Late October, and my Hungarian exchange student, Reka, and I are heading east on the interstate, the larch winking gold past the car windows, my border collie Liza whining anxiously from her crate in the back. We are, in fact, all anxious—though for different reasons.
We're on our way to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places in Montana, remote and wild yet within an easy half-day's drive of Missoula. I'm excited that Reka will get to witness the fall migration, when tens of thousands of waterfowl—including the elegant paper-white trumpeter swans whose precipitous decline prompted Franklin Roosevelt to sign an executive order founding the refuge back in 1935—congregate on the refuge's lakes and marshlands. The event is so magical and inspiring that I once drove there to tape-record the resulting cacophony for a family friend who was immobilized with Lou Gehrig's disease, her body withering while her mind remained intact. She had been a professional dancer, and I wanted her to close her eyes, listen to the raucous, untamed sounds, and remember that there was a world of possibility she could connect to beyond her bedroom. Isn't that the gift that birds give us? A sense that we can take flight, gain a different perspective, make a home anywhere we land?
The poet Mary Oliver put it best, I think, in these lines from "Wild Geese":
whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I love that poem so much that I've committed it to memory. If only Reka's English were better, I'd recite it to her here in the car. Because it's too easy even for those of us who aren't trapped by our circumstances to limit ourselves to what's familiar.
Take Reka, a green-eyed, raven-haired beauty from Budapest who, left to her own devices, would happily remain in Missoula for the weekend, coveting the slinky fashions on the Victoria's Secret website and chatting with her many Facebook friends. Reka is generally game to try anything, an excellent trait in any 17-year-old, and especially in an exchange student. But she clearly has her own anxieties about this trip, her first time camping. She sits slumped against the passenger door of my Nissan Sentra, looking disheartened.
"I just don't want to freezing," she says, in her Eastern European-laced accent, when I remark that she doesn't seem happy.
To be fair, this is a legitimate concern, especially for a city girl. Today it's so sunny and warm that I've actually turned on the AC, but Red Rock Lakes sits at 6,600 feet, in an open valley that presses up against the Centennial Mountains along the Idaho border, just 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, and I've warned Reka that the forecast calls for temperatures there to drop below freezing tonight. It's the reason we've scheduled our trip for this weekend—because the weather, which has been unseasonably warm, has recently shifted, tripping the birds' instincts to migrate south, along with Reka's instincts to remain indoors. I assure her we'll be fine: After all, I've packed several layers of fleece and two sleeping bags for each of us, and Jeff Warren, a longtime biologist at the refuge, has generously offered us the use of his wall tent, complete with woodstove. I also have brought plenty of provisions, including the makings for s'mores, which Reka has never tried, and which I'm figuring will somewhat ease her pain.
Unfortunately, the food is in the back, so I'm stuck trying to sweeten the situation with words alone. This is no easy task, even for a writer.
"Don't you want to see the swans?"
Her response is uncharacteristically curt. "We have lots and lots of swan in Hungary," she says.
But what they don't have in Hungary are bald eagles. So as we pull within sight of Upper Red Rock Lake, our bellies still full from the enchiladas we devoured at—take note, fellow travelers—La Fiesta Mexicana, a converted school bus with the best food in Dillon, Reka perks up when she spies one atop a snag. I stop the car, and we scramble out to get a closer look and snap some photos. The eagle obliges by granting us a profile shot of his magnificent head, which is spotlighted by the late afternoon sun. Behind the eagle, the lake shimmers, a remarkable shade of ice blue that, I'm pleased to discover, elicits Reka's admiration.
As we're making our way back to the road, a man driving a black pick-up with Wisconsin plates, a trailer with ATV in tow, comes to a halt behind my car. The passenger, a big burly guy in his thirties, waves a road atlas at me.
"Excuse me," he says. "Do you know where we are?"
I'm not surprised the Wiscon-sinites are a little disoriented. I experience that same "what-planet-am-I-on?" feeling every time I come here from Missoula via I-15, turning off at Exit 0 and steering past the abandoned town of Monida. From Monida, it's another 24 miles on a partially graveled road through the arid, isolated Centennial Valley, past a few cattle ranches and then the marshes of Lower Red Rock Lake, until you reach the tiny settlement of Lakeview, home to refuge headquarters and a smattering of homes and outbuildings.
The guys say they're trying to find a friend's hunting cabin. They look relieved when I inform them that we're just east of Lakeview, which I point out on the map. Then Reka and I wave goodbye and continue on to the small and nearly deserted campground at the upper lake. (The lower lake has camping as well, but it's completely exposed, a poor choice for tonight given the chilly forecast.) Reka and I let Liza out of her crate and walk down to the water's edge, the dog bounding giddily in front of us, her plumed tail held high. At first, it doesn't appear that many birds are here at all, which is a disappointment, not to mention a bit of a concern: After all, Reka and I could have made s'mores at home and eaten them in front of the computer.
But when we gaze through our binoculars, we can see that there are in fact hundreds of birds scattered on the lake, intermittently dipping their heads and rushing each other to defend their territories. Instead of the insistent noisy riot I'd been greeted with on my previous trips here, it's more like the low buzz of conversation you hear across a restaurant, full of meaning you can't quite discern.
According to the literature I've picked up at refuge headquarters, a whopping 232 species of birds have been recorded here, the majority of them migratory. I wouldn't necessarily recognize them all, but I love reading the names: grebes and loons, mallards and mergansers, widgeons and goldeneye, coots and teals, snipes and curlews, sandpipers and white-faced ibis. And swans, of course, both the trumpeters, some of whom remain in the region year-round, and their smaller cousins, the tundra. Along with swans, some of the refuge's biggest draws are sandhill cranes. Tall and long-legged, with a distinctive red head and an unmistakable clacking call, they're easy for even the most amateur bird-watcher to identify. If you're lucky and are here at the right time of year—May is good, assuming it's not snowing—you can catch their exuberant mating dance.
The refuge is also home to the occasional grizzly and wolf, and more than 100 moose; once, at sunset, I was mesmerized by the silhouette of a massive bull strolling peacefully along the shoreline, not 50 feet from my campsite. He probably wasn't in my line of vision for more than five minutes, but I've replayed the memory many times in my head, and each time it leaves me awed and grateful.
But this time of year, the sandhills have already left the refuge in search of warmer climes, and there's no sign of moose, either. Or swans, for that matter.
That leaves us with a lot of birds that are too far away to identify, even with our binoculars and a guidebook. Still, there's something reassuring about the fact that they're here, again, as generations have been before them, blissfully unaware of the external pressures that dictate our lives these days: the recession, or Facebook, or even—especially, if you're a 17-year-old from Hungary—Victoria's Secret. What they know is that they're where they need to be, that for the moment, this is home.
Jeff Warren, the biologist, shows up shortly after our arrival to help set up his wall tent, which seems to be the size of my bedroom, and which provides numerous laughs since it's just Reka, me and the dog, and just for one night at that. Before leaving, the affable Warren even splits some wood for the stove.
By now the daylight is fading, and soon the full moon is beginning to rise in the east, glowing faintly. In Missoula, when the full moon rises, you feel that you could practically touch it if you just hiked up Mount Sentinel. It's totally different here: The valley is immense, the moon a beacon from a faraway galaxy.
After more than a few failed attempts, Reka and I finally manage to light fires in both the woodstove and the fire pit. We pull on the fleece, gloves, hats and parkas I've brought, and heat up our dinner: pre-packaged Indian food served with rice I've cooked at home and topped with yogurt and homemade peach chutney. Even at home, it would qualify as a decent meal. Here, with the spectacular view of the lake and the valley and the distant mountains, it feels like a feast.
"Fun, right?" I ask Reka. But she's not so easily persuaded
"Yeah," she says, although her tone says, "Not really."
Note to self, I think: Next time you go bird-watching, bring the dog and leave the teenager at home. But then comes the moment she's been waiting for: dessert. As I suspected she would, Reka takes to toasting marshmallows like a champ, and I'm relieved to see a smile light up her face as she assembles and tastes her first s'more. And then her second. And then her third. For the first time since we left home, she really does look like she's having fun.
As predicted, the night is cold. Dutifully, I manage to crawl out of my sleeping bag to feed the stove a few times; overhead, I hear the high-pitched cries of a flock of something. They sound like geese that have inhaled helium, and I'm guessing that they're swans, in which case I could use an old-fashioned term and call them a "wedge" or a "ballet" of swans. (If they were spread out they'd be known as a "lamentation.") But eventually, my need for sleep wins over, and by morning the fire is dead. I'm up before Reka, getting breakfast together when she emerges, groggy and disheveled, from the tent. "It's so cold!" she says, by way of a greeting. Um, hello? Whatever happened to "Good morning?"
I swallow my frustration and offer her some milk and granola, which she consumes without comment. Before we leave the tent, I walk back down to the lake's shore. For whatever reason, the birds suddenly turn up the volume, filling the air with whistles and honks. A low shelf of clouds hangs over the eastern edge of the lake, and the water's surface reflects streaks of red and orange sky. For me, these few minutes are more than enough to justify the trip. Still, I'm worried that it's not dramatic enough to impress Reka. And I really want this place to make an impression on her.
Please God, I find myself thinking, as Reka and I pack up: Please let us see birds this morning that she's never seen in Hungary. Let us see swans with necks so lithe and graceful that they put those long-limbed Victoria's Secret models to shame. Let us see something so magical that it imprints on her soul.
At about 9 a.m., we meet up with Warren at the lower lake. A bearded, blue-eyed nature lover, Warren enjoys watching birds. As a hunter, he also enjoys shooting them. That's what he's been doing since dawn, and he's just pulling in his flat-bottomed boat and his morning take: a widgeon, a gadwall, and a lesser scaup. Though she'll happily eat meat, Reka is appalled at the idea of hunting, and averts her eyes, but Warren says it connects him more deeply to the environment he works to protect. "Plus," he adds, noting that he likes to cook, "I'd rather get my food here than from Safeway." I promise to give him the remainder of my peach chutney, which tastes great with duck. It seems the least I can do, given his efforts on our behalf.
We help push Warren's flat-bottomed boat through the shallow marshes and into the lake, and over the next couple of hours, he rows us around with steady strokes, talking about the 50,000-acre refuge and pointing out the various types of birds we see on the lake: pintails, widgeon, eared grebes and blue-winged teals, gadwalls and buffleheads, and of course, the regal trumpeter swans. It's another nice day, one of the last we'll have this fall: windless, with wisps of clouds slow dancing in the sky.
Warren takes us past the bull rush islands, shows us the muskrat lodges that are mounded there; in May, swans nest on top of the lodges. By September, though, the cygnets have fledged, so at this point the two pairs of trumpeters that we see are on the water.
Once thought to be on the brink of extinction, the trumpeters are considered one of the great conservation success stories, with some 35,000 now in North America. But the swans' comeback has not been without controversy, and even today there are some grumblings about how long it's taken them to recover from a population downturn in and around the refuge in 1992, when a winter feeding program was abruptly discontinued. Warren doesn't share that view: He says it's hard to argue with what is now a steadily increasing population.
In fact, despite global warming and its impact on water levels, the refuge boasts a pretty healthy ecosystem, Warren says. But here's the thing: When you deal with migratory birds, one healthy ecosystem isn't enough. "It makes you think outside your signs," as he puts it. In other words, it's a cooperative effort. Red Rock Lakes refuge may feel remote, but its sustainability is dependent on so many other places, so many other people. It's one more reminder that we're all in this together, Warren says.
Then something catches his eye. "Look!" he exclaims.
Reka, who's been leaning back in the bow, eyes closed, soaking up the sun, sits up as he points out 14 tundra swans flying in formation in front of the Madison range to the east. I recognize their shrill calls as the same ones I heard the night before. Not long after, as we're heading toward shore, we see four great blue herons strutting on one of the islands. I've always loved the way herons unfold to take flight, and my heart quickens as their wings pound the still air, and they circle and lift off.
By spring, the trumpeter swans will have survived another frigid and snowy winter, thanks to the thermal waters in and around Yellowstone. But many of the other birds will have been on an epic journey: first south, perhaps to California or Mexico, Louisiana or Texas, then north as far as the Arctic Circle, before coming back to Montana. Who can say what they will encounter on their way, or remember of their flights when they land?
What I know is this: by the time you read this, Reka, too, will have completed an epic journey, returning to Budapest with a new perspective, a mastery of English, and a lot of lasting memories. What will they be? I have no idea. Sometimes the mind of a teenager is as mysterious and incomprehensible to me as that of a bird. But I hope that, wherever she lands, those herons and trumpeters and whistling swans continue to call to Reka, reminding her of life's infinite connections and boundless possibilities, unfolding like her dreams.