Tag Archives: montana

Up On McDonald Creek

A couple of rainy weekends ago, Vin and Nate and I went for a swim.


Well, to be honest, even for a cold water aficionado such as myself, it’s hard to actually swim in Glacier, even in the heat of summer. Our water is really, really cold. So by swim, I mean snorkel in a head-to-toe dry suit (well, semi-dry, as it turns out), and by “heat of summer” I mean drizzly, gray, 60 degree August day.

We were searching to see what fish we mind find, for no particular reason but to say hello. I watched some cutthroat darting around a deep pool below some falls, and caught a brief look at a small sculpin, tucked between two rocks, but other than that, the locals stayed hidden.


Still, it was glorious to spend a few hours exploring the underwater, current-carved rock sculptures, the two hundred colors of smooth river stones, the industrious caddisflies carting around their funny little tubular homes, tiny tinkers, clinging to the rocks . . . and to hook an arm around a crooked, rain-slick branch, just float, and gently wimple in the flow of the river, as if flying with a steady speed.

If you’re not afraid of a chill, I highly recommend it.



Flying Jewels

The last couple of months we’ve been party to some serious bird drama out in the yard. Specifically, the love and war between hummingbirds. Around here we’ve got the fiery Rufous , the petite Calliope, and the chunky black-chinned.

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Rufous Hummingbird. Public Domain

I could tell you how incredible these tiny fliers are — how their specialized metabolisms can convert sugar directly to muscle-energy without the rigmarole of first converting it to stored fat, or how they are the only bird who can fly backwards forgoodnesssakes, and how their wings can beat up to 200 times per second, supported by their monster pecs which account for 30 percent of their body weight, and would make even Arnold weep in jealousy and delight…

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Black-chinned hummingbird. Photo credit: Mdf

But really, all I want to say is that I have grown custom to their thrums and hums. That if I stand on a ladder next to their feeder, I can watch them lap the red sugar-water with only mild concern they may actually become tangled in my hair. And that they remind me growing up catching glimpses of ruby-throats in the big picture window at our cabin in the northwoods; and of the time, when surveying a wetland in Glacier,  I found three tiny eggs in an impossibly delicate little nest fastened to a fir bough, hanging over the water; or when one flew into the house and I patiently waited for it to calm, then held it in my hand, feeling the pulse of that bombastic little racing heart in my palm. These are all gifts.

Still, on the matter of hummingbirds, I doubt anyone could say it better than my writer friend Brian Doyle. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read his excellent piece Joyas volardores. Think of it when next you hear the kinetic buzz and hum of one of these amazing little birds.

Calliope Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Kati Flemming

Joyas volardores

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas volardores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel The Plover. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org


The North Remembers

I’m not going to talk about spring. It is simply way too early for such talk in the mountains. Our environmental palette remains subtle: white, greys, blues, white, greens so dark they appear black… white. Our feet adjust to snow, ice, slush, snow, ice, slush. Our crocuses continue their dormancy. We don’t hold our breath.

Last month some friends and I spent a long holiday weekend volunteering for the park’s fisher DNA study (read about similar work here) assembling and re-bating old hair-collecting stations in Many Glacier, in hopes of detecting an animal who is hard to detect. This involved skiing into a backcountry cabin, getting pounded by wind and snow, and reveling in the rare pleasure of having the busiest part of the park all to ourselves. The trip reminded me of everything I love about winter–the smell of the cold caught in your hair, hands wrapped around a hot mug, fire crackling, fresh tracks on the snow, the way the landscape feels monochrome–and my mind returns to it on this misty, drizzly day.

Objects are as fuzzy as they appear
Four feet
Freshening the meat packet
Harvesting hair
Adding the love scent
And not a shanty in sight
Drip daggers
See you in spring…


Mephitis Mephitis

Yesterday we were heading into the Park for a ski, when lo! my day was made by a special wildlife sighting. Naturally I have seen a savage number of poor roadkill skunks over the years, and even the sad and smelly remains of some in Yellowstone wolf scat, but surprisingly, I’ve only ever seen one live individual in the wild. Until yesterday… when we saw this little duffer loping over snowdrifts between lake shore and road.

Le Pew
My first thought, well, it wasn’t so much a cohesive thought so much as a bombastic emotional reaction/squeal of pure glee, was look! A skunk! A skunk! So fuzzy! Look! Look! That bushy tail! Skunk! My second thought was more akin to, Must. Get. Out. Of. Truck. Must. Get. Close. To. That. Fuzzy. And soon enough I was out of the vehicle, jogging along next to the skunk for a few hundred meters, grinning in breathless delight. Some of you may question my judgement, but let me remind you that while they see and hear quite nicely, skunks have pretty terrible eyesight, and the little guy could barely see me. (This poor vision is partially to blame for all those fatal automobile encounters.)

Just look at those little pink slippers!
My third thought was that Walt Disney is a liar. Remember in Bambi, when Flower gets all sleepy and goes into hibernation for the winter? Yeah, well, that just wasn’t jiving with Mr. Bushypants here. Striped skunks don’t actually hibernate. They go into a state of torpor–a generally inactive, denned up period of rest, though they may come above ground a couple of times to poke around and empty their scent glands. Also, Walt, deer don’t get twitterpated in spring, okay. They mate in the fall. Do your homework.