Drag Me Away

I travel, I read, I write, I have other lives. But when I have a camera, I know that's my country, my island.
     Leos Carax

Montana has, at the end of 2016, fifty-four state parks. Two of those are islands, one in the Yellowstone River near Miles City in eastern Montana, the other in western Montana's Flathead Lake. For those who like obscure statistics: Wild Horse Island State Park, at 2160 acres, is the largest island in a freshwater lake west of Minnesota. From my house in western Montana, the island is almost within spitting distance, but it's reachable only by boat, and because I'm the rare Montanan who doesn't have one of those, I'd never been there. The island is known for its small group of wild horses, for larger numbers of bighorn sheep and mule deer, and for its bald eagles and other birds. There are several private holdings around the island's perimiter. Camping in the park is not permitted, making it a day-use only area. There are pros and cons to that, which I'll discuss later.

Sunrise over the Mission Mountains, Montana, U.S.

The sun rising over the Mission Range lit our wake and warmed our backs as we headed west toward Wild Horse Island.

My wife and I had been camping in Glacier National Park. When I checked my e-mail upon returning home I found a message from friend Ron, inviting us to ride along in his boat to the island the next day. Pat had other commitments, but being eager to go I confirmed with Ron, and the next morning drove around the southern end of the lake to his place on the east shore. The day began chilly but fine, with a crystal-clear sky, and warmed quickly as the sun rose over the Mission Mountains behind us. A little lake chop made for a bumpy ride, but Ron's beautiful and powerful little boat made short work of the trip. We approached the island from the east, and then slowly motored around the rocky shoreline to the west side, scanning the hills for sheep and deer. We spotted a couple of bald eagles in trees at the water's edge.

There are no public docks on the island; normally one would anchor in one of several public landing areas and then wade, swim, or paddle to shore. But Ron has access to a private dock between Skeeko Bay and Eagle Cove (map), so we could tie up the boat and, after strapping on our photo backpacks, make a dry landing and hit the trail.

A Walk in the Park

The park has several trails, one of which we followed along the shore for a short distance before turning off and bushwacking into the hills toward the center of the island. We walked in beautiful, knee-high golden grass under old-growth Ponderosa pines. Exposed rock and cliffs provided contrast with the dried grasses. The hills top out at about 3750 feet (1140 m), some 800 feet higher than the lake (shore) level. Crossing the island requires constant climbing, descending into gullies and ravines, and then climbing again. I'd left home the heavy 20mm lens a few smaller items from my pack, but even with the lighter load the terrain provided a good workout and raised a sweat as the day warmed. As we walked we found tracks and scat from deer, sheep, and horses.

A group of bighorn sheep ewes on Wild Horse Island, Montana, U.S.

Part of a larger group of bighorn sheep ewes (Ovis canadensis) on Wild Horse Island.

The cloudless sky provided little interest photographically. Smoke from distant wildfires and prescribed burns in the Mission Mountains softened the lake, island, and mountains that would be the background in scenic pictures. Still, the beauty of the island on this autumn day, no doubt aided by the climbing, took my breath away. After ascending to a ridge a little west of the island's center we spotted our first large group of bighorns, perhaps forty to fifty sheep, mostly ewes and this year's lambs. They had spread out, resting on the hillside across the gulley below our position on the ridge. They had begun to rise and move along the slope, perhaps on their way to the water's edge below. Ron and I walked down from the ridge to within about a hundred yards of the sheep. They glanced our way but otherwise ignored us as we set up our tripods and wasted a few gigabytes of memory card space.

A group of bighorn sheep rams on Wild Horse Island.

A group of bighorn sheep rams on Wild Horse Island, with Flathead Lake, Melita Island, and the eastern lakeshore in the distance.

The sheep moved on, and so did we as we'd spotted a group of rams high up on another hill. After dropping into the valley and climbing up the other side we saw a pair of tripods attended by the only other people we'd see on the island. They'd set up to photograph the group of five rams we'd seen earlier. We kept our distance and avoided getting into their shot as we made our way around for a better view of the sheep. Aware of our presence, the rams ignored us as had the larger group we'd seen earlier. Ron set up his tripod as I moved some distance away for a profile view of the rams. We worked these boys for about half an hour before moving on, eventually turning toward the docked boat. We took a different route back, so I got to see a bit more of this lovely little island park. We looked for mule deer, particularly along a cliff face above a talus slope for a photo Ron had in mind, but we had no luck. Eventually we dropped down out of the trees and reconnected with the lake shore trail, taking us back to the dock.

The haze didn't soften the harsh late-morning light; conditions didn't flatter our subjects. Our shooting locations placed us on the shadow side of the animals, so there are no highlights in the eyes, no contrast to bring out detail. I'll keep a few of the pictures because I like them and they document the experience, but nothing out of the ordinary came of the morning's photography. We didn't see any of the park's wild horses, nor did we come across any mule deer. Still, I had a great time. Comfortable weather, a beautiful new-to-me place, a nice walk through trees and open hills, and lots of bighorn sheep, along with the boat ride and Ron's company and knowledge of the island, made for a terrific day. Thanks, Ron. I'm looking forward to my next visit to the island.

A group of bighorn sheep rams on Wild Horse Island.

A group of bighorn sheep rams on Wild Horse Island.

Keep it Wild

There's talk of the park service building a public landing, a dock so visitors can tie up boats and easily get on shore without getting wet. That would of course bring more people to this little state park. I suspect little good would come of that. While getting to the island, and getting from the boat onto shore present little challenge, I think it a good thing that we haven't overrun every acre, haven't built houses in every lovely viewshed, and have left a few empty spaces empty, free of parking lots, concession stands, protective railings, warning signs, and all the rest that comes with easy access.

I mentioned that camping is not permitted in the park. The thought of spending a night on the island, being there for golden-hour light, is appealing. It would be a fantastic place for night-sky photography. But I don't think those benefits outweigh the cons; more people, more disturbance of the wildlife, more trash, more general wear and tear. Let's keep the island wild for the beauty and solitude, and for its handful of wild horses and all the other resident wildlife.

October 2016