Author Archives: Dan Branch

Montana Bench Land

            I am missing Aki. But she hates to travel on airplanes. I needed half-a-day of that to get to Montana.

            Aki would have loved hanging out with our family cousins in Missoula but probably would have interfered with my long conversations with them. But then again, little scraps of food did tumble off picnic plates without me noticing. Aki would have been more than happy to nibble it up after it hit the carpet.

            Now my sister and I are visiting our grandfather’s homestead wheat ranch. The locals tell us this year’s crop needs more rain. Dark clouds in the sky could take care of that problem if the wind wasn’t moving them toward the mountains.

            We spotted bison and deer a couple of days ago when passing through Flathead Indian land. Here, in the ranch’s bench top country we spot antelope. A small clutch of six of the tan and white critters is grazing on a fallow wheat field. They move slowly off when I get out of the car for a better view.

Montana Light

Aki and I have split up, at least for a week. She is home in Alaska, enjoying a small stretch of sunny weather. Every morning she is probably curls up on a bright section of front room carpet, feasting on invading sunshine. I’m in Montana, spending time with the relatives. It rained harm this morning, but stopped before dinner time. Now, when we are close to sunset on a spot near the Flathead Indian Reservation, the sun is producing powerful reflections of the surrounding mountains on a small lake. Two swans feasted on the lake waters then took off to look for a quiet place to spend the night.

Sunlight is What We Need

This dark, wet summer, every sunny, warm day is joyful. It rained yesterday and will rain again tomorrow, but not today. Aki and I make an early start down a trail to Sandy Beach. The strong morning sun pierces through the thick fabric of the trail side skunk cabbage leaves.

            We listen to hidden birds, including several eagles but see none. No ducks or geese hunt the beach for food. As the tide recedes, I look for some drama. Something grabs my attention, It’s a tiny weed, growing near the top of a rotting wharf piling. A shaft of morning sunshine pierces through the weed’s green flesh.         

Break in the Rain

It rained hard last night. It’s still raining as I attach a waterproof wrap around Aki. The weather man claims that the rain will stop this afternoon and the sun will shine. But given this situation, we leave now so we can have the Outer Point Trail to ourselves.

            The rain starts to lighten up as we park the car and start down the trail. We have the parking lot and the trail to ourselves. After slogging down twenty feet of flooded trail, we reach a beaver dam. I can’t spot any beavers but the pond’s water lilies make the walk worth it. Most are yellow. For some reason, one is the red color of an Irish rose.

            The tide is once again out when we reach the coast. Two eagles watch us from beach spruce trees. My attention is drawn toward Shaman Island, where an eagle is chasing an osprey away from what might be the eagle’s nest.

Flat, Gray Day

This summer, I’ve heard woodpeckers pound against the tops of spruce trees but never saw one until this morning. It happened as Aki and I were returning from the shore of Fish Creek. The dense collection of scents was keeping Aki happy. But I was disappointed in the absence of birds, deer, or fish.

No eagles sulked in the tops of the forest trees lining the north shore of the creek. Later, I’d spot one along the edge of a bay. No salmon splashed or knocked about in the creek. I couldn’t sense anything in the water until I heard a merganser splashing and squawking on the creek. Somewhere upriver, it’s mate was carrying their chicks on its back as it moved into a wall of tall grass.

            The little dog and I turned our backs on the poorly performed play and headed downstream. Suddenly, a woodpecker flew low over my head and landed a few feet away on the lower trunk of an alder. Finally, a beautiful thing to photograph on this flat, gray day. Aki spotted the bird just as I did and charged it. The woodpecker flew off.

            The rest of the morning was spent looking at the reflections of glacier and mountains in Fritz Cove or telling myself that I was lucky to take the walk when purple, yellow, or yellow wildflowers lined both sides of the trail. Sometimes I would stop and close my eyes, trying to count the number of eagles, just born, that were screeching about the day.

Sweet, If Lazy Day

The sunshine is back, at least for a couple of days. We pass many people hiking or biking on the town trails. But only one van is parked near the Crystal Lake trail head when we arrive. It should be a great day to wander across the glacial wastes.

            Aki stops often as we head toward the lake. I don’t mind. It’s warm enough to make a standing in the sun a gentle and welcome gift. I know the wind is about to rise. But it is flat clam when we reach the lake. The reflection of the oddly shaped Thunder Mountain covers the lake’s surface. We would be able to enjoy a perfect double image of the mountain if not for one merganser duck that quacks and splashed back and forth across the lake.          

Mostly Heard, Not Seen

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Have They Hatched Yet?

The eagle is perched on the top of an old mining tower. 100 years ago, a similar tower delivered fresh air in to undersea mine tunnels. Then the mine flooded out. I wonder if eagles rested on a mining tower before the flood.

            It’s low tide now so the tower is standing high and dry on the exposed beach. Maybe that’ why the eagle takes flight as I approached. He would be safer at high tide when only someone in a boat could reach the tower. More likely, the eagle has been called back to his’ partner’s nest.

            After leaving the beach, I follow Aki up a steep trail. At the top, you can look up at an eagle’s nest built in the crotch of a burley cottonwood tree. There, tucked in like a grandmother, the eagle stares at us from deep inside his nest.

Keeping Undercover

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Dan Branch

June 10, 2021

Slowed down by beauty, I take more than the usual time to complete the Eagle River loop trail. At first Aki doesn’t complain. She is spending more time sniffing and peeing than I use up enjoying the views. Then she gets serious.

            We are walking through an old growth forest to the river. Shafts of sunlight blast beauty out of devil’s club brush and shattered trees. Yellow wild flowers reach for sunlight, In a few minutes the sun will move on. They will become almost invisible. I will not be able  to resistfollowing the sun shafts to their next lovely chunk of growth. Aki will already be there.