Exploratory Drive

It was so inviting even I went in.
It was so inviting even I went in.

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 butt in a fine swimming hole.
Burt’s butt in a fine swimming hole.
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
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The Annual Death March to Titi Mountain

Burt's aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.
Burt’s aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.

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.

Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It's more like a route.
Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It’s more like a route. Olive and Elvis appreciated that fetid water.
Here's what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Here’s what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
The saddle there above Burt's head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn't make it. It was the closest we've come on our own.
The saddle there above Burt’s head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn’t make it. It was the closest we’ve come on our own. Just on the other side are the sugar cane processing mills ruins.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started. The start was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive from our place. The locals are very remote.
Resting in the oasis.
Resting in the oasis.
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More Rocky Mountain Front

Swift Dam
Swift Dam

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.

Snowshoe Hare
Snowshoe Hare
Swift Dam reservoir
Swift Dam reservoir
Bear track
Bear track
The Olvis
The Olvis
Dam spillway
Dam spillway
Fossil
Fossil
Fossils?
Fossils?
The top of Swift Dam. You can walk out there. We did.
The top of Swift Dam. You can walk out there. We did.
Tailwater of Swift Dam.
Tailwater of Swift Dam.
Elvis contemplates the meaning of it all at the Swift Dam outfall.
Elvis contemplates the meaning of it all at the Swift Dam outfall.
Diesel checkpoint
Diesel checkpoint
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The Rocky Mountain Front

Ruby and Burt. She's 95.
Ruby and Burt. She’s 95.

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.

Red Fox. Desiccated.
Red Fox. Desiccated.
gNash at the North Fork of the Teton River.
gNash at the North Fork of the Teton River.
IMG_3978
gNash on the North Fork of the Teton River.
Way down there is where we started.
Way down there is where we started.
remains of the 2007 burn along the North Fork of the Teton.
remains of the 2007 burn along the North Fork of the Teton.
My nose was running so I cropped it out.
My nose was running so I cropped it out.
Smoked sardines are a good hiking snack
Smoked sardines are a good hiking snack
We declined to continue up.
We declined to continue up.
Hollow log view.
Hollow log view.
Did you call the helicopter?
Did you call the helicopter?
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Yaak Attack

Where is the Yaak?
Where is the Yaak? The red pin is on Yaak, Montana.

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.

A squirrel feeds a beautiful beetle.
A squirrel feeds a beautiful beetle.
There were bridges over all the stream crossings. So civilized.
There were bridges over all the stream crossings. So civilized.
I forgot the name of this falls.
I forgot the name of this falls.
Green Whispiness.
Green Whispiness.
12 week old Lupita. She was a little pooped. The wet thimbleberry soaked us.
12 week old Lupita. She was a little pooped. The wet thimbleberry soaked us.
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Heading into the Yaak

Flathead Valley Bridge Club
Flathead Valley Bridge Club

We’re still up in the north end Flathead Valley. Rain again after a couple of partly cloudy days. Our Mexican tans are fading but our leisure time activities continue. This week we played Bridge twice and took a couple more hikes. Today, while Burt lends a hand helping build a place with his daughter’s boyfriend, I did the taxes. Better late than never. Actually, we had a perfectly legal extension. I could do them on time from Mexico because all the information I seek is on-line somewhere but I prefer waiting until I have paper in hand and the mail doesn’t reach Mexico. Usually. This year Sue brought it down in May but today was the first suitably rainy day with Burt out of the house. As usual I did my best to get them right but being self-employed makes for some bewildering tax questions.

This week’s hike idea came courtesy of Jen. Jen formerly guided backpacking trips in Glacier National Park but since the park forbids canine companions we have to hike on the perimeter. Stanton Lake is just across Hwy 2 from the boundary and located in the Great Bear Wilderness area. Jen had never done it but heard it was a great walk for dogs with nice views. As usual we birded for a portion of the walk, ate snacks, and broke up a dog fight. Okay, the dog fight was not usual. Olive is a bit of a tyrant around smaller dogs on leashes. Normally we do not see many dogs smaller than Olive hiking in the wilderness on a leash. A couple of days ago Olive tried to kill a very small and insecure Chihuahua type dog. It wasn’t remotely funny. What an Ass-hat she can be. The other dog parents were very understanding and had hardly an evil word for us or Olive. Despite the nastiness and length of the altercation there was no sign of visible injuries to the kitten sized dog. Olive was leashed from that moment onward.

The hike culminates at the head of Stanton Like about 2 miles from the trailhead. You can see Great Northern Mountain to the south and a few peaks in Glacier National Park to the north. On the lake we spotted a pair of looms and a lone baby loon. Loons are not prolific reproducers. They lay one or three eggs a year so this was a happy spot. I also found a lovely white crab spider eating a fly. AT the head of the lake the brush along the trail became menacingly high and thick. You wouldn’t see bear in here until it was gnawing on your leg. Also not funny, last week a guy crashed into a bear near here on his mountain bike and was summarily dispatched by the bear. Species unknown. So the idea of crashing into a bear does not appeal. We took the heavy brush as a cue to turn back towards the car.

Dear reader Pat and friends and clients Bonnie and Rolf and Howard and Carol spent a week hiking here last year and almost every day was filled with view impairing and lung clogging smoke. At least the rain is preventing that this year.

Next up we’re heading into the Yaak. Notorious and remote the Yaak harbors weirdness and possibly Bigfoot. Transmission might be delayed. Late next week we’ll be back in Helena for doctor’s appointments and gigs.

Crab Spider
Crab Spider
Great Northern Mountain
Great Northern Mountain and the bear hiding vegetation.
Five bees.
Five bees. Well four.
Stanton Lake looking north towards Glacier National Park.
Stanton Lake looking north towards Glacier National Park.
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Dog-ville

Hiking with Dogs
Hiking with Dogs. Lupita up front, her dad, Plum, and Olive. Elvis was heeling like a good boy.

Today (Tuesday) we are in Whitefish, Montana. Locally known as Whiteflesh due to the pervasive, low-hanging clouds, Whitefish is another Montana spot I have only rarely visited. We were brought up to this northwestern nook big sky country because it is currently the home of Burt’s daughter Jen. Added bonus: Jan has a huge fenced yard and a spot to park the gNash. Even if she was merely a friend she’d be high on the visitation list. Jen took us on a walk at Woods Lake this fine drizzly day. Sixty-four degrees and mostly cloudy. Perfect hiking weather. We’ve all been thrilled to find ourselves in Montana during a wet summer rather than one bedeviled with fires and public land closures and thick smoke. There’s still time for all that but this week of July rain has surely delayed if not eliminated the fire season.

Last night we picked pie cherries from a neighbor’s tree. Today we’re going to have to do it again because we ate the whole pie. Pies must be made and eaten while the season is upon us. Today’s hike was about 3.3 miles. We took an hour to cover the first mile because there were so many birds to try and see and Burt found a ball of mating garter snakes. The ball fell apart as soon as I tried to get a picture but we saw at least 6 distinct snakes. Apparently a fertile female attracts males from all around and they all get at it in one big blob. Since time was an issue (Jen has a job) we finished the last 2.3 miles in 40 minutes. Yay, me. Now I am pooped.

There are presently 5 dogs at this RVers Nirvana. Three dogs (Olive, Elvis, and Plum) are visiting. Lupita, a 3 month old heeler is Jen and Robin’s new canine companion. Lupita is darling. Pita is trying to make Olive love her but so far Olive remains uninterested in her attention. Olive prefers a more mature, tall, dark, handsome dog. We took 4 dogs on this morning’s hike and they were admirably well behaved. A swarm of kids on mountain bikes did not cause a row. Lupita won most of the attention and that was just fine with kid-despising Olive. Not one pup ran off during our almost 2 hour walk. And no fast moving mountain bikers were chased. Coincidentally, this trail system was discussed at length during the trail event where we played music. I can attest that the system is well signed and mapped. They even have posted numbers to refer to if you happen to become lost or hurt. You can call EMS (presuming you have cell coverage) and tell them you were mauled by a bear at sign #77. The EMTs will know where to find you.

Wild bee
Wild bee
Trees
Trees
The remains of the garter snake mating ball.
The remains of the garter snake mating ball.
Going on a hike
Going on a hike
Cherry Pie (half).
Cherry Pie (half).
Railroad bridge in Whitefish.
Railroad bridge in Whitefish. Interesting sentiment.
Graffiti in Whitefish
Graffiti in Whitefish
Cherry pie filling
Cherry pie filling
Pie Cherries
Pie Cherries
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More Woods Wanderings

Morrell Falls
Morrell Falls

This week we popped in to visit a pair of musician friends in Seeley Lake. Pete and Rachel are naturalist types and musicians. We have a lot of common friends. They are also considering building a home so we had professional reasons for the visit to. If you are considering using our services in 2017 now is the time to contact us. We are busily consulting with several possible clients on some jobs in interesting locales.

I have never spent much time on the west side on Montana’s continental divide. It’s heavily wooded and reminds me of the eastern seaboard. I always miss the open desert but I am quickly liking this shady summer weather. This week was cool and rainy. My main impression is there are a lot of leaves in the way of any birds I am trying to identify. After many years of mainly desert living this is a difficult adjustment. On the up side there is water everywhere and the dogs are having fun wallowing in mud and staying hydrated on our walks. The other difficulty to birding is the change is species. Even a robin proved confusing when we first arrived. It’s been a while since we’ve regularly seen robins. Pete and Rachel are avid and much better birders than us. Rachel is a bigwig in the USFS so she had to work but we went wandering with Pete and he taught us some of the local calls. It is even more apparent here that you must learn the calls of the birds to have success. I am doomed to be mediocre.

Morrell Falls is on the west side of the Swan Range. It is a wide and gentle mile and a half to a dramatic cascade. On our way Pete pointed out the strange mono-tonal call of the varied thrush. It sounds just like a dog whistle. In fact Pete’s dog whistle confused both Burt and me. We sat at the foot of the waterfall and watched a dipper and pondered the sad state of American politics. All three of us are horrified by the anti-science factions. Sometimes I wonder if our society will become like Cambodia and round up scientists and kill them.

Aside from appreciating the dampness and fecundity we ate well and played some music. We even did a micro-gig in the rafters of a lodge for a trail organization.

The pipessewa flower pictured below was pointed out by Pete. It used to be used to flavor root beer. I think it is darn pretty.

Insects on flowers
Insects on flowers
Pipessewa
Pipessewa
Lilly pads on Seeley Lake.
Lilly pads on Seeley Lake.
Gigging in the rafters.
Gigging in the rafters.
The gig view.
The gig view.
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On this Date in 1806

 

Lewis and Clark Pass
Lewis and Clark Pass

After 2 days traveling, visiting, and laundering we landed in the Helena National Forest. We stopped in with Dan Roberts and got my mandolin adjusted and bought a sound system (another day).Dan and Rosemary gave me a new cocktail to love: ginger beer and burbon with a cherry. YUH-UM.

It was a cold and Cloudy day 210 years ago when Meriwether Lewis, his band of explorers, and his dog Seaman crossed the Buffalo Road. Lewis and Clark had split up four days prior near Lolo, Montana. Clark went south towards Yellowstone and Lewis went north to find this particular route.  The Buffalo Road or Cokahlarishkithas was used from prehistoric times as a route between the Columbia River and the Missouri River. It is not the lowest pass but it is the most easily crossed with gentle grades on both sides. Less nomadic western tribes used the route to get to the eastern plains and the buffalo grounds. Tribes on the eastern side of the divide would cross over and raid the more settled western tribes. The crossing could be dangerous depending on who was out on any given day. Large stone cairns dotted the pass and provided hiding spots for lookouts. Given the dangers the Nez Perce guides used by Lewis and Clark told them where to find the pass but turned around and went home leaving the explorers to travel alone.

Today this pass remains the only unroaded pass in all of the Lewis and Clark historic trail. It is also the only area still populated with grizzly bears. Ironically the historically busiest pass in the northern Rockies is now one of the loneliest. Burt and I set out for the pass at about 10:00 AM, 210 years to the day from when Lewis and his team crossed. This was an unplanned, happy coincidence. Our weather was better.  Like Lewis we had our canine companions. Armed with pepper spray instead of muskets and carrying a bowl of pasta instead of beaver jerky we felt prepared to make the summit. The road to the trailhead follows Alice Creek from MT Hwy 200. The gravel road is in fantastic condition.  The night before we camped about 2 miles from the trailhead. It was perfect trailer country. The climb up was sedate but I struggled. Whether it was too much exercise and the betablocker or the scanty mush breakfast I can’t be sure. I ate an early lunch and rallied. We made the summit around 11:30. It was a very slow mile and a half. The summit sign reads Elevation 6,000 feet. The research I did says the pass is 6,424 feet. I’m inclined to believe the less round number. While sitting at the apex we heard some canid yipping and howling. Wolves?! It was entirely possible. The Alice Creek Pack is a famous group of wolves and we were in their historic territory.

With food in my belly and d short rest we decided to wander around. We headed towards the howling. Southeast of the true pass we partially climbed a peakish spot and got a better view. I playfully made the lamest of howls while lolling in the grass with my puppies. The domesticated dogs heard the response first.  I saw their ears go up then I heard a chorus of yips and howls from nearby. I scanned the hills and forest edges with my binoculars. Across the way (far away) we spotted an excavation in an open hillside with many trails approaching. It lloked like a den site. We got up and moved towards the yipping again. The Gypsy Carpenter sat and waited. The dogs were leashed. Elvis and Olive were eager to meet their new friends. We knew that was a bad idea. We called some more. More conversation. Then we saw a dog come out of the woods and give us the greasy eyeball. It was large and tawny. It had a pointed nose and pointed ears. It was a coyote. A very big coyote. It was a very safe distance away. Binoculars were required to make the ID. Meanwhile the question remained. Was it a pack of coyotes? Was this a lone coyote is a sea of wolves?We’ll never know. Most likely it was coyotes.

There is a historic artifact on top of the Lewis and Clark Pass. On September 27, 1842, Father Nichols Point, a Jesuit priest, built a Celtic cross. Burt had seen the cross some 34 years ago and he hoped to find it again. I pulled out my phone and Goggled: Celtic Cross Lewis and Clark Pass. I came up with lots of references but no directions. Then I spotted a scientific study. Somebody had studied the lichen up here and since they knew when the rocks for the cross were placed they made a good study spot. The report had just enough information that we were able to find the cross. In gratitude I present you with the Lichenometric Analysis.

Below is a photo with the cross outlined in red above the unadorned photo to make it easier for the reader to see the shape.

Full of the pleasures of the trail and technology we headed down and made our way to stay with Pete and Rachel in Seeley Lake. Up next a hike to Morrell Falls.

 

Trail mix
Trail mix
The view towads the buffalo plains. Square Butte and Crown Butte in the distance.
The view towards the buffalo plains. Square Butte and Crown Butte in the distance.

 

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross by father Point, 1842
Dead trees on Lewis and Clark Pass.
Dead trees on Lewis and Clark Pass.
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Another Positive Hike with a Note about Negative Bears

Bears with Attitude Problems.
Bears with Attitude Problems.

With a day of rest I was ready to head up the hills again. Burt wanted to revisit another hike near the Sunlight Trail: Buffalo Horn Pass. The Sunlight Trail and Buffalo Horn Pass are connected by a crest trail. The apex of both trails and their respective trailheads are only a couple of miles apart but the experience is completely different. The Buffalo Horn Pass trailhead is located at the Tom Miner Basin and adjacent to an interpretive for a patch of petrified forest. With these amenities the trail sees a lot more traffic. Like the Sunlight Trail, the Buffalo Pass Trail is an uphill slog but not quite as steep. The Buffalo Pass trail also passes through larger meadows and had a greater bird activity. The birds might have been more visible because it was just a perfect (blue bird) day. Our hike was on the fourth of July and there were other hikers sharing the beautiful day in beautiful country. Some even seemed to resent our assiduous efforts to make noise and repel negative bears. I’d rather make noise than be eaten so I’m going to hope they understand.

This hike is rumored to be about 4.6 miles round trip and over 1500′ in elevation gain. If these numbers are accurate then our pedometers are way off on the elevation gain for Sunlight Trail. I have yet to find published data on the Sunlight Trail. I say this because it is far easier to reach Buffalo Horn Pass. Firstly, your not hiking in a stream bed and making tricky stream crossings. Secondly, you do not feel like puking out your lungs. It’s a gentler incline. Did I forget to mention the stream crossings in my previous post? I believe that was on purpose. I want people to spread out and try these two hikes. So two days and a couple miles made all the difference. Dogs, humans, sunshine were found at Buffalo Horn Pass. No bears.

A note about hiking in bear country seems prudent. We carry bear spray and try to make noise. All hikes relayed in this four post sequence are in grizzly country. The signs say to report all negative bear encounters. I don’t mean to quibble but I could argue that a failure to see a bear might be a negative bear encounter. Or, as some one pointed out to me, perhaps they mean we should report the bears with bad attitudes. How can you tell? I presume being attacked is a negative experience and an indication of a bear with a distrusting attitude. But what about the dude that stands up and gives a good bellow and runs away. Should that be reported? All we saw was scat and claw marks on trees and signs and a paw print. We’re counting those as positive encounters. Here’s something to WATCH. Bears pole dancing. If you try this hike. Bring bear spray.

This hike is well documented and easily found on the internet.

Next up Lewis and Clark pass above Alice Creek in the Helena National Forest. The Continental Divide Trail, the Lewis and Clark expedition and a Celtic cross.

The trail up to Buffalo Horn Pass.
The trail up to Buffalo Horn Pass.
Was this a negative bear?
Was this a negative bear?
The Olvis smells the bear scratching post.
The Olvis smells the bear scratching post.
Can you find the lazuli bunting?
Can you find the lazuli bunting?
Bison Horn Pass trail
Bison Horn Pass trail
The view east from Bison Horn Pass towards Sphinx Mountain.
The view east from Bison Horn Pass towards Sphinx Mountain.
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