Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Homestead

About a mile south of the house are the remains of an old homestead built more than a hundred years ago. Dr. G and the Professor, with help from their dogs, horses and kids, have worn a serviceable trail out to the homestead over the twenty years they've been here. Even with their kids grown and gone, the G's and their dogs still make regular trips to the homestead. Their Newfoundland has treed more than one bear on that trail.

Mr. T and I have hiked out there several times as well. This weekend was balmy and sunny, and in accordance with the arrival of spring, we set out for the homestead with boots instead of snowshoes. We even put a dog pack on Alaska, to introduce her to the accessories required for her new life as a trail dog. The weather was glorious and warm, and The Kid abandoned his shirt after about twenty minutes.

Almost nothing of the original homestead remains except some grizzled old apple trees that still dutifully bear fruit every year. The trunks of these trees have been scored every which way by bear claws, but still they stand. At first I wondered whether the trees were contemporaneous with the homestead, because this would have made them quite old indeed. But then I read that apple trees can live to quite advanced ages.

The homestead is situated near the rear edge of a natural meadow ringed with aspens, larches and other evergreens, and with a clear view of the Cabinet Mountain range. The property was acquired by a lumber company long ago, and the surrounding area was logged two years ago. The lumber operation left piles and piles of discarded tree trunks, and the logging trucks carved deep tracks that still linger in the grasses. But the homestead is still and silent again, except for the twittering of the birds.

The meadow must have looked different in the heyday of the homestead -- the trees were no doubt older and taller, for one thing -- but the fundamentals are probably the same. Elk bed down here now, and the bears, of course, have broadcast their presence on the trees. Coyotes, driven off an adjoining mountain by a newly established wolf pack, traipse back and forth across the meadow and the trail, discarding bones and other pieces-parts along the path.

Looking out at the mountain range, I had a sense of what a felicitous place this would have been to locate a home in the late nineteenth century. Game would have been abundant. The home site was two miles away from the brand new railroad and the town growing up around it. The seasonal stream at the edge of the meadow offered water, and the river in the valley would have been thick with trout and, during part of the year, chinook salmon. Huckleberries grew on the mountain. And then there were the apple trees. The winters would have been harsh, and along with the abundant game would be grizzly bears and mountain lions. But if they could deal with the cold and the predators, this was as good a spot as any to make a go of it.

I wonder what happened to the people who lived here, and their house.

A day may come, very soon, when another home -- and another, and another -- is built in this idyllic meadow. The whispers in town are that the logging done on the surrounding forest was a "real estate cut." Plans have apparently been drawn for big houses on large lots. I worry, as always, about the animals, but particularly the bears. They need the space. The Professor and Dr. G have 130 acres that surround our paltry six, and they care about the wildlife -- The Professor thinned some forest last year but made sure to leave enough thick passages for the bears. But further fragmentation of habitat can only drive them further into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, away from people. Always away. And then my own habitat becomes more sterile as the chances of seeing bears on the road I now share with them diminish ever further.

The dire real estate market has likely given the wildlife of the homestead a reprieve. This town has never really bustled, even during the most prosperous of times. As The Professor says, the best thing about this town is that it has so little to offer. And with the amount of housing stock languishing on the market, it seems unlikely that anyone would invest in this little corner of the world. But time and "progress" march inexorably on.

And I worry about the bears.


Lewis said...

Maybe all of the bears who are being forced out of their homes could take up residence in the Homestead? I drove from Boise to Portland yesterday and found myself looking at home after home along the freeway that aren't lived-in any longer. Wondered about the history. The people. The jobs. The kids. And how I-84 changed all of that.

Anonymous said...

You've hit on something near and dear to my heart. I've always loved my hikes into the mountains and imagining life at an old abandoned homeplace. But more and more I see civilization encroaching into these wilderness areas and it puts the wildlife at risk. We have lots of elk here as well as bears and these stupid stupid city people leave their trash out at night like they were in suburbia with curb service; get all upset when they find a bear at their bird feeders; throw rocks at the elk; Even our little mountain communities have changed drastically. The old time mom and pop stores are closing one by one as they can't compete with the big box stores. People move up here away from the city but want all the conveniences! It just breaks my heart. And the wildlife suffers for it.

Anonymous said...

This is still one of my biggest gripes!

I think baby Harp Seals have to be the cutest animal on earth.


Anonymous said...

Here is one way to help harp Seals. Have you heard of this? Boycotting Canadian seafood? This explains why


Danger Panda said...

You know, you probably could find out the names of the family that established the homestead--at least if they "proved up" (lasted their 5 years and made the necessary improvements. The local land office should have records. Then you could tell me their names and I could run them through my historical snooping process!

Of course, I have too much time on my hands...

Trailhead said...


We have lots of elk here as well as bears and these stupid stupid city people leave their trash out at night like they were in suburbia with curb service; get all upset when they find a bear at their bird feeders; throw rocks at the elk; Even our little mountain communities have changed drastically.

Throw rocks at the elk? Ugh. To me, it's a simple obligation to educate yourself about the natural environment in which you make your home. Sometimes I can't figure out why people move to places like this, because they then expect to turn it into a suburb.

Awhile ago, I wrote about the disdain westerners have for the east-of-the-Mississippi types that are migrating in droves out here. I took issue with that, and I still do. But the larger point, and I think Jennifer from Under the Ponderosas touched on in her comment to that post (which comment I just discovered, to my dismay) also hits on these issues.

There's overcrowding, there's the death of open space, and like you mentioned, Jeannie, there's arrogance and an insistence on transforming the character of the place into something bland.

I was right, before, in that the question can't accurately be framed as easterner v. westerner -- after all, I can see some of the folks from Denver or Salt Lake or another large western city moving in and doing the things that you and Jennifer talk about. But it's an issue nonetheless, or a "culture clash" as Jennifer put it.

Kristy: Oooh, the patented Danger Panda Historical Snooping Process! That would be fun. If I can figure out how to find it in the grantor/grantee index, I might do that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it isn't a matter so much of invasion but of not embracing, loving and caring for what has been chosen. Not being educated enough on the realities of that life, which most definitely includes wildlife. All of us that come here to these mountains need to be their advocate and protector. Preserve the open spaces, don't build just to be building and making money.

Carry on the tradition Jen.

Trailhead said...

I agree with you completely, Jeannie. But it did just occur to me that I'm overlooking a big culture clash within the west as well with respect to the open space/environmental issue.

I was thinking about this last night and I can just as easily see a lot of the folks in my small Montana town who have been there all of their lives who might take a different view of all this. They might say that the economic growth represented by the planned McMansions is more important than bears and elk and open space.

That's a belief system that is not necessarily congruent with the behavior you were talking about -- like throwing rocks at elk -- but it's interesting because it's a way in which the newcomers almost invariably split toward the environmental stewardship side.

These newcomers are, after all, the same folks that have turned Montana into a blue state -- heck, these people put Jon Tester, probably the most environmentally diligent senator since Frank Church, into office.

Fortunately, it's ultimately a false dichotomy if you look at the facts. You don't have to sacrifice economic health for the environment. More and more, the two interests are congruent. But I do think the traditional attitudes persist, and they're often reflected along newcomer/oldtimer lines.