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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was cold and I was wired and I went to sleep listening to long alternations of nothing, the thrum of a passing truck and the diminishing squall of groups of three or four geese flying overhead, from the fields where they’d been feeding to the open water where they sleep, safe from the clutches of foxes. When the wind finally dropped, the world seemed to stop.
There are few people in the world who would fail to recognize the sound of a goose, but it’s impossible to convey in print. The supposedly onomatopoeic “honk” requires the invocation of significant onomatopoeic license. “Honk” is evocative of what a goose sounds like, but it’s wholly inadequate as a description. A lot of geese together, in continuation, tend eventually to sound like something by Philip Glass.
I wish I could say that’s the sound that woke me up the next morning, but it wasn’t. I made coffee and watched the sky for the thin skeins of geese that passed over at long intervals.
The “tour route” roads were closed for the season behind locked steel gates. I hadn’t bothered to call the Freezeout hotline ahead of time. If I had, I’d have known that few birds were still moving through. It was late in the season, and most of the geese were gone. You can’t reserve a seat at a mass migration.
I drove down one of the unblocked dike roads that crisscross the several bodies of water that make up the Wildlife Management Area. In the marshy outflow of one of the corrugated culverts that connect them I watched three Lesser Scaups swim away. In a larger pond beyond, a bald eagle sat on a stump in open water, utterly badass. Eagles will target and eat sick geese.
Farther down the road, on Pond 3, I found a few hundred Canada geese intermingled with dozens of sex-paired mallards and smaller birds I couldn’t identify. Nearby, but keeping their distance, a hundred or so snow geese floated.
I wondered if the snows and Canadas communicate with each other, say hello or so long. I wonder if they look each other up when they get where they’re going. Do geese say goodbye?
I watched them through the binoculars for a long minute before they flew off. The flying off was the best part, that sudden trainlike flutter and hum, flashing like silver fish in the sky.
Later, back at the tent, the gray dissipated and the light if not the heat of the sun broke through. Little bands of swallows swarmed over camp and off across the road. There was nothing to do but look at the horizon, waiting for birds to materialize.
The next morning was calm and frosted. I made coffee and went walking. I saw another big but not large flock of Canadas and snows, maybe the same flock from the day before. I drove back out onto US 89 and up toward Choteau to ponds 1 and 2, looking mostly in vain for birds. That’s when I finally called the hotline and got the long-prerecorded news that I’d mostly missed the show. Birds continued to trickle through, stragglers, all of us late.
I felt like a skunked hunter. Freezeout was still. Nobody was going anywhere.
The geese that migrate through Freezeout spend their winters in California, or farther south. But because the Pacific Flyway migratory route comes close to mixing with the Central Flyway near Freezeout, I like to think that some of them will overwinter on the Central Flyway’s terminus, the coastal plains of Texas, not far from where I’m headed, with the egrets and caracaras and whooping cranes.
I like to think I’m following them, that locations recede, then reappear, in regular if not orderly fashion. That the migratory premise of departure all but ensures return. That like a homing goose, I won’t be too long gone.
For the bird watchers
The most important thing to know about Freezeout Lake, as with much of life, is when to show up. The larger spring migration usually passes through between early March and mid-April, typically peaking near the end of March. The fall migration lands from September into November, depending on the weather. Waterfowl and shorebirds are plentiful in summer. An automated message at 406-467-2646 provides updated information about bird numbers and whereabouts.
Freezout Lake State Wildlife Management Area (unlike Freezeout Lake, the WMA dispenses with the third “e”) covers more than 10,300 not entirely contiguous acres, more than half of it in lease or easement, encompassing Freezeout Lake, ponds numbered 1 through 6, Priest Butte Lake, and agricultural pasture. The WMA is managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, which hosts the most informative website about the area at fwp.mt.gov.
Be aware that areas of the WMA are open to bird hunting and muskrat trapping during approriate seasons. Be alert and control your dog. And if you visit during the broad shoulder seasons, take something warm to wear, and something to break the wind. You’ll regret not having a good pair of binoculars handy.
It’s hard not to recommend tent camping at Freezeout. Yes, the weather can turn, but birds are most active near sun-up and sundown, and you don’t go to Freezeout to sleep in. The campground off US 89 also accommodates self-contained RVs, though there’s no power or water, just picnic tables and a nearby communal vault toilet. No fires allowed.
For more comfort, the Fairfield Park Inn in Fairfield (www.fairfieldparkinn.com, 800-844-0892), just southeast of the lake, has five fully amenitized B&B-style guestrooms renting for $70 to $95 a night. For a substantially more expansive and expensive option, look into The Nature Conservancy-operated Pine Butte Guest Ranch, butted up against the Rocky Mountain Front an hour west of Choteau (406-466-2158, firstname.lastname@example.org). In Choteau proper, the Bella Vista Motel (614 Main Ave. N., 406-466-5711) and the Stage Stop Inn (1005 North Main Avenue, 406-466-5900) offer budget accommodations. And if you don’t mind a little driving, the myriad motels of Great Falls are just 50 miles away. Capping a cold couple of days of birding with a night at Great Falls’ O’Haire Motor Inn (www.ohairemotorinn.com, 406-454-2141), with its aquarium-equipped Sip ’n Dip Lounge, is a highly recommended Montana two-fer.