08 January 2007

Butte, Montana: A Geography of Somewhere

When you're in Butte, you know where you are. You know where you are as you look out to the East Ridge (of the Great Divide), to the Highland Mountains, or to the Pintler Range. You know where you are as you look up to Big Butte and the giant, lighted letter "M." (The "M" is emblematic of the School of Mines, nowadays known as Montana Tech.) You know where you are as you order breakfast at the M&M, watching the cook from the local pre-release center crack the eggs one-handed.

And you know where you are as you ski the trails at The Moulton, just a few miles north of town. When the great local pioneers of cross country skiing laid out the trails at The Moulton, they named these trails and their dips & turns after local mines and mining features. Names such as Claimjumper, Sluice Box, and Nugget dot The Moulton trails.

Though not a huge area, The Moulton ski area has many kilometers of trails. The great local pioneers of cross country skiing were masters at enfolding the universe into a compact strand. And the trails are varied, with a nice mix of beginner, intermediate, and "most diffucult" terrain.

A brief digression about dead trees: all around Butte -- The Moulton included -- you will see a lot of reddish colored lodgepole pine trees. Hundreds of thousands of acres of trees are dead and dying from a severe mountain pine beetle outbreak. This outbreak is a "natural" and cyclic occurence in lodgepole pine stands, but it has been exacerbated by several factors: drought, mild winter temperatures, and uniformly aged stands of trees. All of these causes are largely anthropogenic. The first two -- drought and mild winters -- are linked with global warming. The last -- uniform stands -- is caused by widespread clear cutting that levelled the area forests in a short time.

There is little to be done about the dead trees and pine beetle outbreak. Logging can help to salvage some economic value from the dead and dying trees, but it will in no way lessen the outbreak. In terrain that is not too steep, too wet, or too remote, logging will not cause much harm either. Much of The Moulton -- especially the private lands -- is currently being clear cut, a logging method that removes virtually all trees from a given area. Trees that are not logged are creating a situation ripe for a large landscape wild fire. That too is part of the natural cycle for lodgepole pine forests. As the trees are cleared, the land will grow up in grass and then woody shrubs and aspen, and then probably revert to being a uniformly aged lodgepole pine forest. Eighty years from now, the beetles will probably once again wipe out the trees.

Anyway, the nature of an area can change a lot over the short course of a human life. So The Moulton I know today will of course look considerably different from The Moulton I know 25 years from now. So it goes. Never mind all the houses springing up on the wildland fringe. Many people wanted to live in the woods, though now (given the threat of fire) they are clearcutting the forests around their homes. So it goes.

Back to the ski trails! I especially like the "upper" (north) section of trails. This area begins at Amalgamation Junction. Sometimes, once I get up to the junction, I'll ski the In Vein loop. As Rick Appleman likes to say, sometimes it is In Vein, and sometimes it is In Vain...

Though all the names for trails and trail features are taken from local history, these names are also very fitting. For example, I was once a little dazy, just skiing along, when I hit an icy stretch on a sudden downhill and quickly learned why it's named Wake Up Jim!

Hmmm.... Wonder why this section of Big Nipper is called Widow Maker? (A nipper was the guy in the mine who carried the tools from particular work sites back to the tool crib fore exchange or sharpening etc; a widow maker is a slab of rock that falls from the roof of a mine--also known as a "Duggan" after the name of a local mortuary.)

Yankee Boy, my favorite trail on the hill. Lots of steep climbs, downhill runs that become steeper and curve more as you get further into them, and lots of flats to skate or get long kick & glides--this trail has it all. It also seems to fit the rather perverse Vermonter sense of humor embodied by Paul Sawyer--a man who once brought a moose turd pie to a potluck supper!

Oh yeah.... When these trails are marked "One Way," you want to believe it. The trails are narrow in places -- just 8 feet wide -- and a skier coming around a steep downhill turn will need every inch of that space. Sometimes, I need just a little more...

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