Other than the fast melting remnants of huge snow drifts or piles where snow plows were used to push it, the snow is pretty much gone here in the Clark Fork River valley. Still, up high on the mountains, just about every time a spring rain shower begins to play its rhythm on the cabin's metal roof, up another 2,000 to 6,000 feet, it's still winter ... and it's snowing Right now, that's just about every day.
The Montana spring hunting seasons are now open for black bear and wild turkey.
Keep in mind that I did not start staying in the cabin until around mid February. As I was moving in just the basics so I could stay here and work on the interior, it tended to snow just about every day. By the time the first of March rolled around, there was 20 to 30 inches of snow surrounding the cabin. Thanks to the pitch of the steel roof, when any more than 10 to 12 inches accumulated, it slid off. Now that's a good thing. It prevents too much building up and collapsing the roof ... which does happen a bit too frequently in this country - now and then taking a few lives.
At one point, that "slide off" had accumulated to more than 30 inches along each side of the cabin. I bought this place as a "work in progress" ... and it is still a "work in progress" ... and probably will be for another year, or so. One of the things that the previous owner had not gotten around to building was a front porch or cover over the entry way. More than once, going out the door I would close it a bit "too hard" ... and a miniature avalanche of snow would come down on my head and down the back of my neck. So, building a porch, or at least the start of a porch, over the door, is high on the summer agenda.
Right now, spring turkey and bear hunting are my No. 1 priority, then a little fishing. After all, that's why I moved here ... not so I could hone my amateur carpentry skills. This is one of the best bear areas in the Lower 48 states. That dandy brown color phase black bear shown above left is the bear I took last spring (2017), with my .50 caliber Cooper Model 22 ML in-line muzzleloading rifle.
The 2018 turkey season opened this past Saturday (April 14) ... and bear season the next day (April 15). Although, a few weeks back, I thought I might have to open the bear season a bit early this spring, with so much snow up higher, the best bear hunting is still nearly a month away. The bigger boar bears typically den up higher, at 5,000+ feet, and in most of that country there is still five- to six-feet of snow on the ground. Even during a "normal year" here, the true trophy bears don't emerge from their dens until the first of May. This year, it will likely be closer to May 15 ... and the spring season here closes the end of the month.
Through the last two weeks of February and the first half of March, I did not have a refrigerator in the cabin ... so I took advantage of all that snow outside. Just off from the front door, I dug out a hole in the snow bank ... stuck in a fairly large cooler ... packed snow around it ... and kept it full of meats, vegetables, milk, eggs and left overs. I would then throw a shovel full, or two, of snow on top. It worked great - cold enough to keep things well chilled, insulated enough to keep anything from freezing.
One morning, about mid March, when I let the dogs out at first light, everything that had been in that cooler was scattered all over the the yard. Well, the packaging was ... most everything that had been inside the packaging had been eaten ... and even though it had snowed lightly after the incident took place, from the shape of the depressions in the snow, it was easy to determine that the mess had been created by a bear of about 150 pounds. As I cleaned up the mess, before it was hidden beneath still falling snow, I came across the biggest surprise of all.
Just 10 or 12 feet from the front door, that bear had dug its way through the deep snow bank ... from beneath the cabin! For more than a month, the dogs and I had been living directly above a hibernating bear. Apparently all of the nailing down of flooring underlay had awaken the sleeping bruin. Can you imagine it's surprise when it ran into a cooler full of food as it dug its way out?
Here in the valley and along the lower slopes, black bears typically leave their winter dens in early April. This bear was out a full two weeks early, and with a foot or more of snow still blanketing the ground, finding food wouldn't be easy. That's why I wasn't at all surprised when I opened the front door one morning a week or so later, and there was the bear - maybe 20 yards away. Both of us were startled - the bear ran up the hill, I quickly shut the door ... then looked out the nearby window. The bear ran into a neighboring pasture, stopped and looked back at the cabin for several minutes, then moved off into the heavy growth. There's now a fully loaded (20-round clip) AR-15 sitting next to my desk ... at all times.
There are so many turkeys in Northern Sanders County, Montana - if a person does a day or two of pre-season scouting - filling a tag is usually pretty easy. That's the bird I took opening morning last spring (2017) in the photo at left - hunting just two hours. The modern in-line ignition muzzleloading shotgun used was made for me by my good friend Tim Lenartz, of Alto, Michigan. This is the same shotgun I'm hunting with this spring.
As I sit here writing this, it is the third morning of turkey season ... and it's raining strangled toads and frogs ... or, something like that. It has rained 80-percent of the time since the season opened two days ago. Still, I have been out there ... because I love to hunt. And, if I was only hunting for the meat, I could have filled my tag several times. Early opening morning, I had the ugliest mature gobbler I have ever seen come running right in, soaking wet, and strutted just 20 yards away, offering several dozen shot opportunities. The poor bird looked as if someone had driven over it with a John Deere riding lawn mower. Every other tail feather was either missing or broken. Then, at another favored hunting spot, an hour or so later, I had set up on a good gobbler I had gotten to gobble several times, and when I called, four jakes (juvenile gobblers) came running in, also inside of 20 yards. When the adult bird gobbled a few minutes later, those teenager toms rushed off in the mature bird's direction - and I never could get another gobble out of the bird.
Yesterday morning, it was pouring rain again, so I waited until daylight, then loaded the dogs into the old Jeep Cherokee, and we hit the gravel and dirt backroad from the cabin to the small town of Noxon - about 8 miles upstream. I made four stops along the way to call, hoping to squeeze a gobble out of a lonesome tom. Other than the sound of the rain coming down ... nothing. But, at one spot a black bear did stick its head up over the road bank ... maybe 30 yards away ... then spun and crashed down through the thick timber. I then headed to the Trout Creek area, another 12 miles down Highway 200 ... then cut through a State Forest, again stopping about every 1/4-mile to call, hoping for a tattletale gobble. Still nothing.
So, I drove on into the small town of Trout Creek, and went directly to the Lakeside Resort restaurant - for some hot coffee, a great breakfast and wonderful conversation with one of the owners - Corey. He, his brother Jake and Mom had bought the resort from another of my good friends, moving here to Montana from Kentucky a little over a year ago. Corey and Jake have long been muzzleloading hunters - shooting Knight and CVA rifles. It's great to sit down and talk muzzleloading with those who hunt with muzzleloaders.
As I left the restaurant, it was was raining the hardest it had all morning. Then, just a few miles out of town, the rain began to lighten ... and the farther northwest I drove, the lighter it rained and the brighter it became. As I passed the Noxon turnoff, I could see light blue peeking through ahead ... and I had one more spot to stop and try.
I spotted the gobbler, with a group of 8 or 9 hens as they crossed a grassy pasture ... headed for a piece of public land on the other side. The Jeep was parked out of sight, and with the Lenartz 12-gauge "Turkey Taker" in hand, I made my way up to a grassy roadway I felt confident the birds would take ... especially if I did a little calling. With each of the first three series of yelps, the gobbler would gobble back. Then, here they came ... moving along as a group en masse. As the birds slowly walked past where I had plopped down, 17 or 18 yards from the roadway, I followed the tom with the rifle type sights of the shotgun ... but could not take the shot. Oh ... I definitely could have put that tom down ... but there were always three or four hens so close that the shot would have likely taken out at least two of them as well.
There's a reason why Montana's turkey season is 30 days in length! Tomorrow is another day. Who knows, if the weather breaks for an hour or two this afternoon ... I know where there are a half-dozen different toms within 3 miles of where I'm sitting ... typing this and listening to the rain on the roof. - Toby Bridges
Cabin Progress Report - Last Friday (Friday the 13th), I stopped in for a friendly visit with the rural realtors (Montana Inc.) who helped me nail this cabin down. When asked how the finishing was going, I responded ... "Pretty Good I Think ... At least it is now beginning to look like someone actually lives there instead of looking like someone broke in an started throwing stuff around!"
The interior is coming together. Other than getting the baseboard down and a couple of hours of painting completed, the larger living room...office...dining area is pretty much done. Bears getting into the cooler are no longer a problem, the kitchen flooring underlay is down, and most of the electrical outlets are now functional - and a refrigerator has been moved in. Before mid May, an electric range will be added. In the bedroom, the underlay is all down ... and I'm now sleeping back in a bed. One of the two doors to the bathroom has been hung (and I may do the other today). Also, water is to the cabin ... but the plumbing is likely two months out from being ready to "turn on the water". By the end of June, the outside work will begin. Now ... I'll get back to my turkey and bear hunting ... and let me see, where did I store my fishing gear?
The Start Of A New NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING Office
FINDING MY WAY ...
Sanders County, Montana is one of the largest counties in the state. It is also one of the least populated. From its southern most border to its northern most border (which is only a few miles from my new mountain valley home), the county stretches over 100 miles. At its widest point, the county is some 70 to 80 miles across.
Inside the Sanders County Line are large portions of three National Forests – the Kaniksu National Forest … the Lolo National Forest … and the Kootenai National Forest. All of the Thompson River State Forest is also within the county. Inside those borders are likewise a huge chunk of the Cabinet Mountains National Wilderness Area … the National Bison Range … and a large portion of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Sanders County is bordered on the west by the Idaho state line, which is defined by the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains … while much of the county’s north-eastern line is formed by the Cabinet Mountains. As I look out my office window, I’m looking right up into the Cabinets, barely two miles away … and my gently sloping back yard heads right up into the Bitterroots.
Just a half-mile from my front door is the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir … And just 20 miles upstream is the Noxon Rapids Dam, which creates the 45-mile long Noxon Reservoir.
Easily 75-plus-percent of the county is public lands – with healthy game populations and some of the absolute best fishing in the state … or even in the United States! So … as you can imagine, a lot of folks would like to live here – or at least think they would like to live here. With so much of the county federally owned or controlled (National Forests, Indian Reservation, National Bison Range), just finding an affordable small piece of privately owned land for sale can be the biggest obstacle. Then, for those who would seek employment, Sanders County is one of the most economically depressed counties in Montana, with some of the lowest incomes and one of the highest unemployment rates.
Living here is not easy – especially in winter. Sanders County holds the distinction of CLAIMING both the driest location in the state … and the wettest location in the state. With an average of only about 9 inches of annual precipitation, the small Flathead Indian Reservation community of Perma is recognized as Montana’s driest spot, while the area between the small town of Noxon and the unincorporated community known as Heron is commonly the wettest … with around 38 inches of precipitation. Much of that comes in the form of snow … as the nearly 30 inches of the white stuff covering the ground around my Heron cabin as I write this will attest.
The Cabinet Gorge Reservoir Narrows As Seen When Crossing The Bridge Into Heron
About this time last year, the community surrounding the small resort town of Trout Creek, about 25 miles south of the cabin, was hit hard by a 52 inch snowfall over a period of a couple of days. The weight of the wet snow caused hundreds of homes, cabins, barns and other outbuildings to collapse. I and about 80 others spent several days helping one local small rancher to salvage what we could from a collapsed hay shed and a two story hunting lodge that had gone down under tens of thousands of pounds of wet snow. That’s how a community works, pulling together during adverse times … and celebrating together during the good times.
My little cabin is a sturdy structure, and I make sure to keep the snow knocked from the metal roof. With so much snow on the ground, walking the dogs much is out of the question, but we do get out a couple of times each day. The county does a great job of keeping the main road out to the highway plowed, as well as two other gravel backroads – one to Noxon and one to Clark Fork, Idaho. Each are about ten miles away. My three dogs love to see game, and on most drives we do see deer or elk. On a recent morning trip to the nearest gas station, to keep the Jeep’s tank nearly full all the time, a cow moose and last year’s calf stood in the middle of the highway for a minute or two before plowing off through the deep snow. For the trip “home”, I took the backroad from Noxon, driving past the upper end of a Cabinet Gorge Reservoir back bay that was literally covered with ducks, geese and trumpeter swans.
A Couple Of The Locals Checking "Us" Out ...
On another morning, I glassed a lone fisherman braving the cold to catch a few fish. During the twenty minutes I watched, he reeled in three … which went right into a bright green plastic 5-gallon bucket. They were apparently destined to be honored dinner guests.
The peace and solitude … the rugged beauty of the land … the community minded people who live here … and the abundance of fish and game are constant reminders of why I fully intend to make this place my home … for the rest of my life.
Now … I just need to weather the rest of winter. Then I can jump in and begin to finish out the cabin – to really make it “my” home. Lately, my mind has been more on spring turkey and bear seasons. Hopefully the deep snows haven’t decimated the turkey numbers. I saw a small bunch less than a half-mile from the cabin just a few days earlier, but my plans are to hunt about 20 miles south of Heron, where there are usually a lot more of the birds. With so much snow up high this year, the larger male black bears may be slow to leave their dens. But, that generally only makes for better bear hunting the last two weeks of May. Last spring, I took one of the best bears of my life … less than 20 miles from the cabin. Here … that’s like hunting in your back yard.
I’m meeting an old friend and hunting buddy in Trout Creek for lunch today. Was going to clean up with a tub bath … but the snow slid off the roof and covered my wash tub. I poked around for it, but couldn’t find it … and it’s "Below Zero" this morning. Sounds like a great excuse to spring for a shower in town! It will probably be the best $4 I spend all day! - Written The Last Day Of February
Toby Bridges Cabinet Gorge Anthology
UPDATE - Yesterday (March 14), I did an hour radio show with an old friend back in St. Louis, Missouri on, of all things, muzzleloading. At first, it didn't seem like it was going to happen. My phone died on me early that morning. I had to make an emergency run to the Wal-Mart in Ponderay, Idaho ... about 40 miles away ... to buy a new phone. The show was scheduled to be recorded at 4 that afternoon. I made the run in record time ... got the phone charged ... and had a great time working with Dr. Mark Lucas and we put together a great show for his "Hunting, Fishing and Animal Talk" with Doc and Friends, which airs at 3 p.m. Saturdays on KWRE AM 73 in the St. Louis area. The show we taped yesterday airs this Saturday (March 17) ... so if you are reading this before that date, and are in the St. Louis area, be sure to tune in. Or, you can go to www.kwreradio.com/home and click on "Listen Live" at 3 p.m. (Central Time) ... and catch the show that way.
Something struck me as “This Is Mine!” the first time I saw the small four room cabin, sitting all alone on an entire block of Heron, Montana. As far as buildings go, it isn’t much. It started out as an even smaller one room wood-frame structure, measuring 18-feet by 18-feet – constructed maybe eight to ten years back. Then, just a year or two ago, someone else with dreams added on another 30 feet – which were partitioned off into what “was to be” a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.
“Was to be” is just another way of saying that the cabin addition was never finished. That’s the way I bought it. Actually, what I bought were four lots … “with small unfinished cabin.”
I had first looked at the property only a couple of days before my three dogs and I set out on a six week road trip, first back to Missouri to spend Christmas with my kids and grandkids, then on to Illinois to spend a few weeks with a brother and several sisters, plus a few dear old friends. That trip was capped off by flying from St. Louis to Las Vegas for the 2018 Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show.
Once I had gotten back on the internet for a couple of weeks in January, while staying with my sister Marsha in Illinois, I had contacted the realtor handling the cabin, and made an offer. Within a week, the property owner had signed the agreement … so, the morning after flying back to St. Louis from the SHOT Show, my dogs Bob, Saboe and Tully, and I, turned our Chevy Suburban around and headed for our new “home” in Northwest Montana. The anticipation of slowly getting settled in made the near 2,000 mile drive back to Montana seem twice as long as the drive to the Midwest.
On February 5, 2018 … I signed the agreement, plus handed over a sizeable check, for me anyway – and was free to start moving in.
No heat … no electricity … no water … and nearly two feet of snow on the ground, but move in I did. For a couple of evenings, the dogs and I spent the night at a friend’s ranch, twenty miles away, while cleaning out and cleaning up the cabin. Other than a bit of construction work and some remodeling to the original cabin portion of the building over the past couple of years, no one had “stayed” there. That lack of habitation ended on the afternoon of February 7th, when my immediate pooch family and I moved in just enough to begin spending the nights.
For light, I had my Coleman two mantle propane lantern. For heat and for cooking, I had set up a large double burner range-style propane camp stove. Here at first, a heavy moving blanket was hung across the doorway into the 30-foot addition to the cabin, making it relatively easy to keep the 324 square feet of the original one-room getaway cabin warm and cozy.
During that first week of “indoor camping”, all the electrical circuits to the addition were shut off, and thanks to the good folks at Northern Lights the electricity is back on again in our one-room living quarters – and it is being heated with an electric heater. Likewise, there’s community water flowing to the property once again … not to the cabin mind you, but to the property. It will be mid-summer before the plumbing to the kitchen and bathroom is completed. Until then, bathing is relegated to using the propane camp stove to heat water for a good ol’ metal “wash tub”. A much smaller “dish pan” is used for doing dirty dishes … which are kept to a minimum by using paper plates, throw away cups, and plastic eating utensils. Usually, it’s just pots and pans I have to worry about washing. As for the “toilet” facilities, there’s always the trusted woods just down the road … and all of those handy U.S. Forest Service concrete outhouses which dot the roadsides of Western Montana – where there’s something like 20-million acres of National Forests.
Heron, Montana sits just three miles from the border with Northern Idaho – which is also the line between the Mountain Time and Pacific Time zones.
If you’ve never lived close to where simply crossing from one “time zone” to another means you’ve “lost” or “gained” an hour, you really don’t understand what it’s like … or how that human manipulated time warp affects the lives on either side. For a couple of years, I lived in the Cumberland Mountains of what could be considered East Tennessee. I managed a large wildlife and hunting area, located in the Eastern Time zone … and lived just 14 miles to the West – in the Central Time zone.
Coordinating the arrival of client hunters or contracting work to be done to the property was a nightmare. If either I, or whoever I was conversing with over the phone, ever forgot about the hour time difference … one of us could end up waiting an hour for the other. Worse yet, was when both of us remembered that time zone warp … and tried to allow for it – and ended up missing each other by two hours!
Well, it has already happened here in Heron, just a couple of days before writing this. That morning I awaited the arrival of a Dish Network technician to install a satellite television system, which I had arranged just the previous afternoon. An early morning phone call from Dish Network confirmed that the technician would be at the cabin at between 10:45 and 11:30 a.m., and that the installation could take up to two hours. Well, I had some photos to shoot that afternoon, so made a run to the nearest gas station, which is 12 miles away, to gas up. It was 9:30 when I left … and 10:15 when I returned. When 11:30 came and passed, no technician. I gave Dish Network a call.
They informed me that he had been there, on time, and I was not there. After waiting 20 minutes, he went on to another service call in Libby, Montana – which is about an hour drive away. I assured them I was here – from 10:15 to 11:35 a.m. … and that their technician had not been there. Then … I remembered that Eastern/Central Time zones rift … and asked what time it was from where the Dish Network representative was talking to me. It was an hour earlier … and it had been the same office that had called me earlier that morning. I informed him that I lived in the Mountain Time zone, and that his office was on Pacific Time.
Problem solved … and the installation rescheduled.
It’s been an interesting first two weeks. The dogs have accepted the cabin as their new home, and love their daily adventures. As this was written, it’s 18 degrees outside – and over the past four days we’ve gotten close to two feet of new snow … on top of the foot of snow already on the ground when we began moving in as the newest residents of Heron, Montana.
The population of this unincorporated community is estimated at 125 people. I guess, with my arrival, it’s now somewhere around 126.
Up early this morning (Monday, February 19) to finish up some writing, including this. Yesterday evening, Dish Network called again to let me know that their technician would be here sometime between 12 noon and 5 p.m. today to install my television system. Still no reference to whether that’s Mountain Time or Pacific Time … so, I’ll get any running I need to do in before 11 a.m. – and spend the rest of the day waiting.
Tomorrow ought to be even more interesting. Blackfoot Communications is supposed to be here to put in a DSL line for my internet, and install a “hard line” phone. My Verizon cell phone has a heck of a time holding a signal long enough to finish a ten minute call. There must be too many eagles flying around.
Anyway, I want to see how they run those lines … with close to 30 inches of snow on the ground.
I think I hear one of those U.S. Forest Service concrete outhouses calling. Gotta run!
Toby Bridges, Cabinet Gorge Anthology February 2018
UPDATE - Dish satellite television ... Blackfoot DSL internet ... and a hard line phone have been installed. Progress marches on ... and my new life tends to get a bit better each and every day. Be sure to catch this blog again in mid March for the next chapter of the Cabinet Gorge Anthology.