15 July 2007

Pintler Wilderness: Mystic, Park, Hope, and Lion Lakes

It's hard to go anywhere these days on the National Forest and find solitude. Even in seemingly remote basins, you run into motorheads on ATVs. And even when you don't see them, you are seldom more than a mile or so from a road, and so you hear them. When it comes to "carrying capacity," the motorized herd quickly fills a landscape.

For this reason, the tiny proportion of forest set aside as wilderness is especially valuable.
And for this reason (and to escape the heat even at Walkerville's 6,000 foot+ elevation), RTD & I headed to the west side of the Pintler Wilderness. I usually prefer the high peaks area on the east side, but except for day hikes from the Mussigbrod Lake campground, I have not explored the west side, much of which lies at the headwaters of the Bitterroot River.

The Forest Service has replaced most of its signage to correct the spelling of "Pintler"--the last name of a homesteader who lived only briefly along a creek in the upper Big Hole. Here's an older sign:
Along the trail grew this interesting plant, the "sugarstick" (Allotropa virgata):It's a fascinating plant, and used to be referred to a "parasitic." That's a misnomer and gross over-simplification. Allotropa virgata depends for its nutrients on the web-like threads of an underground fungus, which in turn depends upon the rotted wood and roots of lodgepole pines or Douglass firs. It's thought that, in exchange for essential sugars, that sugarstick somehow facilitates the transfer of other nutrients to the tree. For more on this story of coevolution, see Steve Trudell's MycoWeb site and the BLM.gov website for vascular plants.

The Mystic Lake ranger cabin (on the Big Hole side of the Continental Divide) makes a good lunch stop on the way up:
After a pot of tea and a short nap, it was time to hit the trail. As we crossed the Divide and entered the shadeless land of the 2000 burn, it was very hot. I was wishing I had rolled out of bed at 4 a.m. and not slept in that extra hour. Despite the heat, the lush beargrass in full flower was a pretty sight:From there, it was map & compass time for some cross country hiking into Park Lake: Seldom visited, it's one of the most untouched ("by the hand of man") spots in the Pintler Wilderness. It was a hell hole to get in and out of, though on the way out I found a good packer's trail that runs from an overview at the head of the lake to the FS trail. The lake itself is misnamed. It is not in a Park, but a swamp. Because of this environment and because the lake has never been stocked with fish, it is SWARMING with amphibians--boreal toads and what might have been northern leopard frogs. I should have caught one and took a photo, but it was tough navigating the boggy ground, the air was thick with mosquitoes and biting flies, and even a quick trip to the lake for water was sheer torture. On the way up & out, we flushed a trophy-class bull elk, but if you shot one in that hole you'd have to airlift it out! There's a reason the packer's trail ends above the lake.

During the night, RTD and I startled to the howl of a wolf. At first I thought I was waking from a dream, but RTD was on her feet, listening intently, and her low growl left no doubt. Though we found no fresh sign, these old turds were on our route up the ridge, and they were loaded with elk hair:

Well, here goes: I can hardly get a blog entry in without criticizing Forest Service management policy. This time, it's about trail maintenance and signage. I do a lot of cross country travel, and expect to find my own way around. But when I am on a trail, it would be nice if that trail were actually maintained and marked. Even a fresh blaze or two would be nice. After all, the Forest is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on building NEW trails such as the Continental Divide trail. Why the hell, then, can't the agency maintain the trails it already has?

Case in point, the trail to Hope Lake:
As you can see from the beat up, old sign, this trail -- full of deadfall and unmarked -- does not get much attention. The trail to the lake has not been cut out and remarked since the big 2000 burn. Because Hope Lake is closed to the horse packers, they evidently do not maintain the trail either. Can't blame 'em. But should the Forest depend on the horse packers for 90% of its trail maintenance in the Pintler? Well, maybe if they weren't building all them NEW trails.

Enough bitching. Hope Lake is a beautiful place and, once there, your blood pressure is guaranteed to drop:

The lake is full of 10 to 12 inch cutthroats, which make for a nice addition to a backpacker's carbo diet. You know it's summer when the monkey flowers are blooming along the springs and the sego lillies are blooming in the parched meadows:

I had planned to stay two nights at Hope Lake, but it's been a few years since I visited Lion Lake, and this stop also helped split up the long hike back to the trail head. With a little cross-country navigation, it's only a few miles from Hope to Lion, and you drop into the lake right at the inlet:Once again, time for the late-morning pot of tea. In hot weather hiking, RTD gives "dog tired" a whole new meaning. She is also smart enough (a dog learns something after 11 years or so) to get downwind of the fire where the skeeters and biting flies aren't quite so bad:Glad we made the stop at Lion. It's not especially scenic (I'm comparing it with the high alpine cirque lakes of the Pintler such as Oreamnos, Edith, and Warren), but the lush, boggy surround and relatively low elevation makes it very fertile:Trout fishing for chunky, acrobatic 12 to 16 inch cutt-bows was some of the best I've had in years. The fish were hammering blue damselfly imititations until I lost my only two to heavy fish that burrowed into the lillypads and grass. A big stimulator was a close-enough imitation (the fish would hardly look at a caddis or royal Wulff), as "RTD, Trout Inspector" will attest:Ahh... pretty fish, even though they are not native and do not, in some sense, "belong" here. But hell, neither do I, except for a visit:
On the hike out, near the trailhead in the building heat of late morning, I ran into four young (mid-20s?) Butte guys on their way up to Lion. As usual, after a few minutes of the name game, I learned one was a McGowan and another a Reynolds--familiar folks I've had in class, attended family funerals for, and worked in conservation with. Small world, Butte America. At least they didn't bother my stash in a cold creek near the trailhead (they probably stashed their own nearby!):
On the drive home, I found myself planning the next trip. Maybe head up to the high peaks area, maybe the lakes around Mt Haggin above Anaconda? Why not.


Anonymous said...

You are fortunate to live near such a beautiful place. From your first comments you clearly have a problem with 4x4s or ATV users in remote areas yet you have no problem with taking your dog along on your hiking trips in a wilderness area. Dogs (or any domestic pets) should not be allowed in a "wilderness". They are vector for disease both into and out of the wilderness and can become lost and go wild to breed feral dogs that prey on wildlife. A double standard sir.

Pat Munday said...

Dear Anonymouse, Sorry you feel that way. Dogs are culturally, traditionally & historically a part of wilderness in America (unlike motorized use), whether we look at comparatively recent history of Europeans with dogs in the American wilderness, or whether we look at the 25,000 year+ history of Native Americans with dogs in the “wilderness.” Can you cite any examples where feral dogs occur in a designated wilderness area? Most likely, any lost dog merely becomes prey for the lions, wolves, and bears. Even a pack of coyotes can easily kill most dogs. By the way, hunting is also allowed in wilderness areas, and a fair amount of this – especially for critters such as lions or mountain grouse – takes place with dogs. All good wishes, - Pat

Anonymous said...

Coyotes and feral dogs interbreed readily. Coyote gene pools are disrupted by this interbreeding. Feral dogs are not solitary but naturally form packs and if the starter stock are large hunting breeds they are quite able to avoid being prey.

25,000+ years of dogs in North America is nothing compared to the time species like bear, wolf, lion,coyote etc have been evolving on the continent.

Feral dogs are reserviors for diseases such as rabies, distemper, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and can add to the water-borne protozoan disease giardiasis. Feral dogs eat birds, small and large mammals. Their effect on a "wilderness' is not insignificant.

Feral dogs persist in remote wilderness
areas in the U.S., including Alaska.

Anonymous said...

The fish have gotten a lot bigger in Hope lake...most are above 15" and a few 20" can be taken if you have the stamina to pack in a float tube. I give away this "secret" because anyone willing to pack a tube into this lake deserves a monster cut on their line.

EcoRover said...

And they're thicker than a broomstick?