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.