One Month Down, Eleven To Go


Above: Sunset and Moonrise over Oklahoma City, January 2017

Despite my best efforts, January has turned out to be busy for one reason or another, in some pretty boring ways. I did have a few moments of quiet to get some semblance of “caught up,” but I’ve got a little bit of work ahead before I can hopefully set the cruise control for a while.

Like most of my winters, it’s been a lean period for exciting things to write about. While I could go on political rants or talk about sports and entertainment, that wouldn’t really be a good idea… especially the political writing. There’s already enough folks doing that, and for the most part I’d rather keep my opinions to myself.

I spent a week in Oklahoma City for an aviation safety workshop at the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, and while I didn’t really get out and explore OKC that much, it was neat to see a new place. The perpetual wanderer in me approved, even if it was a work trip to “fly over” country. I even managed to dodge an inbound ice storm that rolled in as I left. I’ve had experience with mid-west ice storms from my two winters spend working for the Park Service in Missouri… I don’t feel the need to live through any more if I can avoid it.

The weather back home in the Treasure Valley has been pretty icky, to be honest. While the near-record snow hasn’t bothered me too much, the valley inversions have made my sinuses pretty unhappy. Whenever the air gets trapped for more than a few days, something that normally doesn’t bother my allergies really builds up, and after about day three of a strong winter inversion I start to feel like I’ve got a cold or sinus infection. Whatever it is, it makes my eyes water and nasal passages sting, and prompts many sneezes. At least we’re hopefully heading toward the cleaner air of spring… a brief respite until my seasonal allergies kick in. As I drink my coffee this morning the sun is shining weakly through the haze, and if I look intently to the south I can spot the outline of the snow-covered Owhyees through the brown smudge that hugs the horizon.

It’s also been an interesting winter in terms of the development around my apartment complex. When I first moved into this apartment two and a half years ago, most of the lots around it were still vacant, waiting to be developed. Every now and then I’d see a fox running around chasing whatever small animals it could find, and it was relatively quiet. In the last few months the development has caught up, and in the view from my kitchen window I can count over a dozen homes that have been started or finished since this time last year. The growth around here is pretty impressive. When I first moved here from Alaska in 2012, this area felt like it was on the ragged edge of the developed part of Meridian. Now it’s well within the suburban fringe, and infrastructure struggles to keep up with the increased traffic. Four and a half year ago, the immediate area still had an almost-rural, nearly-agrarian feel to it, but now it feels just like every other section of subdivided suburban sprawl in the greater Boise area. Things change quickly around here.

So that’s the news around here as January winds to an end. Maybe February will be more exciting… but I doubt it.

Until next time…

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The Year in Review


Above: Stars over the Mission Mountains, December 2016.

The last minutes of 2016 have ticked away, and as I type this I’m a day deep in the beginning of 2017.I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what the past year has brought – a kind of talk-therapy via writing if you will.

It was without a doubt a whirlwind of a year. All told I spent roughly half of it on the road, away from my home in Boise, in one way or another. When the year started I had no idea I’d end up spending 145 nights in travel status for work, and another 33 days away from Boise for personal reasons. While I got to see a lot of new country this year (Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, new parts of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona) I can say I was completely spent by the end of it all. In the end, January was the only month where I didn’t have at least a week of travel, and I was frequently gone for two weeks or more with only a few days at home in between.

It all got off to an interesting start, as last January found  my whole family reeling a bit as my mom went through a cancer scare over the holidays, having surgery right before Christmas, and going through the follow-up treatments around the New Year. Fortunately the treatments have worked so far, and I’m grateful for that. But even though the outcome was positive, it still shook all of us, mom and dad especially, and it reverberated through the year.

Not too long into January I was offered – on very short notice – an opportunity to take a short-term detail into an aviation safety position with the Forest Service Regional Office in Albuquerque, NM, which kept me busy for the first few months of the year, learning a new job, and a new city. While I was grateful, and undoubtedly blessed to have the opportunity, in hindsight it did take a bit of a toll on me, adding stress I probably didn’t need at the time considering everything else that was going on. While I was there I came down with the worst cold/upper respiratory bug I’ve had in years, and was downright miserable for over a week. I lost my voice for good part of that time, which was something that hadn’t ever happened to me before. Let me tell you, being that sick while in a strange city is never fun. To add insult to injury, a few other events that drug me down happened at the same time – my parents had to put down their oldest dog (and I’m a dog person who spends many, many hours with their dogs), and I came up short up yet again on the “job back in Montana” front. For a few weeks, I was very much battling depression again, tired, sick, and far from from home.


Above: Frijoles Canyon and Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, 2016.

At the end of my detail in New Mexico, I headed back north to Boise, only to head into another whirlwind bout of work-related travel, hitting Missoula for two separate week-long trips, and Denver for another week of training.

In the middle of the that late-March burst of activity, I was surprised to be awarded one of the 2015 Paul Gleason Lead by Example Awards at a small ceremony in the Forest Service hangar in Missoula. It meant a lot to me to receive the award in Missoula, from a UM professor who’d received it a few years prior, and I’d worked with when I was still in school at UM. Even today I’m still humbled to share that award with many of my peers and mentors who’ve also received it.


Above: Sawtooth Lake and Mount Regan, 2016.

As the year rolled on, work kept me busy. Probably too busy as it turned out, as I wasn’t able to squeeze in some of the hiking and photography trips I’d wanted to. I did manage to sneak a single day trip up to the Sawtooths in late June, and a quick overnight trip to Mission Mountains in late September, but that was the extent of my recreational hiking this year. I had hoped to get up to the Sawtooths for an overnight photo trip, but the drift smoke from the long-duration Pioneer fire north of Boise kept me from pulling that off the few times I did have a day or two open on my schedule. Still, I was able to take a handful of good pictures on those two hikes, and I plan on taking more time for photography this year.

Despite there not being a single part of the fire season that was particularly busy for us, it was quite steady from May all the way through the last gasps of the western fire season in September. I spent the bulk of the summer caroming around from place to place, trying to be in the right place at the right time, and was moderately successful given the conditions. The end result was a lot of long days spent on standby, waiting for something to happen that never did, or if it did, was outside of our response area. That’s fire season, and life I suppose. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time, sometimes you’re not.

After fire season I found myself volunteering for a few side projects as time allowed, and I kept myself pretty busy while most other folks were slowing down a bit. I even managed to sneak in a fun family trip to the Swan over Veteran’s Day weekend for an early Thanksgiving get-together with family. It’s always good to get to see family these days.

As luck would have it, as we were having our program year-end meeting in Boise, the southeastern fall fire season was shifting into high gear, and as Thanksgiving approached I found myself on an airplane heading to western North Carolina. As is typical of my luck, I was there for the last of the big pushes, and as I flew back home 12 days later it was beginning to rain as resources were being released. After I got back from NC, I turned right around and went to Florida for a week-long meeting, my final work trip of the year.

After that, I had a week in Boise to do some frantic last-minute Christmas prep before heading to Montana for a Christmas visit with the family.

I always have emotional mixed feelings around the holidays, and this year was no different. I was happy to be around family, but sad that it was such a short visit, and sad that so many of my family are dealing with their own demons. I don’t mean demons in a negative or spiritual way, but it seems like most everyone in the family has something dragging them down. My parents are dealing with health issues, some new and some old, that are challenging them every day. My sister and her family are dealing with the fallout from the death of her husbands father this year, which is never an easy process. My grandparents are dealing with health issues that come with being in their late 80s, including the death of siblings. My aunt and extended family are dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of the family patriarch, right before the Christmas holiday. It seems like no matter where I turn this time of year there’s some degree of pain and suffering in those around me.

It’s also a time of looking forward, and there’s so much that remains hidden from knowing right now. Some of it looks positive, much of it doesn’t. It’s the nature of being I think. There’s always hope that year ahead will bring blessing and prosperity, but there’s always the reality that even with blessing comes adversity and challenges.

So here’s to the coming year… may it bring us the strength to face it in a resilient manner. I personally look forward to overcoming adversity and achieving some measure of success as the year progresses. I have no idea what the future holds, but I’m prepared to meet it head on.

Until next time…

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It’s Winter… Finally

It’s safe to say that the two months since my last update didn’t really go as I’d planned or hoped. They went well, but I was much busier than I’d anticipated, and didn’t have a lot of down time for writing, or doing much else for that matter.

I ended up spending a lot of that time on the road for work. After 33 years of life in the west – without ever going east of the Mississippi – I had three trips that took me back east for roughly four weeks in a six-week period.

In late October I went to Louisville, KY for a training event, where I helped instruct a few aviation risk management classes, and managed to catch a cold while wandering around downtown Louisville after work. To a rural western fire guy, having a week-long series of classes in a downtown hub always seems a bit wonky, but it makes for a fun environment to mix and mingle with folks. While I didn’t get out to “see the sights,” I did get to wander around enough to feel I’d seen what I needed to see.


Above: Had to stop and be a tourist! Blue Ridge Parkway, NC.

In mid-November fire season made an appearance in the southeast, and after a quick visit with family over Veteran’s Day, I found myself heading to Asheville, NC for fire work. I had mixed feelings about the trip – I was more than ready to be done with fire season, but the prospect of some “bonus” overtime hours and a chance to see the country around Asheville was too much to pass up. I’d wanted to see Asheville for quite some time, as I’d had friends from Missoula who had told me if a person liked Missoula, they’d love Asheville. After visiting, I can see why they’d say that. My time there was mainly spent waiting for new fires, and thankfully for the folks living there, most of the extreme activity had died down by the time I arrived, which left us with some time to explore the area as we drove around getting familiar with the lay of the land.

Asheville itself was a bit of a hoot to explore in my free time. The best way I found to describe it is a mountain town with Southern hospitality and a Portland hipster attitude. A local brewery boasted a mean artisan kimchi slaw topping their grass-fed bison burger, and a few blocks away you could get artisan pumpkin-spice lattes in a coffee shop that looked like it was straight out of an episode of Portlandia. Meanwhile, down the street was one of the better-known barbecue joints in the country.  And the beer… while I’m not a real serious beer drinker, I was amazed by the sheer volume of breweries, including some satellites of large western brewers Sierra Nevada and New Belgium.


Above: Blue Ridge Parkway, looking south from the Craggy Garden area, NC.

And then there were the mountains. I’d long heard that the mountains of southern Appalachia were something I needed to see, and despite missing most of the fall colors, I’m glad I was able to explore a bit. While they are very different from the western mountain ranges I love, they are still pretty neat. Ever a forester and ecology nerd at heart,  I was excited to see and learn about some of the unique high elevation ecosystems of the area. For whatever reason, I got a kick out of the high elevation spruce-fir forest type, and would love to explore it a bit more. While I’m sure it’s nothing like it used to be, and the sheer volume of people in the area kind of boggles my mind, it’s still a unique area that I find intriguing.

After spending Thanksgiving on a fire farther west in North Carolina, and watching the rain start to move in shortly after that, I was able to head home for a short weekend before heading out on my final work trip of the year, to the western coast of Florida for a meeting hosted by the Florida Forest Service.


Above: Withlacoochee Training Center and the Florida Forest Service Fallen Firefighter Memorial, FL.

One thing I’ve been pretty blessed to be a part of in the past few years is the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, where I’m a coordinator for the professional reading  portion of the wildland fire leadership development program. This fall the subcommittee meeting was hosted by the Florida Forest Service. After spending a lot of years thinking about Florida for various reasons, I was pretty excited to finally see a small corner of it. The training center had a summer camp vibe to it, and it was nice to spend evenings after the meeting around a fire, chatting with good people under the Florida stars. We also were able to visit the Special Forces Memorial and the Joint Special Forces University which was a humbling experience.


Above: Tampa Bay sunset.

It was a good feeling to return home to Boise, right as the snow and cold temperatures begin to settle in. It was definitely nice to spend a week in Florida in early December, with temperatures in the 70s and sunshine in abundance, but after having spent most of the year in warm and sunny places, I’m ready to see some winter. For all intents and purposes, it’s been 11 months since I really saw winter, and I’m ready for it. Call me crazy, but I like snow and cold temperatures in measure. Comes from growing up in Montana I suppose.

As I skirt the edges of work burnout, I’m also ready for a few weeks of relative quiet over the holidays. It’s been a very busy year, with at least a week of travel every month since February, and I’m ready for a break. While it’s been a good year, there were a lot of personal goals for the year that were pushed aside by work demands, and I regret that to a degree. At least there’s always next year to try and establish a more reasonable work-personal balance in my life. In the meantime I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had this year, and I’m looking forward to what 2017 has to bring.

Until next time…

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Can Vulnerability Make Us Safer?


Above: Fire in a fallen snag, West Stewart fire, Colorado 2016.

(Note: This blog entry was originally written for and published on October 25th over on the Wildland Fire Leadership Development blog. I’ve made a few minor edits for typos that I missed the first go-around.)

A coworker recently shared a podcast with me that sparked some interesting thoughts.  The podcast was titled “The New Norm,” and was an episode of the NPR “Invisibilia” series. (link to the written story here and the full podcast here)

As I listened to it, I was skeptical of how it might apply to wildland fire organizations and operations. After all, smiling Russians and teary-eyed oil rig workers aren’t normally associated with fire leadership. But then I heard something that stopped my thought process dead in its tracks: by going through an admittedly rough and unpopular process, the group of oil workers reduced their accident rate by 85%.  All of the “fluff” aside, that’s remarkable, and sparked my interest.

To summarize the podcast, it’s a mini-case study of how a group of oil workers on the Gulf Coast faced the challenge of developing, constructing, and operating a new, larger oil platform using some extremely unconventional methods. Not only did they become better workers, but they became better individuals outside of work as well. How they did it is best understood by listening to the podcast, but it involved a lot of vulnerability, some new ways of thinking, and a lot of uncomfortable, unpleasant group sessions.

I found a few things that I could relate to, especially with respect to how we operate in wildland fire. First was that there were some cultural similarities – firefighters tend to be rough and gruff, or at least more so than most people.  We tend to be self-protective in that we usually prefer to hide vulnerability, fearing the perception of weakness, or incompetence. I’ve seen and done it myself.  I’ve often seen it manifested as a reluctance to ask questions, or ask for input from coworkers, or expressed as the “shut up and dig” mentality from leaders and followers alike. As it’s pointed out in the podcast, asking for input or advice can actually result in safer, more productive workplaces. Sometimes having a crewmember ask an honest question can bring an “ah-ha” moment to something an experienced leader (or follower) missed… As strange as it seems, being “vulnerable” with our coworkers can lead to a lot of positives, including better team cohesion, better communication, and better self-improvement.

But here’s the catch – being vulnerable sucks. You take a very real risk in a lot of ways. None of the men in the segment said they enjoyed the process.  None of them said it was easy. A few said they didn’t even do it. Yet those that went through it said it made them better people. That’s part of being a leader, of choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong… Sometimes it’s really challenging. Sometimes you need to “embrace the suck” and go through a tough, uncomfortable process to emerge out on the other side a better person. The same goes for organizations… Sometimes it’s a really not-fun experience, and sometimes what you’re going through doesn’t directly appear to be related to the mission of your organization. The oil rig workers in this story undoubtedly asked themselves “why are we doing this” more than a few times.

This is what I took away from the podcast – every culture has norms, behaviors that are accepted as “right” and “normal.”  Sometimes these norms get in the way of organizational and personal growth. In the podcast example, the “tough guy” norm was getting in the way of safely developing and operating larger and more complex drilling projects. In fire, I see many cultural norms that could potentially be getting in the way of improving how we do business, especially as the business we do has slowly but surely changed over time.

What norms would you be willing to challenge if it made you a better leader, better supervisor, better follower, or simply a better person?  Would you be willing to show vulnerability in front of your squad, your crew, your FMO? Give it some thought… The answer, and the reasons for it, might surprise you…

Until next time…

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Better lucky than good (when it comes to trip plans), Part 2


Above: My tent camp at Turquoise Lake in the Mission Mountains Wilderness.

Note: As always, all of my photos can be found at Flickr.

(Part one of this story found here)

Here’s the setting: It’s late September, 3 am, dark and windy, and I’m putting on boots and a jacket in my small tent after surviving close encounters of the oreamnos kind earlier in the night. I’m high-ish in the Mission Mountains of Montana, under a clear night sky, happy to have been nowhere near a television for the first presidential debate, and wondering if there are any mountain goats bedded down nearby. All is good.

I crawl out of the tent, shining my headlamp around, looking for but not expecting to see any luminous eyes in the darkness. I strain my ears for unusual sounds, but all I hear is the wind rushing through the trees and passes around me, and the lapping of the waves on the shore from the lake below. I notice it’s a bit lighter in the east than I expected it to be, and I absentmindedly wonder why that would be as I gather my camera gear and walk the short distance to the rock outcropping where I’m going to start taking pictures.

I start the process like I always do, setting up the camera on the tripod, pointing in the general direction, pairing the camera to my iPad so I can view the raw images on that screen rather than the small camera back, and start shooting. In this case I’ve set up the camera to look over the lake, toward the sliver of the Milky Way that’s visible to the naked eye. I snap a few shots, make some adjustments, look up, down, and around for shining eyes – I am in grizzly country after all, and I don’t know what’s out in the darkness – and snap a few more images, making adjustments as I go.


Above:  The Milky Way above Point Saint Charles, and something else…

After one adjustment (above), I noticed something strange in the image… a green glow to the northeast in the corner of the image. That’s strange, I think to myself. There’s only one thing I know of that would do that… the aurora borealis. Getting pretty excited in a hurry, I quickly pointed the camera towards the lighter grey glow on the northeastern horizon, and fired off a few exposures to see what I could capture in the images. Sure enough, it was the Northern Lights.


Above: The aurora seen from Turquoise Lake, over the Swan Valley.

This is where lucky stroke number 3 comes in… For a few years now I’d idly daydreamed of seeing and photographing the aurora. Where I live Idaho, the Treasure Valley along the Snake River Plain, the aurora only makes rare appearances, and is usually low on the horizon and drowned out by light pollution from the greater Boise area. During most of the powerful magnetic storms that could send the lights dancing this far south, my view has been blocked by cloud cover. In the depths of winter, when skies are darker (longer nights) and I’m visiting family in Montana, it’s typically been cloudy and snowing or clear but extremely cold when the lights appear, so I’d never really gotten out to see them. On this trip, it never occurred to me to check the potential for aurora activity. Like they say… better lucky than good. I’d personally prefer lucky and good both at the same time, but I’ll take whatever I can get.


Above:  When you get the chance to take a selfie under the stars with the aurora on the horizon, who can say no?


Above: Stars and the aurora over the Swan Valley, with a whitebark pine snag silhouetted against the sky.


Above: Closer look at the Northern Lights, with a 50mm lens of all things.

I spent the better part of an hour and a half taking pictures of the aurora, moving around, trying to remember all the tips and tricks I read about over the years, and experimenting with various exposures and lens combinations. I even tried a few shots with my “plastic fantastic” 50mm f/1.8 lens, and the result was one of my favorite images from the set (see above).


Above: Turquoise Lake under the stars, with a bit of the Milky way on the right side, and what I think is some auroral activity in the center.

After I spent a fair amount of time goofing off with the unexpected gift of the Northern Lights, I snapped a few images of what I’d actually came up here to photograph, Turquoise Lake under the stars. While the new moon made it a bit difficult to pull off quite what I’d envisioned for the past few years, I still managed to come pretty close, as you can see above.The wind kept me from getting any images of stars reflecting in the lake, but I’m happy with the results.

After doing most of what I wanted to do, and not really feeling like wandering around too much more on the steep rocks in the dark, I called it quits around 4:30 in the morning. As I crawled into my sleeping bag I felt pretty satisfied with myself, and pretty blessed to have been lucky enough to have not one but two unexpected bonuses – mountain goats and aurora –  on this trip.


Above: Fall colors in the morning, Turquoise Lake.

After waking up around 7 am, I wandered around a bit, taking some pictures of the fall colors and the sun hitting the far side of the lake. After a few hours of that I packed up, said goodbye to the lake and the goats, and headed down the trail. It had been a good trip. No bear sightings, no people at the lake while I was there, some mountain goat encounters, and an unexpected opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights. While I’d like to take credit for some extraordinary trip planning, sometimes it all just comes together, and you really are more lucky than good.

Until next time…

Posted in Personal, Wild Places | 2 Comments

The end of another fire season (for me anyway)


Above: Burning snag on the West Stewart fire, Northwestern Colorado.

As usual, time has been flying by and I’ve been in a non-writing mood for whatever reason. Time to address that I suppose.

This was a different fire season for me in a few ways. It’s the nature of the beast that no two seasons are the same, but for the most part they tend to follow a general trend, a predictable flow. For me, this year was a bit of a departure from what had previously been my norm. I spent way more time in an office, and way less time in the field, than I have in the previous 15 years of working in fire. In some ways that’s good, for as good as time in the field is for my soul, it isn’t typically so good for the back or the knees. Although to be fair, office chairs aren’t especially good for the back either…

This was the first year since 2003 that I didn’t get a helicopter ride during fire season. Since I took my first flight to a fire in 2004, I’ve always had some flight time in the summer. Even in southeast Alaska I managed a few fire-type flights each season, mixed in among the many non-fire flights that were the bulk of my workload. Last year it came down to the wire, but I snuck in a mapping flight toward the end of my single, abbreviated helibase manager assignment in mid-September. This year, however, there was no last second reprieve, and the season ended (for me) with zero flight time in a helicopter. I did manage to stay current as a manager, but it was on a restricted category (no passengers) helicopter, which meant no flying for me.

That’s not to say that I didn’t fly this year – I just didn’t get any helicopter time. I did a fair amount of flying in our Agency-contracted King Air, but that’s a whole different critter. Most of the time my view of the fire  and surrounding terrain was an occasional glance of the column out the window as we circled at 12,000′ AGL, or through the 9.7″ screen of my iPad, wirelessly connected to the sensor package mounted to the bottom of the airplane. Pretty neat for sure, and different from the views that most people see, but lacking the same meaning to me. And of course, in the early parts of the season, I spent a lot of time on commercial jets, traveling to and from the southwest.

When a person spends a decade largely identifying (in the professional sense) as a “helicopter guy,” it kind of hurts when you lose that identity. I knew when I left helitack for this job that I risked not being a “helicopter guy” anymore, but somehow it really didn’t sink in until this year just how much value I placed in that identity, and how much it would hurt to lose it.

It’s also the first season since I started fire in 2001 that I didn’t dig any line or contribute directly to suppression or prescribed fire efforts in a real boots on the ground fashion. Sure, I’ve a few seasons where I didn’t dig much line, or spent most of my time on helibases or helispots, but this year marked the first season that all of my fire time was either as “overhead” (helibase work) or a “curious non-producer” (data collector). Not that I’m too concerned with that change, but it’s a change that I’m acutely aware of. I still have a role to play in wildland fire, but it’s a stretch to say I’m still a firefighter. I’m still capable and qualified to spend time on the line, grubbing with a hand tool on a hillside in the middle of nowhere, but it’s no longer my primary role in the greater fire organization.

All things must end, however, and like this fire season, I think I’m at a transitional place in my career as well. As the leaves turn color on the brush, the larch start to paint the hillsides yellow and orange, and snow starts to dust the mountain tops, I too must weather the changing environment in which I reside professionally. The only constant is that it all changes.


Above: Bull moose in the Twin Peaks Wilderness outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.

All in all it’s been a good season, just different. I did a lot of traveling for work, spending time in Arizona, Utah, Montana, Colorado, and of course Idaho. I put in a lot of hard work which felt rewarding at times, and I know I gave it my best effort, even if it was quite a bit different than how I expected the year to go. I learned a lot, saw some new country (including some of the high country in the Wasatch and San Juans), and met a lot of new people. I feel like I made some good strides, personally and professionally, and while there’s always work to be done on that front, at least I weathered the stress of fire season reasonably well.

For now I’m looking forward to a quiet fall and winter, and enjoying the start of the “off season” here in Idaho. I’ve still got a lot on my plate for work, but at least the near-constant travel is mostly over for now.

Until next time…

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Better lucky than good (when it comes to trip plans), Part 1


Above: Mountaineer Peak in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, seen from my “base camp” in the Swan Valley.

Note: As always, all of my photos can be found at Flickr.

It started out as a vague idea of how I was going to get some much-needed time off after a long summer that followed a long spring and a difficult winter. For a while now I’d wanted to try an overnight backpacking trip to do some “nightscape” photography, but other than a quick car-camping trip to Stanley Lake last fall, a combination of busy work schedules, smoky forest fires, and uncooperative weather kept it from happening. So when I scheduled a week off at the end of September, I kept my fingers crossed that things would line up.

My initial plan had been to head into the Sawtooths for a quick overnighter, and then make the day-long drive to visit my parents in Montana, and try another quick overnighter into the Missions while I was up there. As the time approached for the Sawtooth portion of the trip the weather quickly changed that plan. While I personally don’t mind seeing a little rain and snow on a hike, the accompanying cloud cover really puts the brakes on the type of night photography I was trying to do. Plan “A” was a no-go, so on to plan “B.” The forecast called for a swing to Indian Summer conditions after the fast-moving rainy and snowy system moved through, so I bypassed the Sawtooths and headed to Montana with photography equipment in hand.

My plan was to hike into Turquoise Lake in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, a place I hadn’t visited since I was in college. I’d started thinking about trying a night photography session there a few years ago, and had to wait for things to line up to give it a try. I’ve had an idea rattling around in my head for a while now that I could try night photography at some high country lakes that most night photographers really don’t visit, and this would be a shakedown trip for that idea.

When I got up the morning I’d planned my quick hike, there was some cloud cover that I hoped would burn off by that evening. The forecast was for clear and cool, so I thought I’d be okay. When I arrived at the trailhead I was a bit concerned about the number of vehicles in the lot… 4 small SUVs with out of state plates, and a truck with horse trailer. I had hoped that a Monday start in the fall would be “off-season” enough to avoid congestion at the lake, and I was a bit bummed out by the number of rigs at the trailhead. Not to be deterred I shouldered my pack and set off… after all I told myself, most of the people probably went to Glacier Lake (at about a mile hike in, it’s a very popular day hiking destination), and the horses were probably with hunters heading up another drainage.


Above: Fall colors in the subalpine larch stands high in the Missions.

As I huffed and puffed my way up the trail without seeing another soul, I gradually started to relax a bit and take in the scenery. While the larch in the lower elevations hadn’t really started to turn color yet, the subalpine larch up high were in full display, as were the various kinds of brush on the hillsides. The warm but not hot sunny afternoon was great for hiking, and while I was sweating buckets like I usually do, I was having a pretty good time. Even better, as I neared the lake itself, I ran into the horse folks, heading out after turning around at the steep sections of slick rock around Lagoon Lake. When I finally arrived at the Turquoise and did a quick recon of the area, it appeared I would have the lake to myself for the evening. Turquoise sits in steep bowl of rock, with very few flat spots to set up a tent, so not having to compete with any other backpackers for space was just what I’d hoped for.


Above: View over Turquoise after sunset.

As I sat overlooking the lake, drinking a cup of coffee and enjoying the view, I realized I wasn’t alone. Looking upslope a few hundred yards,  I noticed a fluffy white head poking around a tree, watching me. As I slowly walked over to my tent and grabbed my camera, I noticed a few more white spots in the rocks… mountain goats.


Above: Ever feel like you’re being watched?  How many goats do you see?

Apparently all the goat hair on the trees, goat prints on the trail, and goat scat in small piles around the outlet to the lake wasn’t all that old. I’d always heard of people having close encounters with goats in the Missions, but I’d never seen them myself. Now, as I watched the hillside above me, it appeared I was camped in the median on the goat trail highway to the outlet of the lake. That’s lucky chance number 2. (Number 1 was being the only camper at the lake, for those keeping score at home.)

As I watched the goats above me, I also kept an eye on my immediate surroundings as well, and on one glance behind me I was startled to see another white head and shoulders darting out of site behind the rocks standing over my campsite. Not only was I camped in the trail, it was rush hour at Turquoise.


Above: Mountain goats climb the rocks after circling around me.


Above: Mountain goats at Turquoise. I thought I counted 8 at one point, but only saw 7 in the images.

For the next hour or so until dark I watched as most of the goats filtered through the rocks, obviously wanting to get past me, but unwilling to wait until dark to do it. One nanny and kid pair was especially curious, and wandered around my campsite until well after dark trying to get a better look at me. It was amusing to be getting ready for bed, hear a hoof click on the rock above me, and shine the light to see a pair of white heads, one big and one small, peering over the rock ledge at me like kids looking over a stairwell before turning and running a few feet out of sight.


Above: The curious one pauses on her slow stalk closer to my campsite.

The next few hours after I crawled into my tent were spent listening to the sounds of goats walking past, to and from the outlet of the lake.  A few stopped and sniffed, snuffled and snorted at the tent and Jet Boil stove as they walked through. One must have been nosing the pot I used to heat water (some distance away from the tent), as I heard a clang of metal against rock right before I heard the snort and clattering hooves of a startled goat. It was well after midnight when the last of the group finally made its way back up the hill, leaving only the smaller creatures to scurry around the campsite making noise.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, snug in my small tent, I couldn’t help but smile… Not a bad day, hiking the Missions and being surrounded by mountain goats.

Until next time…


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