By Robert Lucke
With winter activities upcoming, recreationalists should use much care when recreating in the adjacent Bear Paw Mountains.
There is an old saying that mountains make their own weather and that is particularly true in the Bear Paws.
More often than not, there is far different weather during the winter in the mountains than in cities as close as Havre, Chinook and Big Sandy.
Fortunately for the recreationalist, that Bear Paw winter weather is more forgiving than prairie weather. However, the words to live by are more often than not. That is not always true. When blizzards strike in the Bear Paws, they can strike with a vengeance that precludes travel of any kind. Those blizzards can come up most any time and can last for several days.
If there is one rule of thumb to go by when recreating in the Bear Paws, it would be not to trust weather forecasts. Far better to trust that old saying, that mountains make their own weather. What happens there can be sudden, dramatic and life threatening.
Whiteouts are common in the winter season. That is a time when during snows, it is impossible to tell when the horizon begins and the ground surface ends. Experiencing a Bear Paw whiteout for a period of time can cause confusion and loss of direction. This is especially bad when out on foot or on skies. But it can be just as bad in an auto as well because the road disappears along with everything else in a whiteout.
Best way to handle a whiteout when in one outside of a vehicle is to determine that any incoming threat of storm could be a whiteout and head back to safety quickly. When in an auto, and a whiteout occurs it is best to stop, stay put and not try to travel. Often whiteout travel lands autos in deep ditches rather quickly. Better to just be stranded rather than to be stranded and stuck. A word of caution with being stranded. Be very cautious as anyone coming behind won't see autos in front of them until it is too late to stop. Try your best to park out of the way of traffic when stranded in a whiteout.
Cold and warm extremes can plague winter hikes and cross country ski adventures. It can be forty out and within an hour turn to twenty below. A good rule of thumb there is that if it is very cold on the prairies and much warmer in the mountains, be very careful because it can turn cold in the mountains quickly.
That is why dressing for the occasion and many more occasions is very important. The fellow in the outdoor store who tries to sell you the layered look is not just trying to make a bigger commission. It is most important to dress in layers that can be taken off as need be and even more important, be put back on as mountain temperatures change.
Fill your auto with things that can help in a stranded situation as well. It is always good to keep a couple of sleeping bags in the vehicle during the winter along with plenty of candy bars, a coffee can, and candle. Many is the person who tells of being saved from freezing to death in his car by burning a candle in a coffee can during the night. Chains are a good item to keep with you and cell phones are great as well. However, it is a foolish person who takes off in the middle of a blizzard to the top of a mountain because his cell phone is out of range where he is parked. Another good rule of thumb is that lots of cell phones will not work at all in most of the steep Bear Paw valleys. Unfortunately, that is where most of the roads are.
And of course keep the vehicle in good working order and filled with gas along with plenty of gas line de-icer and anti-freeze.
Best rule of thumb of all is don't take chances in the winter in the Bear Paws whether you are in an auto, on a snow mobile, on skis or on a winter hike. Be cautious and when it looks like trouble may be around the corner, leave, because it probably is.