Have Patience – Spring is almost here!

Snow-choked Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Indian Reservationn (USA Today photo)

Is anyone getting tired of winter?

Okay, don’t everybody raise your hands at once.

By most standards, this has been a long winter, going back to mid-September when we got our first snowfall of the season, finally ending what had been a long, hot and smoky summer.

At the end of October, on Halloween day, I went hunting in the afternoon. I didn’t see anything, so I came home before dark, and I decided to crank up my lawnmower to chop up leaves that had fallen after I’d cleaned up the lawn a week earlier.

The next day snow was falling and my lawn turned into a winter wonderland. Our front yard is on the north side of our house and gets no direct sunshine from November to March, so that All Saints Day snowfall is compressed under another two feet of snow.

Of course, we can complain about the snow we’ve had here in Butte, but in comparison to what has hit the Rocky Mountain Front, particularly the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, we’ve had it easy.  The sight of snowplows trying to clear drifts higher than the trucks boggles the mind.

I just talked to a friend in Choteau who said her pickup hasn’t been out of four-wheel drive all winter, except for one day in January when she was able to drive into Great Falls, and at that, another storm blew in on her way home in the evening. But, she says, “We have power and natural gas, and the wind blows the satellite dish clear, so I’m fine.” U.S. 89 has been blocked between Fairfield and Choteau a number of times, but has been cleared enough so that local stores are well supplied.

The deep snowdrifts on the Rocky Mountain Front are a grim reminder of the winter of 1886-1887, when an estimated 362,000 head of cattle died on Montana’s prairies, and effectively ended the open-range era. The lasting lesson of that winter was that ranchers need to grow hay to keep livestock through the winter. A ranch hand, with a talent for art, earned early fame with a post card with a watercolor painting depicting a starving, freezing cow facing into the wind, with wolves circling for the kill. The caption was “Waiting for a Chinook: The last of the 5,000.” That artistic cowboy was, of course, Charley Russell.

“Last of the 5,000: Waiting for a Chinook” by Charles M. Russell

When the snows finally melt, the full impact of the hard winter on the northern prairies will finally be assessed. My Choteau friend says ranchers feed cattle on ridges and other places where prairie winds blow the snow away. The cattle, however, tend to seek shelter from the storms in draws and other sheltered spots, and that’s where the deep drifts are. It’s probably going to be ugly.

While we still have abundant snow on our local landscape, we continue to gain about three minutes of daylight every day and all that solar energy is working on those snowdrifts.

Next Tuesday, March 20, the Spring Solstice will happen at 10:15 a.m. While we often think of the Solstice as the day of equal hours of daylight, it’s actually an approximation.

In fact, on St. Patrick’s Day, revelers will have 12 hours and 2 minutes of daylight for the Wearin’ o’ the green. On the 20th, Butte will have 12 hours and 12 minutes of daylight. Now that we’re back on Daylight Time, it will be light until well into the evening.

While the days are getting longer and the calendar says spring, I’m looking for other signs that really mean spring. I’m checking, daily, the flowerbed next to the house for signs of tulips or for the garlic I planted in October to emerge. I’m listening, as I go out in the morning, for the call of the first robins of the season.

The sign of spring I’m most looking forward to is my first trip to an area trout stream for some fly-fishing. When I’m in a river and feeling a fish on the end of my line I’ll know it is truly spring.

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