I had the great pleasure to work for the fine folks at Bleacher Report this summer on a story about smokejumpers — women and men who jump out of perfectly good airplanes into forest fires. I spent a couple of days at the Aerial Fire Center in West Yellowstone, Mont.
The jumpers are an elite group — experts at a variety of skills who have worked their way up through the ranks of Forest Service fire fighting.
They’re supremely fit people, each given 90 minutes a day to devote to their own personal fitness routine.
They jump wearing 100 pounds of firefighting and camping gear — enough to sustain their efforts unassisted for three days.
And the gear they use is so specialized, they must make most of it themselves. And what they don’t manufacture, they often adapt from other applications.
Time not spent fighting fires is spent maintaining and repacking gear. Parachutes are inflated and inspected before being repacked.
The hours are long and a lot of time is spent away from home and loved ones.
During the summer of 2015, the good people of the World Wildlife Fund hired me to spend a couple of weeks up on the Hi-Line in northern Montana photographing a multitude of things. Among those things were the birds in and around the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge near Malta. Here’s some of what we found:
To see these on my website, visit ThomasLeePhoto.com
Grain is a big part of the history of Saco and northern Montana, but locals say this elevator, standing above the railroad and U.S. Highway 2, Saco’s main drag, is scheduled for demolition.
Shaped like a sleeping buffalo, this boulder, once perched above the nearby Milk River, is honored by Montana native peoples in traditional stories and through offerings like tobacco. It was moved to its present location along U.S. Highway 2 just west of Saco in 1967, according to a sign nearby.
Nena Magmend waits on the regulars at the Cabin Cafe she owns with her husband, Andrew, in downtown Saco. Magmend says they remodeled the cafe a few years ago, but kept the original counters, showing the wear from years of elbows.
Robert Plouffe says that when his brother moved into a new home, there was no room for all of his hunting trophies. So Plouffe put them up in the Pay N Save, one of the main businesses in downtown Saco. Plouffe is renowned for his smoked meat products and has a first-rate custom meat processing business.
“We found a nice house for a good price,” says Patty Pollock, 19, of moving to Saco with her boyfriend and family about two years ago from Cut Bank. Pollock’s co-worker at the Pay N Save, Patti Minnerath says she has lived in Saco for 32 years. “It’s very quiet,” she says. “The way I like it.”
Saco lies in the northern great plains, described by some as a desolate place. Still, there was enough traffic at this crossroads for a candidate to think it worthwhile to put up a sign. The candidate, Bruce Meyers, won election to Montana’s House of Representatives in 2014. This picture was made almost a year after that election — or maybe a year before the next election in 2016.
Howard Pippin, 76, remembers his youth in Saco when a lot of small farms added up to a population of about 500. Now, Pippin says outside his home, those small farms have consolidated into larger ones and Saco’s population is more like 170.
Saco’s downtown faces south, toward U.S. Highway 2 and the railroad, so business owners like Dan Desler have to keep up with building maintenance. Desler says he lives most of the year in Eugene, Ore., but has been coming out to Saco for more than 25 years to hunt and fish. Some years back, he went in with Rick Nelson and bought the Saco Motel.
Saco sits atop a natural gas resource known as the Bowdoin Dome. The town has its own gas well and offers residents natural gas for their homes at low prices.
A short drive from Saco, Nelson Reservoir is one of the best places in the state to catch a walleye.
See these on my website: http://bit.ly/2c0Hl3n.
A batch of favorite things from a good friend with agricultural roots and an urban present:
And this acorn I found last fall but can’t throw away:
You can see more from this project at ThomasLeePhoto.com.
Pollinators, like bees, are important part of the lives of innumerable plants and animals. Without them, many food crops would not exist. And pollinator numbers are declining, according to an article in the current issue of Montana Quarterly.
Laura Burkle is an ecology professor at Montana State University. She and U.S. Forest Service entomologist Kevin Runyon are leading a study of pollinators near Bozeman. They’re trying to determine the effects of global warming on pollinator numbers.
On a hillside south of Bozeman on a sunny April afternoon, the team sets up equipment to measure the scent of small yellow flowers called glacier lilies. While the machines work, the pollinators feeding on the flowers will be caught and then brought back to the lab to be identified, Burkle says. The idea is to gather data over time that may help map the effects of global warming on the plants and the pollinators.
It’s not much of a concert poster, but it filled the room at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs for Jason DeShaw last summer.
DeShaw is a country singer from Plentywood who is open about his own struggles with mental illness. He tells the crowd at the hospital that he was first diagnosed in 2010 after a breakdown while he was on tour in Saskatchewan. After a 400-mile dash to Billings, Shaw tells the crowd, he was asked if he heard voices.
“Yes I do.” Whose?
“And into the psych ward I went,” DeShaw says.
Four years later, DeShaw is on tour as a performer, speaker and listener, visiting Montana small towns and large cities, advocating for mental illness awareness.
He speaks from the heart, he says, and sings from it too. And his honesty, courage and eloquence have impressed and affected lives. He tells Montana Quarterly writer Brian D’Ambrosio of a performance an an eastern Montana high school that inspired several students to seek counseling for depression that many of their friends and family did not know existed.
“Mental illness has made me a better human being,” DeShaw says. That’s a hell of a thing.
To see these pictures bigger, click here.