27 August 2007

Big Hole River Grayling Quest II

Saturday and the last weekend of August, I set out as cicerone on another grayling quest. Jeff Hull (http://www.umt.edu/Journalism/about_the_jschool/Faculty_pages/hull.html) is writing an article about Big Hole River grayling for Audubon Magazine, and he wanted to be one with the grayling. Well, as "one" as you can get: he wanted to snorkel with them. I'm glad he's researching this article now, since in the near future there might be no grayling left, in which case our being will be slightly less whole, less "one," than it is today.

One cannot think of grayling without thinking about the dewatering/irrigation/agricultural practices that drive their extinction. And so our first stop was at the Maidenrock "big ditch" diversion. Yep, just as Al Lefor (Great Divide Outfitters, http://www.bigholetrout.com/) had suggested, the big ditch was running full bore. As you look at this photo, realize that the big flow of water separated into two "ditches" in the lower half of the photo is the irrigation diversion:

It's even more impressive from the air. Again, the diverted water for irrigating hay is in the lower half of the photo. The "bypass" flow -- the water allowed to go downstream for fish -- is in the upper half. It has to squeeze past that huge gravel bar diversion dam built by ranchers to capture as much flow as possible:

Diversions running full bore, like this one, belie a recent Montana Standard newspaper article in which a Big Hole Watershed Committee spokesperson gave the impression that ranchers just weren't using any water. It's the bad old "drought" that caused the river to be closed to anglers. Well, the "drought" is getting a lot of help from ranchers! Here's Wise River, a major tributary of the Big Hole River, and a stream that once had many, many grayling. The lower end is almost totally dewatered. We won't mention that this dewatering is caused by a member of the Watershed Committee:

Hey, look here, I found some water! It's all being sprayed out onto hay meadows:

Why are Big Hole River grayling practically extinct? Take a look at this photo of the river, it's of a reach fisheries biologists call "the dead zone." The reach is between Anaconda Sportsmen's Park and Wisdom, and it should function as a critical connective route for the highly migratory grayling to travel between the big pools of the lower river and the spawning habitat of the upper river. No grayling would hazard passage through warm, nutrient rich (check out those algae mats), slack water:
Jeff did find a precious few grayling (sorry, David Quammen, for me stealing that turn of phrase). They were in La Marche Creek, a cold water refugium where grayling go to escape the dead zone. There are no irrigation diversions from La Marche, and so flow is good. A recent FWP restoration project corrected years of overgrazing damage that had beaten down the banks, making the lower creek (near where it enters the Big Hole River) warm and wide and shallow:

Here's Jeff right in among 'em, as we elk hunters say. A group of Montana State University students has been counting these fish, and the flagging tape they left on the bushes was a big help in knowing exactly where they were. There were easily 20 grayling in this single pool. We found several other pools with fewer fish. Hmmm... perhaps 10% or more of the entire adult population might be holed up in this tiny creek. Nothing like concentrating the few remaining fish for predators or some statistical extinction event:

"Jewel of the River," yes. Jeff's excited description of the beauty of Big Hole River grayling came gurgling up as he blew the words out through his snorkel. The iridiscent sheen of their flanks, the pearly luster of the spots on their dorsal fin as they flared it to impress nearby fish and snorkelers. At first I thought it was the 55 deg F water sending him into cardiac arrest, but no, nature's elegance can have a similar effect on one who makes an effort to find it.

After a burger with Jeff at Fetty's Cafe, it was time for me to head back to Butte. Early afternoon, and the heat and wind began whipping up the Pettingill (illiterates say "Pattengail"-- a misspelling of the Wild Man of Wise River's name) fire:

Within minutes, it was really cooking: While I hope no homes or property are destroyed by the fire, it is the best thing in the world for the deadfall-choked, lodgepole pine, habitat of the Pioneers. Within about 3 years, the elk population will double in that area.

I'm glad Jeff found his grayling, and I look forward to his article. In the meantime, though, I wish that groups such as the Big Hole Watershed Committee were working a little harder (and with more results) in saving our last few jewels of the river.

21 August 2007

Dr. Anaconda Lake Campout 2007

Everyone in Butte-Anaconda has their favorite family campground. There are many fine places for car-camping in our backyard, and it probably does not matter where you go. Lakes tend to be favorite spots, and Brown's, Pintler, Lower Seymour, Lower Bowman, Lower Miner, the Twins, and on and on and on--all have their vocal (well, most people probably think "their" lake is a best-kept secret) adherents. For my friends and family, it's "Dr. Anaconda" Lake in the North Big Hole. Typical of lower elevation (c. 7,000 feet) lakes, the fishing is fair-to-middling, the views are good, there are numerous hikes to nearby points of interest, and it's 80 miles of bad road to get there.
This year, Butte ex-patriots Brent & Karina & their two kids arrived early and held down some choice spots. The rest of the gang rolled in throughout the day Friday, and -- bless Brent & Karina -- sat down to a supper of shrimp in alfredo sauce over noodles.

Usually, we plan this campout for Labor Day, but what with daughter Emily heading back to college before then and complications in other folk's schedules, we moved things up a bit.

There were lots of smoke plumes from various local forest fires visible on the drive to the lake, so we did not expect the air to be very clear (smoke from the fire is at the vanishing perspective point for the road):

We were suprised when we got to the lake and found sunny skies at the finest sandy beach in Montana:
What would a group campout be without a one-canoe "Polish" (Ouch. Sorry, Schahczenskis!) paddling contest among the teenage girls?:
Or a rainstorm that forces Brent & Karina to scramble their plans for a lake tour?:

Those girls might not know how to paddle a canoe, but they do know how to create art. Here are artists Katy (an exchange student from the Czech Republic) and Michelle (of YouTube video fame--see "President Bush Grills an Endangered Species" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wASzy-ikmYA):
And what a beautiful sand sculpture horse, waiting for wind and waves to teach us all a humble lesson in the empheral nature of our own existence:

The local bald eagle, too, had something to teach us about patience (and catching fish). "America's symbol," someone told Katy. "Do they eat Iraqis?," someone else asked. Or Bushes?

The "men's hike" (well, we did invite the women folk) took us over by Frog Pond. That's AJ striking a contemplative pose along the shore:

It's an apt name:

Well, maybe we should begin calling it "Lee's UV-Bar Lake?" Someone must have thought a lot of old Lee, and I hope his spirit is still around. Brent, Don, Dave, and AJ agree:
Celia brought this great birthday cake:
And here are the two birthday girls, Emily and Kenia, with brother Adler (the famous crackshot with a Red Ryder BB gun) on the right:

Appropriately enough, the weather turned cold and rainy as we pulled up to the house in Walkerville and began unloading the camping gear. It feels like the end of summer, and it would be nice to cool the fires. Whatever happens, we all have great memories to carry us over to next year's rendezvous:

16 August 2007

Anaconda, Montana, the "Order of Red Men," and history

I love Anaconda, Butte's sister city. The town is the county seat of Deer Lodge County, and the courthouse is a gorgeous sandstone structure completed between 1898 and 1900. It was designed by Bell & Kent--the same architectural firm that designed the state capitol building in Helena, and is of course on the National Register of Historic Places. Here's a shot of the Deer Lodge County courthouse:And a closeup:
According to Sally Campbell, Under the Shadow of Mt Haggin (Deer Lodge County History Group, 1975), the building cost about $100,000, is 110 feet high, and the interior frescoes (sorry, I should have went inside and got pics of them) were painted by Consolidated Artists of Milwaukee.

My friend Earl Sager, a retired science teacher and Anaconda school administrator, told me about the quarry where the sandstone for this building was mined. Dave Carter and I decided to have a look. It's been very smoky in Butte -- visibility down to 5 miles or less most days -- and one needs to keep busy so as not to dwell on a scene out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Here is the sunrise in Walkerville yesterday (the smoke only thickens as the day progresses):
Well, back to the courthouse in Anaconda. The quarry proved to be close by--just a long rifleshot from the courthouse:Here's Dave posed above the quarry rim; I tried to get him to back up a little for the photo, but he would not:Within the quarry, there is a lot of very soft and easily weathered stone exposed, but next to it is some very hard, solid sandstone that looks to be courthouse material:The quarry proved a bit of a disappointment. It has eroded greatly over the past century or so, and there was no sign of waste rock or how the rock was cut and hauled. There do not seem to be other buildings in Anaconda built of this material, so perhaps the quarry operated only for the courthouse.

The day was still young, so Dave & I did a long, looping hike through the cemetary. In death as in life: graves were grouped into distinct ethnic, religious, and fraternal association areas. For example, there was a Masonic section, one for Spanish American War veterans, one for members of the Eastern Orthodox faith, Knights of Pythias, Order of Woodmen, etc.

The most unusual and -- to me -- unfamiliar plot was for the "Improved Order of Red Men." There is one hell of an impressive monument:
With some cool details:

Most surpising of all, perhaps, is that the monument seems to be made of the same sort of sandstone as the courthouse.

These fraternal organizations were very important at a time when there was no health care insurance and people grouped together to take care of one another in the event of tragedy. Like the exagerrated claims of most fraternal organizations (cf. the Masonic claim to have descended from Moses' men who built the Great Pyramid), the Red Men claim to have descended from patriots at the Boston Tea Party. Whatever the truth of 'at, the group was officially chartered in 1834, and is still in existence today--though the membership of 38,000 is considerably down from the historic mark of 500,000 in 1938 (info from Wikipedia entry). Not surpisingly, perhaps, the current seat of the organization is in Waco, Texas!

On our hike, we also spotted a few wildflowers, such as this white knapweed (genetic variant or true white knapweed species?)--an exotic and many would say "noxious" species:
And this native blazing star:
Should we love the blazing star, and hate the knapweed? Well, in their place, all species are beautiful. So yes, love the natives. But there is not much use in hating the exotics: many, like knapweed and rainbow trout, are here to stay. And all have their virtues. Live with it, at least in cases where native species are not endangered.

12 August 2007

West Goat Peak: Peak Bagging in the Pintler Wilderness

West Goat Peak is my very favorite regular summer trek. At about 10,800 feet, it's the tallest peak in the Pintler Wilderness and plainly visible due west of Butte. All year long, even on my worst days, I can look over to West Goat from my home in Walkerville or from the Montana Tech campus, recall sweet moments, and affirm all that makes life worth living.
This year, I was fortunate to make the hike with my Tech colleague Don Stierle. A chem prof, he also assists his Renaissance wife Andrea is pursuits such as finding cures for cancer from fungi that grow on yew trees or from microbes in Butte's infamous Berkeley Pit. With Don came Chooka The Dog, a 4-month old Golden Retriever:
Though the weather has been seasonal of late with 80 deg F days and 40 deg F nights at 6,000 feet elevation in Butte, we still opted for an early morning start. It's not a long (c. 8 miles) nor especially steep (c. 2500 foot elevation gain) hike, but it is nice to travel in the cool of the day. While stashing a few beers in the creek near the Fishtrap Creek trailhead for the ride home, I discovered this Pine Marten set constructed by some fur trapper:
Mornings are also active critter time, and we busted some elk from where the trail crosses a big wet meadow, and the dogs nosed into several spruce grouse (aka fool hens, for their habit of sitting in a tree just a few feet away). The grouse were feeding on grouse whortleberry and grasshoppers--both are numerous this year:We also came across a lot of "doodlebug" or antlion pits, including this exceptional colony:
If I were an ant living in this area, I'd want to be named Daniel. Even in the wilderness, there are some historical tracks of a working landscape, such as this irrigation ditch that moves water many miles from the headwater diversion:Our first day in, we rested through the heat of the afternoon and then hiked above treeline to Lost Lakes where Don spotted a group of 6 or 7 goats working their way along the ridge to the left of the lower lake, and we took in the fantastic view:
The area's height and location help in capturing a lot of snow. Even in the driest and hottest of summers, the big snow cornice along Saddle Ridge lasts all summer long, as does the glacier along the upper lake. Yes, it is a true glacier, and the only one in the Pintler, according to Don Nyquist, a National Weather Service observer, meteorologist, and Anaconda resident. Don says a key characteristic that makes this a glacier is the formation of firn--"the metamorphic layer of dense, granular snow between the accumulation area (new snow) and glacial land ice." Here's a photo of the upper lake and its glacier (West Goat Peak is on the far right of the snow cornice just below the ridge):The approach to West Goat Peak is very pleasant with very little scree (as Pintler peak bagging goes). Here's Don picking his way along the ridge, with the fantastic vertical goat cliffs on his right:
Chooka and RTD did a lot of goat- & pika-sniffing on the way up, and once on the summit they were content to rest. Here's the pup, with Warren Peak in the background (easily bagged from Edith Lake):The morning haze from our numerous local forest fires thickened throughout the day. With clear air, the distant views from W Goat are tremendous, but even the "close" view of the alpine meadow leading down to Lost Lakes is pretty sweet:Just as we finished supper that evening, a big thunderstorm swept through. This is why I prefer to camp down in the timber, and not on the barren ground around Lost Lakes. As RTD and I lay in the tent watching through the vestibule door as lightning flashed and crashed, I took a moment to appreciate the difference between Pink Mountain Heath (Phyllodoce empetriformis):
And Merten's Mountain Heather (Cassiope mertensiana):
These lovely evergreen species carpet much of the Pintler high country, along with other familiar species such as Alpine Gentians (Gentiana calycosa), the leaves of which make a tasty and mildly psychotropic tonic:
Though the flowers have faded, I also like the Elk Thistle (Cirsium foliosum):

Don and Andrea (or "DnA") are naturlists, too. For years, I have simply taken Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum) as another pretty alpine flower. Don demonstrated why it has the nickname "Skunkweed," and explained how he and Andrea once tried to extract the essential oil that gives it this odor:
From home today, I took a morning walk to Big Butte before spending a few hours laying rock on the new retaining wall in the backyard. The smoke was not too bad, and I could just make out East Goat Peak, Saddle Mountain, and West Goat Peak through the fire haze. Already, the good memory of West Goat Peak is getting me through another year.
Note: You will hear some folks refer to the "Anaconda-Pintler." This is sure way to mark yourself as one from "away." For locals, it's simply "The Pintler." Even this name mystifies me, as the area's namesake -- the rancher/homesteader Charles Pintler -- lived in the area just one winter, and moved because he and his family found the climate too harsh.