Winter in Montana. Many things come to mind: snow; sledding; skiing; snowshoeing; cold to frigid temperatures; large animals donning their thick, beautiful winter coats; bright sunshine reflecting off the sparkling white landscape. So far 2015 is living up to only one of those expectations. The poor animals in their beautiful, heavy winter coats thinking of heading to higher elevations to cool down.
Here in the valleys we are wondering what happened to our snow, although I think Massachusetts got it by mistake, and are looking at a landscape far from white or sparkling. What isn’t brown is gray and the sun is filtered through stratus or cirrus clouds. Our cold temps have mellowed into mid-40s during the day and mid-20s at night. It feels more like the spring of April than the winter of February. However, even dull and drab takes on life when we walk along a river, and the Missouri Headwater State Park is the point of joining (confluence) for three rivers to become the mighty Missouri River.
Let’s leave the car near the confluence of the Madison and Jefferson Rivers. This is the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Jefferson River comes through the Jefferson Valley from the southwest and the Madison River runs north from its beginning in Yellowstone National Park. We are standing on the edge of the Madison watching the Jefferson merge from straight ahead. The ice makes such interesting shapes as the water rises, falls, and molds impacted by the temperatures first below then above freezing. Is that a seahorse I see?
The river becomes the Missouri here, but a short distance away the Gallatin River ends its westward journey as it flows into the Missouri River. The Missouri, the longest river in North America, flows 2,341 miles before entering the Mississippi River near St. Louis.Walking along the river bank we see little soil but an army of stones, all smooth from the ebb and flow of water. Away from the river’s edge are different habitats. This wide open rocky river edge leads to outcroppings of cottonwood trees with dense undergrowth, then narrow sandy meadows along deep dips that act as sloughs when spring’s high water seeks rest. The sun is getting a little higher in the sky promising a warm afternoon.
The real beauty of this day is the lack of wind. Wind in the mountain west is always a game changer. Even on warm days the wind can make the temperature feel 20° colder or more. With no wind we will enjoy the the sun’s warmth along the way, but right now there is still a sparkling touch of frost to the landscape.
Glancing around says, “Just more brown.” Slowing down, though, there is beauty in plants still waiting for a good wind to catch their seeds and distribute next year’s generation.
Walking further downstream, colors pop on the rocks that become the trail.
To our right a rock host brightens the day. The lichen on the rocks retains the colors year round, but the mosses are especially green with these warm winter days.
The Gallatin River flows north along the western edge of Yellowstone National Park and once in the upper Gallatin Valley, heads west to join the the Missouri just behind us.
Since we are on top of the hill with a 360° view, let’s walk a bit and look around. We can see four mountain ranges from here, all part of the Rocky Mountains. The Bridgers are east, the Gallatins southeast, the Madisons south and the Tobacco Roots southwest and straight ahead. I love the mountains any time of year, but a topping of snow adds something special.
If you look just to the left of the foreground rocky edge at right, you can see the Madison/Jefferson confluence, the actual headwaters of the Missouri.
Let’s walk back down to the river and take a look at the Gallatin River’s mouth, where it joins the much larger Missouri. The interesting rock formation straight ahead running along the Missouri displays an obvious discussion on geology for another day.
The burdocks stand tall along the edges of the Gallatin, over a foot taller than I stand. Be careful, if those hooks get into you, it is a bugger to get them off. The good news? You are helping disperse seeds for next year’s plants. Hmmm, is that really good new?
The rabbitbrush still has a bit of color from those summer flowers. People sometimes mistake this plant for sagebrush, but the sagebrush has woody branches with grayish-green leaves and flowers on spikes. Rabbitbrush is a plant with softer stems and longer leaves that are light green with clusters of flowers as below.
Walking just a little further, we see the Missouri, now fully created by the merging of three rivers all coming from different mountain beginnings to the south. Wait, coming UP from the SOUTH? Being an Easterner, it is disconcerting to see a river running north, feels like they are running uphill somehow. It is partially about the Continental Divide, with water to the west of the Divide running to the Pacific Ocean, to the east headed to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. However, it is always about water running downhill, and with the 10,000 feet or more elevation of mountains in the different ranges of the Rockies, there are many rivers and streams that race downhill and head north on their journey to the ocean.
Welcome to the Missouri River, widening and heading out of sight as it starts its long journey, first north, then east, then south to St. Louis and the Mississippi River.
We must return in the spring to see the many waterfowl in the area, songbirds along the banks, critters on the hilltops and rock outcropping, the beautiful landscape full of spring and summer flowers and maybe even a boat ride.
Until next time . . .