The Roundup -

The Promise of the Equinox Comes to the Montana Prairie


The Missouri Breaks in late spring where Rick Graetz caught the arrival of the season (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

During the Dec. 21 winter solstice, the sun takes a brief respite on the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Over the next six months, it journeys north for a June 21 rendezvous with the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5 degrees north latitude. En route, on about March 20, for one brief moment it touches its rays directly over the equator, declaring the spring equinox.

In Montana, this pronouncement is merely a promise of something to come, as March's third week usually finds us yet deep in winter. The pledge is that it will happen – the only question is when.

When it's early May in Montana, spring generally is just beginning to show at some lower elevations. As one climbs in altitude to upper valleys and then toward the high country, the landscape is still buried in deep snow. Some places in the Upper Gallatin show upwards of 13 to 14 feet of tightly packed snow cover. Throughout western Montana many locations in the mid elevations of 6,000 to 6,500 feet hold snow depths ranging from 10 to 12 feet. And the pack is still growing with cold temperatures persisting.

Rick Graetz penned what will follow quite a few years ago. He has had the privilege to observe the arrival of this guarantee in various forms, but one moment in time shines:

Early May several years ago, I was in the Missouri River Breaks near Jordan photographing the CMR National Wildlife Refuge. I ventured outside before first light to check on the weather. Snow was spitting from low clouds, and a north-northeast wind indicated an upslope condition, usually a prelude to a winter storm and advancing arctic air. My first inclination was to stay in bed a bit longer and see what would happen, but something tugged at me to set out.

I pointed my iron chariot north toward the Missouri. After traveling about 15 or so miles into the Breaks on a primitive road that was quickly turning to gumbo, I elected to walk. The north wind was still blowing, clouds were low and snow fluttered all around. Winter was attempting to hold its ground.

In 1902, William Hornaday of the American Museum of Natural History was in this area hunting. Through the help of a local rancher, he uncovered one of the world's first intact T. rex fossils. I had decided to drop down into one of gulches – not in hopes of discovering dinosaur remains but rather to escape the wind and explore the coulee.

Nearing the bottom, I saw the clouds were lifting a bit, and after a while I noticed the snow had ceased and patches of blue sky were overhead. I climbed the 600 or so vertical feet out of the ravine to a sense of equilibrium. The wind had quit and the air was noticeably warmer.

Heading out on foot along one of the extended ridges, I soon encountered a rising wind, only this time it accelerated from the southwest, bringing a drying effect that erased the clouds. The canvas above was now deep blue and the breeze maintained a steady but warm pace. I continued my trek to a point overlooking the Breaks and the Missouri River. By now, the sun had warmed the air to the 70s. While perched on a rock viewing the soft fusion of earth and sky and scanning the labyrinth of prairie splendor below, I noted small flowers literally coming to bloom around me. In that instant, I realized the prairie was turning its face toward spring. The warmth of the prevailing wind couldn't be refused. Winter had entered into a calm surrender, and at that instant the promise of the equinox was delivered to the northern Montana prairie.

It is not that winter wouldn't have a brief puff now and then – early spring allows it that freedom – but it wouldn't control the climate again until fall, when winds from the north would signal it was time to return.

Now the celebration leading toward the summer could begin. More flowers would show, and the sky would soon be filled with convoys of ducks, geese and birds making there way back home to the Missouri River and the numerous potholes and refuges scattered throughout the northern Great Plains.

I began the trek back to where I had left my vehicle in the face of a warm, gentle, southwest blow, and life was good.


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