Birding by RV, ch 12, Rocky Mountains

Rocky Mountains

The eastern face of the Rocky Mountains is visible from Kipp Lake. We realize our trek across the expansive prairie is nearly over as we pull into Browning, the governmental seat and largest town in the Blackfeet Reservation. I hasten to state that my last name and my ancestors, at least back into the Eighteenth Century, have no connection to the Browning responsible for the name of the town.

Our experience in Browning nine years ago was okay (see Milestone 700, chapter 4), especially when one ignores the plight of people long taken advantage of by feckless individuals and arrogant institutions when immigrants began settling the continent. Actually, the time Linda and I had in Browning in 2006, other than two good nights at a hospitable and recommendable motel, was not okay. It was obvious that the country had turned away from helping the Blackfeet.  Because of the hospitality while visiting birding locations on the reservation, we certainly felt gratitude, but there were many visitble negatives that propelled our feelings toward sadness and anger. How could the establishment, the government and voters, cause and continue to cause the socio-economic disparity between Native Americans and white immigrants. Today, we see examples of what should shame correction, but that probably will never transpire.

As we enter Browning this year, we consider stopping to trade at a shop. It seems reasonable to return something for the ready access we enjoyed at Kipp Lake. However, shopping is not possible and on our way back onto U.S. 2, several Indians move toward our RV. Unlike most other residents of Browning that we see, the approaching group appears uncoordinated. A middle-aged man states he is a marshal and shows me his badge. The man is heavily intoxicated. He leans into the open driver-side window of the RV and he asks us for money for his sister. She stands behind, but jumps forward and reaches in the RV. It is obvious that she too is intoxicated. Another nearby individuals asks Linda for money. We finally extricate ourselves while being careful to not run over anyone, roll onto the highway and are soon out-of-town.

During our 2006 visit to Browning, we realized the plight of residents of the Blackfeet Reservation was not good, but our sadness that year is multiplied many times from our time today. Alcohol and drug abuse are not limited to the beautiful Big Sky country of the Blackfeet. Too many Native Americans and descendents of the immigrants that took their land were introduced to and readily consume drugs and alcohol. Our hope, but not our trust, is that help is on the way and that the poor souls we met today will be able turn their lives around. Will time reveal any change?

Intoxication needs no excuse and what brought some individuals of Blackfeet to this point are complex and many, but one source may have roots back to the early 1800’s. Once upon a time, Merriweather Lewis and accompanying party met with a group of Blackfeet. The Indians learned that enemy tribes of the Blackfeet were to receive guns for signing agreements of peace. This worried the Blackfeet. In fact, doling out guns for peace does sound strange, but remains in practice even today on a larger world scale. “Hey, here is a gun, so don’t shoot anyone.” Another version is members of the Lewis party were sore losers and rather than honor a gambling debt, shot the Blackfeet. Other accounts chronicle the meeting of the trespassing explorers and the Blackfeet. Regardless, confusion and suspicion in July 1806 led to, what else, gun play, which resulted in gun-bearing Lewis and company killing Blackfeet Indians. As a birder, it is always best to not trespass, but if you do and are caught, be polite and no matter the circumstance, do not shoot anyone.

No matter how the exact history, a question persists: Will time reveal change to the plight of residents of Browning and the Blackfeet Nation? Is social and economic improvement in their future? Residents of the reservation suffer a high rate of unemployment and poverty. Perhaps the fact that almost all of 1.5 million acres of the Blackfeet Reservation is under leases allowing oil and gas explorations will produce a boost in the economy of the region. Among several negative impacts of oil and gas mining will be fracking that could reduce what little water is available. What will Linda and I find in Browning, Kipp Lake and the land of the Blackfeet should we return in another 10 years?

*****

26 July 2015, continued

Twelve miles southwest of Browning is East Glacier Park where we turn north on Montana Highway 49. In four miles, we turn westward on the road toward Two Medicine Campground in eastern Glacier National Park. A roadside sign declares that the campground is full, but we drive to the site anyway. Maybe the sign is wrong, but we quickly confirm there is no room at the inn. A call to my old friend Ralph Gysin back in Oregon reveals a wildfire burning in Glacier National Park. It is the Reynolds Creek Fire and is burning to our north near Going-to-the-Sun highway. The no vacancy at Two Medicine Campground is the result of just too many people anyway and an influx of campers from the fire zone moving away from the wildfire. It is Sunday and just maybe we will get in the campground tomorrow. We drive out of the park and back onto highway 49 toward East Glacier. On the way, we find a wide place along the road where we park for the night. Two Medicine River rushes nearby. Only a few vehicles interrupt the sounds of nature. We are reasonably certain we are not breaking any laws but prepare for possibly being rousted by the Blackfeet police. Gratefully, our first night at the cusp of the Rocky Mountains is peaceful.

27 July 2015

According to plan, we arrive at Two Medicine Campground early in the morning. Two Medicine Lake is to our left and the daylight reveals the rough fabric of geological upheavals, the Rocky Mountains. Several vehicles are leaving the campground, but are they vacating their campsites or just taking a day trip? We pass one empty campsite. Should we take a chance and keep going knowing that anyone behind us might grab the vacant site? We slowly move on and find another empty site. It looks perfect, flanked by conifers, including Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, and a view of Pray Lake. Our elevation is 5,180 feet. Highflying rocky peaks in the Lewis Range of the great, yes great, Rocky Mountains dwarf the campground. Our campsite is about 4.5 miles east of the Continental Divide. Towering above at 9,513 feet and barely 2 miles northwest is Rising Wolf Mountain. Even more pyramid-shaped Sinopah Mountain stands at 8,271 feet above the valley of Two Medicine and looming nearby, Painted Tepee Peak and Never Laughs Mountain. Our view of the bouquet of mountains rivals beyond stunning. We begin to understand why this region is sacred to the Blackfeet.

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From Medicine Lake

 

Owing to its close proximity to the Great Northern Railroad and the fact that Going-to-the-Sun Road (some call it a highway) did not open for travel until 1932, Two Medicine Campground was once one of the most popular tourist locations in Glacier National Park. Today, there are numerous campgrounds inside Glacier that are accessible by car and RV and many more reached by foot. North of Two Medicine is the wildfire evacuated campground at Cut Bank. Apparently, some evacuees came to larger Two Medicine with its 100+ campsites. Fire is no stranger to Glacier National Park. In 2003, 13% of the total area of 963,155 acres of park became black and gray history. A 34,000-acre fire near Cut Bank dictated closing US 89 north of Browning and south of Babb on 28 July 2006. Just 10 days earlier that year, Linda and I drove from Browning and north through Babb on our way to Alberta, thus just avoiding the road closure.

Our campsite today has two shortcomings. First, it is in part of the campground prohibiting the use of a generator. We can overcome this since we have plenty of charge on our batteries for judicious use of our lights, there is sufficient propane to keep our refrigerator going and we can always drive to the site permitting generators in order to use our microwave and recharge batteries. The second problem with our campsite is that grizzlies frequent the area. Actually, the bruins were more likely to roam outside the campground and bearing that in mind, I promise Linda that will keep close to home.

A walking tour of the campground is grizzly free and great for birds. In a couple of hours, I log Clark’s Nutcrackers, a Williamson’s Sapsucker and Townsend’s Solitaire. A fleeting call is likely a White-winged Crossbill, but my ear birding and crossbills require more practice. The yellow-throated version of Yellow-rumped Warbler flits in the conifers and Chipping and White-crowned sparrows patrol to the ground. The temperature slides lower and lower as clouds and then rain presents a good time for rest and relaxation inside our cozy RV.

On the 28th, a short trek from the campground to Paradise Point overlooking Two Medicine Lake provides several species new to our year list. Blue and black Steller’s Jays, around the campground yesterday and today, go on our list with their less colorful relative, Gray Jay. Rocky Mountain Gray Jays are whiter than the much darker Gray Jays of the Pacific Northwest. The precise taxonomic relationship between the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest populations need additional study, a statement easily applicable to Brewer’s Sparrow, a species we detect just off the trail. Many systematists know this sparrow in Glacier National Park and elsewhere in northern montane regions and in Yukon and Alaska as Taverner’s Sparrow. This is the species, if one agrees it cannot be conspecific with Brewer’s Sparrow, which I searched for in Yukon in 2013. Also, found today are numerous fledged Yellow-rumped Warblers, another bird that ought to be split from its close relative, the white-throated “Myrtle” Warbler or am I being resumptive. Not every taxon of bird we find today presents a taxonomic conundrum, although some might agree that the American Three-toed Woodpecker we see is a candidate for additional investigation.

29 July 2015

Linda and I hike to Paradise Point. We find some of the species of yesterday, but miss the Taverner’s, I mean Brewer’s Sparrow. Returning to the main trail, we go west for about a mile. A few people are hiking the sunny trail that soon is bordering a spacious glade free of conifers. Green grasses of varying shades and heights grow from edge of the forest to the submergent plants at the shore of a small shallow lake. The quiet and clear pool sits about 25 feet higher in elevation than Two Medicine Lake. We cannot determine the name of the small lake. A gray weathered log, its protective bark gone, sits prone at the cool water’s edge. This is a place to rest and collect good memories. While we allow the pristine haven to lull us to sit longer, a White-throated Swift flies overhead and a Mountain Chickadee gleans a nearby conifer.

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Near Paradise Point in paradise.

 

Back home, Two Medicine Campground, we make sure anything that could fall is stowed away and reluctantly vacate our site and drive south to reconnect to US 2 to continue our trip westward.

After months, we have put the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and summit the Continental Divide behind us. There are many roads and highways built across the Great Divide ranging higher into more rarified air than our route today. Linda and I have crossed the Continental Divide on least a dozen routes within the contiguous United States and numerous places in Canada. This year, Linda and I last crossed the Continental Divide in New Mexico on 3 March. The ascent then to 4,485 feet was hardly noticeable as we rushed eastward on almost flat terrain. On that day in March, we left the western slope where water will eventually drain to the Pacific Ocean and rode on the eastern slope where water makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, it is elementary, but we are often dismayed not by just what we do not know, which is plenty, but what others have not a clue. Therefore, to continue the flow of where water might end up and our story, anyone paying attention knows that in a few weeks we crossed another divide, the Eastern Divide that follows the crest of the Appalachian Mountains and shunts water to the Atlantic on its eastern side and the Gulf of Mexico on its western slope. Later, we crossed the St. Lawrence Divide and dipped in and out of the Laurentian Divide. Water north of the Laurentian drains into Hudson Bay. For the last several days, our route is south of the Laurentian Divide where most water joins the Missouri River and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, but today we enter the Pacific slope of the Continental Divide.

Most everyone knows the experience of crossing the Continental Divide and takes it for granted. As a child, Linda resided near Steamboat Spring, Colorado on the west side of the divide where the highway scared travelers driving over 9,429-foot Rabbit Ears Pass. A few years later, Linda and I meet in a fourth grade classroom in southern Oregon and the rest is history. Well, not quite.

My fascination of the Continental Divide may seem unreasonable. Why take the time to write or read something so common. Ever since crossing the divide at the ripe old age of seven and ever since opening my grade school geography textbook, I thought, wow, there is a place that determines the flow of water to different oceans. Later, I learned a smattering about plate tectonics and biological barriers and became even more amazed. All that geological upheaval created biological barriers causing eastern birds mostly to breed east of the crest and western birds to mostly habituate the western side of the range. Mix shifting landforms with time and glaciers, and one has a plethora of evolutionary tales for ornithologist and other scientists to study. Think Yellow-rumped Warbler, sapsuckers, White-crowned and Fox sparrows, Brown Creepers and many more examples of related birds responding to mountain barriers or havens. Far fewer species would breed in the lower 48 if the Rockies did not exist. They would all be in Canada. Of course, distribution and evolution is not that simplistic, but the higher slopes barren of the Rocky Mountains are not exactly welcoming nest sites for many species of birds. Anyone interested in systematics, taxonomy and distribution of birds has to have some fascination with the Continental Divide, which, beyond any academic thought, rewards our lungs with cool and usually crisply clean air and our eyes and minds, or souls really, with panorama never to be forgotten. Linda and I are happy to let our thoughts of the Rockies ramble just as we are so lucky to ramble across the mountains sampling the mysteries.

There is a multitude of places to explore and too little time for more than a hint to discover what stands under our feet. That is partially because the Continental Divide is so huge. It straddles the Andes at the southern tip of South America and northward through North America where the divide terminates at Cape Wales, Alaska. It is far from a straight line as it winds back and forth across the tops of ridges for thousands of miles from south to north. On its way north through Middle America, the divide bifurcates around the Mexican Plateau where the normally black-crowned Steller’s Jays wear blue crests with at least one of them bearing the subspecific name phillipsi, a subspecific name I bestowed in honor of my old late friend, Allen Phillips. The Continental Divide’s serpentine route then passes through New Mexico to the Canadian Rockies before it angles westward between the Cassiar Mountains and Coast Range of British Columbia where it is only about 140 miles from Juneau, Alaska, and the Inside Passage of the Pacific Coast. The divide continues meandering north through Yukon and, near the border of Yukon and Northwest Territories it turns west a mere 35 miles south of the Arctic Ocean shore. In Alaska, the Continental Divide even takes a southward route about 250 miles south of Barrow. The Divide then turns west across the Seward Peninsula where it terminates at the icy shore of the Bering Sea near the village of Wales. That is where it actually is possible to see Russia, and where I had the pleasure to view Rock Ptarmigan, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and other birds I hope to revisit someday.

One reason for thinking about the Continental Divide is the potential changes in the distribution of birds since biological barriers imposed by the divide become altered during global climate change. Will the narrow hybrid zone between the eastern Myrtle and western Audubon’s warbler change with rise in temperature?

Our crossing of the Continental Divide today is not dramatic. Route US 2 summits the Divide at Marias Pass, which is only 5,220 feet. The name Marias for the pass comes from what was originally spelled Marias, which Meriwether Lewis named for his cousin Maria Wood. Lewis, in 1806, crossed the Continental Divide about 75 miles to the south. Marias Pass was not “discovered” until 1820. It was, of course, well-known to Indians. Today, the Continental Divide Trail, which is 85% complete, traverses elevations in Colorado that are nearly 9,000 feet above our pass. Marias Pass is also tame compared to the 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the steep terrain along Going-to-the-Sun Highway that bisects Glacier National Park about 40 crow-flying miles to our north. Between Logan Pass and Marias Pass is 8,020-foot Triple Divide Peak where the western end of the Luarantian Divide, aka Hudson Bay Divide, meets the Continental Divide. Triple Divide Peak is maybe 18 to 20 miles to north of us. Creeks and rivers north of the divide flow into Hudson Bay. Despite all the pontifications about biological barriers, we notice the topography and vegetation of Marias Pass is not dramatically different at the pass or its slopes. What can live on the Atlantic slope surely could flourish successfully on the Pacific slope.

Accuracy of what might live on either side of Marias Pass is challenging, but based on a 2006 visit to the same region, we believe the ecology of the two slopes are similar. After all, there are no barely vegetated alpine slopes near the Marias Pass. The low elevation prevents an alpine biome. There certainly are such habitats north of the highway, with bare forbidding slope of the stony terrain of the Rockies looming high within the boundary of Glacier National Park. The topography of Marias Pass is so gentle that the Great Northern Railroad began construction along the southern border of the park in 1890. That date seems remarkable to me since Oregon had already begun its infrastructure much earlier. Of course, this is rough country no matter the demure environment around Marias Pass. The trail up and down the Continental Divide, technically the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail or CDT that routes through Glacier National Park begins in the park at Summit Siding, Marias Pass. About 980 miles of the CDT in Montana and Idaho need work, but the trail is complete within the park. It might have been fun to take at least a few steps on the trail, to say we hiked a portion of the 3100 miles trail, but we do not. In minutes, we turn south onto a familiar gravel road.

Our elevation leaving US 2 is about 4960 feet. Our new route is up Skyland Road, a well-maintained gravel road two miles west of Marias Pass. The road runs south into Flathead National Forest and away from the southern boundary of Glacier National Park and away from its bare crags that were our luxury to see just hours ago at Two Medicine. In nearly a mile, the road climbs to 5230 feet, and then it slowly descends during the next mile to 5150 feet. Before the gravel way begins to climb again is a narrow bridge and on the other side a wide flat area that should be perfect for a night. However, perfection is a subjective word and, as is often the case, I am getting ahead of myself. That is because of what we see as we drive Skyland Road, or, is it what we do not see.

Looking north from Skyland Road in 2006 and a lenticular cloud over a dead forest in 2015.

What we do not see are green conifers. We knew the region would not be heavily forested since, in mid-July 2006, Linda and I drove up Skyland Road where we found much of a surviving forest in a state of death (see Milestone 700, ch 4). All around were gray spires, the dark green needles long since turned brown before littering the ground. Trees no longer upright with needes to provide shelter and food to a normal array of animals are gone. What happened here? We surmise our view is the aftermath of some invasive disease or insect. Today, nine years later, is essentially total destruction. Only a few green trees survive along the stream trickling under the bridge near our parking spot tonight.

Bridge near our overnight near Marias Pass.  2006 (left), 2015 (right)

Are the live trees merely surviving, just hanging on or are they thriving because they are near water? Did the green trees have something within that warded off what attacked the trees barely up the slope? The forest once kept the ground cool. Now, the sun burns into the soil increasing evaporation and lowering the water table of the region. We wonder, should we return to this decimated land, will the trees along the creek survive? Will the pink mimulus plants find enough water in the bubbling brook to feed their thirst? We hear an occasional Western Tanager. Surely, these are postbreeding birds that somehow accidentally wandered into this unforgiving habitat. A couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers forage in a bush near the creek and Pine Siskins fly over, probably in a hurry to escape the appalling landscape.

Earlier in the day as we first enter the ghostly forest, two lenticular clouds seem to warn us of what unfolds. In the shape of a flying saucer, the two white clouds, one might reason, are hiding large space ships. Within those ships is possibly a civilization that might save our planet. Should we listen to their scientific information, could we save ourselves from ourselves? Linda and I are sure that the dead forest is the result of insect infestation brought on by climate change that is mostly of human origin. Either the lenticular clouds move on because of atmospheric change or they move because of despair from within? No, our training in science cannot accept such fantasy, but we understand why and how the sun, moon and alien forces might explain nature. The clouds are gone as we settle in for the night and entertain the unsavory thought that it may be too late for recovery, that negative forces have too much momentum to hope for the planet.

30 July 2015

Nightmares from yesterday’s thoughts did not occur. As with yesterday afternoon and this morning, our spot near the bridge is quiet with the exception a couple of pickups and occasional trucks carrying away what might be left of timber in this part of the country. After breakfast, we crunch down Skyland Road to our highway, wondering if and when we return, will there be recovery or more devastation.

It is depressing, seeing the wholesale destruction of trees, the decimation of a forest, with thousands of acres no longer supporting habitat for so many plants and animals. We know there is the possibility of recovery, but witnessing it will take multiple generations for most species, including humans. In addition, we know that climate change, especially in its rapid progression, will prevent the normal outcome of plant succession. It is doubtful Skyland Road will ever resemble what it may have been decades ago, before infestation by insects and by our own species. It is only a matter of time when climate change might further alter the environment by making the region suitable for yet another kind of terrible infestation of insect or disease. As we continue westward and think about the plight of earth, a female or subadult male Spruce Grouse stands near the road edge; cheering us, that mountain pine beetle has not entirely won the mountains.

While driving west, we stop at a National Forest Service compound to inquire about Skyland Road. Thanks to employee Rob Carlin, we discover there were wildfires in the region in 2007, a year after our first visit there. However, Linda and I have seen a thing or two, and we know that what we saw in 2006 and this year is insect damage. In fact, Mr. Carlin relates that,over the past 20-30 years, epidemics of mountain pine beetle have gnawed lodgepole pines to destruction. Other tree species seem to survive the onslaught. Fortunately, 500 acres of Douglas fir, larch and spruce and 100 acres at higher elevations is the beginning of a new forest. In the meantime, insect killed or infested trees are being logged. We wonder if some of the small trees living at the feet of the pale gray and barkless trees are some of the replanted conifers. We should have determined the species of those new trees. Are they non-pine species? Maybe we will return to Skyland Road, but not this year.

We motor northwest along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and the Great Northern Railroad, turn southwest at West Glacier near the western end of too scary Going to the Sun road (some say highway) and by late afternoon, we are in Kalispell. We are close to 3,000 feet in elevation. Kalispell, considered as the fastest growing city in Montana, has increased from 19,300 souls in 2006 to an estimated 22,000 this year. We park in a Lowe’s lot where we connect into their Wi-Fi and catch up on emails. Later, I strive to become updated on notes and Linda designs and produces a new set of earrings she crafts from feathers.

31 July to 1 August 2015

A Walmart in Kalispell happily permits us for two nights on their parking lot. On each night, we count over a dozen RVs. We learn that some of the RVers have been parking here for at least two to three days, probably because of pending fire danger. Walmart’s hospitality is appreciated. Our stay allows for time to run to a truck stop for shower, a tire repair and the dreaded “L” word, laundry, and watching the occasional Ring-billed Gull and House Sparrow that help maintain a clean the parking lot. Linda’s new earrings are beautiful.

2 August 2015

According the plan, we depart Kalispell and drive north to the town of Whitefish. As instructed, our route is into the Whitefish Mountains or is it the Salish Mountains. We are in mountains located west of US 93 and east of Lake Koocanusa a reservoir formed by damming the Kootenai River originating in not too distant British Columbia. The names of mountains are a little confusing since various sources do not always agree. For now, we do not concern ourselves about nomenclature of mountains as we continue following the driving directions phoned to us from Carla Dove and Chris Milensky who we had visited at Smithsonian, Division of Birds, in May. Carla and Chris are vacationing at their friend’s cabin on a mountainside reached by numerous turns and on roads progressively narrower and rougher. Soon after a rough and dusty turn, Linda and I spot Carla and Chris waving from two parked ATVs. With initial greetings completed, we trudge behind them, slowly bumping up a road a few yards where several grouse nonchalantly stroll across our route. The birds allow ample viewing. All but one is Spruce Grouse. The singular bird, not just in plumage characters, but also in size is a Dusky Grouse and a new species for Linda. We continue the ascent and I begin to worry about damaging our RV drain system, but all is well as we park near the cabin.

Our welcoming hosts are Carl and Ginger Hansen, who spend parts of their summers here. Trees have been removed within several yards of their cabin. Anyone living in the forest knows the importance of having flammable trees a distance from a flammable cabin. Smoke dimming the view is a reminder of impending danger of wildfires.

Carl’s career with Smithsonian he tells me, includes time working with Victor Krantz, who was a branch chief of the Printing and Photographic Services. His exact title is much longer, but him hearing it would most likely bring a rebuff for even mentioning it. Vic began working at the Natural History Museum in 1965. I became acquainted with him early in my own career at the museum before computers made it relatively easy to produce graphics and photographs. Anyone in the museum needing a professional quality photograph of any object, be it graphics, a rock, frog, bird, you name it, would seek the expertise of Vic. His skill with film cameras could not be matched and his long tenure and interest in history filled his mind with stories that, during numerous conversations, he related to my great appreciation. Vic, like Ted Bober, who worked in the Division of Birds, had a knack for gathering, remembering and telling the inside history of the museum. If only I rushed back to mydesk and written down some of the factual gems those two men took the time to relate to me. Much of the oral history is now forever lost. More than once, I attempted to retell some of their conversations, but I fear that those listening might have recall less favorable than my own. Of course, there is the danger that upon each telling, some alteration of the facts is changed. When does oral history and the retelling of it become gossip? Nonetheless, I regret not trying harder to retell some of what I deem a privilege to hear. Of course, it is not too late, but with age comes some isolation from younger people who might benefit being recipients of oral history. Additionally, unlike Vic and Bober, my memory of even my own history fails me more than I like.

Now, I can tell anyone the scientific name of Spotted Towhee and Red-tailed Hawk, who studied Pygmy Nuthatches and Horned Larks, and where these species and most other are located in the collection of the Division of Birds. For that matter, I can direct anyone to the specimens of Red-footed Booby, motmots and brant are located in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg, not to mention many other museums, assuming, that is, and that the collections in those museums have not been reshuffled to follow the latest taxonomic arrangements. This is not to bragging. Remembrances of those details is from years of exposure and a near fanatical passion. Perhaps I should think about writing recollections of those people in my own time and stop regretting my lack of remembering what Bober had to say about, for example, Deignan or Friedmann. I could chronicle what I know about Dick Banks, Paul Slud, George Watson, Roxie Laybourne and others. I might relate more or less a short story of people I barely knew but heard about or repeat things I heard from people who may have said something they did not expect me to repeat. There are inquiring minds that might enjoy such revalations, but is there enough time in life to tell the tales with accuracy. During the course of time at the museum, I met a couple of biographers striving to collect and report their findings correctly, to have their efforts not be equated to gossip by producing a biography of merit only to never complete their projects. Was getting to the truths of their subjects too difficult? I think their work might be more daunting than my taxonomic reviews of Yellow Warblers and North American Dunlins, proving Downy Woodpeckers do not migrate and the correct scientific names of Neotropic Cormorant and Southern Ground Hornbill, something I am lucky enough to have set in print.

Of many of the things learned and forgotten is I do not recall if Vic and I ever discussed Big Foot. He might have had some interesting thoughts. His brother, Grover Krantz, had a reputation for attempting to prove the existence of Sasquatch, the Big Foot. During a course in evolution, our professor invited a believer to speak to the class. Like Grover Krantz, the man had academic credentials. I wonder if the speaker was Grover and my first connection to Vic.

It is possible that I am getting ahead of myself. Or, am I getting behind myself or going in circles while attempting to organize a multi-dimensional history and conversation to fit on a flat piece of paper. Maybe. Embarrassingly so, I do not recall ever meeting Carl although I do remember someone working in the back of the lab photo lab. I suppose I was too anxious for another recollection from Vic’s treasure trove to pay attention for a potential meeting of Carl. At any rate, it seems that Carl apparently does not remember me, so our conversation starts from scratch. Linda and I easily understand why Carla and Chris are friends with Carl and Ginger. The four have similar values and Linda and I feel we fit right in. A three-toed woodpecker hanging around the cabin is missing today, but Red Crossbills fly over as the six of us enjoy the view, good conversation and outdoor grilled hamburgers. After the meal, I get the chance to tell Chris I am happy to witness his good standing at the museum. Linda converses more with Carla and at the end of our stay; we vow to continue our time together someday. As the sun glows near the western horizon, we reluctantly say good-bye and hug new and old friends, climb into our RV and carefully ease our way down the slope. We usually avoid driving late in the evening when deer and other wildlife sometimes wander onto roadways. Luckily, our trip back to Kalispell does not require sudden braking that might shift the entire contents behind us to the windshield or scramble the eggs in the refrigerator. It is almost dark when we arrive in Kalispell where we join 14 RVers on the parking lot of Walmart.

3-4 August 2015

We drive about 50 miles west to McGregor Lake. Our destination is the campground at the western end of the 1522-acre lake in Kootenai National Forest. McGregor Lake’s water ranges from cold at its 220-foot bottom up to warmer habitat for fish of all kinds. One of these days, we will take advantage of so many inviting places by using the rod and reel stowed in the deep corner of the large outside storage of the RV. Not all of the 20 some campsites are occupied. We pick one that seems furthest from anyone else. Our cost at site number 20, which has potable water, is only $6 a night. A small dog occasionally yips during an otherwise quiet stay for the next two nights and accompanying days. We are happy to be away from the tarmac in Kalispell.

During daylight, we explore the campground and hike part of a trail on the south shore of McGregor Lake. The campground host told us there are sometime ducks on the lake, but the flat water appears empty except for an occasional boater. I hear what sounds to be a Chestnut-backed Chickadee. The vocalization is a little off from familiar strains of birds in western Oregon. The chickadee cannot be located, but I wonder if the isolated breeding birds here in Montana sing to a different tune than familiar Pacific Northwestern birds. A nearby Black-capped Chickadee sounds no different from others of its species. Spotted Sandpipers patrol the edge of the lake and Common Ravens, the only corvid we find, are common.

McGregor Lake is in the Salish Mountains, which technically are part of the Rocky Mountains. Geologically, the Rockies, the world’s second longest chain of mountains, are a stupendous artifact of tectonics and glaciation for 3,000 miles from northern British Columbia south to the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Linda and I currently, as already stated, are in the Salish Mountains, which are part of the Bitterroot Mountains, which are part of the Rockies. At least, that seems to fit the systematic relationship or family tree of mountains in this part of the country. I may be wrong on what begot what, but that is my version and I am sticking to it, at least until learning more. One-hundred or so mountain ranges exist in Montana and the terms “mountains” and “ranges” have very loose definitions. I always thought a range was not the same as mountains. For example, in my home turf, a small set of connected peaks usuall has the collective name Grizzly Range or Grizzly Ridge. The locals all admit that the Grizzly Range/Ridge is part of the Cascade Mountains. However, one also hears the term Cascade Range. Does that make the aforementioned set of peaks the Grizzly Ranglet?

The Bitterroot Mountains, sometimes identified as a subrange of the Rockies, were crossed twice, albeit with deadly difficulty, by the Lewis and Clark Party. Their crossings are considerably south of our route today. As part of the Continental Divide and the boundary between Montana and Idaho, the Bitterroots span an area from the gorgeous Centennial Mountains in extreme southwestern Montana where I saw my first then very rare Tundra Swan in 1962. Linda and I will soon head into more subranges of the Rocky Mountains, the giant backbone of the continent and cross the Bitterroots into Idaho and into Washington while still enjoying the Rockies.

5-7 August 2015

A quick check around McGregor Lake before our departure pays off handsomely by a, why not, a handsome Black Swift. The largest swift in ABA land, this dark fork-tailed bird is always a pleasure to spy. Its population has, for many years, is decreasing. A mystery bird of sorts, nesting of Black Swifts was not discovered until 1949. The winter range of the species is essentially unknown, with partial evidence of Black Swifts wintering in Brazil. Today, there is an unexplainable feeling of awe watching this vulnerable bird and wonderment where it might be this winter.

Libby, at 2,066 feet elevation, sits on the Kootenai River below the rugged Cabinet Mountains, and yes, which are part of the Rocky Mountains. Many consider the 2,134 square-miles of the Cabinet Mountains occupying parts of northwestern Montana and panhandle of Idaho as one of the wildest ranges in the lower forty-eight. Regrettably, we can only appreciate the mountains from afar. Approximately 12,000 residents live in and around Libby, a town that is surrounded by the 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest. Just how many people live in the region varies, depending on sources. Likewise, reports of the precise elevation of Libby vary, but, regardless, the town appears to be thriving on relatively flat solid ground.

Our campground app helps locate Fireman’s Park Campground located in western Libby. We find a site at the far end of the campground road that loops under tall pines. Adult Red Crossbills and a family of immature American Crows patrol the trees and ground respectively. The site we choose is several yards behind a grocery store, which we reason the building will help block noise from the highway running through town. The camp has water and a dumping station, but the fee of $20 per night is a little steep for not providing electricity. However, we are handy to a garage for a needed oil change.

Upon our inquiry about a reasonably priced location for groceries, the host directed us to the other side of town. That is a short distance, but an inconvenience since our reconnoitering reveals the prices at the store we are parking behind have the best pricing and selections. During our travels, we find most campground hosts are knowledgeable about their surroundings, but not always.

8-9 August 2015

Before leaving town, we do our laundry, top off the propane, gasoline, and fresh water tanks and empty the dreadful black and gray water tanks. Our route on US 2 is along the south bank of the Kootenai River. Fifteen miles west of Libby, we turn south on state highway 56, and in another 15 miles arrive at the western shore of Bull Lake. The Cabinet Mountains stand tall above timberline to our east. Bad Medicine Campground waits on the southwestern shore of the lake. This is no frill camping, which is what we prefer most of the time. The thick forest is described as a rain forest; this part of Kootenai National Forest grows huge cedars, larch and firs. A few miles to our south, even larger old growth conifers shade the land.

Ruffed Grouse and Gray Jays are the only birds we detect, although we find excavations on a tree suggesting one of the three-toed woodpeckers had been busy. This stop is not going to feed our trip list, but it offers much-needed quiet and solitude.

The day of 9 August is the day to leave peaceful Bad Medicine, motor through Troy, Montana, and continue westward along the Kootenai River. We cross the river at Bonner Ferry, Idaho, being careful to pronounce both “n’s” of the town’s name. After entering the Pacific Time zone, we settle in for a Walmart night in Pendoray. Having spent $116, mostly for groceries, the management surely cannot complain.

11 August 2015

In short order, we leave Idaho and enter Washington where US 2 ducks south to Spokane and then across central Washington. Our new route is state route 20, which we will follow to Port Townsend on the shore of Puget Sound. We have been following the Pend Oreille River in Idaho and now drive north along the river to Tiger, Washington. Birding was on the menu northeast of Tiger in 2006 when a giant heatwave drove us out of the Canadian Rockies and finally got the best of us near Colville, Washington, a town about 30 remote miles west of Tiger.

Remarkably, we are still in the Rocky Mountains. The complex of mountain ranges are confusing, but we are apparently in the Kettle River Mountains or on the eastern slope of the Selkirk Mountains, considered to be the second most wild mountain range in the lower forty-eight. Determining what range of mountains we visit is becoming as difficult as identifying many female ducks or silent Empidonax flycatchers. Why is it so important to know that the mountains around us geologically belong to the Rocky Mountains? The answer is on one hand simple, and, on the other, complex. That mountain ranges belong to the Rocky Mountains first indicates similarities in soil, then similarities of plants that can grow in those soils, and then fauna that might forage and breed in those plants. It is akin to the old song about the leg bone is connected to the knee bone that is connected to the foot bone. Therefore, certain species of birds may have affinities to certain plants and therefore affinities to the Rocky Mountains. Some say those birds might be indicator species or subspecies to the Rocky Mountains. The range of Dusky Grouse indicates it is a Rocky Mountain species. Not only is it found in the core ranges of the Rockies, it also breeds in mountains in northeastern Washington, including the Selkirks and Kettle River Range. The important factor of climate should come into the discussion. For example, ranges of species and subspecies occupying the Rocky Mountains in the contiguous US may broaden in the cooler Canadian Rockies. They may be less restricted by not requiring high elevations. The Rocky Mountains also serve as biological barriers. Yellow-rumped Warblers come to mind. This is the simplistic reason for being geographically informed. Besides, it is fun trying to learn what has happened and what is produced from different ecological factors resulting from geologic forces. Dusky Grouse might not have evolved had plate tectonics formed the Rockies. For us, the scenery and biology is the tip of the iceberg. The snow and ice reminds me that glaciation and time are also important factors that help explain distribution of birds.

We birded part of the mountains I am certain are the Selkirk Mountains northeast of Metaline Falls in 2006 when it was torridly hot and even the high elevations felt like a desert summer. Linda and I cross our fingers that 2015 will present a kinder and gentler climate.

The highway is practically deserted. Frater Lake, at about 3200 feet elevation, sets north on a wayside along highway 20 and harbors beavers, mallards and Pied-billed Grebes. On the shore, we meet a young fellow employed by the University of Washington to monitor cattle. His post doc “job” is to determine impact of wolves to range-free cattle in the region. Electronic tags mark cattle and the antenna he holds signals the location of individual bovines. Hunting cattle, at least electronically, is one of those things that I suppose someone has to do. Maybe the monitoring will help wolves. One study Linda and I would like to see is one completely honest in determining cattle damage to springs, streams and riparian areas. We have run into instances when people have reported no cattle in streams when, in fact, the muddy tracks of hooves prove otherwise. Everyone should think about that when they take a drink of water or eat a hamburger.

We later turn up Tacoma Creek Road where it crosses the northern boundary of Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. Not far on the road is a parked pickup. A forest service ranger leans out and tells us the road beyond is not in great condition and may be a problem, especially for our wide RV. It takes us little time to realize he is correct and we turn around.

Our next route to explore is a narrow gravel and dirt road that, by the faint sounds of tires on pavement, we reason is not far from and parallel to highway 20. Thick vegetation, mostly conifers, and distance dampens any sound and shades the way. Where is this road going? How far do we want to travel it and will there be a place wide enough for us to turn around? Such a place appears in less than a couple of miles. Not only can we turn around here, but also it is an excellent place to park for the night. Of course, that is providing the deserted road remains deserted.

Before dark, two guys on an ORV and someone in a pickup drive by our home for the night. I step out the back door after dark to attempt coaxing owls by way of playback on my cell. The tall trees hanging above blot out the stars twinkling through the clear sky. There is not a sound, except me mumbling at the lack of any owls. Why don’t they answer the phone?

12 August 2015

Under a pale blue sky, I walk about a half-mile down our road. Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets are everywhere. A Townsend’s Warbler checks to see if I am a bear or some other predator and a pair of Warbling Vireos jump into view when I play a Cassin’s Vireo song. One Cassin’s Finch comes into view and something in a thicket below the road may be a bear. It is a good time to trek back to the RV.

During the night, I wonder if we are parked inside the boundary of Colville National Forest or within adjacent Little Pend Oreille National Refuge. The 40,200-acre refuge, unlike most refuges containing mostly wetlands, also protects forested mountains. Also unlike most refuges, Little Pend Oreille is one of the few national wildlife refuges that allow camping, but apparently only at designated sites. If we are in Colville National Forest, we are okay, but if we are in the refuge, we apologize for our error. Regardless of our location, we are grateful for the Warbling Vireos, chickadees and warblers and of course, Pygmy Nuthatches just minutes before we leave the area.

Our elevation last night is between 2500 to 3000 feet. Today we continue on route 20 through Colville that was in triple digits of hot temperature in 2006. It is cooler this year, but we do not stop except to top off our gasoline. Further up the road, we cross the Columbia River at Kettle Falls, elevation 1,631 feet. This is where the Columbia River flows south toward Walla Walla before the river begins its run west to the Pacific Ocean. From our crossing, it is uphill, with the destination Sherman Pass that, at 5,587 feet elevation, is the highest accessible pass by road in Washington that is not closed during winter. For some reason, our large-print road map does not designate a campground at the pass, but there is one there. I know there is since I had been there in 2006 when Linda opted for air-conditioning in a motel in Colville and I braved the heat to head up the pass. That was when and where I saw my first White-winged Crossbill and a couple of hours before returning to torridly hot Colville where Linda and I decided to end our attempt to traverse the remaining part of northern Washington and return to our home in southwestern Oregon. Today, Linda and I are together, winding our way up the steep incline to Sherman Pass.

The entrance road to the Sherman Overlook Campground is just below Sherman Pass. A bold sign informs that the campground is closed for removal of snags. This is shocking news. Now what? We drive onward and upward for around a mile to the pass where a dirt road from the highway makes a bend around the trees to a vault toilet and a wide parking lot. We are nearly 200 yards from the pavement, but because of the topography and vegetation, completely out of sight and most sound from the highway. A few yards from the parking area is a narrow road that completes a 125-yard circle around campsites perfect for a small RV. This is Kettle Crest Campground, and owners of a RV parked in one of the two sites is just leaving.

The view to the north is magnificent. Our view is of part of the Kettle River Range, a subrange of the Monashee Mountains that are part of the Columbian Mountains, which are part of the Rockies. Peaks stand up to 2,000 feet above our campsite. We call this home for a few days.

Linda spots a large to medium woodpecker. Her view is fleeting and we cannot locate the bird. An occasional vehicle drives in and out of the area, but not enough to scare off Mountain Chickadee and a Hammond’s Flycatcher, which are new birds for the year. I think it luck that the flycatcher vocalizes. Yellow-rumped Warblers of the yellow-throated kind chip nearby. The sun sinks out of sight. We have Sherman Pass to ourselves.

13-14 August 2015

During the quiet of last night, I played the calls of several species of owls to no avail. Shame on me, but I reason the birds are not nesting and that we are desparate for owls. We wake with noise coming from the parking area a few yards away. Two California pickups campers pulling largish horse trailers unload their steeds and soon clip-clop down one of the trails connecting the pass. In the meantime, we enjoy breakfast and the crispness of the hour.

After packing a lunch, I head for one of the trails that start only a few yards from our RV. The equines are traveling the same one. In a few steps, I come across typical round horse droppings. The clump is not steaming, but it is putting out a fly drawing smell. While the flies may feel excitement, I feel disappointment. The horses and their talkative riders are scaring any wildlife that might be near the trail.

Luckily, the caravan takes a fork in the trail, the fork I am not planning to follow. The riders follow the Kettle Crest Trail that, as I understand, is part of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which wanders for about 1200 miles through parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington. My destination is the closed campground. At first, the trail is wide, but I soon arrive at another junction and take a narrower path to the right. It is good that the forest service is doing such a good job marking the trails. Trail #96, is the Sherman Pass Tie Trail, which is a long name for a short trail. As a crow flies, this trail is about one-mile in length. I could not determine the actual distance of this relatively straight trail. It does little winding as it traverses a little over 300 feet in elevation change.

My hike begins to look familiar. Yes, I have been here. Crossing a narrow wooden bridge over what is now a dry ravine jogs the fog and I recall hiking this trail in 2006. Hardly any birds were in sight then, probably since it was so hot that year. This year is different. Male Hairy and American Three-toed woodpeckers tap to my attention. At this spot along the trail, I find a Pacific Wren and MacGillivray’s Warblers. Further down the trail is one scallop-breasted juvenile Hermit Thrush, numerous Dark-eyed Juncos of all ages, and Wilson’s and Nashville warblers.

The closed campground is nearly birdless. There are fresh chips of wood from chainsaws and there are numerous stacks of round logs ranging in diameters from probably needing to be split to small easy to burn pieces for the campground fire pits. While sitting at a vacant picnic table, I eat a sandwich and notice the sky seeming to dim. There is a gray overcast. After affirming the campground cannot offer any more birding opportunities, I retrace my steps back up the trail to the pass. On the way, I relocate the MacGillivray’s Warblers and hear a woodpecker, but cannot locate it. A flycatcher pops into view just off the trail and emits enough of a call that I can feel comfortable in identifying it as a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. It might seem that the bird would be the similar Cordilleran found more in the Rocky Mountains, but this is not the case in extreme northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and northwestern Montana. Otherwise, it is easy to consider Cordilleran Flycatcher as a species of the Rocky Mountains.

During my trek back to Sherman Pass, two unfortunate things happen. One, a black bear is foraging only 25 feet off the trail. It is alone and a little too close for my comfort. A few loud handclaps get its attention and it runs away. Second, I realize the sun is competing with a thickening sheet of smoke and now a giant cloud of white smoke billows up to the north. Back at our camp, the smoke does not seem so threatening. Our many years in the Pacific Northwest had exposed us to ample amounts of wildfire smoke from fires too distant to cause us danger. We just do not realize the distance.

Our last Rocky Mountain campground.      Wildfire smoke to close for safety

14 August 2015

By morning, the smoke is thicker. After breakfast, we take a leisurely stroll to the highway at the pass. A forest service ranger in a SUV asks us if either of the two empty vehicles parked just off the pavement are ours. No, maybe they are hikers. So, he must wonder, where did we come from? Much to our surprise, a barricade so poorly constructed that we had not noticed it, now partially blocks the road to our campsite. We tell the ranger we have been here for two nights and did not realize the area closure. The ranger said 12,000 acres have already burned. The situation is serious. He tells us we must evacuate and we reluctantly trudge back to our RV. Plans to stay longer cannot outweigh safety. We make sure our campsite is clean or cleaner than it was when we arrived and anchor down anything loose on the inside of the RV. Linda and I say goodbye to our temporary home and begin our 17-miles trip down in elevation to 2,569-foot hamlet of Republic. The small town of around 1,000 is today busting at its seams with at least that many or more firefighters. Their trucks and other equipment crowd the road and fill open spaces of a public school. We need to determine where we might safely camp tonight. A ranger directs us to a forest service office on the other side of town.

Republic began in the late Nineteenth Century as a mining town. Today, the proud town hangs on, still mining, but also depending on ranching and tourist looking for a quieter place. It is certainly not quiet today. Finally, we locate the forest service office and are given directions to Bonaparte Lake, which is about 18 miles to our west.

As we drive from Republic, the last slope of the Rocky Mountains, the Kettle River Range, fades in the side-view mirror. The width of the Rockies from the east slope near East Glacier, Montana, to Republic, Washington, is around 250 miles. Of course, our route was not so straight, with twists and turns that almost double the route of a crow, or in this country, more likely a Common Raven. Our trek across the Rocky Mountains began 20 days ago, which is like yesterday. We barely sample the great biological diversity and variety of so many changing scenes reflecting different forces of geology.

What will the fires do today? How much alteration of the land will occur? We also wonder what tomorrow might bring.

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