“Things wild count with me. Places wild intrigue and beckon me. They move me; motivate my very being. They’ve always been a centerpiece of my life and will continue to be so as long as I live… The essence of wild Montana is an undeniable part of me.” Dale Burk, Autumn 2017
Dale Burk loves the story of the blindfold and the Big Hole River fly-fishing legend.
It was back in the early 1960s. Burk had found a job in the rough-and-tumble town of Butte. He spent his own time exploring the nearby Big Hole River with a fly rod in hand.
On one particularly windy day, disaster struck when his rod snapped after an errant cast into the willows.
Back then, money was scarce and payday was nearly two weeks away.
The discouraged young man thought maybe he could get the rod repaired when he walked through the door of the small fly shop that Fran Johnson had recently opened.
As it turned out, that decision would change Burk’s life.
When Johnson determined the rod couldn’t be repaired and learned that Burk didn’t have the money to buy a new one, the shop owner pulled a six-weight, eight-foot Fenwick off the rack and handed it to the surprised young man. And then Johnson offered to spend time teaching Burk how to fish what everyone in Butte called “The River.”
“He told me that if I wanted to learn something about fishing the Big Hole, he’d take me down and show me a thing or two,” Burk remembers. “I had no idea at the time that meant several nights a week and sometimes the weekends.”
At one point, Johnson wrapped a blindfold around Burk’s eyes and had him cast into the river.
“He would ask me what was happening with my fly as it bumped along the bottom of the river,” Burk said. “I learned to fish by feel. He was literally teaching me to become one with the river.”
More than 40 years later, Burk can still remember Johnson’s laugh when he missed a strike.
“He didn’t have to do any of that,” Burk said recently. “He did it out of the goodness of his heart… It was serendipity. Here was this giant in the fishing community who took me under his wing. We became closer than close.”
That’s just one of many friendships that began in the great outdoors described in the Stevensville author’s recently released memoir, “A Brush with a Wild Thing or Two.”
Through a series of essays, the longtime Montana journalist and author tells the stories about how his experiences in the wilds of Montana and his relationships with the people who care about them shaped his life.
A third-generation Montanan, Burk was born into a logging family in northwestern Montana. He grew up hearing his father say that if he could see smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, they were living too close to civilization.
Free to roam the surrounding countryside as a child, Burk developed a kinship with wild places that stayed with him through a writing career that eventually led to him being the first Montana writer to win the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for Professional Journalists at Harvard University.
Burk’s award-winning work as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Missoulian brought attention to the practice of clear cutting large swaths of national forest lands in the Bitterroot that would eventually force the U.S. Forest Service to chart a new course.
“My writings allowed me to be involved in the issues of the day,” Burk said.
Early on, he realized his ability to write could open doors for him to experience new places and meet interesting people.
“I used my writing shamelessly to allow me to do things to broaden my perspectives,” Burk said. “I learned early on to approach things with an open mind. Over time, I made that into a discipline in both my professional and personal life. I don’t stand in judgment of anyone or anything.”
The journalist in Burk never left.
“I expect every day that something interesting is going to happen,” he said. “I want to be on top of that. I can’t think of a single time when I wasn’t sure that something could and would happen that would be profound.”
That willingness to be pay attention to his surroundings and be open to whatever new came down the trail has offered him countless opportunities to develop long-lasting relationships.
“All of those outdoor experiences over the years that I’ve had led to bonding not only with the wild things of Montana, but people who shared those experiences with me,” Burk said.
After leaving the Missoulian in 1978, Burk has continued writing while running a regional book publishing firm in Stevensville with his wife, Patricia.
“This is a book others have been encouraging Dale to write,” said Missoula’s former Fact and Fiction owner Barbara Theroux in the book’s foreword. “A book that was to tell his story and tell it, it does. Dale is a storyteller so it should be no surprise that his memoir gives colorful insights into how wild places and things shaped his attitudes, writing and life … at age 12 he had his first piece published and he never looked back."
Three special signing events have been set up to highlight the release of book. They include:
• 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at Fact and Fiction bookstore, 220 N. Higgins Ave., in Missoula. As part of the premiere reading and signing event marking the release of the new book, both the author and Theroux will attend.
• 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 6, at Valley Drug, 301 Main St., in Stevensville. The signing is part of that community’s First Friday celebration for April.
• 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, a reading and signing event at Chapter One bookstore at 252 W. Main St., in Hamilton.