Eureka!

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We have no permanent home in the US, and for the past six months, we’ve worked our way across the country until we arrived in Eureka, CA, where our oldest daughter and her fiance live, and where we can walk along the Pacific Ocean again. It was almost a coast-to-coast drive.

Starting in Chicago in April, we first went east to Lake Erie (to collect beach glass), when we were still reeling from the collapse of eight months of carefully planned travel in Europe. We already had our October reservation in Eureka, CA back when we thought we’d be landing at LAX on Oct. 1. As each month rolled over and yet another Airbnb property could be cancelled, we moved slowly across the US, making the best of the disaster.

Beach glass

In Ohio, there was wonderful beachcombing, and my brother and sister-in-law came from Syracuse for a socially-distanced visit just before New York required 14-day quarantine for doing such a thing.

In Minnesota, we rode on our host’s pontoon boat on the Mississippi.

Pileated woodpecker

On our way to Montana, we spent a night in Devils Lake, ND with dear friends from our old days in Southwest archaeology.

While we were in Montana, we visited the US/Canada border, and I swam in ice-cold water. I canned a dozen quarts of pie cherries and saw the woodpecker of my dreams. That’s in addition to Glacier National Park, and a lot of glorious wilderness.

A sunny day at the beach in Oregon.

In Oregon, my sister Paula and her partner came to visit. They stayed in their Airstream in the local RV resort and we tried to stay apart. (No hugs.)

We were fortunate that the weather was good enough for us all to stay outdoors. We may not have practiced ideal social distancing, but we wore masks and sat separately.

After every family visit, we went into seclusion for two weeks or more, since we have no one else to see, and we don’t go to restaurants. We shop for groceries, and we have occasionally had to do something else, like make a xerox copy for one of my monthly medical appointments. Jonathan goes into fish stores, mostly to buy crab. I don’t go in.

I fell off the shopping wagon once in Astoria, OR and got a new shirt, as both of my others with long sleeves are now frayed at the collar. I prefer in-person shopping for clothing, and resale/vintage stores particularly.

This week we crossed the finish line of our westward travels, arriving in Eureka, CA with our Prius loaded as full as we want it to get. We could see out the rear window, but not all of the rear window…..

Jim, Reggie, Amanda, & Hairy on a special occasion.

Just as we finished unloading the car here in Eureka, Amanda and Jim and their two tiny dogs came for a visit. We can’t really make a bubble because Jim has to go to the office in order to work. He’s not particularly exposed to people in his job, but it’s not the definition of a bubble.

We’re going to make the best of it, and enjoy seeing family in person, even if it’s from a safe distance.

Our home in the redwoods this month.

Eureka! We made it.

The Devil’s Churn, Spouting Horn, Thor’s Well: Splashing our way south

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About halfway down the Oregon coast, the beaches become fewer in number, the headlands become higher, and the offshore rocks more frequent. The highway clings to the headlands and crosses inlets and rivers on a series of bridges built in the 1920s and 30s. Driving along, we’re barely aware of how difficult it was to get this road in place, with its narrow spots, twists, and turns.

Offshore rocks and shoreline phenomena all have names. Otter rock, Seal rocks, Sea lion rocks. We passed rocks that look like whales, or the fin of a monster shark lurking just below the surface. We stopped at the Devil’s Churn, the Spouting Horn, Thor’s Well, and the Devil’s Punchbowl. There are many others.

We began at Smelt Sands, where strong waves and high tide created a huge plume.

Blowhole at Smelt Sands

The Devil’s Churn was more difficult to see. It’s a narrow inlet where the water swirls and crashes.

The Devil’s Churn

The Spouting Horn is a blowhole that puts up a cloud of spray when the tide is coming in. We visited at a good time.

The Spouting Horn

The Devil’s Punchbowl is a collapsed cave. Water rushes in and out, echoing with each rush of the waves.

The Devil’s Punchbowl

Last, and possibly most intriguing of the formations we saw was Thor’s Well. This is a hole that fills with the tide, then sinks, making it look like the ocean is draining away. It’s not large, and is unmarked, along the shore near the Spouting Horn. We looked for a while and finally found it, watching the water sink straight down, then fill with the next wave. It’s in the back of the video near the water line, you need to look carefully to see it. Watch the water sink down into the hole, and refill from the next wave. THE VIDEO LOOKS SIDEWAYS BUT PLAYS PROPERLY. Click to have a look.

Thor’s Well

Last but not least, there’s nothing like a nice, big splash.

A big crash on the rocks.

Oregon’s Coastal Forests

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We arrived in Oregon in the dry season (summer solstice to fall equinox) and are here for the change to the wet season (the rest of the year). Already, walking in the forest after a few downpours reveals a different kind of forest, full of huge trees, moss-covered branches, sprouting mushrooms, ferns, and vines. The deep greens, the lush growth, and the tall, straight trunks aimed for the sky, are a complete contrast to the arid lands we’ve chosen to live in for the past several years.

We’ve found a few sections of old growth forest. In these places, there are a few huge trees and some spectacular trunks of trees cut down long ago. These forests remind me of a book I read a long time ago, Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey.

The forests are cool and damp, with a special smell that combines pine needles, wet sand, mud, and freshly washed air. The atmosphere is peaceful, the paths are springy underfoot. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time.

A smoke-shortened month

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Wednesday Sept. 9, I first noted smoke as part of our day. We continued to spend time outdoors as we learned about the AQI (air quality index) and began following it as closely as we do Covid-19 stats. We tried to go out at first, but the air was yellowish with smoke. Oregon’s terribly destructive forest fires are not near us, but the smoke cast a pall over the entire west coast from San Diego to Seattle.

Ecola State Park in the smog

Two days later, we knew we had to stay indoors all day. I had an eye appointment in Portland, but that involved ducking out of the car and into the office, then reversing the process. The days were still and smog-filled. If the sun was visible, it was a pale yellow circle, flat and distant. There was almost no wind at all, when normally the wind always blows, everyone setting up their windbreaks on the beach. The smog hung all around us. After five straight days spent indoors or in the car, we were pretty tired of the inside of our (cute, but small) house, reading books, cooking, cleaning, doing crosswords, and looking at each other. Daily fluctuations in the AQI only go so far in the world of entertainment. Finally, it began to rain and the air became breathable.

More than a week later, it was finally safe to go out, and we celebrated with a trip to Hug Point, where I found a piece of beach glass (surely a good omen), and we saw mussels of a good size for eating. Only Oregon residents can get a permit to collect these treasures of the sea, so I advised my sister Paula to get a permit before she arrived. We collected mussels, Jonathan cleaned them, then they steamed in white wine and garlic. We added salad and french bread, accompanied by more wine, and imagined ourselves in Brussels or Paris.

While we were sheltering from the smoke, the dry season in Oregon appears to have ended, and today there are strong winds and lots of rain. If it lets up we’ll go out, but if not we’ll be indoors once more, this time prisoners of the pelting rain and wind.

When it’s good, it’s really, really good, and the days we’ve been able to get outdoors have been priceless. Haystack Rock is the landmark of Cannon Beach, OR, but as we walk or drive south, we’ve visited Silver Point, Humbug Point, Hug Point, and we’re still going. There are beautiful offshore rocks and long beaches.

One day, we skipped over a long stretch of coast to visit Tillamook, famous for dairy products. The line to get into the factory store proved to be too long for us, and we continued out to the coast to visit Short Beach, a wonderful beach full of driftwood and waterfalls. It is also a beach that people visit with buckets. When we inquired from the third group that passed us, we found that Short Beach is a place that is popular for hunting agates.

We have made the best of our outdoor days. With luck, the rain will let up and we’ll get back outside before the month ends and it’s time to move on.

Labor Day with Mother Nature

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I did not expect to swim during our stay in Cannon Beach, OR. The water is frigid, colder than the Pacific off Peru, and very nearly as cold as the water in our pond in Montana. Today, though, I was happy to wade, because it is unusually hot here. When my feet lost feeling from the cold, I retreated, feeling cooler.

It’s the third day of unexpected midsummer weather. The average high temperature this time of year is about 70o (21o), so we didn’t worry about not having air conditioning. Oops! Fortunately, our bedroom is on the main floor and stays cool, but we’ve got the doors and windows open, fan on, and it’s still pretty warm until after sunset.

Yesterday, the sky was reddish from the smoke of forest fires that’s blown to the coast, the sun a puny disk of orange. Other places, like a lot of California, are worse, as the forest fires are larger and closer to cities, but the smell of smoke hanging in the air, the film of gray on everything, and the heat are oppressive.

The entire west coast of the US is under a similar cloud this month, and it may get worse. Global warming is getting in our faces, and it’s not going anywhere until life changes or we die out. That’s a grim thought, but anyone who is looking out the window at an orange sky and red sun can understand where my gloom comes from. We keep ignoring the warming climate and now Los Angeles has hit 121o (49o). What will come next?

We succeeded in escaping the smoke by visiting Ft. Stevens State Park in Astoria, OR. The park covers most of the spit of land that extends along the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean, the northwesternmost point of Oregon. The park has huge beaches, and even though there is an extensive construction project going on in one area, there is plenty of room for walking and birdwatching. We caught a glimpse of a coyote by the construction. I was able to take a photo while the animal reconsidered his route that was blocked by a chain-link fence.

Despite it being Labor Day, we passed only a handful of people. We found a scenario left behind by a previous visitor (below). There was a lot less smoke in the air than we found in Cannon Beach when we got home in the afternoon.

NW Montana to the Oregon Coast

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Day One: Fortine, MT to Ritzville, WA

Car packed and house searched for last minute items left in nooks and crannies, we left Fortine, Montana, passing the local On The Fly Cafe for the last time. We started north, through Eureka, then turned west to Lake Koocanusa, where we turned south–no trip is a straight line in the mountains.

Morning mist was just rising off the mountains, and though the sky looked threatening, we had no rain. The lake was a pattern of shimmering silver disks, reflecting the gray sky.

Our route across NW Montana crossed the Kootenai National Forest, as beautiful a drive as ever through the tall pines. We drove via Libby, formerly a mining town, now a superfund site with some impressive murals of local wildlife, then the road headed north again. Crossing into Idaho we drove a strange stretch through the panhandle, passing a tremendous number of rail lines full of freight trains mostly sitting still. Was it the Covid19 decrease in commerce, or a bottleneck on the line?

Libby, MT grizzly mural
Bigfoot?

North Idaho is also home to some very large auto scrapyards. Huge, even. There were hundreds of cars spread across fields. Some had a few choice older vehicles lined up by the gate (school bus yellow Camaro, anyone?). Stretching into the distance were rows of increasingly distressed cars, trucks, and farm machinery.

We turned south once again, and headed for Spokane, coming out of the mountains into rolling hills that rapidly flattened out where we picked up the interstate. Suddenly, we were surrounded by wheat fields to the horizon.

By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Best Western Bronco Inn, in Ritzville, WA. We were tired from the long day, and had a picnic dinner in our room. Jonathan was pleased to find the “Grass Station”, next door to the motel, and paid a visit to check on their inventory. (NB: Bronco logo from motel appears over the Grass Station.

Day Two: Ritzville, WA to Cannon Beach, OR

The fields of wheat accompanied us south to the WA/OR border, but things changed when we crossed the Columbia River. The highway follows the river from Umatilla all the way to Portland, along the shore and past the Dalles, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Lake Bonneville Dam and power plant. Rock formations loom over the highway,

We stopped to picnic in a park along the roadside just east of the Columbia Gorge. The day was beautiful and we enjoyed the break from driving. After that, we made a beeline for Cannon Beach. Traffic through Portland didn’t slow us down at all, and we arrived at our new home in the late afternoon. A quick shopping trip to the grocery store around the corner and we could stop moving for a while. We can see the ocean from our living room. Ahhh!

Highlights of Montana

Our month in Montana is ending, and as usual, there are still lots of things that we haven’t done. Glacier Park was a dramatic highlight, but there are many beautiful places in our corner of northwest Montana.

Driving to the end of the Road

This became a favorite pastime, picking a white thread on the map and driving until it ended. Usually this meant somewhere in the mountains, where the road was blocked to prevent further use, or there was a washout, or the road simply ended at a gate marked “Private Land, Keep Out.”

This is the way we ended up at the Canadian border, and other beautiful places. Bird-watching isn’t that great in the middle of a pine forest, but the scent is heavenly, and the lakes we came across were picture-perfect. We saw clouds in formation floating by overhead. When the sun beams out from behind a cloud it can create a gorgeous landscape, like something out of an Eliot Porter photo. As a kid, we called them “god-the-father clouds,” because that’s the way holy cards showed him, riding on a cloud surrounded by sunbeams.

We didn’t go to the end of the road, exactly, on our trip to Yaak, MT. It was more like the middle of nowhere. Yaak is smack in the middle of the Kootenai National Forest, an hour drive, at least, to get to the nearest town in either direction, one in Montana, the other in Idaho. Generally, people live in Yaak to get away from the rest of us, or they visit to go fly fishing on the Yaak River. it’s a kooky place, with lots of local Bigfoot images. The center of town consists of two bars facing each other.

Wildlife Watching

When we weren’t driving to the end of the road, we were bird watching. . Any place where there is water bordered by bushes–the more overgrown the better–will hide chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, and flycatchers. The pine trees that are almost everywhere in Montana are home to more species of woodpeckers than we’ve seen anywhere else. I am not a bird photographer, it requires too big a camera and lens, but I take pictures of birds when I can, usually to try and identify them later. Here are a few photos of the wildlife we’ve seen in Montana, starting with birds. No bears or moose, but lots of interesting creatures.

Clockwise from upper left: Pileated woodpecker, two sparrows, Rufous hummingbird, Spruce grouse, hawk, Hairy woodpecker, evening grosbeak.

A flock of wild turkeys jumped to the top of the six foot fence encircling our house to eat cherries from the tree. Deer grazed around the perimeter every morning and evening, up to eleven one afternoon! Most of these were does, yearlings and fawns, but we did see an occasional buck sporting this year’s new antlers.

Clockwise from upper left: Buck with new antlers, deer in the road, the deer we began to call, “Doris”. She didn’t even get up out of the shade by the garage when we came home, and some of the deer who visit each evening.

Snake, red-tailed ground squirrel, golden-mantled ground squirrel, marmot

Panoramas of nature

We didn’t have to see wildlife to admire what was around us. The hillsides covered with trees stretching for miles was awe-inspiring, but also relaxing. Yes, there is lots of logging going on, but the forest is still here. We saw more problems emerging from the gradual expansion of housing than the actual logging. As one house after another is built in the grasslands home to grouse, partridge, sandhill cranes, and songbirds, their habitat diminishes.

There were some days when we stood surrounded by perfect habitat for birds, but saw and heard nothing. The stories you read about the decline of birds across the US are true. Often, the decline is based on a missing link in the chain of places that birds need in order to pass an entire year. They need places to stop and feed along a huge loop that may take them from Alaska to Mexico, the Caribbean, or South America. When there is no place to stop and rest, or no where to build a nest, then the birds no longer visit, or breed, and they begin to disappear. Even though Montana has lots of land for birds to occupy, there may not be land all the way along the annual route of some species, and their territory shrinks. That’s why having bird feeders in your yard may be the missing link birds need. Without them, they might not make it to Montana again next time.

We’ll miss the towering Douglas Fir, larches, and Ponderosa pines, the wonderful scent of pine trees in the hot sun, and the icy cold water in the pond. Montana in August is truly a little bit of paradise.

Montana: Lakes and Trails

We found Glacier National Park just too crowded for comfort, and began to look around our area for alternative hikes and places to explore where we are not likely to meet a lot of other people. I was happily surprised to find that northwest Montana is freckled with lakes. Lakes of all sizes, too. Flathead Lake is huge, so is Koocanusa Lake, just beyond Eureka, with far fewer visitors. Trails lead from the roadside to interior lakes, trails circle the occasional lake, or follow creeks leading to lakes. We’ve had some excellent walks going to and from bodies of water.

Koocanusa Lake

Lakes may be like our pond, tiny pools. Another narrow lake became a bed of reeds this month, no visible water at all. Other lakes are fed and drained by rushing streams.

Some lakes are overgrown ponds, with reeds at one end and open water at the other. Many have gorgeous clear water, no matter what the size.

Big lakes can be isolated and largely empty, like Big Therriault Lake, at the end of a long road. Yet even when we visited lakes thinking to find visitors, sometimes there still weren’t any. We visited Tetrault Lake on a hot Saturday morning in August, and there was only one group fishing on the lake, despite the shore lined with houses, docks, piles of kayaks, beach chairs, and inflatable water toys.

Lakes surrounded by houses often have extremely limited access, or no access. We’ve had good luck finding a spot to look out over a lake by finding the local boat launch site. Glen Lake was the exception, where the entire shore was either swampy reeds or private land, with no boat launch, and lots of Keep out/No trespassing signs. We couldn’t get near enough to take a picture. We moved on.

A walking trail rarely circles a lake unless it is wholly within a National Forest like Big Therriault Lake, or in a recreation area like Swisher Lake. We took the short hike to Swisher Lake and found it completely deserted because the campground is closed this year. I took a swim to celebrate having the entire lake to myself. I did the same in the pond by our house in Fortine, but the pond was so cold I thought I’d get frostbite from the water!

We’ve walked along trails of all kinds. Our hikes aren’t very long and don’t go very far. When we’re birding, we may spend an hour going a few hundred feet. Without birds, we may cover a lot more ground in the same time. It has been wonderful to be able to walk on these paths.

We drove to the end of Burma Road, outside Eureka, MT, and ended up standing on the border with Canada. A wide swath cut through the forest marks the border, straight along the 49th parallel for as far as we could see.

NOTE: In these days of drones and motion-activated cameras, we opted NOT to cross the border, even as a humorous moment in our visit. The closest we got to Canada was the Canada side of the sign above. When we read about the cleared area along the border after our visit we found “the border space is 20-30 feet wide and is maintained/recut every few decades.”

Glacier National Park

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Postcard views. Need I say more? Before our visit, I didn’t know that Glacier is one of the most popular, most heavily visited US National Parks, despite its remote location in northwest Montana. The peak season is barely three months, and some years less.

Visitors are down 58% this year. BUT, visitor levels in August (right now) are just about back to last year’s levels, and only the western half of the park is open. As the result, the open portion of the park is more crowded than ever. We were hoping to visit during a slightly less crowded time (Nope). August is a fabulous time to be in Montana, probably the best month of the year. Visitors seem to be aware of this fact, and put up with the crowds.

We left home at 7:30 am, and arrived at the park at 8:45 am. Purchasing our America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass ($80) went very quickly. The park attendant was behind a plastic shield, and no signature was required when using a card for payment. We drove to the Apgar Visitors Center, where there is a coffee shop and a park ranger answering questions. I was hoping for a wonderful gift shop in this popular park, but Covid 19 has ruined the shopping experience. There are a limited number of items sold, and only at an outdoor table. I think a much wider variety of Glacier Park souvenirs can be had online (bummer).

Traffic was light at first along Lake McDonald. On Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was not difficult to pull over to look at the lake, read informational signs, and see trailheads. As we went along, we passed more and more parked cars, and it became clear that hikers who want to spend the day on a specific trail really do need to be in the park around 7 a.m. (as guidebooks suggest) if they want their choice of parking spots. By 8:45 a.m., most parking spots at trailheads were full.

The drive was glorious and the day was perfect. We had cold weather all week, and the forecast was for hot weather (90s!) for the following week. We visited on the perfect day, clear skies and a high of 78o. The mountains appear to be much higher in the park than along the road to our house and in the Kootenai National Forest around us, I’m not sure why. The jagged gray teeth of young mountain peaks at Glacier are impressively threatening.

Heaven’s Peak is the first of the mountains that the road passes, followed by many others, each with its own name. Every inch of the park has been hiked and climbed by visitors since the days when only the Blackfoot lived here.

We intended to stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and take a walk on the Hidden Lake Nature Trail. The parking lot was a shifting scrum of SUVs jockeying for spaces that weren’t available. Some vehicles stopped mid-lane and put on their flashers to wait for a spot. We didn’t stay, deciding to push on until we found a less mobbed area. We saw our only wildlife by the Logan Pass Visitors Center, a mountain goat. (The photo is a mountain goat at Glacier National Park from the internet.)

What remains of the Jackson Glacier.

We stopped to look at the Jackson Glacier. Statistics indicate that the park’s glaciers are disappearing, making it a pleasure to see one that is still present. Around every turn, a new vista of trees and mountains opened up.

At Sun Point we found our spot. There is a large parking area and plenty of spaces were available. The trail to Baring Falls gave us a short hike to a beautiful spot, just what we were looking for. We took our masks along, just in case, and it was a good thing. There were people all along the trail. After a few hundred yards of mask-on-mask-off-mask-on, I left my mask on. The path paralleled the shore of Lake St. Mary with views over the lake and the mountains. I would have liked to go down to the shore, but it was a steep scramble, and I stayed on the trail. We arrived at Baring Falls, a cascade that drains into Lake St. Mary. Visitors lounged on the shore, youngsters climbed on logs that crossed the stream, and others waded in the shallow, icy water.

Lake St. Mary from the Baring Falls trail.

Back at Sun Point after our walk to Baring Falls, we found a picnic table in the shade and ate our lunch. From there we continued to the end of the road at Rising Sun. There are signs and cones the direct cars to turn around here and head back. In other years, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open all the way across the park to the St. Mary Visitor Center. From there, visitors can make the return drive around the outside of the park. Though the return route is much longer, the time is about the same, as 2/3 of the trip is on Rte. 2, the major highway. You trickle along Going-to-the-Sun Road, come out of the park in the town of St. Mary, and drive another 1-1/2 to 2 hours around the perimeter of the park to get back to West Glacier. Some visitors choose to base themselves in East Glacier to hike the popular trails on that side of the park. Not this year.

The cloud looks just like a daytime crescent moon.
A chunk of snow from winter 2019

The eastern portion of Glacier National Park is controlled by the Blackfoot Tribe. This year, the tribe decided that they did not want the risk that tribal members would contract the virus from visitors, and the east side of the park and that portion of the road are closed. They may reopen next year, based on the tribe’s decision next winter. When you consider that Native Americans have been badly affected by the Covid virus, the Blackfoot decision is understandable. In previous years, more than one million people visited Glacier Park. That’s a lot of potential virus-carriers.

The portion of Glacier National Park that is open is filled with spectacular views and lots of places to visit. Despite the ups and downs of the Year of the Pandemic (What animal should represent this year? A poisonous snake?), it’s a great place to visit. So many gorgeous vistas!

Going to the Sun Road

Post Script: I thought about finding a less visited area for a second visit to Glacier National Park, and Polebridge, MT looked like just the place. It’s a sort of side entrance, and there are several lakes to visit. I read about it online and found that I am not the first person to think of this. In 2020, entries to the park through Polebridge are up 40%. Instead, we are hiking on the trails around lakes near our house where we are usually the only ones out.

A Window Into Montana

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“You couldn’t take a bad picture here,” Jonathan said, looking out the car window.

He was right. Everywhere you look driving into the mountains around us are stands of lodgepole pine, narrow avalanche chutes blanketed in grass, and bare faces of stone bordered by undulating piles of scree.

The day was overcast and cool, quite a change from recent 90o days. Only a mile or two down the road, we pulled over, put on the turn signal and got out to stare overhead at a big hawk. A truck passed us, the passenger giving a “What the heck?” gesture.

Our destination was Big Therriault Lake, 28 miles to the east of our current home in Fortine. We stopped to take photos of deer, ducks, and the beautiful water of the lake.

The rain began just as we were ready to picnic, and ended not long after. We set out around the lake, a beautiful walk with the sun coming out, the lake turquoise and absolutely still. There were no other people on the trail. Nearly back to where we started, a woman glided by on a paddleboard, two people in kayaks not far away. Their bicycles leaned against the picnic table, pickup truck parked nearby. They had everything you could want for a Montana day at the lake.