The truth about winter sets in by early January, after the rush of activity that starts at Thanksgiving, when general hunting season comes to an end by the way, and doesn’t stop until school starts again after Christmas vacation. That truth is that winter nights are long and dark. So it comes as no surprise to any of us that we do our very best to cram lots of stuff into those precious hours of daylight we do have. And, of course, we also find ways to make do in the dark when we have to, as well.


Even so, I still stop to watch when I look up to the dark slopes of Mount Sentinel late in the evening to see a glow of headlamps moving slowly up or down the icy M Trail, or the brighter glow of bike lights bouncing down the slush-clogged zigzag cycling trail on the south end of the mountain, above the golf course. Neither darkness nor weather seems to be much of a factor in people’s decisions about what to do for exercise these days. Maybe I’ll get used to those lights after a while, but I have to admit that I am still in the wonderment phase as I write these words. It is difficult enough for me to make it up and down that mountain with the aid of hiking poles and ice-grippers on my boots in broad daylight. So the idea of barreling down that steep slope on a bike, in the dead of night, and in winter is a still a bit outer limits for me.


As for the people I see jog by on the street in front of my house in the wee hours of the morning nearly every day, snow, ice, and bitter wind be damned, I try not to feel guilty about not being out there doing the same thing myself. And I am fairly successful at warding off that particular kind of guilt.


I think of these winter nights as a time of study, a time of reflection, and perhaps a time of personal renewal. To that end, I try to pick away at the stack of unread books that has been building up for me over the last couple of months. Many of them are the result of suggestions received from many of you in recent weeks. And since many of those books people suggested were about Montana and the West, there is a pretty good likelihood that the tales they contain will transport me, or whomever the reader may be, off into the vast and beautiful landscape around us here. If the writing is good, it doesn’t take long to be transported. When it comes to books, the long nights of winter provide proof to me that there can never be enough time in the night to read all the things one wants to read.


Reading isn’t the only thing that fills the winter nights for folks here under the Big Sky. This is also the time that much of the dreaming and planning takes place for adventures of all kinds in the weeks and months to come.

The Creek

The Creek


That doesn’t mean that this is the time and place to remind readers of application deadlines for floating and camping permits for rivers like the Smith, the Middle Fork, the Selway, the Green, or any of the other popular western rivers. My friend Walleye has taken the time to warn me in no uncertain terms that if I use this blog for such purposes, “there will be trouble.” Walleye contends, and most of my pals would agree, that there is already more than enough competition for those precious permits. So, I won’t do that, and readers like you are on your own when it comes to finding out how and when to apply.


But I will be happy to join you in any kind of daydream regarding what might be waiting out there once the skwala stoneflies begin to show up on local streams sometime in late February.


To that end, I have to tell you that over dinner with Sander and Grace the other night, we got into a lively discussion about how best to bushwhack to a particular high lake in the Missions that lacks an official trail access, and challenges the route-finding skills as well as the patience of many who venture there. Sander is sure there is one “right” path to get there among the maze of misleading game trails and failed human trails that people choose from when they make the trip. Grace doesn’t see it that way. Since I have never been there, I didn’t have an opinion, other than that I would be tickled if they would take me along next time. Either way, both of them agree that the lake is among their favorite places on the planet, but getting there is not as much fun as being there. Sander was left with the assignment of figuring out where the “real” trail is, if he’s so sure it exists.


Sander has also announced his intent to use some of his winter evenings to perfect his fly tying skills, but I’m afraid he’s falling behind on that front. He is still assembling his equipment for the job.


“What did you do with that fly-tying vise you gave me last year? It’s better than the one I have and I want to use it from now on,”


“You took it with you when I gave it to you. It must be with your other tying stuff.”


“Nope. I haven’t seen it. You must still have it in your gear closet.”


I looked for it. Not a chance. So, I’m not counting on Sander supplying me with any new woolly buggers for upcoming fishing season.


But talk of fly-tying and summer adventure does remind me of a little note I received from friend Slats soon after Christmas. Of course, these days a “little note” can just as often be a text message complete with photos, as it might be a carefully penned note on personalized stationery. Slats’ note was the former, and if I am not mistaken, it was the first text message with photos he has ever sent me. The note read: “Ben’s day after Christmas rainbow. The conditions are fabulous up the creek.” The accompanying photos spoke for themselves. By the way, I assume you all know what Slats means by “the creek.”

Ben's after-Christmas rainbow

Ben’s after-Christmas rainbow


As if I needed to remind any of you that even on these short winter days, there is absolutely no shortage of things to do, beginning at your front door. You might even be surprised to learn that there is still a little bit of hunting going on. I missed a chance just last week to spend some time shivering in a duck blind with my friend Elrod. That reminds me, I need to call him and let him know that the phone is still the best way to locate me for an adventure on short notice. Or maybe Elrod will read this.


I may have missed out on Elrod’s offer, but I have not missed many of the days when the ski trails up in Pattee Canyon have been at their best. Just as with hours in the day, there are never enough great snow days on the local tracks in winter, so it’s never good to miss out when those days come along, like they did for a while last week. In fact, I’m hoping that I’ll find some decent snow up there later this morning.


It’s just starting to get light outside and I don’t want to miss a bit of this day, so I’m putting this missive in the “out” box and heading out to greet the morning. See you next week.



























  1. Thanks for a window on our January days.

  2. Yep – back when I was gainfully unemployed there was always plenty of time to read and recreate. Not so much now, but living as close as we do to all the good things to do certainly makes it easier to fit things in.

  3. I’ve not been in Missoula on a winter night to see those lights at night on Mt. Sentinel, but you’ve painted a great picture. Can’t decide whether the column makes me want to rush outside or curl up with a book. Thanks for the posting.

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