at once with a shovel. I soon gave up the notion that I could clean off a quarter-mile of ice by hand, but after a couple of hours I had opened enough to skate laps. Then the shovel broke. Kitty came down once to watch me sweat and steam in the sun.
"I'm training for the Elfstedentocht," I gasped.
"The skating race in Holland. You know, from city to city."
At dinner I looked up from my corn bread to find her staring at me. "What."
"So you're going to waste all morning every time it snows?"
"Waste?" I said, patting my belly. "Yuppie scum pay good money for this kind of workout."
"Then why don't you shovel the driveway?"
Of course, fitness had nothing to do with it. But I couldn't explain the emancipation I felt when I skated on the Mabel, because I didn't understand it myself. I hoped its source was something profound, and not just a cliché: I was taking up juvenile sports in order to ward off the implications of my approaching 50th birthday and its promise of the desiccation to come; or I just wanted to feel again the breathless ardor a child feels as the game begins; or I was bored with the unfinished man I'd become and had fallen in love with the happy boy I now believed I had been. I figured it wouldn't take much of a shrink to identify the disenchantment with adult life underlying my affair with the Mabel and my reawakened love of skating, but where would that get me? I'd still have to clear off the ice. The solution, I realized, was way more cost-effective than therapy: Sears.
I found the snowblowers lined up like an armada of fighter planes. They ranged from a bantamweight with 3.8 horsepower to a ten horsepower gangster.
"What is it, sir, you are having to blow?"
I knew this voice instantly. When I turned around there he was, my favorite Bengali salesman. The birdsong of his accent wasn't any more Americanized than it had been when he'd sold me a clothes dryer a year earlier. ("You cannot go wrong, sir, with the Wrinkle Guard feature," he had promised.)
"Well, there's a patio," I said.
The salesman patted the baby bear model. "Very adequate for such a task."
"And a driveway. A long one."
He pointed to the mama bear version. "Five horsepower and many choices of blowing angles."
"And a quarter-mile of ice."
His eyebrows lifted and a smile of good fortune spread over his face as he slid the edge of one hand across the palm of the other.
In the end, of course, I went home with the papa bear model and two attachments. I knew Kitty would hit the roof, so I picked up a bribe. When she lifted the white figure skates from their box I saw that she'd been expecting something made of silk instead.
"What did you really buy?"
"A snow thing."
"You mean another shovel?"
I led her out to the pickup and my glowering new machine.
"If it keeps snowing like this we're going to need something to dig us out," I reasoned. I could see that this shot connected. In fact, we'd already been trapped once that winter and had had to hire a neighbor to plow the driveway.
When she asked the price, my answer was only 20 percent false. Her mouth fell open.
"Hey, I'll do the road right now," I offered. The snow was beginning to fall again.
The papa bear sucked up the six inches of dry powder on our driveway like a crackhead in a coke factory and then sprayed it contemptuously into a pasture. An hour later a raisin-colored overcast moved in, and the snow turned wet. I abandoned the driveway and hurried down to the Mabel to set loose the beast before my newest layer of Glaze was compromised. Things went like clockwork at first, but as the afternoon grew warmer the threads that stripped the snow from the ice and hurled it through the blower got clogged with slush. I cleaned them as best I could with a stick. Finally, blubbering and whining, the papa bear—triumph of American technology—just gave up. The ice I couldn't liberate began to sink under the weight of what would be a record snowfall.
By noon I was able to clear a path along the driveway for the pickup. Even in four-wheel-drive I barely made it out. When I pushed the papa bear through the doors at Sears, my salesman saw me and hurried over, stricken. Snowblowers just don't seem to work very well against wet snow, I told him, though they are dynamite with powder. His eyes were liquid and sorrowful but totally uncomprehending. Then I felt a force at my back and turned around. Sears had fallen silent and dreamy and, except for one section of floor space, completely dark. And in that space, glowing with menace, was a column of riding mowers fitted with snow plows.
Look away, I told myself.
The following spring a black bear moved into the Jungle, attracted by its maze of hiding places and its wild raspberries. We saw him from time to time when he made his way from the vineries to drink from the Mabel. The horses would bolt in their pens, wide-eyed and snorting, but they soon grew used to bear-smell, and peace returned. I built a dock and spent the first hot afternoon of May throwing pebbles into the water for Radish to chase, an easy way to scour off the beggar's-lice he had gotten into. Then I jumped in myself for the helpless flailing I call swimming.
The Mabel froze early that fall. I fell twice trying to get down my strokes for skating backward, and my knee swelled up like a bag of microwave popcorn. After it healed I picked dead leaves off the ice every morning before they could absorb the sun and melt holes in the shape of themselves. Near Thanksgiving the heavens opened and a foot of perfect powder fell down. I thought: Snow, you bastard. I am no longer your slave.
Pheasants exploded into the air and dogs howled when I revved up my 15.5-horsepower Sears Craftsman riding mower with its automatic transmission and its Kohler Command engine and its four-foot snowplow. After I made quick work of the driveway, which pleased Kitty, I rumbled down the bank and onto the Mabel, the chains on the weighted back tires clattering ominously. In a half hour I was done. The Mabel sparkled.
The next day we had a hockey game. A dance professor accidentally smacked a crime reporter in the face with her stick and broke his nose. Radish rushed to lick the blood from the ice, rolling his eyes in pleasure.
During the holidays a horde of in-laws forgathered at Dark Acres to play cards and gossip about horses. On Christmas Eve, under a bone moon, we lit a bonfire and took to the ice for an hour of sport before our nightly games of pitch and boo-ray. Kitty looked dreamy as she sailed across the ice in her new skates. The kids sped around, hissing at the adults and pulling at Kitty's mother, whose knee pads and elbow pads and Carhartt coveralls made her look like the Michelin Man's wife.
When everyone else tired I decided to take one last spin alone. It was time. I glided to the far end of the Mabel, Radish at my side. Then, as the moon cast my shadow before me, I skated home backward.
Outside correspondent Bill Vaughn figures he's logged 3,000 miles skating on the Mabel.