Reflections: On driving the Yaak Highway; A Vivaldi– like 4 seasons

A column by: Tony Smith


Spring (Concerto NO. 1 in E Major)


“Spring has arrived with joy, welcomed by the birds with happy songs, and the brooks, amidst gentle breezes, murmur sweetly as they flow.”


Lyrics ascribed to Antonio Vivaldi, 18th century Baroque composer of the world-famous string instrumental “Four Seasons.”


“But don’t you just hate the drive?,” is the normal response to my 95-mile round trip to Turning Winds where I teach year-round; in fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is “the drive!” Each and every month driving in the Yaak has its own challenges and pleasures, but June, second only to October as my favorite, is particularly rewarding. Driving Northeast up the Yaak highway, Cyclone, Red Top, Meadow, Spread, Whitetail, and Pete Creek in that order, have become less turbulent and flow with perfect clarity into the main Yaak River, itself a visual feast of clear, deep pools, and sparkling ripples in the early morning sunlight, while the Yaak Falls has a mysterious deep shade of gray, contrasting with the surrounding sunlit mountains. The endless fields of fragrant purple Lupine, wild roses, and aromatic white blossoms of Ceanothus Snowbrush, also known as Mountain Balm, alluding to sticky, scented leaves, are especially prolific this June given the moisture, providing a veritable banquet of lushness and color. And the Larch, in needle clusters of 14-30, as soft to the touch as a baby’s cheek- swaying to and fro in the breeze- are turning from lime green to a pale green color before turning gloriously gold in the fall.

The Wetlands:

It was years before I recognized the value of wetlands, most pronounced in the Yaak from Whitetail Campground to Pete Creek. Prior to the campground is a destroyed wetland, surrounded by mounds of dirt that will, in a flood event, eventually silt the river below. How and why the destruction of that irreplaceable wetland occurred is beyond my understanding. Directly above Whitetail Campground are “model” wetlands, ones sustaining a huge number of microbes, plants, animals and insects, while improving water quality and reducing erosion and flooding. The Yaak wetlands are comparable to rain forests and coral reefs, providing critical habitat for birds, fish, reptiles and mammals, as well as preventing mud and silt from clogging lakes and rivers downstream. It is estimated that freshwater ecosystems cover only 1% of the earth’s surface, but hold more than 40% of the world’s species, including 12% of all animal species. In the early morning hours, deer are occasionally standing in knee-deep water,  grazing in wetlands near the Yaak Highway, while a solitary moose stands in the still-shaded “moose- hole” below Whitetail.

It is my utmost faith and conviction that due to the sustained efforts of youthful conservationists like Anthony and Ashley South and Shawna Kelsey, the purity of the Yaak wetlands will remain intact long after I depart this earth.

Admittedly, spring driving the Yaak Highway is not without its deer hazards, especially at dawn and dusk (in the fall, the hazards are of a more insidious nature: out-of-state hunters). Anyone born and raised in Western Montana is surely aware that deer are “depth-perception” challenged. However, the opportunity to see the progeny of every species of wildlife existing in the Yaak  at the time of the  Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), is more than worth the risk. New-born fawns on still-wobbly legs, mountain lions kittens, still with spots, attempting to pull a deer carcass between the posts of a highway guard-rail (get away from the road, little ones), encountering a fearless bobcat on the South Fork Road, elk grazing cautiously on hillsides near the highway, numerous grizzly bear sightings at Long Meadow Road, moose feeding placidly along the river bottoms, wolves crossing the fields behind Turning Winds. The key to visual awareness and appreciation of the Yaak Valley flora and fauna is a simple one: slow down and focus. It is nature’s banquet right in front of you, and the length of June days allows one’s senses to experience all of it.

“And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days.”

James Russell Lowell, American poet and literary critic


Author’s note: For the more adventurous traveler, opposite the Teepee Mountain Road, just past the 4-mile marker, is a road down into the spectacular canyon below Stonechest Grade where, in the 1960’s, early Yaak pioneers Rosy and Gus Schultz, hitting patches of ice, were killed in separate accidents. It is better to park above and hike down, as the road is treacherous with little turnaround room. And it is not a place for children. The narrow canyon walls, with spectacular rock formations and back-water pools carved out of the sheer rock cliffs are stunning, but one misstep is inevitably fatal.