The River You Touch

Making a Life on Moving Water



Erik Petersen

Read Time

14 minutes


I have come to know a single Montana watershed better than I know most of my human acquaintances, which is to say I am intimate with the river’s daily and seasonal rhythms, and altered by the way the watershed has moved around and through me.

In its singular liquid tongue, a river converses with the earth it shapes, and more subtly with the creatures it houses and helps flourish. If coaxed, I might maintain that a river will on occasion speak directly to the human creatures that frequent its currents, but this is the kind of talk that causes my rational friends to duck me at parties, or groan their here-we-go-agains and walk away. During my 24 seasons as a river guide, though, I’ve listened hard to the language of rivers, a phrase I learned from my high school English teacher — more on him momentarily.

Lest I imply some shoddy metaphysics here, though, “listening” refers to direct contact engagement, what the forager Jenna Rozelle calls the “primacy of immediate experience.” Calluses on palms forming from the friction between human skin and oar handle. Shoulder muscles straining to pull an oar blade through a current, the oar stroke negotiating with the wave train’s brute liquid force. After thousands of days in such physical dialogue — as much of my adult life spent on moving water as on solid ground — I have come to know a single Montana watershed better than I know most of my human acquaintances, which is to say I am intimate with the river’s daily and seasonal rhythms, and altered by the way the watershed has moved around and through me.

Portrait of Chris Dombrowski outside his study in Montana.
Chris Dombrowski outside his study in Missoula, Montana.

I started writing about moving water and fishing only after a couple decades of doggedly avoiding the subject matter. It had been somewhat traumatic to read A River Runs Through It at age 16, then to chase it down with The River Why by David James Duncan and An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane; the proverbial bar can indeed be set too high. After college and for several years in my early 20s, I spent half the year guiding anglers and the other half at my desk crafting poetry, which I had studied in graduate school. The back and forth between the rower’s bench and the page was “a recipe for schizophrenia,” to steal a phrase from Maclean, but the arrangement gave me the sense that I was financing my time at the desk, and thus I used it diligently. Sometime later, with two published books of poems, two maxed-out credit cards, and two beautiful children to help feed, I made my first foray into freelance nonfiction.

Early in my guiding career, I had the good fortune of meeting the photographer Michael Eastman; in addition to having work displayed in nearly every major metropolitan art gallery, Eastman had made an impressive living as a commercial photographer, shooting a diverse range of products from Carhartt to Combos, from Jack Daniel’s to Gibson Guitars. On our rambles together — he would often hire me to scout landscapes across Montana, rods rigged, of course — I spent a lot of time looking through the viewfinder of his Hasselblad, which taught me plenty about cohesion and distillation, about how the framing of a shot, which determines what gets left out, establishes the energy and clarity of a (written or visual) piece. One October, somewhere between Wisdom and Divide — Eastman had just taken a photograph of my wife Mary reading a book along the upper Big Hole, looking as luminous as the yellow cottonwoods surrounding her, an image that he would later sell to an Eddie Bauer catalog — I asked him if he ever experienced dissonance between his fine art efforts and his commercial work. The only way he’d found to reconcile the two, he responded, was to approach both endeavors with the same level of concentration and dedication, since at the very least the practice kept one’s chops sharpened.

For better or worse, with varying degrees of dedication, I tried to employ Eastman’s credo when I began writing for magazines. Several years of such toiling would pass before I found myself on assignment in Grand Bahama, writing a piece on bonefishing. It was there, at the East End of the island, that I met the singular David Pinder Sr, the island’s first bone fishing guide, who in the 1950s guided anglers for $5 a day, pioneering an ecotourism industry that today is worth nearly $200 million a year to the country of 800,000 people. Research soon revealed to me that the story of the bonefish and my new friend Pinder fused not only ecotourism but also geology, Caribbean history, natural history, race relations and more. I had written 150 or so pages before it dawned on me that I might be working on a book, and in retrospect, I am grateful that the project sneaked up on me, as I would have otherwise fled from it like a spooked bonefish on a white sand flat. That book, Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish, was published in 2016, and this coming fall — did six years warp past like that? — I’ll be publishing the follow-up, The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share a brief excerpt from it with our readers and am over the moon to have been brought on as Editorial Director at Modern Huntsman.

Dombrowski and author Callan Wink on DePuy's Spring Creek
Dombrowski and author Callan Wink on DePuy’s Spring Creek
Exclusive Book Excerpt

The River You Touch

My teacher pointed the way with a book. Beloved among aficionados since its publication in 1976, Norman Ma clean’s ninety-two page family saga hadn’t quite hit Hollywood when my sophomore English teacher handed me his weathered copy; this wasn’t long after I’d turned in a shoddy personal narrative about a fishing expedition. “Read it,” Mr. Colando said, pushing his glasses back onto a shiny, large pores nose, “and tell me what you think.”

Holding the slim volume, I sat intrigued between two fellow jocks, soccer teammates whose lassitude was palpable and stared at the faded cover’s aerial photo of a mountain-flanked river valley. I opened it and read the first sentence about a family and its belief in the grace of landscape, and then I read the subsequent sentence, and so on. By the time the bell rang, I’d reached page 19. By lunch, I’d made it to page 30, and when practice began after school, I dog-eared page 56 and zipped the book in my duffel. For dinner after training, I microwaved two boxes of Mia Cucina fettuccini Alfredo and picked up the book again. When my mom arrived home from work, I mumbled a greeting while forking a warm bite of thick, processed noodles to my mouth.

“What are you reading, honey?”

I showed her the cover. “This book Colando gave me.” “Is it good?”

I took another bite and chewed. “Favorite book ever.”

True, I hadn’t at this point in my life read any literary book from cover to cover, including assigned school texts. Other than biographies of athletes or hook and bullet stories by outdoors writers that I cherry-picked my way through, I didn’t read much at all. But as my mind’s eye contacted Maclean’s sentences, the physical, mental, and emotional sensations I had experienced while standing in a cold stream with a fly rod were reenacted. Alchemical: that’s how I would describe the reaction today, though I scarcely knew the word back then. And I held the book in disbelief, dumbstruck that words could so thoroughly transport a reader.

“Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’” I read — Maclean’s sentence paused at its comma, then unfurled like the loop of a perfectly timed fly cast — “but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”

And there I sat, in my own spot of time, existing simultaneously in Lansing, Michigan, with a warm cardboard box of microwaved pasta in my lap, and waist-deep in Montana’s Big Blackfoot — a river that I would, a decade and change later, come to call home water as a guide. Yes, I was lured that night to the place Maclean evoked; more consequentially, though, I was driven to seek a deeper understanding of how his meticulous, laconic prose and idiom enacted the character of a landscape. As if a tuning fork had been struck inside me, I sat thrumming with the realization that I would somehow have to, from this moment forward, inhabit two worlds: the physical world as well as another, equally potent one made palpable by the written word.

In the Mitten State, the Shakespearian phrase “winter of our discontent” is patently redundant — February lasts “thirteen months” according to one former resident — and yet I recall the winter of 1993 as a particularly dismal one from which Colando rescued me continually, pressing book after book into my clammy adolescent hands, books by writers that I would come to regard as critical to my understanding of wild places and our place in them, undomesticated thinkers who lived close to the bone, for whom the natural world was not merely a subject but a living, conscious text. He would assign me imitations and return my exercises lit up with exclamations and evaluative exuberance — stars, underlining, checkmarks, Zow! Yowza! Since Colando was an artist himself, an accomplished photographer, his persistent attention carried gravitas.

Often, coming home from a party late at night, I would happen past his house in the neighborhood and, noting his illuminated basement window, imagine him whiling away in his darkroom, bathing prints in various plastic tubs filled with odorous solutions. Some mornings he would show our standard track class a photo that he had developed in the wee hours, an image captured on a road trip through the Columbia River Gorge, say, a print he’d framed and sold, or one he planned to trade with another local artist. Some were harrowing portraits of the hardscrabble buildings and people of Lansing, the formerly thriving General Motors hub, images I would later come to see as influenced by Evans and Agee, while others were black and white landscapes bearing titles like Learning the Language of Rivers and All My Life I’ve Been Troubled by Waters. He clocked time like a miner, claimed to love the smell of film more than van Gogh had loved the smell of paint, and exemplified the tenacity required of a working artist. It would take me years to understand that the artist’s life is always, societally speaking, under siege, that most of us work day jobs to earn our time at the desk, or beneath the red-orange darkroom bulb, as the case may be. Colando planted that seed: you went to work regardless because your survival depended on it.

One day, out of the blue, he stopped over my desk and reached into his shirt pocket. “Here,” he said, handing me a cassette tape, “I think you might like this.”

The writing on the spine read, “For Chris — River Songs: Volume I.”

Soon my classmates’ discussion seeped soundlessly into the asbestos ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights as I read and reread the list of songs my teacher had compiled for me — “Long Way Up the River,” “Marias River Breakdown,” “Deep River Blues,” and so on. Some were by artists I knew of, such as Joni Mitchell and Bruce Spring steen, but some were new to me, like Phil Aaberg and Doc Watson. Pining for the yellow Walkman stashed in my locker, I was at once overjoyed and befuddled: There were others, then, for whom moving water was a muse?

Over the next few months, Colando would compile two more river song mixes for me, but of these three installments, only the handwritten track listing to Volume 1 remains in my possession. After several years of steady play on expeditions in the West, the tape deck of my pickup finally coughed out the first cassette in a bird’s nest of shiny ribbon; Volume 2 I loaned to a young female public radio disc jockey in Bozeman whom I met along the banks of the Gallatin one evening, and who promised to drop it off along with a six-pack at my apartment after playing a few cuts on her folk show, but never did.

As for Volume 3, I left that in the console when I sold the truck to a logger near the Idaho border for $3,500 cash. The buyer, faintly perfumed from freshly sparked reefer, handed me a roll of rubber berbanded hundreds, brushed a couple of blond dreadlocks behind his ears, and asked, 

“Remind me why you’re selling this truck?”

“Gotta buy a drift boat,” I said, stretching the rubber band onto my wrist and beginning to count out the bills.

“What are you going to do with a drift boat?” he asked. He opened the glove box to check for the manual, then clicked it closed.

“Guide fishing trips,” I said, beaming. “Montana.” “How are you going to tow a boat without a truck?”

“Got a four-door picked out. I’ll put a thousand of this down tomorrow and get a loan for the rest.”

He eyed the truck’s bent antenna. The skin at the corners of his eyes was splintered like a sandstone wash. “Guiding, huh. Remind me what you do now?”

I was writing for a regional newspaper, I told him, the sports and outdoors section, though I neglected to specify that my beat was semi-professional hockey.

“Well, I hate to tell you,” he said as he pantomimed a cast with fairly decent form, “but Westerners already know how to flyfish. We don’t need guides out here.”

That night on a half-deflated air mattress I slept fitfully, the wad of bills in my pocket and an aluminum baseball bat at my side, wondering in my waking moments whether fly fishing guides were indeed superfluous in the West.

After guiding many fruitful seasons in Montana, I still lend occasional credence to this dreadlocked logger’s assertion.

* * *

It has taken me years to learn—I’m still learning — that a trout is a finger pointing to the river, an emissary if you will. And I envy these emissaries for their full immersion.

During my first summer in Montana, while wading a tributary stream I refuse to name, I attempted to share a holding line with a trout. It’s not only secrecy that keeps me from naming the creek, but also the notion that the creek remains nameless to itself, and two decades ago offered a visiting angler the privacy of dreams.

I was knee-deep. The current ushered dusk down a box canyon. The red rock had stored the sun’s rays, and alternating winds drew warm drafts from the crags, cool drafts from the deep shade of willows. Sunflowers splashed up from the bank, their seed-heavy heads bowed toward the water, by turns a mirror held to the cirrus rust streaked sky, then circus glass morphing the reflections into mesmerizing forms. Delicate, anonymous to fish that gorged on them but called by anglers Sulfur, Cahill, Pale Evening Dun, yellow mayflies clung briefly to the moving water, then poured into the sky like snow falling in reverse.

Disturbing the slick eddy behind a boulder, the nose of a large trout appeared and vanished. The water repaired itself.

I made a single instinctual cast, hooked the trout — it leapt high, knocking caddis from the overhanging willows — and fought it to the shallows flecked with granite and pyrite, small particles of the mountains I could not see but whose peaks I knew stood some miles away, severing land from sky. Holding it loosely underwater, watching its flaring gills stir the pebbled streambed, I saw the fish as an elemental composite of its entire surround. Wildflowers dotting nearby hills had rebloomed in the red spots along its cheek; righting its form, its caudal fins mimicked the movements of a hovering kestrel’s wings; and the bluish-white of its inner jaw reconstituted the hue of the first, barely noticeable star dawning in the east.

Not large by Montana standards, the trout was nonetheless immaculate as it shook free of my hands and made for the depths. Anatomically, we shared little, save for our eyes, mouth, teeth, stomach, and intestines. I knew I could only momentarily enter its world, could not survive long in the element that sustained it, and yet I desired a deeper connection than our hook and line dance had allowed for. I stowed my fly rod and vest in the osiers willows, shucked my fish slime-soiled shirt, and, wading back into the creek, sussed the depth of the hole. I porpoised, stroked hard for the bottom, and embraced a boulder.

When my breath ran out, I surfaced. Though I was miles from the truck and any semblance of society, I looked around to make sure there’d been no witnesses, a bit embarrassed by my strange rite. Walking to the truck in the dark, I was consoled by a thought: perhaps the most authentic ceremonies are the least planned.

The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water is due out in October of 2022 from Milkweed Editions. However, MH subscribers will have a chance to secure an advance signed, hardcover edition before that.

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