Browsed by
Category: wildness

Montana Saturday Night: Watching Grizzlies

Montana Saturday Night: Watching Grizzlies

©Tom Murphy Photography
©Tom Murphy Photography

Himself called from the cabin yesterday evening. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s drive up to Tom Miner and see if we can see bears.”

I was in the middle of a project — I took on some freelance work that overlaps with the job-I’ve-quit-but-am-still-working-out-my-notice. I wasn’t at a great stopping place, and today is going to be a crunch, but when your person calls to ask if you want to go bear watching, you say “Great idea!” and “I’m getting in the car.”

So that’s what we did. We loaded up the binoculars, a cooler, the dog and headed up Tom Miner Basin, which is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It’s almost all private land, which makes it not much of a resource for those of us who like to hike, but it’s managed really well, and we’d been hearing rumors that folks were seeing bears from the road.

And there were bears. In one meadow, we watched two young-ish bears grazing on something. The Tom Miner Basin Association website says it’s caraway, which is invasive in some of those meadows, but which also provides good tubers for bears. They were lovely bears — maybe three or four years old, silvertip coats, distinctive humps and dished faces. And they were just right over there — maybe 50 yards away — grazing peacefully despite the four or five cars of us watching.

A car came by and asked us if we’d been “up to the top” yet? They said there had been nine bears up there the night before, in a meadow. Which is pretty astonishing. Tom Miner is known for bears, but as Himself said when we saw those first two hanging out, “I didn’t think it’d be this easy.”

We stuck around and watched the two juveniles for a while, and glassed the basin up behind them, and generally were just glad to be there. It’s a stunning basin any time, but the sun was setting and the gold meadows were gleaming against the dark fir forest, and there were spectacular peaks and pink clouds up above.

We drove further up the road to where a bunch of folks had pulled over. It was like a cocktail party, with bears. People had big spotting scopes, and were chatting quietly among themselves, and watching out across the meadow. There was one sow with two cubs, who we watched for a while, and a herd of cattle behind them, and neither the bears nor the cattle seemed the slightest bit bothered by one another. Clearly they all knew one another, and were used to hanging out together in the evenings.

The viewing party was a little noisy for us, so we drove up to the campground at the top of the road and turned around. There was a big herd of goats all tucked up for the night behind an electric fence — Hank-dog was very interested in them. There were campers. There was cattle, and some deer, and who knows what hanging out down in those willow thickets below the road. There were peaks and sunset and a big white moon coming up.

It was pretty perfect as a Saturday night goes. And then this morning when we woke up, the hummingbirds were having air wars over the feeder, so we watched that quietly for a while while drinking coffee.

More Yellowstone

More Yellowstone

So we did actually get out of the car for a bit and go for a little hike. The first place we were going to hike was where the bison were stampeding. It looked good — pretty open country, a nice game trail that went up to the top of the ridge. However, when the German tourists came down from the same game trail we’d been looking at, they told us that there was a bear up in the patch of trees you could see from the road, and that he was “very grümpy” (there was definitely an umlaut on his pronunciation!) and that the bear had woofed at them. Considering the events of last week, and all the chaos in that particular stretch — hiking tourists, a couple of runners (?!), stampeding bison, we decided to go someplace where all the animals, including the humans, seemed less riled up.

So we drove down the road, found a turnout and headed uphill. We were on game trails most of the time, but there was a lot of bison sign.

This is a little tricky to see (my iPhone is pretty good, but it’s not a real camera) but it’s a stick, about 18 inches high, covered with bison fur. We saw a couple of these, along with some shady places where the bison had wallowed, and then when we came up and over the ridge (the photo above shows the view from the top) we came across a big sandy buffalo wallow on the edge of a heavily eroded gully. We stopped and looked at the view for a while. One of the other things one forgets about Yellowstone is what the sheer size is. There is SO much country without roads. That entire valley below us was just there, no roads, no improvements, no scenic overlooks.

On the way down we passed an enormous, burned log. It was probably 25 feet long, and there were tow or three of these places where the tree had been polished. It looks like the bison had been using it to scratch themselves on, and it was really beautiful. The grain in the wood was both polished and worn away in grooves.

While one always has to keep an eye out both inside and outside the park for big animals — whether it’s bears (black or grizzly) or lions or elk/moose/deer/bison — if you keep your wits about you, and use some common sense, it’s completely worth getting out of the car, off the boardwalks, and taking an actual walk in the park. This was just a baby hike — we maybe went uphill for half an hour, forty minutes, then looked at the view and came back, but we saw stuff we would never have seen otherwise.

Eagles and Coyotes

Eagles and Coyotes

How cool is this? The iPhone has a setting to determine the best exposure lighting, and it caught this eagle taking flight as three images in one photo —

This was the second eagle I saw this morning driving in from the cabin. It’s that time of year when all the wildlife is on the move. There were two cow elk behind the 2-unit motel building up at the cabin last night — one came out to graze in the full moon at about 10:30. We were peeking out the high window in the bedroom at her, grazing, maybe 10 feet from the wall. Then this morning, the little herd of cows and spikes was just up the hill, hanging out. We watched them while drinking coffee in bed (drinking coffe in bed is a luxury to me, but a necessity to my sweetheart, who does not wake up easily).

There was also a pack of coyotes — probably the same ones we heard hunting behind the motel two weeks ago. Just as I got out of the car, they started up yipping and barking up on the hillside. My poor dogs, it was leashes only for them I’m afraid. Between not wanting them to scare the elk and not wanting the coyotes to eat them, they did not have the most fun overnight excursion. Plus the windows are set high in the wall, so Ray can’t see out easily. I wind up putting him in the car in the morning because at least from there he can watch what’s going on outside, even if he can’t go chase things.

Here’s a photo of eagle #1 keeping watch over East River road. It’s not unusual to see them, but it was nice to have a safe place to pull over to try to get a photo.

Eagle #2, the flying one, was closer to town. Between these two and the Snow Geese I saw feeding on the Yellowstone last week, seems like spring might be on the horizon.

Sometime in May.

Gorgeous Day in Yellowstone

Gorgeous Day in Yellowstone

This time of year the only safe place to hike is Yellowstone, so since it was a gorgeous day yesterday, off we went.

It was the last day that the roads are open, so we headed down to Swan Lake flats and took off to the west. About an hour in, we saw two grizzlies, high on a ridge to the south of us, eating grubs or something. I don’t have a photo, but they were unbelievably beautiful up on the high ridge with the sunlight gleaming off their guard hairs. They were illuminated. Meanwhile, a couple of magpies were making a big noise in the gully just below us — which usually means someone is afoot. I’m always a little nervous about bears, especially this time of year, but it turned out to be two big bull elk, who picked their way out of the gully, and went to hide in another glade one ridge over from us.

We had our eye out for antlers, because my sweetie is a dedicated horn hunter, although in Yellowstone you’re not allowed to collect them. We’d been hiking about an hour and a half when we found this festive pile, which some other frustrated horn hunter had left behind.

The weather was spectacular. There was a big storm system moving in from the southwest, but we lucked out and spent the entire day in a doughnut hole of sunshine. This is the view to the southwest — by the end of the day those big peaks were all engulfed in snow showers.

We tend not to hike on trails, but rather just take off across country. We spent a lot of time yesterday on a big exposed ridge like this one, hiking from elk antler to elk antler. We also saw a couple of buffalo — solitary bulls — who kept a wary eye on us from afar. And one funny little group of young bull elk who we later figured out had been spooked up from the bottom by a couple of hikers on the trail, then were really freaked out to find us coming down from the ridgetop. There were maybe seven or eight of them — mostly four- and five-point bucks, with weirdly enough, a couple of cows mixed in, as well as a spike or two. They were quite beautiful.

Finally, way up on a high ridge, we found another, even bigger, festive horn assemblage. This was at the top of a ridge, and you could just see the white tines sticking up from below.

On the way out of the park, we encountered four big bison on the road, just ambling along, owning the road. My camera ran out of batteries so I didn’t get a photo of them, but they passed maybe five feet from the open driver’s window, and they’d clearly come out of the timber, because they were festooned with sticks.

All in all, a gorgeous day in the park. Animals, beautiful views, piles of horns, and aside from the two people we saw over there on the trail, we didn’t see any other people all day. Then home, slighly sore, to a beer and dinner and a fire in the woodstove. A perfect day.

The First Morels!

The First Morels!

There they are — the first morels of the season. The Sweetheart and I found them up behind his cabin yesterday — eleven of them, nearly 12 ounces total (yes, I’m a nerd, I weighed them). It never gets old, the thrill of finding a mushroom in the grass.

I also found a couple of nice clumps of early oyster mushrooms. Little bitty ones, which sauteed up beautifully. So last night we had mushroom pizzas — one with morels and red onion and sausage and one with greens from the hoop house and sausage and both kinds of mushrooms (someone doesn’t like the oyster mushrooms, he only likes the morels).

I’ve written about mushroom hunting so often that I’m sure you’re all bored with hearing me blather on about how it’s my favorite outdoor activity. But it is. You get to hike very slowly, you’re outdoors, in some cases, like yesterday morning, you’re with someone you really like, and then you get to come home and cook delicious mushrooms in lots of butter and garlic. Here’s a shot of the oyster mushrooms cooking down:

Bluebirds and SandHill Cranes

Bluebirds and SandHill Cranes


Spring has sprung here in Montana. The bluebirds are back — there’s a number of them zipping around up at the cabin (although I haven’t seen anything as dramatic as this photo). They’re a color blue that you can’t quite believe exists in nature, much less that it’s zipping around out there catching bugs, building nests and having babies. At the end of last summer, when we were hiking up on the Judith Wildlife Reserve, we saw hundreds of them flocking up to migrate. It was wild, little blue shards everywhere you looked.

And the Sandhill cranes are back. There’s a pair down at the bottom of the road to the cabin. In the evening I sometimes mistake them for deer at first, because they’re the same brown color and they’re big, but then they move and there’s no mistaking them. A breeding pair, who have apparently been there for decades (or they’re handing the spot down between generations). There’s another breeding pair I see when I drive back into town, on the O’Hare ranch — two or three mornings I’ve seen them flying toward the Yellowstone.

And then the other night I heard what sounded like a mother coyote teaching pups to hunt. There was at least one adult voice, and a whole number of high-pitched, excited voices that sounded like puppies to me. I couldn’t see them since they were over a swale, but there are a lot of bunnies up there, and it would be a great place to teach pups to hunt. And that big healthy bitch coyote I saw several times this winter certainly looked like she was a good candidate for reproduction. She’s beautiful. A big reddish ruff, healthy coat, and from the number of deer legs my oh-so-domestic dogs have found, well fed.

So here’s to spring in Montana, and to wildlife babies all around.

Spring in the Paradise Valley

Spring in the Paradise Valley

There are new calves all up and down the valley — they’ve arrived in the past week or so. Not only are they incredibly cute, but they play — a reminder that even beef cattle once had a wild nature, before we bred it out of them. When I leave the cabin in the mornings they’re down there, nestled in the hay, goofing off, nursing, and one bold boy had a standoff with my Subaru the other morning.

Today’s wildlife count also included a juvenile bald eagle on a fence post, a full-grown golden eagle on a roadkill deer carcass, and the usual assortment of mule deer and whitetails. The elk seem to be hiding somewhere up on the mountain, although we did drive through a small band of mountain goats the other day on the Tom Miner road. Mostly ewes, although there were a couple of young rams, their horns just starting to curl. The newspaper also warns that the Yellowstone bears are starting to emerge — so spring is definitely starting to break here in Montana. And we’re all ready for it (although I’m sure we’re going to get another couple of snowstorms).

Sandhill Cranes Migrating

Sandhill Cranes Migrating

I didn't have my camera, so these are Sandhill Cranes off the internet to give you an idea what a crows of cranes looks like.
I didn't have my camera, so these are Sandhill Cranes off the internet to give you an idea what a crows of cranes looks like.

So I was driving down to the cabin last night when I realized that all those grey things in the field next to the East River Road weren’t deer, they were Sandhill Cranes! There were scores of them — I’m notoriously bad at that sort of estimation, but there were well over a hundred birds in a harvested wheat field, grazing. I’d heard that they do this, but I’d never seen it, so of course I came to a screeching halt to watch for a few minutes.

Apparently they gang up before migrating, they’ll fly around, calling to the other birds and gathering everyone up. Then when the time is right, they’ll ride the thermals way up and shoot south over Yellowstone. We were hoping to see it this morning, but it’s snowing again, which is lovely, but hardly the sort of weather to transport hundreds of five-foot-tall birds into the sky. When I drove back up the valley this morning they were still there, not as many, and with a bunch of Canadian geese, and a few mule deer hanging out as well.

It was amazing. The kind of thing that makes me love living here. I got to the cabin so jazzed about the cranes. I mean, I live here — this is the kind of thing I can just see on an ordinary evening’s drive down valley. It makes me feel more grateful than I can even say.

Secret Spot

Secret Spot

Petrified Log in Cave
Petrified Log in Cave

This picture isn’t great (I’m still getting the hang of my new camera) but this is a petrified tree trunk in a cave. Over the weekend, Chuck took me up to a secret spot he found a few months ago where there is a lot of petrified wood, and a number of these big tree trunks either hanging on the cliffs, or inside of erosion caves like this one.

I promised I wouldn’t tell exactly where it is, but it was a lovely afternoon hike while big thunderstorms blew across the Paradise Valley. There was just enough cloud cover to keep us from getting too hot, although we did hit one bad stretch through a high swampy seep where the bugs were enough to drive a person mad.

It’s hard to tell what the geology was here exactly. Somehow the term pyroclastic flow bubbled up from the depths of my brain where my college geology info is stored (Beloit had a particularly fabulous geology department). And from checking Wikipedia it looks like that could have been what happened — an eruption out of Yellowstone that engulfed some big trees in volcanic dust and rock. I loved geology — I couldn’t do the math but the language is so lovely.

Postscript: My biologist friend sent this along: “I showed your blog photo to Josh, the geologist who works for me who got his degree at MSU. He said an actual pyroclastic flow is unlikely to produce a petrified tree, since those flows are usually at 2,000 degrees which will (here’s where the biology PhD comes in handy) incinerate a tree. But a mud flow from a nearby volcano is likely. The mud flows are not so hot and would flow around the standing tree. That’s how the Petrified Forest in Tom Miner basin formed.”

Monster Morel

Monster Morel

p1300032 Yes folks, that’s an 8.4 ounce morel! Chuck found it up behind his cabin yesterday morning, growing just at the waterline of the irrigation ditch. It was a monster, but we managed to slay it, cook it in butter and vermouth, and enjoy it on rice (along with some pork chops) last night.

It’s the only place we’ve had any luck this year at all, up behind his cabin. He found a couple of really little yellow morels, and one other black one, not nearly so big as this. It did rain a little this week, so here’s hoping the weekend brings us some luck with the wily morel.