Game Range Ramblin's
Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder
March 22, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson
We are privileged to live or work in the Seeley-Swan Valley of western Montana.
But, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be fruitful to peek up over the hill once in a while.
March can be a particularly good time to be from the Seeley-Swan, if it means you're headed somewhere else for a little variety. Spring may be in the air, but spring breakup under the green curtain of the western mountains can promptly sap the soaring spirits of anyone who thinks he's going hiking out the backdoor anytime soon.
I used to call it quits after falling in to my hips for the twenty-ninth time.
But, there are some advantages to getting older. I no longer need to wallow around in the uneven and unstable snowpack every spring before realizing that I should do something different. Nowadays, Sharon and I just plan on a weekend trip across the Great Divideby passenger vehicle, of courseas soon as the flickers and Canada geese start chattering about spring.
After our experience last weekend, I want to recommend that you do the same.
We only went for the day, and drove back by the glow of the Milky Way. The wind was blowing, as it always seems to be on the Rocky Mountain Front. "Hold on to the door handle," I reminded Sharon every time we stepped out of the truck.
It was the voice of experience, having allowed the wind to buckle the door of my first Fish and Game pickup when I was doing my mountain goat study out of Bynum over 20 years ago. The door never did work right after that.
But, I digress. The drive from Highway 200 to Bean Lake and on to Augusta was gorgeous last Saturday, with broad patches of snow on the north faces of the coulees and ridges, the wheat-colored grasses fully exposed on the south faces and flats, the brilliant yellow and orange willow tips bursting with new life, all set against the blue sky and billowing, white clouds.
And, let's not forget the hundred-or-so mule deer up Smith Creek, in bunches of 15-25, wild and alert, but cooperative enough to allow pretty close examination and leisurely study from the cover of the vehicle. We also got to look over a group of about 40 elk with quite a mix of young bullsstill with their antlers, as one would expect (most will shed in early April). Richardson's ground squirrels were out sacrificing themselves already. Golden eagles were circling to oblige them. Some white-tailed deer added a little extra variety to the scene.
Dusk found us on the highway between Choteau and Fairfield. We hadn't planned to stop at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area on this trip. Things still seemed pretty well frozen and we didn't expect to see much bird life there. But, it would be a couple hours hard driving back to Missoula and the dog was overdue for a stretch, so we pulled in to the main entrance.
"We're a couple weeks early for this place," I informed Sharon, after reminding her about the door again. "Let's just give Jake a little food and let him run around a few minutes. Then we'll call it a trip."
Famous last words.
Yes, Freezeout Lake looked pretty well frozen, what we could see of it in the ever dimming light. But, as we started strolling down the trail toward the main lake, the astounding quantity of life around us made itself visible to even the most unwilling observer.
I first noticed flights of a few ducks here, a few there, skimming low overhead. The farther we walked, the more we became aware of the din of honking geese out ahead of us. Oh, there must be open water somewhere out there.
Almost simultaneously, the flights of geese began streaming in, honking all the way just to make sure we didn't miss one of the best times of our lives. At first, they seemed to pass a few hundred yards to either side of us, fifty in that bunch, twenty in that one, thirty more over there.
But, then for some reason, they took to flying just a few dozen yards straight overhead. That was when I could verify with my eyes what my ears had been telling me earlier. These were snow geese. The hundreds that became thousands, that surely were hundreds of thousands all told, that I didn't think would be there before we stumbled into them.
"Listen," Sharon whispered, staring straight up to the heavens. "You can hear the wind through their wings."
It was quite some time later before we realized that the cold wind had not died down any since the afternoon. We headed back to the truck, only then realizing how long a walk we'd taken without really trying.
If you've never taken my word on any other subject before, then take it on this one.
You owe it to yourself to stare at the early evening sky over Freezeout Lake before another weekend passes. Next time, I'll bring heavier clothes and a foam pad to lay on.