Schoolhouse Duck Club, WAR, and the West

P1010010Lakeview, Montana Good friends are gold in these mountains, and because of that my son and I have had the opportunity to visit the Schoolhouse Duck Club nine different times over the last 23 years sometimes with other good friends and other times with the rest of my family.  The Schoolhouse is over 100 years old (1894 we think) and was an isolated one-room operation hard on the beautiful Red Rock Lakes in the rarely visited Centennial Mountains that are the rarity of an east-west range setting the border of Montana and Idaho.  Over the hill is the headquarters now of a similarly named National Wildlife Refuge that among other things protects the breeding area for the regal trumpeter swans.

But let’s be clear, the club came together because a handful of guys wanted to hunt ducks and this is a great place to do it!  I won’t name them in deference to their graciousness and not to abuse their hospitality to me and mine over the years, since I know they would be inundated with requests to visit, and this is a fragile place in a precious setting.  They had both vision and community.  They won the schoolhouse at auction, bought four Army surplus bunks, hauled in an ancient couch and chair, and with various upgrades (thanks for a great hot water heater!) have been in business since then.   Over the years we have seen as many as ten moose up the dirt road a couple of miles in one day (though surprisingly none this trip here), had deer walk into the yard, watched foxes play across the road, mountain blue birds dodge the truck as we drove past, red-tailed hawks sail above, and this time a pair of sandhill cranes buzz us over the porch.  Watching a sunrise or sunset across the Ruby Mountains and three or four other ranges in sight as the light plays on the lakes is a constant reminder of the breathtaking majesty of the west.

I thought a lot over these several days about this endangered environment and, frankly, culture.  Part of what warped my worry was reading bits and pieces of Sebastian Junger’s WAR, a harrowingly intimate view of life with our soldiers in the thankless quagmire of death and disillusionment in Afghanistan, in the last minutes of the night before sleeping.  His discussion of the bonds or in my terms “the community” of young men asked to do impossible tasks in terrible conditions with life and death at every turn was a reminder of the power of such ties that too many of us also rarely experience, understand, or really appreciate.

In a small, more peaceful, way, some of that same culture informs the West and lifetime projects like my friends’ duck camp.  Guns don’t define the culture, and it would be a mistake to think so, but they give it a weight that is hard to ignore.  My nephew had brought a 12-gauge with him on our journeys and he, my son, and I shot a box of shells at some inexpertly thrown clay pigeons alongside the camp in the last hours of light.  I hadn’t shot in decades, perhaps since Philmont Boy Scout Ranch.  It was great fun and an excellent refresher education in safety and shooting, but watching the care and caution of my son and nephew in the simplest exercises like habitually setting the safety on the shotgun and not shooting any errant thrown pigeons outside of the agreed range was something more serious that I watched more closely and will have to consider more deeply.

Sharing, caring, constantly lending a hand, unbounded hospitality comes from a hard environment out here with the risks of the field, trail, stream, weather, and dominating, immovable, uncompromising land.  All of this leaves a lot to think about as we continue to absorb the lessons and gifts of the schoolhouse.

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