portait of author john fraley holding a copy of his book entitled my wilderness life
Dec 11, 2022
Daily Inter Lake

Author Details Connection to Wilderness in Adventure Memoir

By Kate Heston

John Fraley loves the wilderness.

Whether it was bull elk hunting at Pyramid Lake, snorkeling to conduct the first biological surveys on the tributaries of the South Fork of the Flathead River, or snowshoeing the canyons of the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Montana-Idaho border, which ended in a helicopter search and a serious case of frostbite for a friend, his new book is full of heartbreakingly honest anecdotes of adventure.

An avid outdoorsman, Fraley’s life has been a myriad of careers — a fishery ecologist, an outreach specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and most recently an author.

In his most recent book, “My Wilderness Life,” Fraley chronicles his life as he goes through college and begins his career. Intentionally, Fraley leaves out details about the specifics of his life, like his childhood or relationship details, to focus on his wilderness life. Fraley refers to the novel as an “adventure memoir.”

To some, Fraley’s adventures may seem extreme. But not for Fraley. He was always “armed with cheerful ignorance,” he writes in chapter three.

As a scientist, author, and historian, his previous books focus on the stories of past wilderness explorers — from Joesphine Doody, the bootleg lady of Glacier National Park; to Clyde Fauley, a Glacier Park ranger. The new book marks a transition for Fraley as it details his own life.

Growing up near a creek in Pennsylvania, Fraley was consumed by wildlife and the wilderness. In 1972, Fraley came to Montana, and he never plans to leave.

Fraley graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in wildlife biology and then went on to get his masters in fisheries ecology at Montana State University. He ended his 40 year career in 2017 as the regional education and outreach specialist for FWP, where he worked since 1978 when he was a postgraduate student.

At the time of his retirement, Fraley was working on his third book. His latest “My Life in the Wilderness” is his fifth book.

PREPARING FOR the book, Fraley spent three years speaking to many of his friends who are mentioned throughout. Photos helped him remember the trails, using the date and time metadata on them for more reference. He wrote a lot of the book in the Flathead Valley Community College library, where he is an adjunct professor.

“I had a lot of fun bringing the biology to life,” Fraley told the Inter Lake. At least four of the chapters describe Fraley’s time as a biologist in the wilderness, writing with a combination of personal awe and data-backed field notes.

These datasets helped Fraley add color to the biology he cared about. He was always focused on aquatic science, “his passion” he called it. Therefore, the book is a work of nonfiction that is intertwined with Fraley’s memories.

Compared to his other works, Fraley says that his latest work is much more focused on the spirituality of the wilderness he encounters. In a way, it is Fraley’s attempt at explaining the collective soul of the wild.

Something that Fraley writes a lot about is how he experienced that collective soul, specifically after the tragic death of his close friend Terry McCoy in the wilderness. McCoy was tracking elk for a project being conducted by the UM when his plane crashed around 25 miles southeast of Missoula, a few miles southeast of Cleveland Mountain in the Sapphire Mountains. Both McCoy and the pilot were killed.

McCoy and Fraley, both from Pennsylvania, met their freshman year on their dorm floor at the UM. The pair quickly realized that they were kindred spirits, especially when it came to outdoor activities. The day McCoy died, Fraley was waiting for him to return so they could go to Big Salmon Lake for a backpacking trip.

“We saw each other in ourselves,” Fraley said.

McCoy is a central figure in Fraley’s new book, helping to show how spiritual both Fraley and McCoy felt in the wilderness.

“Watching what happened to Terry definitely made me more intense in my wilderness life because he had such a short wilderness life,” Fraley said. “I saw how it could be cut so short.”

The book includes multiple of Fraley and McCoy’s adventures, as well as many other friends — including Bob Krumm, a retired newspaper publisher, who met Fraley during their first semester at the UM. In the book, Krumm is pictured holding an Arctic grayling at Heart Lake in 1973.

To Krumm, Fraley is one of a kind in terms of outdoorsmen. Krumm says he could outwalk anyone he had ever known, he is incredibly observant and his eyes are always scanning, and his knowledge about fishing and the wilderness was incredible, even at 18 years old. Often in his old journals, Krumm said he referred to Fraley as “the master angler.”

Krumm, also friends with McCoy, talked a lot about the lasting impact of McCoy’s life and death, something Fraley attempted to make clear in this book.

“We all went on incredible misadventures and adventures,” Krumm said.

At the end of the day, though, Krumm says Fraley has a genuine love of sharing knowledge to help others understand the greatness of the wilderness and his new book is included in that.

Fraley hopes to release another book in a few years, possibly a blend of styles used before. Historical, but with the presence of his own memories and spirit. In the meantime, Fraley continues to live his wilderness life. Each year since retiring from FWP, now at 68, Fraley walks 31 miles in the Bob.

For Fraley, exploring the wilderness is a way to honor Terry’s life. In a way, Fraley said, only the natural helps close the gap on the supernatural.

“My Wilderness Life” is available at local bookstores and gift shops, through online retailers, or through Farcountry Press at

Fraley will be speaking about his book on Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Flathead Valley Community College library, 725 Grandview Dr., Kalispell. Books will also be available for purchase at the event.