Our mornings were spent leisurely birding a few acres of the 25 or so comprising the Hoster’s Yaak residence. It had been years since Sooney and her siblings, Jon & Carol, spent time together, and our week in NW Montana was unlike any other. Jon and Karen Hoster live in a toasty log house 9 miles up the road from the Yaak Tavern. Yep, it’s a landmark and located at the crossroads of Yaak and Pipe Creek Rd. to Libby. We’d last visited them a couple years earlier on our way home from the road trip to Alaska. Adding Carol to the mix was really special.
After a week of wedding celebration, partying with friends and making music in the Wallowas (preceded by a couple memorable days in the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve) we found the Montana solitude a perfect complement to our 3-week road trip. There was plenty of adventure, only it was different. A scant 10-minute drive to a trailhead on the North Fork of the Yaak River had us lunching an hour later on the Canadian border. The closest thing to a wall was that dilapidated barn a couple miles down the road. On another night I patiently introduced the owner of The Tavern how to make a Chili Size (it was that or deep-fried chicken wings.) They have Sierra Nevada bottles in the cooler so all was good.
The driveway into their property meanders through a gorgeous stand of huge Aspen trees transforming into their fall attire. At several points along the drive, Karen mounted motion-activated video cameras and periodically pulls the SD cards to see what she’s “caught”. There was a funny one of Sooney and me stalking a covey of Ruffed Grouse, ‘knockers and camera at the ready. The real gem was an early-morning clip of a healthy cougar plying that same terrain looking for the same critters—or maybe their new puppy, Addie. Neither of us scored, however, but grizzly bears, black bears, moose, and wolves have been filmed over the years. What a dichotomy exists between human interaction with nature and that of the wildlife we’re so intent on seeing. Thank goodness for birds; at least they show up. Here’s a link to a gallery of birds photographed during Sept.
A large couple-acre pond graces the southern section of their property and during our visit it became a regular bathing salon for resident Robins. A Merlin (a small, fierce falcon) found enough dragonflies to stay awhile, swooping down almost to the water’s surface before returning to its perch with a tasty morsel. A Belted Kingfisher made his presence known by splashing into the water only to resurface with a meal in its bill. Its characteristic squeal challenged us to get close enough for a photo, but that shot continues to elude me. Nearby, a Pileated Woodpecker ignored me while hanging precariously from a serviceberry plant in the pursuit of the few remaining fruits. We found it interesting that all 3 species of Chickadees— the Black-capped, the Mountain, and the Chestnut-backed—were all present simultaneously and flittered about their business in the pines as if on their own family reunion. Insects were plentiful and Nuthatches announced their presence with characteristically loud, nasal yammering. (I’m intentionally refraining from calling it a song.) This may sound like a bird-nerd’s journal entry, but the combination of abundant wildlife and having family members to share it with is this writer’s dream.
One hike we drove a couple miles up the road to a place offering a possible sighting of a Great Gray Owl. As we bushwhacked through the woods, I caught sight of Jon storming up after us and packing his revolver. Shortly after we’d departed he’d realized how naive we were to wander into the woods with only bear spray for protection. His concern wasn’t for bears as much as it was for wolves and we were grateful for his protection. Bears and cougars tend to flee well before they’re seen, but wolves are more aggressive and tales of encounters by Yaak residents supported Jon’s attention to our safety. While we didn’t see any wolves, we did gather for a family portrait accompanied by the distant call of a Northern Pygmy-Owl.
Tom Oar stopped by on his way to the dump to pick up Jon & Karen’s trash. He and his homing pigeons are regular visitors to the Hoster’s and it was great catching up with him. Whenever there’s a question about living in the wild, Tom and Nancy are the ones most turn to for sensible answers. Like when we picked some Shaggy Mane mushrooms on our hike to see the owl. Were they safe to eat or would we regret the experience? “Ask Tom,” was the usual fallback and just having him nearby made us more confident. Tom customarily releases his “homers” after doing chores at the dump and never tires of watching them burst out of his old Dodge pickup, circling once or twice before heading off. Since they’re “Homing Pigeons” and capable of flying at 50mph or faster, they often beat the old bronc rider home. Back on the roost, they softly “coo” their thanks for a good workout. He’s only lost one—probably to a hawk but, just maybe, it bolted to Canada (they have been documented as carrying contraband across borders and into prisons.) Tom is entering his 7th season on The History Channel’s Mountain Men series and his fans visit regularly to purchase his hand-made outdoor gear. He’s such a great neighbor that we don’t perceive either him or Nancy as anything other than Jon & Karen’s best buddies up the road. It’s the History Channel that characterizes him into a “mountain man” but to us he’s just a great guy who’s always got time to hang out.