High school sports have long revolved around football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. If it’s up to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), an organization pushing for cycling in high schools, you might soon be as likely to be clanging cowbells at the finish line of your kid’s race as climbing into the football bleachers. Founded in 2009 with just the Norcal High School League, NICA has expanded to eight states with nine leagues and almost 2,000 participants, and they aim to bring their programs nationwide by 2020.
“The program has taken off in the few years we’ve been around. We saw 58 percent growth in participants from 2011 to 2012,” says Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. “We plan to add two to three leagues a year in the years to come.”
This Saturday at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, Singletrack High, a movie about NICA and the high school mountain biking movement will be screening to its biggest and broadest audience yet. The film, which follows six Northern California teenagers through the spring 2012 season, premiered in early February in Mill Valley and has been showing to small (mostly sold-out) high school racing audiences ever since. The Sea Otter presentation is the movie’s general public coming out party. It will be touring the country this spring and summer, and screenings are easy to arrange.
I’ve always intellectually loved the idea of high school mountain biking, but without kids I could never get super excited about it. Singletrack High changes that. By following a few varied and poignant storylines, from three siblings who grew up in a cycling family and now train and race together to an inner city youth who didn’t even know what mountain biking was before he joined the league, the film illustrates the transformative power of cycling. It also speaks to pressing current issues such as Nature Deficit Disorder and childhood obesity. And it’s especially timely, too, with the firestorm in the last weeks over how UCI rules might affect amateur racers.
In advance of the movie’s showing this weekend, we chatted with brothers and co-directors Jacob and Isaac Seigel-Boettner about NICA, bike culture in America, and why high school mountain biking should matter to everyone.
OUTSIDE: This is your second film about bikes. Did you set out to be cycling filmmakers? Jacob: We were born in Santa Barbara, and we both literally came home from the hospital in a bike trailer. Our parents lead trips for junior high schoolers under the loose title of Educational Safaris, and we traveled to Ireland, Italy, France, Austria, Canada, Rwanda, and all across the US to ride. So I guess in some ways we were groomed for this.
Isaac: We grew up mountain biking and we slowly started learning about racing. Eventually we started a bike-racing club at San Marcos High School. We like to think of ourselves as the first high school racing league. [Editor: said in jest.]
Jacob: But we never intended to be filmmakers. When I was in college at Berkeley, I knew I wanted to do a semester abroad. I wanted it to be about service and something related to bikes, and I figured out a way to go over and study Tom Ritchey’s project designing cargo bikes for coffee farmers in Rwanda. To get credit, I had to write a paper about it, but I knew that nobody would read it. So I decided to make a movie, and when I screened it people really liked it. We realized that there were all these stories about the bike out there that people never hear. So we decided to start making stories about bikes as tools for change around the world.
What drew you to film Singletrack High? Jacob: We’ve traveled a lot in the developing world, and though it’s not completely PC to say, people around the world look to us, to America, to know what it means to be “developed.” Sadly, that means driving cars. So we wanted our next movie to be about that on some level. That was the starting point. And we realized that high school mountain biking is interesting partly because it is at this time when kids are putting their bikes away and getting their first cars.
Several of the kids in the film talk about how uncool it is to ride a bike and how important a car is in their peer circles. Isaac: We sort of conceived that the film could be a means to counteract that. We want it to be a tool to get more kids on bikes. When you say high school mountain biking, it doesn’t really connect with how big it can be, but these events are huge. They are big festivals. And in the places that we’ve screened it, kids get really excited.
Jacob: At a screening in New York, where there wasn’t even a league, this kid came up to one of the NICA staff and said that he was going to quit his baseball team and start mountain biking.
The gear seems like it would be a major obstacle for a lot of kids. Jacob: It is definitely a barrier to entry. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to show the team from Sacramento in the film. That team is underfunded compared to some of the other schools, but they have found ways to deal with it. In that case, some of the coaches are police officers, and they took bikes out of impound for their fleet.
Isaac: Bike companies have also done a lot to step up and donate gear. Specialized has a good program. And there are grassroots approaches, too. There are lots of old bikes sitting around in people’s garages not getting used, you know when riders get a new bike. So schools are soliciting for those. NICA also has something they call the Booster Fund that allows teams and coaches and athletes to apply for grants.
Some of the gear in the movie is crazy: kids wearing Oakley Jawbones and riding Specialized Epic S-Works. Did you see any jealousy between teams with and without? Jacob: Of course there’s always going to be gear lust. But the coaches do a great job of emphasizing that it’s about the experience, not the bike. The kids get so wrapped up in the excitement of being out there and being part of something that it didn’t seem to matter that much. For the Sacramento kids, I felt like they were just happy to be there doing it. They’ll talk about the shiny bikes that other kids are riding, but at the end of the day the performance gains are minimal and everyone is riding on the same course and everyone gets the same thrills and experience.
So much has been written about childhood obesity and our inactive youth, this, and this film seems to show a sort of antidote to that. Jacob: We definitely wanted to address that. Cody is a great example. A kid like him, who is a bit heavier, might normally be looked down on by the jocks. He would have no real hope of being accepted by a sports team. But anybody can mountain bike. It’s very open. It’s a cool sport because it gets the kids active and away from those screens. But cycling is also unique because it’s something you can do for the rest of your life. If you play football or baseball, you do it through high school, but for most people after that the most you’ll do is maybe toss the ball around with your kids when you have them. But biking, you can ride for the rest of your life.
Isaac: Another thing that was interesting was how these kids started to learn what eating well means. We interviewed kids who had come to discover that if they were up all night or if they ate a big heavy burrito for breakfast, they wouldn’t perform so well. It brings a real awareness without having to drill it into them.
It was cool to see the Sacramento team in Boggs having what was for many of the kids their first real outdoor experience. Isaac: That was really cool. Coming into the movie we learned about Nature Deficit Disorder. I didn’t even know that this was a formalized thing, but so many kids these days just don’t get outside. There was a scene that didn’t make it into the movie when the Sacramento team was out doing trail work and we were interviewing them. A hawk flew over and made a really shrill hawk call overhead, and the kid who was talking looked up and was like, “What was that? What was that?” He had never heard any bird sound other than maybe a pigeon or a crow. And those Sacramento kids live like 40 minutes from good trails.
Jacob: Some of the Sacramento kids went to the beach for the first time in their lives and it just blew them away. They live like two hours from the beach, but it might as well be another country.
Empowerment is a strong theme in the movie, too. Jacob: Cody is a great example. He’s not a typical high school athlete. He’s bigger. When we first met him, he was sort of the outsider. There’s a shot of him coming across the parking lot with his bike to hang out with the other kids. But by the end, at the pool party, he’s definitely part of the team. For a lot of kids, like Cody, there’s no other sport as inclusive as mountain biking.
It’s surprising how positive all the kids are, slapping each other on the back and encouraging one another. Was that manufactured in the editing? Isaac: That’s just the sport and the culture around the events. They are more festivals than races. I was happy to hear that all the kids realized that, too. They’re just there to have fun, not necessarily to compete. And NICA has set up the scoring so that even the slowest kids contribute points to their team, so there’s a real sense of participation and solidarity.
There’s also some real gender equality in the film. Jacob: If you watch the freshman and sophomore boys, they are definitely looking up to the varsity guys. But they are also looking up to the varsity girls. Those girls can kick their asses, and you don’t see that in many other high school sports.
Isaac: The way the varsity fields have shaped up in the NorCal league is interesting. The guys have faster times, of course. But the top three girls were all selected to go to Europe for a camp, and one of the girls just went down to the Pan-American games. You are seeing some of next Olympians in the making.
There’s this perception that, “It’s just high school racing.” But some of these kids are fast, right? Did you ever ride with them? Jacob: They kicked our butts. We weren’t strong enough to be the professional GoPro riders who were following the races. We had to hire pros for that. I was watching the helmet-cam footage from the Boggs race, and Eliel, one of the kids in the movie, was totally dropping our camera guy, who is a pro racer.
What is your take on the current debate about UCI rules and how it affects participation in unsanctioned racing. That has to be an issue for some of these kids. Jacob: NICA got a lot of questions from the top women’s athletes because some of them were racing in the PanAmerican Games and they wanted to know if this was going to disqualify them from racing in their high school leagues, which it could. I think it’s a shame if any rule that got handed down prevented any kid from riding their bikes. It’s great to have a body that organizes and helps get athletes to the Olympics. But the question is, as a sport, is the goal to get the elite to the highest ranks, or is the goal to get more people riding? If we encourage participation, you’ll inevitably get more talented racers because the pool is bigger,
What do you hope people will take away from the film? Jacob: I will be super stoked at the end of the movie if I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “ I want to go ride my bike.” If they want to go start a high school mountain bike league, even better. But really we just want to get people on bikes—kids, adults, anyone. NICA and everything else, it just starts with that initial spark.
Isaac: I want to help make biking to be cool. I want everyone to think that riding is something they should do. Something they want to do. Don’t keep your Spandex in the closet.
THE SCENE FADES IN from black. A hand-held camera pans the inside of a car weaving through the streets of Misrata, on Libya’s coast. It’s April 20, 2011, and the city, a stronghold for antigovernment rebels, is under siege by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. We see the driver, a rakish rebel, and his passengers, several photojournalists looking out the windows at the smoldering remnants of buildings. The cameraman asks, “Which way is the front line from here?”
At that point, you realize what you’re watching: Tim Hetherington on his way to die. Hetherington, the man holding the camera, was one of the most respected conflict photographers in the world. Within a few hours of the car ride, the 40-year-old Briton was killed in a mortar attack, along with renowned American photographer Chris Hondros. Hetherington’s femoral artery was ruptured by shrapnel, and he bled to death in the back of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital.
Hetherington’s question, which arrives just minutes into the film, is also its title. Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?premiered at Sundance in January and airs on HBO in April. It was directed by writer Sebastian Junger, who became a close friend of Hetherington’s when the two worked together in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The 80-minute documentary takes the measure of the photographer’s extraordinary life and work, weaving Hetherington’s own footage, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Libya, together with Junger’s interviews with heart-broken friends, colleagues, and family. As with the new Hetherington biography Here I Am, by American author Alan Huffman, it presents a powerful case that, in the age of citizen journalism, when anyone with a camera phone can be a contributing reporter, dedicated and talented professionals still deliver the most revealing stories.
Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? suggests that Hetherington’s success had as much to do with his personality as his ability to capture the essence of war. Lanky and affable, Hetherington charmed everyone he met. A born searcher, he came to photography in his mid-twenties to, as he later put it, “try to explain the world to the world.”
Hetherington’s most penetrating imagery stands out for what it isn’t: gory, brutal, or shocking. His vision of warfare had him seeking out the pauses between the action that transfixed so many of his colleagues. Beginning in the late 1990s, he spent years in West Africa photographing the fallout of conflicts—victims of land mines, children blinded by war criminals, an abandoned hospital. Hetherington’s 2007 shot of an exhausted American soldier in Afghanistan won the Photo of the Year award from the World Press Association. And in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, Junger describes a poignant episode during the filming of Restrepo, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary the two made about an American platoon in Afghanistan, in which Hetherington snapped portraits of soldiers as they slept.
Hetherington also distinguished himself by his level of commitment. During the Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003, he and fellow Briton James Brabazon were the only foreign journalists to live behind rebel lines, which prompted president Charles Taylor to call for their capture and execution. He worked with Human Rights Watch on a number of projects. In Afghanistan, he and Junger financed much of Restrepo themselves while on assignment for Vanity Fair.
Ultimately, Hetherington allowed his sensitivity and empathy to direct his camera, an approach that may have been his greatest strength. As Brabazon says in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, “Tim didn’t see a division between being a photographer or a videographer or a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim.”
The story of climate change is a hard one to tell. It is slow. It is based largely on models and one-by-one weather events and broken temperature events. Unfortunately, it's a story that is becoming easier to tell. Still, conveying the deep, societal impact of climate change remains difficult.
Briar March, a 32-year-old filmmaker from New Zealand, found the story of climate change being played out on Takuu, an isolated atoll in the South Pacific, near Papua New Guinea. Her documentary film, There Once Was an Island, conveys the threats that the 400 Polynesian inhabitants of the atoll are facing as rising waters threaten to submerge their home and unique culture.
We talked to March about her adventures behind the camera, why she became a filmmaker, and what she's working on now.
How did you learn about Takuu and the fact that rising seas threaten to submerge it? What attracted you to the story? I was trying to find a way to tell a story about climate change that reaches the human aspect, and how it impacts us on social and cultural levels. I learned about Takuu in a magazine article—the article was written by Richard Moyle, an ethnomusicologist from Auckland. He had been visiting Takuu for 14 years and was interested in the community because of their music. The traditional music was very Polynesian and not affected by Christianity. [In the article] he mentioned that the island was seeing environmental changes. I was immediately struck by the island as allegory for the whole planet. How they respond to change could be a symbol of how we all respond to climate change.
I grew up in a rural part of New Zealand and had an amazing childhood where I was near the sea and really related to feeling strongly connected to a place. When I thought of an island disappearing, it seemed beyond comprehension. So it was something I had to explore.
Tell us about the process of shooting the film—just getting on and off the atoll sounded like it was very arduous. It was an insane process. My producer, Lyn Collie, was the mastermind behind the logistics. We took two trips, one in 2006 and another in 2008. There is no phone on the island, just a radio for ships. We had to factor in power and a lot of questions. And what if the camera breaks down? What if our tapes are destroyed? No one in New Zealand speaks the Takuu language, so how are we going to translate it? We were also restricted by the boat, because it only makes four trips per year [and there is no posted schedule]. When we get to Buka [the nearest developed island], we sat around for a few weeks wondering when the boat would leave. The second time we came we chartered a boat.
How did the Takuu people feel about your presence? Since this film I've started filming in other communities and it made me realize how much we were embraced in that community. Everyone was looking out for me, saying hi to me. We got some special treatment.
But on the first trip something dramatic happened. There is this long singing ceremony—they sing all night. Someone had a heart attack and passed away. Everyone immediately changed what they were doing and started wailing quite loudly and I started following what was happening. I asked someone if it's OK and they said yes, but later I felt not everyone was OK about it. It was a moment when I didn't know where I should be with my camera. I realized asking questions isn't enough, because sometimes people don’t say what they really feel.
In another instance, some people didn't get why we were filming the culture and we had to explain that we were doing that because it's something that could be lost if they're forced to retreat from the atoll. Some people felt we would make a lot of money from the film [in an exploitive way]. But good on them for being assertive of their own culture and not wanting to be exploited. In the end, if you spend long enough in a place, and form deep relationships, it will come out in your work.
Your film was released in 2010. Has anything happened to the Takuu culture? Have they been forced to flee? There has been no mass relocation—it's a slow-changing process. The water hasn't risen so high that it's fully submerged but there are increased flooding events, increased storms, acidification, and things that over time make it harder to live in places like Takuu.
There are other islands that are facing this, too, and of course the Maldives have brought a lot of attention to sea level rise. But Takuu is unique because of its [singular] culture.
In terms of the government—Papua New Guinea is the regional government, but Bougainville is trying to become independent from Papua New Guinea, so really it's Bougainville that is governing Takuu—they've not done anything about it. They talk about relocation but haven't done anything.
You studied art at the University of Auckland but then attended Stanford University to get a master's in documentary film and video. What drew you to filmmaking? I didn’t feel the issues and ideas I was exploring were reaching the audience I wanted to reach. I love the idea that film can be distributed so widely. The potential for reaching people ... it seemed like I had so much more access with that medium. So in the last year of art school I started making Allie Eagle and Me [about an artist who was a controversial figure in 1970s New Zealand for her feminist politics]. I didn't have much training but I learned on the go. After that I dabbled in different types of film work and never really found my feet in terms of a career, because with the ones I was making, you can't rely on income. With the master's degree, I can use that to teach.
Your filmography is pretty diverse, including a short you made about Blackfire, a Navajo punk band from Arizona. Your current projects range from films about athletes with disabilities to the privatization of public housing in New Zealand. What do you do in your free time? I don’t have any! When you're making films like this, it's immersed into your life. There are huge adventures. I really love traveling and adventure tourism and that style of traveling—you're going into environments that are not always easy. I think documentary filmmaking is a form of adventure travel. You have to put yourself outside your comfort zone. You can't expect what will happen next and then you have to get to the finish line and there's a lot of emotional stuff you're taking on, too, which is very demanding and tiring. So now I am making a journey into New Zealand, which is really great for me.
“I was born on a boat in New Zealand. I lived my first five years at sea. And ever since, all I've wanted is to return to that life.” So begins Maidentrip, a remarkable new documentary about Laura Dekker, the 17-year-old sailor who, in 2012, became the youngest person to sail around the world alone. The film debuted on Sunday at South by Southwest in Austin, before a crowd of about 300 people, and will make the rounds on the festival circuit this spring.
Laura’s story sparked an international controversy in 2009, when she announced her plans to attempt a solo circumnavigation. She was 14 at the time and quickly became embroiled in a contentious, 10-month court battle with the Dutch government, which deemed the voyage unsafe for the teen and tried to remove her from her father’s custody. Laura and her father prevailed, and in August 2010, she set sail from the Netherlands in her 38-foot ketch, Guppy.
Maidentrip documents her 17 months alone at sea. There was no chase boat, support staff, or film crew. Laura shot all of the footage aboard Guppy herself, using a Sony Handy Cam she rigged to the boat. The effect is an intimate, arresting portrait of the young sailor, who for much of the film stares wide-eyed into the camera, as though she can’t quite believe she’s doing it, either. Though you never see the camera, it takes on its own personality, a kind of default crew and confidante for the solo skipper.
Director Jillian Schlesinger, 29, who’d read about Laura in The New York Times in 2009 and approached her with the idea of making a documentary about the trip, wanted the project to feel organic and unscripted. “I wanted to let her tell her own story, and give her a voice, in a way that the sensational mainstream media hadn’t,” says Schlesinger. “Doing something so extreme with so much passion is an art, and that’s how I approached it with Laura. I was really interested in finding out why, as a 14-year-old, she wanted to do this. She had no interest in being famous. She really just loves to sail.”
Schlesinger, who makes her living writing and producing TV promos, spent three years working on Maidentrip. It's her first film. Like Laura’s voyage, the project became her own epic quest. "I always had a dream of making films,” she says. “There are a million reasons not to follow your dream, but as Laura once said to me, ‘You don’t have to know that you can do something. You just have to try.’”
Schlesinger met Laura en route nine times during the course of the 17-month journey, collecting footage, giving her topics for recording unscripted voice diaries, and occasionally shooting dry-land video. In the Galapagos, Laura convinced her to hop a sailboat with a Canadian family for an unplanned “race” across the Pacific. “After wasting a lot of money changing plane tickets, I finally learned not to make firm plans when I met up with Laura, so I’d bought a one-way ticket,” recalls Schlesinger, whose father dropped out of school to sail to Central America. “Sailing across the Pacific started out as a joke. It was daunting to think about being away from the world for three weeks, but I knew it would be compelling to film Laura at sea. In the end, though, we never saw her. We left later than she did and even though we were in a faster boat, she was busting ass to the Marquesas. She got there a day ahead of us.”
No surprise. Laura was born to sail. When she was five, she and her parents returned to the Netherlands, but later divorced. Laura moved in with her dad, who worked in a boatyard, so she could keep sailing. She got her first dingy when she was six, sailed throughout Holland during the summers, and made her first solo crossing, to England, when she was 13. In the film’s early, archival footage, we see a small smiling sailor dwarfed by her life jacket, sailing a tiny dingy with her dog, Spot.
But out on Guppy on the open sea, Laura grows up fast. She cuts her hair, dyes it red, learns to cook and eat ravioli without spilling it when huge swells hit, starts to swear, celebrates her 16th birthday in Darwin, Australia, with her dad, who flies in to help her repair her sails after a wind-battered crossing, and wrestles with her own identity as a sailor and a daughter. In one poignant scene in French Polynesia, she replaces her Dutch flag with the flag of New Zealand, country of her birth. “I don't have any real connection to Holland anymore," she says. "I don't want to go back. I don't really have a home. Home to me is Guppy."
Though she shares a deep love of sailing with her father, and both he and her mother meet up with her along the way, the farther she gets from home, the more her family recedes. The overwhelming impression you get from Maidentrip is of a young girl bobbing happily alone on the enormous ocean. Except for a few moments, when she sets out from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic and is so homesick she can't eat for two days, and later when she passes through the Panama Canal—a point-of-no-return where the voyage "just started to get serious"— Laura seems utterly at home at sea, at peace with her solitude, fiercely independent, and unflappable in the face of stiff challenges.
When a storm approaches in the Atlantic, she raises an eyebrow at the camera and starts cursing, "Shit, shit!" But then the first waves slap her bow, and she shouts, "Woohoo! That was so beautiful! Really super awesome!" She grows increasingly comfortable with long crossings—47 days on the Indian Ocean—and less interested in going ashore. "Now I've really started to like the long passages more, just because they give you so much time to think," Laura says in one of her voice diaries. She rounds the Cape of Good Hope in huge swells and a storm that most seasoned sailors would sit out. Not Laura. "I didn't feel anything but focused. Being scared was totally gone. I didn't feel that I was hungry or tired. I was just doing it."
By the time she cruises into St. Martin, in January 2012, bypassing Holland to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe—27,000 nautical miles in 519 days—her transformation from girl to self-reliant solo captain is complete. "I wanted the storms. I wanted the calms. I wanted to feel loneliness," she says. "And now I know all these things. It's the end of the dream I had as a kid, and it's the beginning of my life as a sailor."
When we last see Laura, she has taken on a crew and is bound for New Zealand, where she lives now, working at a dive shop, racing, studying for her captain’s license, and plotting her next big voyage. There’s talk of a circumnavigation of the Americas, an Arctic Ocean passage, for which she’ll need a steel boat.
It’s impossible to watch Maidentrip and not want to immediately start scheming your own audacious adventure. Laura’s unscripted optimism is contagious. Last night, my four-year-old daughter sat rapt at our kitchen table, watching parts of a movie in which a girl only 10 years older than she is accomplishes the impossible dream. As a mother and adventurer, I can only hope that some of Laura's daring and passion rubs off on Pippa. To raise adventurous children, as Laura's father learned when she and Guppy set sail, means that someday, you have to let them go.
Which Chris Dombrowski you know depends on whether you spend more time fishing or reading. Those that fish will know him as one of Montana’s finest guides—his clients include David James Duncan and Jim Harrison. But the one thing he does better than read a river is write poems. Jonah Ogles reached him in Michigan, where he spends the academic year teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, to catch up, talk about his new book, Earth Again, steelhead, and how A River Runs Through It made him want to be a writer.
A lot of writers are drawn to fly fishing. Why do you think that is? I’m not sure exactly. I wasn’t ever a writer who started fishing. Pretty early on, I think after reading Zane Grey, I determined that I wanted to be a writer who fished and not a fisherman who wrote about fishing. But it is a noticeable thing. I don’t think you would say, So many writers play an instrument, even though there are presumably as many writers who play an instrument as there are writers that fish. I think it’s because of attention on the physical world. I think that the act of writing can be an entrance into a wilderness in the same way that a canyon can be. I think we’d all agree that when fishing we’re not the same person we are when we’re mowing the lawn or paying the bills. Yeats said as much when he sat down to write. He wasn’t the same person who made oats and bitched about the morning news.
I think there’s a patience that both things teach you. I’ve thought about fishing a lot as a metaphor for the act of writing. Any angler who’s ever spent a good amount of time on the water has struck those kind of magical golden moments, when suddenly the river comes alive. You’re fishing the same pool you’ve fished 15 times and suddenly there are trout rising everywhere in it in a way you’ve never imagined before. I think a similar sensation can occur for the writer, too—when language is coming alive and bristling and sparking. And a lot of it has to do with putting oneself in the stream over and over again.
It’s funny to me how the natural world inspires that. You talk to a hunter or a climber about poetry and their eyes glaze over. You talk to them about their last elk or climb, and they become poets. With the hunter instinct comes a need to tell stories of the hunt.
When was the moment that you realized you had that need to tell stories? I recently wrote an essay about my high school English teacher. He was a fascinating man named Jim Colando. He basically rescued me from being a jock for the rest of my life. I was really involved in sports all through college. He knew that I had just started fly fishing, maybe a year or so before. And he came into class and he handed me A River Runs Through It and said, I think you may like this book. By the time class was over I was on page 20, by the time school got over it I was on page 50. It was the first book I read cover to cover that wasn’t required for class. In that experience came the realization that my experiences in the physical world could be completely re-enacted in language. That was a magical experience. And with it came also a kind of charge. Suddenly it’s not just enough to exist in the physical world, I have to find a way to reconstruct the experience in language. Or re-live experiences, which is what writing is. It’s a second life.
When you get that need to get outside of yourself, does either activity fill the need? Or do you get a specific urge to write or fish? When I’m writing a lot, I feel like I need to fish or walk the dogs or hunt to get out of my head. If I’m not writing, I feel the opposite way, like I need to get back to the desk and spend some hours hunched over it. But I never feel like a day spent away from writing—be it with a fly-rod or a shotgun or with the kids hunting morels—I never feel like that is wasted. There’s a pile of steelhead at the mouth of the Platte right now. I know it. I know it wouldn’t hurt me to spend a morning doing that, but I’ve been working on some stuff at the desk and I don’t want to leave it alone.
Your summers out in Montana, that guide schedule must be crazy. You have to be up really early or really late depending on conditions or the client. How do you balance your writing time with that kind of schedule? Well, a lot of it happens on the backs of receipts or in a little notebook I keep in the car. I just don’t get a ton of writing done from the end of May through the end of August. So then September rolls around and I feel this immense pressure of all the images or the things I’ve jotted down over the months, and I’m going to explode if I can’t sit down and start doing some writing. Norman MacLean called it a recipe for schizophrenia, going back and forth between teaching and his home in Montana. But it’s become more and more part of the rhythm of my life. You know, just about the time. This is going to make it sound too perfect, because usually I could use a little more outdoor and a little less teaching time. But just about the time I’m ready to be done with teaching, fishing season rolls around. And just about the time I’m ready to be done fishing, it’s time for school.
You’re a teacher and now you have kids, who pop up throughout the book. I kept wondering how you were teaching them to either love language or love the outdoors. I don’t think I’ve taught them anything. I think they’ve taught me. Kids exist in a natural state of wonder. There are certain things I can teach, like why, before a pale morning dun emerges, a soft hackle swung through the water does really well. But really I try to learn from them.
Does the guiding ever get old? I’m in my 17th year guiding, and 70 percent of my clients are return customers. So 60 days of my summer are spent with my friends. They’re interesting. I have a Jungian psychologist who's a regular client, a Hollywood acting coach, a world-renowned photographer. A British timber baron. I keep saying that if I didn't have to gas up the car, clean the boat, or get lunch together every day, I'd never stop. If I had a roadie, I'd guide forever.