Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Muskrat Love--or were they Beavers?

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin and jingin the jango
Floatin like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love

--Willis Alan Ramsey

Looking out our backdoor
Taken 8/26/08
Harper's Lake, Montana

Around ten years ago, I wrote up my ideal first date on my geocities website. On the page I titled “My Country-Western Page,” I wrote:

My dream date would be a weekend camping on some mountain lake where we could swim, fish, canoe during the day, and explore each others' minds and bodies in front of a campfire at night. I'm incurably romantic, and expect everyone else to be as well, which often leads to disappointments in this very real world.

About the same time, I was taught the “magic” of having a written list of twenty motivational reasons. One of my twenty reasons, still visible on the white board in my study, is to have a water-front second home.

This past week, Kevin made both dreams come true.

For a place that is mostly high-mountain desert, western Montana has lots of lakes. Some are big. Flathead is the largest fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi. Some are not. As lakes go, Harper’s Lake, the southernmost in the Seeley-Swan chain of lakes, could pass as a large pond. Still, it’s big enough for fishing, swimming, canoeing, and I’d even be comfortable putting my sailboat in its water—if it had a boat ramp.

One mid-August Sunday, Kevin and I, along with our friends Mike and Norman, drove east from Missoula up Montana highway 200, then north on Montana highway 83. We were out for a Sunday Drive, it’s true, but we were also scouting locations for an upcoming camping trip. Having gone to the trouble of putting the camper on the pickup for the Meet Me in Montana gathering, we decided that we really needed to put our toys to use. We checked out Salmon Lake, Seeley Lake, Lake Inez, Lake Alva, and Holland Lake. We looked for relatively uncrowded campgrounds with close access to the water. A few days later, we drove up Rock Creek, again with Mike and Norman, looking at the Forest Service campgrounds on that blue-ribbon trout stream.

Now I’ve been living in western Montana for most of the past thirty-three years. I’ve spent lots of time at Seeley Lake, and have had my sailboard, sailboat, and/or canoe in most of the waters in the valley. In all those years, I’ve driven past a sign pointing to the Harper’s Lake Fishing Access, just west of highway 83 about a mile north of Clearwater Junction. I’ve always wondered about this lake, but never did I turn off the highway to see the lake for myself. Not before that Sunday drive, that is.

Water Lily (one of hundreds) on Harper's Lake
Taken 8/26/08

Heading north on 83, turn left to reach the Harper’s Lake Fishing Access. Roughly one half mile west of the highway, you learn that there are two lakes, one on each side of the dirt road you’re on. The lake to the north is Blanchard Lake, and the one to the south is Harper’s. There is a boat ramp and parking area for Blanchard Lake, but you have to traverse a steep bank to get to Harper’s. A little further on, there is a campground where for the princely sum of $6.00 a night, you can pitch a tent or park your camp trailer.

Driving into the campground area, we noticed a large motor home parked on the east bank of the Harper’s Lake. We also saw a few tents pitched on that same bank. What we couldn’t see was a road that would take us there, and the Clearwater River, between us and those camped on the lakefront, had no bridge. Afraid to ford the river in our Swedish-built Ford, we knew there had to be another way to access those campsites, and we set out to find it.

After a couple of misadventures, we found a dirt road leading north off Montana 200, just west of the Clearwater River bridge. Following the river upstream, we passed many primitive campsites, and finally reached Harper’s Lake and the motor home. We also found a beautiful campsite on the point where the Clearwater River flows into the lake. While the site was occupied on the weekend, it would likely be free midweek. We knew we had to return.

We had talked about inviting other people along, but in the end, on Tuesday, August 26th, Kevin, Minnie, Gypsy and I took off, Kevin driving the F250 with Minnie riding shotgun, while I drove the Volvo with Gypsy. By taking both vehicles, we could leave the camper parked and do any shopping or sightseeing with the car. It made good sense at the time.

We settled into our lakefront “home” Tuesday afternoon. Kevin built a campfire in the fire pit, and I took the canoe out for a cross-lake paddle. The dogs explored the area and declared this good. The site was surrounded by chokecherries, rosehips, and a white berry I could not identify. Mike drove up from Missoula, bringing his German Shepherd Kira along. We feasted on tacos and chips, and relaxed around the fire while the dogs played. As evening came on, ducks swam cross the lake and back, kingfishers flew overhead, and some mammalian creatures glided through the water, disappearing just before reaching the lily pads. My first thought was that we were seeing beavers crossing the pond, but as we never saw a tail, Mike suggested they were probably muskrats. I can’t think of muskrats without thinking of the song “Muskrat Love,” so that tune filled my head for the next several days.

Rainbow over Harper's Lake
Taken 8/27/08

Overnight, we heard the unmistakable sound of rain on the camper’s metal roof, and Wednesday we woke to a gray, wet morning. As it rained most of the day, we stayed in the camper playing two-handed Mah Jong. With evening, the sky cleared leaving a rainbow visible just across the lake. After dinner, we headed up the river for a walk with the dogs.

Thursday gave us the chance to use that second vehicle we’d driven. Fourteen miles north of us, Seeley Lake beckoned. A resort community of 2,500 residents, Seeley had the hardware store, grocery store, and restaurants we needed to replenish ourselves and our supplies. At Rovero’s Ace Hardware, we picked up a wasp trap to help us deal with the constant threat of yellow jackets drawn to all the fruit around us. At the Ice Cream Shop, we had burgers, fries and shakes for lunch—setting us back $15.00 for the two of us. Trash bags were the main item on the list for the Valley Market, and by mid afternoon we were back at our lakefront cabin, er camper.

Thursday evening, Kevin decided he had to have steak for dinner, so back to Seeley we drove, reaching Lindey’s Steak House just after they opened at 5 pm. Now I’ve eaten at Lindey’s before. It’s a Seeley Lake tradition, with a history going back 40 years. I learned years ago that you don’t take a vegetarian to Lindey’s, because the restaurant takes its “Steak House” appellation seriously. What I had forgotten was just how limited Lindey’s menu is.

Consider what comes next a rant, or a warning, whichever you prefer. After seating us at our window table overlooking the lake, our waitress placed a signboard on the floor at the end of our table. This was our menu. It consisted of three choices, that’s right, 3! At the head of the list was “Lindey’s Special Sirloin” at $27.75. Next was the “Premium Sirloin” at $26.65, and finally the “Chopped Sirloin” at $19.95. Yes! A hamburger patty for twenty dollars. Those are your choices, take ‘em or leave ‘em. The waitress explained that all selections were the same size, but the Special was really worth the extra dollar. As part of the dinner we got green salad with the restaurant’s special “blended dressing,” “greaseless hashbrown potatoes,” watermelon rind pickles, garlic toast and coffee or tea. Apparently iced tea doesn’t count as it was a dollar extra on our tab. I admit that it’s been a while since I had eaten at Lindey’s, but I was expecting dinner to run $20 each, not $30.00. I also would have appreciated a green salad that was more than chopped iceberg lettuce and a dressing choice other than something that looked and tasted like a combination of French and thousand island—without the pickles. When the entrée arrived, the potatoes looked like a white brick, and the iced tea was bitter. The toast looked like someone had taken an old baguette, sliced it thin, and tossed it in the skillet with some garlic butter. In fairness, the steak was superb, but at least in my opinion we were paying almost thirty dollars each for a meal where only the steak was edible. One taste of the potatoes left me happy that I finally had a reason for refusing to eat carbs. I did order a side of sautéed mushrooms, and they were quite good, but with the tip, our dinner for two came to $75.00. A bit pricey for steak, if you ask me. It will be a long time before I return to Lindey’s.

Friday morning I awoke realizing that Monday would be a holiday and I had to do some banking before the end of the month. While Kevin slept in, I jumped in the Volvo and drove into Missoula where I showered at home, fixed coffee, and headed out to the bank. Wednesday evening I had misplaced the lens cover for my 70-300 tele-zoom macro lens, so I stopped at The Dark Room to replace it. While there, I looked at some really neat lenses to add to my dream list, and expressed an interest in finding a 2x tele-extender. Lo and behold, they had one, used, and it fit both the Nikon D80 and the Sigma 400 mm telephoto lens I have. As they’d had the lens for a while, the shop dropped the price to a point where I couldn’t help myself. OK, the last time I priced this particular piece of equipment, Ritz Camera wanted $400+. The Dark Room let me have mine for $100. How could I say no?

Back at camp, I set off to see just what I could photograph now that I had length on my side. The Picasa gallery I set up for this trip includes several shots taken with the 400mm lens and the 2x extender. Suddenly those ducks were a lot closer than before.

Clearwater River (Near Montana Highway 200)
Taken 8/29/08

Saturday afternoon, Mike and Norman joined us for steaks and corn on the cob. Mike had purchased the steaks at Costco and had marinated them in teriyaki sauce. The corn came from local Missoula-area gardens. With some baked beans on the side (thank you, Jay Bush), we had a superb meal for a fraction of the cost of Thursday’s steaks. Mike and I took the canoe out for a spin around the lake, and a fun time was had by all.

Relaxing in the shade after dinner, I woke to the fact that I had my second home on the water. And the best part is that I can take my “home” to any waterfront I want. Hmmm. One more of my twenty reasons I’ve realized in the past few years. The canoe, which has been languishing in the backyard for the past seven years, finally got some use. We were out on the lake every day but one. I’ll admit to being averse to canoeing in the rain.

Kevin and I had already decided that we’d head home on Sunday, so when we awoke to torrential rains, we weren’t terribly upset. It did mean gathering up the wet lawn chairs, hammock, and fishing gear, and loading the canoe onto the camper in the rain, but such is life.

On the way home, we stopped at McNamara’s Landing on the Blackfoot River for a fine breakfast. We pulled up to the Missoula house around noon, and reflected on what a wonderful time we’d had. We continue to learn about each other, and find that we can take most setbacks in stride. We’re now talking about taking the camper north. Kevin has never been to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, and I’d like a chance to visit that area again—with the digital camera.

By the way, Saturday evening, a couple of fishermen directed their boat a little too close to one of those swimming mammals we'd been watching all week. The mammal's back went up, the tail came out, and WHAM! Hmm, guess they were beavers all along. Too bad about the Muskrat Love.

The death of my good friend, Jim Kriley, forced me to re-evaluate my own priorities. As I wrote in my most recent blog, Jim lived his life at the highest levels of self-actualization. It would be a disgrace to his memory for me to strive for anything less. This means getting out and doing what I love. A week on the water with a good man and two great dogs. As I look at my life, I am indeed blessed.

Canoeing with Mike on Harper's Lake
Taken by Kevin Kerr

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