Mountain High 

With the sun still an hour from rising, the acrylic herd moves down out of the hills surrounding town, their fiberglass coats glistening in the crisp moonlight. In motels and bunkhouses below, slumbering West Yellowstone denizens and tourists snooze unaware of the freedom fighting menace looming on the outskirts.

By mid-morning, the herd of 26 artistically-enhanced synthetic buffalo stand defiant on the lawn of the Historic Center Museum, their permanently styled goatees dripping dew in the early summer air.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a squad of plastic livestock agents buzz into town on their fiberglass sleds, shouting orders beneath the beating blades of a massive Lego chopper hovering above.

For a moment, it seems the forces of oppression, bent on keeping the petroleum-based ungulates confined to Yellowstone National Park, may carry the day. But out from behind the poised plastic buffalo toddle a set of secret weapons commissioned by the West Yellowstone Economic Development Council: Ten fiberglass bison calves raise their soft orange snouts to fill their polystyrene lungs with the sweet air of liberation.

Thus begins year two of a cynical attempt to raise cash by capitalizing on the image of an animal that suffered the most extensive eradication campaign since the 1800s this winter. Over 1,600 members of the Yellowstone bison herd were slaughtered, and most never even left the Park boundaries. If you’d like to enjoy the illusion of wild, free-roaming buffalo in Montana, your sole option is to head to West Yellowstone beginning on Sat., June 7, when a diminutive herd of painted fiberglass proxies spends a week awaiting the arrival of their calves.

Considering the fact that over one hundred actual bison calves remain in a quarantine facility near Gardiner, it seems Montana’s re-tooled that old expansionist slogan for modern times: The only good buffalo is a plastic buffalo.

Stepping down off that soap box, I leave you to decide whether or not to visit West Yellowstone’s faux herd. I’ll take a pass on that one, thanks.

Instead, my wandering eye hopes to land upon an actual miracle of the natural world, which the good people at the Blue Mountain Observatory help bring into focus. On Fri., June 6, gaze longingly into the heavens during their first Observing Night of the season. The show begins roughly one hour after sunset, and the whole shebang can be cancelled on account of clouds and storms, so call 243-5179 before you head up there. Directions are readily available at www.physics.umt.edu/bluemountain. 

The Rocky Mountaineers have two great distractions from bakelite bison to offer this week, both of which leave on Sat., June 7. For the early-rising climbers, a caravan leaves from Eastgate Mall at 6 AM, headed for Spire Rock in the Homestake Pass area. A variety of climbing options will greet you, so bring shoes and a harness along with your food and water, and call 543-0898 to sign up.

The other Rocky Mountaineer option is an overnight trip to their cabin in the Bitterroots, which leaves mid-day on Sat., June 7, and will probably involve a mix of hiking and skiing, so gear up appropriately. And call Julie at 543-6508.

Perhaps you’ve been confused at the daily closure of the Waterworks Hill trail since June 3. What’s with the heaps of boulders all over the place? Well, the answer comes at 9 AM on Sat., June 7, when a National Trails Day service project aims to protect the hillside’s cover of Missoula phlox. You are, of course, invited to bend your back to the task of lining the trail with the stone impediments, an effort to keep people on the trail and off the sensitive plant. Bring gloves, water, UV countermeasures and an appetite for the free lunch. Sign up by calling REI at 829-0432.

Mountain bikers, trail stompers and their supporters can enjoy two days of camping, running and riding when the Salmon River Celebration kicks off at 9:30 AM on Sat., June 7 outside Salmon, Idaho. For a chance to see high-flying action as cyclists shoot down a track known as the “Salmon River Quiver,” as well as information on camping, registration and any number of other delights, visit wildrockies.com.

Paddle MT offers you and yours the chance to learn to override a core mammalian fear with their Introduction to Moving Water class, which begins at 10 AM on Sun., June 8. Get signed up and move out of the calming water of your bathtub when you call 251-0040.

Orienteering has stepped into the digital age with the birth of geocaching, wherein hidden treasure chests—actually, boxes with logbooks and maybe a candy bar—await discovery by GPS-armed hordes. Enter the fray when you attend an Introduction to Geocaching course at 9 AM on Tue., June 10, at Kiwanis/River Park in Hamilton. Bring your own GPS or sign up to borrow one when you call Janeen at 381-2951.  

Finally, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation continues its summer program of volunteer projects with one that sounds like a dream I recently enjoyed: “Broads in the Backcountry,” a four-day, all-female trail maintenance trip, begins Thu., June 12. For the specifics and to sign up, you’ll need to call Shannon at 387-3808 or visit bmwf.org.

Until we meet again over a collection of extruded polymerized wildlife, I bid you safe travels and happy returns. And roam free.
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