06 October 2008

Montana's Alpine Larch

We value that which is not easily obtained.

The ridges and high valleys of the Continental Divide in the Pintler Wilderness are blessed with Alpine Larch (Larix lyalli). A coniferous deciduous tree, the soft, feathery needles turn a lovely golden color in autumn before the weather strips them from the tree. They grow in the harshest environments at treeline on the thinnest, rockiest soils where the less hardy spruces, firs and pines cannot survive.

It is the color of fall in Butte, Montana. A patch of chokecherries along my morning walk has somehow been missed by flocks of birds this year:

We've been enjoying a warm, sunny Indian Summer, but Friday morning the sky dawned red:

And curtains of dry rain, called virga, hung from the sky:

With the weather changing, it was time to hike up a mountain to view the larches before the delicate needles were lost to sleet and wind.

Like trout, the beauty of Alpine Larch comes in part from the places they live. It takes effort and timing to get to them. You have to climb, and if you go too early the needles are a washed out green, too late and they have fallen to earth. Saturday morning found Don Stierle, Andrea Stierle, and EcoRover hiking into the high Alpine cirque of Many Mile Lakes.

The cones of the Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) are ripe on the high ridges, though one seldom finds a whole one. This one was dropped by a squirrel making a hasty retreat at the charge of Chukah the Wonder Dog (we wonder why she doesn't run into trees as she galumphs about the woods):

You can see where the squirrel had begun to gnaw on it. Opened with a quick boot stomp, the cone reveals its delicious, rich nuts. We ate a few and left it for the hungry squirrel:

Here are Don and Andrea just as we are dropping over the ridge into the Many Miles cirque:

The ridges around the first lake were dotted with color:

On our way up to the second lake, Andrea pointed out the interesting whorled grain of a downed tree:

At the second lake, still more larches among the pines and fir:

And at the third and uppermost lake, still more larches and color, but the weather was rapidly closing in:

We hiked out in sleet and snow, and were happy to reach the car and a thermos of not-so-hot chocolate. An hour or so later we pulled into Butte just in time for a little sunshine sliding in under the heavy clouds and light rain. As I drove up the hill to my home in Walkerville, a rainbow lit up the sky:

A great hike in a wonderful place. Next week: antelope hunting season.


Anonymous said...

Had some years grwoing up in old Butte. Forget how amazing the sky was. It would change while you watched. Big sky.

troutbirder said...

What an amazing set of sights and pictures from your hike. If I close my eyes I can almost smell that mountain air. Thanks for sharing


I don't know that I have ever see Larches. The Monty Python sketch ("The Larch") made me wonder where they grew and what they looked like. Now I know! Beautiful country. Thanks for the post!

EcoRover said...

AIN, you reference to the Monty Python sketch piqued my curiousity. I was long a MP fan but did not recall this one--so I looked it up on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRKVXG3DV-I .


Jayne said...

How beautiful Pat! And the rainbow to top off the day. Priceless. :c)

Shellmo said...

Wow - your skies had beautiful shades of color. Love those trees - all wonderful!

fishing guy said...

Great photos of a wonderful place to hike. I loved the grain on that tree.
Thanks for your visit and comments.

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