GREAT BEAR WILDERNESS - A wolf, a bear and a bare-naked woman -- Gazette photographer Larry Mayer has seen some unusual sights on his many flights into the airstrip at Schafer Meadows in Montana’s Great Bear Wilderness.
Mayer has been flying planes for 33 years and visiting Schafer Meadows for 30 years. It is one of the few remaining wilderness airstrips still maintained in the Lower 48 states and the only one in Montana.
Grandfathered in when the Great Bear Wilderness was formed in 1978, the airstrip was carved out of the timber in 1932. A team of horses was used to help clear the 3,200-foot-long, 60-foot-wide strip. The first flight recorded into Schafer was in August of 1933.
For Mayer, something unusual always seems to occur when he visits Schafer Meadows. He’s had to buzz the meadow to push a moose off the landing strip. In 2008, he photographed a wolf curiously investigating his friend Gary Connelly from behind as he cast his fly rod.
This year, he saw a black bear as he was hiking back to the landing area and prepared himself for a run-in with the critter as it looked like their separate paths might intersect. When willows began rustling alongside the trail ahead of him, Mayer got ready to draw his Glock pistol. Instead, a grouse burst out of the brush, nearly giving him a heart attack.
But the bear was not as odd as the bare-naked woman he saw.
Rafter drop-off point
The Schafer Meadows airstrip is used to fly in rafters for trips down the remote Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The only other way for rafters to reach the water is by horseback. So the strip sees a lot of traffic during the short rafting season between when there’s too much water and when there’s not enough.
When Mayer went to chat with a recently landed group about shooting some photos of their rafting trip departure, he was surprised to see a naked woman casually walking around.
Mayer said he was too stunned to shoot any photos as proof of the unusual event, even though his friends later eagerly asked to view them.
One of the rafters nearby had no such problem. He called her over to pose for a photo atop their loaded craft, but his buddy quickly put the kibosh on that shoot, even though she willingly complied. It seems the friend didn’t want his wife seeing the photo on his camera, which his rafting partner had picked up.
As Mayer shot photos of one of the rafters catching a fat cutthroat trout he heard the guy exclaim, “Man, this is the best trip ever!”