Seeing my father die changed my life

If you or someone you know thinks of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from anywhere in the US at 1-800-273-8255 toll-free.

The last time I went skiing with my dad was Easter Sunday 2020. Although a late-season storm covered western Montana with seven inches of snow overnight, the spring sun melted the white landscape by 8 a.m. But that didn’t stop my father, a man of endless optimism.

After having breakfast of moose sausage and eggs, he told me we would do a couple of laps in the hills above the house. I looked at him skeptically. But before I could protest, he grabbed his telemark skis, got our dog Walter, and went out the door. I followed him and could barely catch up. My father was already an ox when he was 66.

In 2016 my parents moved from Missoula, Montana, where they had lived for 31 years, to Potomac, a bucolic valley 20 miles east that lies between the Garnet Mountains and is cut by the wide and meandering Blackfoot River. Your house is located in a dense forest of larch, fir and pine trees with a view of a gentle meadow where moose graze in spring. I hadn’t lived in Montana for almost a decade. But just weeks before the ski trip, when the reality of the pandemic set in, I made an insane rush home from California, where I received my PhD in geography from the University of California at Santa Barbara. The world was full of uncertainty – few people knew how bad things were going to get, and there was no end to the pandemic in sight.

As someone studying the effects of climate change – specifically, how climate change can render large parts of the most densely populated places on the planet inhospitable to human life – I spent much of graduate school crying under my desk or panic attacks between classes. One attack sent me to the emergency room and another to student counseling, which led me to a local therapist who repeatedly told me, “There’s nothing you can do about climate change.” It got to the point where I started thinking about suicide.

When I drove into Missoula at 2 a.m., COVID felt like the beginning of a terrible new normal.

My father, Jack Tuholske, grew up in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of Saint Louis. Although my grandmother was a kind, persistent force, his childhood was chaotic. He was adopted at birth and lost his adoptive father young, shortly followed by his stepfather. As a teenager in the early 1970s, he fixated on the environmental movement, sparked by the revolutionary optimism of the past decade. But when he tried to emulate the 1960s, the only part he got right first was the drugs. In high school, he regularly injected methamphetamines and played with friends while stumbling on LSD.

Although he never stated who exactly helped him change his behavior, I did Credit from my grandmother for sending him to Wyoming for a National Outdoor Leadership School class. Weeks between the granite walls of the Wind River Range led to a lifelong love of the mountains and fulfilled him with his mantra of choice: All problems can be solved. He later told me that he “realized that talking about speed and talking about politics with my friends all night wouldn’t save the planet”. He started skiing and climbing. In his mid-twenties, my father had graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in political science and married my mother, who soon gave birth to my oldest brother. The three of them moved to Missoula so my father could attend law school at the University of Montana. He graduated with honors and immediately began his own public interest environmental law practice.

(Photo: Courtesy Cascade Tuholske)

Montana became part of him. He spent countless days of adventures – climbing remote routes in the Bitterroot Mountains with Dirtbag partners, telemarking with my mother on the Beartooth Plateau, and taking my brothers and me on backpacking tours through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. And he spent his life defending the state he loved. He tried well over 200 cases to protect Montana’s public land and waters and won dozens of favorable judgments in the Montana Supreme Court and the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals. He almost never lost. The cases he argued led to the listing of the bull trout – a char that chases any angler who has thrown a line in their black foot – as an endangered species. Thanks to that designation, there are now more than 30,000 km of streams and rivers in Montana, Idaho , Washington, Oregon and Nevada protected.

Its success depended on community advancement and partnership building, often among unlikely allies. It was only by cultivating the trust that he was able to convince Montana’s ranchers, tribal groups, and hunters and anglers to work with tree-keepers to achieve his greatest victories against some of the most powerful people in the United States. In an increasingly red and blue world, this was a rare achievement.

In May 2019, my father was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. His doctors said he only had a few months to live. But when we went skiing that Easter morning, he had already lived with cancer for a year and didn’t look sick as we walked down the meadow. I’ve seen optimism.

Within seconds we both fell flat on our faces. Huge clumps of wet snow clung to the bases of our skis. The night before, we forgot to divert our flood irrigation system and turn the meadow into a soup of sticky slush. Even so, my father stayed. He scraped off his skis and climbed into the wood above the meadow with Walter in tow. After 45 minutes, he found a shady, north-facing opening with still clear snow. An ear-to-ear grin spread across his face and he accelerated into one final turn. He died six months later.

One day at the end of February this year, I was skiing alone in Montana Snowbowl, where I learned the sport as a child. The temperature was below zero. Winter had arrived late but with full force and had dumped four feet of snow in two weeks. Such storms often cause inadequate climate optimism, which is compounded by social media feeds falsely declaring that all is well because the powder has arrived. However, the fact is that 2020 was 2016 the hottest year ever. However, the last year could be one of the coldest we will see in the future. As in much of the mountain west, the snowpack in Montana is decreasing and the spring runoff arrives earlier and earlier.

Cascade Tuholske(Photo: Courtesy Cascade Tuholske)

As I took the elevator in the cold wind, I thought of my father. From my return to Montana in March 2020 until his death last October, I watched him wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day, doing yoga and pushups, writing briefings, teaching remote law classes, and grading papers. Even on days when he couldn’t walk, he spent his afternoons with my mother and her grandchildren on the Blackfoot, fly rod in hand. I had to watch him die – watch him die – until I began to live with newfound resilience and joy. For my father, fighting cancer during a pandemic like fighting those who threaten Montana’s public land and water was just another problem to be solved. There was never any need to be discouraged. Instead, he lived day after day with devotion and gratitude. “I’m the happiest man alive,” the last words he said to me were another ear-to-ear grin on his dying face.

Climate change is also another problem to be solved. However, it does not have to be a monastic search for nihilism. In April I went skiing alone again. It was 68 degrees, 14 degrees above normal, and thermal records were broken across the state. The spring runoff came back into the Rocky Mountains early, forcing me to dodge vast expanses of brown grass as I cut curves through the soft snow. That day, like every day since my father died, I woke up to work long before sunrise. I returned from skiing and worked late into the evening. I no longer think about killing myself because of existential fear of the climate. It wouldn’t do anything to fix our climate problems. But pretending everything is fine, it won’t either. Rather, like my father, I try to be stoic in my resolve and to be optimistic to the core. Every problem can be solved.

Main Photo: Courtesy Cascade Tuholske

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