Listening for owls in Montana

Bowman Lake, Montana

The northern terminus of my 2-week road trip in September 2016 was just south of the Canadian border, near Polebridge, Montana.  I arrived with some unsettled fall weather, with a dusting of snow on the peaks, and more rain on the way.

I was there to visit my friend, Cynthia Wolf, who was working as a backcountry ranger for Glacier National Park.  She was stationed in a remote outpost known as the Logging Creek Ranger Station, which was just a few primitive cabins, an outhouse, and some corrals.   The cabins were nestled among tall pines and firs, with the sound of Logging Creek ever present in the distance.  Nearby was the North Fork of the Flathead River, which was just showing the first tinges of fall in the cottonwoods and willows along the river.  It was a wonderfully remote area, with little traffic, no cell service, and 35 dirt road miles to the nearest grocery store.

The first tinges of fall color, North Fork of the Flathead River, Montana.
The first tinges of fall color, North Fork of the Flathead River, Montana.

Cynthia had been hearing a family of Western Screech Owls in the trees above her cabin, and occasionally a Great Grey Owl.   In spite of wet weather and curious mules, I was able to get some recordings of the screech owls.  At first, just one owl called:

Then about 45 minutes later, the rest of the family showed up.  All the hootin’ and hollerin’ apparently woke up Cynthia’s stock, which included a horse with a bell around its neck (to make them easier to find if they wandered).  At first I resented the intrusion, but the more I listened to it, the more I appreciated the unique juxtaposition.

I managed to get in one good hike with Cynthia, between rainstorms.   This was a great close-up of wild country in constant flux.  The signs of extensive wildfire were everywhere – huge swaths of the North Fork forests had burned over the last couple of decades, with the most extensive fires in 2003.  But unlike the southwest, which may lose much of its forest cover due to fire and drought, these northwestern forests show quick regeneration.  Lodgepole pine was coming in so thick after the burns that trail crews were using heavy-duty weed whackers to clear the trails.   In places where the trail crew had not yet arrived, we were forced to weave our way through the dense stands of these little trees, while I tried not to think about the possibility of stumbling into a grizzly.

Regenerating lodgepole pine, under surviving pine and larch. The forest burned 13 years earlier.
Regenerating lodgepole pine, under surviving pine and larch along the North Fork of the Flathead River. The forest burned 13 years earlier.
Cynthia makes her way along a trail through regenerating forest, following a 2003 wildfire. Glacier National Park, Montana.
Cynthia makes her way along a trail through regenerating forest, following a 2003 wildfire. Glacier National Park, Montana.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our hike, but did see tracks of wolves, mountain lion, deer, elk,  and moose.

Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana. A burn scar can be seen on the left side of the photo.
Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana. A burn scar can be seen on the left side of the photo.

All too soon, the road was calling me south.  On the way out, I drove from West Glacier into the park and headed up Going to the Sun Road.  It had snowed the day before, and the top of the pass was still closed, with a huge line of cars waiting for the snow to melt.

Fresh snow on vanishing glaciers. Glacier National Park, Montana.
Fresh snow on vanishing glaciers. Glacier National Park, Montana.

I had no desire to spend my time in a traffic jam, even in such a beautiful place, so I turned around and started the long journey back to Arizona.  I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Montana, and had been fortunate to get to Glacier on several occasions.  But I hadn’t been to Montana in almost 30 years, so it was great to be back and try to absorb the changes.  Montana will always hold a piece of my heart.

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