Tension in Transition

Overcoming a case of seasonal schizophrenia. 

Walking past the fly-rod bucket in our garage to return my skis to their “in-season” rack, I feel that familiar anxiety caused by the cognitive dissonance of the equinox. The last time that spring bubbled was back in November. With the first storms of early winter came the same old questions: Do I skin up Bridger for a few turns, or do I keep my hunting boots on and continue the search for a late-season bull? Do I ride my dirtbike or start prepping my sled? Do I try for one more brown trout wearing the brilliant colors of the spawn, or do I head to the prairie to chase pheasants with my trusty bird dog?

By Christmas, winter has settled in. The answer to that weekly question of what and where is joyfully simple: ski where the snow is best. What a relief to do just one thing for a while, to actually go up a steady learning curve, dialing in both body and gear. Sure, I might auger a hole in the ice and catch some trout for dinner (if snowflakes haven’t hit the mountains for a while), but week-in and week-out the plan doesn’t require deliberation. I’m going skiing, which will be followed by time spent in front of the fireplace with a bottle of vino or a favorite dark beer.

And then spring begins… and that internal peace is shattered. The season that will push my attempts at “mindfulness” beyond their sidecountry boundaries has started with all the concomitant conflict of heart and mind, activity and gear. Way out west in the valley toward Three Forks, the snow has blown away and daytime highs push into the 60s. Do I go for a bike ride? But what about bluebird spring skiing on exactly the same day? And won’t midges be hatching on the Madison this afternoon if it clouds up? And then my hunting buddy tells me that big tom turkeys are starting to gobble in eastern Montana, and follows up with a question about hunting spring bear. Passing by the garage kennel, my dog gives me a look that awakens my near-clinical guilt complex: When are we gonna hit up some spring field trials, Master? Then I receive a message that one of my Facebook groups is planning a trip to Moab and needs to know who’s in.

It’s early April. There are three more months of this cacophony of heart, mind, and activity. (If Cooke had a big snow year, maybe four.) It’s about this time that I start thinking about committing to one pursuit and selling off everything related to all other pastimes, dogs included. But then many years of therapy remind me that this minimalistic notion is just a compulsive attempt at more control over my life, and, like making an impulsive decision to eliminate a particular vice, it will ultimately end in failure.

So I begin extracting my waders from the Rubbermaid bin of their winter dormancy, the abnormal pale-yellow hue of the Gore-Tex reminding me that after 15 years it may be time for a new pair. Hanging them across the handlebars of my dirtbike, I also remember that I intended to rebuild the top-end on the motor while the snow was flying. On top of the work bench, my phone lights up with a weather alert: a late-winter storm is due to arrive by the weekend. I remember that my skis are badly in need of some warm-weather wax.

Thankfully, I still have to go to work, and my morning spent teaching high-school English will be a welcome refuge from the anxieties of spring. It’s Wednesday, and the pressure is rising to make some firm decisions for the upcoming weekend. But the key to spring pleasure is flexibility, experience, and awareness: you need to be aware of what to do, where to do it, and when to do it. Otherwise, you will doubtless be that poor sap who finds himself skiing in the rain on a slushy slope; being blown down the Madison River, fly rod in hand, in a gale of Biblical force; or riding your bike when it’s still too cold at Pipestone, where large sheets of ice in shaded patches of trail quickly remind you that you always pull your studded tires too soon.

And that’s why your stoke begins to flicker when scrutiny of the impending storm reveals that the snow will come in damp, but finish in the form of cold smoke, which will be skiable in the first few hours of the morning while temps linger in the teens. Further investigation of the forecast reveals an emerging, warming sun to peek out around noon. The snowpack will thicken but, by the time pinwheels trundle downslope and wet-snow avalanches whisper their warning, you’ll be on the banks of the Gallatin enjoying the pre-runoff flows and some of the season’s first dry-fly fishing. As evening moves in, there is likely to be a beautiful sunset and by nightfall, maybe even some IPAs beside the firepit in the back yard. The circle inside the rocks will blaze for the first time since the winter solstice. Sitting beside it, you’ll feel that tension in the transition start to dissipate, replaced by a deeper appreciation of the feelings that only spring can bring.