At the outlet of Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, a lonely dock stretches into glassy water over kaleidoscopic gravels, framed by the reflection of fearsome mountains.
The lake is only a few steps from a major parking lot, so it draws legions of tourists. It is not, however, the place to find cutthroat trout in late June.
I’d been trying for over a month to set up an outing with Ryan Zinke, the freshly minted secretary of the interior, who was born and raised in nearby Whitefish, Montana. I’d already met him once, at Alaska’s Denali National Park, but his harried schedule didn’t allow for anything more than a cursory walk on a trail that might as well have been paved. I wanted to see my former congressman, who has always billed himself as an outdoorsman—and who now oversees more than 400 million acres of federal public land, 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights, and thousands of offshore energy leases—in his natural habitat. In Denali last May, I’d floated plans to take horses into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, but in the end all I could wrangle was this 45 minutes of casting practice.
Zinke’s crew of aides and security people were assembled under shade trees by the shore. The secretary was wearing a tan fishing vest, slacks, and a pair of Keens. Absent his entourage, he might have passed for anyone’s unusually fit uncle: his hair has gone gray, but at 56 the former Navy SEAL still holds his tall frame plank-straight, and his shoulders are broad and athletic. He already had his rod rigged. As soon as I walked up, I checked out the fly hooked to one of his guides—a black foam-bodied number with a puffy white wing and rubber legs, segmented with purple dubbing.
“You’ve got a Chubby on,” I said. Zinke looked at me, then down at the zipper on his pants. “Your fly,” I said. “It’s called a Chubby Chernobyl.” Zinke laughed. “We killed them on the Middle Fork with this one last summer,” he said.
This outing happened just a few weeks after then Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter the night before a special election to fill Zinke’s vacated seat. Zinke had flown to Montana to stump for Gianforte, a Montanan by way of New Jersey who sold his Bozeman-based tech company to Oracle in 2009 for nearly $1 billion and had just lost the governor’s race despite spending $5 million of his own money. At the campaign rally in Billings, Zinke warmed up the crowd for the headliner, Vice President Mike Pence.
“You should not be afraid to say that you’re a Christian,” Zinke said, “and you should not be afraid to say, ‘The government stops at the mailbox, and if you come any further, you’re going to meet my gun.’ ”
The National Rifle Association loves Zinke. Chris Cox, the executive director of the group’s Institute for Legislative Action, has said that Zinke’s nomination marked “the end of a hostile era towards hunters and sportsmen.” But it wasn’t always so. As a state senator, freshly retired from the Navy, Zinke said that .50-caliber rifles were too dangerous for ordinary citizens to own. “He felt very strongly about that then,” Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, wrote on his blog. “Then, about the time he announced his candidacy for the U.S. House, he sent me a card saying he’d changed his position on .50-caliber rifles. Yes, a sudden election season conversion.”
Zinke’s moderate-by-Montana-standards position on guns and a handful of other issues, including climate change, annoyed the right wing of the state’s Republican Party. That Zinke was a fifth-generation native son, had been a starter on the University of Oregon’s football team, and had served two tours in Iraq with the SEALs somehow made things worse: here was a Republican who didn’t need to swagger around Helena behind the wheel of a lifted dualie. Zinke drove a Toyota Prius, which, outside liberal havens like Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena, is the vehicular way of saying “I’m from California, I’m a communist, and I love wolves.”
Read more at Outside.