Social distancing, Montana style

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 25, 2020 6:22 AM

Last week I figured if I wrote another story on coronavirus I was going to be forced to tuck a napkin under my chin and eat my arm off.

So the boy and I loaded up the truck camper Friday and headed over to Freezout Lake, with the hopes of getting in some quality “social distancing” while watching thousands of snow geese on their annual migration north.

(It wasn’t until we arrived home a few days later that the ‘official’ recommendation had changed. Which is to say we should stay at home, but go outside, but don’t go outside so much that you run into other people, which seems absolutely silly in a place like Montana, where it’s pretty easy to stay away from two-legged creatures, or at least keep a safe distance. But I digress.)

We arrived at the lakes south of Choteau and there were a few people around and about 100,000 geese, give or take a goose.

Just like last year, all the lakes were frozen. That didn’t stop the geese from landing, but when there’s no open water, the geese don’t stick around very long. They go out into the fields, eat, rest on the ice, and then continue their journey north, where they summer and breed in Alaska and northern Canada.

If the water is open, like it is most years, the geese have a tendency to stick around for a few days, which makes the spectacle all the more spectacular.

That night it got cold — down to 15 degrees, maybe less and I managed to forget my sleeping bag. I used a network of jackets to bundle up with — one I wore in reverse on my legs to keep my feet warm, with my legs in the arms. It worked, sorta. Which is to say my upper body was warm wearing one coat and my feet were warm with another, but my butt stuck out and absolutely froze.

The next day I tried to buy a blanket in Choteau. I figured any blanket, a horse blanket even, would work. But Choteau is a quiet place on the weekend. Not so much because of the coronavirus concerns, but because the stores that might have had a blanket were closed on Saturdays.

Sigh.

I did manage to find a very nice wool blanket at a shop in Browning.

“Thanks guys,” I said while social distancing at the store. “You saved my butt.”

We then headed up to St. Mary and camped in Glacier National Park. It, too, was very quiet. The east side is a different world right now. There’s about a foot of snow on the ground everywhere, even on the plains, with drifts that are much deeper than that.

The campground was minimally plowed. We did some skiing (on a perfect spring day in shirtsleeves) ate supper and then walked the Going-to-the-Sun Road that evening to the gate.

The biggest creature we saw was a skunk.

Overnight it snowed another 3-4 inches, but the morning was cold, chilly, but fabulous and we made the long drive home slowly.

We gave the farm trucks humming down the snowy road at 55 a wide berth — on the east side that’s not social distancing, it’s common sense.

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Snow geese fly overhead.

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A skunk walks down the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Tundra swans, Canada geese and a variety of ducks rest on the ice of the St. Mary River.

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Snow geese fly en masse over Priest Lake.

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Wolf tracks, St. Mary.