30 June 2008

Silver Bow Creek Float: Superfund Recreation

In many ways, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality/Natural Resources Damage Program project to remediate (clean-up) and restore (return toward historical baseline conditions) Silver Bow Creek is a success story. Yes, there are problems with metals-laden sediments from the Butte Hill recontaminating the project area, but by and large the cleanup, stream reconstruction, and riparian-zone revegetation efforts have all succeeded. Here's a map of Silver Bow Creek near Butte, Montana:

Here is a photo of Silver Bow Creek before clean-up:

Note the large, barren areas. The barren areas are phytotoxic mine tailings. Few organisims could survive in the polluted creek.

Here is a photo of Silver Bow Creek during an early phase of clean-up and reconstruction (c. 2000):

Enormous amounts of toxic material were hauled away. The stream channel was rebuilt to mimic a form that might have been there 150 years ago when placer mining turned the entire riparian zone upside-down. The banks and riparian zone were revegetated with native species.

I decided to float the Silver Bow Creek of today:

RTD and I put a few miles downstream of Butte, and intended to float to the Gregson/Fairmount area. Here's RTD riding tall in the parrot seat:

Throughout our float, we saw many ducks (mostly mallards), lots of redwing blackbirds and various "little brown birds," one great blue heron, a huge mayfly hatch (between Rocker and Ramsay), and a large (50 to 100 fish) school of suckers in every pool. Compared with the lifeless creek of a few years ago, not bad!

The new vegetation has really benefitted by the cool, wet spring this year, as shown by the lush banks:

Weeds are generally absent, though there was the occasional patch of dalmation toadflax (a noxious, if beautiful, invasive species) [maybe NOT dalmation toadflax--see Matt Vincent's comment]:

On wonders why the stream engineers created these "diving board" structures:

Perhaps they would have served some function if the baseflow of the creek doubled or tripled?

For the most part, the channel was clear of obstructions for my somewhat fragile, inflatable Sevylor "Tahiti boat." There were a few bridges of various sorts, ranging from the I-15 overpass:

To more rural roads with culverts like this one:

There are a few hazards in the form of sweepers as you approach the Ramsay area. Why the hell the engineers designed these log-footbridge hazards is beyond me. No problem in low water, though they are a pain in the ass since you need to portage around them. In high water, you could get in trouble fast:

Here's the Rarus Railroad tour train, the Copper King Express, passing by:

Even though I took the precaution of walking the Tahiti boat through the culverts and spillways at bridge crossings, I caught the bottom on a snag and tore a hole. Though the boat still floated well, it was low in the water and not much fun. So I decided to take out at the town of Ramsay, near this great old stone building (it really defines the meaning of bricolage!):

The Tahiti boat is undergoing a three-layered repair and is down for a day or two. Before the water gets too low, I am looking forward to floating the rest of the trip: the recently remediated and still-undergoing-restoration Ramsay Flats and the scenic and wild Durant Canyon.

Bitterroot Extravaganza

Nothing so characterizes the nature of Montana and Butte America than the bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva). The state flower of Montana, its name is apt: in honor of Meriwether Lewis, and in honor of the plant's ability to flourish under harsh circumstances & revive when conditions are right. Here in the heart of America's largest Superfund site, bitterroots seem to be doing very well.

They were an important food for Indian tribes such as the Nez Perce and Salish, who collected and ate the boiled roots. They're not bad, and I think the prime time to dig them is when the leaves have wilted away but before the flower buds are formed.

I thought last year was a pretty good bitterroot year in Butte's environs, but this year is OUTSTANDING; probably better than 1997. They grow in the hills around our home in Walkerville, with some delightful patches extending west to Big Butte.

My old neighbor (now deceased) Donald "Gub" Brunell showed the "rock roses" to me the first year we moved into our house. They grow in barren, rocky places as well as among the grass and forbs. You'll find the occasional lone plant, but usually they grow in small clusters or patches:

And when they first bloom, the color is intense. Like so many fine things in life, the blooms quickly fade.

So live in the moment and enjoy them while you can!

27 June 2008

Summer in Butte Montana

It's summer when the cool, wet June rain and snow comes to an end. Clear blue skies, light from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., trout fishing, hiking, lots of festivals (National Folk Festival 11-13 July, Evel Knievel Days 26-27 July, An Ri Ra Irish Cultural Celebration 8-10 August)...

The salmonflies are coming off the Big Hole River this week, making for excellent fishing. I was on the river for a few hours mid-day yesterday. It was windy and hard to fish the big dryflies, but a weighted nymph worked very well for dredging up two big 'bows and one big brown trout, two big whitefish, and sundry other trout smaller than 16 inches. Have to confess I killed a few 12-14 inch trout for supper--I literally salivate while releasing fish, and I do try not to be a fish hog.

I KNEW I had to fish this week, given the common Buttian knowledge that it's salmon fly time on the Big Hole when the lilacs bloom on Park Street. Butte is a real lilac town, most older homes have bushes. The common pale flowers predominate:

But there is also a good sprinkling of white lilacs:

And (my favorite) the very deep purple variety:

The yard is bright with flax (Linum lewisii). Though a common wildflower, Shirley and Paul van der Veur brought them to us and because of its sheer beauty we encourage them to take over some of the borders of the yard:

My hike from Walkerville down to Tech takes longer and longer as there are more critters and flowers to appreciate along the way. It's lovely to see an ecosystem in recovery. I heard a red fox barking at me this morning, but I could not locate her for a photo. The violet-green swallow is well habituated to RTD and I passing closely by:

The lupines (Lupinus sp.; some call them "bluebonnets") are blooming:

The mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) trees are also blooming:

As is the wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.):

Saving the best for last, the bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) have lots of buds this year:

And I saw the first bloom this morning:

Welcome, summer!

24 June 2008

Big Blackfoot River float

Everyone that has read (or seen the film based on) Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It knows of Montana's Big Blackfoot River. Though technically it's just "Blackfoot River," I like the prefix "Big" since that distinguishes it from the Little Blackfoot whose confluence with the Clark Fork River is some miles upstream.

Math prof and live-to-float colleague Jim Handley put together a two-day float trip on the Big Blackfoot from Russell Gates to Johnsrud Park, with an in-between campsite at Corrick's River Bend:

The first reach is 17 river miles, and we covered it in four hours or so including a lunch stop. The second reach is 11 river miles, covered in three hours with a lunch stop. Yep, the water was fast and high (and cold). While the Big Blackfoot is hardly whitewater of the caliber that Jim Handley, Don & Andrea Stierle, Jerry Gless, Paul Unmack, and other members of this group usually take on, I found the Class II water to be plenty challenging in my open "Tahiti Boat" (which Jerry refers to as a "Maypop").

Now, I am primarily a "meanderthal" flat-water paddler. But the Big Hole River has been high and not a lot of fun to wade-fish, and this was a great opportunity to enjoy a float trip with good, experienced river people. We pretty much try to live outside in the short Montana summer, so as Townes Van Zandt said when it comes to days, "Don't turn none away."

On day one, I got rolled up in a wave and ended up taking a swim. The nice thing about having a large group, including a couple of kayaks, is that people are able to recover things like loose boats and hats (Thanks, Jerry--Jan is REALLY happy that you saved my old fishing hat!). Blame it on my paddle. Well, blame it on me: I have a couple of two-piece kayak paddles, and hastily grabbed two "female" ends. As I learned, a piece of drift wood and duct tape are a poor & fragile fix when you need to dig in hard to steady yourself while climbing a four-foot standing wave.

Here's a pic of some of that water, from ConfluenceRafting.com:

Seriously, float in a group: it's a safety issue. Celia Schahczenski got popped out of her raft (while rowing; amazingly enough, the raft did not flip and no one else had to swim) in fast water with cliffs on one side of the river and thick willows on the other. It was real nice having Don Stierle on the oars of a raft and able to hold a position while Celia scrambled in. Otherwise, she would have been in for a long swim down to the next pool.

At camp, there were whitetail does with fawns, lots of wildflowers, many salmonflies, and a bald eagle. Sorry for not having more pics--I was not too motivated to take my non-waterproof camera swimming with me on this trip. Here's a nice group pic of the gang, courtesy of Andrea Stierle:

See you on the rivers!

23 June 2008

Let Summer Begin: flowers blooming, trout feeding, snakes slithering

"Summer," of course, is a relative term. Here at 6,000 feet or so in the Northern Rockies, our yard flowers are just starting to bloom. It feels as though warm weather is here to stay. But the wet, cool weather has been great for poppies and lilacs:

The daisies and other volunteers have taken over the roadside near the mailbox:

And the birds seem to be happy now that there are some bugs around. Here's a male violet-green swallow near a nest box that he and his mate took over after they bullied the bluebirds out (Dave Carter tells me that, if nest boxes are set out in pairs within 50 feet of each other, the bluebirds & swallow will tolerate one another):

It's nice to see songbirds around Butte. Twenty years ago they were rare, but now many species are common. Even the western tanagers come through town. You know it's summer when the bitterroots begin to form their flower buds. They are about two weeks later than last year:

Fishing on the Big Hole River has been excellent, despite the high water that makes wading difficult for us non-boating anglers. Howard Smith (Moulton Road, Butte) and I fit in a quick campout last week in a favorite spot where the chokecherries were blooming. Their pungent scent hung in the cool air along the river canyon:

Near camp, we came across this very beautiful prarie rattlesnake (about 30 inches long) crossing the road to get from a dry sagebrush hillside to the cool, lush grass along the river:

Some Butte guys pulled up near us as we were shepherding the rattler safely across the road. The son of the good old boy that was driving pulled out a revolver, held it across the front of his father's face, and was going to shoot the snake. I yelled sharply, "Don't kill that snake!" and to my amazement they did not, though they were grumbling and cussing as they drove away. I did not even have to reach for the Ruger .357 magnum on my hip.

Howard, RTD, and I found a lovely, shaded campsite in a delightful little spot at the end of a long, bad road. After an hour or two, I convinced Howard there were no more snakes and he finally got out of the truck. Ponderosa pines grow here--a rare sight in the Big Hole. Somehow, in numerous trips to this area, I had overlooked this spot on previous trips. Here's Howard (aka "the dog killer") and RTD, lounging at camp:

As the heat of the day retreated, it was time for a little fishing. The salmonflies and other big stone flies had not emerged yet, but big nymphs fished dead drift along the bottom worked very well. We killed just one trout for supper:

Montana surf & turf--in this case, antelope steaks and a rainbow trout on the grill:

After a good night's sleep and a little morning fishing, it was time to go. Jim Handley had put together a two-day float on the Big Blackfoot River beginning the next day, and Jan & I had some packing to do.

16 June 2008

Butte Montana: Spring Hiking & Trout Fishing

For an outdoors people, Butte Montana is at the hub of choices. Jan Munday, RTD, and I wanted to get out for a hike. The Moulton ski trails were still covered with 6 inches of snow from last week's storm, so we drove down to the hills of the lower Big Hole River, to one of my favorite rocky ridges:

We hiked up a coulee that goes up to a grassy saddle on the ridge. We saw some big horned sheep ewes (too far for my little camera) and jumped several mule deer does that have their young fawns hidden among the shade of junipers and mountain mahogany:

Though close to the river, this is desert country, with lots of prickly pear and some kind of little barrel-shaped cacti:

And other signs of dry country, such as buffalo plum locoweed (Astralagus crassicarpus):

But there are some lush swales, too, with grasses and wildflowers such as larkspur:

Lots of lichens grow on the rocky outcrops and boulders. They produce infinitely varied and beautiful patterns:

And a wide range of colors:

Looks (and smells!) like a mountain lion stashed a deer carcass or two under this small rock overhang:

RTD high-graded a choice bone out of it, and cracked it open to enjoy the very ripe marrow:

Enough of hiking in dry country, RTD & I headed to the upper Big Hole River to fish a favorite mountain creek:

The water has been high, and it must have been terribly -- indeed, impossibly -- difficult for this young antelope fawn to swim the creek:

Death comes in many forms: the talons of an eagle, the crunch of a wolf or coyote, a hunter's bullet, or an angler's fly:

RTD and I enjoyed the warm afternoon sun, ate our lunch alongside a snowbank near a patch of Douglass fir, cleaned & packed our fresh trout in snow, and headed home for supper.