The High Country, Part 9

Tuesday morning brought some changes. For one thing, we had to pack for traveling again, since we were leaving the Dancing Bears Inn after two pleasant (for me, anyway) nights. For another, we were facing, for the first time, weather that was less than optimal for sightseeing. The temperature was in the fifties and clouds were lowered well below the peaks of the Lewis Range, but at least for the moment there didn't seem to be any precipitation.

Even with that cloud cover, I wasn't in too much of a panic, largely due to the fantastic sights of the day before. Today's target area was the west end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and in particular the upper end of McDonald Lake, where I'd been planning to search for an American Dipper. But having stumbled across one at Running Eagle Falls on Monday, I felt I could handle any weather-related disappointments on Tuesday.

Our main concern at the moment was getting breakfast, which involved a stop at a diner that I'll refrain from naming. Let's just note that when we walked in, it was being operated by two individuals, one of whom served as hostess, waitress, cook, and cashier, and the other of whom was a cat. That should have tipped us off to the potential for weirdness, but it wasn't until we sat down and the woman brought us silverware for four that the weirdness started to set in. We asked for coffee and ice water, and she brought us three coffees... and four ice waters, the fourth of which she set down at the empty end of the table. When she went back behind the counter for her pad, we began speculating about the identity of our tablemate. Harvey? The prophet Elijah? But when the woman returned for our order, we were finally able to impress upon her that there were only three of us, and she was free to cook breakfast for only those three. Alas, she appeared to take every minute necessary to cook for four, plus a few more, and delivered us a tasty breakfast that was appreciated, if not really worth the wait. The cat, meanwhile, parked nearby, rubbing against me periodically in hopes that part of my western omelet would be forthcoming. It wasn't.

From the diner we proceeded around the south end of Glacier toward a spot known as Goat Lick Overlook, a section of the Middle Fork Flathead River that runs through a steep-sided valley popular with mountain goats because of a deposit of salt found on one of the open hillsides. The Parks Service has set up a viewing platform across one of the tributary streams, and I was eager to use it in order to see some of the overlook's namesakes. I'm happy to say I was successful, at least in a technical sense:

DSC01108.JPGEven with my camera at full zoom, we were a loooong way away from this pair of goats, but with a little PhotoShop enhancement, maybe you can see them a little better:

DSC01108 Zoom.jpg
But there they were. Both of 'em. In that exact same position. And there they stayed, with essentially no movement, and no sudden appearances by other goats. And eventually, we decided it was time to head for the park's West Entrance.

(A brief sidelight: One of my favorite musical acts is the Mountain Goats, which consists basically of singer/songwriter/guitarist John Darnielle and whoever he brings along to the show or the studio; I follow him on Twitter--@mountain_goats, if you're wondering--and earlier that morning I had notified him that I would refrain from sending him any goat photos I might obtain, though I did offer to sing them one of his songs. "Tell them their beards are awesome," he'd shot back.)

By now the weather was starting to clear up a bit, and once we'd gotten to the West Entrance to the park, the sun was peeking out pretty regularly. This was excellent timing for us, because we were able to see that Lake McDonald is a real beauty, even if the mountains surrounding it aren't quite as stunning as those surrounding the east side lakes of St. Mary's or Two Medicine, primarily because of the trees; large stretches of the northern shore had obviously been burned at some time in the relatively recent past, leaving acre after acre empty of anything but bare trunks that gave the slopes an oddly purplish tint. We pushed eastward up a gradual slope, not nearly as steep as the eastern side had been, listening with intermittent frustration to the Sirius Radio channel that was carrying the UNC-South Carolina baseball game; it was an elimination matchup in the College World Series, and the Heels were coming off a shellacking at the hands of NC State, so we were good and worked up... and every few seconds, we'd come around a curve into the shadow of a mountain that blocked the satellite signal and start cursing.

The western side of Going-to-the-Sun was a good deal more crowded than the eastern side, with cars, trailers, pedestrians, and a few bikes making our fifteen-mile journey to the road closure a little more challenging than we'd like. Worse, there was Not. One. Parking. Place. in the lot beside the closure, so getting out to look around the creek for dippers really wasn't even an option. We turned around and headed back toward the lake, turning right on a road that crossed the creek and promised to connect to a trail that would lead us to McDonald Falls.

This side of the park, we knew, was the wetter side, where all the moisture in the east-moving clouds from the Pacific got dumped as the mountains raked it out. The forest was certainly green and moist and mossy. I never did figure out what this stuff, reminiscent of Spanish moss, actually was, but it certainly caught my eye:

Inside the woods things were dim and all but silent. There was wind moving the trees, but the sound of the creek was soon inaudible, and birdsong was conspicuously absent. I heard one Swainson's Thrush sounding off its quip... quip... quip... call, but other than that, nada. Well, except for this gal:

DSC01115.JPGThe path grew longer, and the sound of water ever fainter, and with vague visions of Bilbo and the Dwarves' trek through Mirkwood lurking in the back of my mind (and a clear memory of the dipper the day before), I finally opted to turn back, remembering as I went that I was actually in an area where grizzlies live. I may have made a little more noise than usual returning to the car.

We were mostly done with the day's sightseeing, but the sun had finally pulled out from behind the clouds and given the chance to see Lake McDonald to its best advantage:

DSC01121.JPGI even got perhaps my favorite picture of Mom on the whole trip... but I was also irritated to learn later that I'd also somehow managed to capture a close look at an insect that landed on my lens:

DSC01125.JPGSoon we pulled into the Lake McDonald Lodge area for a quick bathroom break, and I observed a few familiar (well, by now) birds hanging around the area; Barn Swallows darted here and there, and a noisy couple of Warbling Vireos made their way in and out of some firs. There was also another bird that looked familiar, but for different reasons: it was a small flycatcher in a relatively distant tree, and my first glance at it told me it was likely to be a troublesome ID. The dozen or so flycatchers of the Empidonax genus are notoriously similar, all drab in color, roughly the same size, and bearing the same handful of field marks: a bicolored bill, two faint white wing bars, and a white eye ring. Without hearing their voices, you usually can't identify them, and this one wasn't singing. It was sitting boldly on the end of a dead evergreen branch, flying acrobatically out after prey, then returning to its perch.

That was odd. Most Empids don't hunt that way; they prefer less conspicuous perches, and they don't usually return to the same place. Taking a commanding spot and keeping it is the hunting behavior of their cousins, the equally drab but not quite identical wood-pewees. And as I looked, I could see no sign of white wing bars, nor any white eye ring. This was no Empid; this was a life bird--a Western Wood-Pewee.

That reversed the disappointment of the afternoon rather sharply, and when we came back into satellite range and were able to hear the end of UNC's victory, things picked up even more. It was time to leave the territory of the NPS and venture into new territory. All we had to now was drive down the valley of Flathead Lake, which we were surprised to discover had nearly the same level of scenic beauty that the parklands had, despite its being opened to private ownership and development:

DSC01127 Crop.jpg
We munched on carrot sticks as we moved south, saving our appetites for whatever Missoula might offer us, and our patience was rewarded as we pulled into our hotel and discovered, across the parking lot, another franchise of the Montana Club. The weather had once again turned strange, with the winds whipping up and the light forming bizarre bands of almost colorless light on the horizon:

But it didn't matter now: we were safe in our lodgings for the evening, and my streak of life birds was still intact. Tomorrow we'd see if it could continue through Idaho.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 28, 2013 7:39 PM.

The High Country, Part 8 was the previous entry in this blog.

The High Country, Part 10 is the next entry in this blog.

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