by Chris La Tray
from One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World At Large (2018, Riverfeet Press)
I have a favorite spot a couple miles up a popular local trail system that parallels a creek. I begin at the main trailhead. I pass the signboard that displays a map, the rules for use, and warnings of bear and mountain lion activity. Next is a rocky cliff face, maybe thirty feet high, that reflects the sound of the nearby creek and turns it into a kind of echo chamber. There is typically quite a number of other people out and about; cyclists, joggers, and families pushing baby strollers. I’ve even encountered hunters on bicycles pulling trailers of elk quarters, taken from the wilderness area fifteen miles deeper.
A little more than half a mile up and over a small bridge that crosses another feeder creek there is an option to hitch right on a side path. A sign indicating dogs must be on leash (generally ignored, as Missoulians typically do), and mountain bikes are prohibited. That’s the one for me. It follows the creek bank for the most part, and there are several branches, but it doesn’t really matter which one I take because they all reconnect anyway. Not so many people take this route. The path is a slight, often uneven, meandering incline for a little more than two miles before it forks. One may continue up a steeper side-hill left that rejoins the main trail. But veering right, down maybe two hundred yards to a beach of the creek itself, is my spot.
There is an old log that extends into the stream. When the water isn’t running high I can walk out onto it and sit. I’ve read there. The last few times I’ve gone I’ve actually sat in the dirt and rocks on the beach and meditated. It’s often breezy, the water is rushing and gurgling even at the lowest point in summer, and it feels wilder than it is. In winter it breaks my heart with its beauty, and not just because it is a little more difficult to reach and significantly less visited by others.
About the bears and lions. I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the vicinity, but I’ve seen plenty of black bears. There are copious birds in the area too; I particularly keep my eyes open for American dippers, popping around on rocks in the middle of the stream, frolicking as they seem to do. It’s always thrilling, no matter what I see. Even chipmunks will grab my attention, especially if they are particularly surly. My mood soars when I am out in all of this.
A favorite wildlife encounter—among the best I’ve had in my life—happened here. A couple years ago, in the fall, I thought to step out onto some flat rocks to facilitate a better vantage point for a photograph of the changing leaves. I took a step, heard a splashing at my feet, looked down, and saw a decent-sized garter snake engaged in swallowing a small brook trout.
This snake had the fish firmly by the tail. Up out of the water, pinned between two slimy stones, the fish’s gills were flexing steadily, but not quickly. It was dying. Being killed, actually. My immediate reaction was to want to rescue the fish, but I hesitated. Why should its life be more important than that of the snake, a creature who must prey on others or die? So I left them alone, and sat back to watch the struggle unfold. I was transfixed, and found it oddly emotional. The fish wiggled and strained at times, but the snake was patient. Slowly its jaws were taking in more and more of the fish. It was probably a week’s meal, and that snake wasn’t about to let the trout go. It was hard for me to imagine the snake could even manage the entire fish, but obviously it knew what it was doing.
At one point hikers, two young women, approached with raucous, unleashed, lab-looking dogs. I stood from my crouch to keep them away with wide, waving arms. I didn’t want the dogs to mess up what the snake was trying to accomplish. My attempted explanation—sputtered things about a snake and a fish and unhinged beasts—likely sounded like the ravings of a madman. The women eyed me with looks of mild concern before ascending a steep hill that leads up and out of this little canyon.
I couldn’t watch the entire drama play out. Darkness was falling, I had no headlamp, and I had a place to be. I remained creekside as long as I could, then I hustled back out of there, tightly clutching my cell phone and the photos I’d taken. I vowed to return the next day and see if there was any sign of what had happened, and I did. But there was nothing there. No snake, no fish, and I’ve seen neither species in that location since.
I remember though, and I still keep my eyes open.