The Season of Social Distancing

Social distancing is one of those terms I hope goes by the wayside relatively quickly, not only due to its deep detriment of the psyche and soul, but because it’s a misnomer. Granted, our daily activities dropped considerably with the shutdown of our state, but we didn’t secure ourselves in a dark room and shut the door. Instead, we kept up with our people via technology along with meeting outside once it was prudent, all while maintaining our physical distance. Thankfully, this was easy to do in Montana where we have plenty of space to spread out.

First and Last Trip to Lost Lake

For over a decade I’ve heard fabulous things about Lost Lake, the remnants of falls higher than Niagra Falls from when much of our area was still under water, but I never visited because it was such a short stroll. It wasn’t enough for me to warrant the time away from the “real” trails. Boy, was I wrong, and am eternally grateful that we did since it is now closed to the public.

Finding Heaven at Devil’s Glen

Along with Lost Lake, Devil’s Glen was on my list of nearby trails that I haven’t explored, yet. It seems in past years, the thought to visit Devil’s Glen always came to me when the berries were heavy on the chokecherries… not the best time to wander into grizzly country, particularly bringing the kids.

During the first part of May we headed out past Augusta, near Bean Lake and the newly created Falls Creek area, past the Bible camp to the parking area and trailhead for the Dearborn Trail #206, also called Devil’s Glen. It was one of those perfect days when the pasqueflower, Wyoming kitten tails, and shooting stars were all blooming, and spring felt like it was really here.

Mother’s Day Trip to Swift Dam

When Covid-19 hit Montana, much of our state shut down, including the Blackfeet Nation, which restricted non-residents to recreate upon the reservation. With their history of epidemics, this was totally understandable. Thankfully, we are still allowed to visit the south short of Swift Reservoir outside of Dupuyer.

There’s a rich history in this region, including being a gateway to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, along with being the site of a devastating disaster in June 1964 when the dam failed during the epic flood in the region, killing 19 people within moments. It’s difficult to envision such a beautiful area being a place of such heartache.

We enjoyed exploring the area, although not as much as I would’ve liked that particular days since it was barely above freezing and spitting snow (and not everyone brought appropriate clothing). Even with the reappearance of snow, the Douglasia montana was stunning, and we were thrilled to locate a Dusky Grouse, a species I haven’t seen in all of my years stalking these fun birds. This short visit definitely makes me want to take a much longer stroll on the Trail #143 and into the Bob.

Venturing to Willow Creek Falls

Our road conditions are definitely a consideration when choosing trails, particularly in the spring. After a friend reported a flat tire from the last couple of miles of the extremely bumpy road, heading to Willow Creek Falls outside of Augusta, was in the front of my mind. Fortunately, by being well-aware of what awaited us, all of us managed to crawl over the rugged conditions without having to practice our tire-changing skills. And, boy oh boy, was it worth it!

Just beyond the parking area, the first challenge is a stream crossing. There is a log over it, which was definitely easy enough to maneuver without ending up in the drink, but it takes a little finesse. . From then on, it was a gorgeous walk through wildflowers and landscape many would expect to see in Glacier National Park. I love the rocky trails hugging cliff faces, which is exactly what part of this trail is so I felt I had a Glacier fix during this time when I couldn’t visit.

We hiked for over a couple of miles until we started running into considerable mud on the trail, and not wanting to trash the trail, we turned around saving the rest of the trail for another day.

Avoiding Snakes on the Rivers Edge Trail

With nearly 60 miles of trails along and around the Missouri River, the River’s Edge Trail is a gem of Great Falls, and is one that I don’t utilize as much as I should. Towards the end of May, a couple of friends and I decided to venture the 3.5 miles to Cochrane Dam heading out early in the morning to avoid rattlesnakes. (I’ll take a grizzly any day of the week, but rattlesnakes turn me around in short order!)

What a treat! After traversing the prairie we dropped into the single track bike trails where we followed the cliff through dense junipers and brush reminiscent of a Californian landscape. The spring flowers were also abundant along the way, as well as a number of birds. This is one I need to do again soon since the yucca are now blooming.

Rogers Pass Flower Dash

Some people look for antlers in the spring, others of us hunt for flowers. By the beginning of June, Rogers Pass, is in its full botanical glory. Early one Sunday morning, my friend Darci and I, drove the hour to the pass so I could show her the blooms before they were done.

We ran into one snowdrift that we had to bushwhack around, and were rewarded with a phenomenal display of Douglasia montana, Yellowstone Draba, and the alpine forget-me-nots, among many other of the spring favorites. Plus, it’s not a real hike unless there is a little excitement. An incoming storm with winds so strong my trekking poles saved me more than once, gave us a serious case of the giggles as soon as we could speak.

The Covid situation is unprecedented. And while we haven’t managed any epic hikes with the larger groups of people, as is the norm, being outside as much as possible has been the one saving grace. Here’s to more days on the trail keeping our distance and keeping each other safe.

Winter in the Sun Canyon

Castle Reef in Wagner Basin with bighorn sheep at the base.

Winters are fickle in these parts. Last year, our February slogged on with temperatures well below zero for weeks on end and heavy snows. Yesterday, we traveled on mostly open ground with plenty of sunshine. That makes me happy.

Sun River Wildlife Management Area

Sun Canyon is one of my favorite places near our Great Falls’ home. Roughly 45 minutes to the small town of Augusta, then another 45 minutes up the Sun Canyon, it’s a gorgeous transition from the seemingly endless prairie to the rugged mountains. Along the way, travelers pass the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, which is closed from December 15 to May 15 to give the 4500+ elk a safe place to overwinter as they migrate from the high country in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the more open foothills and prairie. Yesterday, we spotted a few hundred braced against the wind along the hillside, but more could possibly be out of sight just beyond another rise.

Just beyond where we saw the elk, we caught a glimpse of another herd. At first, we assumed they were elk, but upon closer inspection they were actually mule deer… with 4 white-tails hanging in with the bunch. On our way up the canyon, they were all bedded down, but on the way back they were up and moving so I counted 77 of them as they meandered along the grasslands.

Walking into Wagner Basin

Despite it being a bit breezy – probably 30 mph winds gusting to 50 mph – I talked the boys into hiking to the “skull tree” in Wagner Basin to see if we could spot sheep. After crossing the bridge over the Sun River, you veer right to the Wagner Basin area. There was a little snow on the road in the shaded areas, and a grouse was hunkered in the middle before wandering off to the side.

I was pleased to see the culverts were replaced at the creek along the way allowing us to drive to the trailhead instead of park 1/4 mile short and walk. Two years ago, heavy snows followed by spring rain caused extensive flooding, blowing out the stream crossing. Cabin owners with trucks seemed to find their way across, but I always felt more comfortable parking on this side of it. Now we don’t have to. A single bighorn sheep ewe hung out near the cabins, which seemed odd until we stepped out of the truck and were blasted by the wind. Maybe she’s the only smart one who figured out how to not be blown to death?

The hike into Wagner starts on a narrow trail along a limestone cliff face. It’s narrow, but not scary. Much scarier sounding then it really is, the skull tree is a local where local artists hang the (mostly deer) skulls on which they paint wildlife and other outdoor themes. There aren’t many of the painted ones left as the color flecks off in the harsh conditions, but we always like to check. There’s also a picnic table in the little grove of trees (I have no idea who hauled that back there!), making it a nice place to stop before continuing up the hill, or just to bring a group of kids. It’s only 1/2 mile from the trailhead on a relatively flat trail so this is one practically anyone can do.

Thankfully, we saw a white-tailed doe in the trees causing us to hike up in the more protected area where we eventually spotted a small group of bighorn sheep. We managed to work our way closer to them noticing they were all ewes and young rams. A large group of white-tails were nearby in the grove a bit further down, and Grant spotted a large group of bighorns at the top of the overlook. (Which is where I really love to go, but I didn’t want a mutiny on my hands.) Of course, since it’s a couple of miles away, he couldn’t quite tell if the bigger rams were up there.

There’s a reason Sun Canyon is my go-to for a quick outdoor fix. It doesn’t take long to be out of cell range and in the middle of some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities around, along with so many different hikes there’s always an adventure that fits the mood for the day. Plus, it always changes. No matter how many times I visit, there’s always something new. New tracks, new wildlife, new flowers, or the scenery changes as the seasons progress. It’s a snippet of the whole world of wonder so close to home.

Snowshoe Hike to Porphyry Lookout

In the winter everything looks different. Although I’ve visited the Porphyry Fire Lookout perched on the top of the slopes of the Showdown Ski Area in the Little Belt Mountains, I’ve never seen it in the winter since I prefer cross-country over the downhill sport. Determined to remedy this, I gave a shout out to my other adventurous friends and we made a day of it last Sunday.

As much as I am a summer person, with blue skies and no wind, glorious is a dull description of the conditions. Parking at the Kings Hill parking area at the top of the pass, we followed the closed road until we reached the Golden Goose, one of the mid-level ski hills at Showdown keeping to the right as we made our way up to a road that squirted around the back of the hill. Gaining roughly 1700 feet in a couple of miles cranks up the heart rate, but when you’re with excellent company, as we were that day, it goes quickly.

Happy ladies at Porphyry Lookout. Photo by Martina.

Hoarfrost covered the trees at the top creating a picture perfect winter wonderland as we headed past the lookout to the warming up at the top of the ski hill. We weren’t cold by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt good to sit in the snug building enjoying our lunches, homemade cookies packed to the top by Martina, along with hot cocoa purchased at the little cafe for some of the ladies. We spent close to an hour catching up and getting to know each other, as it was the first time we met for many of us, making it the perfect way to spend a Sunday.

The way down was much easier, and much quicker. We veered off the Golden Goose route taking the service road (which is the one typically open in the summer) to extend our trip since none of us wanted to be finished. And since we made it back to the vehicles in an hour, we decided to head to Memorial Falls a few miles down the road.

Memorial Falls, which is just outside of the former mining town of Neihart, is the go-to place for families with kids or for someone who wants a short hike with a big payoff at the end. It’s only 1/4 mile to the first falls, and an equal distance to the next ones. While we didn’t need snowshoes, micro spikes would have been very helpful as the trail was slick in a few spots. On the way back it was easier to sit and scoot – I called us the Memorial Falls Luge Team – rather than attempt to walk. But we all made it back without concussions or broken bones!

The week prior, my husband, sons, and I ventured into Memorial Falls finding them frozen over with the water running behind them looking like something out of a magical fairyland story. Seven days later, the falls were half melted. Winter is over, by any means, but the signs of spring are starting to peek through.

Besides having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, the hike was special because of the company. Many of the ladies are fellow homeschool moms, one was a friend I hiked with over a year ago, and yet another was a wonderful woman I interviewed on the radio. I learned far more about her incredible character and impressive knowledge while we snowshoed than I ever did when we talked on the radio. A couple were friends of friends, but they instantly became part of the tribe. It struck me that in this world of negativity and quarreling spending a day pushing ourselves physically in this wintery landscape with positive, amazing women is exactly what we need to recharge our bodies… and our souls.

My peeps! Photo by Martina.

Weathering the Dark Days

Surviving winter for solar powered people takes some creativity

As a solar-powered being, it’s no surprise these short, dark days wear on my psyche. The cold is manageable. I’ve spent decades gathering gear and understanding how to stay warm. The snow is bearable to some degree; as long as travel isn’t required. There’s nothing to do about the dark, but to make the best of it.

Step into hygge-hood?

For the past several years, as winter approaches posts about the Danish tradition – actually lifestyle – of hygge litter social media. While this concept, which the closest explanation is the art of coziness, relaxation, and enjoying life, is appealing to many, it makes me twitch. I’m not a bundle up in a blanket, sip cocoa, and watch Netflix type of person. That sounds like a sick day.

What I do take advantage of during these long nights and short days are activities I should do, but often don’t when I’m up and running from dawn to the late dusk of the summer. When I pop out of bed between 4-5 a.m. (because I cannot stand just lying there ), I immediately turn on YouTube to watch Yoga with Adriene while I drink my powdered beet drink, or what I like to call, the blood of my enemies. After yoga it’s time for coffee.

Winter is tea time

Since being indoors more is inevitable at this time of the year when it’s well below zero and blowing 30 mph. And one of the best parts of winter is there is usually something brewing on the stove because I’m far less likely to walk out of the house allowing it to boil down to twiggy bits.

My chai tea addiction

The more aromatic option is a homemade chai tea that is stand-by throughout the season. This is a recipe I learned from Yoga with Adriene. It’s simple, warming, and uplifting even in the dark days. To 2 quarts of water, I add:

20 black pepper corns

16 cloves

4-5 cinnamon sticks

2 inch piece of ginger, washed and sliced into pieces

16 cardamom pods, slightly crushed

Typically, chai tea is flavored with honey and cream (or half and half), but it doesn’t have to be. The tea is delicious on its own, so I only occasionally dress it up with honey and sometimes both, if I’m feeling particularly indulgent. Truthfully, if I added honey and half and half to the amount I typically drink, there is no way to ski enough to burn off those calories!

Looking for cold-weather workouts

Enjoying cocoa at a snowshoe hike to Memorial Falls

But it’s not all sipping tea during the long, cold months. We have snowshoes, and I’m making a list of places to take the kids in our Nature Club, as well as working on some more challenging outings with the grown up girls. The first trek on my list is Porphyry Peak in the Little Belt Mountains. This lookout at the top of Showdown Ski Area is a beautiful place to visit during the summer, so I’m looking forward to seeing it blanketed with snow.

Exploring Lake McDonald

We also like to make at least one trip to the west side to Essex and West Glacier during the winter to take advantage of the remarkable skiing opportunities on Forest Service land, as well as in Glacier National Park. Depending on the snow conditions, it’s a toss up between snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, but it’s always a beautiful and quiet time to enjoy the area.

Soaking in the winter vibe

While we’re in the area, it would be ideal to pop down to White Sulphur Springs to soak in the world-class hot springs. One of my goals is to experience all of the hot springs in Montana, but at the moment White Sulphur is my favorite. They are clean, but with that wonderful sulphur smell (I actually like it), and have 3 pools of varying temperatures. Whether it’s a day trip for a couple of hours in the pools, or an overnight stay at the hotel, soaking is one of our all-time favorite wintertime activities.

New bindings for the cross-country skis

While snowshoeing can take you just about anywhere, I really enjoy cross-country skiing. Roughly 25 years ago, National Geographic Television bought me Bushwacker XT Trak cross-country skis geared to haul gear off-trail looking for mountain lions. They’re wider than traditional cross-country skis with a metal edge, making them handy for either breaking trail in deeper snow or cruising on a groomed course. When I had issues with the boot staying clipped into the binding during one of our first snowfalls this year (since it started at the end of September), I considered buying a new pair. Then I noticed the prices. Ouch. Plus, I really like these skis.

Thankfully, a friend recommended that I take them to Bighorn Outdoor Specialists where they could put on new bindings. By the end of the day, Chris had the skis ready to go. At the moment, I’m using my old boots, which I don’t love because my feet get cold regardless of how hard I’m working, so I am saving for a new pair. Now all we need is snow! (I can’t believe I’m saying about that.)

Taking winter a day at a time

The New Year’s first hike

I don’t hide that winter is my least favorite part of the year, and I fully admit that I regularly check prices to Phoenix. Even a long weekend in Arizona would help diminish the dark season blues. But I’m also determined to make the most of every day by focusing on the best of the indoor activities, along with kicking butt outdoors at every opportunity.

Join us for an illuminating evening at a Glacier Conversations

It’s no surprise I love the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As I like to say, “They’re the reason we have nice things.”

From my perspective as someone who spent nearly 30 years in the park exploring its trails, geeking out over flowers, and looking for wildlife, their impact is obvious, even if most people don’t realize how much they do. From improving visitor services to supporting the Citizen Scientist program, their presence is critical in keeping the park vibrant, particularly in this era of millions of visitors.

Because I love what they do and frequently pester their executive director, Doug Mitchell, for article interviews, so I was delighted when he asked if I’d be a table host at the Glacier Conversations benefit in October. This is a chance to join Glacier enthusiasts and experts about their particular passion while raising money for their valuable projects. I’ve known many of the other table hosts for years, if not decades, and am tickled to be in company of a lot of truly impressive individuals.

If you’re in the area, join us for an evening of delicious food and terrific company benefiting a cause that is near and dear to so many of us. This is going to be a fun night!

A Windy Day in Two Medicine

Autumn is one of the best times to hike, but as the days shorten and the school season intensifies, it seems there is less time to be on the trail. That’s why I was determined to head to Glacier this past weekend for a longer hike before the snow flies. 

Rising Wolf overlooks Two Medicine

Knowing what to expect in the fall

Weather is a key consideration at this time of the year, and while it didn’t appear that rain or snow would be an issue, with forecasted gusts closing in on 40 mph, we knew wind was a factor. Our initial plan was to hike to Scenic Point, a roughly 8 mile round trip with 2300 ft in elevation gain, offering spectacular views of Rising Wolf and into the Two Medicine Valley since the parking lot is usually filled very early in the day in July and August.

Exploring the side roads

During the summer, the goal is to leave Great Falls as early as possible in order to secure a parking spot, regardless of where we want to hike. In the fall, it’s not quite as pressing so we pulled out of town around 6:30, and made a stop near Heart Butte to pick up my friend, Rachael. I’ve driven past the Heart Butte sign off of Hwy 89 thousands of times, but never ventured that direction, partly because it was out of the way on my focused mission heading to the park, but partly because Heart Butte is the type of town where a high school sporting event is called because there is a grizzly eating a horse carcass at the end of the field. Heart Butte is on its own level.

We picked up Rachael who took us up the road that ends up just outside of Browning pointing out families and events along the way. It’s about 10 miles longer, but it’s like being introduced to the neighborhood, plus I’m a big fan of local history and knowing the back roads.  Expanding the journey is part of the adventure.

Starting Scenic Point

After stopping to watch a little black bear cross the road on our drive into Two Medicine, we arrived at Scenic Point shortly after 9. I was relieved that there was only 1 other car in the parking lot. We made our way up the trail, yet as we gained elevation, the wind was more brutal, sometimes knocking us off balance. We walked past my favorite tree, a limber or whitebark pine that died years ago, mostly likely from blister rust. It is huge, over a foot in diameter, for this particular area, and I can only imagine what it’s witnessed over the years (probably centuries). With gnarled, whitened branches, to me it is the symbol of wisdom and experience.  

After being blown and battered for over a mile along the route, we decided to turn around and try Rockwell Falls, which primarily winds its way through the trees. By the time we returned to the Scenic Point parking area, there were many more vehicles, but what really surprised me is the main parking area at Two Medicine was full just before noon. We had to park in the overflow parking area. The camp store is already boarded up and winterized. Plus, the dock from the boat is out of the water,  and the Sinopah is already tucked away in its boat house. Even though there were still a lot of people, these are signs that the season is truly winding down. 

Opting for Rockwell Falls

The walk to Rockwell Falls was pleasant and easy. Squirrels chattered at us on occasion, and I was amazed at the numbers of fall mushrooms. I could identify the boletes, but there were many more I need to research. The meadows once filled with flowers were warm golds and browns, although a few hardy asters still offered nectar to the remaining bees and insects. 

The mushrooms were prolific

The large suspension bridge on the way to the falls is always a highlight with a goal of not making it shake like crazy while crossing it.

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The falls were particularly lovely flowing with more water than expected at the end of the season, and many flowers, such as mallows and arnica, still bloomed along its edges. We grabbed a bite, took a few pictures, then had to continue back in order to be on the road early enough to drive in the daylight. (I’m not a fan of driving after dark around here, particularly since the deer are more active lately.) 

On the hike back, there was a cow moose feeding in one of the far beaver ponds. It took some maneuvering in one area to see over the willows, but we finally found a good opening to watch her and take photos.

We made it back to the car by 4-ish so made it home long before the witching hour happy to enjoy a pleasant outing in the park once again. While I like to go to an area with a plan, this day demonstrates that having the flexibility to switch gears often works out better. There’s no doubt Scenic Point is beautiful, but by visiting Rockwell Falls instead, we noticed the fall fungi, was able to have more conversations (because the wind would’ve drowned it out otherwise), and see the moose on the way back. That’s what I call a good day. 

Side view of Sinopah

Harvesting sticky cup gumweed to banish coughs

Last year while hiking on the prairie with a friend, she pointed out a sticky, yellow plant that her grandmother gathered because it was a valuable medicinal remedy. After a bit of research, I learned it was sticky cup gumweed, Grindelia squarrosa, and has long been used to resolve those dry, annoying coughs that linger. Of course, I needed to add this to my herbal arsenal. 

Learning from the Native People

Grindelia is another example of how the Native People knew what plants to use, and when to harvest them, for specific ailments long before any of the European settlers. According to Montana Native Plants & Early Peoples by Jeff Hart, in 1863 a Dr. C.A. Canfield recorded its use as a way to treat a poison ivy rash, and by 1882 it was part of the United States Pharmacopoeia. Decoctions and infusions made with the flowers were used to treat poison ivy, as well as lung conditions, bladder and kidney infections, fevers, burns, and it was reportedly a mild sedative.

Grindelia has yellow flowers and sticky bracts
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Identifying gumweed

Grindelia is an attractive, multi-branched perennial standing roughly 2 ft tall. When it’s in full bloom, it is covered with brightly colored 1.5 inch wide daisy-like yellow flowers creating a vision you really can’t miss. The base of the flowers are the rough and sticky bracts that have a distinct medicinal odor from the amorphous resins. Even those without a tremendous amount of medicinal plant knowledge, they can tell there’s something good about this plant.

How to harvest and create a tincture

I didn’t harvest any of the flowers last year, but made a point to collect enough to fill a pint jar this season. As soon as I saw it blooming, I took advantage of a post-rain evening to snip off the flowers at the base of the bracts, paying particular attention to those not fully opened as the buds reportedly contain more of the resins. 

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To make the tincture, all it required was a rough chop of the buds and flowers before packing them in the jar and covering the whole amount with brandy. Some people prefer Everclear or vodka, but my friend, Jennephyr, always told me to use what I like. Brandy should be the ticket.  This will sit in a cool, dark area for at least a month, and hopefully I’ll remember to shake it occasionally to expedite the process. After the allotted time, it’s just a matter of straining out the flowers and administering it by the dropper full. 

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Keeping it on hand for other applications

I still might harvest more to keep on hand in order to make decoctions for the boys, although the fresh buds and flowers supposedly are more potent. But when dealing with these terrible coughs, it’s worth a try to see if anything helps. When I harvest the flowers, I’ll place them on the drying rack until throughly dry before packing them in jars. 

Grindelia is an example of a powerful medicine we have practically outside our door. Sometimes it’s difficult to take the time to harvest during the busy end-of-summer season when many projects are wrapping up, but it’s equally important to prepare the for winter season by ramping the herbal remedies in preparation for the cooty season ahead. 

The Not-So-Cliché Harlequin Romance

Harlequin ducks are a treat to see in Glacier National Park

Although grizzly bears earn a lot of the hype in Glacier National Park, it’s truly special to watch the few harlequin ducks that migrate to this area on the western edge of their territory. When you think about it, with roughly 1000 grizzlies in the ecosystem surrounding the park, versus the maybe 200 harlequins that visit for just a few months out of the year, finding harlequins is the greater challenge.

Learning from the best

My eldest son, Samuel, and I had the benefit of a veteran biologist’s experience when we took part in the Glacier Institute’s class on harlequin ducks taught by local wealth of wisdom and phenomenal photographer, John Ashley. (On a totally different subject, John authored the book, Glacier Park National After Dark, and is the founder of the International Dark Sky Association – Montana Chapter.) John’s worked with harlequins for over 30 years so he knows his stuff.

After a couple of hours of classroom work discussing their lifecycle and research on the birds, we piled into the Glacier Institute’s van, and headed to the Avalanche Campground to park. Even though this was the middle of May, it was Mother’s Day weekend, and the area was packed. Watching the evolution of visitation into the park for nearly 30 years, these early crowds always amaze me.

Searching for harlequins

From there we walked and talked looking for the smallish, sleek, gray, brown, and white male ducks, which are easier to spot than the drabber female counterparts. Walking along Going-to-the-Sun Road at this time of the year is a treat. It is typically gated at Avalanche allowing bicyclists and hikers, including a growing number of people keen on finding these colorful ducks. It’s quiet, everything is that beautiful spring green, and is truly one of the best times to enjoy the park.

After strolling a short ways up the road, we spotted several solo bachelor males. Harlequins are unique as the female pairs up with a male while they’re on the West Coast, which is where they spend the bulk of the year, and return to the area where she was born to nest and raise the brood. They are always side by side swimming together, feeding together, and flying back up stream together. Even though they don’t have a mate, the bachelor males typically arrive in the Glacier area in April and early May, and while they try to woo females, it never works.

With a little more walking, as luck and sharp-eyes would have it, we saw a couple of pairs. Some were traveling down McDonald Creek, while another pair was feeding in a pool. At one point a bachelor male put the moves on the female, but she was having nothing of it, nor did Mr. Harlequin tolerate the situation, continually shooing away the upstart. Eventually, the bachelor gave up, continuing on his lonely way up the stream leaving the pair to feed in the deep pool.

The importance of research

Harlequins are fascinating not only because they’re beautiful and relatively rare for this area, but because there is still so much to know. John’s research, as well as additional studies over the years, provide a better perspective into the life of a harlequin. After tagging birds with a locator, scientists finally found some of the exceptionally well-hidden nests, and have a fuller understanding of their migration patterns. This allows researchers to know what type of habitat and protection these birds need to continue to thrive in this region. John, and many other scientists, continue to work with these small duck to ultimately preserve it for future generations.

Short hike to John’s Lake

Another early season hike on the west side of Glacier National Park is easy walk to John’s Lake, a lovely loop or simple in and out stroll.

The NPS recently opened Going-to-the-Sun Rd. from Lake McDonald Lodge to Avalanche so we could access the parking area and trailhead to John’s Lake without a problem. It’s only probably a mile from the end of the lake to the parking area, but it’s still easier when you can drive. During the summer, the small parking area at the official trailhead is usually filled, so if you’re going to do this hike, start early or park at the Sacred Dancing Cascades to begin the loop from that end.

For our evening outing, we wanted to see what was happening at the lake, so we opted for the half-mile stroll from the trailhead. Even though there is a very slight uphill on the first few hundred yards, overall this is a very easy hike suitable for practically any age and most ability levels. The trail is wide and smooth with no scary drop offs, which makes it nice with young children, although as always, keep them close to you hiking on even such a short and “civilized” trail. There are mountain lions and grizzlies in the area, and even though the chances are slim you would ever have a problem, you don’t want to take the chance.

Along the trail we enjoyed checking out what mushrooms were growing on the trees, as well as the plants that are finally greening up after such a cold winter. At the lake, the water lilies were just starting to emerge from the bottom, and we found a frog resting on a half-submerged branch, plus there was a bonus find of a couple of leeches in the water. We really hoped to spot a loon on the lake, even though this is not prime habitat, but were still happy to see 5 buffleheads and a single, drake Barrow’s goldeneye.

There’s a lot to see after this 15-20 minute leisurely walk, and John’s Lake is one of those terrific little side trips to step away from the crowds and feel like you’re in the backcountry.

Since I finally remembered to bring the video camera (along with a working battery and SD card…. it’s a miracle!), check out this brief video on Glacier Girl to have a better idea of what the walk and the lake.

April stroll – Rocky Point in Glacier National Park

Weather is variable, to say the least, at time of the year, so we took advantage of a few decent days to explore the west side. Fortunately, we were graced with one of those perfect blue bird days to take an easy stroll to Rocky Point Nature Trail out of the Fish Creek campground. Although there are several ways to pick up the trail, we used the directions on one of my favorite sites, HikingGlacier.com.

Despite living in the Flathead for almost 20 years, I never hiked to Rocky Point, and after enjoying the beautiful walk and stunning views at the end, I’m glad we remedied this situation. I can see it being a regular hike in the early season. This little walk is a mere 1.9 miles round trip with just over 300 ft. elevation gain so it’s a perfect outing for kids, or those who are stretching their legs at the beginning of the season.

The trailhead is located through the Fish Creek Campground, near the gate to the inside North Fork Rd. It begins as a beautiful stroll through the forest and across the bridge at Fern Creek, before walking above Fish Creek campground along the area burned by the 2003 Robert Fire. There’s a fair amount of standing dead, which offers excellent habitat for the cavity nesting birds, along with tremendous new growth, and the views throughout are beautiful.

It was also a butterfly paradise the entire time. Everywhere we turned commas, mourning cloaks, and a few azures flitting around seemingly celebrating the warm weather with the rest of us. Red squirrels chattered at us from the trees, and we saw a couple of nuthatches and a dark-eyed junco.

Hiking is even more fun when friends join us!

Rocky Point did not disappoint. With plenty of fascinating rocks (particularly for us geology geeks), gnarled trees, the insanely beautiful hues of blues in Lake McDonald, and knockout scenery, this is one of those little gems that is a quick walk to a peaceful setting, particularly early in the season when the high country trails are still blanketed in snow.