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Shorewood Native Takes Readers on His Compelling Experience in the Wilderness

Susan Bence
Pete Fromm during his recent Milwaukee visit.

Plenty of people like nothing more than experiencing nature. Shorewood native and author Pete Fromm realized he was one of those people.

Fromm's, who lives in Montana, love for nature has resulted in five Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards.

He says his parents planted that seed - perhaps unknowingly - through family camping trips.

Fromm remembers a trip west to the Grand Tetons. “When I was 12, and I thought wow this is a really cool place. Those mountains are so dramatic jutting out of the plains, with the river in front of them,” he says.

The trip included a trip down the Snake River. “I thought I could do that again. So when it was time to go to college, I picked Montana out of a hat,” Fromm says.

His colleague roommate helped fuel Fromm’s passion. “A guy named Rader. He came out to Montana because he was in love with mountain man stories and read them constantly,” he says.

"It could get a little creepy when pretty much a stranger starts reading to you in a little tiny room, but he would pick out the coolest stories. Very romanticized mostly, half lies.” Fromm adds, “But we fell for them, so we really began wishing we’d been born 200 years earlier because we missed it all.”

This obsession lead to adventures, including a winter spent guarding salmon eggs in Idaho. “I was still in college and I got the opportunity to spend a winter alone in the winter, which I thought was as close as it could be to becoming a mountain man, but I had no idea what I was doing,” Fromm says.

He chronicled that experience in a memoir, Indian Creek Chronicles.

A quarter-century after his salmon egg experience, he was offered another opportunity, this time in Montana. And that experience is distilled in Fromm’s latest book, The Names of the Stars.

Fromm says his life was very different the second time around – married with two sons, who were 6 and 9 at the time.

“A fisheries biologist I knew saw me walking my boys home from school, and leaned out his car window and said ‘Fromm, if you ever feel like getting, we might have one',” Fromm explains, “He told me they were just starting this plan to introduce (arctic) grayling to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and they need somebody to spend a month out with them.”

Fromm’s sons saw no reason why they couldn’t come along. “I’ve been more of a leaper than a thinker, so I thought this was a great idea! Let’s do it," he says.

That dream didn’t pan out. The threat of grizzly bears was one of the reasons.

“Fortunately their mother said you aren’t taking the boys, and the Forest Service who was loaning us the cabin, officially said, no, you can’t take the cabin if you’re taking children back there,” Fromm says. He thought about not going at all, but his wife insisted he go.

“Why would I go then, and Rose was insistent said, this is who you are. This is what you do, you’ve always done this. She had the idea I was giving it all up for the boys…… I felt guilty about leaving them and this was something was so cool for them,” Fromm says.

He says writing the story didn’t come easy. “I wrote probably the most boring draft in the history of literature. It was basically me getting up, eating oatmeal, taking a 10 mile walk to check the fish eggs….occasionally getting scared by a grizzly bear. So I threw it away and started over," Fromm says.

He credits his French publisher for pushing him past the bad draft. Yes, French. Fromm’s books are popular in France. “Right, they’re wild about the American West. It’s still a very mythical place to them,” he explains.

His French publisher told Fromm the story needed more than oatmeal, walks and an occasional grizzly bear scare. “We need to know more. You have an incredible wife and two beautiful children, still you go to the wilds. Why do you do this – what is it that has made you so screwed up,” Fromm says the editor told him.

Fromm was taken aback by the reaction, when he shared the final product with his older son.   "He came down the next morning and gave it back and said 'I started last night, but I can't do it.....It's too sad.  Because dad, I couldn't go,'" he recalls.

The story ends happily, though.  Both of Fromm's sons have gone on to have their own wilderness adventures.

*Originally aired November 17, 2016

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.