Category Archives: Nature

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.


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.


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.



Summer, Part V—Banff & Jasper

Banff & Jasper National Parks
early-September 2013

There are three things I learned as we played tourist over the long weekend: (1) Parks Canada is significantly better funded than the National Park Service; (2) international visitation for the Canadian national parks dramatically exceeds that of our own crown jewels; and (3) my—oh, my—the sheer amount of people, and the Disneyland-style directions for herding them all into a few places, is numbing. Parks Canada and their vendors have a well-oiled machine designed to give you just enough of an outdoor-wilderness experience without taxing you too much, extracting a great deal of money from you in the process. I actually had a surprisingly difficult time finding information about things to do in the park that didn’t involve waiting in long lines.

It was a quick trip, as much for reconnaissance as for mere enjoyment, so we rarely took the opportunity to explore off the beaten path. After a day and a half of constant queuing, this became overwhelming. So we explored a little more, escaping the crowds only for an evening as I fished a rather minor lake on a rather minor trail. Still, it was beautiful, and we will be back and armed with more resolve, more information, and more time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Lake Louise—the canoes cost C$40 an hour.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAthabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefield
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA wider view of the Columbia Icefield complex

Summer, Part IV—Red Gap / Ptarmigan

Glacier National Park
late-August 2013

At the beginning of the summer, I began working with the Citizen Science program at Glacier to help the Park Service keep track of loons, pikas, and mountain ungulates. So, on the weekend before school began, I did a big loop in Many Glacier to catch a couple of the less visited sites. We started late in the afternoon on Friday, staying at Poia Lake where I would do a survey in the morning. Then, we went over Red Gap Pass and down to Elizabeth Lake for a simultaneous loon and ungulate survey, coming up and out via Ptarmigan Tunnel.

The loop is an odd one in high summer, combining some of Glacier’s least-visited country with its most-visited. Even so, it is beautiful, and the smoke stayed far away. Only a light haze, typical for this time of year, obscured our vision.