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Where winter comes alive

By David Quammen / February 27, 1980



How do you stand it? people ask. Montana is a glorious state, they say, we loved our two weeks there in July. But how, they want to know, do you bear it in the dead of winter? They have recently heard West Yellowstone mentioned again, at 31 below zero with a breeze, as the coldest town in the lower 48 states. Yes, you agree, and your eyes pinch at the corners and gaze off unfocused toward the ceiling, with a faraway look like the one Robert Service would have worn in the Yale Club of NEw York. Yes, you say if you are more cagey than candid, the dead of winter: that ism the problem. Or you mutter about Sorel pac boots and a block-heater for the pickup truck. Or you simply reply, Wool, lots of wool.

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It is all a careful lie, fabricated by those of us who hope to keep Montana lonely and vulgar. The thermometer readings and Blizzard conditions that make national news are not lies, of course. Thirty-one below plus wind-chill is common enough, in West Yellowstone, in uptown Butte, and elsewhere. Today's morning paper from the Hi-Line, the desolate string of farm towns across northern Montana, reports that yesterday "At Cut Bank the temperature dropped from 40 above zero to 3 below in half an hour." Winter is very real here. "Dead of winter" is the propaganda. Winter lives.

The osprey and the mallards and the tourists fly off to warmer climates. The bears and the deciduous trees go to sleep. But most every other living creature continues throughout the winter - and many of them at no great discomfort - to do business.

There are ways. The lesson to be read from the winter ecology of wildlife in the northern Rocky Mountains is, not surprisingly, no different from the lesson of all evolution, the history of efforts within the biotic enterprise to endure - to prevail - despite stressful situations: there are ways. The grizzly puts on a robe of fat and downshifts his metabolism. The wild goat holds to the highest and most exposed mountain crags, utterly uncompromising, grazing lichens off rocks that are blown clear of snow. The deer and elk cluster up and come down to browse meadows. The moose stays to the low wet country and works small feeder creeks, a great furry snowplow dumping drifts off streambanks, turning out red willow to be eaten. The ermine goes white so its prey cannot see it, and the ptarmigan does likewise so its predators can't. The coyote makes a good living pulling down winter- weakened deer. The big cats -- the soft- footed carnivores who kill with finesse, whose preferred season this is more than anyone's -- the big cats flourish. And less conspicuous than any of these, no less successful, even more diversified, are the insects.

In unimaginable numbers and variety and vigor, insects abound in every ice- locked Montana river.This may seem odd, since insects are usually thought of, if at all, as fair-weather creatures. The monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico (improbable feat on papery wings) and the rest just disappear, or die, or who knows what. Possibly they spend the frozen months, in stolid defense, as eggs or cocoons. Well, this is true enough of land-dwelling insects, certainly in the cold woods of Montana - but not at all true of the myriad aquatic species. These mountain rivers, in January, under the ice, are aquiver with six-legged life.

Last Tuesday I spent half an hour kneeling in the Madison River -- a fabled shrine to trout fishermen across the nation -- watching a three-inch beast called Pteronarcys californicam clamber among rocks in the frigid shallows. Pteronarcysm is the largest of the North American stoneflies, and this wingless, immature form, with his elaborate thoracic plating, looked much like a graceful and equable dinosaur in miniature. I had seined him up from the river bed, then released him again to watch his escape, for the sake of a magazine article whose deadline would not wait for balmy weather.I was well chilled, with wet hands and a breeze blowing, but the Pteronarcys,m under water, seemed to be perfectly comfortable, already going about his business again, grazing algae off rocks, I, forgotten. Then I remembered: if you are an aquatic insect, or a trout, forever fighting the current in free-flowing water, then no matter what drastic plunge the temperature makes beyond your insulating layer of ice, you are never colder than 32 degrees above zero. Sixty-three degrees warmer than uptown Butte on the same evening. There are ways.

Lots of wool, yes, and Sorel boots, yes, and a tight wood stove and a splitting maul and a pair of wooden cross-county skis and a small GI shovel for digging the occasional snow cave and a sleeping bag worth at least a month's rent. A pair of knit gloves with the fingertips cut away and hemmed, for January fly-fishing. But set above all these is one paramount tactic, without which winter in Montana wouldm no doubt be unbearably dreary: spend as much time as possible outdoors, where all the life is happening.