28 October 2012

Friday Field Notes: Who's Watching Hoooo(m)?

Have you ever had the experience of coming face to face with an owl?

Incredible birds for a variety of reasons, including their elusive nature, adept hunting skills, and haunting calls, owls have long captured the human imagination. Stories about owls have been passed down for thousands of years in numerous cultures, and even today we assign them meaning (mystery, cunning, wisdom) and relate to them in profound ways.

What I have been most touched by, however, is the way in which owls seem to gaze back at us with the same intent with which we look upon them. The thrill of seeing a bear or moose or eagle is undeniable, but these animals often do little more than acknowledge our presence before dismissing us as a non-threat and moving on to whatever they were doing before we disturbed them. Owls, by comparison, appear to stare directly at us, appear to be going through a series of complex thoughts and judgements. I have sometimes felt as if the bird is actually peering directly into my soul. Sure, many animals display extreme senses of curiosity (especially American Martens), but owls are doing more than checking out what we're up to; they're breaking us down and sizing us up. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit too much; but maybe owls are even more intelligent and complex than we give them credit for.

A Great Gray Owl sizing me up.

I am led to believe that owls watch and study us in ways most other animals do not, ways that we do not truly understand. This places us in unusual position, one in which many people would not be comfortable:  as humans, we are usually the ones placing other animals under the microscope, not vice versa. So the experience of coming face to face with an owl (especially a large one) can be fairly humbling and eye-opening.

A Snowy Owl checking me out from a somewhat unusual vantage point: a roof.

Standing eye-to-eye with an owl stirs up ancient and primal emotions, transporting us to times when we were a bit closer to the world around us. It forces us to re-evaluate our assumptions about nature. It poses much larger questions, none more relevant than: Who's watching whom?

19 October 2012

Friday Field Notes: Photo Essay: Fall in Montana

With colors of red, orange, and gold everywhere and the cool, rainy weather bearing down on us, it is evident that things are changing. Long gone are the warm temperatures and sweet (and smoky) smells of summer. It appears that sooner, rather than later, we will be immersed in a world of white. But for now, we can revel in the fact that it is Fall in Montana.

The icy cold waters of Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park
continue to carve through ancient rock.

Aspens paint the hillsides gold near East Glacier.

A grizzly print high in the Absarokas, an indication that these creatures are moving up in elevation
to feed on critical fall food sources like whitebark pine seeds.

Rattlesnake Creek takes on many moods on an overcast day.

Much-needed moisture relieves the strain of a hot, dry summer throughout the West.

Sunlight slices through storm clouds to pit a shimmering aspen
against the backdrop of an ominous sky.

Red meets gold in the understory of the subalpine forest.

A beaver works diligently to ensure all is in place before yet another make-or-break winter arrives.

The sight of snow atop rocky peaks reminds us that winter is never too far away.

A group of American Coots gather on Lake McDonald as they prepare for winter.

15 October 2012

Stuart Peak Saturday Venture

Stuart Peak long held its spot at Number 4 on my “Day Hikes to Conquer” list.  So, this past Saturday while several Missoulians cheered for the Griz to win, I packed up my dogs and headed into the Rattlesnake for what was to be an adventurous and rewarding journey.

To my surprise the trailhead was packed with cars at 8 a.m., but I did not see a soul until the descent.  The trek to Stuart peak begins a half-mile off of the main Rattlesnake Trailhead and meanders along Spring Gulch for about three miles.  The dogs were gallivanting around the woods and I was thinking this was the best Saturday morning activity I had done in awhile.  Rain dripped from the leaves, creating a very mystical ambiance.  The forest always seems somewhat magical when blanketed with fog and heavy with water. 

After making my way up Spring Gulch, I followed the trail as it wound its way around a mountainside.  I have been told that one can see a large portion of the Rattlesnake and Missoula, but the thick layer of clouds prohibited such views. Up, up, up, I went and continued to be enveloped in fog and rain.  I will note here that the majestic, magical quality I mentioned before now took on a whole new meaning as I was pelted with hail brought over from the relentless eastern wind.  Regardless of the changing weather conditions, I continued following my dogs, who were still having the times of their lives despite being soaking wet.

At last I reached the wilderness boundary, where hastily I took a photo and continued onward.  I hiked for about two more miles until my spirits were tested.  There is no direct path up to Stuart Peak, so navigating up the side of the mountain is something you should know you are going to do before beginning.  I slowly conquered the steep climb up to the peak and was blown away by the vie--or lack thereof, in this case.  On a cloudless day, Stuart Peak affords a hiker the view of the adjacent peaks and the Missoula valley, but on a day such as this, it looks like you are the only person left in the world.  As far as I could see there was nothing but clouds.  Twenty feet below the peak, clouds crept in and covered everything.  While seeing the landscape would have been breathtaking, being atop a landscape of clouds was breathtaking in its own right. 

Overall, I am overjoyed to have made the 18-mile hike to Stuart Peak and back.  I began my trek at 8 a.m. and was back in Missoula by 3.  Yet, I am none too eager to cross Stuart Peak off my list--instead I am moving it to Number 9 and saving it for a cloudless, sunny day in the future.