It had been a while since I’d landed. I’d been coasting on out-of-state plates for more years than I’ll admit, relocating every few months, living in eight residences in five states in the four years since I’d last left Missoula, following sustenance. Sustenance had led me back to Missoula and I was hoping to settle in, but it didn’t work out that way. I should have known my days were numbered when I finally knuckled down and got the Montana plates. Three weeks after updating my truck registration, my driver’s license, my voter registration and my fishing license, a job offer I couldn’t refuse arrived from Texas.
It’s exhausting, all the moving around, and every cross-country trip knocks a little more wind out of me. Before I left again I wanted to spend some time not moving at all. I wanted to be still.
Freezeout Lake, southeast of Choteau, is one of the stillest places I know. That sensation probably tracks to my first experience there, an end-of-March trip with friends into a landscape freshly buried in two feet of unexpected snow. The white brought out the lake’s purplish tannins to match the bruised-pewter skies. Clouds moved, wind moved, water moved, birds moved, making the landscape seem doubly frozen.
We saw lots of geese that trip, but nowhere near the clattering flocks of hundreds of thousands that, under the right conditions, sometimes congregate there. Mostly Canada geese and snow geese. There were plenty of other large birds too, like Tundra swans, but who knew what they all were. All we knew, and maybe all they knew, was that they were passing through.
Geese belong to the genus birds-you-needn’t-be-any-kind-of-birder-to-recognize.
Anyone can identify the great wavering Vs, or fragmented variations thereof, in which they fly, flapping diligently. And anyone can tell you that geese mate for life, though nobody knows if they’re really any better at it than we are.
The most populous species is the lesser snow goose, Chen caerulescens caerulescens. They come from, and annually flee, far northern Canada. (An early name, Anser hyperborea, means “goose from beyond the north wind.”) There are two major morphs of lessers: white and blue. The blue morph is not truly blue, but a mottle of brown, black, silver and white that mimics slate in the right light. The white morphs have black feathers at the ends of their wings, from concentrations of melanin that darken and strengthen mission-critical wingtips. They have three-pointed orangey-pink feet and bills the same color with serrated edges and a black patch near the hinge that makes them look like they’re grinning. They stand up to 31 inches tall and weigh as much as 6 pounds. They have wingspans over five feet.
They eat a shit-ton. Preparing for biennial departure, each way, they enter a metabolic phase called hyperphagia during which they pile on subcutaneous fat to fuel the flight. They feed on grain and grain byproducts, which their middle-American flyway is full of.
When the length of the day’s light tells them to, snow geese migrate, during daylight. They typically fly about 50 mph between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, but they’ve been observed as high as 20,000. They navigate by solar, magnetic and stellar cues, and by sight. As on a human trip of comparable length, the geese’s progress is stuttering. Sometimes they’re held up, or pressed on, by bad weather. Sometimes they pile en masse into landscape-scale rest stops, stretching their legs, refilling their bellies. Freezeout Lake is the biggest goose way station in Montana.