Small Wonders

Montana is full of big wonders: the grizzlies, the elk, the moose, the huge mountains and the equally huge sky.    We visit Yellowstone and look for wolves and bears, and hope that we’ll be one of the few visitors to witness Steamboat Geyser erupting for the first time in 20 years: we want the big stuff!

But it’s the small wonders that actually make up our lives.  And they can be pretty wonderful, indeed.

A foggy morning in the Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, for instance.

RSCN9276 And watching the landscape emerge as the fog lifts: another small wonder. 



Or the setting sun reflected in clouds over the Yellowstone River on a calm September evening.


But you don’t need to be in Yellowstone to witness small wonders.  Take, for example, a couple of prairie lakes in Montana with deceptively dull names:  Brown’s Lake and Arod Lake.    They sit quietly on the edge of the mountains, not flashy, not drawing attention to themselves in any way.  But they are full of wonders.


Brown’s Lake sits at the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness, and it’s a favorite nesting ground for both Red-necked and Pied-billed Grebes in the early summer.

DSCN6589 RSCN6644 RSCN6681 Camp overnight, and you’ll be visited by deer and osprey, and probably a bald eagle or two.

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And then the sun will set.  It happens every day, so I guess it qualifies as “merely” a small wonder.  But…wow.


Arod Lake is further north, along the Rocky Mountain Front.  It’s truly in the middle of the prairie, and the huge expanse of prairie and sky makes you feel pretty tiny.


Pelicans and cormorants and gulls nest here, and the noise in the evening as the adults return to the colonies can be…well, a bit on the loud side.


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The sun going down behind storm clouds over the Rocky Mountain Front: another small wonder.


Small wonders everywhere.  What are yours?

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Sandhill Cranes in the Smoke

The combination of a smoky morning and a long-distance shot gives these Sandhill Cranes the mysterious, other-worldly quality they deserve, don’t you think?

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Six Days in Grizzly Country: A Backpack in the Scapegoat Wilderness

If you’d told me twenty years ago that my 61 year old self would even think about spending six days backpacking in grizzly country, I’d have laughed you out of the room.    Wasn’t gonna happen.    I wouldn’t even consider car camping in grizzly country – I sure as heck wasn’t going to put myself miles and miles from the safety of my car.

I mean, this guy looks friendly enough, but not if I’m seeing him at night from my tent.


So, hiking up the Hobnail Tom Trail in the Scapegoat Wilderness last week – fifteen miles from the car –  I had a little conversation with 41 year old Cindy:  “See?  You just never know.   You’re out here, and you’re enjoying yourself – not scared, not exhausted (well, maybe a little) and…even kind of old!”

(To be honest, I did do another backpack in grizzly country 10 years ago.  I was proud of myself then, too, but it was for three nights, not five. So I’m improving.   At this rate I’ll do a seven-night trip when I’m 71, nine nights at 81, eleven nights at 91…)

The four of us – the same four who took the three-night trip ten years ago – were pretty chipper at the the trailhead.    The weather forecast was perfect, and I was not even too freaked out by the big pile of bear poop on the road as we drove into the parking area.  (Bill tried to tell me it was a cow pie.  It was not.)


We loaded up our packs, and started up the North Fork of the Blackfoot.  Hiking up rivers is the way to go; it’s not too steep, and there’s always a nice view.


We stopped for lunch at a pack bridge, and chatted with a guy who was leading a pack train out.  He was the last person we’d see for the next five days.

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After about 7 miles we reached Blackfoot Falls.  It’s a gorgeous spot, but unfortunately you’d need to be on the other side of the river to get a good view of the falls.  And not so good for camping, since there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to get to the river at that point.    So on we went.


The plan was to take two days to hike the fifteen miles to the Carmichael guard station, where we’d camp for three nights, and do day hikes from our base camp. The moon rose in a clear sky on the first night, and I actually managed to get some sleep – helped by the fact that we hadn’t seen any bear sign since the scat at the trailhead.


Our base camp was in a lovely meadow along Cooney Creek.    The creek was the perfect spot to relax at the end of the days, and a grand spot for a slightly freezing bath.



We hiked the surrounding peaks, chatted at the end of the day, and were kept awake by a camp deer who got increasingly braver and more curious the longer we stayed.

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It’s late in the season for wildflowers, but there were a few stunning patches, and I had time to keep tabs on a spider who had spun a shiny web near our camp.

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We even managed to re-enact the scene on the Mountain House freeze-dried meal packages.  Have you ever noticed the happy, perky, good-looking young backpackers on those packages?


Here’s the not-so-young version:


My coffee cup even had a good time.  Not that I think it’s ever been afraid of bears.

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Posted in Adventure, Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Outdoors | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Backpack to the “Not Unduly Spectacular.” Curly Lake, Tobacco Root Mountains.

I’m trudging up the steep trail to Curly Lake, thinking – somewhat crabbily – about the Montana Hiking guide’s description of Curly Lake as “not unduly spectacular.”  I haven’t been there, and right about now I’m wondering why we chose to backpack to a lake with such a lackluster recommendation.   Really?    And couldn’t someone add a few switchbacks to this trail?

Indeed, after about three miles we walk right by the lake and have to backtrack to find it.


It’s not spectacular, that’s true.  But it’s a lovely peaceful spot in the Tobacco Root Mountains, and would be a great spot for a base camp to explore the surrounding country which is duly spectacular.     And the trail did level out a bit and started switchbacking, and the wildflowers were most definitely spectacular:  Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Arnica, Harebells, and many more that I don’t know the names of.



We find a pretty little campsite and build a fire since it’s cold at 8800 feet.  I’m glad for my down coat and warm gloves, and for my traditional post-hike reward of bourbon and Cheetos.  (I, apparently, am not unduly classy.)



The next morning is cold as well, but it’s delightful sitting on the edge of the calm lake, sipping coffee and listening to the kinglets and sandpipers calling to each other in the morning sunshine.

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You’re OK, Curly Lake.  We all don’t need to be spectacular.


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Bigfoot in the Park and Other Wonders of Glacier

Yep.  Bigfoot.  Just check out the Montana Road and Recreation Atlas.  I’m not making this up.   So get out there and look for him!


After Bigfoot hunting, head to the west side of the park to the Polebridge Mercantile and get yourself a Huckleberry Bearclaw and a great cup of coffee.  Sit outside in the sun and talk about Bigfoot for a while, then head up to Kintla Lake and camp for a few days.   But be prepared: it’s a long bumpy 15 miles to the lake.



Of course, you’ll want to include a couple of bears somewhere along the way:  one grizzly and one black bear should do the job.

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The Highline Trail has got to be one of the best hiking trails in the world, so don’t miss it.  If you can finagle a stay at Granite Park Chalet at the end of the trail, so much the better!



And if you can get these guys to carry your stuff, you’re golden.


The Iceberg Lake Trail and the Grinnell Glacier Trail are not to be missed as well.   And if there’s a Bear Frequenting the Area – cool!  Just make sure you’re packing.  Bear spray, that is.   It works on Bigfoot too, you know.


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A close encounter with a mountain goat would be a plus, as well.  Don’t use the bear spray on her, please.


Morning coffee at Cut Bank Campground?  Why not?


Finally, head back to the west side of the park to the most beautiful spot in the world: Bowman Lake.   And if you see Bigfoot anywhere, let me know!

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Travels with my Coffee Cup

My coffee cup has had a good life.

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And it ain’t done yet.

Posted in Camping, Hiking, Life, Montana, Outdoors, Southwest hikes, Travel | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Herons: the Zen and the Not-So-Zen


Herons have always seemed particularly Buddha-like to me, despite their distinctly non-chubby physiques.  They stand in a meditative trance, perfectly able to stay that way for as long as they want.    When they’re fishing they’re masters of patience, ever so slowly wading the shoreline.

Even young herons in a crowded rookery will stand perfectly still – especially if they sense they’re being watched.  They’re pretty good at the hiding in plain sight game, too.

How many do you see?

How many do you see?


How about here?

But once mom shows up at feeding time – cover your ears!  The racket and squabbling starts on a dime and seems to escalate the whole time she’s at the nest.   It sounds like wild beasts on a rampage in the trees.

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Their hairdos even change to a wild punk rock style.  From chill to frantic in zero seconds.

Mom takes this racket for as long as she can stand it, and then – without even a “see ya later”, is gone.

The kids watch her until she’s out of sight,  wild hair now dejectedly tamed,


and calmly return to the land of Zen.


Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 6 Comments