Summer’s End – The “Last Best” Weeks
~Doug Stevens; The Graytrekker
Please excuse the obvious reference to “Montana – The Last Best Place”, but it is how I feel about the last two weeks of summer. While astronomically speaking, summers ends with the fall equinox, on or about September 21st, culturally, it seems to end with the Labor Day holiday weekend. The kids go back to school, the boat gets covered and put away until next year, football starts, etc. However, there are still about 2 weeks of actual summer left between when people have switched into a fall frame of mind and when fall actually starts. For most years, no-one has told Mother Nature this. Those last 2 weeks of summer, “Summer’s End”, can be some of the best days of the year to get out. The heat of August has cooled off, the days are a bit shorter, the nights a bit cooler and longer (better for star-gazing), the bugs are now gone, but the days can still be sunny and quite warm. With the full array of fall splendor is still 2 weeks away, you can already see first intimations of the fall colors in the mountains, hinting at what is to come. While most plants have gone to seed, there are still some flowering at this time of year, such as the bluebells and the fleabane – purple colored daisies. The fruit on the mountain ash has become a deep orange/red and the huckleberry bushes are taking on their deep brick red colors. Up high, if you look carefully, you can still find some huckleberries that the bears missed. Other green foliage, such as the mountain willows, thimbleberries and some cottonwoods begin to display a yellowish hue. If there has been some rain at the end of August/beginning of September (and there usually has been), the mushrooms are beginning to emerge. To top it off, all this is happening under (usually) blue, warm skies.
If it has been a smokey summer, by summer’s end the skies are usually a lot clearer due to that late summer rain, [see Smoked Out of Glacier Again – https://www.distinctlymontana.com/node/40298]. OK - so that wasn’t an issue this year, but in years past it certainly has. The wildlife is a bit more active than before Labor Day. Now you can hear the first bugling of the elk heading into their rut. Perhaps a word of caution is warranted here. If you are heading out into bear habitat, know that this is a very active period for them, too. Known as “hyperphagia”, they are hungry and putting down as many calories as they can before the onset of winter and hibernation. Please carry bear spray and be prudent!
The added benefit of this time is there are usually far fewer people in the mountains, without having to sacrifice decent weather - a definite “win-win” situation. There is greater availability of campsites, fewer people on the trails – more alone time. An exception would be the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Here there is an early opening to the rifle season (generally Sept 15) and there is a lot of activity at the trailheads and along the main corridors with many trucks and horse trailers coming and going and large pack trains packing in supplies for the hunting camps there. But get off the main thoroughfares, and The Bob is big enough to absorb quite a large number of people before you notice them.
If, instead, you head to the parks, state or national, where hunting is not allowed, that will thin the numbers out a bit, as well. It is true, though, that visitation rates to our parks has been growing steadily over the last several years, with even September numbers up. However, there are significantly fewer people than during the pre-Labor Day summer. If one avoids the main areas where these visitors generally go (like the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park), one can more easily find that soul-restoring solitude many of us need. Indeed, I have recently returned from a 10 hour, 14 mile day hike in Glacier to a backcountry lake and saw no-one all day except around one of the backcountry campsites and the trailhead. It was sunny and warm, the scenery was absolutely fantastic and I was totally alone!
Montana is blessed with such incredible, diverse physical majesty. Summer’s End is a perfect time to get out and really explore and appreciate what we have here at home – so put down that remote and get out there!
Happy Trails – Doug Stevens – “The Graytrekker”.