21 May 2008

Howling at the Moon: A Night Out in the Big Hole

[Note: photos follow this essay, unlike my usual style of interspersing them with the text.]

The clamor of voices in my head was getting a little loud, so I followed Thoreau's advice, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Or of my sanity, at least. To Thoreau's dictum, Leopold added, "Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf..." Or of the coyote, at least.

And so I went a camping on the Big Hole River side of the pass over the Continental Divide formed by Mill Creek (a Clark Fork River tributary) and Deep Creek. It is a special place, with the steep West Slope contrasting with the gentle East Slope. It was a traditional route for Native Peoples between the summer hunting grounds of the Big Hole and the pleasant wintering grounds (and warm springs) of the Deer Lodge Valley.

Walking this ground, you feel the footsteps of people long ago. Tipi rings, hunting trails, a jasper mine, tremendous views to both sides of the valley. Before I know it I sense it: I am standing in the center of a tipi ring. At my feet, a large milky quartz pebble that fits perfectly the palm of my hand. A hammerstone. And on the frost heaved ground, flakes of red jasper.

Walking this ground, you feel the eternal beauty of things long dead and forever coming to life. Petrified wood from a forest long ago, spring blossoming of wild flowers, elk on their calving grounds, meadows lush and wet and greening, cycles ancient and repeated since the Pleistocene.

The sun set into the mountains, the moon rose through a bank of clouds, the coyotes howled. They woke me up. RTD is even deafer than I am, these days. She slept soundly until I crawled past her to step out of the tent, take a piss, and join the song dogs for the chorus. A bull elk joined in with a long, lilting whistle (yes, they do whistle in the spring, maybe in response to all those new calves?). We even stirred a sandhill crane, though from its cries I think it was telling us to shut the hell up and let it sleep.

A chill dawn, hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee, a long hike up the valley, catch a mess of trout for lunch, I'm ready to go home. Well, not ready. But it's time to go home. Time.

Thankfully this holy ground has become public land, and not fallen into the hands of developers and McMansionites like the piece just down the valley. Here, a failed ranch built up by pioneering homesteaders, our white forefathers who seemed to know only how to take from the land and not how to live sustainably with it. Like the new trophy homes down the valley that will rot away with time and the high price of fossil fuels, this old homestead was a mere flash in time's pan.

What am I saying, "this old homestead?" It was established barely a hundred years ago and is now long gone. Four generations from rags to riches to rust. And in the brief time they were here, they were hard as hell on the land.

The Native Peoples walked this ground for ten thousand years. Four hundred generations, maybe longer. They didn't leave things so bad. What will our children, ten thousand years hence, say about us?

What a view from camp! Pintler peaks from Saddle Mountain (East/West Goat) on the left to Mt Haggin on the right:

Elk on calving grounds:


Curious antelope come over to check out our camp:


Big mosquitoes, first of the spring:


Sunset into the Pintler peaks:


Petrified wood (this specimen is chalky, unlike the usual glassy specimens found here--must be like the transformation of chalk to chert/flint):

Mountain buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis):

Pretty shooting star aka "Roosterheads" (Dodecathon pulchellum, though this could be the related desert species), purple:

And white:

Spring beauty (Claytonia spp.):

Wyoming kittentails (Besseya wyomingensis):

Biscuitroot (Lomatium cous), and important food of Native Peoples:

Milky quartz hammerstone, from a tipi ring with a views to both sides of the broad valley:

Red jasper flakes from tool making/sharpening:

A mess of brook trout for lunch:

RTD cooling her belly while I fish:

Remnant of a not-so-old homestead:

Sunset behind the Anaconda smelter stack on the way home:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ecorover:

I like your wildflower photos. You show the western Montana prarie very nicely.

The flower you identify as Mountain Buttercup, R. nivalis, is probably Sagebrush Buttercup, R. glaberrimus.

The Springbeauty is probably C. lanceolata. Indians ate the roots of this plant too.

Do you have a photo of the quartz hammerstone you found?

Thank you for sharing this beautful place. You are lucky to live there.

EcoRover said...

Thank you for the taxonomic help!

I do have pics of the hammerstone, and will post them separately in a new entry, along with another pic or two I missed.

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