Snapshots Of Spring In Montana's Centennial Valley

Tucked in the northeast corner of Montana's spectacular Centennial Valley, those of us at Elk Lake Resort have been enjoying a remarkable spring. Granted, as one frequent guest likes to say, "I love to visit the Centennial. It is like stepping back a hundred years in time. It will never change." So true! Yet, the seasons do change - and each one brings a sense of newness, a tang of adventure, and a whiff of excitement.

So, I decided to do a couple of posts featuring our lovely spring. I'll try to keep the text to a minimum and let the photos do the talking!

One of my favorite spring traditions is watching the wildlife return. This group of Mule Deer does not seem sure what to make of the dogs and I as we walk through their morning grazing spot. It is unusual to see so many does together (at least in my experience around Elk Lake). I wonder if this is a new 'wolf protection' plan?

The pronghorn have returned to the valley in force. In fact, the other day, we met a vehicle heading our direction on a section of road which is fenced on both sides. A young pronghorn was caught between the two vehicles. Its panic was palpable. Because, as you might be aware, pronghorn cannot jump!

Furthermore, this particular stretch of fence had wires close together and close to the ground. Thus the animal's escape options were limited.

We backed up well beyond two gate openings. The other vehicle moved slowly forward pressing the animal toward the openings. However, the pronghorn thought it saw a trap and originally refused to pass through its escape hatch! Thankfully it finally flew threw (almost literally), escaping the terrifying vehicles and returning to its herd.

Since most of the elk move to higher elevations in the summer, spring sightings are my best chance to get an awesome shot or two. So far this year hasn't yielded anything spectacular - but sun-drenched elk on a frosty hillside and a herd of elk against a snowy mountain backdrop aren't too hard on the eyes!

Perhaps my favorite picture, however, is the one taken when on a morning hike with my son. There is something so special about introducing our children to the magic of the great outdoors - and watching wildlife together as they go about their daily lives is the ultimate!

Unfortunately not all my subjects are willing to show their faces! In my experience, Badger sightings are often brief. We spotted this fellow right beside the road, but he seemed a bit camera shy. Not only did he dig furiously to get out of sight, the one time he poked his nose back up to see if we were still around, he was so quick, I couldn't catch his face! So, I have to make do with a badger butt!!

Fortunately some wildlife are even less interested in being seen than my illusive Badger. I would NOT have wanted to meet up with the bear which left this dinner plate sized pile of scat!

Of course it isn't all about the wildlife. Clouds. Fresh Snow. Warm Sunlight. Fresh Green Grass. I can't imagine any elements better suited to produce spectacular scenic photos.

Whether I'm hiking over hill and dale, taking an evening drive near Upper Lake to watch the sunset, or traveling toward the Centennial Valley's western end, the photo opportunities seem endless. What a privilege to live in a place where the 'view' never gets old!

Lady of the Lake


Elk Lake's Fickle Spring Weather

While the view outside my window looks altogether different today, barely a week ago, winter tried to return to the Centennial Valley! Such is life at 6700 feet. Winter often tries to reassert its dominance, but as the warm sunshine and green grass gracing my view prove, summer is winning the war!

Nonetheless, its fun to curl up inside where its warm and watch the snow falling steadily knowing, this time of year, it will not be around long. In fact, while my snowy gate didn't look very inviting (unless, of course, you were on a snowmobile) that day, by the next morning the sun had whisked the white away leaving the green behind.

While the lake's open waters have started tempting the local (and not so local) fishermen, no one seemed willing to brave the grey skies and falling snow on this day.

While the sun contributes largely to our power needs - especially this time of year - the solar panels were doing a better job catching the snow than the sun (not that there was any to catch) this day.

Today the picnic tables invite you to come, soak up the sun and enjoy the view - we weren't the least tempted to lunch outside on this snowy day.

Of course not all of us were intimidated by the weather. Bike riding in a few inches of snow anyone?

What I always wonder, however, is what happens to all the animals and birds who have come back to the valley. I suppose most of the animls just wait it out (an unwelcome but, hopefully, short diet). However, a bird's body is much smaller. What do they do when the door to their house is snowed shut?

So, I started looking around. I found this robin sitting all fluffed up in the snow-free area under our stock trailer.

At the other end of the trailer, the Juncos had a much more optomistic attitude. In fact, they looked like they were totally unfazed by the white stuff covering the ground.

No other birds, or animals, were to be found. But, not long after the snow stopped and the sun came out, the air came back to life with bird song. So. . .apparently like the humans peering out the window, the birds and animals just hunkered down and waited for the sun to win the war!

Lady of the Lake


Spring Comes Early To Montana's Centennial Valley (P2)

West Yellowstone, Montana IS known for being the coldest and snowest place - maybe in the lower 48. This makes for GREAT snowmobiling at Elk Lake. But, it can make for slow springs! However, we have been blessed to welcome an early spring this year - and I am enjoying it greatly.

The middle of April saw temperatures which rival June. The sun shone. The grass started turning green. Bird song began to sweeten the air. The lake ice disappeared. We almost had to pinch ourselves to see if we were awake! Can this really be April?

But - we still live in Montana thus we never know what the next morning will bring. Sunshine. Snow. Hail. Rain. Heavy Clouds. Blue Sky. Wind. Dead Calm. Some days manage to pack a full load into one 24 hour period!

Thus many morning excursions have been striped by sunshine and cloud. The top photo I took as I headed north toward Hidden Lake. By the time I reached the top of the hill, the clouds looked to be stacking up against the Madison Range to the north.

The Centennial Valley is famous for its amazing sunsets and wide-open jaw-dropping beauty. However, that long east to west vista also provides a panoramic backdrop for approaching thunderstorms. Thus, on a valley drive last week, I captured this photo of ice-free Upper Red Rock Lake. As menacing as the clouds appeared, they dropped little moisture that day.

That drive into the Centennial Valley provided our first glimpse of Elk. In addition to Sandhills and Curlews and Swans and Raptors and a few Moose, we saw about 50 elk scattered upon the Centennial Mountain's doorstep.

A few days later they began showing up around Elk Lake. A morning jog found four curious heads peering over the rimrock at the strange apparition at the feet. A human? Running for no reason? Weird people!

Spring and late fall, like winter, turn the ground into a perfect medium for 'capturing' tracks. I enjoy the opportunity to see 'who' has been using my trail - even if I do not see them (and sometimes I would much rather see the tracks than their owner!). This small black bear had trod down the trail not more than a day ahead of me. (Note the Sandhill Crane track in the upper left corner.)

Not far from the Black Bear tracks we spotted these five toe tracks. On first inspection we assumed a small Cougar or perhaps a Bobcat (they are about 3 inches in diameter). However, back at home comparing the photo to our track book, we set that idea side. Cats only have FOUR toes. The closest we've come is a Fisher - but they aren't supposed to be in our area so. . .We're open for suggestions!

But tracks are not all I have seen. The little critters are becoming increasingly obvious. Thus one day produced my first chipmunk sighting. . . (he's about the middle of the photo - I MUST start hiking with the zoom lens)

Later that day, while watching a moose browse in the willows, I had a couple of ground squirrels pop up near my feet. Since then, on sunny days, I have spotted these little critters scampering all around.

Of course the bird song sweetening the air has to have a source. Sure enough - more and more birds are showing up in my backyard.

Last year was a tough year on many of the birds. It was the first year in a long time the Rocky Mountain Bluebirds did not fledge a family from their house just outside our dining room window. However, this little lady looks like she is already making plans! Let's hope this is a better year for the birds.

The Sandhill Cranes also suffered last year. In fact, I heard many annual nesting areas were underwater throughout most of their nesting season. Around Elk Lake their haunting cry rarely echoed down the canyon. However, this year has started with a lot more activity - hopefully a good sign!

And, of course, my favorite spring birding spot (the heavy aspens stands) is alive with activity. The Sapsucker in the middle of the photo (yep, no zoom lens) was the first I'd heard or spotted this spring.

Thus as I strolled past serene Narrows Creek pond one morning, I found myself feeling just as calm and rejuvenated as the hillside reflected in the pond's glassy face. Sunshine and returning friends have a way of making me feel that way.

However, in the Rocky Mountains spring is never predictable. It never lets us forget we live at 6700 feet! Thus the next morning I woke to snow! But. . .sure as summer follows spring, the sun will return. And - I'll be ready!

Lady of the Lake


Spring Comes Early To Montana's Centennial Valley

And, We are GLAD! After an over-abundance of winter at Elk Lake in 2011, I readily admit to welcoming an early spring with open arms. Granted some folks are predicted a hot, dry summer, but after 130% of normal snowpack and a summer which never wanted to come, summer 2011 ended up with high fire danger at season end. So. . .who can really tell? Furthermore, I believe these things are in the hands of kind Providence. Nine years will equal nine different summers - that's what I know!

So I am enjoying an early (and welcome) spring. In fact, I was thinking as I ventured out to see what else was enjoying spring's early advent, I have never had the privilege of capturing images of Elk Lake's waters with sunlight shining at this specific angle. After all, every other April has seen the lake still buried in ice. So. . .I started snapping away!

Over the next couple of posts (or so - we'll see how many pictures I amass) I'll share what I am finding on my treks around Elk Lake in April 2012. It has already been a joy - a treasure trove of firsts!

The first Buttercup! These cheery yellow flowers are typically the first to brave the winter-cold soil. Their bright yellow color not only brings a ray of sunshine, they set the stage for the return of the Grouse (since they are an important early food source for these birds). In fact, I've already seen Ruffed and Blue (clearly oblivious to the fact they ought to be worried about the early spring).

Wyoming Kittentails are another early flower - although I did not expect to see them quite yet. Yellow is a common wildflower color. Purple - not so much. Thus these always add a welcome richness to nature's palate.

Cushion Flox is another early bloomer. They require warmer soil than the Buttercups so they have been a bit harder to spot. However, these look like they are enjoying the warm sunshine (on that day - it is spring after all).

Here's a yellow flower I have yet to identify. I'm not even certain I have seen this one before. It isn't a succulent so it isn't stonecrop. Its flowers are almost more like yellow 'leaves'. I must try to get some better photos in hopes of learning its name!

Of course it's not all about the flowers. The trees are getting into the act too. I saw buds on the willows outside my back door yesterday. The Chokecherries growing along the lake are busy preparing for the season as well.

One could almost imagine this to be a flowering fruit tree so luxuriant are its 'blossoms'. However, I doubt the fruit will be as tasty as these 'blossoms' are really fuzzy puff balls.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this spring is the difference between Elk Lake and Henry's Lake, Idaho. In the past nine years, a competition has waged between Henry's Lake and Elk Lake. Who will shake free of the ice first? They have always managed to keep the results within a day or two of each other.

Not so this year! In fact, as this picture (and the first) of Elk Lake reveal, the lake is totally ice free.

However, those two photos of Elk Lake were taken within 24 hours of this photo of Henry's Lake. If you look closely, you will see a single strip of open water just right of center in this photo. Everything else (except the shoreline) was still covered as of mid-week.

And, while the thermometer read 71 degrees earlier this week, this is spring in Montana's high mountains! Thus the temperature a couple days later only reached the mid 50's. So. . .I think Elk Lake may have won the Ice Removal Contest hands down this year!

I look forward to sharing photos of the critters (and their tracks) which we are seeing already. Every day has offered a first - and each has brought an excitement unique to this special time of year. However, they will have to wait for another post. Come back next week to learn what we are seeing (and hearing) in the wildlife category!

Lady of the Lake