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Getting Ready for Pine Butte Season Three (2012)-Nikki

Hiking at Pine Butte: The Warning

Let me give you the pre-hike warning.

Listen carefully, because this is very important.

Words are dangerous, because no matter how hard they try, they will fail.

They will fail.

The words will tell you that a Cassin’s vireo is whistling at you from the dappled sunlight in the aspen grove, but you won’t hear the sweet, beckoning call even if the words try to fool you into thinking you have.

The words can tell you that an Olive-sided flycatcher is belting out a bird cry of “Quick! Free beeer….Quick! Free beeerrr.” But you won’t laugh with me until you’re actually standing under the Big Sky Montana country on a hillside splashed in yellow blossoms of arrow leaf balsam root and now all you can think about is beer.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

You will be a little out of breath, because this is the thin, clean air of the Rocky Mountain Front and you have come from sea level.  I will be enjoying the break hiking up the mountain, because although I am acclimated to the elevation, and I swore I would exercise more this year, my runs are always shorter than my intentions. Plus standing here catching our breath, we let our eyes wander, and this is landscape is a feast for the eyes.

So consider yourself warned.

We are going on a walk of words, and this is the best that they can do.

And because these are my words, this is the best that I can do.

Lets start wrangling, because although you won’t be up with me, in thin, grey light a touch after five a.m., this is my favorite time of day and I want to share it with you.

Jeff coming in from the morning wrangle

The alarm goes off, and I can’t remember any of the reasons I like five a.m. A robin is softly testing the light with his voice as I put on thermals, because although this is summer, we are in the cold sink of a river bottom. By the time my horse puffs his way to the top of Marmot Rock in time to see the sunrise, I will be too warm and so will he. He will be busy scanning the grass-carpeted hillside for the rest of the horse herd, but I will be distracted.

I am looking out over the expanse of the Great Plains, and it is on fire.

The view from Marmot Rock at 6 a.m.

Not literally, though that may happen later in the summer, but this morning, the air itself is flaming orange and I can see as far as my eyes will stretch.

My horse spooks at a blue-grouse flushing from under his feet in the grass, and my attention returns to my job.

The horses are all the way over at Wire Flats. This is our unofficial nickname for the hidden meadow between two sections of sentinel, burned trees. In country this vast, you need words to communicate locations. We tried “you know, that meadow, just past the other meadow, down from Yeager Flats and when you turn left at the top of the hill.”

It didn’t work.

I know, imagine that.

So I canter over to Wire Flats and in the narrow, mucky drainage that is always a little too dark, and the trees a little too close for comfort, there are fresh bear tracks in the mud. I slow my horse, even though all he wants to do is bolt through and be out on the other side in the sunrise.

I will tell you that the tracks look like a black bear, with more curve at the top of the foot pad than a grizzly and shorter claws, but since I rode over them at a trot, I might be making the tracks fit my fleeting glimpse.

Black Bear track

But statistics will be in my favor. We see a lot more black bears than grizzlies. A lot. And it’s a luck morning wrangling when I ride silent and fast enough to catch a black bear at her breakfast.

Horses are not quiet animals, so we generally don’t sneak up on much. Sometimes, if the wind is blowing our sent away from the bear, and our sound is pushed away by the wind and sheltered by a hill, I see them before they lope away to hide.

Once, in a very late fall morning, I nearly rode into a black bear. Neither my horse nor I noticed it, because it was so dark in the thick, overgrown Douglas-fir forest and it looked like a shadow.

My horse and I both smelled it just before impact, and the clueless juvenile bear finally figured out that we were headed right at it.

I’m not sure who was more frightened, my horse, the bear, or me.

Nope. Didn’t need any more coffee that morning.

But that’s not the case this morning. I don’t run into any bears, and we pick up the stragglers on the mountain side, the sleek horses stuffing themselves with the rich grass and only following the rest of the horses when I turn my ride around and go back to push them on.

These horses know the drill, and for the most part, are compliant.

But there are always the ones that are not sticklers to routine. They would rather try and see if maybe, just maybe, today will be an unexpected day of lingering in the mountains.

I don’t blame them. These are mountains worth lingering in.

(To be continued next Monday…)

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Carol Elkington #

    How was your trip to Africa?

    April 8, 2012

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