While a lot of the country enjoys a cooling off of summer and the beginnings of fall those who live in the desert just get degrees of hot, hotter, and hottest. When you start to approach the end of August and the beginning of September, most desert patrons are absolutely done with the heat. I’m very fortunate to be able to travel a lot but I still find myself despising the desert this time of year. That being said, I thought this was a perfect time to dream of winter and tell a little story from last February.
There is nothing like looking back at pictures I’ve taken in the cold to really rub this endless heat in, like salt in a wound. I was looking back through some forgotten photos and came across some pictures worthy of a quick tell. As many who live up north know this past winter was exceptional. Some claim it was the roughest in twenty years. I’m not so sure since it was my first experience in a Montana winter. While I’ve experienced many winter climates and can boast surviving Alaskan winters the Montana winter of 2016/17 seemed like a fictional movie Ice Queen had cast a giant spell over the whole state and froze it solid.
I was working on a case in Polson, Montana. I’d already gotten my Ford pickup stuck like a pig in the snow the day prior. I had to be humbled and call a tow truck after hours of trying to get myself out. While I could think of no better place to be stuck then the frozen winter woods surrounding Flathead Lake it wasn’t fun having deer congregating on top of hill laughing at me. Wildlife’s curiosity in watching struggle in the snow must have been quite the show. These deer could literally be heard snickering at me…yes I’m serious.
So you think the next day I might take a little more caution in my exploits. You’d think. The next day was beautiful, the sun was out, the trees and snow-covered surroundings all had that crisp, slightly melting gleam to them. So what could possibly go wrong on a day like this? Well fortunately for me nothing went wrong, but please take this tale as a “Do as I say, not as I do” moment. I’d have been stripped of all my boy-scout medals, that’s if I had any.
I got the inclination to go see Kerr Dam. Supposedly, the Kerr Dam is a beautiful, gravity-arch located near the little militia town (hope that doesn’t tick anyone off) and Flathead Lake. Its construction began in the 1930’s on property belonging to the Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
So locating the right roadways to get to the general area was my first difficulty getting to this area. For the most part all the roadways were under about two feet of snow and to my dismay all the gates to get to the general areas of the upper dam were closed. I did find a service road that led to the bottom of the dam. I explored that area and a few “off limits” areas that need my eyeballs. It was truly a beautiful sight seen the hydroelectric facility and looking up at the vast cliff walls.
…But, alas, I was not satisfied with the base of the dam as my one take away from this search. I drove back to the top and parked near one of the locked, red steel bar gates. Thinking, “hey its a warmer day and on the map it only looks like a mile or so, why not take nothing with you”. So off I ventured with not even my pocket knife. Mind you I was wearing jeans, a cotton T-shirt (major no-no), and only a mid layer jacket for warmth.
Well my little trek didn’t take me far until I realized this walking in two feet snow was more fatiguing then I thought and, yes, my T-shirt did not take long to get drenched in sweat. As I’m contemplating how “retarded” I am for wearing jeans and a cotton shirt as I’m taking another deep step in crunchy melting snow…I fall through. What appeared to me as a straight path of snow was actually snow covering a thin layer of ice that was not meant to hold my frame. I was standing in ice-cold water well above my knees. Getting out of my predicament caused more of me to get wet but eventually my wet boots, jeans, and wounded ego made it to high ground.
So there I stood looking at my map. “Half way back to the truck or keep going”. Of course I kept going, sloshy cold boots and all. The cold didn’t seem to bother me as I began a steamy pace to get to where I was going.
I got to a big sign, meant to scare tourists, about the imminent threat of mountain lion and bears in the area. There was also a reminder to stay on the path. In my defense the path was not visible due to the snow cover. I was fairly winded getting to where I had gotten in my soaked attire. I was tired of holding my mid layer jacket and set it on a post. Do you think maybe I wasn’t thinking very clearly? Well that is exactly what I thought to myself as I began trying to descend frozen staircases that lead to the dam. I guarantee you that it was a fleeting thought though as I rounded a corner and a mountain lion was just twenty feet away.
I haven’t come across very many mountain lions in my treks. Mostly because I make too much noise in the woods and I’m hoping because I look like I might be more trouble then the dinner might be worth. Luckily this mountain lion was a small one. In my limited big cat experience I’d say it was around a year old. I will not forget the look in that cats eyes though as it made a quick decision.
I’m very glad this cat made the decision it did because if you remember I was without even my knife let alone my side arm that I hike with. Thankfully, this beautiful creature decided bailing off the side of a cliff was a better idea then wresting with a frozen, wet burrito. After my split second recognition that the cat was gone I turned the other direction…of course I did not turn around! I wanted to see where the cat went! I figured I had made so many bad decisions up to this point that one more couldn’t hurt!
The cat had been crouched beneath a large tree and behind the tree was the sheer cliff walls I had seen from the bottom. How any creature other than a mountain goat could have sustained its balance on this cliff blew me away. I’m pretty positive the wily, kitty must have had a den or cave it accessed from the top of the cliffs maybe ten to twenty feet from the top.
After not being able to located my new friend or see the path the kitty had taken I gave up and continued descending the icy, snow covered stairs. Getting to see the Kerr Dam in its winter splendor was worth all my bad decisions. I stood there just in awe of all the color and the majesty of the surrounding areas. This area of our great nation is truly a splendid site to see. Montanans are truly blessed to live in an area most people rarely even see in a post card.
The trek back to my truck seemed to go fairly quickly, once I retrieved my jacket. Trading out the dry jacket for the wet T-shirt seemed to make me move faster without the restriction of a drenched shirt. The entire way I had to laugh at myself as I thought of all the things you shouldn’t do on a hike. As I got back to my truck I opened my door to my gun and knife waiting for me along with some dry clothes.
What makes wisdom? I think sometimes it is just surviving our own stupidity and living to laugh about it. I will never forget my ice-cold plunge, my wet boots, soaked shirt, and I definitely won’t forget my brush with one of natures most powerful creatures. The Kerr Dam was simply an experience I will never ever forget.
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