Category Archives: Human Condition

Springing into Winter

Spring ought to be coming soon to Northwest Montana—in theory, at least.  Today, daytime temperatures topped out at 6° F, and we’re already on the way to another night, in a string of them, below zero.  In other words, we’re having a proper winter.

There has been a lot of chatter lately about winter being only a temporary state of being, a rest from the joy of summer.  I suppose that for a species that emerged from equatorial Africa, it makes sense to see winter as the dead time between summers.  Of course, we’ve been wandering the rest of the globe for sixty millennia—give or take—, so you might think we’d have grown accustomed to a little cold weather by now.  I for one can attest that, after being raised in the sauna of the Deep South, it takes only a few short months for a sunny day in the single digits to feel balmy.  Though, soon enough 40° F will feel much colder than today, and the cycle will repeat itself as the homeostatic properties of the human body do their work.

There is, as always, the larger perspective beyond our limited human vision.  Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is expanding, and, at some point 10^10120 years from now—give or take—, the universe will reach maximum entropy.  Like spreading a bed of coals apart from one another and into the snow, all possibility for life will more or less have ended.  In that sense, proper winters like these are balmy days for the universe as well.  But enough with existential dread this season.  Yes, we all eventually die and the flame of the material world goes out, but there are more important things to ponder on a warm day in March.

—Fishing, for example.  Due to the onerous finale of my Master’s program, which will gratefully be completed in the next three to four weeks, I’ve had to limit my outdoor pursuits.  In fact, “limit” is a gracious word for the paltry amount of time I’ve spent breathing deeply in the cold winter air.  But, the one thing that has kept me going has been winter fishing and fly tying.  I have a fly box full of pink stuff for the Mo’ and other local tailwaters, and I’m already starting in on ‘hopper patterns and ants for late summer fishing.  I guess I’m no one to judge those whose thoughts have turned to spring—I haven’t slept outside but once since October, and all I can think about these days is the April ice-off and returning to the world outside as the snow slowly melts away.

If winter is a state of universal being, then so is summer—each in their season.  When my classes finally end and I can finally return to working only a more-than-full-time job, it will be spring no matter what the weather station reports.  In the meantime, I’ll be getting ready.

Poor Planning at Gunsight Pass

With the government shut down, the research and science programs in Glacier ground to a halt.  Despite being at a critical juncture for the season—the brief, erratic window before the weather makes getting up high difficult and dangerous—, park scientists were forced to set aside their research until Congress could resolve its differences.  When they were allowed to go back to work a week and a half ago, it appeared that the October snows would soon close the season with incomplete data sets.

But the unseasonably-warm weather continued to hold out hope.  So, needing a night out, I volunteered to conduct a field survey at Gunsight Pass.

The plan was simple enough:  Hike into Sperry after work, camp, hike to Gunsight in the morning, and out that afternoon the way I came.

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I started an hour later than I had hoped—packing is never as simple as I pretend it is when planning at the last minute.  But the sunset on the way up the Sperry trail made the headlamp-hiking worth it.

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I got in later than I wanted to—3,400 feet of elevation gained seemed less daunting when I began scheming, and my hasty plan didn’t account for either the gap of nearly two months since my last serious trip or several extra pounds of survey equipment.  But I still managed to get a full nine hours of sleep that night, and I woke refreshed and ready, with frost on the inside of my shelter.

Below me, Lake McDonald was covered in a morning haze thick enough to obscure all but the top of Howe Ridge, and the Apgar Mountains—the entire range in view—rose from the clouds in shades of blue and pink.  I lingered longer than I should have.  But the morning was beautiful, and I needed the opportunity to enjoy it.

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A Litmus Test for the Moral High-Ground

Are you willing to let others suffer for your ideology?

A. No—e.g., MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”

B. Yes—e.g., House Republicans shutting down the government and risking default for spending bills already passed by their own legislative process

___________

KEY:

If you answered (A), you may be an oppressed minority.

If you answered (B), you are an oppressive minority.

On the Prairie

You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.

—Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry Land,”

*     *     *

Beauty in the Flathead is—more or less—taken for granted.  It’s obvious:  the Swan Crest rises up from the valley floor 4,000 feet or more.  Glacier National Park—a mere forty minutes from the central valley—is replete with peaks so dramatic and so proliferate as to become mundane.  Northwest Montana suffers from the æsthetic of the obvious.  It takes no effort whatsoever to find vistas that would define a lifetime were they not so frequent.

So, I must admit, that I was rather unenthusiastic when a friend proposed a weekend of fishing out on the prairie.  To be fair, I have been spoiled by the lush, overly-green climate west of the Divide.  Yes—we get less sun than those beyond the Rocky Mountain Front, but we also have rich groves of pine and cedar, and with the early arrival of spring this year, our maples and aspens in town have begun to bud, promising a swift change in color.  If anything, why not taste the last of the winter up high in Glacier’s innumerable basins and cirques?  Surely the high sub-alpine country, buried beneath several feet of snow, would be æsthetically preferable to the Great Plains.  But, the promise of learning to fish again after a few years off prevailed.

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The beauty of the prairie is less obvious.  The lands swells and undulates like an ocean, browned in the mountains’ shadow.  Yet, there is a subtle beauty to the waters between the cut banks and among low lakes east of the front.  I ought not be surprised by this, given that I spent four years of my life on the edge of the Great Plains in college.  But as one who grew up in the midst of a pine forest, low hills and windswept grass have rarely felt inviting.  They are an acquired taste.

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