Every holiday season, our Bozeman-based staff members take turns staying on American Prairie Reserve so that our remote staff are able to travel and visit their families near and far. Over Christmas this year, APR’s Annual Giving & Foundation Officer Michael Wainwright spent a few days on the Reserve exploring the winter landscape and reflecting on what it means to celebrate in nature. Here’s his story…
Every December, a hidden celebration unfolds on the prairie. For many, the holidays are a frantic time, with shopping, visits to family and friends, and festivities throughout the winter months. This year, I decided to enjoy the holidays in a slightly less traditional way by seeing how nature celebrates on American Prairie Reserve.
Since winter weather is often unpredictable in northeast Montana, I left for the Reserve on Christmas Eve wearing several layers. To my surprise, sunny blue skies and relatively warm (by Montana standards!) temperatures greeted me when I arrived. Crossing through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge south of the Reserve, I had to squint to take in the sparkling “desert” of thin snow, realizing I’d forgotten sunglasses.
While western Montana’s mountains are stunning, the sky over the wide open prairie truly gives meaning to one of our state’s nicknames – the “big sky state.” As I drove down the empty highway towards Dry Fork Road, I couldn’t help but wonder what lay hidden in the land’s many folds. Looking over the hills and ridges on either side of the highway, I realized that although I could see for miles in either direction, many of the landscape’s intricacies are hidden from the eye.
As I approached Reserve Headquarters, the land’s colors shifted from glistening white to burnt gold as the snow revealed a stubble of prairie grasses rolling over the hills. I found the bison herd nibbling at clumps of grass in the Headquarters yard. They reluctantly scattered as my SUV rumbled up the driveway, then began to form a rough circle around the parked vehicle. “I hope they’re in a good mood,” I thought. Although collectively weighing several tons, the bison “welcome wagon” ran off as soon as the diver’s side door creaked open, regrouping near the creek a few years away.
While drinking coffee on headquarters deck Christmas morning, I couldn’t help but notice that despite their size and power, the bison seemed wary of me. Perhaps they still harbored some ancestral memory of a time when people were less friendly towards them, or perhaps they were so focused on the daily routine of finding forage and raising their young that they hardly noticed me watching them.
Despite the stillness of the winter landscape, signs of life still abound. Hiking one of the trails near headquarters, I noticed small, canine-like prints running into some nearby shrubs – a coyote, perhaps, or fox. I also thought of the intricate network of life beneath my feet, where animals hibernated or lay in wait for spring.
Later that day, I drove out to Fourchette Overlook in the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Suddenly I slammed the brakes, the SUV almost spinning sideways as I came to a halt. A long band of brown and gold was flooding the road ahead. At first it looked like a torrent of murky water streaming over the snow, but as it changed course and made for my parked vehicle, I could see legs, hoofs, and finally antlered heads bounding over the landscape.
This was the largest pack of pronghorn I’d seen on the Reserve. More impressive still was the recollection that just two years before, pronghorn numbers had been severely reduced by one of the harshest winters to hit the region in more than fifty years. Here was a promising sign of nature’s resilience.
My morning drive ended on the rolling hills above the Missouri River with striking views of the frozen Fourchette Bay below. With only the sound of wind whipping through the exposed grass, I felt as if I had stepped straight into the “big sky” that greeted me the afternoon before.
That night, I took to our headquarter’s back porch to see a different face of the sky – one speckled with stars and wrapped in the white ribbon of the milky way. As a child, my family had spent many Christmases driving around the neighborhood in search of the best light displays. Yet, none of those displays could compare to the “Christmas lights” that adorned the sky that night. As the evening chill descended and I headed back inside, I reflected that these festivities had been going on since the beginning of time – and would continue long after I had departed the next day – demonstrating that nature, for all of its ruggedness, never ceases to celebrate.