01 August 2008

Pintler Wilderness: Rainbow Lake, Warren Lake

It's hard living and working in Butte, Montana, looking over to the Pintler Wilderness each day. After a few days between home and the office, my soul takes flight. Usually, I follow.

Last week saw RolyTheDog & I in the Pintler for a 4-day tour of the Rainbow Lake/Warren Lake area. It's a tough, long trail in and so this corner of the wilderness typically holds a little more solitude than easy, popular spots such as Goat Flat.

It's worth getting up at 5 a.m. for a morning drive to a Big Hole River watershed trailhead. The elk were still out in hay meadows after a night of filling their bellies (you should be able to click on this and other photos for an enlarged view):

The ranchers were not yet at work using the locally crafted beaverslide haystackers to make the unique hay mounds:

Heading up the trail, a mule deer doe and fawn played the peek-a-boo game with us:

I suppose with the starvation budget and increasing demand for fire protection from folks living at the urban/wildland fringe, there's not much money for things like new trail signs. Well, the old ones have character:

We beat the worst heat of the day hiking in, and still RTD took advantage of every spring run we passed for a quick cool down:

It was a good trip, with the usual Alpine wildflower delight, visiting lakes & hiking ridges, and a bluff charge from a protective mother bear.

The Bluff Charge

RTD & I were on our way out with an early morning start.

We were about 6 miles into the 9 miles, dropping from the morning cool of 9,000 feet to the valley heat, falling into the rythm of putting one foot in front of the other, reflecting on the high Alpine beauty of the past four days. I had just paused to photograph this cool orb weaver spider:

Then there it was. A bear. Not remarkable for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, I run into a few most every year. But this one was just 70 yards uphill of the trail and eyeing us closely. Usually they hightail it at first sight/sound/smell. But I quick snapped a photo, and as I did Bear turned to its right and gave a "Woof:"

Oh-oh, I know that sound. It means, "Kids, get your asses up a tree." And when I looked where Bear was looking, I saw one cub already up one tree and the other scooting up another. I grabbed RTD & we started moving down the trail--a little too quickly, perhaps. Sow Bear followed us, more or less parallel, just behind us and above the trail. After RTD we covered about 50 yards, Sow Bear charged. I pulled my cannister of pepper spray from its hip-belt holster, RTD & I stood fast, and I began loudly telling Sow Bear what I thought of her, her mother, and every other irascible unforgiving no-good bear that ever walked this green earth.

Sow Bear stopped 50 feet away. Classic bluff charge. I'm thinking, "Boy, the 30-foot range of this pepper spray is REALLY close." I thanked Sow Bear, complimenting her on her good sense and on being such a cool mother as RTD & I slowly backed down the trail. Sow Bear turned sideways and sort of shuffled back toward her cubs. Good Momma.

Lesson here: carry pepper spray and KNOW HOW TO USE IT. Believe it or not, it is far more effective against bear attacks (including the mighty grizzly) than a firearm.

This sow was just doing what any good mother would do. Here in Montana, however, like all over the U.S., we have a worsening problem with BAD bears--bears that have been habituated to human food by irresponsible & thoughtless people living at the urban fringe. People who have taken up residence in the bears' home. Some intentionally feed bears, and many others leave dog food or animal feed outside where bears can get it. Like Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says, "A fed bear is a dead bear."

Flashback to more than 40 years ago, the last time I was bluff-charged by a black bear. Gramps & I were walking back up a steep hill from one of the Cobb lease oilwells when three cubs ran across the road near the ridge-top where the Willys was parked. Sow Bear charged us and if she'd have come close enough I believe Gramps would have clobbered her with that 24-inch Trimo (pipe wrench) he always carried as a pumper.

Lakes and Ridges

Well, except for Sow Bear it was a peaceful 4 days in the Pintler. Two days at Goat Arena, a beautiful cirque,:

just north of Rainbow Lake:

The first day RTD and I hiked the mile or so over and fished Rainbow for small 4" to 8" cutt-bow hybrids, and met three hard-working young guys on trail crew with the Forest Service. Trail maintenance -- things like water bars and sawing out those 24" diameter spruce blowdowns -- don't just happen on their own. These guys were great, putting in 12-hour work days with a 2-man whip-saw (aka cross cut saw), big double-bit cruiser axe, and razor-sharp Pulaski, wearing a full pack, and out for the full week.

I had planned to scramble the unnamed 10,000+ foot peak at the head of Goat Arena, but my peak bagging hopes were dashed by high winds. I expect the ridge tops of the Continental Divide to be a little breezy, but knock-you-down gusts are dangerous and downright over-the-top.

If I had a good pack horse and wanted to shoot a big bull elk (or trophy moose), I'd camp & hunt the Goat Arena. It's called that for a reason, of course, or at least it was. Here are some goat bones, the closest thing I saw to a live goat on this trip:

This adds to the now abundant evidence that mountain goats have declined precipitously in the Pintler. Hunting season is closed completely on goats in the West Big Hole. The cause & effect relationship between snow machines (aka snowmobiles) and goat decline all over the northern Rockies is well established. When will the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks find the cajones to curb the rampant abuse of Alpine areas by snow machines? In the Pintler, snowmachines routinely ignore these signs to violate the wilderness:

Warren Lake is a pretty spot (some say the most scenic lake in the Pintler), and we moved camp there for the second two-days:

There is a gorgeous tarn a mile west of Warren Lake, well worth the hike:

This tarn is an alternative route to that unnamed 10K+ peak, but RTD decided this one. After a snack and short rest at the tarn, she refused my urgings to start up the scree toward the peak. Good dog, my right knee agreed. Two-to-one I was outvoted so we spent the morning hiking around the open larch woods and got a glimpse of a big still-in-velvet mulie buck that will be a real trophy come hunting season.

Several years ago, Warren Lake had some big fish--maybe 2 pounds+. Now it seems fishless. Even in the evening, with a heavy caddis & mayfly hatch and stoneflies on egg-drop flights, I never saw a single fish rise. Maybe it froze out, as these mountain lakes do from time to time. Warren is fairly shallow, and if the ice stayed on too long in the spring the oxygen could be totally depleted. There were a pair of loons on the lake, I thought they were fish-eaters but they must do OK on abundant benthic invertebrates?

Alpine Wildflowers

On the lower c. 6500 foot elevations near the trailhead, Sego Lillies (Calochortus nuttalli) were abundant:

In the woodland meadows, the Silky Lupines (Lupinus sericeus) are still putting on a show, with the occasional white variant:

Around the spring runs where RTD likes to cool down, Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia favescens) are at their peak:

Along the trail on the drier slopes were Oregon Grape (Berberis repens; love the leaves changing color and the berries forming):

Stemless Sunflower (Hymenoxys acaulis):

And Twin Flower (Linnaea borealis):

Once at the lakes, Alpine Laurel (Kalmia microphylla) and Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce, both Pink P. empetriformus and Yellow P. glanduliflora) carpeted the shoreline:

And on the meadows around the lakes, Alpine Lousewort (Pedicula contorta) was the dominant flower of the week:

Alpine Lousewort close-up:

There are still a few snowdrifts on the trails and around the lakes, but the skeeters have largely subsided. Black flies are another story, and I've never seen them this bad in Montana. Reminded me of our summer family fishing trips to northern Ontario & Quebec. Poor RTD really got her belly chewed up. Luckily for me, the weather was cool (barely over 70 deg F) so long sleeves & pants were no handicap.

See you in the mountains!


Anonymous said...

did you report that bear attack to fish and game? you should. it is very dangerus for other hikers to use that trail. fish and game should close the trail and kill the bear if theres more attacks.

EcoRover said...

I would not characterize what happened as an "attack," and I did not report it. This was a good Mother Bear. My guess is that within 5 minutes of my departure, she had moved her cubs to a "safer" place away from the trail. And even if she did not, the woods are her home, not ours--we need to respect animals in their own habitat, and not treat them as objects.

Leedra said...

Love the flower photos.


Your blog is very informative. I learned what to do (and not do) if I ever meet a bear on my travels north, and I didn't know snowmobiles were contributing to goat decline although I would have suspected that they are very damaging. In south-central Texas regions we have the problem of 4-wheelers getting outside of their designated areas and they really tear everything up.

The wildflowers in Montana are so unique - spectacular, thanks for posting for us!