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.


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Campsite Visitors

Early morning, Many Glacier Campground, June 6, 2015

Something is crashing through the willows at the edge of our campsite.  I put down my coffee and stand to see what is making such a racket.  I see three shapes through the bushes, and start to sit down again – just some deer.

Hold on.  That’s no deer.


She lifts her head into the sunlight to get a better look at us.


To my surprise, she doesn’t bolt, but just keeps on browsing while keeping a close eye on her kids.  At one point something startles them and one of the calves makes a run for it. Mama wakes up then, and chases the wanderer around the underbrush until he gets back under control.  She then decides that putting the creek between her and the campers is a good idea.  The smaller calf is not too sure about crossing the stream, but he finally decides to brave it.  Being left behind is not a good option!


Mom gives him a reassuring peck when he gets to the other side.


I’m sure that the little family will disappear into the woods now.


But no, they hang around while mama enjoys the tasty willow shoots and the morning sunshine.



After a while mom decides that she’s browsed enough and she leads her kids upstream.  Not a bad way to start the morning!


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The Goldens

I’m sitting on the side of a steep hill, scoping out a stunning Golden Eagle nest.  The eagle in the nest is doing the same thing she’s been doing for the past 6 weeks – laying in the nest.     It’s been 42 days, and I’m beginning to worry that this nest is going to fail.

I take one more look, and see a little fuzz of white moving around behind the eagle.    I look again, and – hooray – it’s an eaglet!    Success.  I feel like a proud grandparent.

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The little guy starts throwing himself around the nest until I’m sure he’s going to tumble over the side.  But he stays safe.


I was lucky to find this nest.   I’ve seen Golden Eagle nests before, but they’re usually high up on cliffs, and seeing what’s going on in the nest is nearly impossible.  But this couple built their nest high in a dead Ponderosa pine overlooking the Helena valley.  I could climb above the nest and safely keep an eye on the eagles.  Since March 20, that’s what I’ve been doing.  It’s a spectacular setting.


Unlike Bald Eagle pairs, who take turns sitting on the nest, the Golden Eagle female does the majority of the incubating.   The male’s job is to bring her food.   In my many weeks of watching the nest I only caught the male bringing food to the nest one time, and he didn’t hang around long after he dropped it off.

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I could usually see the male soaring above the valley, while the female sat.  And sat.



She would occasionally stand up for a stretch, but she was sure patient.

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I was patient, too.  Although it’s not exactly hard duty, hanging out on a gorgeous hillside taking in the view.

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I first saw the eaglet on May 4.    He’s still a fluffy white ball, but he’s changed from a baseball to a softball to almost as big as a volleyball.  The parents are doing a good job.

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Fingers crossed that he stays safe!

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Malheur Wildlife Refuge


I’m standing on the edge of the Blitzen River, watching – and being watched by – a pair of Northern Harriers.  I think they must have a nest nearby, since they don’t seem to like the fact that I’m hanging around.

The female does a couple of fly-bys, checking me out.  The third time, she is vocal in her displeasure: she doesn’t want me there.


That spurs her partner into action.  He screeches a response and circles me as well, giving me the evil eye on the first pass and diving at my head on the second.  I swing my arms and he veers off, but I’m duly chastened.    I get the heck out of there.


The Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a grand birding destination, especially in early May before the mosquitoes have woken up.  It’s an oasis in the high desert, with hundreds of bird species both stopping through as they migrate north and nesting.  We camped at Page Springs Campground among tall cottonwoods and watched orioles and warblers and song sparrows as we had our morning coffee.  We easily filled four days wandering the area, seeing new birds every day.


On the trail along the river we watched and listened to cute little Bushtits,  Yellow-breasted Chats (the first I’ve ever seen),  Bullock’s Orioles, a gorgeous Lazuli Bunting,  and hundreds of bright little Yellow Warblers.



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The open meadows and ponds were full of Ibises, swallows,  Cinnamon Teals and shorebirds like the Short-billed Dowitcher.

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Stands of cottonwoods along the ponds and marshes provided habitat for Kestrels, Phoebes and Northern Flickers.

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There was even a Great Horned Owl with two chicks.  The mom flew off when we arrived,


leaving the kids to nap on their own.  One little guy woke up and kept an eye on us for a while,


but eventually lost interest and turned around to join his brother in his nap.  Owls are chill, that’s for sure!


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Sneaky Critters

They’re out there. You know they are. The critters are all around us, watching…they know we’re there, that’s for sure.


If we’re patient, we might find them.

There’s someone on this snowy Yellowstone hillside.   Do you see him?

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No?  Well, not surprising.

How about now?

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Yes? No?  Here, I’ll get a little closer.

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Pretty sneaky, eh?

And what about the bushes?  We’re always walking through bushes, right?  When they’re missing their leaves you’re pretty sure that nothing’s hiding in there, I bet.

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Don’t be so sure.

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You see him, right?  He had a harder time hiding out in the open…but still.


The critters in the bushes aren’t always scary, of course.  See anybody here?

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Birds. Many birds.  How many do you see?

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Did you see the crane?

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Of course there are critters in the trees, too.   See anyone here?

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Here he is:

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Yep, they’re sneaky, that’s for sure.

(Want to see more hidden critters?  Check out these earlier posts: Hidden in Plain Sight and Now You See Me)

Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Photography, Wildlife | Tagged , | 11 Comments