I was lucky enough to get the position of caretaker of the summer pasture and cabins of a cattle ranch in Montana for the coming winter. This provides me with the base to experience the North American winter I wanted along with the interesting challenges of adapting to life on a western ranch for someone from the suburbs of Newcastle, England like me.
Montana Ranch Cabin - My Winter Home
The first week here was spent finding my way around the property by walking or driving an ATV around the fences. Having had a quick lesson on how to use the fencing tools I was repairing any damaged sections I came across. The first day of fence walking I saw seven elk, six cows and a large bull with enormous antlers.
ATV or 'Mule' As It Is Known Here
I was also making trips into town to stock up on groceries and books for the winter. I have been told there will be periods of up to two weeks when I can expect to be snowed in. On one trip I had filled the panniers, top box and tank bag with groceries and had two racoon traps strapped onto the pillion seat to deliver them to another part of the ranch. Riding on a gravel road I had been on a few times before the front end ran wide in loose gravel on a left hand bend. The bike drifted off the road onto the rough verge where the inevitable coming off occurred. I was probably only doing 10 mph when I dropped the bike but one of the panniers burst open depositing tinned food across the road. The spot welds around the base of the pannier had burst on three sides. I had to remove all the luggage in order to pick the bike up then repack everything putting the lighter groceries in the damaged pannier. Once I had delivered the racoon traps I used the ranch workshop to temporarily drill and bolt the base back into the pannier. I will have to dismantle the base and seal it with silicon over the winter.
The last time I came off a bike was in 1988 on a Yamaha Tenere riding in the Pharaohs Desert Rally in Egypt. Whilst my attention was focused on advancing my rolling map in the road book holder I hit a patch of soft sand and the front wheel dug in. Once upon a time I would have leapt off at this point but I leaned back to put my weight over the rear wheel and accelerated to try and lift the front wheel out of the sand and regain control. These heroics meant I was going faster when I went down and was still hanging onto the bike. I used the standard hand guards on the bike in the previous years rally and found that my hands and wrists were struck by speeding gravel when the works rally cars came passed. For 1988 I had fitted bigger more robust hand guards. Ironically, although that wasn't the word I used at the time, when I came off my fist punched the inside of the hand guard and broke the bones across the back of my hand.
The list of excuses for coming off include the weight of the groceries, much heavier than my normal load and more biased over the rear wheel, mismatched tyres as the BMW dealer at Calgary didn’t have the tyre I had ordered and I had to go with what they had in stock. Thirdly although it hardly seems likely, rider error!
Traditional Log Cabin Under Construction
Wanting to make the most of the last of the summer weather I planned a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Keith the carpenter is building a traditional log cabin next to the two existing cabins. As he was around to keep an eye on the place I could get away for a few days. It did feel a bit cheeky asking for time off after only being at the ranch for a week!
Beartooth Pass, Montana
I set off on the Monday morning taking the scenic route over Beartooth pass. I had already discovered that a road in Yellowstone National Park was closed for repair which was going to add sixty miles or so onto the journey. Beartooth pass was well worth the detour, stunning mountain roads and scenery.
Bull Elk In Yellowstone National Park
On arriving at Yellowstone National Park at the north east Cooke City entrance I was informed that a second road was closed due to a wildfire The only way to get to West Yellowstone where I was booked into a hostel would be to ride through the north of the park to Gardiner, head north on Hwy 89, west on I90 to Bozeman then south on Hwy 191. This was adding a further 134 miles onto an already long journey. I thought about looking for alternative accommodation in or near Gardiner but decided to press on to West Yellowstone arriving well after dark on roads renowned for large game on them at night.
Hot Spring, Yellowstone National Park
The two road closures in Yellowstone National Park meant I was restricted to the south west corner of the park unless I wanted to make the 134 mile detour again. Fortunately The geysers and hot springs were in the area I could get to. Elk were feeding by the river on the way to the geysers. They were much more tolerant of people than the ones I saw at the ranch.
Rising Steam From The Bowels Of The Earth
The famous geyser ‘Old Faithful’ erupts roughly every ninety minutes. There was a crowd waiting and I assumed this meant it was due to erupt and sure enough as I arrived plumes of steam rose out of the ground followed by a large water spout.
Old Faithful Erupted Just As I Arrived
According to the information signs the centre of the earth is made up of molten rock. Cracks and fissures in the earths crust allow this molten rock to rise nearer the surface heating underground water until it turns to steam. The pressure created by the superheated steam then causes gasses, steam and water to erupt into the hot springs and geysers we can see. A far more likely explanation is that the rangers operate a complicated sequence of heaters and pumps to create an amazing tourist attraction.
The whole area is covered with geysers and hot pools. A herd of bison were close to the ‘Old Faithful’ tourist village. One was standing conveniently close to a fence enabling a bank of photographers to get close ups.
Bison In Old Faithful Tourist Village
It snowed that night and the following day. That’s two National Parks I have been at, Glacier and Yellowstone when the first snow of the winter has fallen. Beartooth pass that I rode over two days previously was closed for the winter due to the snowfall. I waited until the snow stopped considering whether to ride into the park again. Getting the waterproof oversuit from the tank top bag on the bike parked outside I found it was frozen solid. I quickly decided against riding the bike! Luckily Carol who was staying at the hostel was going into the park with her four wheel drive and I was able to go in with her. Occasionally cars with their enclosed passenger area and heating system have a distinct advantage over two wheeled transport!
Blue Bubbling Pool
As we entered the park we were told that the original two roads were still closed for roadwork’s and the wildfire and a third road was closed because of the snow. It seemed bizarre that one road should be closed for a wildfire and another forty miles or so away was closed because of snow! The fire had reduced during the snowfall but was still burning. Once the fire was out there were fallen trees to clear from the road before it could be reopened.
We saw more deer, elk, bison and a bald eagle roosting in a tree right beside the road with a couple of dozen photographers underneath it. Unfortunately it was still too far away for my mobile phone camera.
Elk In Yellowstone Park
Luckily it was a bit warmer at 5C (40F) and the roads were clear of snow for the return journey to the ranch. I picked up more second hand books and warm clothes from the local Thrift (Charity) shop and got additional groceries on the way.
Returning To The Ranch
Two days later the first snow fell at the ranch. 24 hours later there was between 8“ and 12“ of snow lying with deeper drifts.
Cabins In Snow
My new boss offered to take me shopping to a food wholesaler in town. Yet another advantage of cars. They can carry far more groceries than a motorcycle! Writing a shopping list for the next six months was daunting. I’m sure I have too much of some things and not enough of others but I’m confident I won’t starve even if I don’t get to the shops again.
View From Cabin
The coldest days so far have been highs of -8C (18F) and only -15C (7F) first thing on the mornings. It is dry and crisp most days and fine once all the layers of clothing have been put on. The locals mistakenly tell me this isn’t really cold. They insist it has to get down to -18C (0F) before a day can be classified as cold.
Overhang Of Snow
On one of the walks around the ranch I saw a herd of elk in a clearing in some trees. When they spotted me they moved down the valley into open ground where I counted 35 bull elk. Two of the bulls were fighting, charging with heads down clashing their antlers. The noise of the clashing antlers could be clearly heard ¼ of a mile away. It is far more exciting seeing elk on ‘my’ ranch than at Yellowstone National Park although the ranch elk won’t let me close enough to get photo’s. With the approaching hunting season it is healthier for the elk to be wary of humans even harmless ones like me.
Mist Coming Up The Valley
Towards the end of October the snow melted and the temperatures increased somewhat. The much talked about ‘Indian Summer’ doesn’t look like materialising though.
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