The Return of Spring - More May in the Centennial

So the saga continues. Life in the Centennial is never boring. Even if the day only yields a bird or a track or some scat - it is always an adventure. However, this time of year, wildlife sightings are frequent and each day brings something new to celebrate. Thus I am continuing with week 2, journalling my daily walks in May.

Day One: Every hike really is special. Even the days I do not really 'feel' like taking a walk, I come back refreshed and rejuvenated, at the very least, but more often than not with a story to tell or a memory to savor. Nonetheless, some days really are diamonds. That is how this week started out.

I always have a plan when I leave the lodge. Today I'm going. . . However many times my plans change. Wildlife in my path make me change direction. I get distracted on the way or, I just change my mind. Today, however, my plans were changed by all three (in a way).

I love the pond up the draw from the lodge. Early mornings, especially this time of year - before the increased traffic disturbs the critters who hang around there. I always approach it slowly and quietly, keeping the dogs behind me, just so I can see who or what is there today.

Two sandhills and several pairs of ducks were there this morning. However, they didn't change my course - it was the Sapsuckers and Tree Swallows who were feeling spring fever. Chittering and chatting the Swallows were 'arm wrestling' over this hole and that one. The Sapsuckers were having a rat-a-tat-tat contest. I do not know the rules, but obviously louder and longer must have carried some merit.

So I headed up the ridge and into an aspen stand to watch the action and soak up a few rays.

The swallows were at it - fast and furious. I do not know if they even knew I was in the vicinity. If they did, it certainly did not reduce their intensity.

Dodging and diving and twisting and chasing - this argument appears to be quite heated!

And the winner is. . . At least for the moment. Can you believe this hole was what all that fuss was about?

Of course the Sapsuckers were not to be denied, so while the two prize fighters took a breather, I looked around for a few of members of the rat-a-tat choir.

This one had paused long enough to take a good look at me!

While I think this one just wished I'd move along.

Day Two: Time was limited today so I stuck to the road and did as much jogging as walking. The 'find' of the day - an increased number of elk tracks. They are starting to return in force!

Day Three:Not an overly productive day for animal sightings or remarkable antics, but I did see some new ducks on the pond.

A Spotted Sandpiper, a pair of Green Winged Teals (I think, these are a first for me), a scattering of other ducks and a Sandhill Crane. This is really a good cross-section of May pond residents.

Day Four: An easy walk close to the lodge revealed little but a beautiful morning (okay, who can complain about that?) New flowers are showing up regularly and the willows are getting into the act too!

I can't think of anything much prettier than pussy willows against a brilliant blue sky!

Perhaps some early buttercups - the reason (I think) - I see so many grouse around the lodge this time of year.

Or a slash of blue - Early bluebells making their presence known.

Or maybe just some phlox coloring up an otherwise barren hillside.

Well, that will have to do it for this time. Yes - my week had more than four days, but time and space are running out. Besides there is just too much to share. So if you are enjoying this style of blog post, let me know. I'll keep it going for a little while. After all, life is always an adventure at the Lake!

Lady of the Lake


The Valley Wakes Up - Early May In the Centennial

In keeping with the theme from my last post, I decided to give a 'day-by-day' narrative of what I see and hear on my hikes this time of year. Before I start, I encourage you to keep in mind, 7,000 feet is a long way up! Thus one year spring can come quickly (although never quickly enough when compared to the rest of the world) and another it can come late (which means REALLY late). This year I'd say was a moderately early year. Thus the sights and sounds I've enjoyed this past week are normal but may come a week or two earlier or later in other years .

Since returning to the valley, I have enjoyed new sights and sounds every day. Unfortunately because I did the unthinkable (I must be getting old, I've never done this before!) - I came back without one camera - I cannot 'prove' some of this narrative. However, I'm already busy making up for lost time.

Day One: Today I took a walk with the family and the dogs south along the lake. While I did not expect to see more than a few ducks on the small area of open water at the south end, I hoped we'd see some tracks left by elk crossing the road heading for higher ground. Unfortunately the wind was stiff (so stiff it blew over semi-trucks, signs, and trees and even removed a few roofs just north of here) and the blowing dust on the road left few tracks. Nonetheless, the day was not without entertainment. A buzzard (a rare sight in this area) appeared to be late for a very important date!

For whatever reason, this buzzard just HAD to go south - directly into the wind. While I have observed numerous birds flying backward when trying to buck a stiff head wind, this bird looked more like a drunk sailer on a pitching deck. He dipped and dived, even flipped upside down more than once, all the while taking 2 steps forward and 3 steps back. We all had a good laugh (in between cringing when it looked like he was about to run into a tree or crash into the hillside). Amazing. Last I saw he was pointed south (sort-of) and flying brisking north!

As I mentioned earlier, this time of year is always amazing. From silence to sound. From dead to alive. And so, each day, I listen for new sounds and look for new species - primarily of the feathered variety. Today I saw my first bluebird.

Day Two: Today the family and I took a walk up Narrows Creek. The pond is thawed (the lake is not) and the ducks have returned. I identified a pair of mallards and a pair of buffleheads before they moved to the far side (or flew away - I guess four people and two dogs were just too much). On up the draw we ran across some old bear tracks in a snow drift. Nothing fresh, however.

The dogs and I searched for a den I'd found last year. No success! However, the dogs did find a what looked to be a coyote den (based on the tracks around it) in progress. I wonder if their presence will stop the critter from denning there. I hope not. I always hate to disturb the wildlife.

Rather than retrace our steps, we decided to head up over the ridge and take a look at the north end of the lake. A good stiff climb always gets the heart pumping, and after spending a few weeks at a lower elevation, I could tell my lungs weren't quite up to snuff.

Gaining the top of the ridge we turned south. My hubby spotted a lone elk down the hill in a patch of timber. He cow talked to it a little. It turned and looked, but obviously just wondered what we were. A Red-tail Hawk. A few ducks. Several Robins. And, my first Kingfisher rounded out the day.

Day Three: While I didn't walk today, we did spot an otter on the lake's ice and I watched the bluebirds checking out their nest. Hopefully they make up their mind before the Tree Swallows return. While the swallows are a favorite of mine, I do love to have the Bluebirds nesting right outside my dining room window.

Day Four: Took a walk by myself today. The wind was kicking up quite a fuss so most of the birds appeared to be hunkered down in the trees. I walked north today, up the road then along the top of the ridge to the west of the lake. I saw a few fresh squirrel and rabbit tracks (it snowed early this morning - about an inch) in the fresh snow. I glimpsed a smaller hawk but was unable to identify it - outside of gathering it was not a red-tail.

Day Five: This was a great morning for a walk. A bit brisk (about 15 degrees when I left the lodge), but no wind and brilliant early morning sun. I decided to head up the first draw off Narrows Creek and see where I ended up. Climbing the draw I was again reminded it was early spring. While manya areas are now snow free, the bottom of these narrow draws still hold some large drifts.

Reaching the junction - go south? go north? keep heading west? - I opted for sunshine which meant west. Popping out of the trees into the sage brush I really didn't expect to see much. However, the sun sure felt nice on my cold face.

Sure enough, nothing but sage covered hillsides with a scattering of snow drifts on the north slope. However, I was able to ascertain the Upper Lake's ice was disappearing faster than that on Elk Lake. It appeared to be about 1/2 gone.

Not one to walk without at least 'looking' for a little excitement, I decided to drop down into Horse Creek and at least check out the creek's flow. The ridge drops steeply as you drop down into the canyon. With the sun behind me and the dogs close by, I began the decent still debating whether I really wanted to drop back down into the shadows (and cold).

My decision was made for me. Just over the edge I nearly walked into three elk. I was literally about 50 feet away when I realized they were there. As I told my family when I returned, "They were fake elk. They couldn't see. They couldnt' hear. They couldn't smell." But they could move. At least one of them. The one, I believe a cow (I think I was looking at two cows and a last year's calf), lifted her head a looked at me - or so it seemed.

Apparently, with no wind and the sun to my back, they could not smell me (or the dogs) and were blinded by the sun when they looked at me. So, as I said above, I hate to disturb the wildlife. This meant, as quietly as possible I beat a hasty retreat. Fortunately the dogs were as sight-less and nose-less as the elk. Thus I turned east, heading along the ridge top, back toward the lodge.

Elk weren't the only things enjoying the warm sun on the ridgetop. The grouse were there in force. Rosie, the 'bird dog' (who is scared to death of gunshots), was thrilled to flush four grouse (one from nearly under my feet). I suspect they were munching on the early Buttercups which the sun had coaxed from the cold earth.

Day Six: Today the family and I took a little excursion. Snow blocked our progress everywhere but on the main roads (which is boring) so we decided to check the willows for sheds. My brother-in-law found a nice shed a few years back at the north end of the lake - so we decided to see if we could have the same success. No luck. We did find several carcasses (something munched down on several deer?? this last fall). Numerous ducks and 1 goose plied the open water nearby.

I saw my first kestral of the season as well as my first (and a lone which is also a first sighting for me) sandhill crane. We also managed to get too close to a couple of Marmots who let us know they were not pleased with our presence.

Day Seven: Today we made our weekly trek out for supplies. While riding is not nearly as much fun as walking, it does mean we covered more ground. During our excursion today we saw 7 moose (two were calves which was great news), several small bunches of elk as well as some lone animals, about 200 pelicans (on Henry's Lake - thankfully - I enjoy seeing a couple, but that many on Elk would make me nervous), three sandhill cranes, 5 eagles (3 mature and 2 immature), Red Tail Hawks, Swainson's Hawks and (I think) a Cooper's Hawk and my first Osprey.

We also spotted eight pronghorn, one buck was hanging out alone by the south end of the lake. We also spotted several flocks of black birds and a few new duck species (one, I believe, was a Canvasback). I also saw my first swallows of the season - a true sign spring has finally arrived.

And so the week came to an end. Sunshine. Snow. Birds. Wildlife. It all blends together to make like a wonderful adventure here at Elk Lake.


May In The Centennial Valley

Almost everyone who calls this time of year asks: "What is it like there, right now?" Of course my answer varies depending on the condition of the sky and the amount of precipitation (or lack of). However, for most people, the question goes beyond, "What is the weather?" They are really asking: "What is it like to live in the high mountains in the spring?"

Answering really entails explaining the difference between life at 600 or 2600 feet and life at 6700 feet. Obviously winters are longer at this elevation. And, for those of us who live in God's country, we sometimes doubt the label this time of year. After all, the rest of the world is mowing the grass and reveling in the tulips and daffodils while we wait for the snow to melt off the 'lawn'.

However, there is something special about spring at this elevation which, while experienced to some degree at lower elevations, is - I think - dramatized up here. For one - snow has a magical way of making what is really a 'dead' world look fresh and clean and healthy as a newborn baby. Yet, when you think about it, winter in the mountains is more a time of sleep than of activity. The trees are quiet - no new growth, no sprouts, no buds. Just bare branches drapped with snow.

The wildlife, for the most part are gone. Except for a few raptors, some hearty water fowl, and a smattering of smaller birds, the avian species have desended to the low-lands. Some larger mammals do spend the winter but, for the most part, they are fewer and farther between. Often the only signs of their presence are the tracks they leave in the snow. In other words - mountain winters are almost unearthly silent.

For those who feel the need to surround themselves with sound, I suppose this could produce feelings of discomfort. Perhaps it might unnerve some. I find it not only amazing but relaxing. Then comes the other end of the spectrum. When the birds (our 'noisy' wildlife) return, it is almost like listening to a miracle. Their voices are sweeter. Their notes clearer. Their songs more pleasureable for the silence of their absense. Furthermore, fresh elk tracks, a deer spotted near the spring, and bear tracks up Narrow's Creek remind us our larger neighbors are now out and about.

The other marked change which accompanies spring's return to our high-mountain valley is the arrival of 'green.' Granted, we have evergreens - and they create the most lovely backdrop for winter's white mantel. However, as the snow melts, it reveals the earth's face - a face which appears to have died! Thankfully looks can be deceiving.

Thus begins spring's most amazing transformation - a metamorphosis which always takes me by surprise. If the return of sound is an audio miracle, surely the return of obvious life is a visual miracle. From green to brown. From dead to living. Each spring my world transforms.

Perhaps you live somewhere where the grass (if watered) is always green, the trees molt but never shed their leaves, there are always some flowers blooming or plants growing. If so - you would probably hate my world, but if you only had eyes to see, I think spring would take on a whole new meaning.

So - right now in my world - I listen and watch as the transformation begins. Oh, I've been down to the lowlands. I've smelled the sweet scent of lilacs (mine will not flower until the first of July). I've seen daffodils already spent from blooming their hearts out. I've smelt freshly mowed grass. I've seen trees blushing green with new growth. I've walked through air filled with the white and purple of falling petals.

Yes, I am anxious to see my world awaken. Like a tortise, the signs are there. A little green here. A new bird spotted (and heard) there. Life is returning to the high mountains. With its return I am again filled with a fresh new appreciation for its beauty and an overflowing gratitude to the All-wise Creator for His marvelous gifts!


Spring In The Northern Rockies

A note of apology to those who enjoy reading this blog (and the few of you who wish I'd write more frequently). We have just survived one of the WORST series of frustrations with our web page we have had to endure in the last SIX years. However, the problem does appear to be fixed so I can return to doing what I enjoy the most - talking about Elk Lake and the rest of our amazing backyard.

Last time I shared a few of our off-season adventures with you. Today I finish that review. However, before I dig in, I had to share a bit of 'breaking news.'

If you read the last post, you heard all about the wolves in the yard at our house. Well, they came back and brought some friends - a LOT of friends. Turns out we've had nine wolves hanging around the neighborhood. The neighbor said he saw them take down a 6x6 bull elk the other morning. Another local tells of watching them harass a moose while the cars stacked up along the road as bystanders stopped to watch. Why is it I'm always in the wrong place at the wrong time?

None-the-less, our spring adventures have been enjoyable. Last time you traveled with me into the Madison Valley and the Centennial valley. This time we will visit mountain tops and lake shores. Let's start on the mountain.

Two Top is a well-known play area for many regular visitors to our area. Straddling the Idaho - Montana border, the views from the top are far-reaching and impressive. Furthermore, after a 'normal' winter, the snow-impacted trees take on interesting and complex shapes which rarely bring to mind the term 'tree.' Perhaps this is why they are often called 'ghost' trees.

We enjoyed two trips up the mountain this spring. Both times we had the entire area to ourselves. The sunshine was warm. The wind was cold. The views were awe inspiring.

From Two Top we ventured to one of Island Park, Idaho's more popular snowmobile destinations. While we hear many folks speak of their visit to Big Springs, we saw no one - not on the trails or at any one of our many stops.

While I'm not much on frequenting tourist traps, I have to admit Big Springs was quite photogenic and, at least during our brief visit, peaceful. The Johnny Sack Cabin has been beautifully restored, and while we could not access the interior, the reflections in the nearly still water make it look almost idealistic. Certainly one can understand why this early settler chose to call this spot home.

The cabin was not the only interesting thing at Big Springs. While Big Springs appears to be merely a large pond, even the most unobservant visitor would probably eventually notice the numerous springs flowing from the hillside behind and around the Jonny Sack cabin. As one orients themself to the area it becomes apparent this simple 'pond' is actually the source for the river which flows under the bridge and down the meadow. Wow!

Big Springs is also known for its large fish. In fact, some of our regular winter guests also make frequent stops to Big Springs to feed the fish. While no one in our group had any change, the fish are so accustomed to handouts, they came looking anyway. As a result, we were able to enjoy viewing and photographing them. As you can see, they are quite impressive.

Clearly we enjoyed the day!

Leaving the snowmobiles behind we took to the road. Quake Lake, Raynolds Pass, and the Madison River are familiar names to many locals and numerous visitors. However, this time of year, like Two Top and Big Springs, we had them virtually to ourselves. Long warm rays of sun, a little fresh snow, a few puffy clouds, and some gorgeous countryside turned the area into pure eye candy!

While our wildlife sightings were limited, recent snow brought the wildlife closer to the road. A kind friend shared his recent findings! (Please note: these photos are protected by copyright!)

Big Horn sheep along the road.

Beaver along a frozen lake shore.

It never ceases to amaze me, the beauty just outside my back door. Yet as these pictures have shown, it is really not fair to limit my praise to my own backyard. My corner of the world encompasses a little bit of three states and a large share of the most beautiful country anywhere in the world - at least in my opinion. Thus I am thrilled to remain the

Lady of the Lake