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.

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!

Girls in Glacier Trek to Cracker Lake

One of the beautiful aspects of Glacier National Park is we have a number of relatively easy day hikes where you can stretch your legs without extensive climbing. Cracker Lake in Many Glacier fits the bill perfectly in this category covering 12.6 miles there and back, but only gaining 1200 ft. in elevation over the course of the trail. There are a few uphill pulls along the way, but nothing that is overly strenuous.

Be sure to start early

The greatest challenge of hiking in Glacier, particularly Many Glacier, in August is finding a parking space, but thankfully, these ladies are on top of it. We left Great Falls around 5 a.m. to make it to Many Glacier shortly after 8 a.m. , and had no problem finding a spot. After running into the Many Glacier Hotel for potty breaks, we were on the trail before 9 a.m. and enjoyed the cool, damp morning on the trail around Sherburne Reservoir.

Imagining the town of Altyn

Looking at this wild area as we skirted along the water in the forest, it’s difficult to imagine a small, but bustling, town once stood where the lake now exists. The optimistic town of Altyn was the hub of activity for the early, and brief, mining operations within this area. Sanford and Claire Stone at the Park Cabin Company in Babb wrote an interesting piece on the early history and business shenanigans of the area called “The Drowned Town of Altyn,” which is definitely worth a read.

Keep an eye open for bears

For much of the hike, the trail to Cracker Lake winds through the forest with the major obstacle being the horse piles for the first couple of miles since the trail shares the area with the horse concessioner. But the dense vegetation, including thimble berries, is also why this is a hot spot for grizzlies and is a trail best hiked with a group to minimize the potential of a surprise encounter. Years ago there was a female grizzly who put the run on one of the horse people. From what I remember, the wrangler held on and ran!G

Gradual elevation gain means big rewards

The trail continues through the forest, but eventually climbs to an area where a number of switchbacks help you gain elevation before using the bridge to cross Canyon Creek, then head up the hill. At nearly 5 miles in, you begin to open up where you can appreciate the stunning views of Siyeh Mountain, and the view of Cracker Lake can nearly take your breath away with its surreal turquoise blue color. When we arrived, it was somewhat milky, possibly from the recent rain that obviously caused sediment to wash into the inlet at the head of the lake, but it was still beyond gorgeous.

Technically, the lake is 6.3 miles in to the lake, but we continued to the large red rocky outcropping to stop for lunch, then another lady and I walked to the end of the lake in search of the old mine. While we couldn’t locate the mine shaft, which was tunneled 1300 ft. into the base of the mountain, the enormous amount of mining equipment, including the 8 ton steam powered ore concentrator, still sat where it was last used over a century ago. How they hauled back everything, particularly the concentrator, is beyond my comprehension.

This is definitely a hike we’ll do more often. It’s a pleasant walk through an array of terrain, including plenty of wildflowers around the lake, and views that are out of this world.

Kids’ hike to Iceberg Lake

There’s good reason Iceberg Lake in Many Glacier is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park. With exceptional scenery, including a phenomenal wildflower display, it’s one of those trails that beckons you to keep going.

As part our of homeschool group’s Nature Club, we set up a hike for the weekend so more of the fathers could join us, ending up with 22 people, including 9 kids and a baby in a backpack. Moving this many takes more time than smaller groups, so we officially hit the trail by 11:30 a.m. enjoying absolutely perfect temperatures and bluebird skies. The kids led the way taking turns up front, stopping occasionally to allow the group to gather together, along with shedding the extra people who basically were caught up within our hiking train.

We had quite the line of hikers.

At 9.7 miles gaining 1275 ft. in elevation along the way, Iceberg is considered a moderate hike. The first quarter mile is a bit of a pull, but if you take it slow (especially with children) it’s simply a good warm up. From there it’s more rolling terrain that you barely notice being too busy looking at the outstanding beauty. Snow still hangs in the mountains above the green, lush valleys filled with flowers of all colors.

Flowers lined the trail.

Beargrass dominated the scene this year with a display we only enjoy every 5 to 7 years highlighting the cycle for each individual plant. Huge swaths poured down the hillsides, and the air smelled mildly sweet from all of the blooms.

Each beargrass plant blooms once every 5 to 7 years.

Not to be outdone, the bright orange Indian paintbrush put on quite the show in several areas, along with sticky geranium, mariposa lily, purple phacelia, valerian, thimbleberries, pink spirea, and the bright yellow cinquefoil. And where water was present in several areas, the ornate white bog orchids thrived along the side. Since many people consider orchids a purely tropical species, they’re surprised to learn that Glacier boasts 22 species of native orchids within its borders. This is just one of the beautiful example of these hardy and adaptive plants.

White bog orchid

Thimbleberry, spirea, and valerian

Indian paintbrush, cinquefoil, balsamroot, mariposa lily

Since we hit the trail so late, it was a less than an hour before we stopped for lunch. Everyone was hungry, and the break allowed kids to chat and my husband to glass the slopes for mountain goats. Throughout the day he spotted well over 2 dozen on the mountains around us.

Looking for mountain goats

At roughly the 2.5 mile mark, Ptarmigan Falls is a popular place to rest and sometimes turnaround. But it was such a beautiful day that it didn’t seem nearly long enough to be out, and we continued down the trail to see if we could find snow. At another point past the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail junction (which was closed because of a carcass on the trail, plus the tunnel is weeks away from being opened) we considered heading back once again because impending rain looked to dampen our excursion. We had no problems with bears, even though we found distinct evidence of their past presence, and after enduring a brief storm with very big rain drops pelting us, we continued up the trail in search of snow.

Bear sign (albeit old) was pretty obvious

The sign at Ptarmigan Tunnel Junction

Constant reports from hikers returning from Iceberg encouraged us forward, and heck, once you’re within a mile how can you turn back? Plus, the kids were going full steam, especially when we started running into the snow fields and avalanche chutes. Each one meant a new snowball fight, and as we were in total snow closer to the lake, they more resembled otters trying to cross the slick footing. The big game was who could remain upright. I joked with my friend that we traveled back in time during this hike. We started out in spring with beargrass and thimbleberries in bloom. Gradually we ran into glacier lilies, one of the flowers that bloom shortly after the snow melts, and eventually, we stepped back into winter.

Glacier lilies

The first avalanche chute

The kids loved the snow

Sam gave us a short report of the hike. It would have been longer except for a few technical glitches.

Iceberg Lake wore ice over 90 percent of its surface, and one of the kids learned how cold it was when he fell in up past his knees. Wearing jeans, he was chilled until they dried out on the way back. There were no brave hikers diving in that day like they do in the summer when icebergs on a hot afternoon are hard to resist.

Intrepid explorers at Iceberg Lake

As a lark, Sam and I put the GoPro under the water to gain a bit of perspective of the environment below the ice.

Since the boys were running out of water in their Camelbacks, we gave the new Katadyn BeFree water filtration bottle a try. So far we’re giving it a big thumbs up. The bottle section is soft, squishable, and lightweight making it easy to shove into the pack just to use for this purpose. It was easy to fill up the bottle, screw on the filtering cap, then carrying it to sip on along the way being able to refill at waterfalls and streams. It’s kind of difficult to keep in the bottle holders on the side of the backpack, but as long as you understand that, it’s a terrific way to have clean, cold water along the hike. And water from Iceberg Lake was delicious.

Giving the Katadyn BeFree a try

The return hike took on a brisker pace with few stops, except for potty breaks and to take pictures along the way, in an attempt to make it back to the car at a reasonable time since we had a 3-hour 15-minute drive ahead of us back to Great Falls. We were back at the trailhead within 2 hours and 20 minutes giving us enough wiggle room to swing into the camp store at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn for a few snacks to be on the road at 7 p.m.  Instead of the leftover roast beef waiting at home, dinner consisted of Wheat Thins, yogurt, cheese, salami, and potato chips. Not exactly the healthiest fare, but it hit the spot with this hungry crew.

Climbing the snow field above the lake

Hiking back

While going all the way to the lake wasn’t the original plan, I’m glad we did. The kids did phenomenally well, enjoying each other’s company and the ample snow for ammo. Sam already wants to return when the ice is gone and the icebergs decorate the water, so we’ll have to make that happen before the season is over.

A beautiful hike at any time of the season

Ice fishing season

I think the end of ice fishing season is within sight, especially if the record warm temperatures we’re flirting with persist much longer. Overall it’s been a fairly decent season for those of us who aren’t comfortable walking on water.  From mid-December to mid-January the thermometer rarely cracked single digits, and we spent a whole lot of time below the zero F. mark; as a result,  the ice, even on some of the more fickle lakes, is deep and solid.  Even though the thought of falling through the ice evokes sheer terror in me, including dreams of such events on some nights before ice fishing, I’ve been comfortable on the ice this season. That says a lot.

Since Holter Lake, a reservoir about an hour south from here, is the place to be for perch fishing due to their record population numbers, along with some dandy trout, we ventured out for several attempts this year. Instead of bringing in dozens as in past years, we learned it’s why the sport is called fishing instead of catching.  While we didn’t always come home with much to feed us, we did return with fun memories, which is what it’s all about anyways.

The first few times we ventured onto Holter  it was extraordinarily windy. If Sam would have held the snow shovel firmly during one walk out to our fishing spot, I’m convinced he could have gained significant speed sliding across the ice. We were bundled in our winter gear, but the wind still cut right through us as we fished those first few   of test holes.  Once we decided to stay put, Grant set up the ice shelter and we stayed absolutely comfortable… especially with hot cocoa I brought along in the thermos.

When fishing is good, time passes quickly, but that’s not the case when the perch and trout are either not in the area, or seem to have lost their appetite. Today was one of those days. When we first set up, I caught a perch right out of the gate so we thought we were golden. I had another one on a short time later, but the hole had frozen over and it slipped off before breaking through the ice. Then it was crickets. To occupy ourselves I put on Luna the Wonderdog’s harness, and had her pull the boys (one at a time) on the runner sled. I had to run ahead of her to get her to go. I don’t think she’s going to qualify for the Iditarod anytime soon, but it was sure fun and heaven knows she needs the exercise.

For me, once the concern of the ice shattering below my feet pulling me into the icy water is allayed, it’s easy to have a good time whether we’re catching fish or not. In that respect, it was a good year.

And, speaking of fishing the hard water, I do have an article in Outdoor X4 magazine on page 70 of Issue 19 about the sport that makes people think we’re crazy. This is a really great publication put together by a fun group of people and I’m tickled to be part of it. Here is a link: http://current.outdoorx4.com/publication/frame.php?i=379802&p=&pn=&ver=html5

One of my favorite interviews for this piece was with Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba who is the expert (I would say in all of North America, if not the world) on cold water immersion. He uses himself as a human guinea pig and performs research studies only found in my nightmares. But I’m amazed by his work and follow everything he does.

A lot of people think we’re nuts to be on the ice for hours during the winter, but as long as the ice is as safe as ice can be and we dress appropriately, it’s a good way to while away the winter days.

Adventures in the cold

The cold that hurts is on its way. After a few days of relatively warm temperatures, meaning above 20 degrees F., it appears the deep freeze is on tap for the New Year.  

Cold is not a new concept. Growing up in northeastern Ohio, it was common for me to play outside so long that my feet hurt to the point I had to go back inside to soak them in the tub before pulling my boots back on and heading out again. And, although typical winters didn’t amount to much, we tried to make the most of them. One year I fashioned snowshoes out of grapevine and yarn, and couldn’t wait until we had enough snow to try them out. Finally, drifts along the fence allowed me to tromp along learning the obvious flaws of my design and choice of materials. They made it a couple of hundred yards before disintegrating, but I was still enthralled with the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking on water.

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Since moving to Montana 27 years ago, I learned about real winters. In Coram, the snow was so deep some years it required a front end loader to open up the drive going up to the greenhouse… in April. And I never knew Fahrenheit and Celsius evened up at -40 degrees until I saw it first hand. You could feel the cold coming through the walls that night. With months of weather that can kill you, you learn to adapt.

It’s all about the gear. With the right clothes anything is possible. When gathering ambient sound during a bighorn sheep rut during the filming of Giants of Jasper, it was -30 F, and at first I couldn’t believe we were actually going to film in those conditions. Yet, sheep don’t wait when Cupid reigns. Unfortunately, equipment does not like temperatures in that realm so it was a constant struggle keeping the DAT (digital audio tape at that time) running. As I sat there among the sheep, who milled around us like we weren’t even there, I coaxed the recorder to continue running by shoving it deep within the -20 F L.L. Bean parka, doing my best not to breathe and staying as still as absolutely possible. I also had to continually replace the chemical hand heaters since they don’t stay warm for long in those conditions. It was worth it, though, and was an unforgettable experience.

When I searched National Geographic for Giants of Jasper, I ran across these clips of some of the footage. It’s fun to see some of them once again.

This ram, in particular, was an impressive big boy:

Over the years, I’ve refined what works best for the given situation. It’s a balance between warmth and mobility, oftentimes with warmth winning, but newer materials make life a whole lot easier. I still have that -20 parka, but wear it only when it’s absolutely brutal, which hasn’t happened in years. So far this season, our coldest has been -23 F, but it’s nothing the 700 fill Marmot down jacket can’t handle, at least for short periods of time. When I’m heading to the barn during cold snaps like this, it’s typical to wear my Marmot snow pants (obviously I’m a fan of the brand), sometimes with Under Armor running tights, or truthfully, my fleece jammy bottoms because the one positive thing about the bitter cold is no one can tell underneath the snow pants! But that’s only for a trip to the barn.  On top, I wear a thermal top, fleece, down vest, and the Marmot jacket along with a hat and mittens, my preference over gloves when it becomes really cold.

Boots are another serious consideration during this type of weather.  I must admit, I’m very impressed by how warm the Muck boots keep your feet. As long as I’m moving, whether it’s walking or cleaning the stalls, my feet stay fairly comfortable. I also love my Sorels made by Kaufman and Co. in Canada that I purchased probably 25 years ago. I’m sure I found them in Banff one year, but I’m so disappointed they don’t make them anymore. My other heavy duty winter boot is a White’s pack boot meant for riding. The greatest drawback with this one is it takes a long time to lace it up versus just slipping it on and going out. As for socks, I go with wool. I adore my Arctic Alpaca  socks from Alpacas of Montana, but since I wear heavy socks practically every day, I have an assortment of different brands. As long as they’re wool, I’m happy.

It’s been good to have a break in the weather in between cold spells to give us a chance to clean up. The chicken coop needed changed out, as well as the cat box in the garage. It also gave us all a chance to throw our cold weather gear in the wash to prepare for this next bitter round. Ready or not, here it comes. 

 

Cutting the Christmas tree

Kinnickinnik provides a food source throughout the winter.
Kinnickinnik provides a food source throughout the winter.

 

While it is undoubtedly easier to snag a Christmas tree in town, for the past couple of years we’ve headed to the mountains to cut one out of the National Forest. We usually don’t come home with a perfect specimen, but walking through the woods, throwing the stick for Luna, and enjoying hot cocoa all make it a memorable experience.

This year I hoped to head towards Sun Canyon outside of Augusta simply because I wanted to see if I could find the bighorn sheep, but with an impending snow storm on the horizon, we choose to go to our typical tree-hunting grounds near Monarch in the Little Belt mountains. Many of the roads in the area are well-maintained, especially if there is a missile silo along the route because the Air Force keeps it clear, so it was an easy drive to where the best trees are found. Compared to other years, it didn’t take us long to find a suitable specimen. We did see one that looked nice, but it had a bird’s nest tucked in near the truck so we left it for next year’s bird family.

After cutting our tree, we tagged it with the permit issued from the Forest Service. Typically, they cost a mere $5 for each tree, but this year we were able to obtain one for free since our eldest is in 4th grade and took part in the Every Kid in a Park campaign. This is a wonderful program geared to encourage more kids to explore the outdoors. After answering a few questions, they are given a pass for the national parks (an $80 value), plus the Forest Service granted them a Christmas tree permit, as well. He was pretty happy to pull out his card to receive our permit the other day.

Cutting the tree
Cutting the tree

Since our search didn’t take very long we drove up the road to park to allow Luna and the boys to play in the snow. And, of course, the hot cocoa had to come out to warm their hands from snowball fights.  It always tastes better when you drink it outside in the snow.

Cocoa tastes better outdoors
Cocoa tastes better outdoors

It was a quick trip this year, but it’s a mission accomplished. The tree is in the stand, and it’s adorned with lights. Now, as soon as the boys finish their schoolwork today, they’ll be able to decorate it. The Christmas season has officially begun.

 

Giving the Leki trekking poles a try

I only started using hiking poles a couple of years ago after an avid hiker friend of mine told me how well they reduce the impact on your knees and joints during the descent. At first dealing with poles seemed terribly cumbersome, but it didn’t take long to find my rhythm and realize their benefit. Now I rarely hike without them.Descending the Highline Trail

My first set was an inexpensive twist-lock poles that did fine through a single season, but before long they didn’t remain extended very well, and one completely failed. Even the second set I received as a Christmas gift didn’t fare well this spring. It took only 3 hikes before one bit the dust. Of course, this is partly due to John smacking it on rocks and on the ground during our Grinnell Lake hike, but that’s all part of normal wear and tear, right?

 

So I took the leap and, after looking at several pairs,  bought a set of Leki Wanderfreunds at Bighorn Outdoor Specialists for $79.95 each. That’s more than I ever thought I would pay for a couple of sticks, but the grips sold me. So much of our hikes involve a fair amount of down hill travel so I figured having ergonomic hand holds like these made the most sense for sturdiness and comfort. I discovered they surely did.

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When we came down from Sperry Chalet on July 11, the switchbacks, which seemed so much steeper during our walk up, were easy to maneuver. I did have an issue tightening one of the poles, but figured it out to where it stayed in place for the duration of the hike. Plus, I am heartened that they have a 10 year warranty on the parts. I’ve read a number of reviews were the shock absorber system went out, but everyone said the company sent them a new part immediately.

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Our latest trip to Preston Park in Glacier National Park gained roughly 1400 ft. in the 3.5 mile one-way journey, and the poles were particularly handy during the descent in several sections, and the boys thought they were pretty handy to use to hike up a snowfield.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Lekis collapse into three sections to a total of roughly 24 inches, so they can be strapped to or stuffed inside pretty easily. Plus, they weigh less than a pound so their weight is negligible most of the time. So, if you’re looking for a decent pair of hiking poles, and I realize there are much heftier options, these are an excellent option.

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