Tracking a Wild Life

We begin at the derelict packrat cabin. Slowly we plod up the overgrown road. Our snowshoes tangle in the branches of the downed tree as we struggle to get over or under it. There are 15 of us. The oldest is 85 and grew up on a ranch before plumbing and electricity. The sturdiest is 78 and was raised on a Mennonite farm. She knows the ways of self-sufficiency. She is followed by her husband. He has spent 37 summers in a lookout tower watching the top of this mountain for a spark of fire. I am the youngest, struggling to learn what these fellow hikers have known all their lives.

intrepid guides
wear a deep path through new snow
I follow their tracks

On the saddle the trees open out into a meadow. A chipmunk alerts the woods to our presence. A raven cackles overhead. The transmission lines which cut through these wild woods whines with power for towns all along the Montana Highline. To the east the Rattlesnake Wilderness flows around the base of Stewart Peak.  To the southwest the city of Missoula creeps up the sides of the hills.

between two worlds
we catch our breath

We mill around the clearing until we find three sets of tracks slicing across the snowfield. Four large rounded toes. A three lobed heel pad. They are as large as the palm of my hand, with a leading toe that lines up with my middle finger. No nail marks. The print of a tail drag.



wild eyes peer
flash of tawny fur amid the trees
a squirrel or…






A storm cloud shadows the meadow. We cross over to the opposite slope and begin our decent. From here there is no straight path down to the old homestead. We wander through the tangle of mountain ash and serviceberry bushes. We duck under canopies of Douglas Fir and step over deadfall.

cocked heads
snowshoe hare tracks
in unblemished snow

At the bottom of the draw we go to inspect the ruins. Hopes and dreams stacked in peeled logs that cave in from the center. Through the window frame an aspen tree grows in the middle of the barn. The decaying timbers, cut in 1911 to shelter the inhabitants from the elements now rot in the rain and snow, feeding the undergrowth that is reclaiming the homesite.


single broken wall
thin divide between
the wild outside and in.




This piece is in the form of a haibun.  Haibun tells a story, mixing a short prose piece with a haiku.

Learning to Boil an Egg

Photo by Sharon Dill


Last week I hosted the Tuesday Hikers annual winter cookout at the homestead.  I felt honored to carry on the tradition Lois began many years ago.  And I felt privileged to share this special place with my wildland family.  Despite growing up in the mountains cooking over fires, there is always something I can learn from my “elders” in the group.  Like cooking a hardboiled egg in a paper cup in the fire.  Carol taught me this trick–fill a dixie cup with water, drop in the egg and set it on the coals.  Incredibly it doesn’t ignite.  Only the lip of the cup will catch fire and burn to the water line.  The egg will boil in the water and after 10 minutes or so you have a perfectly cooked hardboiled egg.

It was a stunningly clear day and from the meadow where Ted and I had set up the fire pit you could see the receding mountain ridges to the west.  Gene, who has been the fire lookout at Blue Mountain for 37 seasons has an aerial map in his head and he was able to instantly identify Petty Peak and the Cabinet Mountains shining white in the far distance.  I envy this mental relief map he has of the region.  I can look at a topo map and get my bearings.  I can download satellite pictures of the area and have an overview of my place in the world.  But these are only snapshots.  Gene has a dynamic and deep knowledge of the landscape that comes from years of watching its constant change.  He has seen storms come in across the peaks and where the clouds tend to lay low in the valleys.  He knows where rain falls the heaviest or misses the lowland in the rain shadows.  He has seen the changing face of the mountain peaks as the snowline recedes, the cloud shadows pass over, or the aplenglow hits in the late evening.  He knows these ranges in a way few of us ever will.  I hope as the years pass I will come to know this small slice of the Lolo Range through the same attentive and intimate acquaintance.