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Making like a goose at Freezeout Lake



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Because they mate for life, geese are considered romantic. And in fact they mate so successfully that in 1998 Ducks Unlimited had to publish Snow Geese: Grandeur and Calamity on an Arctic Landscape, a virtual manifesto for thinning the birds by pretty much any means necessary.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Despite or because or regardless of the iconic magic of their name, snow geese have adapted so successfully to their en route landing pads of engineered wetland and grain that they’re breeding at levels experts consider unsustainable, irrevocably destroying the limited ecosystems that sustain them. Speaking ecologically, they’re eating themselves out of house and home. If the population continues to soar, that same population—and I think this counts as irony—is headed for a hard crash. They’ve got a beautiful name, and they’re beautiful birds, but they are far from rare, and you could make an argument that they’ve become pests on par, in certain parts of the country, with deer, feral hogs and carp.

A hapless flock dunked US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009; a heedless gaggle of Canada geese destroyed a $270 million U.S. Air Force plane in 1995. Their honks turn to hisses if you get too close, and they hiss like they mean it. A guy I know used to keep a tame one as a guard dog.

Still, they’re perhaps the most relatable of wild birds. A goose is adventurous enough to leave, and routine enough to return, firing both cylinders of the domestic dilemma: nesting and flight. You can go where it’s better for now, the geese seem to say, and you can always come back.

I returned to Freezeout in late November, hoping to catch the fall migration south, for winter. North Canadian birds fly to California, the Gulf Coast of Texas and, increasingly, the farm fields of the southern midwest to pass their winters. They fly back to arctic Canada come spring to hatch and raise baby birds. Along both ways, they layover on agricultural lands. The Pacific flyway—a generally Canada-to-continental-west-coast corridor—encompasses Freezeout Lake, a Wildlife Management Area established to preserve and encourage threatened and unthreatened waterfowl, most of which have people who like to hunt them.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Geese are apparently especially hard to hit. At the WMA campground entrance there are two steel goose-in-flight cutouts mounted on poles and set back from a sign showing hunters how to sight-in by size. A grayish goose on a gray day is a challenge to perspective, and geese are wary birds in any weather.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

I pulled in to the same angled slot in the grass where I’d parked the spring before, just a hedgerow removed from the two-lane blacktop of US 89. It’s no wilderness experience, but there’s not a lot of traffic. I set up a new gray tent, and its dihedral seams spread goose-like under mostly goose-free skies.

The view is interruptedly spectacular. There are precious few vistas free of telephone lines or structure, but an amphitheater effect is unimpeded: thin ribbons of sidelong lake in shades of cobalt, golden brush, cloud-shadowed foothills and the Rocky Mountain Front risen behind them. All of it, potentially, vibrating with birds.

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