Missouri River Near Cascade
The color brown dominated my other trips to the Idaho and Montana prairies. They were in summer, most of them, after the high heat of that season knocked the green of spring from seas of grass. It was all hot and brown and blue skies, those family visits. Spring still dominates the land on this trip.
On the way to Montana’s wheat country, I’m in Missoula, the state’s cosmo college town. It tends to collect bookstores, writers, and people willing to sell you a decent fancy coffee drink. It also has some good bike stores. One rented me a road bike, which I’m riding along the Clark’s Fork River that runs high with the energy of Spring. A guy in a wet suit surfs on a small standing wave. He falls before I can get out my camera and fights the current taking him quickly downriver.
Crossing a bumpy wooden pedestrian bridge, I pass through a shopping mall parking lot, under a freeway and out of urban Montana. After a mile of well tended suburban yards I’m briefly in farm land where fat cattle feed on rich green grass. The path then passes into a pine forest.
In summer our forests in Southeast Alaska thicken with devil’s club and berry brush making for a difficult passage. This Montana forest, formed along Rattlesnake Creek, is open and welcoming. The pines, with their thick furrowed trunks have spaced themselves apart like shy persons at a school reunion. Green grass grows tall and thick between the trees.
The roadside bike path ended in the farm land so I am riding on a narrow lightly used road. I stop where it comes closest to the creek to listen to a bird trying to be heard over the noisy stream. It rained yesterday and snowed in the surrounding mountains. It will rain again tomorrow. Today I stand under full sun enjoying the coolness of the day, a land still green with spring, and the song of my now favorite bird.
Gone from Aki and Alaska, I’m eating a perfectly ripe pear along the Snake River where it forms the border between Idaho and Washington. Pears don’t travel well to Alaska so this one is a treat. Swallow’s Nest rock, a volcanic outcropping pointing out over the Snake River like a ship’s prow to dominate the view. This and the myriad other volcanic formations that break through the grass covered bluff land along the river give proof that super hot lava once poured over this land then cooled to deep impervious plain. Then the river, following the line of least resistance etched a wandering line that deepened, then widened until the Snake River appeared.
Downriver offered a different history lesson where the Snake and Sweetwater Rivers meet. Here in the early 1800’s a federal survey team led by Lewis and Clark recovered from their crossing of the Rocky Mountains on land of the Nez Pierce Indians
My family lives here and I try to ride this bike path along the river when I visit. The sun can drive the temperature above 100 degrees and the river has been known to flood out the path. But the river level dropped even though it rained last night. Now angry clouds are replacing blue skies above the Idaho side of the river, keeping the temperature down. My presence disturbs the robins who must have nests nearby. They remind me of Juneau and Aki who would be tempted to chase them. The river current brings another reminder of home in the form of a Merganser hen and a large brood if fuzzy checks.
The Swallow’s Nest was my childhood Olympus. It seemed to rise about the river to an impossible height. During every visit I’d dream about climbing it but shed from asking if it was OK. From here seemed with my older eyes, it is only an easy walk up a grassy slope.
Aki loves snow above most things—not more than cheese but most other things. I brought her back to this chain of meadows for a chance to charge down a snowy trail before summer takes a firm hold on the mountains.
Summer must still be south on vacation judging by the snow load and the way sleet thickens the falling rain. Blueberry bushes, some still buried in white, are setting a creamy cloud of blossoms that promise a good berry harvest in August. The skunk cabbage, apparently losing patience with spring push up through the snow.
I stop often to gauge the slowed transition to summer, how ice still overs ponds in the higher meadows and the lily pads in those now thawed remain tightly curled up beneath the water surface. No buds have set on the muskeg plants. Last year we found the magenta shooting stars and bog rosemary flowering here.
There are signs of summer. Mountain avalanche shoots have turned a deep green that stands out about the dead brown color of the meadow below them. Robins sing when not trying to distract Aki and I way from their nests. Other birds, wrens and the sweet songed varied thrush fill the air with music. Even water bugs skate the surface of the meadow ponds.
On the trail we find the mostly white feather of a ptarmigan. These grouse-like mountain birds change color with the season. A beautiful chestnut brown decorates the tip of this one. The bird better be a quick change artist. He would really stand out on this dull brown carpet while wearing his white coat.