Kathleen Clary Miller

Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books (www.amazon.com/author/millerkathleenclary). She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula.


When our southern California visitors included twin 5-year-old sons, I realized that having been the mother of only girls wasn’t going to help now.         

“They’ll go exploring in the woods,” I announced, hoping the sole activity on my part would be sipping tall, cool drinks on the back patio while they built stick forts, watched for wildlife, and pretended they were Davy Crocket.

“For about 10 minutes,” their father stated just after they’d arrived, video games in hand.

Uh-oh.  What do little boys do in the country that won’t kill them?  I wracked my brain.

Fish.  They’d never been fishing.   Of course, my only fishing trips have been to Rock Creek, where I must grip with all 10 toes to hold my ground.  I called around: “Where’s a good place to take little kids fishing?”

The unofficial poll indicated Frenchtown Pond and McCormick Park, with a distant third being the place where Petty Creek meets the Clark Fork River.  “There’s a little beach there,” said one friend, “but there’s still a lot of water—you’d have to watch them carefully.”  That didn’t sound like an iced cappuccino and a good book.

No sooner had we opted for Petty Creek, feeling it would be more authentic and less crowded than I picked up the paper to read about slimy green algae that has invaded our rivers.  To swim or not to swim?

“No swimming in slimy waters?” asked another informant, who has a three-year old and has lived here forever.  “You’re no fun!”

Showering immediately and rubbing down vigorously with a towel was the prescribed after-exposure treatment, the news reported, so our visitors decided to risk it for the reward of watching their kids jump wholeheartedly into a natural stream.  They took to the water like ducks, their mother and father ready with terrycloth and reassurance (I turned my back on this exchange so as not to reveal unwelcome truth) that algae is not “gross.”

Fishing was a lesson in patience more than technique, as we fishermen know. Still, we all learned something: canned corn is good substitute bait for worms, which were sadly out of stock that day.  And we did manage to witness a bit of a piscatorial ballet when two fish jumped near one line – if not onto it.

“These fish are smart,” I explained to Connor and Ryan.

“Then why do they like corn?” 

Back into the car for a “scavenger hunt for wild animals” as their father provocatively put it.  I spy with my little eye – a deer!  A horse!  A llama?  That took some explaining.

We had taken our nature walk in the Ninemile valley the day before.  The trail leading from Grand Menard campground had revealed nothing wilder than our own dogs. But the boys loved the bridge over a running stream—not something you cross in suburbia.

We drove to Fish Creek, parked the car at a pullout, crossed stone beds to come to the water’s edge, watched the current pull driftwood, made boat leaves, and skipped rocks.  My husband told them his Montana story—how before he lived here, when he would come only for the summer, he would select the prettiest rock he could find, take it home with him and place it on his bedside table.  “That way, each time you look at it you will remember this spot in Montana—right here, right now.”  Ryan and Connor took a long time looking.

Sated for one day, we headed back to the Huson woods, barbequed bison burgers and roasted marshmallows over the campfire.  The portable video games lay dormant.

On departure day, we toured town.  The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was a must for little hands that like to wrap around antler racks, fingers that reach for black bear claws, and feet that run along nature trails.

But what’s a trip to Missoula, Montana without the Caras Park Carousel?  I expected the usual array of horses on poles.  What I got instead was the ride of my life!  Connor and Ryan thought so, too.

Their mother was lucky enough to accompany them down the Dragon Park slide while I contemplated lunch (always the best part of this kid’s day) at an establishment that might span the generations: Biga Pizza, followed by a sloppy double cone from the Big Dipper.  The perfect ending to a child’s perfect dream come true—and the 5-year-olds liked it, too.

“Can we stay here forever?” asked Ryan of his father at the airport.

“Wanna know my favorite part?”  Connor looked up, eager to outdo his brother and reveal his rating on the vacation.  I was guessing it would be the Dragon Park—maybe the swimming.

“That river where I found my rock.”