Wild Montana

July 21, 2014

Two horses nudge each other nervously, looking over each other’s withers across the fence, towards the treeline.  Two dark figures move slowly across the field, cautiously stepping out of the cover of the forest.  Jason’s eagle eye had stopped these slow movements, and we had turned the truck around and parked to watch what came out of the forest: two moose cows, one of the animals we had been watching for during this vacation and had yet to see.

We were parked near a pasture on a side road just off the highway headed from Browning to Cut Bank.  The horses were standing along the outside of the pasture, staring at these foreign occupants of what appeared to be their home.  I thought perhaps these horses had gotten out somehow, but we had seen others, and sign of more, roaming loose.  To this day, I can’t explain what the all the horses of Browning were doing outside the fencelines.  Jason’s theory is that they are wild, but mine is that they belong to the Blackfeet whose reservation land includes or borders Browning.

There is a story I read about a farmer in Browning who came across unknown visitors who got their vehicle stuck on his land.  As he helped them out, he asked them what they were doing there, and they told him they were scouts from Hollywood, looking for a place to film a movie.  They asked him if he knew where they could find some horses to film in a stampede, and he replied he knew exactly how to find those.  Turns out the movie they were filming was “Hidalgo”, and not only did the man manage to find them some horses to stampede, it turned out to be the largest free horse stampede ever filmed  with some 570 reservation horses taken part.  This 21 days of filming employed 100 of the Blackfeet and pumped a quarter of a million dollars into the local economy.

We drove further south.  We had the world to ourselves, green and amber colored hills rolling to each side of the horizon.  Outside Choteau, Montana, another dark shape moved on a hillside.  Again we stopped the truck, and again we reached for our binoculars.  A lone wolf trotted slowly down a hill, moving towards a pasture, crossing under fences, making his way over a small stream.  His movements seemed a little off, and we realized that he was lame in one leg.  Later, as we crossed into Wyoming, we saw a coyote dart into the road for roadkill.  His coat was coming off in patches, most likely due to mange, and he looked pathetically thin.  The struggle for survival is real for the wild animals.

We left the wild that afternoon, heading out of the backroads and on to 90, which took us through Billings and on to Sheridan, where we stayed the night at a hotel.  From here, we were headed back, into towns like Fort Collins to visit with my good friend Matt, to Claremore OKto visit Jason’s family, through the outskirts of Dallas and on home.  We didn’t take any more pictures or find any more interesting animals.

My journal lists that the birds we saw from this point included lots of hawks, robins, and ospreys.  The hawks were unidentified, except a Coopers Hawk.  In Oklahoma, we saw House Wrens making a home in his mother’s yard, and saw Greater Roadrunners, Common Ravens, and a large, beautiful immature Blue Jay with a trilling voice in a park in Claremore.  From here on out, we resort back to local adventures, finding local wildlife, birds, trails and wilderness areas until we can afford to get back out on the road again.


Hill Country Highways: Burnet, Durn it, Episode 5: One Year Anniversary

I am standing in a pitch black field. The darkness soaks up my coat and pants, and I can barely make out my bare hands. Dark sky protocol dictates that the only lights out here are four infrared bulbs: two marking the path, and two marking the edge of the shed that housed the telescopes that made up this observatory. A thin layer of clouds moved across the sky, blocking out the light from the moon and the stars. I am reminded of the poet Jim Morrison’s words: “Out here, there are no stars to guide us”.

The only glimmer of light was a tendril of bright far in the horizon, towards the city of Austin that lay about one hour drive southwest. “See that?”, he says in my ear, pointing towards the light, although I could barely make out his hand. “That’s light pollution”. I am not sure if I am saddened or comforted by the sight, as I try to become comfortable with the inky black. Civilization makes it mark on the land, but it also seems to represent safety. So many dangers could be lying in wait in the field.

Just last night, I almost was a danger to others, standing in the parking lot of the nearby resort, also under dark light protocol. I had a cart in front of me, and was wearing a blue coat, but it all blended into the darkness so well that a man nearly tripped over my cart until I moved it and coughed, frightening him.  I feel a little frightened now of what I can’t see; snakes, feral hogs, bobcats, all those creatures we saw scat and tracks of earlier on the trail.This must be how the night felt to the pioneers, and I try to imagine what it was like to have to make your way on your own through this forest, back when there were even more animals and dangers in the darkness. I wonder how many accidental deaths this blackness has been responsible for. At the same time, though, it is thrilling to just stand there in the field, blending in, until I feel like I am a part of this outdoor landscape, and not a stranger to it.

Just a few minutes before, we finished watching the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field 3D video, in which it feels like one is coasting through space.  We watched this inside the shed of the observatory, where two members of the Austin Astronomical Society gave us an hour long presentation on the wonders of telescopes and space.  We had just contemplated how small and insignificant we are in terms of space and time before I walked out into the field to see what it felt like to stand there on our way out .  We would have been able to marvel at the stars and planets through the telescopes, but the weather didn’t cooperate, which is just our dumb luck.
wpid-img_20141115_122541.jpgIt was last August that I brought you the first four episodes of our Hill Country Highway adventures in and around Burnet, Texas. If the reader remembers, we had felt some frustration over the fact that we spent an entire weekend out in a cabin in Lake Buchanan in anticipation of a special Vanishing Texas River Cruise called “Freedom Flight” that ended up being cancelled. We tried to schedule a time to go again later in the year, but ended up canceling our reservations in order to have the money for our wedding. I was still a little disappointed, but my parents offered to watch the kids this November so we could take the “Freedom Flight” cruise on an anniversary weekend.
Months ago, I secured the tickets for this special boat ride, offered just a handful of times during the year, in which rehabilitated raptors are brought on board to be released back into the wild during the boat ride. The lucky guests who have their number drawn will get to the be the person who holds the bird for their big release. I also made reservations at the Canyon of the Eagles Resort, a place very close to the boat dock that we decided we wanted to stay at one day after having breakfast there last year.
Two days before we were set to leave, we got a phone call – the boat cruise was canceled, again. The lake levels were too low. Looking out at Lake Buchanan, one can see what they mean. Even though this year is not a drought year, there is a vast distance between where the edge of the lake has been in the past, and where it is now. When they call this particular boat line the Vanishing Texas River Boat Cruise, it almost seems like a cruel joke. It is vanishing, right before our eyes.
In fact, the website for the “eco-adventure” company that advertised canoe, kayak rentals and guided tours out of this area now just leads to an unclaimed domain name. No one is renting watercraft from the shores near the resort, as it would be a long hike through the brush now to get to the lake, which is basically dried up to the Colorado River now, which used to run through its middle.
Anyways, Canyon of the Eagles Resort has a seven day cancellation policy, which meant it was too late to back out of the weekend now, despite the prediction of bad weather. It was hinted on the weather channel that there might even be snow, so this had us packing layers, gloves, hats, and preparing for the possibility of being holed up at the resort.
The resort is really a collection of four-plex cabins surrounding an inner courtyard, which contains a swimming pool, a rec room, a bar, a fire pit, and then a chef-led restaurant with a fireplace outside of it, which provides a good gathering place to show outdoor movies or host a live band. The rooms at this rustic lodge do not have TVs in them, because they want to encourage you to go out and enjoy the great outdoors. The resort boasts a “big backyard” to play it – it is surrounded by a 940 acre nature park, with fourteen miles of trails. Inside the park boundaries, down a long dirt road, is the afore-mentioned observatory, which hosts “star parties” most weekend nights at dusk. There are also nature programs, such as the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” snake program that was happening on Saturday.
Here a couple of pictures from the grounds:

The weather actually ended up being better than anticipated, so we were able to go out and play. These are the things we enjoyed over the weekend: road burritos from Buccee’s, hiking and geocaching at both the Canyon of the Eagles Park and Inks Lake State Park, cheeseburgers at Hoover Valley Cafe, a visit to the fish hatchery, birdwatching, a fabulous breakfast buffet and later romantic dinner at the Overlook Restaurant at the resort, a late afternoon nap, an astronomy program at the park’s observatory, a slow walk through the damp trails after a fresh rain on Sunday morning, chocolate truffles, more birdwatching, more geocaching, and a stop at Storm’s Drive-In in Burnet for breakfast.
Here is a video of what the bird song was like at Canyon of the Eagles Park (which, although on the same grounds as the resort, is managed by the LCRA and is a birding hotspot): if you can hear it

This is a list of the birds we saw over the weekend:
Redtail Hawk
several unidentified hawks
Turkey Vulture
Black Crested Titmice
Ladder backed Woodpecker
American Crow
Chipping Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing (possibly)
Long billed Curlew
Bald Eagle (immature)
Savannah Sparrow
Greater Roadrunner
Northern Cardinal
One unidentified sparrow – either Song, Bachmans, or White Crowned
Carolina Chickadee
Ground and Mourning Doves
Common Raven

On the way home: Crested Caracara in Brenham, Red-Shouldered Hawk and Killdeer in Marble Falls
With some other species sightings the past few months (Mississippi Kite, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, the two adult bald eagles), that brings our yearly species count up to 121.

We also found fourteen geocaches.  My favorites were the ones in Inks Lake (some of which I have been wanting to see since 2007), and a travel bug hotel in someone’s front yard inside a plastic fire hydrant.  Here are some of my favorite pictures from the weekend:

wpid-img_20141115_090527.jpg wpid-img_20141115_113859.jpg wpid-img_20141115_123237.jpg wpid-img_20141115_120821.jpg wpid-img_20141115_091126.jpg I don’t regret going at all, even though it was a real bummer that the Freedom Flight was cancelled again.  I am beginning to wonder if we will ever be able to do this boat ride, and we are starting to not care about it anymore.

Also, with the “Romance Package” we had booked, I feel like we probably paid a lot more for the weekend that I had intended us to.  I agreed to the package because it seemed like it would save us some money on pet fees and the meals we ate there, but it probably cost us $10-20 over what we would have spent (but then again, we never used our drink coupons, so if we had, we might feel like we came out even).  We probably won’t spend that kind of money on other anniversaries, but maybe just for special milestones.  With a new baby on the way, it might be a while until we can sneak off for a weekend getaway without children for some years, at any rate.

The food at the Overlook was awesome, but I think I ate too much of it, because I had a stomach ache for a few days after.  It is probably because Jason and I insisted on trying to finish our huge complimentary desserts.

The park was nice, and I want to come back another time, perhaps to camp instead someday, and perhaps with the kids sometime, so they can experience the observatory as well.  We had a really good time, and I am sure we will treasure the memory as the years go by.

Inspirations from the Buckskin Poet

For over a quarter of a century, a modern day Blackfoot troubadour takes the stage at rotating lodges in Glacier NP a few nights a week to bring the “Native America Speaks” show to park visitors. Jack Gladstone was one of the co-founders of this program, which is now celebrating its thirtieth season. His “Buckskin Poet” routine combines song, oral tradition, and lyrical poetry to share the stories of the Old West, celebrating his Native American heritage as well as famous figures of the time.
This program was one I was looking forward to during our visit, and although it caused us a mild amount of stress to finish our activities in time to make the long drive back to Many Glacier Lodge from our campsite, get the cash for the tickets, and get to the show on time, I was not disappointed in the end result.
We didn’t take any photos of the performance, but you can imagine how this goes: a one-man show, guitar hanging across his shoulder, with a powerpoint showing us illustrations that went along with the stories he told. In his poetry, Gladstone struggles to keep alive the oral traditions of his people and make the past come alive for those of us who have forgotten the details from history class. He tells stories about the people who first lived in this area, and what their names were for some of the landmarks and animals of this place. His stories about Lewis and Clark, C.M. Russell, his family’s heritage, and the place the buffalo held in their life stuck with me the longest, and I thought about what he said for weeks afterwards. He mentions the conspiracy of Civil War generals after the war to increase demand for buffalo from whites in order to justify their killing, in order to bring down the red man that were unable to be brought down by General Custer. He explained that when Lewis and Clark came over central Montana in 1805, the buffalo roaming the plains numbered around 40 million, and in less than 100 years, by 1899, their numbers were down to 1141.
I felt inspired enough by the words he spoke to write some of my own thoughts over the next day or two, as we made our way south through Montana to Colorado and on to Oklahoma. These are below, under a last parting shot of the Many Glacier area. Some mention animal encounters we had over those next two days, and none mention the two most hilarious events that happened during Gladstone’s talk (but perhaps the latter are left better unsaid).

Brother Buffalo, shaggy head
Where have all your places gone?
Yellowstone the only place left
That you can truly call your home
Lewis and Clark called your name
Pointed out your complete dominion
Over north central plains
And no one can deny your prime spot
In the center of early American life
But then the white man used you up
Cut you down
The plains where you used to roam
Some forty million strong
Now fatten cows
Grass falling flat under the thresher’s cut
Rolled into big bales
To feed America’s replacement stock
And now you stare at us
From Charles Russell prints
Scenes from Montana murals
Metal silhouettes on hillsides
In your shape
A tribute to what was
What will never be again

The Wild

We fenced it in
Gated it
Paved roads through it
But when night falls
This land still belongs to you,
Little Sister Skunk
Trolling midtown Moab gardens
Silent Wolf
Flitting through Montana woods
Slow and careful Moose
At the forest’s edge
Furtive Badger
Gliding through Utah meadows
Mangy coyote and lame wolf
Nothing left to eat in
rolling Wyoming plains
Since we removed the buffalo
And replaced them with
the Fattened Calf,


Meriwether Lewis, with his journals
His friend William Clark
Commissioned to explore the west
Find a way, stake a claim
Forge maps and reports,
Were largely forgotten for
One hundred years
Then brought back to life
Recorded in history books
Celebrated in roadside signs
Historical markers

Would Lewis and Clark even recognize this place?

The west is still wild
Make no mistake
Despite our settlements
Towns, cities, roads and stores
There are still a lot of wild spaces
Great open plains
Dark wooded forests
Chunks of time and space
Where cell phones sit useless
In our laps, no service

But those mountain passes
Which cost them so much grief
Places like Lolo Creek
Where their horses
Fell down mountains
And some had to be eaten
Now have roads going through them

The way has been made easy

Ancestral ghosts still linger, though
And their stories are still being told
By Blackfoot oraters
And celebrated in historical displays
This mark they made

Would Lewis and Clark even recognize this fame?

Ranger Jackie and the Waterfalls of St Mary

July 20, 2014IMG_20140720_144847There is a boat tour that leaves from the Rising Sun boat dock and crosses St Mary Lake, taking passengers to Baring Falls (above) and, if they are interested, on a National Park Service Ranger-Naturalist led guided hike up to St Mary Falls.  We decided to take this three mile ranger led hike to St Mary Falls for the safety-in-numbers factor, and also to learn more about what we were seeing and experiencing.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire vacation, in my opinion.IMG_20140720_171251

The boat ride starts out with a guide explaining the various points of interest along the way.  There were several interesting features along the way, including Sexton Glacier and Wild Goose Island.  I was most fascinated with this bit of rock, though, that I am looking at in the picture below.  GNP contains some of the oldest rock in the world, and this rock was told to be about 1.5 billion years old.  The rock existed before there were plants.  No fossils are found in the rock beds, even though most are sedimentary rocks.  The reason for this is that the rock was set before life as we know it began – even before algae, simple plants, before complex plants and animals existed.

Before this area was a mountain range full of (quickly receding) glaciers, it was an ancient sea.  This also mystified me, how a place can go from one extreme to another, and how geologic time is so unfathomable to our human brains, who have a hard time understanding how little time we have occupied in the grand scheme of planetary age.



At some point along the ride, this guide stopped pointing things out and introduced Ranger Jackie.  She stood up and for a few minutes, I thought she was a junior ranger of some sort.  Surely she was still in high school?  When she started talking, though, it became apparent that she was just a fully-matured woman, just diminutive in stature.  It didn’t take us long to become fans of Ranger Jackie.  She was incredibly kIMG_20140720_151116nowledgeable.  She seemed to know the names of all the plants and wildlife we encountered.  I think I want to be like Ranger Jackie when I grow up.

After our short visit to Baring Falls, she took the six of us who wanted to go on the extended hike to St Mary Falls, giving us a talk along the way about how the four elements of nature (air, water, fire, and earth) have worked in concert to create what we were seeing around us.

Along the way, she regularly would call out iIMG_20140720_151127n musical-like fashion “Hey bear”.  This was not to greet the possible bears along the way, but to let them know we were there, so they would share the “road” with us and not be surprised by hikers, which is usually when trouble begins.

I felt a little shy about calling out “hey bears”, but if she wasn’t doing that, I would have made sure we were making lots of noise.  Along the walk, Jackie shared with us that she had been a park ranger for five seasons in Kenai Fjords NP, in Alaska, before this summer.  When I told her I wasn’t familiar with that park, she said that if you saw a picture on the internet of bears fishing for salmon in an Alaskan river, it was probably from that park.  She was known this summer as a bear specialist.

Soon after we left IMG_20140720_151859Glacier for the summer, I heard a story about a hiker from Texas who was hiking alone and surprised a bear on the trail (maybe a lack of “heybears” on his part?).  The bear charged him, and he used his bear spray initially, but either the bear wasn’t stopping or he didn’t trust the spray, because he ended up pulling out his handgun and shooting the bear.  The bear was injured and ran off into the woods.  The hiker then reported the incident to a ranger on the trail, and soon the rangers and “bear specialists” were spending nights and weekends looking for this injured bear.  I thought of Ranger Jackie when I read about this, wondering if she was one of the ones out looking, and who she sympathized with the most.

St Mary Falls seemed sublime in its force and power.  I thought about a lady Jackie told us about in caution, who had lost her life in a river in Glacier just recently because she stopped off the trail to get a better picture of a waterfall just like this, and fell in.  I would not want to fall in these icy, swiftly flowing waters, although the cool blueness was enticing.



By the time we were leaving this waterfall, it became clear that Jason and I were both clearly in “Team Jackie”.  There was a moment even when I walked up to the two of them where I could have sworn, in another reality, that he was flirting with her.  I know he doesn’t have any game, though, (laughing), and even if he was, it was innocent and I don’t really blame him.  I would have flirted, too, and in the end it probably would have paid off more for me, since we both came to the impression that she was “playing for the other team”, so to speak.

I realized, though, what it was that we liked about her: her intelligence.  I have decided that Jason and I are probably both saphiosexuals – one that becomes aroused by intelligence and its use – and that this one thing, above all others, is probably what drew us to each other.  As much as I am attracted to him, it was his mind, and mine, and our early intense conversations that really sparked the flame between us.  Jackie was smart, confident, and outdoorsy, and in the end, we both like people like that.  We still think about her fondly.

After our two ranger-led hikes in Glacier, I have decided that I am pretty much a fan of ranger-led hikes, because I love the education that you get.  I wish I could bring a ranger with us everywhere we go, particularly one this fascinating.  I am going to make it my goal to seek out more experiences like this at the parks we go to.