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.