By Katie Alvin Explore Big Sky Contributor
Winter in Montana is long and deep, but despite record-setting March snowfall, spring is in the air. Longer days, warmer sun and melting snow are reinvigorating to those who might be feeling some late season winter cabin fever. This is a great time to get outside and explore beyond the ski slopes.
One place to connect with a surprisingly alive and vibrant winter world is on the shore of an unfrozen section of river. Near Big Sky, this is easy. Not only does the highway follow the river, providing ample turnout parking and access within yards of your car, but warm groundwater springs that feed into the river keep it from freezing for much of its length.
At the river’s edge, listen to melting snow, ice breaking and flowing water. Watch for flow ice broken free from upstream ice dams. If you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, you can try to spot actively feeding trout in the water column. In the afternoon, you may catch a Blue-Winged Olive hatch. These tiny insects transform by emerging from the water to the surface, and eventually taking to the air. During their emergence, trout have a feeding frenzy, creating quite the display for river watchers – not to mention great sport for anglers.
While on the water, keep an eye out for a robin-sized, dark-gray bird that wades, dunks and bobs up and down on river rocks. This active, vocal bird is the American Dipper (aka Water Ouzel). A year-round resident in southwest Montana rivers, the Dipper is the only aquatic songbird in North America. It survives by dipping underwater, where it swims and feeds on aquatic insects. Both their cheerful melodic song and their streamside acrobatics make these birds fun to observe.
Many other terrestrial animals also find refuge along the stream in winter. Without much effort, you should be able to find sign of deer, moose and elk in the form of tracks or scat. Rabbits, squirrels and voles leave tracks as they skitter across the surface, often around tree trunks and shrubs. Occasionally you can find evidence of a food chain interaction: tiny prints overtaken by larger animal prints, like a coyote, or my favorite, a raptor wing landing print.
To explore outside safely, proper outerwear is essential. The best setup for more active pursuits includes a moisture wicking base layer, a warming mid-layer, and a weather-proof outer shell. If you don’t plan to work up a sweat, bundle up with maximum insulation and a waterproof, breathable exterior to retain body heat. Traveling and left your snow boots at home? You can rent a pair of snowboard boots to keep your feet warm and dry. Don’t forget that with spring now here, the days are lengthening, and with highly reflective snow on the ground, sunscreen is a must.
While spring skiing and snowboarding are great ways to have fun in April, every visitor and resident alike should take some time to more intimately experience the wilder side of our region.
Katie Alvin has lived in Big Sky for more than 20 years. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Soil Science, she has been involved with environmental and outdoor education for 25 years, and owns East Slope Outdoors with her husband Dave.