Montana Outdoors

November 25, 2006

Elk country

Filed under: Animals, Elk, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photos, Pictures — montucky @ 1:29 pm

Today was our last elk hunt of the season and we began without high expectations for success, but the exhilaration of just being outdoors, in the high country, was enough to cause us to make the trip.

After two hours, thirty-five miles of driving through the snow into the back country of the Cabinet Mountains of western Montana, we parked our one-horse-open-sleigh at the base of McCully Ridge, slightly southeast of Fishtrap Lake. (Well, I’ve gotten soft: it’s a little more than one horse, and it isn’t open – thank Goodness!)

Modern sleigh

The excuse for this trip, sometimes called “the quarry”, was elk. For those not familiar with them, they’re a large member of the deer family and an adult bull will weight 800 to 1000 pounds, not exactly what one might think of as small game. For me, one of their most endearing qualities is the country in which they choose to live.

At this time of year and continuing on into March, the home of these elk is along the medium ridges and the more open south-facing slopes of those ridges where they can find enough food to sustain them until the grasses of spring again turn the mountainsides green.

Their chosen winter range is harsh but beautiful, and the elk have evolved a way to keep them warm, even in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. To compensate for temperatures that range from 100ºF in the summer to -40ºF in the winter, twice each year elk shed every hair and re-grow their coats. By late July they shed their thin sleek copper-colored short summer hair and replace it with a two-layer winter parka which is five times warmer. It consists of a dense wooly undercoat and a longer layer of thick guard hairs that overlay the undercoat. The insides of the guard hairs are constructed like a honeycomb and provide so much insulation that an elk can accumulate a heavy layer of snow on its back without having its body temperature melt the snow. I don’t feel sorry for them sleeping in the deep snow of winter.

After an hour’s hike up the slope from where I left the “sleigh” the snow was knee-deep on a little shelf along the ridge and as I arrived there the heavy snowfall stopped and the sun appeared for just a few minutes before the clouds closed in again, giving this view of the elk’s winter home. It’s what I will remember during the long winter ahead.

Elk country

November 21, 2006

The Christmas cat

Filed under: Animals, Inspiration, Montana, Writing — Tags: , — montucky @ 7:11 pm

Christmas day had been an especially enjoyable one that year. There was the usual exchange of presents the first thing in the morning near a warm fire and later an excellent turkey dinner with all the fixings. Inside our modest little house we were warm and well fed and our family was all together for the holiday. Peace and joy, security and well-being were the order of the day.

Outside the house in the bitter cold of late December in western Montana things were quite different, and especially so for one small animal.

Late in the afternoon I stepped out of our back door into a foot of new snow and the stark white sky was just starting to spit out the first flakes of yet another heavy snowfall. As I glanced toward the little canyon just west of our house I saw a long black tail waving above the snow as its owner headed in a direct line to me loudly proclaiming the misery of her present circumstances.

It was a lonesome, scared, very hungry and quite desperate little cat. Her long black hair was matted in places and she was very thin, but most of all, through whatever chain of events that had transpired to get her here, she was completely abandoned in the middle of winter, out in the country, far from the nearest town and shelter. For her, here on the outside, life was a completely different situation than the one from which I had just emerged and although my state of literacy at that time didn’t include anything at all in cat language her message was very plain: “please, please help me!”

At that time both my wife and myself had an intense dislike for cats in general. Hatred might be a more accurate description. We hated cats! But, after all, it was Christmas and a fellow creature was seriously in need of help. I brought her inside and we provided her some small pieces of turkey from our sumptuous dinner and a saucer of milk, then an old blanket in an out of the way corner of a room. We would help her out until we could find her a home. Later, before retiring for the night I took her outside for a few minutes to answer the call of nature and she did what she needed to do and immediately returned to my feet.

In the days that followed, I hung notices in the nearest town with a description of our house guest and our phone number, but we received no calls. None of our closest neighbors had misplaced a cat, but one family who lived a half mile from us said they would like to have her if she wasn’t claimed by anyone.

While we waited for some potential activity we found that although the little cat was aloof and somewhat distrustful of us, she did tolerate being groomed and let us cut out the mats in her long black hair and brush her. She was actually quite pretty, and very well behaved.

After about a week it became clear that no one would claim her and so we took her up to our neighbor. About four hours later she appeared back at our door. We repeated the process with the same results. Then my daughter said: “Dad, can’t we just keep her?”. She was then christened “Miss Kitty”, and with a lot of reluctance on the part of my wife and myself, became a part of our family. That was Christmas, 1996.

Over the years we have become quite fluent in cat language and Miss Kitty has become equally fluent in ours, and the words on a small rug given to us by some friends are probably true: “The Cat, and her housekeeping staff reside here”. We have grown to love her oh, so very much.

Now and for the past ten winters, every time I step out the back door into the snow, I glance toward the canyon and vividly recall that long black tail heading my way and the plaintive little calls for help. And I am also reminded of how one small creature by her attitude and persistence was able to reverse years of prejudice and turn feelings of hatred into feelings of love. Maybe there’s still hope after all!

Miss Kitty

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