Six days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness: “naturalist observations”


Sometimes I think back to college and I can’t imagine what I was thinking– taking classes called Experimental Darkroom Techniques, Futurist Poetry, and Middle Eastern History, and never a single class in environmental studies or geography or plants or animals.

I spent a lot of my college years outside, though, too, burning through the forests, keeping that transcendent realm of experience safe from the deadening sciences of number and letter. It took many years before I began to invite bookish ‘knowledge’ into my outdoor escapes– and now, thirty years old, I think I’ve finally found a happy relationship between the two.

Today it is important to me that my appreciation for the outdoors began with wild years of running away, alone, in the pursuit of raw experience. I kept hold of those impulses, those dark fires, and I feel safe to say that woods will always retain some of that primal edge for me. I don’t think it could ever get boring.

Meanwhile, it’s been nice to give my mind other things to work on, so I don’t just glance over things before walking away. Such structure of thought allows deeper insight, an escape from the tyrannical whimsies of self-involvement, and ultimately, more profound immersion. (At least at my advancing age!)



The red-naped sapsucker left these wells drilled in the bark of a young lodgepole pine. The sapsucker feeds on the bitter sap. It may also return to eat insects that become stuck in the sticky resin.


For the entire year so far the weather has been far “ahead” of schedule– unseasonably warm. This has left animals like the snowshoe hare nakedly exposed in their winter camouflage. Throughout our hike we saw many tufts of their shedding coats, their remains in coyote scat, and, on the last day, a white rabbit being removed from a brown forest by a hawk.


Since I first saw an iconic National Geographic photo of a bear path worn through bright green moss in Canada’s coastal range I have read many times about the animal’s tendency to step in the exact same spots and create eerie lines of footprints. The few examples I myself have found haven’t led to great photos, and this one is no exception– I found it one evening as I was brushing my teeth on the perimeter of our campsite.


The Rocky Mountain Wood Tick. Fortunately, it was snowing the afternoon we ascended Headquarters Creek and saw these blood suckers hanging off every other grass stem– the cold made them move very slow. I even became rather casual about them, falling asleep in exhaustion, finding one or two in my clothes in the mornings. When I got back I learned that a guy from work contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.


In this picture, a sow grizzly with three yearling cubs (only two are visible) watches three cow elk tiptoe towards her forage patch. When the bears first saw the elk they all took off running. Later, both groups peacefully fed about forty yards apart. Meat makes up a smaller part of the grizzly’s diet than the average Montanan’s. It was inspiring to see this maligned beast integrated into a “peaceable kingdom.”


The Spruce Grouse is often called a “fool hen.” Like the dodo or the auk, they are too trusting of humans to gain our respect, and have not survived human company in many parts of their historical range for this reason. Such trust also allowed me to get good pictures and admire its nuanced plumage.