31 July 2007

German Gulch Restoration: thanks to the David & Lois Layton family

Earlier this week, I attended a dedication ceremony in German Gulch near Butte. The surviving family of David Luther Layton, including his spouse Lois, four children, and many grandchildren, worked with the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited to insure that their family property would be forever appreciated--by the general public. By transferring their beautiful 80 acres along German Gulch Creek to the US Forest Service and Montana state lands, the Laytons became part of a grand restoration project that benefits westslope cutthroat trout, other wildlife, and the public in general.

After moving to the great city of Butte in the heart of the northern Rocky Mountains in 1990, my hear soon fell for the Big Hole River. But, that very first year, I also discovered a delightful nearby trout fishing, hiking, and mule deer hunting spot. The small stream of German Gulch, a tributary of Silver Bow Creek in the upper Clark Fork River basin, was much like the freestone mountain creeks I had grown up fishing on the Appalachian Plateau of the Allegheny Highlands
Whereas the creeks of my boyhood held native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), through German Gulch creek I became acquainted with the native fish of the west--the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi). Here's one, in the sampling tray of fisheries biologist Tim LaMarr:
Wow! Are these a beautiful fish, or what? As part of our natural heritage, a creature that evolved in this harsh post-Pleistocene landscape, they are a treasure. How lucky and bizarre, that the mine-polluted waters of Silver Bow Creek provided a poisonous barrier to prevent exotic, introduced rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) from hybridizing the native fish in German Gulch Creek.
In fact, it's amazing that native trout survived at all in German Gulch Creek. More than a century ago, the entire watershed was clearcut and placer mined--the creek's floodplain extensively terraformed by hydraulic and dredge mining for gold. A whole series of French, German, Chinese, and out-of-work Great Depression era miners worked the creek over from the 1870s to the 1930s. To add insult to injury, Montana Fish & Game dumped thousands of stocked trout from hatcheries into the creek before 1980. And yet, physically damaged though the watershed was, "cutties" held on in the headwater tributaries and then recolonized the main creek as the riparian habitat recovered from abuse.

Lying about midway between the towns of Anaconda and Butte, the German Gulch watershed is an important local natural resource. With the ongoing remediation and restoration of Silver Bow Creek, German Gulch Creek would be an important source of native trout and clear, cold water. Local hunters, anglers, hikers, and campers also had a long historical connection to and a deep appreciation for the area. As I visited German Gulch more often and talked about it with other folks, I came to understand how important it was as public land and as relatively pristine habitat:
When I was elected president of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GGTU) in 2002-2003, I made German Gulch Creek a priority. As good as it was, there were some problems, threats, and opportunities: selenium pollution from a recently abandoned open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mine; private in-holdings within Forest Service and state land that were ripe for development; aquatic and riparian habitat that could not recover from the physical damage wrought by placer mining; the threat of rainbow trout entering the creek as Silver Bow Creek is remediated and restored; an irrigation diversion that diverted the lower creek and severed the aquatic habitat connection between Silver Bow and German Gulch Creeks; difficulty with public access to the lower creek... German Gulch Creek was an eye-opening lesson: habitat that -- on the surface -- appears to be good and secure may be a high priority for our attention and protection.

GGTU began its German Gulch project with a small "Project Development Grant" of about $25,000 that I submitted in 2002 to Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP). The money helped us to search titles, obtain appraisals, develop a conceptual plan for stream restoration, and complete other needed planning tasks. When Josh Vincent, an environmental engineer and Montana Tech alumni, joined the GGTU board, things got a lot easier. He brought needed technical and managerial expertise to the project, as well as a personal passion and appreciation for German Gulch. We submitted a second planning grant for about $25,000 in 2003. This helped fund more needed work, such as a redesign for the irrigator's headgate and a plan to remove a road built with toxic mine waste tailings. These two planning grants laid the foundation for the more than $1 million that Josh and I raised through grants in 2004. Though the bulk of the money came from NRDP, we also succeeded in obtaining matching funds from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Future Fisheries program for stream restoration work, FWP funds for a fish barrier to halt rainbow trout introgression, US Fish & Wildlife Service Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Program for a fish screen on the irrigator's headgate, and Montana Fish & Wildlife Trust funds for land purchases.

David Luther Layton and his wife Lois appreciated nature and enjoyed camping with their four children. After buying a parcel of about 80 acres (several former mining claims) in German Gulch, they began a family tradition of camping there. GGTU approached the Layton family in early 2004, with an inquiry about purchasing the family's land and transferring it to public ownership. The Layton property was astride the Forest Service and state lands boundary, and so the upper portion of the property would go to the feds and the lower portion to the state.

The Layton family was gracious and patient in dealing with GGTU. David was deceased, and Lois and her other three children allowed her son Matthew to represent the family. This greatly simplified GGTU dealings with the family, but it also spoke reams about the Layton family's solidarity, trust, and general sense of good will. During this time, I moved on to some other projects and Josh Vincent took on German Gulch project management for the Trout Unlimited Chapter. German Gulch was my baby, but it was raised by Josh. As I told the Layton family at yesterday's ceremony marking the tranfer of the land, it is easy to conceive and even birth a baby. Josh did the hard work of raising the child.

And what a ceremony it was. Held on site, here's Lois Layton (left):
The ceremony also proved to be a family reunion, including mother Lois and other family elders, gathered here around "rally rock" on the Layton property: Children David, Daniel, Sue, and Michael and their spouses:
And the grandchildren and the whole gang, along with some GGTU folks: We capped the ceremony with a hike down to the bridge crossing for a public trail constructed as part of the project. Here is Andrew McElroy (Boy Scout Troop 8 of Butte, Montana) with the bridge he helped design and build as his Eagle Scout project: And here is Josh Vincent (left), the good parent who has brought this project along to date, and who remains committed to the many other tasks yet to be completed: As Hillary Clinton famously wrote, "It takes a village to raise a child." Similarly, it takes a village to pull off a grass-roots based project of this magnitude. At the risk of offending some persons by forgetting to mention them, it is important to recognize some of the key supporters of and participants in this project.

First of all, the whole Layton clan: Lois, son David Michael and his spouse Robin, son Daniel Dana and his spouse Jane, daughter Sue and her spouse Eckelhardt Schulze, and son Matthew Steven and his spouse Christiane.

Next come fisheries biologists Tim LaMarr and Ron Spoon. Tim worked for the Forest Service at the time, and had been working for several years to survey native westslope cutthroat trout in German Gulch and to persuade his agency to invest in restoration. Ron is with FWP, and has worked tirelessly to assess and protect native trout populations throughout southwest Montana.

Kriss Douglass, a local FWP employee (now retired), early on appreciated the promise of GGTU's project, and helped convince her agency that it should be a priority. After Kriss' retirement, Vanna Boccadori supported the project and marshalled important tasks such as the required environmental assessement.
Hugh Zackheim at the FWP land's office worked closely with Josh Vincent on the title documents and other difficult tasks.

There were many others, some whose story is yet to be told. The rancher and irrigator with the water rights to German Gulch Creek has been as patient and generous as the Layton family in his dealings with GGTU. As the reconstruction of his headgate and irrigation diversion takes place, I look forward to continuing this story.

In the late 1990s, when I and a few others first began brainstorming a German Gulch restoration plan, no one could have imagined how much work it would entail nor how long it would take. My hat is off to Josh Vincent and his colleagues at George Grant Trout Unlimited for their dogged persistence in seeing this project through to its completion.
Other sources:

30 July 2007

Big Hole River Grayling: YouTube Image Event

Nice work, Justin Ringsak. Kudos to all the actors, set designers, etc.

"President Bush Grills an Endangered Species" on YouTube at


26 July 2007

Mt Haggin: Peak Bagging near Anaconda, MT

Over the years I've been to Mt Haggin (named after Anaconda Copper Mining company backer James Ben Ali Haggin) from several different routes, none of them particularly enjoyable. It's a lovely long ridge with very steep sides, dominates the Anaconda skyline, and is their "backyard" mountain. It also has several false peaks, so make sure you're on the right one--at least once before, I thought I was on THE top, but wasn't. From my Anaconda friends over the years, I learned of the favored local route. Leaving from the edge of town (c. 5400 feet elev), it follows a maintenance road up to the city reservoir:It's a steady and sometimes steep climb of about 5 miles or so. Once into the trees its shady and cool enough, but RTD (RolyTheDog) & I were thankful for the early start on this near-90 deg F day. Passing by some elderberries,
I thought of Grandma Beryl (nee Fitzgibbons) Munday, the world's best baker of fruit pies (my wife Jan has the title of world's best living baker of fruit pies). The Allegheny highlands of Pennsylvania were a great place for wild berries of all kinds. Elderberry pie was my favorite, and she would bake one or two for my birthday. In Montana, elderberries are seldom sweet and tasty--too short of a growing season, too dry, not enough heat?

Just below Hearst Lake (named after Anaconda Copper Mining company investor George Hearst, father of W. Randolph of newspaper fame; thank you for the correction, Anonymous!) is a little Hearst, and a favorite swimming hole for Mt Haggin hikers. It's shallow enough to warm up "just right" at 8,000 feet on a hot summer day:
Hearst Lake was improved once upon a time with a dam, but the dam might need repairs and the increased height no longer seems to be used:The saddle between Hearst and Haggin Lakes makes a nice base camp at 8,500 feet. What a place to be as a front moved in, lightning crashed on the peaks, and clouds dropped more than an inch of rain in my cooking pot rain gage. The pleasant meadow, and the old ACM/Anaconda water company (?) cabin (lower left in photo) is on the route to Mt Haggin:
I hope Cindy was (is?) worth it:I like passing through the feathery alpine larches that invariably mark the Pintler treeline at c. 8500 to 9000 feet. As my now-retired colleagues Jack Goeble and Dennis Haley liked to say, "What are the poor people doing today?":
For years, I thought it was called "Heart Lake," and you can see my confusion from this photo of Hearst Lake from near the Mt Haggin summit:

Above treeline, we join our friends the pika (Ochotona princeps). Here's a "rock rabbit" peeking out directly over RTD's nose:Global warming has been very tough on them in many areas of Colorado and points south. As the climate warms, they move higher up the mountain side, become "island populations," and are more and more cut off from "marriagable" members of other populations.

RTD finds a big drink of water at the last spring below the summit. As a north-facing slope, this approach to Mt Haggin is blessed with many such springs. Has the grazing of mountain goats selected for the less palatable butercups that seem to dominate the alpine meadows here?
The peak is marked by a most impressive cairn, as you would expect, given the peak's ritual importance in the lives of many Anaconda residents. In the peak notes, one can read of marriage proposals, anniversaries, reunions, eulogies, and other touching tributes to local lore (no mention of Cindy, though):For a time, it looked as if the weather was going to close in as the sun lifted moisture from the night's rain, and dense fog bracketed the ridge. Added to the time of summiting any peak (4:20), the fog created just a bit of "high" anxiety :But the sun prevailed, revealing a nice panoramic view beginning at the left with the Mill Creek/10 Mile ridge and sweeping west to the heart of the Pintler:Time to head down. On approaching the meadow, RTD began an intense gaze toward a spot about 300 yards below us. I've learned to trust her sharp eyes. What's this big-assed creature flipping over rocks (lower right in photo)?Thought it was a big boar of a bear at first, but then saw it watching something, and the cub scrambled into view (sow is on the right, looking back at her cavorting cub on the left):Big sow black bear--maybe 300 pounds or so, sows usually go half that or less. Glad she left our camp alone, she must have been finding plenty of tasty ants, beetles, and other critters under the rocks she was flipping over:A quick hike down to Hearst helped supplement our evening supper:Would have stayed later the 3rd day and fished Haggin Lake before hiking out, but ate like a bear(?) the second day and ran out of food. Oh well, a good 3-day/2-night trip, and a lovely route up Mt Haggin & back.

20 July 2007

Social Justice in Anaconda & Opportunity

[modified from my 12 July radio commentary for Montana Public Radio, KUFM, on behalf of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee]

Wow, the weather is hot and the Clark Fork River feels like bathwater. Though the scientific community solidly agrees on the reality of global warming, it’s interesting that radical reactionary groups – such as FOX News – still deny it. Well, DeNile ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Sadly, the Upper Clark Fork River can also be a river of denial.

Environmental justice is a special form of social justice, and it’s a nagging problem for some environmental and human health problems in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

The Deer Lodge County towns of Anaconda and Opportunity have, especially, taken it in the shorts. The problems are many, and regular EcoRover blog readers are familiar with most of them.

The EPA refuses to rename its big waste repository, the Opportunity Ponds, to something like “The British Petroleum—ARCO Ponds” that does not cast aspersions on the cool little town of Opportunity.

The EPA set soil and house dust arsenic levels in Anaconda and Opportunity ten times higher than national norms, and much higher than arsenic levels in the Clark Fork River and Milltown sites.

The EPA approved a golf course tailings cover-up that is failing and will probably go bankrupt once British Petroleum-ARCO hands it off to Anaconda.

The EPA, after a lousy site characterization, approved a brown fields commercial development for Anaconda, only to have the developer strike a goldmine of buried toxic waste, for which it is now suing the town.

Compared with other counties in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin, Deer Lodge County has a declining population, the highest unemployment in the region (over 10%), and a much lower per capita income (about $20,000).

The EPA remedies for Opportunity and Anaconda site were selected without social justice issues coming to light. Whereas grass roots groups organized and became major actors in larger communities such as Missoula and Butte, Opportunity and Anaconda citizens were relatively quiet, unorganized, and passive. According to agency policy, it is virtually impossible to reopen a remedy.

The role of environmental justice in remedy selection and waste repository siting signifies a major shift in the Superfund process that moves us well beyond the now-traditional polluter pays principle. Though a 1994 Federal Executive Order, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations," initiated this shift, it has not produced meaningful results for Anaconda or Opportunity.

In a federally funded study of another Superfund megasite caused by mining, the authors found that “Lack of access to adequate health care, unemployment, poverty, and a number of other factors can have as much of an impact on community health as the contamination from mining wastes.” Though such problems lie outside the purview of Superfund, these problems are factors that influence the social perception of the Superfund process and public participation in the process in profound ways.

The application of social justice ideals to Superfund sites caused by mining and smelting reveal structural inequities that transcend Superfund. The nature of mining as the extraction of non-renewable resources necessarily means that a bust follows the boom. The larger the ore body and the longer it lasts, the more tenaciously people cling to the place where they have grown up, worked, and raised families. Thus all mining megasites are likely to eventually result in wide-scale unemployment and a cycle of poverty and poor health. The very nature of mining seems to create social and environmental injustice—especially if communities with a history of having benefited from mining do not become major actors and achieve power early on in the Superfund process.

Recently, Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program seems to be reinforcing the same environmental injustices that have been stamped into Anaconda and Opportunity by the EPA. In its 2007 grant cycle, the Natural Resource Damage Program rates Anaconda’s proposal for a waterline project very low, and recommends against funding the proposal. Why? Because the county is poor: the low proportion of matching funds that Anaconda-Deer Lodge is able to bring to the table seems to be the decisive factor in the recommendation not to fund.

Thus is Anaconda treated unjustly. As a company town, it suffered horribly with the demise of the Anaconda Company and mismanagement by British Petroleum-ARCO. As a town of older, poorer citizens, it has been unable to generate the revenue or lobbying power of Butte and Missoula. For these reasons, the town now finds itself unable to compete with other proposals in the Natural Resource Damage Program funding process. This is wrong, wrong, wrong!

Anaconda-Deer Lodge County has fallen into a post-industrial economic abyss. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resource Damage Program should be doing what they can to help Anaconda and Opportunity climb out of this trap. Instead, they seem to making it deeper. The Environmental Protection Agency refuses to allow the county to participate in Superfund decisions, fund adequate technical and legal expertise, or support redevelopment assistance.

Anaconda is doing its part with an aggressive public outreach campaign, a business and housing growth plan, and active engagement in the remediation and restoration process. It is high time for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resource Damage Program to do their part.

For more news about Anaconda, Opportunity, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink http://www.cfrtac.org/.

Big Hole River Grayling Quest

Yesterday, I was cicerone to Colorado native Jonathan Stumpf, a journalism grad student at UM-Missoula. Jonathan has a two-fold quest: (1) to catch a native grayling; and (2) to research a story about the Big Hole River grayling.
We had planned to fish the river in the morning and then tour the basin, but when I learned of Quest (1) we shifted plans a bit. I could not recall exactly where the upper river closure began and ended, so we began driving upstream. Sure enough, we found several pods of Big Hole River grayling actively feeding, marked by their splashy rises:

Alas, the three pods of a dozen or so fish each were all in the closed section. Sadly, I can recall that 10 or 15 years ago, one could see many, many such pods of grayling feeding actively on warm summer mornings. Some pools would literally boil from head to tail with feeding fish. But there are not many left.

Grayling biologists such as Jim Magee explain that the warmer it gets, the more actively do river (fluvial) grayling feed. It is a sort of stress-reaction, and it can have negative consequences when the water is warm enough to kill the fish and the dissolved oxygen levels are extremely low. As a species that evolved in and adapted to severe and relatively sterile glacial habitats with short summer seasons in which to feed and grow, this behavior served fluvial grayling very well. They could pack in the insects during the short season when food was available, and put on enough weight to get them through the long winter and the next spring's spawning season. I think of them as ravenous little bears of the aquatic world.

So, unable to put Jonathan's fly over a true fluvial grayling, we completed our tour of the basin and then headed to the last, best lake (adfluvial or lacustrine) grayling fishery. Well, at least it is my favorite grayling lake. The fish wash out from the lake into the outflow creek and -- unable to reenter the lake -- become trapped. Instead of moving downstream and adapting to stream habitat, they stay podded up in a pool near the outflow.

Here's our intrepid angler setting up on a grayling that rose to his fly:

And here are two fish he caught and released:

Was Jonathan's quest realized, or must he yet find and catch the elusive (and practically extinct) Big Hole River grayling? Don't know--you'll have to ask him. Personally, I hope he goes for the fluvial fish. There is a connection formed between an angler and a fish at the end of the line that -- at least with some anglers -- helps the angler appreciate the fragility, beauty, and conservation needs of the fish. To catch them is to know them, to know them is to love them, and to love them is to feel our moral obligation to perpetuate their B/being.

16 July 2007

Chad Okrusch: Big Hole River song

How pleasant it was to fire up KUFM radio (Montana Public Radio) this morning, find Justin Ringsak DJing on Morning Free Forms, and hear my friend and colleague Chad Okrusch singing "Big Hole River." You can hear it too, at http://ptc.mtech.edu/faculty/cokrusch/bigholeriversong.htm . Enjoy!

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.

08 July 2007

Branham Lakes car camp

Each summer, we spend a day or two at nearby Virginia City (Montana's authentic 19th century tourist ghost town) and attend a show at the Brewery Follies and/or a play at the Opera House (The Illustrious Virginia City Players). Usually, we camp someplace nearby, often at Branham Lakes at the head of the Mill Creek valley above the town of Sheridan. Branham Lakes is a Forest Service campground, and at c. 9,000 feet it's one of the highest places you can drive to in southwest Montana. The road is not for the faint of heart. Some years, come July 4th, there are still snowdrifts over the picnic tables. Other years -- like this year -- the flies and mosquitoes can eat you alive. We love it!

Though there were some day visitors, we had the campground to ourselves the first night. With the 100-degree F heat in the valleys and towns, the 75 deg F alpine air felt GOOD:
The campground sits along the shore of the upper lake, with good views to the ridges of the Tobacco Root mountains: The exquisite alpine meadows above the lake are lush with wildflowers:The tiny forget-me-nots are not to be missed:
On an early morning hike up to the peak east of camp, RTD and I flushed several golden eagles out of the krumholz forest of alpine fir. It's a dense little forets of 3 to 4 foot high trees. This seemed an odd place for eagles to be roosting.
RTD's superior nose led us to the reason the eagles were there--not to roost, but to feed on what might have been their kill. Or, scavengers that they are, the goldens might have found this mule deer fawn dead of "natural" causes: It was the first time that I have seen a mule deer fawn (live or dead) up in the "goat rocks." The mulie does usually hang out and fawn at lower elevations. It is common, however, to see big mulie bucks above treeline, like this guy bedded down at the edge of a snow field (silhouetted at lower right): Great views from the peak to the lakes. The lakes are full of trout, but this year I did not even bring a rod. Some friends (and family) think that EcoRover is compulsive about fishing, but I hardly even thought about it, even as hundreds of trout were rising on the still evening water, many within range of a good roll cast, and they would have taken eagerly a small ant or Goddard caddis fly on an 11-foot leader with a 6X tippet... While some of us like an early morning hike, others go for the early morning swim in an icy mountain lake. Even Emily needs a few moments to summon courage (or perhaps for ritual prayer) for the plunge: Once in, the water's fine (for a few minutes!): And there's nothing like a good round of shivering to warm up after the swim: Bugs, bad road, icy lake, steep ridges... Will we go back to Branham Lakes in future years? You bet!