This weekend is the annual Jim Syron float on the Yellowstone River.
I wrote the following words a few days after his death and I planned on reading this at Jim’s wake, but I could not; I can still barely read it today. By the way, this is my least favorite week of the year.
Life is Fiction
Dark clouds swirled through Paradise Valley all morning. Streaks of rain swept down the mountain slopes as if they had been painted by a great artist. Along the Yellowstone River, the sun was sneaking through the clouds just enough to give the valley a brilliant greenish-gold tinge. Spring’s arrival of birds filled the river bottom with the sound of life. As we stood waiting for the remainder of our group, Megan and I skipped rocks into the murky water. With Megan being a geologist and myself being a geographer, we laughed about how there in that small valley our two disciplines met head-on everyday. The wind and water continued to beat against the rocks in an attempt to expose Earth’s history. We loved living in Montana.
When our party showed-up, we unloaded the canoes and kayaks while anticipating the first float of the season. The trip was to celebrate two birthdays and our home, Greater Yellowstone. We weren’t really worried when Jim didn’t show; Jim was a great student, and with finals approaching he was most likely in the library preparing for his final few tests; that is where I should have been. We enjoyed the river for him on that day. We floated in and around fast spots in the river, played on rock islands, and reminisced about all our history in the region, as osprey and eagles hovered above. Nature reminded us about spring in Montana with gusts of wind and a few short periods of rain that would fade back into sunshine once again.
By evening we were at camp, and our party’s numbers steadily grew. By dark there were maybe twenty-five friends in camp; we all had worked in Yellowstone at one time or another. The Yellowstone family was great to be a part of. When Jim still didn’t show, we laughed about him canoeing in the dark, but we really believed he was stuck in town with school work. We enjoyed good food and drinks until late in the evening.
Sunday morning was beautiful; a dusting of snow covered the surrounding peaks, only to taper off at the lower elevations. The overnight rain made the air feel crisp, as puffy white clouds sailed across the sky. Megan and I spent the day in Yellowstone; it was opening weekend. We had always loved spring in the park. For old Yellowstoners, that time of year has always been special. Mother nature seemed to pull the white blanket of snow back just in time for baby animals to arrive: it was time for new beginnings.
For me, the new beginnings of life seemed just around the corner; I was to graduate in two weeks, and marry Megan in one month. As we had been doing my entire senior year, Jim, Katie, Dave, and myself were to meet for coffee between classes. When Jim didn’t show, we figured he was studying; I thought about that all day. In the evening, I was watching the news before going to bed. When they mentioned a man had been killed on his bike on Friday, and still had not been identified, I got one of those feelings that we never want to have. For a few minutes, I paced the floor, afraid that my mind would even think those thoughts. After calling Jim’s and not receiving an answer, I went to his apartment. The door was ajar about two inches, which at first gave me a feeling of ease, but that quickly faded. Mail was still in the mailbox, there was old food on the stove, and Jim’s touring bike was gone.
Back home, I talked to Sean, one of Jim’s oldest friends. We agreed that I should call the coroner. After I described Jim, the coroner told me it sounded like we were talking about the same man. We made plans to meet the next morning. Trying to sleep was all but impossible; I tossed and turned, while slipping in and out of consciousness.
On Tuesday, I went to school around 6 AM, in an attempt to study. It was impossible to concentrate on work; thoughts of Jim were all I could filter from my head. At 8 AM, Sean and I met with the coroner; our worst fears were realized; Jim was dead. Identifying a friend is something we should never need to go through.
The day continued like a dream; dozens of Jim’s friends started to arrive from all directions. Phone calls by the hundreds, along with tears and laughter dominated the day. We told old stories, including the way Jim shifted his green onions from hand to hand when we were in the backcountry, in an attempt to decide how many to use for each meal; he was a numbers man. We laughed at the way he wore those black socks with his shorts, and about the green slacks he always loved. I could picture the web of Jim’s life connecting to all parts of the country: calls from Yellowstone to Arizona, Wisconsin, Maine, Washington, and beyond. There was food and wine, and more tears.
Later in the day, as I sat on my front steps, I found myself waiting for Jim to come walking around the corner, something I had witnessed many times. But Jim never showed, because that would have been real life, and we all know life is fiction. I miss him.
The return of bluebirds to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem occurs like clockwork. I usually see my first bluebird of the year between the second and third week of March. This year, it was on March 20Th. During spring, they are still dispersing and when you see one, you see several. The way their bright blue color flashes across a snow-covered hillside is a sure sign that winter is coming to an end in this rocky mountain habitat. When I worked as a snowcoach driver in Yellowstone, I would see my first bluebirds in a meadow just west of Canyon Village a week or so before the winter season was over. In those days, that was a sign that my friends and I were about to head to the desert southwest to escape the snow.
Here at the Cirql H, we see Mountain Bluebirds. At your house, you may have a chance to see Eastern Bluebirds or Western Bluebirds, depending on where you live. In those areas, they are still recovering from the land clearing and habitat loss that happened in the 1700s and 1800s. As civilization expanded and land was cleared for crops, much of the good nesting habitat was lost. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters; they use abandoned woodpecker holes in trees and similar spaces to nest. As forests and dead or down trees disappeared from the landscape, so did the bluebird.
To help with the recovery, bluebird boxes started to appear all across the country. You most likely have seen them spaced along fence rows in rural areas. There are very specific parameters for bluebird boxes. They should have an entrance hole one and a half inches around and the boxes should be no higher than five feet off the ground. They will inhabit spaces that are higher if that is all that is available. In the 1800s, farmers built elaborate multilevel bluebird houses to attract bluebirds; that practice was more of a way to fight off mosquitos and other insects.
So, this is where you ask,”How do wolves help bluebirds?”
In the early 1990s, I was working as a guide in Yellowstone; I drove park busses in the summer and as I mentioned, snowcoaches in the winter. That was during the time that the big push to reintroduce wolves was in full swing. As guides, we would speculate on how wolves would alter the landscape. With more wolves there would be less coyotes. Less coyotes meant more red fox. Wolves also meant less elk and the elk that were still around would behave more like elk; they would tighten-up their herds and those herds would be on the move more than they were when the top predator was missing. The increased movement helped the riparian edges in Yellowstone recover from overgrazing; elk would no longer be able to spend days eating all the new growth along the park’s rivers and streams.
That is where I see the connection between wolves and bluebirds. As willow bushes, cottonwood trees and aspen trees rebounded, so did beaver. The habitat really changed. As beaver began to repopulate the area, they built dams that flooded meadows and created ponds. Many of those new beaver ponds flooded forests and killed trees. Those dead and decaying trees created habitat for our beloved bluebird.
So as I welcome bluebirds and spring back into my world, I find I have a better appreciation for the connections found in nature. When I hear a so-called outdoorsman complain about wolves, I ask myself, “What the hell do they have against bluebirds?”
If you know Montana, you know what I mean when I say it was a Montana type of day. Puffy white clouds dotted the otherwise deep blue sky. There were mountains and there was a river. It felt as if the world was just waking. It was clean and fresh.
Our place was still buried in winter, but we could see the open land down slope. The people who live down there, below us, were in spring. We had to go visit and escape the mountains, if only for a while.
The snow still covered everything above 6000 feet and while the river bottom was soggy and brown, it was snow free. In most areas, a crusted fringe of lingering white ice gripped the river’s edge, refusing to melt.
After driving out of our winter world, we found a spot along the river where we could access a rock covered beach; our house was in view back in the frozen distance. After dressing Oly in several layers, we worked our way along the bank until we could cross a small drainage and search for rocks on an exposed island. It was Oly’s first trip to the Yellowstone River since the snow had abated to the mountains.
Strolling along the river, looking for rocks, is one of my favorite things. I can clear my mind and free myself from the rest of the world. I stumble around plucking different rocks from the sand. Some are chosen for beauty, some for color or shape. Other types catch my eye because of how they were made.
Different people are drawn to different types of rocks. In the world of geology, you are a sed-petter if you study sedimentary rocks, a hard-rocker if you study metamorphic rocks and a hot-rocker if you study igneous rocks or volcanoes.
I’m a hot rocker first. I like rocks that show signs of how the Yellowstone ecosystem was formed. So I stumble along, crouched over, filling my pockets with petrified wood and agate. Today, I filled Oly’s back pocket with a nice piece of petrified wood.
I can see the future. Oly will be walking back to our raft with his swim trunks around his ankles because his pockets are full of rocks. Like father, like son.
I would like to be able to say that March is when I really start to yearn for spring, but that would be a lie. I start thinking about spring as soon as the first snow flies. This winter, that was in fall. When the first snow came, Oly was just a month old. So for him, it has always been winter: cold, windy and barren.
Winter has its beauty; there are not many views more spectacular than a snow-capped mountain in the distance. Ecologically, winter is the most important season. For wildlife, it is hard; every step needs to be calculated and there always needs to be an escape route. For trees, extended cold helps keep different infestations at bay. It is a time when the earth gets to rest and store some resources. Summers are made by winters.
The cold feels clean. In many ways, nature is at its best when it is well below freezing. When it is really cold, tree sap begins to freeze and as it does, it begins to pop and crackle. I love that sound; it reminds me of when I lived at Snow Lodge in Yellowstone. Skiing through a frozen world like that is spiritual; the crunching of the snow as you ski along, the sound of your breath and that popping of the trees is all you hear.
We have that same beauty as we ski from our house here at the Cirql H. During those moments, when we get to ski, Megan and I love living up here on our mountain; I’m sure Oly will too. But, during everyday life, when we fight the snow and cold just to survive, we think of spring.
It is in early March, when I really start to feel it. But soon, the bluebirds will come back; their blue, along with the yellow of both the glacial lilies and the buttercups, will bring some color back into this frozen world. Ahh, then the arrowleaf balsamroot.
I believe it was Matt Higgins (or Jeremiah Johnson) and Hatchet Jack that said,
hj- You wouldn’t happen to know what month it is would Ya?
jj-March. Maybe, April.
hj-March maybe. l don’t believe April.
jj-Winter’s a long time going?
hj-Stays long this high. March is a green, muddy month down below. Some folks like it; Farmers mostly.
So, as the muddy season hits us, we will anticipate floating the Yellowstone and teaching Oly about the water. But for now, we wait, because you just can’t cheat the mountain, pilgrim.