As we shoved off, I sensed only that launching the drift boat, or any boat for that matter, had been a hasty call, one that was unimpeachably mine. Rock Creek several Junes ago was treacherously high. It was also the first time I saw Dan Lahren row a drift boat. Having guided since the 1970s on burly Western rivers, Lahren was the right companion to have aboard.
For all but the least sensible, Rock Creek is raft water in June; we had chosen the drifter, though, because our fishing partner and mutual friend Jim Harrison had grown too old and unstable to fish out of a rubber boat. At peak runoff, with its boulder gardens covered by stained water, a Western freestone like Rock Creek in southwest Montana can appear deceptively innocuous and, with its relative absence of obstacles, can lull even a seasoned guide into a mistaken sense of confidence.
I took the oars initially, and the Clacka felt shot from a sling. Despite my heaving, the quaking alders and willows blurred by. The oarlocks nearly smoked. Kicked loose from the banks by rising water — the result of a thunderstorm in the headwaters, the severity of which we had underestimated — sediment and in-stream particulate ticked against the fiberglass bottom. Holding lies passed by like apparitions. From the bow seat, aiming well downstream, Harrison made a sharp cast with a weighted streamer, which landed, due to our warping speed, even with the port oar. On a straightaway, I looked back at Lahren and shook my head. Without my suggesting it, he had assembled the spare oar and pinned it, at the ready, under his thigh.
“Go another bend or two, and I’ll spell you,” he said. He spit a stream of Skoal over the gunwale. “I’d smoke, but the boat’s going too fast to light a cigarette.”
It took 15 minutes to reach a spot where we could eddy-out. Brown trout, fattened on aquatic worms and stonefly nymphs, were stationed nose-to-tail, it seemed, in a line of bubbles trailing off a grassy island. Harrison, the acclaimed writer best known for his prose and poetry rife with an eloquent and “ravenous love of Earth,” teased a parakeet-yellow streamer through the soft water and managed to catch a few beauties, but we regarded them as mere distractions. Our focus was on the beast that is Rock Creek in runoff. Even in average flows, the water’s steep pitch and middleweight musculature make for arduous rowing; on a day like this one, when deadfalls kicked loose from logjams can form new strainers or render impassable channels that just yesterday were clear, the river, inaptly named a creek, can take a boat in its teeth and refuse to let go. If you get sloppy or make a mistake, it will bite you.
We pushed off, and Lahren took the oars through a stretch of river called the Microburst, where decades ago on the tight-hugging hillsides a sudden and violent downdraft instantly felled a thousand ponderosas. Without missing a stroke, he slipped us impeccably through two tight S-turns; ran us cork-light through a tossy wave train; and, sculling masterfully, fought off a couple of grabby hydraulics. From the stern, I watched him scan the hazards ahead of us; he stayed four strokes in front of the river’s pending threats. When it came time to swap roles again, I asked him how he became so adept at rowing.
“Got good quick,” he deadpanned, “because I don’t know how to swim.”
While he remains one of the most respected outdoorsmen and anglers in Montana, Dan Lahren retired from paid rowing in the late 1990s after guiding scores of literati and Hollywood types: from writers like Carl Hiaasen and National Book Award-winner Peter Matthiessen to entertainers like Jimmy Buffett, Margot Kidder and John Heard. A meticulous fisherman whose sharp wit could hold serve with some of the generation’s most revered artistic minds, Lahren also came to be revered for his riverside haute cuisine, which often featured elk, partridge and morels harvested from the Absarokas that flank his home water, the Yellowstone. To this day, he picks apart a river the way an obsessively responsible hunter butchers his harvest: nothing, not even a non-descript tail-out, gets overlooked or wasted.
Back in Missoula early that evening, as we pulled into the hotel parking lot, our collective emotional state registered somewhere between relieved and exhilarated. We weren’t about to ignore our good fortune and planned to celebrate accordingly, having more than earned our “bowls,” as Lahren called the ample pours of vodka he planned to distribute. A fellow guide who had just dropped off clients strode up to my window and asked if I’d heard the news.
“Raft flipped up on Rock Creek. Guy lost his client, older gentleman with waders on. No wading belt.”
Lahren, Harrison and I sat mute for a moment. Then Harrison tapped his ironwood walking staff three times against the dashboard. Lahren took off his glasses and ran a hand through his sand-white hair, cleaned the lenses with his T-shirt, then looked through the glasses again, like he hadn’t seen something quite right, and put them back on.
“Gone?” I finally asked.
“Sounds like it,” the guide affirmed, shaking his head.
“If I had to guess,” Lahren piped in, “I’d say that last set of splits above the Microburst.”
“Yep. Far right channel from what I heard. Only two boats crazy enough to be up there today, according to the shuttle guy,” the guide said. He looked back at my trailered drift boat. “Where were you guys, the Missouri?”
“Indeed,” I said, “the Mighty Mo,” and, rolling up the window, I wished the guide goodnight.
Life can be so cruel, my two world-weary friends well realized, that Harrison attempted to share the lesson with my not quite 5-year-old son, Luca, that night.
“Your father tells me that you like to ski,” Harrison said, seated at our dinner table between Luca and me. “Have you ever seen a snow-snake?”
“What’s a snow-snake?” the boy responded.
To calm his nerves, Harrison smoked an American Spirit, a clear violation of our home’s no-smoking policy, as well as our no-smoking-near-children policy, but we had, given the circumstances, lifted the ordinance. Through the guide grapevine, we’d just learned that the ill-fated raft had flipped no more than an hour behind us and that rescue crews had failed to recover a body.
Around us, shoulder to shoulder at the table, sat my wife, Mary, and a few more mutual friends: another novelist, a sculptor and the retired chair of the English Department at the University of Montana. I filled their glasses with a Vacqueyras that Harrison had brought for the feast we were preparing, my hands radiating with heat from gripping the oar handles so tightly all day. Salivating at the leg of lamb Lahren was roasting and the foraged mushroom and wild asparagus sauté, I pushed myself up from the table and asked what I could do to help in the kitchen.
“You can sit down and enjoy yourself,” said Lahren, sipping his wine. “It’s just olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. Well-tended, I might add.”
I obeyed and smiled at Luca, who hadn’t taken his eyes from the goateed old poet.
“A snow-snake, son,” Harrison finally replied in his classic nasally delivery, “is a creature that lives under the snow and slithers beneath you while you’re skiing.”
Luca’s eyes went saucer-wide.
“When it finds you standing still, it pops its head up and wraps itself around your ankle, then pulls you under the snow forever.”
“My goodness, Jim,” blurted the retired professor. “Why on Earth would you say such a thing to a boy?”
“The world is a cruel place,” Harrison replied. He puffed audibly from his cigarette and, rarely overdoing the couth, hacked a grotesque cough. “The sooner he knows, the better.”
Dan Lahren learned very early in life all he needed to know about the world’s inherent cruelties. Fishing guide to the famed, nonpareil hunter and retired outfitter, renown wild-game gourmand, Lahren was born in Livingston, Montana, in 1955. When he was in second grade — back when Livingston’s fly shops numbered one, instead of several; before Paradise Valley became a literary hotbed; and long before it became Hollywood’s favored “reset button” — Lahren’s parents divorced. Between grades three and 10 he attended 11 schools in four states, including, at age 10, Mount Lowe Military Academy in Altadena, California. There he witnessed the Watts Riots; seen from his Santa Monica bedroom window, the glow of burning apartment buildings and overturned cars was “quite shocking to a mountain boy,” he recalls.
At age 12, his parents had left town, and Lahren was back in Montana raising himself in Livingston’s Murray Hotel — owned at the time by his dad’s girlfriend — working as bellhop, busboy, bar stocker and kitchen go-fer to pay for his room. It was in the Murray kitchen that Lahren’s culinary interests sparked, igniting a self-taught genius the likes of which would later impress such luminaries as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain, on whose television show Lahren appeared multiple times. This culinary virtuosity was a bright spot, though, in an otherwise hardscrabble “stolen adolescence.”
“It was difficult always being the new kid. Before anyone ever threw you a ball,” he tells me at the Mint Bar in Livingston over pork chops and rib steaks, “you had to show them you could throw a fist.”
Like our meal, 60-something Lahren is nearly equal parts stubborn Old West and refined, albeit reluctantly, New West. “My paternal grandfather was about 60 when he was feeding the brood sows and had a heart attack. He died in the stall, and the old girls worked him over. But I probably got the hunting gene from my maternal grandfather,” he says, taking his medium-rare chop by the bone and assessing his next bite. “So here’s to them. He homesteaded out in Wibaux and worked as a government hunter down near Fort Buford where the Yellowstone and Missouri merge. Taught me how to play poker and told me there were only two kinds of fighters, cheaters and losers. I was 6 years old.”
By his early 20s, Lahren found himself guiding for steelhead on the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula, a storied and compelling Washington locale, but perhaps not as compelling as the tale of how he arrived there. “I’d been on a pretty torrid two-year run since graduating from Manhattan High School [near Bozeman],” he recalls. “Tending bar in Three Forks, selling psychedelics and Mexican pot across the state on the side, drinking about a fifth of gin a day. I had a sense that my luck was running out, so I lit out to Forks, Washington, and started logging old growth timber. From there I learned to row my first drift boat, a ’57 wood dory made by Keith Steele from Oregon.”
Lahren didn’t return to Livingston until June 1981. “Dan Bailey had given me my first fly rod when I was in seventh grade, so I went there to find work,” he says. “Did you ever see the pictures of the women in the storefront tying commercially?”
“Of course,” I say, pouring wine into Lahren’s glass.
“I tied commercially as a teenager and always wondered how fast they could crank,” he remembers, adding that the Department of Labor put an end to the storefront tying over a minimum wage issue.
Just as quickly as the women disappeared from the storefront window, replaced with mannequins wearing Patagonia and Filson garb, Lahren vaulted up the proverbial totem pole to become one of Livingston’s most sought-after fishing and hunting guides, owing initially to noted artist Russell Chatham. “I had seen him in the Wrangler and the Long Branch [bars] as early as the ’70s, when he and Harrison and Tom McGuane, aka Captain Berserko, were thought of as people to avoid,” Lahren says.
After Lahren fished a few days with Chatham, the referrals began to roll in.
“You know whose company I enjoyed was Matthiessen’s,” Lahren says. “He would come in early September just after the August doldrums to fish with Jimmy [Harrison], and we would float the lower Yellowstone before the Bozemanites ‘discovered’ it. I remember a 4½-pound brown he caught on a cicada imitation way down past Big Timber.”
Matthiessen first showed up around 1990 with an inferior 7-foot, 9-inch 5-weight. “I told him it was a piece of shit,” Lahren says. “He replied that it was a gift. ‘From someone who hates you?’ I asked.”
Lahren built Matthiessen an 8-foot, 6-inch 5-weight Winston that winter. “But that old Eastern money will try to squeeze a nickel until it farts,” Lahren says. “He came back the next year with a reel that was even worse, a plastic thing that sold for maybe 20 bucks new. It had no drag and perpetually bird-nested. He asked if it could be fixed. ‘Sure, I can fix it,’ I said. ‘How?’ he asked. I said, ‘By throwing it in the river!’ ”
After finishing our meal at the Mint, Lahren and I make the short walk across town beneath blooming lilacs and leafed out cottonwoods to his bungalow on the banks of Fleshman Creek for a nightcap. We step inside the front door, and Lahren’s beloved French Brittanys hop off the couch to greet us, sniffing the foil-wrapped leftovers we’ve brought home. “OK, OK,” Lahren tells them, “soon enough.”
From a coveted line of pointing dogs, Spike and Stella were gifts from Guy de la Valdène, another writer and longtime fishing and hunting companion of Harrison’s. First edition hardback copies of Valdène’s cherished books Red Stag and The Fragrance of Grass stand out on the tightly packed shelf, mostly signed first editions from which a reader could easily cull a lifetime’s worth of essential reading on the American West.
“With all of these books around, do you get inspired, or would you rather they write about you?” I ask, referring vaguely to the many articles Harrison penned referencing his exploits in the outdoors with Lahren over the course of 30 years. In one such piece, titled “Danny Lahren,” Harrison compared their rarely found rapport to that of a “shrink and a patient” — one suspects these roles oscillated — and said he intended to book Lahren as a guide “until I drop dead of everything that is not fishing.”
For the most part, Harrison did just that, though after Lahren officially retired from guiding in the late ’90s, the pair fished together as friends, often spending upward of 60 days a year on the river. Like many friendships spanning decades, theirs had its share of rapid sets and loud hydraulics, but what endured was great camaraderie and affection. They spent Harrison’s final Christmas together in Arizona, a somber holiday to say the least, with Harrison, a recent widower, mourning the passing of Linda, his wife of nearly 60 years. After scheduling Lahren’s annual April return trip to pick up Harrison and ferry him back to Montana, the two said their goodbyes. It was the last time they’d see one another.
“All the people who I’d want to write about me are dead,” Lahren says, pulling a signed first edition of Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall from the shelf. He runs his hand across the cover and admires the classic Chatham image of the rugged Deep Creek drainage. “So I guess I have to tell the story myself.”