CONFESSIONS OF A MONTANA BACK-TO-THE-LANDER: The Bear Facts

All right, ‘fess up. Haven’t you ever wanted to shuck it all and take off for parts unknown, make a grand break from everyday frustrations? So how’s this for a suggestion? Pack up some minimal belongings along with family pets, hitch up an over-stuffed travel trailer to your inadequately-powered car, and head to the backwoods of Montana.

In this day and age, when people complain about mortgage interest rates climbing above 4%, just imagine almost thirty-five years ago when rates were knocking on the 19% door, and very few people were answering. At that time I was brokering the sale of large apartment complexes to investor groups. Every deal took months to negotiate and further months to complete inspections. And then, three times out of four, just before signing the closing papers the investors took a close look at the bottom line of the real estate investment, compared it to, say, a CD rate of 15%, and decided to pull the plug on the whole deal.

So early one October day, after three very large (and potentially profitable) transactions fell to ruins, we packed up Tanya the German shepherd and Rasputin and Sage, our two cats, and took off for a sabbatical to await the return of sanity in the financial markets (Still waiting, but that’s a different story.) Back to the land, here we came.

As a boy I had visited Northwestern Montana with my family, and remembered the beautiful Flathead Valley, the broad expanse of Flathead Lake, the peaks of the Rockies surging upward from the valley floor without a second thought of foothills, the splendors of Glacier Park, the grizzly bears. As we passed through Oregon we stopped to visit one of my sisters, and she and her husband joined our caravan with a truck and trailer of their own. They, too, were game to challenge the great outdoors.

We made it to the high country just as the first flakes of snow fell. And we were happy to accept the gracious invitation of some newly-met folks who offered the winter use of two small houses on five acres, just outside Whitefish, a town of perhaps 2000 residents and perhaps half that many bars. Or so it seemed.

We took readily to cross-country skiing, and by late winter discovered acreage of our own to buy about ten miles north of Whitefish, then a mile or two in on gravel road, then another mile on our own path to the potential building sites for a couple of log homes.  Twenty great acres backing up to BLM and Forest Service land, and six or seven lakes within a 15-minute walk or ski. If any of you are daring foolish clever ingenious enough to tackle hunting for land during a Montana “spring,” just know that those wonderful little hills (seemingly so great for cross-country skiing) may well prove to be loggers’ slash piles once the snows melt away, say in April or May. Or June.

So as the snow turned to slush and then to mud, we set to work on a double project: burning huge wood-trash piles after salvaging any usable logs, and felling others to build log cabins. We sold our passenger car and picked up an old Bronco II 4×4, suitable for dragging downed trees out of the woods. Since our forest held many beetle-killed larch trees whose limited circumference didn’t lend itself to traditional log cabin construction, we chose a post-and-beam style which we then covered in rough-hewn planking.

Hey, no laughing at the hair...this was almost 35 years ago

Hey, no laughing at the hair…this was almost 35 years ago

The glacial moraine “soil” was so dense with rock that a traditional septic system seemed impossible without great expense, so we used an outdoor privy during that long construction summer. And because the land was so remote—our only visitors the daily bears—I opted to build our outhouse with windows on all sides so that the user could enjoy the views. Of course, this provided the occasional passing bruin with the opportunity to stop, sit down, and patiently observe a human in a glass cage. I presume constipation was never a problem for those guests unfamiliar with the four-legged residents of our land.

Once the cabin had attained some semblance of shelter, I set to work creating the world’s grandest composting toilet. The user reached its summit by ascending a staircase to a platform fit for a king (see photo). In winter the heated air from the woodstove would circulate through the main compartment of the composter to dry out the contents. In summer a home-fabricated solar panel would do the trick. And “flushing” consisted of the occasional turn of a handle protruding from the side which would rotate a metal mesh drum inside.  And once a year you had to shovel out the compost through a door opening to the backside of the cabin. And, no, in case you are wondering, you don’t want to recreate this yourself.

Regal dedication ceremony of the imperial composting throne

Regal dedication ceremony of the imperial composting throne

Now, we’ve always been lovers of animals, wild and domesticated. So the fact that we shared our land with a number of black bears (and one occasional honey-colored grizzly) was never a problem. The bears got to know us quickly, and when we came up a trail and met one along the way, the animal would amble up about twenty feet or so, sit down, and patiently watch its humans parade past. Then the bear would return to the path and resume its journey. We soon knew all the local bears by sight, so any newcomer was an event.

Once my wife came to tell me that a new bear had just wandered past our home. I grabbed  the binoculars and ran for the front porch. Dani, never one to encourage my bear observations unattended, joined me in slinking up the hill to gain a clear vantage point above the bear’s path.  Step by step we approached the spot where we were sure to spot the bruin through the trees on the trail below. The binoculars were glued to my eyes when Dani’s fingers tapped me lightly on the shoulder, and she whispered: “Turn…around… slowly.” And there a few strides off to our right sat the new bear, calmly assessing the strange behavior of two upright mammals in the woods.

We did take special care in berry season, when it was all too easy to come upon a bear and surprise her, and we gave a wide berth to mama bears with cubs. One memorable sight: Mama sitting honey-bear style in the berry shrubs, raking her long claws through the foliage and stuffing her mouth, while twin cubs chased circles around her and rolled down the slope in a furry ball.

Photo by takepart.com

Photo by takepart.com

We had no electricity other than a 12-volt battery system which was charged up occasionally when a generator filled our well’s holding tank, so candles were often the light source in the early morning. Dani was still in bed and I was in our bathtub/shower, which in that early stage of construction was still in the mudroom/foyer of the cabin. I noticed the light from the living room candle was especially bright as it came through the shower curtain, so I looked around the edge to find one wall of our cabin engulfed in flame.

Sage the cat had been hiding behind the drapery, and had dragged it into the flame of the candle. Jumping from the tub I raced across the room, grabbed the flaming material from in front of the window, and undertook a furious stomping dance atop it, just as Dani emerged from the bedroom to see what the fuss was all about: her husband, stark naked, dripping wet, and dancing like crazy on a flaming curtain. Obviously, I had gone mad, since she knew I had never been much of a dancer.

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Anyway, you get the picture. Back-to-the-land Montanans.

The snick-snick of cross-country skis at midnight under a full moon, when the temperature drops well below zero, ice crystals are precipitating out the air, turning the world to a glistening wonderland, and a snowshoe hare hops across your path.

Gathering morel mushrooms at dusk, only to feel yourself observed by two large moose just paces away, ankle-deep in a snow-melt pool, calmly watching your progress.

Driving up the Going-to-the-Sun highway deep into Glacier Park, then putting on the skis and completing the trek up toward the divide, before gliding back down again, the cold wind on your face.

Lying under a feather comforter, a heated soapstone bed-warmer at your toes, the window at your heads wide open to the freezing night air, as a timber wolf bays at the full moon just thirty feet from your cabin, and Tanya the German shepherd cowers at your feet, wanting nothing to do with her distant cousin’s plaintive call.

Unforgettable. Wondrous. Worth every moment cleaning out that damned composting toilet.

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Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon

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About Patrick W. O'Bryon

Writer. Traveler. Europhile, especially Italy and France. Real Estate Broker. Former academic in the field of Germanic Studies, Princeton Ph.D., interpreter and community liaison with the US Army in Germany. Hobbies: rescuing animals from abuse, abandonment and mistreatment, and being sous chef around the kitchen to my chef de cuisine wife.
This entry was posted in Animal stories, Memoir, Travel Memoir, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to CONFESSIONS OF A MONTANA BACK-TO-THE-LANDER: The Bear Facts

  1. kingmidget says:

    Sounds incredible. A little more rustic than I could probably handle, but very much where I want to be in a few years.

  2. Happiest times of our lives…needed very little, had so much. And what great exercise. I miss that feeling of jumping off the front porch on cross-country skis first thing in the morning and bushwhacking all day long, up the mountains and down again, returning as the rosy glow of the setting sun cast deep purple shadows under the trees. Breathtaking!

  3. sknicholls says:

    Your writing and the scenes you capture are breathtaking. You also have a way of focusing on so many of the positives and even making the negatives sound pleasant. My former spouse and I tried the living off the land thing for our first 12 years in GA, and I don’t quite recall it being so virtuous. Maybe I look back with too much bitterness. Maybe too much ancillary garbage, like diapers, school books, and work shoes got in the way. Maybe 12 years was just too long. Then again, it was a log cabin on a GA farm, and not the wilds of Montana. I do recall the sound of horse hooves and whippoorwills at night though, and how pleasant that was at the end of the day. I shall try to focus more on the positives. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. I’m pleased you were touched by the narration. Thank you. Your memory awakens one of mine: Horse hooves and whippoorwills at night–an image from my early childhood as I lay awake in the darkest hours, unused to the deep summer humidity of rural Missouri where I tossed and turned amidst sleeping siblings and cousins, all of us crowded in one attic room with a clicking old fan in the window. And somewhere in the distance… the whistle of a steam locomotive, repeated at each grade crossing as the train moved into the distance, drawing my imagination to far-flung cities yet to be seen. Aren’t these the memories that make us write?

  5. Laura says:

    Bravo! A great read! This was a grand adventure.

  6. Ah, indeed it was, Laura! What memories reviewing the photos of those times…

  7. Pingback: Sunday Synopsis | S.K. Nicholls

  8. Sigh. Sounds like heaven. I like your writing style.

    • Thank you! Early this morning as I made my rounds, feeding warm food to all the feral cats abandoned in our quasi-country neighborhood of Northern California, I reveled in the crisp 26-degree weather under clear blue skies, patches of snow still lying about, and thought: Californians who think this is cold should experience true winter elsewhere in our country. Face it, we are spoiled here. Bundle up, everyone!

  9. Elle Knowles says:

    Gosh! I love this! As a child of four I homesteaded in Alaska with my parents, 3 siblings, and one more born while in the most if it all. My mother wrote wonderful letters home and between those and all the memories we all retained, I intend to put it all down in a book. Reading your story brought a lot of those memories back to me – the outhouse, ugh! – ours was not so grand. 😉

    • I look forward to your memoir on those Alaska experiences! And, yes, the ugh factor was strong when time came to clean out all that valuable compost, but thankfully there was no odor problem at all inside the house, since the heated air drew odors up the special chimney. And I can say for certainty we never had anyone overstuff the thing with toilet paper!

  10. merrildsmith says:

    I loved your description of your life in Montana. It sounds [mostly] idyllic, but it’s not a life I would choose. I like to be near theatres, museums, and restaurants–and plumbing. 🙂

  11. lenobryon@comcast.net says:

    Sounds like fun…???

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