Downrive: Into the Future of Water in the West

 In Downriver, environmental reporter and former rafting guide Heather Hansman takes readers along on her 730-mile packrafting journey on the Green River through Wyoming and Utah. Hansman’s adventure and narrative serve to explore the complexities of water policy in the West. Years of living in the city as a journalist left Hansman feeling disconnected to the rivers. This was a large contrast to her former days as a raft guide, where she lived seasonally between spring runoff and peak water flows. Hansman determined that in order to understand water issues in the West, she would have to learn from the river, conversations and her own paddle strokes.

The trip begins at the headwaters of the Green River in the Wind River range, and floats to the confluence of the Colorado River. Throughout her journey she meets with farmers, ranchers, city officials, raft guides, policy makers, and everyday folks. She attends public meetings, rafts with outfitters, tours dams, interviews ranchers, and spends many days and nights alone in the sandstone canyons. Her time off the river helps her to understand the convoluted nature of water rights, and she exposes there is truth in every perspective.  

Hansman chose to explore water issues through the Green River because it is the most important tributary of the Colorado River. It supplies 33 million people with water, and its over-allocated resources are threatened by increasing populations and climate change. Hansman is successful in making an abstract concept such as water policy approachable by braiding her own experience into understanding water rights and using less jargon. Downriver has been described as a more accessible and updated version of Cadillac Desert.

Section by section, she highlights the different ways in which the river is allocated: drinking water, dams, irrigation, oil and gas development, national parks, cities and ranches. The story moves along as she floats downriver while diving deep into anecdotal stories and research. She creates an engaging narrative by moving between her adventure and the faces and voices of those who depend on the river.

Hansman often takes a break from “policy talk” to reflect on her own perspectives and opinions she develops while on the river. She exposes her fears and lack of confidence while reflecting on her time spent alone. She lets the reader in, commenting on uncertainty, and reveals her humility through details of her skin cracking from the sand and sun.  

Boaters float the Green River, Utah.  Photo: Kitty Galloway

Boaters float the Green River, Utah. Photo: Kitty Galloway

 While she assesses the inevitable future challenges facing water in the West, she also provides some hope. Hope came from conversations on all sides. She says, “The places that made me the most hopeful were the ones where people were trying to get on the same page. Everyone works within their own reality, and sometimes multiple realties can be true.”  Hansman argues it isn’t an issue of good guys and bad guys, but instead, that all viewpoints and uses are valid.  The solutions have to come from everyone involved.   

Hansman reflects on how her connection to rivers has led her to care about conservation issues by saying, “And I keep wondering, maybe a little jaded, if it takes expensive, or intensive experiences like this for people to become attached to rivers. Do you have to know a river this well to champion for it?” Often recreationists argue that to protect wild places, they must experience them. What about the farmers and ranchers who depend on the river for their livelihood? There is a distinct difference between experience and use; Downriver aims to expose each all sides.

Downriver is an example of how a book can explore a complex issue through combining personal narrative and journalism. Hansman’s ability to bring water issues to life through her personal adventure broke down barriers to understanding the future of water in the West. Her story isn’t just about water, it’s about people who depend on water and its uncertain future.    

Welcome the new Camas co-editor: Jackie Bussjaeger!

Jackie joins the Camas team as a second-year Environmental Studies student focusing on Environmental Writing. She came to Montana by way of her home state, Minnesota, and has enjoyed the plentiful birding opportunities around Missoula. Join us in welcoming Jackie!

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Growing up in the Midwest, what did “the West” mean to you?

The idea of the West is one of the most captivating images of the American imagination. As someone who never experienced it firsthand when I was younger, the West was of course filled with romanticized pictures of wild mustangs, rugged mountains, and untamed wilderness. Most of all, the West was a land of unknowns, which is a draw for many people, me included. I had a feeling I'd get there someday. 

What about now? What does “the West” mean to you now that you are here in Montana?

Of course, anytime you spend significant time somewhere, the nuances of the community show through much more clearly than from afar. There's so much more to the West than its legacy of adventure and exploration, and its darker history of cultural genocide and environmental destruction. 

 I've lived in Montana a little less than a year, and there's a lot I'm still learning about what it means to be in the West. Distance means something different here--this is a place that hasn't been built upon the same way the towns and cities have been established near where I grew up. Landscape seems to have more weight when you can see so much of it at once here, far beyond the limitations of the dense hardwood stands of my home state.


Tell us about how you ended up in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program.

When I decided grad school was something I wanted to do for sure, I looked for universities with programs that blended writing, science, and environmental issues. I had experience as a writer, but wanted to fold an environmental focus into my area of expertise. The University of Montana's EVST program crossed off all my requirements with ease. 

Writing comes in all forms, for example, your background is in journalism. Can you tell our readers a little about your work as journalist?

I worked full time as the editor of two weekly publications just north of Minnesota's Twin Cities. The area I covered was a county that ran alongside the St. Croix River, which is one of the first rivers to be designated as a National Wild & Scenic Riverway in the 1960s. As editor of the papers there, I was responsible for assembling all my own news stories, and in addition to covering the regular city council, school board meetings, and police reports, I was able to chase the stories that mattered most to me. The closeness to the St. Croix and the values of conservation held by those living in the river valley quickly helped me figure out what I cared to write about the most. 


What role do you think writing and literature can play in raising environmental awareness?

Art helps us work through some of the ideas that make us uncomfortable about our existence in this landscape. It also helps us to celebrate the joy we feel in situating ourselves in those landscapes, of appreciating the many thoughts and emotions they stir in us. It's a way of processing, but also enjoying ourselves at the same time. 


What do you bring to the table as co-editor of Camas?

I have a lot of experience working with lots of different publications--from newsletters to books to lifestyle magazines to weekly newspapers. Jobs like those teach you how to fill in where you're needed, and I've stumbled my way into learning a little bit of everything. In addition to learning how not to freak out at all the weird, unpredictable logistical challenges, I was able to experience how truly pleasurable it is working alongside other people who are passionate about the writing we're putting out into the world. I'm thrilled to work with the rest of the Camas team, who are all connected passionately through art, environment, and place.


Can you tell us a little about your birding hobby?

 I've been interested in wildlife since I was young, but was inspired to take a closer look when an unfamiliar-looking hawk dropped by my yard one winter morning. Once I hit the field guides and found out that it was a red-shouldered hawk, I began paying closer attention to the birds and wildlife in my surroundings. They're literally always there, even in urban settings, and easy to overlook. In addition to just being beautiful creatures with fascinating behavior to observe, they can also tell us a lot about what's happening in the world around us that might not be obvious at first glance.

I'm not an ornithologist, and I still have a lot to learn about birds, but if watching them has taught me one thing, it's to keep my eyes open. 


The Terms of Winter

by Todd Burritt


A little over a year ago I took a walk around town. It felt good to get out of the house, but as far as walks go, this one wasn’t especially enjoyable. The cold weather shocked me. So much so that, later, I checked the numbers online: the temperature at midday was -10°F, and with steady, 30-mph winds, exposed skin was liable to frostbite in five minutes. Since I was gone for around an hour, it’s a good thing I covered my face with my mittened hands, even though it felt silly and caused my glasses to frost up. Meanwhile, the wind whipped tears from my eyeballs until I couldn’t see—not around the sides of my frosted glasses, and not through them. Now you have the full picture. I was stumbling along the side of a gravel road, ‘embracing winter,’ if you could really call flinching and weeping and blocking the wind with my arms an embrace. As in a zombie movie, no car dared pull over to check on me. Cold is pain, and at its worst, cold is fear. It carries some threat of the contagion.


The real struggle of the walk was the reason I walked at all. I was blowing off steam after spending all morning in the kitchen preparing rations for a long ski trip. In just a couple days, two friends would be dropping my wife and me at a remote trailhead in Grand Teton National Park. Then they’d drive home without us, and Jen and I would start skiing across the Teton Wilderness toward the Upper Yellowstone River. We hoped to pass through the most remote place in the lower 48, then spend days traversing the shores of Yellowstone and Shoshone Lakes, before pointing down the Madison River for West Yellowstone. We planned to be out for at least two weeks. 

Our safety strategy was to keep things loose. Jen and I agreed on this point many times in the months preceding: we would go only if it made sense. But after we picked a tentative start date, life, predictably enough, started to gel into place. By the time we had our ride lined up, and Jen’s work schedule dove-tailed into either end, we felt fairly committed. We even decided: so what if the weather is bad starting out? We’ll be out so long, we’ll have to see it all, eventually. With that attitude, I’d actually avoided checking the weather, and I hadn’t heard about any polar vortex.

That’s why it fell to Jay, on the ride down, to clue us in. It seems that right around Valentines Day, 2018, the polar vortex split in two. One mini vortex spun toward central Europe, while the other settled over Montana—where temperatures reached thirty below average, and Livingston broke its record lows the day of and the day after my adventurous town walk. While Jay explained, Jen and I sat in the backseat, looking out the windows at blowing spindrift, and looking forward to two weeks of camping out. These were deeply disturbing concepts to apprehend. At the trailhead, he and Kathy heartily congratulated us on our bravery, and drove away.



Some people say they love winter. I’d never go that far. When I’m cold, I feel like the subtropical primate that I genetically am—my life force feels profoundly, even alarmingly, under siege. Yet I’ve lived my entire life in northern states, and a distinct winter season is an important dimension to my existence. More to the point, I love the process to which winter belongs. 

Cultures that are closely acquainted with the natural world tend to understand things in terms of cycles. Dawn, day, dusk, and night; childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. Insofar as we divide these cycles into (arbitrary) delineations of four, the parallels between them firmly associate winter with twilight, decline, death. As an emotional climate, winter monopolizes all of the most negative connotations, and this has patterned our language, and inserted biases into our culture.


Today, the cyclical sense of time has fallen out of fashion. Power-holders like to think we’re constantly breaking new ground—going where no one has gone before—and that makes every implication of the “perpetual return” repugnant. I see disturbing parallels between Mike Pence’s anti-abortion declaration that “Life is winning again in America,” the mission of tech billionaires to make life “fair” by granting humans immortality, and the endangered status of glaciers in the face of global warming. All of these signs-of-the-times are logical extensions of a proud self-image—unlimited progress, indefinite advancement, cancerous growth—and to many, they thereby represent stepping stones toward some ultimate victory. A victory over death itself.

It should go without saying that the death of winter would spell the death of much more than winter. We are talking about a different, much more definitive kind of death: the death that is unleashed by Ursula K. LeGuin’s narcissistic dark wizard, Cob, or implied by Mary Shelley’s undead monster. The hubris of seeking to maximize life by dismantling the cycle to which it belongs is an ancient warning to which techno-capitalism systematically blinds us.


It would be an exaggeration to say that these thoughts brought me comfort in the last hours of artificial heat before our long winter tour. I also knew better than to ask for comfort. Fear of winter is a healthy fear, because winter is a fantastic adversary. By pitting ourselves against it in slow motion, like Jen and I intended to do, there would be no conquest. We knew going in that we could not destroy our opponent without destroying ourselves. But if we escaped with our lives—winning them back from the silent maw of entropy, if only for another season—we could greet spring as for the first time, and know the greatest beauty of all.

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Todd Burritt is the author of Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone. His second book, Cold on the Land, will explore the themes of winter and mortality in the landscapes surrounding his home of Livingston, Montana. He has a creative writing degree from UM.

Introducing Sydney Bollinger, New Camas Co-editor

by Marko Capoferri


[Editor’s note: as Camas Magazine Co-Editor interviews go, this is by far the longest one this blog has seen. As you will find out, there’s a good reason for that. Sydney brings to the position of Camas Co-Editor a pretty unique (in my opinion) background and set of interests among the already-diverse field of Environmental Studies graduate students, and she certainly brought that unique energy into this interview. I hope you enjoy our conversation.—MC]

Sydney Bollinger came to the University of Montana by way of her native Ohio and later Georgia, where she earned a BA in English Lit. and Foreign Language & Literature with a concentration in German at the University of West Georgia.

Sydney is a first-year graduate student in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana, and Camas Magazine is pleased to welcome her as its newest co-editor. 

MC: Growing up in the East and Midwest, what did “the West” mean to you? What resonance, if any, did the concept of the West have for you then?

SB: It never seemed real. I grew up surrounded by cornfields, so the idea that there were mountains, and aridity…it seemed like a frontier, like it didn’t really exist. There was this big blank spot in my personal map between Iowa and California. 

MC: How about now? What does “West” mean to you now that you are here?

SB: Being here, there’s so much land, everything feel’s huge. Being surrounded by mountains, I thought it would feel claustrophobic, but it’s actually very freeing, to know that there’s so much beyond what you can see and it seems like it’s not going to end. It actually kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d stand in the backyard during growing season: the only thing I could see for miles was corn, and it didn’t look like it ever ended. It’s like the ocean, in a way. 

It’s funny, these ideas of the West, of someone going out and exploring, of the frontier: it still feels like that to me, to an extent, because it feels like there’s so much beyond what you can see. 

MC: Tell me about how you ended up in UM’s Environmental Studies program.

SB: I had decided to study English for my undergrad. I thought, “I don’t really know why I want to do this,” so I kind of meandered through the program. I enjoyed the coursework, but I had no real direction as to where I wanted to take it. But I’d always been interested in environmental topics. 

During my undergrad I got to spend a summer abroad in Germany; living there really changed the game for me. They do so many cool environmentally-friendly things. I was always somewhat aware of what I was doing and its impact, but when I came back from Germany I was a lot more conscious. A professor suggested I look into grad school and I found this program [at UM]; it’s interdisciplinary, which I like, because I have no background in the hard sciences. 

From there I began to tailor the coursework in my final semester of undergrad to be environmental or eco-focused. My senior thesis was an ecological look at Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I had decided: “this is something I want to do, and I’m going to figure out how to do it.” And now I’m here. I knew what I liked, and I’ve chosen my path based on what I liked my entire life—which is why I studied English and German—so I might as well keep on keeping on with that. 

MC: Pico Iyer wrote that he once traveled to Asia partly “to see America from a different vantage point and with new eyes.” You’ve touched on this, but could you elaborate on how being in Germany shifted your perspective on the United States?


SB: You don’t realize how you live your life until you have to live it somewhere else. It was interesting to see how my habits had to change in order to work with something new, and most of the time it was for the better. 

I got to see how other people perceive the States. This was the summer after Trump was elected, so I got a lot of questions about America’s nationalism or patriotism from my German friends. It was good to hear people be critical of this place that not many people who live here seem to be critical of, or who just have the privilege of not caring. 

Living there allowed me to think about some things I have been fortunate enough not to have to think about. Like transit, for instance. Germany has great public transit; I never thought I’d get so interested in public transportation, at all, but now I’m very interested. I keep tabs on what Atlanta is doing with their public transit system, because it’s fascinating to pay attention to. I started thinking about how much trash I produced on a regular basis, because I had to sort it. I never had to think about what to do with my trash. And even recycling: we don’t know where it goes. It goes into the recycling bin, but what happens to it? We have no idea. Little things like that made a big impact on how I see our excess of consumption. 

MC: What role do you think writing and literature can play in raising environmental awareness?

SB: People will read entertaining stories. If you can get someone to read an entertaining story then you have an “in” to helping them understand a bigger issue, like climate change. It’s probably why I’m so interested in climate fiction [or CliFi]. 

One of the better examples of CliFi is Jasmine Ward’s Salvage the Bones. It’s about a low-income family in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The book isn’t necessarily about the hurricane; it’s about these peoples’ lives. But there’s still this background noise of not having access to any information about what’s going to happen to them, and not having access to information about why it’s happening. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, you can understand that what happened in New Orleans was a tragedy. There’s something very powerful in connecting with another human’s experience and understanding how their life may differ from yours, for these very specific reasons. So, reading a book like Salvage the Bones…I’ve never lived the characters’ experience, but I have the empathy to understand it, which means I have the drive to do something about it. 

Literature itself is not going to be the end-all-be-all, but getting people to understand each other is. That’s why things like Camas are important: it’s peoples’ stories of the environment and nature, and people connect to stories. You can get someone to believe in a story even if they don’t want to listen to hard facts. 

MC: Finally, what do you think you bring to the table as Camas co-editor?

SB: I think not having done fieldwork or outdoors work has allowed me to focus my energy and interest on environmental issues relating to urban areas, if that makes sense. Additionally, since I was in the humanities, much of my study was focused on human ethic and human connection, rather than looking at scientific theories (of which I know almost nothing about). In that sense, I’ve been able to look at culture differently, to see how people are thinking, to see what people are thinking. I think there is definitely a reason for including the humanities in environmental conversations, especially as we move toward increased environmental proficiency—perhaps my more theoretical understanding of environmental issues lends something unique? I’m not sure, but I’d say the entire amalgamation of experiences that contribute to Camas all bring something unique.

A Pebble Dropped in the Ocean

by Marko Capoferri

Big Belt Mountains (Helena National Forest) on a bluebird day as seen from the Montana state capitol building in Helena.

Big Belt Mountains (Helena National Forest) on a bluebird day as seen from the Montana state capitol building in Helena.

One of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe. — Norman Maclean

People everywhere, I believe, also aspire toward contentment and joy. Environment, for them, is not just a resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to, but also sources of assurance and pleasure, objects of profound attachment and love. — Yi-Fu Tuan

The bus heaves out of Missoula Valley under a thick inversion fog. It is January 11th, 2019, in the shadow of the longest-ever government shutdown; the heavy sky overhead really fits the bill. Nearby ridges and peaks of the Lolo National Forest sit obscured, but I know they are there. They are the landforms by which I’ve conditioned my life in this place. Without those physical waypoints to tell me where I am and how I’m moving I feel a touch disoriented, and my home makes much less sense. This is a metaphor. 

Some things about life in America just seem sturdy, like those mountains I navigate my world by; National Forests have existed since before my grandparents were born. Picture a satellite map of the West, and among that pervasive burnt umber tone are great swaths of literal forest green, the respite of clouds and messengers of water and air, havens of renewal and retreat. Some people even live there, making their lives in the secret folds of those hills. 

Spend 20 minutes with a geology textbook and with a little imagination you realize that mountains are not permanent. Neither are public lands held in trust by everyone equally. That’s another sobering realization. There are forces at work even within such a land-centric state as Montana willing to tear down what we have known for a century or more based on some skewed version of frontier mythos, of a libertarian Eden that never was. 

For as long as many of us have been acclimating to modern cities, another contingent of Americans have known the countryside and its preserved reservoirs of health and sanity and livelihood. The truth is, though, that we all know it. Wallace Stegner called this the “geography of hope”; “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” the fact that the land is there, always, at the rough edge of town or homestead, that it breathes and moves on its own terms, gives all of us a birthright sense of refuge, some intuitive comfort to recline against. 



I’m on a bus with 20 strangers, most about twice my age, en route to Helena to make our case at the state capitol building for retaining the “public” in “public lands,” for refuge and livelihood in perpetuity. The bus cruises along I-90 while I stare out the window and dream about this rich landscape (it’s a roadside landscape still worthy of dreaming, a rare and precious thing in modern-day America). The rivers run, the mountains rise, and in the secret folds of the hills I know that deer and elk, fox and mink and buried insects are making their lives in quiet profusion. These lands breathe, they move, they pulse in ways that humans can only guess at; it’s all a storehouse of mystery. If history is any guide, it would seem it takes a heap of foresight and altruism for humans to look the unknown dead in the face and let it be, but I’m willing to do just that. I think everyone with me on this bus is willing, and we’re also willing to gather en masse to make it known that we value mystery in a world that’s had most of the mystery whipped out of it. 


Helena, Montana feels a long way off from Washington, D.C. most days. It’s far, but at times like this when the federal government has failed, we realize we’re in an ecosystem: small swells cast a wide and resounding current, we feel the far-off footstep, deal with the reverb from every decision however minor or major. Our bodies and voices, it turns out, are necessary and dire things. 

It doesn’t often feel that way. To raise a voice or wave a flag in Montana can seem as weak and fleeting as a pebble dropped in the ocean; the ripples rise, echo, and fade, and nothing much changes. But, again, this is an ecosystem. There are no insignificant corners. We never know what chains of cause-and-effect might be rattled by our presence. In that case, it’s worth it just to show up.


And show up, we did. For one blissful hour you could almost forget about the chilling effect of a government shutdown or the threat of public lands divestment. The people showed up (1,800 attendees by one estimate), and the noise we made was true. Affirming. Among those who spoke to the assembled — including Senator Jon Tester, outfitter and guide Maggie Carr, and Governor Steve Bullock — the word “heritage” held a place of distinction, showing up in every speech and drawing ample cheers from the crowd. Heritage, a word which shares a root with heir, heirloom, and inheritance, words often relegated to stations of wealth. Maybe when that word was spoken we all recognized public land as our shared inheritance, and no matter what our bank account says when we kick off into the wild blue, that inheritance will be passed along down the generations. That’s a powerful feeling.


The certainty of place, the certainty that we are not lost, the certainty that the world and our lives have check points with names and definite directions we can follow, the certainty. — Richard Hugo

Shane Doyle, college professor and member of the Crow Nation, summed up his speech at the capitol by calling up our state’s many mountain ranges and their ability to make us feel at home wherever we happen to be: “as we travel around Montana, each and every one of us knows exactly where we’re at” by looking at and naming the mountains. And so, the fight for public lands goes much deeper than recreation and scenery, and just as deep as drinkable water and clean air: ridges, rivers, canyons, peaks, and prairies make up the lines by which we frame our lives, how we measure our paces and gauge the mood or movement of our days. 

I’m not just talking about visual or physical cues in the land, but about the names we’ve given them. We don’t often put much thought to how important these names are, but they make the land personal, plausible, relatable to our human narrative. “We call places like the Big Blackfoot sacred because we cannot imagine life without their healing presence,” Annick Smith wrote about one such place. “They hold our essential stories.”

We give space a name; it then becomes a place, a vessel for the stories we tell. There’s something especially reassuring about public lands, places that belong to all of us: the stories held there are shared by everyone and become the cultural fabric of a given spot on the map. 


Take Missoula, Montana. Lolo, Stuart, Sentinel, Pattee, Rock Creek, Ch-Paa-Qn, Bitterroot, Jumbo, Blue Mountain, Clark Fork, Rattlesnake, Council Grove, Maclay Flat: these words ring the Missoulian ear like tones in a major scale. Familiar and full of soul associations. These places carry the significance of myth or legend, but they are very real, so real we can see them, walk right up and touch them, put our stories into them, include them in our stories, and share in those collected stories with complete strangers with whom we may have little else in common. The land holds us, and in turn it binds us together. And we hold these places in common, places open to any who make the journey.  

The late, beloved Mary Oliver concluded her poem “Winter” with this couplet: “in this world I am as rich / as I need to be.” It’s a restful sentiment. A mentality of repose and gratitude made possible, for me, by the existence of open country and free access, and a veritable wealth of stories, experiences, and community. The land represents the kind of wealth where to “own” is never really at issue. To the contrary, we are as rich as we need to be because we have surrendered the desire to possess and to hoard, because as much as public land gives to us individually, it gives to every person just the same. It’s a wealth borne of sharing rather than keeping. In the words of someone’s grandfather, somewhere, “and you can take that to the bank.” 

Swallowed by the Canyon

by Nicholas Littman

Containment. The word arrived, fissuring itself in to my consciousness on Day 4 of our float through the Grand Canyon when the Redwall cliffs—800 feet of sheer limestone—shot up beside us. At first, it seemed to be a curious word to carry in a place formed by catastrophic, uncontained forces, but I let it stay and whittle its way around in my head.


On the morning of Day 3, a few of us had tried to make it from the river up to the rim. We jogged back into South Canyon on an easy contour then turned east to push up steeply. We climbed through layers of Supai sandstone, and could see the cool colors of the Kaibab Plateau—blue flecked with white—off to the north and west.  As we moved downriver, the Kaibab would slide in next to the Canyon and our rim would rise up to 7,500 feet, 2,000 feet above where we were now. Here the rim appeared attainable.

The Canyon had other thoughts. On top of the Supai layer, looking up towards the pastel Coconino cliffs, our route onwards was unclear. The launch time for the day was noon. We snapped photos, looked down on our toy boats below, and headed downhill.

On Day 7, we reached rimwards again. An hour of climbing took us to the Tonto platform. To the south, flats of red sand, barrel cactus, and yucca stretched for miles until they reached another rampart of sandstone cliffs.  To get there would take a few more hours. We turned around.

On Day 15, we punched above the Redwall limestone layer in Matkatimiba Canyon. The glaring sun and an indistinct passage through the Supai cliffs again turned us back.

Each time I tried to break out, the Canyon wanted to keep me. As the days clicked by, I acquiesced; I let the Canyon contain me.



Before rafting down the Grand Canyon I had been told that three weeks floating through it would be an impactful experience, one I didn’t want to miss, an experience that might alter the steady state of my life.  Mostly, I dismissed these thoughts. I had been on plenty of long backcountry excursions in incredible places. What would be different here? What would shift in me that had not already shifted?

Though I wouldn’t realize it fully until I left, from the first day the Canyon was scouring me down and changing me. As I settled into the belly of the Big Ditch, I let myself fall in line with its patterns. Measurement of time was the first thing to drop away. Counting time in days seemed absurd next to rock that was 1.6 billion years old. I took off my watch. My day adopted a timeless pattern: eating, rafting, eating, rafting.  Walking, cooking, eating, laughing, sleeping.

Slowly, the elements of the Canyon—sun, water, sand—folded me in. My eyes began itching and burning from too much sand in them, my hands became cracked and cut from dry air and sharp stone, and my cheeks turned red and hot from hours beneath the sun. 

As the days meshed together, worries from beyond the rim dissipated. I came to care about three immediate things:  understanding my surroundings, nourishing my body, and connecting with the fifteen other individuals I was rafting with. At times, the lack of thought I gave to the world outside the Canyon surprised me and seemed selfish and privileged: I had cut off from both the cares and the responsibilities of living in a society. On the other hand, what I came to care about in the Canyon seemed to be the exact things I should be caring about: taking care of my local community, allowing time for self-reflection and nourishment, and understanding my place. Everything else, all the chatter of our culture, had been stripped back and I was left doing something very familiar to our species for millennia—moving, in a small, close-knit group, to a distant destination, by way of water.


Movement by water should be nearly as natural as walking to us. From the Euphrates to the Nile to the Mississippi, the vast majority of human flourishing has occurred beside rivers. Rivers do the hard work of finding easy ways through complex landscapes and we have always followed them, allowing us to travel long distances, with minimal effort, through remote terrain.

As we settled into our routine of moving ten to twenty miles a day on the Colorado, the patterns of the Canyon became apparent. Constantly, we shifted from stillness to chaos and back. Most of the time the river would spread and deepen in long languorous swirls.  The current would became hard to find. And then suddenly—lunging and falling— it would become something else entirely—a frothing, seething nightmare with waves that would try to escape the laws of surface tension and flip our boats.


If you put a microphone in the Canyon over millions of years the resulting recording would mirror the sound of the river: centuries or millenia of quiet, interrupted by a volcanic eruption, or a massive flood, or a hundred debris flows at once carrying boulders the size of cars down side canyons. At each camp we stopped at, you could walk up a side canyon and notice the aftermath of violent forces. And yet, it all seemed to be still—in stasis—and in a few more turns you would lose the shush of the river and fall into a full silence.


I found myself adopting the duplicitous nature of the Canyon: I moved energetically outwards and upwards to capture the scope of it, but I also stayed still, stopped often, sat down and allowed myself be contained by it.

In increments, the Canyon swallowed me. I became accustomed to the call of the canyon wren that descended in tone and fizzled out at the same time.  I became accustomed to traveling through a world of hulking shadows in which the sun took a long time to greet us and a short time to say goodbye.

As always, when you lose track of time, it tends to pass by in a flash. And what you are left with when you return is not just distinct memories but an abiding sensation: this is what it feels like to be swallowed by a canyon and eaten by the crust of the earth; this is what it feels like to remember that you are made of the same elements as the red sandstone, the frothy water, the new, green cottonwood leaf; this is what it feels like to remember that these elements—our elements—are meant to move, to break down, to shift suddenly—to change.


Nicholas Littman teaches poetry to 4th graders for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and human-landscape relationships to college students for the Wild Rockies Field Institute. He has published essays in The Montana Quarterly, The Hopper, Blueline, Camas and elsewhere. He lives in Missoula with his wife. More of his writing and photography can be found at as well as in the upcoming Winter 2018 issue of Camas.

Longitudes of Home

by Tara K Howe

The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. ― Dava Sobel

I settle into the curve of the road when I drive to her place out past Glanville where the station transformers take power into the hills. Inhale wet straw, dew from hollow tubes channeling the history of the loess. This is not the prairie of my youth, but it could be. I do body and energy work for clients on hospice and I’m driving to see Pam.


The half mile stretch of gravel I turn onto from the main highway is my favorite passage out of the mundane and into surreal. I cannot see her house from here, nor the asphalt behind me. The smaller road, like a second order stream, carries me further through the Palouse hills and into the origin. I’ll make several more turns, gravel eroding to dirt, before I come to her daughter’s house on a clearing. The big shop looming first, the German Shepherd next. Every move inward, a deepening of my contract.

Pam is 84 and dying of cancer. Most older hospice clients are dying of cancer. She had tumors in the bowel that metastasized to the bone. There is something unique about the feeling of a person with mets in the very matrix of their skeleton. Tessellated pockets of emptiness, a hungering away of tissue, there is a heaviness coexisting with lack that typifies the palpable communication of loss to my fingers.  And because she is already on hospice, already in the final stages of dying no matter what we do, we have talked about the pros and cons of deeper pressure alongside her spine. On the one hand, no one really knows yet if deep muscular pressure can increase rates of metastasis. On the other, the pain in her back is sometimes so excruciating that her meds are not enough for relief.  The call is for her to make.


She loves the pressure, wants bare skin on skin; my hands to smooth instead of probe, balancing the way she necessarily receives IVs and changes of catheters.

I oblige.

Flesh is a multilayered universe. In our embryonic state, the tissue set to become our finely layered epidermal cells bathes with the origins of our nervous system—sharing sensory wholeness in the ectoderm before differentiating into layers of conversation. Later in life, when we touch, a tangible ring of emotion broadcasts itself. I am sad today. I am content. I am confused or mourning.  The most compassionate and efficient way to hold someone begins with acknowledging this overall state. We think, as Americans removed from so much basic contact with one another, that this type of discussion is New Age rhetoric, but the sensitivity with which we feel one another comes from a long animal past; an incredible evolutionary history that allowed us to determine the state of being of our kin, our enemies, our allies. Dogs often are the first to sense cancer in their people, and certainly are the ones to lay day and night by our sides when they feel our emotional or physical pain. Humans are no different in our potential to feel one another at this level. Some of us just practice more regularly and refine our conscious discernment as a result.


Pam is days away from death and sinks quickly and easily into a state I do not try to access. My time with Pam has become as much about Pam as it is about her daughter, Maggie, and the resulting conversations we have while Pam drifts, I massage, and Maggie quilts.

“My mother is an artist,” Maggie explains, lifting the footer of the machine to rotate the piece she is stitching. “She painted landscapes, even after she came to live with us, before she was too weak to get out of bed.”

Families feel you, too. They know when they can trust you with words, with touch, with the care of their parents, spouses, children.  I am always amazed that families accepts me into the fray. This is everything sacred, and I am a stranger.

But then I’m not. We are not. Together we are not only all dying, but we are all also trying to figure out what that means. I don’t know that I have any preconceived notions, but I certainly have senses about it that I have developed by being on site, in person with imminent death. And I think of the many houses I have been invited into.

Low-income apartments in rural Idaho, one floor, one bedroom, rented when one’s spouse got sick. Hospital equipment dominating the living room where a husband lies on the couch until discomfort transitions him to rented hospital bed.

Houses made from hand-hewn wooden beams, canning jars lining counters, grandchildren’s old sleds, toys and boardgames at the periphery, a country woman walking wood floors until the end.

Television and junk-food-filled kitchen/living room combos with photos of family from floor to ceiling. A sense of celebration in space, small arguments in the kitchen, cigarette smoke draping the front step, and a woman fading in and out in a backroom.

Sterile spaces. Motor homes. Hospital rooms.

I think of the map of deaths laid out over the Palouse, the reaches of regional care limits often extended because we are a small community and how can we say no to someone living just outside a reachable limit? I think of the map and I feel it, this being-ness of which I am a part.


I pass the power station on Highway 9 and become the ten acres of land inhabited by Pam as she died—with her daughter and son-in-law as they mourned—the turns in the road that implicate neighbors and cattle alike, and the ever watchful gaze of the shepherd. The overhead power lines lead me right to where Pam stood next to her own bed before death. Not literally; her body was bed-bound and nearly comatose. She was at the point of restless oscillation between consciousness and that other realm that seems to indicate a kind of personal discussion with death. She would occasionally open her eyes, speak a few words to her family or ask for basic needs like water and reassurance, and then sink into hours of body jolts and moans, lessening lucid moments, and the tether to life.

Still, I sat on the edge of Pam’s bed the last time I would see her and just held my hands at her ankles. I let my eyes soften, my expectations recede, and there she was, some aspect of her being standing beside her body just watching. I felt her body’s breath slow and calm as it moved down her legs. She didn’t do or say anything. She didn’t seem to know I was watching. She just stood there and took in the scene.

Pam died a few days later.

Maggie told me she seemed peaceful. That Maggie herself, and her husband and their children were able to say goodbye.

The longitudes of death that reach across the Palouse are inlays to my own sense of place through community, longevity, and impermanence; a marked integument of a land and people I have been permitted to touch and be touched by. When it rains, or summer-warmed midnight moisture settles in, I seep into these skins, surrender to the lay of the land, and I am carried home.


Tara K Howe was birthed by the insane beauty of the West and writes to all things embodied. She has spent most of her life in some form or another helping to foster human reconnection with land and body. Her poetry and travel stories appear in a variety of small magazines. Find her most recent outreach here:

Ode to Sagebrush Country

by Marko Capoferri


The Great Basin is wide open topographically but introspective in spirit, turned in on itself; and news from outside seems like mythology, rumor, entertainment…To think of a figure in this vast western space of the Great Basin is to see a solitary on an empty stage… —Rebecca Solnit

No place is a place until it has found its poet. —Wallace Stegner, from Crossing to Safety

A thousand praises have been sung for the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, Southern Utah’s red rock country. The American prairie stands on the periphery, not totally excluded from the canon. Even the Mojave Desert has received a few choruses here and there. There’s another region which seems to elude the recognition that has been bestowed upon those lands previously mentioned. Perhaps its austerity, its loneliness, or even its humility have kept it beyond the reach of popular imagination.

It should be established up front: I am an outsider to Sagebrush Country. I am not claiming to be the poet that Stegner speaks of. Nor is this intended as a comprehensive survey of our vast sage lands (found in every state west of the 100th meridian). But, to paraphrase Thoreau (a failed poet himself), I wish to speak a word for America’s lost dog of a landscape.

Basin and Range, the Great Basin, Sagebrush Country: these terms all mean something very different in truth, but in the imagination they all speak to a certain emptiness of space that is synonymous in theory. For my purposes they could be used interchangeably, and they all converge conceptually, and literally, in Nevada. To me, Nevada is the ultimate expression of Sagebrush Country’s uncanny otherness, some untouchable quality that repels as much as it intrigues. Nevada is where Sagebrush Country achieves its apotheosis. Obscure tectonic forces are pulling the land apart into a succession of ranges and basins, a series of rain shadows from west to east that drain the sky and dry the land by the time it reaches Utah. Being there and engaging the land with all senses is like staring into the void that stares right back into you. It demands an openness equal to the openness possessed by the land, or one will be sorely disappointed, even outright rejected.

And besides, Nevada has always felt lawless to me, another aspect which makes it my capital, my locus, of Sagebrush Country. It could be the legalized gambling and prostitution, or it could be the million-acre tracts of BLM land, that most-unregulated portion of our public domain. I get the feeling out there that anyone can get away with anything illicit, and they probably are. Which is a divine comedy, because there’s nothing there to hide behind, but there’s more than enough space to hide or get lost in. You could literally hide in plain sight because of the immensity of space; “vanishing point” takes on a real meaning. Where other desert regions give you cacti, Joshua trees, or junipers to break the plane, in the long basins of Nevada what you get are depthless fields of knee-high sagebrush, massive sheets of pale green static blending with the salmon-bronze of soil. The smell of heated sagebrush on the bush permeates the air like a warm and smoked vanilla. It’s a scent that you want to wrap yourself in. It might be one of the only inviting things about that landscape, to go with the soft colors. This is a hard elemental land of few rules with soothing sensuality and loaded with contradictions.

Across Sagebrush Country, there are few signs at the entrance to each town announcing the population, but inevitably there’s a sign announcing how many feet above sea level you are, and it’s always above 5,200’ (or, about a mile). Which says: “you are very far from the ocean.” Which says elevation decides character, not the number of people. Which says: “winter here is brutal.” A drive through under the stiff summer sun makes it hard to imagine winter. But then you realize: it’s always brutal there. There’s very little forgiveness.


It always feels like Sunday in Sagebrush Country, like the Biblical seventh day, like the world has just been created and only a couple of people are on the scene, somewhere far off. It always feels like people are somewhere far off. Where sagebrush is most prolific is also where you’ll find the fewest people.

I was last in Nevada on a Sunday. I camped with a friend in the Ruby Mountains the previous night and we parted ways in the morning; she headed northwest towards Elko, I turned to the east and the unknown, a shortcut to the two-lane road that would take me all the way to Missoula. The pavement soon ended. I rattled over 20 miles of dirt road, gritting my teeth with every washboard tremble, anxious over my car’s paper-thin street tires, fearful I would end up that city boy who blindly follows his GPS into the outback and certain disaster. In hindsight I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s dictum that a life free from fear would be a poor one: there was also an exhilarating sense that I was utterly alone, and thrilled to it. The only person who had any faint idea of my whereabouts was long gone in the opposite direction, and in my fragility I could truly feel the vastness of the unpeopled country all around. Although it wasn’t necessarily welcoming me, I chose to meet the austerity with a nod and a welcoming embrace. It was either that or suffer in exile. I reached into the arid void for reciprocity. It’s hard to put into words what I got in return, but some inner voice told me I was richer for having been there. Sagebrush Country isn’t a place for words.


Take a look around. Feel the sweep of space that curls outward and only breaks at the climbing mountains. This land rejects all desires. You can’t populate it with anything, because you can’t see yourself reflected in it; that’s why it is so appealing to me. It’s the starkest reminder that we have limits. At the same time, the gaze has no limits out there, goes off wildly to distant ranges with nothing human in between and yearns to go further over those mountains to find something civilized to hold on to.

One month ago, driving near Battle Mountain, Nevada, I listened to an interview with Luis Alberto Urrea in which he spoke these words: “I think liminal space is where all writers go. That place of crossing, that place of pressure, of two things meeting.” There’s an irony, an idiosyncrasy, of Sagebrush Country: it feels limiting and limitless all at once, a collision of thwarted desire and inspired longing in a vast, arid space. Sagebrush Country is enticing in its liminality, in the incoherent frictions that spark a sublime fire in the open mind.

Introducing Kitty Galloway, New Camas Co-Editor

by Marko Capoferri

Kitty Galloway is a traveler, no question about it. She’s also a traveler who is fortunate enough to have a firm geographical axis, a ground to call home, to defend, to represent, and to return to. From her native Bainbridge Island, her circuitous life route (including stops in Patagonia, New England, Spain, and other locales) landed her in Missoula, MT, almost a decade ago, here at the other end of the Cascadia bioregion. By all appearances, it looks like she’s planning to stay a while: “Montana has this balance of enough space and enough different values; people have enough space to think for themselves.” 

Kitty is a second-year graduate student in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana, and Camas Magazine is pleased to welcome her as its newest co-editor. 

MC: How have your experiences of other places changed your feelings about the West?

KG: The West has fed me a lot. Travel has bred a growing fierceness of love for this place, whether it is the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Northwest; I feel equally drawn to both. I ultimately keep circling back to Montana because of the access to wild spaces. It’s really unparalleled. And the community here in Missoula: it’s something I have not been able to walk away from nor have I wanted to. I just feel super supported, and there’s a lot of vibrancy in this community that I really appreciate. 

It has been necessary for me to leave, as well. Living in other places and traveling to other places in my 20s gave me perspective on how special the West–and particularly Montana–is, and at times it’s made me fiercely defensive of the region. I think that’s one of the reasons I am in this program [Environmental Studies].

MC: What do you bring to the table as co-editor?

KG: I’ve read Camas for years. My community in Missoula has long been folks out of the Environmental Studies grad program, and I’ve known a lot of previous editors of Camas, gone to Wild Mercy and other events. So I came into this position already feeling passionate about the magazine. I’m coming to the magazine as a member of the Missoula community; one of my main goals, then, is to connect Camas with the Missoula community at-large. Sometimes there’s a divide between what’s going on at the university and what’s going on in the community at- large. I would like to bridge that gap. Camas is a huge resource and there’s a lot of capacity for building that connection. 

MC: What kind of work do you believe writing can do for environmental causes?

KG: There is immense power in storytelling. For me, reading has been incredible for learning and growth; it’s changed my worldview a lot. The power that I see in storytelling is that, through writing, we have the ability to connect people to causes they may not otherwise know that they’re connected to. We are all much more connected than we often consider. I don’t try to write with the intention of changing someone’s mind, but I do think that writing has a huge capacity to connect people and to humanize causes. In reference to the environmental movement, that’s super pertinent.

One of the biggest issues in our country right now is that people are not listening to each other. I come from an interesting background: my father is fairly politically conservative and my mother is liberal. So, I was raised in a household where I was taught to listen. It was really valuable: learning how to share a story in such a way that it’s relatable. There’s more power in learning how to relate to people you don’t agree with than in yelling at them. There is power in story and power in listening to each other. 

Writing gives people the power to take a piece of information into their own private space and come to a conclusion on their own, in the company of a story. 

MC: One last question: dream job and/or place?

KG: My plan is to stay in Montana. After almost a decade in this town, I feel ready to build some serious roots. I’m currently on the lookout for land in or near Missoula, and long term would like to farm and write. I’d eventually like to build a homestead and work as a freelance writer.

Submit Now to Our Winter 2018 Issue: Fragility


Submissions are open now through October 12 for our Winter 2018 issue. We have chosen fragility as this issue’s theme to help shed light on the precarious place we are in: the one we sense in the smoke, in the diminishing snowpack, and in places loved transformed into places lost. Although “resilient” is a quality commonly attributed to nature, and one that Camas has celebrated over the years, more and more it seems that “finite,” “fragile,” and “vulnerable” may be more appropriate and timely terms. In the next issue of Camas, we choose to acknowledge, explore, and celebrate fragility. Great beauty, we believe, exists in what can be broken, both in the environment and in ourselves.


So send us your best fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art on fragility, whatever shape it may take in your writing or visual work. As always, surprise us, stun us, and aim to make us think. We are excited to hear what you have to say.


Lessons from the Salmon River

by Kitty Galloway


Not until I’m already neck deep in the river, pumpkin-sized rock hefted heavy in my arms and feet marching a steady beat forward, do I remember that I haven’t finished my writing assignment. 

I’m standing in a slow, cold section of the Main Fork of the Salmon River, on the northeastern edge of the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. I’m here on a six-day guided river trip and writing workshop, hosted by the Freeflow Institute. 


Freeflow, an exciting new program dreamt up by Chandra Brown, aims to help established and emerging writers alike "take (their) craft outside." Chandra, former Camas Editor, is the brains and heart behind the organization, and I was fortunate enough to join her, Nick Triolo (another former Camas editor) and Pulitzer prize nominee William DeBuys as they led a group of twelve writers including myself on this inaugural Freeflow trip down the Salmon.

This writing workshop is unlike any other writing workshop. The trip is guided, meaning that the rafting and whitewater component of the days are pretty much taken care of. The task set before us then, as writers, was to do just what Chandra designed these courses to facilitate: take our craft outside. We were tasked to focus on listening, looking and leaning in. Each morning we would gather and talk craft with Bill DeBuys. Each day a new topic emerged, around which Bill helped us build a discussion of thoughts and tools. By the time our cups of coffee were drained and the sun was just pulling its way up over the canyon walls, Bill would give us a writing assignment for the day to ponder. First cup of coffee done. Shade shrinking, sun cresting the beach. Break for breakfast. 

So our days went. Gather, listen, share, eat ridiculously amazing food prepared by our welcoming and enthusiastic guides, then get on the water. Go down the river. Our days found a rhythm. 


I’ve rafted quite a few rivers in my life and hiked a lot of trails, so this rhythm of quiet and movement through wild space is familiar to me. But the guided aspect of this trip, combined with community and attention towards writing was something new entirely. The fact that I was not in charge of steering the boat safely through rapids, making meals, or breaking down camp at first honestly just gave me anxiety. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. But gradually, after repeated reminders, I started the process of what Chandra reminded us on day one. This week on the Salmon offered a unique chance to be free of distractions, deeply for once, and to focus, really focus, on writing. This chance was a gift. 

Each day, I leaned a little further into the rhythm. Once on the water, we would navigate whitewater and explore old historical sites. I tried often to stop and notice, stop and write, reflect. I, like many writers, struggle most in writing with those moments before I actually begin. Beginning is the hardest. Those first few days I pushed against the slowing down. Wake up, listen, talk about writing, get on the river, go down the river, pay attention, fiercely. Take notes. Write down as much as you can. Later, early evening, we would arrive at camp and gather again. Over cocktails, we discussed the day, shared our words. So it was that each day was a new beach, a new lesson, a new stretch of river. 


This morning, halfway through the trip, our writing assignment had been to write two different paragraphs, each focusing on finding the telling detail of a place. We were instructed to look for the voice of a place, and do our best to capture it. 

We had plenty to work with. The Main Fork of the Salmon, classified as a Wild and Scenic River in 1968, has a long history as a peopled place. Several Native American tribes, such as the Karuk, Shastans and Konomihu, have a long history of settlement and migration along the banks of the Salmon. In the early 1800’s, European fur trappers started frequenting the river canyon, followed quickly by an influx of prospectors, miners and eventually homesteaders. The river now winds through what is technically the heart of wilderness, yet its banks still function as home and livelihood to many. The Salmon, then, offers profound juxtaposition. The Frank Church, at over 2,000,000 acres, is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Yet all along the Main Fork, power boats that were grandfathered in rifle the waters. The banks swing from steep, rugged canyon walls and open sandy pristine beach to functioning ranches, old homesteads and tourist attractions. The Main Fork of the Salmon feels at once remote and occupied. 


Today, we stopped at Buckskin Bill’s, a classic on this river. We also pulled over to soak in the magic of confluence where the waters of the Middle Fork flow into the Main. Further downstream, we stopped finally at Rabbit Camp, home for the night. Rabbit Camp is a wide, white exposed stretch of sand snugged up against high cliff walls. There is so much to notice here, to breathe in, to catch and spin into stories. Yet today was hot, low 90’s perhaps. Not terrible, true, but more sun than this northerner is adapted to. Chandra, at the beginning of the trip, reminded us that here, this week, we should do our best to take advantage of our time. Use this time, she told us, to lean in. Use this time to focus on your writing. 


Which brings me back to the river, where I’m standing now, holding a rock. Chandra was right, about this place being perfect to focus on writing. But when we arrived at camp today the heat was nagging. We’d been in the sun all day, and I was wilting like a tomato plant too long unwatered.  Writing. Right. Finish your paragraphs. My brain was moving sluggishly, when Nate suddenly hollered from the shore. 

“Who wants to play the Rock Game?!” 

Nate is a veteran raft guide who knows a thing or two about rivers. My brain clicked on. Intrigue. Water. Cool down please. So, the Rock Game. Have you heard of it? You find a rock, big enough to weigh you down. Then you find a calm stretch of water and some friends who are equal parts goofy and ready for a swim. Then together, rocks in arms, you all walk straight into the river, perpendicular to the current, as far as you each can go. 


Feel the sand, the tiny mountains of earth that the waves have made under the arches of your feet. Feel the cold, the shock of the water, as it creeps up, as you walk down. It reaches your knees, now your waist, now your stomach, now your chest. The cold is sharp, both jarring and delicious.  You keep walking. Now it reaches your shoulders, then your neck, now your chin. One last deep breath in. And you keep walking. The river is up above your nose now, your eyes, now up over the top your head. A few steps more. A few more steps. The rock feels heavy, oddly comforting, as you shuffle along below the surface. A gift, this ability to defy buoyancy. You are changing perspective.

Then, quickly, quicker than you thought, it’s over. Time to retreat. Your air’s used up and with it, this brief glimpse into another world. Drop the rock, push to the surface, off the sandy bottom, up, up… up. 

I break the surface of the river to a torrent of shouts and calls and laughter. Heads and shoulders dot the water around me, various distances from shore, and everyone is cooler now, and new. We shoulder our way back to the beach, leaving a tattoo of our time there and our antics on the river floor.

I never did finish my writing assignment that day. I’m realizing, like perhaps every writer ever, I will always struggle with distractions. But that day I shared what I did have. And the gift to be there, the gift to explore and listen and reorient our lives to this rhythm and flow of words was invaluable. This week on the Salmon for me was about writing, yes, but it was also a reminder of perspective. It was a reminder of the importance of committing to craft, and leaning in. 


This was Freeflow’s first year at it, and they did a mighty fine job.  So if you’re around next summer and want to get some college credit, or just want to spend a week on the river with writers, I suggest checking them out.

It’s true, that I never did finish that second paragraph. But it seemed like Bill forgave me. I bet he’d forgive you too, if it was a hot day and the river was calling. 





by Jane Sheffer

The Clark Fork River is breaking records. In April, just before the release of the Rivers issue of Camas, the long winter finally broke, sending torrents of snowmelt rushing into the river that flows through the heart of Missoula. The Clark Fork made national news as it shattered a 100-year record in mid-May, flooded neighborhoods, and carried mobile homes and propane tanks bobbing downstream.


Before moving to Missoula to attend graduate school last summer, a common question from my friends and family back home in California was whether or not I was prepared to endure winter. I am, I assured them, referencing the many Octobers I’d spent working on the trail crew in Yellowstone, or tracking wolves in the Lamar Valley. I have lots of cold-weather gear, I said. And I did. Sometimes it got as cold as 20 below there, I said. And it had. 

When my fiancé and I first arrived to Missoula, the smoke made our eyes burn. The valley inhaled the smoke from the surrounding wildfires and held its breath. Snow was the furthest thing from my mind. My professors apologized to my classes for the smoke-choked city – we were a fresh batch of newcomers, not a single native-Montanan among us, and I don’t think we realized what we were missing until the smoke cleared at the end of September. Mountains visible from the center of town. Snow still clinging to some of them. Cool drafts rising from the Clark Fork that smelled like algae and musk. And it’s true, what they say here, about the sky: it’s massive.


As the fires dissipated, its colors were adopted by the larches and aspens and maples. The trees cut off circulation to the unnecessary parts of themselves and flickered with a final burst of color. Before going dormant, the hills hummed vibrant.

After almost a year in Missoula, I’ve come to expect these bursts. The flurry of snow as it arrives, swirling and uncertain at first, then as a downpour that pops dazzlingly white while hushing everything to a whisper. In spring, the explosion of balsamroot and larkspur, dotting the hills like technicolor constellations. The rivers, roaring as they are unleashed from the snowpack. The eruption of flames that will arrive again soon.

These bursts envelope us so completely yet are so completely temporary. Whether they evoke delight or dread, they will happen, and they will end. I found a certain comfort in this as I endured my first Missoula winter, feeling heavy beneath the months of uniform gray that were nothing like the shimmering Yellowstone snowscapes that I’d thought winter was. Turns out that a frigid stint of 20 below ain’t got nothin’ on another gray, snowy day in February…March…April. Like the dormant trees and the sluggish river, I endured it, awaiting a time when I could surge forward again.

Summer 2018, It's Here!

Summer 2018 Cover Page.jpg

For the past week, I’ve been flipping through our newest issue of Camas rereading the stories, essays, and poems and admiring the photos within. This issue is the capstone to my time as Camas editor and grad school career. It’s the product of countless unpaid hours, the cause of sleep deprivation, and something I am tremendously proud of.

This issue, for the first time in Camas’ 25 years, has more women’s voices and art than men’s. Diane Raptosh, former Boise poet laureate, questions our idea of culture and language in her “Call It, Once More, A River.” Member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, Heather Cahoon, graces our pages with her “Horsefly Dress” using her native language to dissect the power of a name. Daqi Chen, a junior in high school, has her first ever published photo in these pages: “One of Kind.” And the natural deconstruction in Daniella Sforza’s “Fluvial Sands” still awes me with how well it fits the poem its paired with. The men have some pretty amazing pieces of work in the issue too. 

In this issue, like the last, we tried to combine those images and works of traditional nature writing (the beautiful plants, rivers, and natural features around us) and the more common nature that surrounds us today (culverts diverting waterflow, cabins that allow us to escape into wilderness comfortably, and dried-up river beds that are becoming more and more frequent with a warming climate). 

We forgot to put our theme on the cover before printing, but the image there by photographer Michael Anthony displays it perfectly. The snaking green surrounded by arid land is the story of rivers in the West. And the ability to take an aerial shot of it is a part of our new story.


Prairie Songs


By Rachel Dickson

Four years ago, in the Spring of 2014, I was anxiously awaiting the first Prairie Songs. It was my second semester as an undergraduate student at the University of Montana, and I was in my first of the two internships I would eventually hold with Camas Magazine. I’d enjoyed my work as an editor with Big Sky High School’s literary magazine Aerie, where I’d helped coordinate and host some reading-oriented fundraising events in the Missoula community. When I started at Camas, I was eager to work on similar projects, and also to collaborate with the coeditors at the time, Caroline Stephens and Melissa Wardlow. 

As soon as I started, we began brainstorming ideas to create a new Camas event that spring. I watercolor painted a Camas flower and made a poster for the event while Caroline and Melissa reached out to local authors to read. We sat down together and thought of what we should call our event, finally settling on "Prairie Songs: an evening of Montana reading, music, and celebration." After a semester of brainstorming and coordination, we secured the Top Hat as our venue and confirmed the line-up of eight incredible local authors including David James Duncan, Annick Smith, and Richard Manning.

Our goal was to create an event that would continue into the future and widen the community surrounding and supporting Camas. When I first starting working with the magazine, the community felt relatively small. Not many people in Missoula seemed to know about Camas, and our Spring reading series, Wild Mercy, always seemed to draw in the same crowd of Environmental Studies students and their friends. I really wanted to change that. Creating an annual community event where people would come together to support the wonderful work of Camas and the extraordinary writing community we are lucky to be surrounded with in Missoula seemed like a great way to do it. 


The first Prairie Songs was, in my somewhat biased view, a raging success. The Top Hat was packed full of people, and audience members laughed and cried in the same night - always a sure sign of a good event. To this day, my mom and I still often bring up Bryce Andrews's Weiner Dog Tale, which left the audience laughing so hard they cried, myself included. I remember looking around while he told his story and realizing what a powerful event we’d created. I realized that not just Camas, but the Missoula community needed this event to continue into the future. 

I’m happy to say that Prairie Songs was not only a success in 2014, but has been an annual success ever since. It’s been wonderful to return to this reading every year and see how the community surrounding Camas continues to expand and widen. Events like Prairie Songs are important in their capacity to connect our community. When we can appreciate a story together under the same roof or around the same table, we can begin to appreciate each other and the environment and community we are a part of. 


This year, Prairie Songs will be held at Western Cider and we will once again get to hear the stories of David James Duncan and Richard Manning. Prepare yourselves for tears and laughter and a night to remember. Really, what could be better than drinking cider, eating local food (a $10 donation at the door will get you some local soup, bread, and the latest issue of Camas) and hearing two of Montana’s best loved writers read you stories? I hope to see you on May 3rd at 6:30 for the fifth year of Prairie Songs. It’s an event you don’t want to miss. 

River People


by Kitty Galloway

I spent years in my twenties posing as a river person. I was a writer and an artist with a strong pull to mountains, but I had graduated college with a degree in environmental education, and my path led me to Missoula, Montana. Missoula, as it turns out, is a town that has a thing for rivers.

In Missoula, I soon started dating a rafter, and it all fell into place from there. Within months, I landed a job as an environmental educator working for a nonprofit that taught about water. Though I knew a lot about teaching, I knew less about water, so I attended water conferences, read studies, and learned from people who did know. There are over a dozen organizations in Missoula that focus specifically on rivers. Fly fishers, rafters, hydrologists, kayakers, paddle boarders, scientists, biologists and photographers all do their best to make their voices heard when it comes to rivers in this town. There is also the Missoula Water Quality District, the Missoula Water Quality Advisory Council, Montana Watershed Coordination Council and more. The list is extensive. People in this town care about rivers. There were a lot of people to learn from.

It would be quite possible to write an essay much longer than our magazine would even consider about all of the river stories and people stories and water stories at play in this small valley in Montana. There are many books worth of material just waiting to be written on the subject, and many that have already been written. A River Runs Through It, by Norman Mclean, for example. I will not try to even do it justice here. We are sitting below the site of the one the earliest and most substantial environmental and social justice battles in the country, that led to the creation of a Superfund site as well as a massive dam removal in 2008, the Milltown Dam. Clark Fork River, the river that indeed does run right through town, now flows free, until Thompson Falls that is. Most recently, we became a city that after much hard work and debate, now owns our own water supply. In Missoula, there is much to say about rivers.

I would argue that all of those years that I worked on and in and around rivers, I never felt quite in place. I’ve always been more comfortable with a backpack on and a trail under my feet than on a raft, or standing thigh deep in a rushing stream. But those years taught me that as it turns out, we are all river people. Our rivers connect us, as the water cycle connects us. Whether you drink water from a private well, from a city well, or from a reservoir, that water is somewhere along the way connected to a river, and that river is connected to your water.

We are all, it turns out, river people, because we all depend on water, which is something I forget sometimes. I used to tell students, as we talked about pollution and runoff and groundwater and rivers, that we are all down watershed from someone. Our water connects us.

This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and in tribute to that, our Camas theme this season is Rivers. Last week submissions closed, and our editorial boards are now hard at work, deep in the process of reading all of the fine work sent our way.  

We just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for your poems, stories and words about rivers. We are excited for the magazine that is taking shape. Stay tuned. 


Introducing Richard Manning

by Mason Voehl


On behalf of Camas Magazine and the University of Montana, I have the privilege to acknowledge and introduce this spring’s Distinguished Kittredge Visiting Writer and Camas Magazine’s featured writer, Richard Manning.

William Kittredge has said about him: “Richard Manning is the most significant social critic in the northern Rockies and short-grass plains. [...] We’re fortunate to have Dick Manning as he continues his demands for fairness while casting light on our future.”

Richard Manning graduated from the University of Montana with an undergraduate degree in political science. He has since written ten books, including One Round River, which was named a significant book of the year by The New York Times. He also works as a freelance magazine writer, and his essays and articles can be found in Harper’sProceedings of the American Philosophical SocietyWiredMen’s JournalOnEarthThe Los Angeles Times, American ScholarThe New York TimesAudubonOutsideHigh Country News, and Northern Lights, among others.

There is so much more to say about the awards and achievements Manning has merited throughout his career as an author and a journalist: winner of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center’s Lud Browman award for science writing, Richard Margolis award for environmental writing, Montana Audubon Society award for environmental reporting, Montana Wilderness Association award for writing, three-time winner of C.B. Blethen Award for investigative journalism.

The list goes on. But I’d like to instead drop the veil for a few moments and speak from my experience of Richard Manning as a student in his current writing workshop.

Manning has an electricity about him that is both frightening and irresistible. He seems to know something about absolutely everything, and more often than not has written about the subject at hand to boot. Manning has an intellect of rare incisiveness: he can see into, through, and around a story all at once somehow. He can tell what you as an aspiring writer are trying to say, what you really want to be saying, and how what you’re actually saying isn’t doing either job as well as it could be. He has a reverence for the practice of writing that in turn demands a high level of passion and precision from both himself and from his students. We at Camas Magazine are grateful for this opportunity to engage with and learn from Richard Manning during his time on campus this semester.

The following is a link to the recording of last night’s Wild Mercy event at which Manning performed a live reading of some of his wonderful work:

Richard Manning lives in Missoula with his wife Tracy Stone-Manning where, when he’s not remodeling his house, he is a musician and mountain trail runner.

Richard Manning lives in Missoula with his wife Tracy Stone-Manning where, when he’s not remodeling his house, he is a musician and mountain trail runner.

Wild Mercy Is In Our Hands

by Marko Capoferri

Winter stretches itself to the breaking point in the north country. Inch into February, and signs of breakage appear here and there, including the blessed lengthening of days. Another of the signs, easy to miss, is in a little wood-sided building off a dirt alley in Missoula’s University District. 

Pick a Thursday evening in February. You could stand at a distance like a biologist, hear the rumbled hiss of an electric kettle, observe the accumulation of bodies into this warm, lighted space, filling up the neat rows of folding chairs, and quieting down to listen as one to a well-wrought story. To be transformed, or transported, or transfixed, by someone’s story. All of this for an hour or so of environmental writing. Wild Mercy comes every year like the seasons, and some of us look to the arrival of the reading series like we do the return of sunlight to our evenings.

Consider for a second, if you will, the concept of “environmental writing.” What images might those two words command in your mind? Probably something to do with mountains, perhaps a river flowing through it all, scattered clumps of wildflowers, maybe - in some very rare cases - an arid prairie.


If these shopworn images were all that were at stake, you could bet those seats wouldn’t be half as full as they tend to be come 6:30 PM on a given Thursday. That’s because there’s a lot more on the line than just aesthetics and yuppie insight; writers are putting their very souls on the block. This is what brings the people, week after week.

Is that a little hyperbolic? Sure it is. Sometimes hyperbole is close to truth, however. There’s a mutuality, a sharing of humanity, that takes place in a room where someone lays out their individual version of truth, with their own color, observations, trials and triumphs, to punctuate it. Throw in a corresponding sea of eyes and ears attuned to that individual frequency; it becomes less individual, more universal. Space and time tend to both collapse and expand, where everything that matters is immediate, as if the whole world is contained in that tiny space of the reading room.

So far in 2018, we’ve gone pretty far afield through the voices of our writers, and contained in that small, cozy room, we’ve gone there together. Emma Pfieffer brought us to the Statue of Liberty; Matt Hart, to the other edge of the Western world, Alaska. In between those poles, Rachel Dickson and Danielle Latuga kept us at home in Montana, and Mason Parker planted us in Oklahoma, right in the center of this ambiguous mass of land we call a country. We’ve learned that “a built environment is also an environment,” that “without access [to wilderness] there is no support,” and, in the words of Danielle Latuga, we’ve entered into spaces “where inner and outer landscapes meet and diverge.” A lot can happen in an hour. You ought to come and see for yourself; you won’t be disappointed. 

Wild mercy is in our hands

These words by the inimitable Terry Tempest Williams are invoked at the start of each reading, an incantation or a call to bear witness, like the sound of a tolling bell. It sets a tone.

I think of another idea espoused by Williams, that of “radical empathy,” the power of stories to collapse divisions and open pathways to interpersonal recognition. To file into a converted garage and sit on metal chairs shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers, in order to be swayed and enchanted by stories: all of us who do this regularly surely must have faith in that power, and a willingness to be changed, for the better, by someone else’s story. Show up to Wild Mercy often enough and the people you sit next to won’t remain strangers for long.

All this talk about stories, I’m reminded of another quote. Spend any appreciable time around the literary set, and Joan Didion's words will inevitably arise: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It seems funny to include here, because it’s not in short supply anywhere, but there’s a good reason for that. It sits with you like a line of the best poetry, like a stone you keep in your pocket and turn over and over to feel all of its details. Kind of like the best stories, come to think of it.

We do indeed tell ourselves (and each other) stories, in order to live. Some parrot the claim that we are now in a “post-truth” era. I’m here to say that truth is alive and well, and you can find it wherever a genuine and heartfelt story is being told. 

Another Pair of Hands

by Kitty Galloway


I was halfway across the intersection when it happened. The thin makeshift cords holding the precariously placed fruit boxed snapped, and in one slow motion moment, the entire 20 pound cardboard box of newly acquired loot went sliding off the back of my bike and into the street.

Peaches, precious, great ripe orbs, rolled everywhere. At some point, while the box was sliding, I’d felt the sudden backward momentum and stopped. I stood there, bike cockeyed, brain processing, peaches rolling away from me, into the middle of the road. Cars lined up at the light in three directions. Peaches rolled. The light turned green.

It is easy in our world right now to feel that things, quite simply, are going to hell. Is that too harsh a lens on it? I was in a graduate level environmental studies class recently, with a panel of professors in attendance to discuss a reading. The conversation changed directions quickly, when a student early in the class raised her hand and asked, “Are you ever scared?”

 The conversation swung like an arc. Forget David Brower. This one is real. Are you ever scared. Each professor took their time, danced around it, looked through it. The question hung heavy. Yes.

In the end, each professor said, “Yes.

Yes. And then they each gave us their version of how they found hope, anyway. They were older than us. They had an eye for the bigger picture. They believed in movements, in the quiet, slow strength and resilience that births change. They had faith. They believed people were becoming more aware, more socially conscious, albeit slowly. They believed that this world moves in actions and reactions, and we are in a time when people are reacting. It is a pendulum they said. They believed that people would come up with solutions.

“But I am scared for my grandchildren” they said. “I am afraid sometimes for your generation. And the next.”

 Are you ever scared? Yes. It’s hard to listen to the news. It’s hard to maintain hope sometimes. It’s hard to understand how people can be so terrible to other people, frequently, intentionally, and we are supposed to process it, and go on with our days.

I stood in the intersection and watched as my peaches rolled away from me. People on all sides of the intersections sat and watched, as my peaches rolled away from me. It was the height of the summer in Missoula, Montana, and I’d really splurged this time: spent more of my small seasonal salary than advisable but still, I know the farmers. And peaches only come around once a year. As I was biking home my brain was already setting up the canning pot, blanching and halving the sweet rounds, boiling light syrup with just a little honey, slicing vanilla beans. A bright glass jar of sweet vanilla peaches can go a long way to raising spirits in the middle of a grey, frozen February in Montana.

As the light switched to green, I panicked. All those cars waiting. Twenty pounds of valuable fruit, moving rapidly away from me. I dropped my bike and began scrambling. I felt all those eyes, felt the green light pulsing, felt the weight of forcing impatient strangers to wait.

Harried, hurried, it was a minute before I realized there was another pair of hands, reaching for a peach. And another, a pair of feet, chasing one down the yellow line of the intersection. Three boys, no older than high school, and a woman who may have been their mother had hopped out of their car, there in the road, to help me.

With five of us chasing down the rounds, the task was accomplished in a minute, maybe two. Every peach accounted for, sagging cardboard box and abandoned bicycle laid neatly on the sidewalk.

There was barely enough time for me thank them: that woman, setting an example. Those three earnest boys who chased down my fruit under the watchful eyes of three lanes of traffic.

This then, is what gives me hope. The people who stand up. The people who get out of their cars to help, even when everyone else is just sitting there watching, even after the light has turned green. 

Introducing Jane Sheffer, New Camas Co-Editor

by Marko Capoferri


The late civil rights activist Vincent Harding once said, in regard to fulfilling our ideas of who we are as a nation, that America is still a developing country. Ideas evolve as culture and places and people evolve. The subtitle of Camas Magazine is ‘the Nature of the West.’ Both ‘nature’ and ‘the West’ are terms full of ambiguity. They are ideas that are in a constant state of evolution, ideas that are worth continuous appraisal and reinterpretation from a multitude of voices and perspectives.

Our new Camas Co-Editor Jane Sheffer has spent a considerable amount of time exploring the nature of the West, first as a trail worker, and later as a field biologist, splitting her time between her native California and the Northern Rockies. She landed here in Missoula to put all of that experience into perspective and onto paper. She is a first-year student in the Environmental Studies graduate program, with a focus on Environmental Writing.

MC: When people say ‘the West,’ what does that evoke in you?

JS: My personal migration has been east, from California to Montana, which has shaped a lot of how I think of ‘the West’. It was interesting to arrive in Montana and hear people from further east talk about coming to the West. They would describe the time when they had first seen the Rocky Mountains and they knew that they just needed to stay ‘out West.’ I have come to associate that term with this area, Montana, because it’s not really something that you hear in California on the coast. I came to associate it with a way of life that is more integrated with the natural landscape and that has this certain aesthetic of openness.

MC: How about the word ‘nature’? I know it’s a loaded word, but what resonance does that term have for you?                           

JS: My immediate reaction is thinking of not-human elements. But, as I think as anyone in the environmental studies field will tell you, that perception really comes to morph and change the longer that you study humans’ interactions with the environment. At the deepest level we’re just as much ‘nature’ as anything else; I definitely believe that. By that definition, human-made things can be considered natural. It’s something that I am trying to grapple with in my own writing, which deals with the ethics of conservation and restoration, and the manipulation that’s inherent in us trying to revert things to a ‘natural’ state. I think on its surface, ‘nature’ tends to be a seemingly benign and simple word that, upon further investigation, is so broad and also kind of muddy. There are just so many ways to look at it. Camas’s definition of ‘the Nature of the West’ has a lot more to do with simply the way that things are. Maybe that’s all it really can be defined as: just a state of being that’s neither man-made nor not man-made, that just is.

MC: Gary Snyder defines ‘nature’ as ‘the entire phenomenal world.’

JS: I really like that. Because it’s sort of a silly endeavor to try to tease apart humans from nature; I think that is completely contrived.

MC: Could you talk a little bit about your writing and the work you hope to do in the Environmental Studies graduate program?

JS: My thesis will end up being a collection of essays that examine the relationships between humans and the environment, using my experiences as a field biologist with wildlife as a lens through which to examine that relationship.

MC: How might this writing you are working on align with the aims of Camas Magazine?

JS: I really like this particular articulation of the magazine’s mission: Camas cultivates a community of writers and artists dedicated to promoting ecological and cultural diversity and resilience in the American West. I love the idea of sharing experiences that serve to strengthen the core of this mission, to promote health among people and land and animals. I hope my writing can play a part in that, and serve that same purpose. 

Submissions Now Open for Rivers Issue

This morning I read an article in Mountain West News about “The Disappearing West” study. It begins: “Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development. And nearly half of all rivers in the West have been altered by human activities.” The in-depth study, commissioned by the Center for American Progress, lays out some shocking statistics about the waterways supporting life in the West: “Once known for their dynamic character, 21 percent of rivers in the West no longer flow freely and a total of 140,000 river miles, or a distance long enough to circle the Earth nearly six times, have been altered by human uses.” It’s an impressive thought. 


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This piece of legislation was created so select rivers that “possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” It is now responsible for protecting 12,734 miles of river in 40 states, less than ¼ of 1% of United States’ rivers. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

As a nod to the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and as a call for the work left to do, we’ve decided to dedicate this issue to Rivers. Submissions are now open, and we’re looking for the best of your work celebrating, mourning, studying, inhabiting, and protecting the rivers and watersheds in the West. As always, we’re looking for work (fiction, nonfiction, art, and photography) that illuminates the many faces of the West: nature, culture, art, and history. We look forward to reading and viewing your work.


A link to “The Disappearing West” study:

View the Disappearing Rivers map:

Learn more about the West’s in American Rivers podcast series: