Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 80 – Upper Thompson Lake: The call of the loons

Thursday August 7, 2014, 4 miles (6 km) – Total so far: 3,703 miles (5,959 km)

The early morning sun filters through the pine needles in horizontal shafts. The smoke has settled in the night. Its density scatters the light into a million pieces and gives the open forest a gentle, amber glow. It is like some grand designer has pulled out all the harsh LED lighting and put in old incandescent bulbs. I did not put on the tent fly last night, so I can peer upward through the mesh to the thick air and the cover of pine boughs above.

It is silent. The toads have ceased their midnight chorus. They’ve given up and gone home for the day. If you don’t have a chick by sunrise, you are probably out of luck. The birds are quiet or somewhere else. The stillness flows in through my pores and settles in my bones. This is exactly what my soul needed. The only sound present is the whoosh and wheeze of air being forced through viscous fluid. It is a rattling, wheezing and sputtering sound like an engine that won’t turn over. That sound is the sound of my lungs struggling to exchange air.

I reach up to the gear loft for Verne. He is lying there on his back, grinning at the sky. Perhaps he has been ‘turtled’, that is, stuck on his back and unable to roll over. Or perhaps he is just basking belly up. I pluck him out of his peacefulness and set him on my chest. I say, “Hey Verne, Bicycle Commander Extraordinaire, I think we are going to have to fully implement the Asthma Prevention Policy. I’m sorry. I know I’m letting you down. I’ve tried just implementing the first phase (start usage of preventer inhaler; ride shorter mileage; take more days off), but my lungs really hurt. I’m raspy even when not pedalling. I’m starting to get sharp pains in my lower lungs. And it’s not even that smoky, except in the dusk and dawn hours. Could we please implement the second phase of the policy”?

As always, Verne greets bad news with the goofy grin. He may have rolled his eyes, I’m not sure, but he doesn’t resist when I pull him close to me for a cuddle. I interpret that as consent. To attempt to keep my lungs okay, I’m going to start trying to limit the duration and frequency of riding, until the smoke clears. Since I don’t have the budget to limit exposure by staying in a motel each night, I am going to try to limit how much activity I do, so I don’t suck so much particulate pollution down my lungs. Basically what this means is that I’m going to ride a day, then rest a day, ride a day, rest a day, until the smoke clears. I will also try to make the daily mileage total less than 70 miles.

Today is the perfect day to implement ‘rest a day’. There is no one in sight. There is no noise. The mozzies are bearable. It is a very peaceful and pleasant spot. There is plenty of habitat for the guys. The lake edge looks way too goopy to go for a swim, unless you don’t mind stepping through calf-deep sludge that sucks your feet down into wet and murky mud and only releases your foot with a sound of released suction. No thanks – it will be hot today, but I think I will just dunk my jersey on occasion instead.

For most of the morning, I read my new geology book that I bought in Kalispell. Around 11am, when the smoke has lifted a bit, I ride back out to the main road and head west, hoping that the locality of Happys Inn is not too far down the road. It turns out not to be far at all. The gas station is also a bar, convenience store and café. It has a pretty scrungy appearance, but there are plenty of locals there getting drinks or having a meal. I just want to get more liquids. I need enough water for today and tomorrow, so I refill my Camelback and all of my bottles and buy two more one-litre Gatorades. The help here is not friendly – they also don’t have prices listed for anything. It’s not somewhere I’d prefer to support, but the heat means I need to really think about fluids.

On the way back to the campsite, I find a new package of Triple A batteries on the side of the road. Very good! Once back to the tent, I stretch out in the shade for a nap. When I’m this raspy, I get tired very easily, presumably because my body is working harder just to breathe. I don’t know the mechanics, I just know when my lungs are screwed for days on end, I have little energy.

My bad mood lifts. I haven’t had a peaceful night all alone since back at Clark Canyon Reservoir, so I think my introvert stores just needed replenishing. I tend to be fairly resilient; bad moods usually don’t persist too long. Lying there looking up at the trees, stretched out on my back, with no one to ask me the standard six questions and no time pressures to consider, my appreciation for nature and my gratefulness for being out here on the road returns.

The Thompson Chain of Lakes is a special place, and I’m glad I’m here to see it now, before all that population growth nearby starts to crowd this spot, also. This is Montana’s largest fishing access site, created by the state in the mid-1980s. Land swaps with the timber company which owns more than 90 percent of land in the area has ensured at least some protection of the watershed surrounding the 21 lakes in the chain. The area provides critical habitat links for black and grizzly bears, moose, elk, mountain lions and deer. The lake we are camped beside is considered to be of high ecological significance and is designated as a no-wake lake to protect the nesting pairs of loons. This bird is a ‘species of special concern’, meaning it is vulnerable to extinction. Habitat loss has threatened this bird in Montana; climate change is posing further threats.

So I’m lucky to be here now to see this landscape and camp along this shore before human pressure increases and changes in climate further reduce the loon’s chances for survival. Yes, I’m happy to be riding again. I so desperately needed a day like this away from everyone and everything. So far, western Montana has not been all I’d hoped it would be. But this spot is exactly what I’d been seeking.

In the late afternoon, I hear the call of the loons. I am so glad I stayed here today. Their call is a long and plaintive wail. It’s a lonely sort of sound that carries through the air like a soul seeking assistance or recognition. Immediately, another loon further down the lake, calls back in answer. To me, the wail sounds a bit like a higher-pitched wolf howl with greater inflection. It is a haunting call. The other call they do, the tremelo, sounds to me a bit like coyotes yipping. The birds call out every so often until well after dark. Gorgeous. I am so lucky to be here.

Loons are a very primitive sort of bird. Their lineage is fairly ancient. They haven’t changed much over time. They generally don’t like to pioneer new breeding areas; they are firmly attached to ‘home’. Additionally, they tend to prefer lakes greater than 13 acres in size at elevations below 5,000 feet. These requirements restrict their range and make them considerably more vulnerable to habitat loss. The common loon is goose-sized and primarily eats fish, though it will also eat salamanders, leeches, frogs (so that’s why Kermit stuck so close to Verne) and insects.

Common loon breeding pairs are only found in four Western states. Montana has the largest population with about 65 breeding pairs – of which only about 35 successfully hatch and raise 1-2 chicks per year. This area has about three active nesting pairs, including two on this lake. How lucky am I to be here listening to them calling and responding somewhere across the lake?! You can listen to their call here, or search for one of the other many youtube common loon videos:

The wind ceases at dusk. The sky to the west glows orange and pink. Thin lines of brown smoke sweep across the glow in horizontal dashes and lines. The lines grow in length and width as the sun sets and the smoke begins to settle once again. The fuzzy air shaves off the sharp edges of the pines and mutes the colours in the landscape. I wander over to a large depression left over from days when glaciers scoured out this valley. There is no water in the pond, but the golden grasses bending toward the west are illuminated for a few minutes by the setting sun which has broken through the clouds but not the smoke. All of the vividness of the day has gone, and the drab colours stretch to the shadows as the sun sinks lower and then disappears behind the distant range.

I wander back to camp and hoist the bear bag for the night. I crawl in the tent and stretch out. The loons continue their mournful conversation. I feel good mentally again. I’ll be ready to ride tomorrow. I listen to the calm and the first toads croaking out a chorus of hope. If I had the supplies, and it wasn’t so hot and smoky, I’d be inclined to stay here another day or two. This is what I’d looked forward to in Western Montana but had yet to find. I fall asleep as I let the stillness fill me full.

The campsite is so quiet and peaceful (haven’t found much of that since the Pioneer Mtns) I decide to stay 2 nights. It’s a perfect spot – open but shady, soft-ish ground, not too many mozzies, views over a lake without jetskis, etc zooming around and a perfect tree for bear bag hanging (allows bag 12 feet high, 4+ feet out from trunk – though really this should be 300 ft from where I’m sleeping, but I don’t see any signs of bear, so I am lazy about it).
Another view of the campsite.

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