The new kitchen is nearly done. The modern cabinets are installed and we are waiting for the counter and appliance delivery. After that it’s just a faucet and touch-up paint. Work continues in the master bathroom. This week we’ll install a heated floor and finish laying tile. Soon after it will be time for the vanity install and counters. After all that we’ll be on our knees for a few too may days installing the engineered flooring in the living room, master bedroom, powder room, entry, and laundry room. I’m going to need a tylenol.
Last night we hiked with a friend at Priest Pass just southwest of Helena. The pass is so named because 19th century Jesuits left behind a stone cross embedded in the hillside. I like going up there to see the remains of the narrow gauge railroad that served as temporary route over the continental divide while they built a tunnel. There’s also an old adit and miner’s shack. Mine and railroad spur were abandoned before the 20th century started. The trestle has stood strong for over 100 years but now time and beetle killed trees are conspiring to bring it down. Yesterday we found ripe huckleberries and whortleberries and a trio of through hikers. The through hikers had started at or near the border with Mexico and were only a week or so away from arriving in Canada. Our friend John shared some homegrown cherry tomatoes and pea pods. He works for Helena Food Share so he knows how to share food. I ate my snack of cold fried spaghetti and dodn’t offer a bite to anyone. That’s how I am.
I hope your summer is full of excursions and interesting people, too.
Babisal Ranch is at the heart of the Norther Jaguar Project’s reserve. The cows are long gone but the original structure is used as a kitchen and two new adobe and stone guest rooms have been added. Burt and I will turn an old water tank into a third guest room. Year round these facilities are used by cowboys and biologists and other visitors. Overflow people stay in tents or hammocks. On this trip Burt and I scored a cabin of our own. The beds are traditional rancho cots made from burlap suspended between two Xs. With a Thermarest pad the bed is pretty comfortable but it moves a lot and the motion made me a little queasy. More Galapagos training I told myself.
Our group consisted of two donors, Mark and Monica, a photographer, Charles, us, and Randy and Turtle, NJP’s staff/guides. After the 12 hours of driving Burt and I headed straight to bed after dinner and didn’t really get a good look at our companions. We were grateful for the warm food and welcome gifts of NJP hats and personal napkins. In the morning we had some more filling and tasty vegan food and then piled in a pickup for a nearby hike.
All seven humans and three dogs rode up the steep mile or so to another defunct ranch. We would hike up the a tight, wet canyon and pass some camera traps and see what some people consider the spiritual heart of the reserve. In fifteen bumpy minutes we reached our starting point. The abandoned ranch buildings were full of wood perfect for our project. It will be fun to deconstruct and reconstruct out in the wilderness. The old wood will look beautiful in a new situation.
Pretty quickly we reached a camera trap. Randy and Turtle removed the data chip and tried to find a camera that could reveal its secrets. There are a few different models of cameras in use at the reserve and they all have their own way of formatting chips. Luckily our third and last try at reading the chip was successful. The chips and batteries are changed out every one to three months. Since this particular trap’s chip had been changed four mountain lions, a few bobcats, and an ocelot had passed by the trap. The ocelot passed just the day before we did. Smiles all around thinking the ocelot was nearby watching us. As Randy says, I haven’t seen a jaguar but I know they’ve seen me. I like that feeling.
Our walk to the canyon wasn’t more than half an hour. We could have gone further but we didn’t feel like swimming and mud crawling so we sat around and enjoyed the scene. I visited the spiders. Snacks and water and getting to know you conversations were had by all. After people were satisfied with the hanging around we had a choice, return home by the trail we had taken in or canyoneer our way down canyon. We chose the adventure route. It was pretty rough going but Randy was a competent guide and very able assistant. Burt and I did fine on our own. We mostly traveled ahead of the group. It took us much longer to reach the truck going down the boulder filled stream bed but it was also more fun. The dogs have a different version. One ran home on the trail. Another was lifted through the worst spot. The third either jumped or fell twenty feet into a pool. She was not happy. Eventually it was just a stream bed and we all dispersed. Burt and Randy went to inventory wood and I wandered downstream alone.
At the truck point we all reunited. Burt and I opted to avoid the truck bed for the downhill jostle and walked back to camp along the stream. It was a tussocky and watery route back. It was noticeable that there were not a lot of birds. When we finally reached camp it was time for lunch and a siesta.
That evening we took a silent sunset walk. We heard an elf owl. Or was it pygmy? I’ve forgotten. Tracks were seen in the creek bed sand. Quail flew up. We thought they were scaled quail but they were Elegant Quail. Similar but not the same. Dinner and bed.
Climate Change factoid of the day: Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. I’ll spare you the why. The results are more downpours and less drizzle. Obviously this hurts the brain a bit when you think ‘but droughts are worse.’ Indeed they are. The change is in the how much and where the rain is falling. Bridges, storm sewers, roads need to be designed to handle large rain events. Agriculture has it’s own problems.
By downpour we mean a lot of precipitation in a short period of time.
Life on the rancho in Templeton is sweet. Nice walking abounds. The internet works fine. The clients feed and walk us. I finished my first week’s course work in a day. The presenters estimated 3-4 hours of reading and video watching per week and I got it done. I passed all my quizzes, too. After that I dealt with the IRS.
Our mail came (thanks, Sue). It was full of dog treats and dog drugs left over after Sue and Jay’s dog Scotty flew to the other side. Scotty lasted a long time and he was ready to see what lay beyond the rainbow bridge. Elvis will benefit from Scotty’s pain pills and anxiety meds. I’d like to believe Elvis is going to last a long time but he hates pain. Maybe the pills will convince him to stick around. Also in the mail was a hilarious letter from the IRS. If you’ve been following along you might remember I couldn’t file our taxes electronically because the IRS could not identify our identity. After much email searching and some lengthy holds and calls with the TurboTax and IRS I finally submitted our taxes in paper. I felt so old and wasteful. Retro. This month the IRS’s suspicions were raised by our paper submission. I had to call them to prove it was really me that filed the taxes. Really.
I don’t know what to think. I spent 25 minutes on hold and then another 20 minutes proving I was who I said I was to the IRS. Eventually my service technician said she was as perplexed as I was. I mean who would be impersonating me by filing taxes? Next year I’d like to pay someone to impersonate me and do my taxes. It did occur to me that this was some kind of IRS investigation into my taxes. Like, maybe, they want me to say I did it cause I did it wrong. Well, if that’s true, I did do it but I did my best to do it right. If I accidentally did it wrong we’ll just have to deal with that but first you’ll have to prove it was me being me and not some other person pretending to be me here and on the phone. Got that?
The other day we took a walk to the Harmony Headlands. This path to the ocean was littered with regurgitated pellets. I must have seen over 100. The number was impressive but so was the location. Normally pellets accumulate under a birds perch. An owl will catch and eat a mouse and then fly off to digest. A while later the owl belches up the nasty bits. Pellets can be fun to investigate. The pellets we found were sitting in the open on a path with no perches above. Meanwhile rodents and lagomorphs were everywhere. Rabbits peered out from the bushes. Gopher holes dotted the landscape. Fat and I presume happy birds of prey soared over hear. I saw a golden eagle on the drive in and the northern harriers put on a spectacular flight show. The area looked barren but it was surging with life in a circle of eat or be eaten.
Here are a couple of pictures from our hike to Puerto Viejo or Old Port. When this area produced commercial amounts of sugar cane the shipments left via rowboat at this port. Large shipping vessels anchored off shore. There are bits of old infrastructure to admire such as the stone quay and dry set rock fences and roads and even the remnants of a turtle cannery but I am always blinded by the dramatic landscape. Here the last vestiges of the mountains crash into the sea. Sea lions blubber about on the rocks below while verdin, black throated sparrow, and a cactus wren sing courtship songs. Sometimes the wind carries the sea lion’s grunts and groan all the way up to our perch. The cardon cactii stand watch like lighthouses on cliff edges. The palo verde, nipped by the harsh salt wind, grows close to the ground with octopus like tentacles.
Traditionally visitors approached this area from the north but a recent hotel development has caused confusion (putting it mildly) and animosity about access. Guards and scary looking dogs patrol the area now and a massive amount of vital mangrove habitat was destroyed, threatening the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat. Best to steer clear even if the road is open. We decided to see what the walk was like from the south and found it to be easy and rather more pleasant because we could avoid all views of the unsightly hotel and its environmental destruction. Yes, our heads are firmly in the sand. From where we parked and walked there was very little evidence of the massive development all around. The area remains a very wild pocket, one of the last, between Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas. Scat all around and game trails onto sheer cliff faces indicated coyotes and/or bobcats make regular excursions into the deep canyons. I hope the area stays protected.
Recently I took my rings in to a guy to be resized. Abel works in an 8′ by 8′ space behind a rack of shoes in Todos Santos. I showed him my rings and asked if he could resize them. He wondered why since they appeared to fit fine and I explained that when I exercise my fingers swell and recently they were swelling so much the rings hurt my hands. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to resize them because one is white gold and the other is palladium but it was easy. Right then and there he put them on a thingy and beat them with a hammer. Beat, check, beat, check. Twenty minutes later they were cleaned polished and just a little but bigger. Thank you, Abel.
We went for a late afternoon walk in the hills with our Montana buddies Aldo and Bequia yesterday. Huge discovery of two burrowing owls on the road as we drove home. The owls were very patient and allowed us all a good look through the binoculars while Burt shined a flashlight. Burrowing owls live underground and prefer to stay close to the ground. They have long legs for walking. Here in baja this species is easy to identify because the other owls are either much bigger or much smaller or have long ears. The squatty head is also a clue to who it is. I played the iBird call but didn’t receive a response. I guess they weren’t fooled.
Burt heads into the mountains on a guided hike Wednesday AM. I’ll be holding down the fort around here alone. I just landed a paying gig as a backup singer so I’ll also be doing that while he’s gone. Side work is a good thing.
Burt pulled out the map and said, “There’s gotta be an easier place to hike in the mountains.” Well we got lost but found what he was looking for anyway. Burt’s original goal was the end of the road about 8 miles south of where we landed but we can’t complain. Rancho Santo Domingo is at the end of a different road and on a trail head into the Sierra de la Laguna. Chito is the current occupant and resident guide. He sent us on our way and we did a short exploratory walk. His dog, I called it bones, followed us. Bones’s love for Olive was unrequited. I guess she prefers men with more meat on their frame. Up the hill from the very old and well shaded ranch house we found a mature orchard with ripe toronjas (grapefruits) and flowering mango trees. The trail followed the arroyo up into the mountains. Birds were sparse because of the heat but this water hole was fantastic.
We turned back early. I am still tired from Sunday’s expedition and we had a music date with Tom. We can visit this place again when we have more time and energy. On our way back down Burt spotted the Cape Robin! I missed it but I can trust Burt knows a robin when he sees one.
Burt’s finally had enough of our annual slog on the skirts of Titi Mountain. I think. We’ve made an annual trek up there every year for the last four year. This year I cried. Between losing the way, the heat, hunger, and the darn beta-blockers I had my work cut out for me. I knew I would be miserable on an uphill hike through the thorn forest and I tried to take it like a big person but the first 40 minutes were really discouraging. I almost quit.
The start of this marathon is a very poor ranch deep in the desert at the edge of an arroyo. In the past the house has been vacant but this year the owners were there with their three skeletal dogs. The burro that rubbed his head on our car all night long last year was not seen. The owners speak a version of Baja Spanish that I find impenetrable. We exchanged pleasantries where every other word was Mande? or Como? What? Hi? What? How are you? Say that again? Great? You? What? Painful. Then the man says, “You play violin.” I heard that. We played music once here 4 years ago and everyone within 10 square miles remembers. Does this make us famous. In a word, yes. At the time it seemed like we were torturing them. Maybe we were. Today he seemed to remember it fondly. He asked if I had brought my violin and seemed disappointed when I said no. Maybe he was just being polite.
This route is located in a spot our friends the deer hunters showed us four years ago. Angel and Ramon agreed to let us tag along while they hunted. That day we covered twice as much ground in the same amount of time. We were faster then but we also had a guide dragging us over and under and through vegetation. On our own we wallow a bit trying to figure out where to go. The area is very wild but also heavily grazed by cattle. There are microtrails everywhere created by cows stomping their way to every green shoot or puddle of water. Cows make trails that are too short for the average gringo. Tree limbs, vines and cactus hang about at the four foot level. Constantly we find ourselves trying to decide if we should climb over a log, pass under that nasty vine, or through the chest high weeds. All this obstacle course like maneuvering while headed uphill. It’s not an enjoyable walk; it is more like an expedition. About an hour in there is a native palm oasis. Things get more enjoyable there.
The thing that keeps us going, besides the annual grudge match, is that we hope to find some of Baja’s endemic birds that live at the higher elevations. Today we had our eyes and ears peeled for the cape robin, the Baird’s junco, and the isolated population of acorn woodpeckers. All of these birds are subspecies of birds found elsewhere but the ones here in Baja have been left isolated by the ocean and the desert. They don’t migrate. They all look slightly different from tehir more mobile colleagues.
At 2:30 and after 4 hours of trudging with ample and lengthy breaks we turned for home. My phone said we’d walked 3 miles. I believe it was closer to 2 but it felt more like 5. So three is a nice compromise. At the turnaround point we had not seen any of our birds. We did find a nice persimmon tree on the edge of the palm oasis and it was full of butter butts (yellow rumped warblers) and orange crowned warblers. The fruit tree is a relic of the sugar processing days. At the ridge there was a sugar cane processing plant. Local people hiked 6 miles every day to work it back in the late 1800s. The workers planted fruit trees on their route. On our way back down, just before the persimmons, Burt spotted a woodpecker. I got my binoculars on it just as it flew and I was 90% certain it was our clown faced acorn woodpecker. Then Burt spotted another one and this next one held still and we both confirmed it was the bird we were looking for. Yippee. All tears were worth it.
We are getting stronger but recovery days are still rough. That is my conclusion after another steep all day hike. Sunday we covered 10 miles. Monday I hardly moved. Sunday and Monday were spent in a campground (free) at the foot of Swift Dam. Fifty two years ago a dam at this location failed and killed at least 28 people. Knowing this a person might get the heebeejeebees staying under a dam. Well, maybe if the reservoir was full I’d worry but the reservoir was very low. Not much chance of a failure when there’s hardly any water.
I tried to find more information about the dam’s failure and the current dam’s purpose but there isn’t much out there on the internet. Fourteen or more inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours up and down the front. Dams were over topped everywhere and two failed on the Blackfeet Reservation. Flood damage ranged from Helena to the Canadian border. Most of the dead were on the Blackfeet Reservation where the two dams failed. There’s a detailed article in the Great Falls Tribune from the 50th Anniversary of the disaster. A new novel was just published with the dam failure as a plot point, too.
The current dam is owned by an irrigation company or cooperative. I’m guessing that’s why the site access is so ‘accessible.’ Unlike Bureau of Reclamation or DoE dams there are no warning signs or even rules posted. Any half able bodied and semi-intrepid person can scramble down to the top of the dam and take a stroll across. It’s feels like a transgression against the rule makers of the world to freely walk out onto this dam. One could fall. A person might jump. Here you are free to take your chances. Nobody, real or electronic, is watching. I liked it. We wondered all around. I even pretended we were water molecules floating over the spillway. I stopped before things got too real.
The fishing in this area is productive but access is tricky. First of all, one side of the river is Blackfeet Nation. You’ll need a permit from them to fish that side. Secondly it’s very brushy. I was too tired to deal with the brush. Ten miles the previous day made me impatient for fishing. After tangling my line one more time than I could tolerate (twice), I walked back to camp. Burt caught some beauties which I happily ate.
The hiking is gorgeous but there is a lot of horse activity. Horses make for messy trails. The Olvis quite like following horses. Trail apples all day long. I’m less enthused about horse poop all day.
More bears were spotted. And a band of kestrels. Seven headed south to Baja. We gave them our regards.
Today we are parked under the Fresno dam on the Milk River. This is in the plains of Montana. The mountains are two hours west. We are headed east to find some birds. Opening day is Thursday. It’s 90 degrees but we are parked under a cottonwood tree and the wind is blowing. And there’s internet access via Verizon.
We’ve been out of range and on the move. A lot has happened since I last had the opportunity to write. We popped into Helena and played Bridge and visited Ruby. Ruby was carried across the Rio Grande river from Mexico into Texas by her grandfather when she was an infant 95 years ago. Her mother was homesick and had returned to Mexico to visit her family. Ruby was accidentally born in Mexico. Her older and younger siblings were all born stateside. What a predicament. Eventually the family settled in Pompeii’s Pillar, MT. When Ruby went to Carroll College (in Helena, MT) in the 40s to become a nurse she finally became a citizen. Burt’s known her for 30ish years. We dropped by her apartment and sang her Cancion Mixteca. While in Helena we also did a couple of hikes and caught up on our laundry.
Burt got us a gig at Buffalo Joe’s up in Dupuyer and so we headed north to camp and sing along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The Front is my favorite scenic area in Montana. Massive cliffs that are the remnants of once undersea reefs jut out into the plains. The edge of big sky country starts here and continues for 1,000 or more miles into the Dakotas and Canada. The land is famous for dinosaur fossils. On the drive up we stopped at the overlook into Egg Mountain. Egg Mountain is a spot full of nesting dinosaur fossils. There are eggs, hatched and unhatched, and parents, and foraging predators all found in one concentrated locale. It’s similar to when birds gather together and nest in one place. While pondering the eggs we couldn’t see Burt found a fossil in the making. It’s a recently deceased red fox. I was tempted to add it to my collection of dead things but it was just a little too ‘damp’ and smelly.
Finally we made it to a campsite along the North Fork of the Teton River. With the towering reefs above our heads we strolled along some abandoned beaver ponds and plotted out a hike for the next day. Burt had remembered reading about Wright Mountain in one of Rosemary and Ed’s guidebooks while we were catching up on laundry and showers. Wright Mountain was just a ways further up the road from where we were camped.
The next day dawned cool and cloudy. That’s a good thing. I cannot recommend undertaking this hike in summer. A 2007 burn removed all shade and there is no water. The route is very steep. I was essentially miserable and delighted at the same time. The propranolol (beta blocker) makes walking uphill very difficult. Every step is a negotiation. The mental effort reminds me of the tricks I’d play to finish marathons. Just 100 more steps. Try a little slower. That’s not pain….Meanwhile I was very happy to be taking a hike in real mountains. I thought maybe I’d even make it to the top of a real mountain. Delusional thinking brought on by summit fever.
About two hours in we encountered a man on his way down. This guy was very perky and friendly but he said three things that hilariously sapped us of all will to go on. In the course of telling is what a great hike it was he mentioned that the trail above was much steeper than what we had already done (nobody asked), he mentioned that it looked like rain, maybe even hail (nobody asked), and he mentioned that the trail was really loose because the mules had torn it up (nobody asked). He made it sound like a nightmare and he out right stated, “of course you are planning to turn around at the saddle and not go to the top.” Hey buddy, “Nobody asked for your advice!” But alas, he was right. We got to the saddle and saw some heavy clouds and a very exposed trail heading even more steeply up into the scree. I could hardly put ten steps together at this point. We sat down and did what we do best. We ate. By my calculations we accomplished 3 miles and 2,000′ of elevation gain. We had another mile and 1,400′ more if we were to reach the top. It was not our destiny that day. Mount Wright is out there mocking me.
So team Gypsy Carpenters turned around and they were glad they did. The decent was rough. We had to rest twice going downhill. One time we nearly fell asleep. We must be maturing. In the end we were both satisfied with our accomplishment. The next day we did another uphill hike but only for a mile and a half. Clary Coulee is a gulch between the limestone fins of the front. In the cool coulee air we found unburned trees and a diverse flock of birds. Mountain chickadees and juncos and jays and a cooper’s hawk among other birds. I was wiped out from the day before but dutifully made my bird list and entered it into eBird.
That afternoon (Friday) we arrived in Dupuyer. We had a show to do. The Gypsy Carpenters put up their new sound system and put on the dog. Buffalo Joe’s attracts a diverse clientele. Hutterites (a clan of germanic collective living folks) and Blackfeet and motorcyclists and ranchers and young people and old were in town for a Friday night out. Some of the older Hutterite men looked like their heads were going to explode with delight when I sang the Bare Necessities. I’m not sure what they were thinking about but I was thinking about a bear and all the bears that live in the Dupuyer area. Burt says those Hutterite men are still singing that song out on their huge corporate ranches. With big smiles on their faces.
Next morning we woke up and the man with the plan decided we better head over the Great Divide and get our boat and bring it back east for a trip to eastern Montana. Bird season is upon us and there’s fishing to be done. So we left the gNash in Dupuyer and headed to Whitefish to collect the Sea King. We stopped in and saw Jen and ate an early dinner at the restaurant where she works. The next next day we hooked up and headed back into the woods just a wee bit north of Dupuyer. We visited Swift Dam. There’s a reservoir and more hikes and maybe some trout. That’s a whole ‘nother post.
The Yaak is far away. Even if you are in Montana it is far away. So far from the average life that only once before have I passed through. That was after a float trip on the Kootenai River, a river that marks the southern boundary of the mystical area called the Yaak. I must have been tired because on that trip I was unimpressed. It was green. There were trees. I wanted to go home. I was blind but now I see.
The Yaak is a temperate rainforest. It’s been heavily logged and roaded but still contains some jewels of wilderness. Wild-ness and biodiversity abound. Cell service does not penetrate its boundaries. This pocket of our great globe is layer upon layer of organisms. The soil below your hiking boots is comprised of more organisms than entire watersheds out on the dryer side of the mountains. Burt read a book about the area and since we were going to be close (a mere 3 hours away) we decided to spend a few days hiking and camping. We were joined for much of the trip by Burt’s daughter, Jen and her dog, Lupita.
We camped at a simple Forest Service campground. At $7 a night this is one of the last vestiges of affordable government owned campgrounds we’ve found. So many have been turned over to corporate minders now and their profit models. It was a telling sign of how far off the beaten track we had come. We snugged the gNash up under some darn tall trees next to the Yaak River. The act of snuggling precipitated a minor kerfuffle in the Gypsy Carpenters relationship. All is not always smooth betwixt us two. A periodic venting of hostilities must occur. Parking a trailer is a great way to find that release if you’re feeling a little pressurized. Things smoothed out just fine.
Jen and Lupita arrived the next day. Jen had backpacked in the area a while back and she fondly remembered the Fish Lake area. That’s where we headed. We have not seen much of the Yaak but this was one of the nicest day hikes I have ever taken. The 3.5 mile trail into Fish Lakes is gentle and passes through a diversity of landscapes. There are trees and scree slopes and babbling brooks. Moss, lichen, ferns, rotten logs. There is a great gray owl waiting to fly over your head as you pass by. There are flocks of Cedar Waxwings catching flies over the lake. A thunderstorm will roll in on cue. Grouse for the dogs to flush. This hike alone is worth the effort. I felt like we were seeing what used to be and is now so hard to find.
I found shelter from the thunderstorm under a massive hemlock. Rain and hail did not reach me. It was cozy. Burt and Jen were off a ways fishing and found their own trees. The joke was on us. We stayed dry during the storm but the saturated vegetation soaked us immediately when we resumed our walk. Here are some pictures. The gray owl was too fast.