11 July 2008

Montana Springtime Wildflowers in July--at 9000 feet

Around town in Butte and Walkerville Montana, spring has come and went. It's been dry and hot the past few weeks, and the grasses are taking over the meadows and sagebrush prairie. But Butte is "only" 5700 feet in elevation, and Walkerville "only" 6100 or so. Look off to the west and you see the Pintler (as in Pintler Wilderness and Anaconda-Pintler Mountain Range) and there are still vast snowfield covering much of the land.

I hiked up to a favorite lake yesterday at nearly 9,000 feet elevation. The access road was dry, which was encouraging as just two weeks ago it was still snowy and muddy and I did not want to drive up it and tear the hell out of it just to get to a trailhead where I would have to turn around and drive back down.

Driving up the steep access road to Many Miles Lake, the seasons changed rapidly.

On the sagebrush prairie/lodgepole forest interface where the access road turns up the Many Miles Creek valley, blooming wildflowers included Small-flowered penstemon (Penstemon procerus):

Common paintbrush (Castillejah minata):

And Arnica (Arnica sp; I was going to say Heartleaf arnica, but there are many species of Arnica hereabouts, and this one looks decidely different from those in the lower elevation forest):

Midway up, the Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) was putting on a big show:

Near the trailhead, especially in a wet area along a spring seep, there was Elderberry (I could not tell whether black, purple, or red--note the 5-leaf clusters; Sambucus sp.):

Wild strawberry (Fragillaria virginiana):

tea (Ledum glandulosum):

Pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriforumus):

And Sticky currant (Ribes viscossumum):

Hiking in, I was thankful for the field workers from the local Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. They do a great job of clearing trails, on open ridges where there is a log of blow down and in wet areas where big old spruces like this one fall over the trail:

As we climbed higher, RolyTheDog began finding welcome snowdrifts where she could rest, cool off, and feed a few mosquitoes:

I've hiked to this lake so many times, it is a familiar path like walking to work. The familiarity makes the hike pass quickly, and soon (so it seemed) we were there:

Among the fragrant, soft-needled Alpine larches:

And yes, it was still spring. On the margins of melting snowbanks, the earliest wildflowers were blooming:

Including Glacier lillies (Erythronium grandiflorum):

And Shooting stars (Dodecathon sp.):

The cutthroat-rainbow hybrids that inhabit the lake finished spawning not long ago, and they were feeding greedily. Once I found the right fly, a black ant (they consistently refused two caddis patterns), it was great fun to pitch short (20 - 30 foot casts) along the shoreline, and watch their snouts push above the surface to grasp the fly:

After a pleasant nap, I boiled up a pot of tea, contemplated the Edge of the World (aka the "Gunsight"--the outflow to the hanging valley of the lake):

And headed down the trail to the truck, a cold beer hidden in the spring seep, and the hour-long drive home. Half of which is on bad dirt roads. I'm a bit glad that the Forest Service does not better maintain its roads--no use making it too easy to get to the backcountry!

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