Freezing at Freezeout Lake

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.
     Aldo Leopold

Each year from 2007 through 2010, at the end of March, I traveled to Montana's Freezeout Lake, a wildlife management area along the northern Rocky Mountain Front. Every spring hundreds of thousands of snow geese (Anser caerulescens) and tens of thousands of tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) pass through the area as they migrate from their wintering grounds in the southwest and off the California coast. The birds rest on the WMA's eight lakes (the largest named Freezeout Lake) and feed in the surrounding barley fields before moving on to their breeding grounds in the arctic. For a couple of weeks every spring these large birds provide a spectacle of sight and sound as they launch en masse from the water each morning, return later in the day, and then leave again toward evening. The birds also return through the area in fall.

It doesn't hurt a bit that this stunning activity happens in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The local terrain is relatively flat and treeless, but there are hills and buttes that can take on a deep orange glow in the first and last light of the day. The snow-covered Rocky Mountains rise dramatically to the west, in an unbroken line disappearing into the distance. We've gone for the spectacle of the birds, but even when we arrived too late, after the geese had left as happened on our 2007 trip, the scenery and light offered endess photo opportunities. In 2010 I spent some time scouting locations and photographing Ear Mountain, and wrote about the experience. We have a gallery on our site of scenic photos from the area, and another of the birds.

Every year since that 2010 visit I've thought about going back, but haven't. The usual excuses have applied: I don't have time; I've already made my best photos there; I have the same lenses, so I'd get the same kinds of pictures. Pretty good as excuses go, and all true at one time or another, but none takes into account what's perhaps the most important factor: it's just fun being there, especially if the timing is right for maximum bird traffic. If I bring home a good photo or two, all the better.

Just Go Already!

US 89 south of Browning, Montana, U.S.

Windshield view: lonely US 89 south of Browning.

During the dreary, gray winter of 2016 I decided I'd like to return to the lakes; Pat said she'd go along this time, and that sealed the deal. She made hotel reservations in Choteau (“SHOW-toe”) for a couple of nights near the end of March. As usual the date arrived without warning, and we hit the road.

We stopped at Glacier National Park, which is along the route we take to the lakes. Gloomy, gray sky with heavy, low clouds, rarely my first choice of weather conditions, obscured the mountains, offering little reason to get out the camera gear at the park's Lake McDonald. After a quick look we returned to the highway and continued on to Choteau. My favorite part of the drive is US route 89, south of Browning. This two-lane highway runs from the Canadian border in Montana all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona. Paradise Valley, between Livingston, MT and Yellowstone National Park, is a beautiful drive we make several times a year. Technically, US 89 breaks for Yellowstone, as the road through the park is closed in winter. Someday I'd like to see a lot more of what's along US 89. The section between Browning and Choteau runs through open county and often is quite lonely; we saw few vehicles in that (roughly) 70 mile stretch, but the scenery has an austere, minimalist beauty. Choteau is only 220 miles (354 km) from home, so even with the stop in the park we arrived in early afternoon.

Blown Away

Since we'd arrived so early, we went directly south of town for a quick look around the lakes. The dreary weather held, with terrible light, but to make up for that high winds battered the car as we drove and made standing outside difficult. Strong gusts made staying upright nearly impossible; a gust's impact on my body felt like being hit by a car, an experience with which I'm familiar. After sufficient battering we drove back up to Choteau (about 10 miles, 16 km) to check in at the hotel and get settled. With dinner behind us we went back down to the lakes for sunset. I hoped we might have some nice color in the clouds, perhaps a break through which the setting sun might be seen. That's exactly what happened, but the wind had increased, and in keeping with the theme of worsening weather, the temperature had dropped to near freezing.

Sunset over Freezeout Lake, Teton County, Montana, U.S.

The ear-shattering sunset over Freezeout Lake, Teton County, Montana, U.S.

I liked the stormy sky over the Front Range, and could see a break where the sun would be visible as it set. Wearing a heavy parka over a fleece jacket, I set up my tripod and camera in howling wind. I also wore thin gloves and a ball cap. The parka has a hood, which I had up until I needed to flip the ball cap around backwards so I could put my eye to the camera's viewfinder. Without the hood the wind roared past my ears, such that within a few minutes I had the worst pain I can recall, like ice picks driven into each ear. It was horrible, but I didn't want to abandon the camera and miss the critical moment in the sunset, nor did I want to walk away to the protection of the car leaving the camera on the tripod in that wind. I had my short zoom, a 24-70mm, on the camera, but the gusts nearly knocked me over and could easily have tipped the tripod. Just an average breeze along the Front.

I stayed put and got my photo, on the pain scale one of the more difficult pictures I've made. After the sun dropped below the horizon I grabbed camera and tripod and walked the hundred yards back to the car. I sat in there, nearly screaming, as I warmed up. On the drive back to the hotel I began to feel close to normal again.

A Dull Middle Day

We drove down to the lakes early Friday morning in the dark, to wait for the birds to wake. They did, with the attendant sound of thousands of honking geese. Periodically a group of birds, perhaps a thousand, but only a small percentage of the total, would take flight, circle overhead, and then return to the lake, more or less where they started. The purpose of this is known only to the geese. Perhaps they're testing the air, or just shaking the sleep from their wings, or it's just some weird snow goose thing. This repeated several times over the span of twenty minutes or so. And then the critical moment, when the test runs are over and all the birds take flight at once, boiling into the air, seeming to hover over the water briefly before rising to fly off to the fields over the horizon. The honking is deafening, almost joyous, and makes me laugh out loud every time. But perhaps most incredible is the sound of half a million wings beating. You can hear the air. It's pure magic.

Unfortunately, this happened before dawn, with barely enough light to see the birds as dark shapes against a very slightly lighter sky. I can't speak for Sony/Nikon, but today Canon doesn't have a sensor that will produce a quality image in those conditions. Being witness had to be good enough. We returned to town for a leisurely breakfast. Dark sky, wind, and the occasional rain shower or snow flurry defined the rest of the day. Late in the morning the geese returned to the lake in waves, rested until mid-afternoon, and then repeated the morning's exodus to the fields. I made plenty of photos, but they're nothing special given the poor quality of the light. Conditions remained bleak, so we returned to town, had a brief rest at the hotel, dinner nearby, and then spent the evening reading.

But a Lovely Finish

Bird watchers at Freezeout Lake, Teton County, Montana, U.S.

Bird watchers at Freezeout Lake.

Overnight a cold front dropped down from Canada. This brought wind that scoured out the rain and snow and cleared the sky, which displayed abundant stars and the three-days-past-full moon, lighting the local hills and buttes brighter than the murky light of the previous day. The weather system also brought very cold air. At 6:00 Saturday morning the car displayed 19°F (-7C). I had to scrape a thick layer of frost from the windshield.

We arrived at the lakes before 6:30, and in the dark had trouble finding the birds on the water; their silence seemed odd. But we had other company this morning: an Audubon group from the valley north of our home base had arrived Friday evening, and many had come to the lakes even earlier this morning than we had. Hardly a large crowd, but more people than we'd seen in several days, and very enthusiastic. We learned that a large flock of snow geese waited on the water at the far north end of the main lake, a good distance from our position. Which presented a small problem: do I stay here and set up my gear, or do I risk the birds taking flight before I can walk to the end of a long causeway, getting me into a large group of people, but closer to the birds?

Sometimes such questions are answered for us. Before I could furl my tripod and start walking, the sun broke the eastern horizon and lit the lake and mountains with a deep magenta glow. The moon hadn't yet set, instead hanging in a fortunate spot over the mountains. With my gear already set up, I watched and waited; the beautiful light pushed thoughts of geese from my mind. I made a number of photos to assemble into panoramas, and some individual frames to play a bit with framing and exposure. If only a group of geese would fly though my composition!

If you can't be good, be lucky. The result of my wait is seen below, that photo being captured at 7:17. Minutes later the show ended, and by 7:30 the light had faded. Leaving the growing crowd we stopped at a Choteau bakery for coffee and goodies for the drive home, and then continued north up US 89. We stopped once to photograph bright morning light on some crumbling farm buildings along the Front, at the north end of Teton County. Another stop along the southern border of Glacier National Park resulted in some photos of frozen Silver Staircase Falls, which is normally completely buried in ice and snow this time of year. We were home by 12:30.

Sunrise at Freezeout Lake, Teton County, Montana, U.S.

A calm, chilly sunrise at Freezeout Lake, Teton County, Montana.

Looking back at the short trip, I'd say it wasn't my best time at Freezeout Lake. I'd been there in cold weather, spending days standing on the ice of frozen lakes to get my pictures. I'd been there in wind, because it's always windy along the Front. But the cold, the extreme wind, the rain and snow, and the dark, gloomy skies conspired to make this trip closer to miserable and farther from the “fun” I remembered. Still, we had a lovely drive out and back, saw a lot of birds and heard their amazing sounds, spent time in a beautiful landscape, and came home with several keeper photos. Hmmm…. That sounds like fun to me!

March 2016