I had just arrived in Missoula after midnight, after a long and miserable flight, when my 94-year-old stepfather, Wayne, excitedly told me that we had to go to Lake Freezeout to see some birds.
I hesitated. I’m not the bird type, far from it. Then he said, “Tens of thousands of waterfowl make their annual spring migration.” I had no idea where the lake was or how long it would take to get there, but the words “tens of thousands” intrigued me.
We left two days later at 6:30 a.m. Along the way, we saw some interesting places, learned a bit of history, saw mundane but scary sights, and witnessed one of the most dramatic geological phenomena I have ever seen. never seen. We also saw birds! Round trip was 10 hours including driving, viewing, eating, resting and wondering.
1. Garnet Ghost Town
About 31 miles east of Missoula off Highway 200 is an abandoned mining town now called Garnet Ghost Town, Montana’s most intact former mining town. It was first mined in the 1860s. The city was officially established in 1895 and has seen periods of “boom and bust” as economics, geology and technology dictated the extraction (or its absence) of gold.
Getting to Garnet involves an 11-mile drive from Highway 200 on a surprisingly wide, well-maintained road. At its height, Garnet, named after the semi-precious stones still found in the area, flourished with a population of up to 1,000 citizens. Among other buildings, the city had four hotels, a school, an analysis office (a place that tests the purity of precious metals) and 13 salons! Today, no one lives in Garnet, but thanks to the efforts of the Garnet Preservation Association, many of the original buildings with relics and furnishings from the era remain and provide insight into the arduous world of mining. late 19th and early 20th century gold. .
Garnet is open for tours year-round, weather permitting. There is a small entry fee. Handicap parking is available, as well as generally accessible trails. Snowmobiles, snowshoes, or cross-country skis are required to access during the winter months. Great photos and more information can be found on the Bureau of Land Management website page.
2. Col Rogers — Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Highway 200 crosses the Continental Divide in the southern part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex via Rogers Pass at 5,610 feet elevation. Not exceptionally high as the passes go, but this pass is outstanding. It serves not only as a route through the mountains for vehicles traveling east to west through Montana, but also as a route for migrating birds including geese, swans, and golden eagles.
Everything is fine. The exceptional nature of Rogers Pass is that it holds the record for the lowest recorded temperature in the lower 48 states: -70 degrees Fahrenheit, measured on January 20, 1954. This factoid should win you some friendly bets.
3. Not your grandparents’ grain silos
The descent from Rogers Pass to the high plains of Montana is quite steep and fast. When Highway 200 flattens out, then it is in the western portion of the Great Plains. And I found these plains to be spectacular: endless, gently rolling golden prairie fields punctuated by numerous small hills and knolls nearby and craggy peaks of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains stretching north to south in the distance.
For me, these sites are exciting. Other nearby sites are scarier.
At irregular intervals there are small structures and nondescript terrain several hundred yards from the highway. Each has upright pole-like stems and what appear to be air ducts or narrow cylindrical domes near it. All are surrounded by metal fences. I looked for identification signs but quickly realized that the lack of signage was the signage. These structures are Minuteman III nuclear missile silos. They are located in various groups across the Great Plains. And can be launched in a minute if the order is given. I guess you have to be somewhat fatalistic to live in such areas because what leaves the silos will quickly be returned in kind.
Here’s a brief history via the National Park Service – and several photos of the Minuteman missiles.
4. Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area — Birds Of A Feather
The reason for this trip was to see birds. And we succeeded wildly!
The Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area covers approximately 12,000 acres and offers plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities year-round. Over a 2-week period in late March (the time of my visit), Freezeout Lake becomes a resting and feeding area for migrating waterfowl – primarily Canada geese, snow geese and geese. Ross, as well as trumpets and tundra swans – which head north to Canada and Alaska from their winter homes in California, Texas and the Gulf Coast states. These are the real snowbirds.
Up to 230 species of birds, such as eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, mallards, shorebirds and short-grass prairie dwellers, as well as other wildlife, have been identified here and are observed at different times of the year. But it is this period at the end of March that is exceptionally spectacular.
We arrived around 9:15am and started a slow walk along the rocky dirt roads that skirt around the chain of ponds comprising Lake Freezeout. Initially we saw a few flocks of snow geese arriving with several hundred birds per flight. We had missed the early morning starts, when the birds leave the lake in droves to find food in the nearby cut grain fields. We were now monitoring incoming flights.
Around 10:15 a.m., we noticed a broad, thick, dark, wavy ribbon in the low southern sky, resembling a linear black stratocumulus cloud. It soon became apparent that this ribbon was not a cloud but a huge flock of birds, specifically snow geese, gliding to land in one of the ponds. I watched, mesmerized by the number of geese and the precise choreography of their flight. It was as if each bird received a simultaneous common signal indicating heading, speed, elevation and landing coordinates. Completely awesome! There could easily have been 10,000 geese in that one flight. The professional estimate made by Freezeout Wildlife Area naturalists later recorded about 52,500 snow and Ross’s geese that day on the lake, along with 1,773 swans. Not one more nor one less. During this late March migration period, up to 300,000 geese and 10,000 swans may pass through in any given year.
Leaving a little later, we passed in front of the pond on which the great flight had landed. Complete cacophony. These geese and some of the 1,773 swans seemed very proud of their flying and navigational skills and were surely not afraid to share their pride, shouting at us mere humans.
Pro tips: Arrive early. Be patient. Dress warmly, bring snacks and water, bring binoculars and if you want great photos, use zooms or telephoto lenses. (I didn’t, much to my regret. I’m just a point-and-shoot celltographer). Birds, in general, are at least 50 to 100 meters away. And they come and go on their own highly classified flight schedule and itinerary.
The region’s official site has more history, information, and selected activities to do in the Lake Freezeout Wildlife Management Area.
Returning to Missoula, we passed through Choteau, a town of just over 1,700 people, about 20 miles east of the Rocky Mountains. We drove southwest on Hwy 287 for about 45 miles until it met Hwy 200, before heading home.
Landscape 287 provoked a visceral reaction of admiration in me. I stopped the car, got out, and gazed in amazement at this physical phenomenon: the towering front of the Rocky Mountains, the convergence of the plains with the mountains for 10 to 20 miles across the beautiful and desolate land of the ‘west. The Rockies just explode upwards in a tangle of green forest at the base, becoming gray granite cliffs and snow-capped white peaks. Mile after mile after mile, going north to south.
One peak in this area is particularly striking: Ear Mountain (elevation 8,560 feet), a steep rock face rising about 3,500 feet above the plains. The Rocky Mountain Front appears, for all intents and purposes, as a massive barrier holding back anything east of it. And in fact, in some ways, it is. The front directly affects weather in the Midwest by blocking warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, facilitating the formation of thunderstorms and tornadoes. Also, there is no road through the Front between Rogers Pass and Marias Pass, over 100 miles to the north near Glacier National Park. Therefore, difficult to cross.
Additionally, this land contains one of the nation’s largest wilderness habitats (the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex), home to a multitude of wildlife including wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolverines. Did I mention grizzlies? They frequently come from the mountains and roam the adjacent plains. Breaking through the Front, that magnificent massive rock wall backed by a scarcity of through roads and a plethora of patrolling predators, would be difficult! Personally, I wouldn’t want the opposite.