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August 21, 2011

Montana Nights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spring melt came late and hard to Montana this year.  Usually the runoff peaks in April and May, but it was June when I found myself listening to the continuous low rumble of the Clearwater River.  I have heard big rivers many times, but June nights this year were the first times my rivers were doing this.

Summer nights here often start warm but, particularly under cloudless skies, cool off rapidly.  My first July 4th in Seeley, the temperature dropped to 28 F.  The morning of the fourth, I found a layer of ice in the dogs’ water bowls. 

Cloudy nights are distinctly warmer.  Mid-summer, these mean thunderstorms, and while there is a fear of a lightning strike igniting a forest fire, lightning flashes illuminating storm cells miles away or thunder echoing off of mountains rather than buildings distinguishes Seeley Lake from urban venues in which I have lived.

Even in normal years, summer doesn’t last long in Seeley Lake.  By October 2, the average low temperature is at freezing.  And from there, it continues to drop. 

One evening during my first fall here, while doing yard time with the dogs, I noticed the clouds were glowing strangely.  They seemed to be pulsing.  It took a few moments, but I realized that they weren’t clouds at all, but what would end up being a spectacular display of the aurora borealis.  After putting all the dogs up, I went out for a walk.  I found a nice dark open spot and watched for about an hour as every auroral shape I had ever seen pictures of appeared somewhere.  The entire display was blue-white, but it was stunning.  Regretfully, I walked home and went to sleep.  I did have to work the next day.

Fall here ends with November, hunting season.  Most of that month, I run the dogs at night to avoid hunters.  These night runs are often through mists and light rain that freeze on contact with my clothes and the ATV.  As inactive as it is riding a sled, training runs with the dogs pulling the ATV are worse.  And while sledding I always have the option of running.   The best I can do with an ATV is knee bends up off of the seat and then back down.  With all this, there is no snowpack, so what little light there is is absorbed like sound in an anechoic chamber and darkness prevails. 

The strange part of the human psyche that has miserable times as our most memorable infects me too.  I remember stopping the team for one of our hiker’s breaks half way out on a 34.5 mile run.  It was below zero and subzero ATV runs are inescapably cold.  We were running on a snow-pack thick enough to be rutted by hunters’ trucks but too thin to sled on.  Stopping to water and feed a bit helped, but I never really warmed up.   I arrived home about three in the morning after almost six hours on the trail.  The images from that run, particularly watering and feeding dogs on the coldest iciest stretch of trail I ran, are among most indelible in my memory.

With snow on the ground, winter nights always enchant me.  The crunching sound of walking through snow is only emphasized by the quiet snow in the trees and on the ground brings.  Sledding on clear moonless nights with Orion staring down on me is a happy norm and the rarer treat of running dogs under a full moon is the ultimate sledding experience.  I have read that winter is the season during which wolves thrive the most.  I think it is for me as well.

Since I’ve moved to Montana, my last sled runs have always been in March.  Inevitably, the snow conditions here start deteriorating sometime during that month and the list of items I put on hold in order to run dogs has gotten quite long.  So with the start of the spring runoff, I hang up the harnesses.  But with the time I had been spending training dogs available, I start taking night time walks, something I’ve done regularly since I was in college.

I am a nighthawk and a bit of an aficionado of Montana nights.  If daytime is about the ground, nighttime is about the sky.  And without the interference of city lights, I kick myself every evening I don’t take a moment to check out the Montana night sky.

   
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