Winter is here. With over 18 inches of snow on the picnic table and a forecast of more on the way, there’s no denying that this is the new normal for the at least the next 6 months. This morning was a clear -4 F with new snow, a full moon, and no wind. Time to bring out the skis.
After donning the layers of cold weather gear, and sledding Kelo’s warm food down to our neighbor’s, where he now stays, I clicked on the skis and headed out while it was still quiet.
Deer tracks told the story of their evening travels, skirting along homes and down the road as if they own the place. The moon was full and bright, although I can never snap a satisfactory picture of it, and I’m amazed how the snow sat in the trees. In a land where most of the snow we see blows sideways, it’s a beautiful sight.
The sun gradually illuminated the horizon with the Highwoods to the east of us, and by the time I returned home it was fully light. Breaking a sweat, enjoying a quiet morning, and being outside is on the top of my list of a good way to start the day.
With over a million acres of Montana up in smoke during one of the hottest and driest summers in memory, it was a challenging season for hiking or doing much outdoors. Even after a healthy dose of precipitation this spring, the faucet turned off by mid-June and when the heat turned up, all of that beautiful greenery turned to tinder. The terribly hot (even for me!) weather combined with smokey conditions, kept us grounded.
The greatest heartbreak of this record fire season was losing the dormitory at Sperry Chalet on August 31, 2017. The Sprague Fire, which had been of little concern for weeks, blew up on this fateful night and the firefighters couldn’t keep it at bay. We knew it was a special time when friends and I stayed there in 2016, but we had no idea those new mattresses we enjoyed would only last a year. Thankfully, crews have stabilized the stone walls of the chalet to brace the structure to endure the winter, with progress to hopefully restore the hotel continuing in the spring thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
The second challenge this year was the record number of visitors to Glacier. When we went on a hike to Red Rock Falls in July, the amount of traffic shocked me. Cars were parked probably close to a mile up the road from Swiftcurrent when we arrived back to the parking lot in the early afternoon, which was something I’ve never seen before. By the end of July to the first part of August, I began hearing reports of visitors being turned away at the gate at Many Glacier, as well as parts of the North Fork. At first I thought they were erroneous, but after folks I knew were turned away, I realized Glacier had reached its tipping point.
Even with the challenges of too many people and too much smoke, we still managed to enjoy a few good hikes. During the first part of July, friends and their kids joined the boys and I to hike to Aster Park Overlook in Two Medicine. It was a super hot day, but we still spotted a moose and the kids cooled playing in Two Medicine Lake after our short hike.
In mid-July, 4 friends and I climbed up to Scalplock Lookout from the Walton Ranger Station near Essex with a group of friends. I’d been up there years ago on Kelo, but riding the nearly 5 miles with an 3175 ft. elevation gain is a far different experience than hiking it.
We got a late start on a forecasted hot day, yet a breeze kept us comfortable most of the hike. Huckleberries also helped keep our interest and the bear grass was beyond gorgeous once we reached higher elevations. Even though it was a heck of a pull, it was absolutely worth it for the remarkable views at the top.
At the end of July, a group of us – with all of the kids in tow – went to Red Rock Falls. Beautiful weather, lots of huckleberries, and a cow and calf moose right alongside the trail were the highlights of the day.
In September, my best friend, Stefani, came out for a couple of days of hiking. The smoke was a significant concern, but we lucked out with a beautiful first morning. Driving into the Many Glacier Valley we saw an enormous grizzly – it was so large at first glance I thought it was a moose – in Sherburne Reservoir along the shoreline followed by a cow and calf moose farther up the road. After grabbing a delicious breakfast sandwich at Heidi’s in the Many Glacier Hotel, we hit the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail by 10-ish. The Iceberg/Ptarmigan trail is always impressive, although it wasn’t close to the stunning beauty we enjoyed during our June hike to Iceberg with all of the bear grass in bloom.
Yet, you truly can’t go wrong in Glacier. From the cut-off to the Ptarmigan Tunnel it’s a fairly steady climb through the trees before opening in a cirque. Ptarmigan Lake would be a nice stopping point, although being so close to the tunnel, you simply have to keep going. The switchbacks are a bit of a pull, but I stopped to chat with other hikers, as well as look for bighorn sheep and other animals.
The 240 ft. long tunnel, which I’ve wanted to see for years, is definitely worth the exertion. It’s impressive, particularly since it was cut through the mountain in the 1930s, and you know there wasn’t the modern equipment used today. And even though we were hot from walking along the open, rocky slope walking through the tunnel quickly cooled us, and we were nearly chilled having a snack on the other side out of the sun. The views on the north end of the tunnel are amazing looking at Elizabeth Lake and the valley heading to Canada. I wanted to keep walking.
We spent the evening at my favorite east side home base at the St. Mary KOA in one of their cabins. My friend, Jennifer, joined us that evening, and after a delicious dinner at Johnson’s Cafe (and to answer the question… yes their “good soup” is excellent), Stef and I hit the hot tub to soak our weary muscles before hitting the sack. With a sow and cub seen at the entrance of the KOA before we turned in, none of us made the dash to the restrooms in the middle of the night!
Day two was the long way to Grinnell Glacier because, even though it was September (normally not a busy time), we could not buy tickets on the boat. I even tried reserving tickets days before we went over there. It demonstrates the level of activity anymore.
It was a beautiful, although hazy, morning and we enjoyed our walk along Swiftcurrent and Josephine. At one point along Josephine, we noticed the boat stopped, as well as a group in front of us, and once we got up the trail a ways, we saw the two black bears feeding up the slope. It’s always good to see.
Grinnell is a classic, wonderful hike in Many Glacier. It’s easy to stop and take photos along the way, plus wildlife is typically abundant. We didn’t see any grizzlies, yet we spotted moose, ptarmigan, and a group of bighorn sheep rams nibbling on the mountain ash. Grinnell Glacier, or rather the lake surrounding it, is magical. We hung out on the shore, and I was so warm that I dunked my head in the icy water before we headed back down the trail.
One of our final, bigger trips for the season was a trek up to Banff. One of my all-time favorite programs I worked on for National Geographic was ‘Urban Elk’ where we filmed the bulls charging people and generally wreaking havoc on the community. While the elk are still in town, and they remain problematic, it doesn’t sound like the situation is quite as harrowing.
Banff is as beautiful as ever, although the amount of humanity shocked me. (This seems to be the theme this year whether it’s Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff.) It was mid-summer levels in mid-September. Of course, we had to tour the Fairmont Banff Springs, take my mother on a few short walks, and peruse the unique shops in downtown Banff. We also explored the Cascade Gardens near the admin building. Even though a frost already nipped the blossoms, the incredible stone work indicated how gorgeous it is in the summer. I really need to go back to see them at their finest.
The summer didn’t turn out as I originally planned, by any means, and I decided in a huff that I wasn’t going to make plans for 2018 just to cancel them. But after my little hissy fit, I can’t resist. In Glacier, friends and I have our eyes on a couple of overnight (or two) hikes, including a remote lookout. We’ll have to make a point to spend time there early in the season, or book somewhere to spend the night instead of trying to rush to a trailhead to find a parking space. I also want to go farther north out of the touristy areas. Being in Banff reminded me of how much I love northern Alberta, so I’m already looking into options for the entire family to explore the area.
In the meantime, you’ll find me in the gym improving my cardio and strength, in the kitchen preparing dehydrated meals to take on our adventures, and undboutedly pouring over maps dreaming of a summer without smoke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Experiencing Yellowstone at any time of the year is special, yet spring is always my favorite. Babies abound and the green landscape adorned with wildflowers is the best pick-me-up after our long winters. And, up until a few years ago, a springtime tour gave locals a chance to enjoy it without the crowds. I’m sorry to say, this is no longer the case. I realize it’s only going to become busier as the season progresses, yet the traffic and lines at popular areas was mind-boggling.
Anticipating more visitors than in the early days, I made reservations at Bridge Bay campground 3 months ago through Xanterra, the concession for the hotels and some of the campgrounds. Although most of the available reserved camping sites are currently taken for the summer season (at least according to their website), I highly recommend this for anyone traveling to the park at practically any time of the year. I requested that we were near a restroom since having to walk one of the boys to the bathroom in the middle of the night would easier, and sure enough, we had a fantastic spot with a straight walk to one of the facilities.
For most NPS campgrounds, it’s simply first-come, first-serve. You find an empty spot, possibly wrestle for it, stake it out, and pay for it immediately by filling out the little form and depositing your money in the box. Your stub proves it’s yours. At Bridge Bay, we entered one of the two lines formed to check in and received instruction on proper camping procedures, particularly when it comes to not attracting bears, which frequent the campground. Despite dealing with a continuous line of traffic, the attendants were courteous and helpful.
It started to rain when we entered the north entrance, and it showed no signs of letting up as we pulled into Bridge Bay. We seriously wondered whether the rain fly and extra canopy Grant brought would be sufficient to keep us dry. We couldn’t ponder about it long. We were starving, so as soon as we pulled into our campsite, the first order of business was to set up the canopy over the picnic table to cook hotdogs since the hamburger and chicken were still solidly frozen. Once the rain stopped, albeit momentarily, we started a fire and made s’mores, each of us eating a couple apiece, before hustling to set up the tent and dive in once the rain began anew. It poured for hours, yet everything held and we stayed dry.
Weather on Saturday was completely different. Sunshine and warm weather was a welcomed change as we explored some of the thermal features and pestered rangers with questions. One of my goals for this trip was to sit down with Lee Whittlesey, the park historian who has written multiple books and articles on the extremely complex history of Yellowstone, as well as trying to gain my bearings on what the park used to be like. Although there are currently 983 structures within the park, it has changed considerably over the century of its existence. Our focus for the book veteran photographer Michael Francis and I are putting together, is to be able to paint a picture of what is happening in the vintage photos he’s collected giving readers a glimpse into what it was like. The first step is understanding what was available during various time periods, and this trip taught me, despite studying for the past several months, that I have barely scratched the surface. It’s going to be a fascinating journey.
During our visits to many of the popular geothermal areas, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the traffic was off the charts. Parking took skill and patience, both things I lack, especially when people are not thinking or are being rude. While we thoroughly enjoyed walking along the Norris Geyser Basin, and hearing a fascinating talk on Steamboat Geyser, the best times were when we could escape the crowds.
The trick to avoid the masses is to be out early in the morning or later in the evening, when people are typically having dinner. We were able to find a picnic area very close to Bridge Bay where no one was parked, allowing us a walk to the beach of Yellowstone Lake to spend time alone. Chorus frogs and water birds were our only company. And even though we were there for fishing, Sam and John preferred to look for frogs. I was happy to sit and listen to them, despite still being able to hear traffic from above.
Sunday we opted to walk a couple of miles along the Mary Mountain trail starting south of Madison. This 22-mile hike that was part of the same trail followed by the Nez Perce as they fled through the region reaches from the west side of the Grand Tour Loop Rd. to Hayden Valley, and appears to be an exceptional, if very long, day hike. Wide and well-worn, the trail was an old wagon road winding through open parks and forested areas, ultimately meeting up with the Nez Perce Creek within a couple of miles. Grant broke out the fly rod and tried his hand tempting the trout in the fast flowing water while I geeked out over wildflowers and the Sam looked for water striders. Grant almost landed a small trout, and the boys each took their hand at fishing. On the hike back we took a closer look at the trees rubbed from the bison. During our first day in the park, I wondered why so many were barkless on one side towards the bottom. It was nice to be away from everyone and have a moment to breathe and notice the beauty of the area.
The Mary Mountain Trail is a perfect example of how easily you can avoid the crowds. Even though it’s on a busy route, only one hiker passed us on our walk into the creek, and a family of 4 from New Jersey (evident since they had no water, no bear spray, and no packs) approached on our walk back to the car. (On a side note, not being prepared with the basics makes me cringe since more than one person has muttered, “I’ll be right back,” intending to go for a quick walk that turns into a harrowing experience. Thankfully, their walk didn’t last long and we saw them back at the trailhead.)
Yellowstone abounds with life – including humanity – at this time of the year. By heading out very early or later in the evening, or simply finding trails that don’t have interpretative signs along the way, you can experience the park on your own terms.
May and June are swarming season in Montana, so it’s a good idea to keep close tabs on the activity within the hive to ensure they are focused on brood development and gathering nectar instead of leaving. Last week, I suited up alongside Grant to take a look at the activity in the hives before he moved them to the alfalfa fields.
As he removes a frame of bees you can see many workers busy tending to the brood, as well as the queen, which Grant spots in short order. Overall, they look healthy and happy, ready to bring in a lot of honey when the nectar flow is in full swing.
You would think I would know better living in Montana for 27 years, but the unseasonably warm weather has me planting like a garden newbie. The way I approach it in my lax gardening style anymore is if it doesn’t frost, I’m ahead of the game. If it does, I buy a few more plants. No big deal.
As always, the garden plan is different this year. Where I had the straw bale gardens last year, as well as the beds near the patio, I planted ‘Copra’ and ‘Walla-Walla’ onions, plus probably 15 pounds of seed potatoes of all varieties. I have everything in there from ‘Yukon Gold’ to ‘All Blue.’ I decided I can mulch heavily to help me gain an upper hand on the weed situation in this section, since Grant will not let me put the chickens so close to the house. And since I can never seem to have enough potatoes, this should give us a good start on the winter store.
The main garden is where I had the older chickens enclosed last year to take care of the prickly lettuce and other weeds that gave me fits. It’s definitely not weed free, but the soil is fantastic. When I turned under the 3ft.x 6 ft. bed to plant beans this afternoon, John picked up 20 earthworms, and there were plenty left in the clumps of soil. That’s a very good sign.
Beyond the onions and potatoes, I have 7 tomatoes planted between the greenhouse and the Wall-O-Waters in the veggie garden. We put in 16 ‘Carmen’ sweet, Italian peppers, also in the greenhouse and Wall-O-Waters. Plus there is broccoli,kohlrabi, kale, cilantro, ‘Red Cranberry’ bush beans, carrots, beets, a couple varieties of lettuce, spinach, radishes, peas, tomatillos, ground cherries, and dill. Soon I need to plant cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins. Like I said, everything is going in the ground!
The goal this season is to simplify everything as much as possible. I have a packed travel/hiking schedule this year, and when I’m home I need to be working and not weeding. So I will mulch and employ the efforts of my eldest (I figure I started weeding gardens at 10 years old, so Sam can, too!) who has a long lists of robotic supplies he wants to buy in order to stay on top of it. He was already tackling the tiny perennial weeds so there just might be hope. And that’s the best part of spring!
A few months ago my friend Katrina and I decided to create a Nature Club as part of our homeschool group. Our initial inspiration was the field sketch work of John Muir Laws, and while we do like to bring along the sketch books to be able to sit for a moment and draw what we see, not every outdoor adventure is conducive to it. Tower Rock was one of them. We’ve been itching to get back out on the trail this winter, yet after several cancelled trips due to extreme weather (we’re tough, but I below zero with single digit wind chill is a bit much) it was good to finally have a semi-decent day. Tower Rock is an ideal winter hike since the trail is short (less than 1/2 mile one way) and would be easy enough to scramble back to the car.
And besides being outdoors, hiking this distinct landscape with the black rocks jutting out of the rolling landscape as the prairie rolls up to the Missouri River in this region are where the Lewis and Clark expedition members gained their first glimpse of this completely unknown territory. From what I understand, they at least had some concept of the territory traversing the plains since it was similar to that in the Dakotas, but once they reached this area, they were witnessing a landscape like they’d never seen. They followed a native trail to the top of Tower Rock to gain a better perspective, and Lewis wrote:
a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains by a handsome little plain which surrounds it base on 3 sides and the Missouri washes it’s base on the other, leaving it on the Lard. as it descends. this rock I called the tower. it may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to its summit, and from there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immense herds of buffaloe in the plains below. (Moulton 1987, 4: 387)
For us, Tower Rock is part of the Montana State Park system, and is easy to find from Great Falls being located 10 miles past Cascade at exit 247. Although a county dumpsite is located right next to the parking area, the trailhead is pleasant and easy to find. Eleven kids with moms started the easy trail through the prairie landscape gradually climbing up the volcanic remnants. Every time we drive past this area, I look to see possible routes to the top, and at one point, I suggested we try a side trail. After a mad scramble on steeper-than-it-looked grass and rocks, we decided that was a bad choice and turned around. We followed the established trail to the sign where it said it ended, then continued farther to the base of Tower Rock. The last part was a steep haul, and a couple of additional students with their mom joined us by the time we reached the top.
Once we were as high as we were going to go, since climbing the actual rock is best accomplished with ropes and a helmet, our main objective was keeping the kids from falling over the cliffs. I understand it’s a fabulous view from up there, but it gave every mother a heart attack as the kids all seemingly wanted to be way to close to the edge.
Snow, actually more of a grauple, started while we were close to the top, and stung our faces on the walk down. But the kids were troopers and I don’t think there was much for complaining. They liked seeing the mule deer bedded down in the brush on either side of the trail, and simply had a good time being outdoors.
It’s nice to have the flexibility to take our education outdoors where the kids can not only burn off energy, they can examine the nuances of the natural world, and even walk in the footsteps of history. Tower Rock was a good kick off to this season’s hikes with many more adventures in the near future.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.