31 December 2008

Happy New Year: Let's go (Cross Country) Skiing

The Moulton ski area is the finest cross country ski trails in Montana, and perhaps in the nation. It is located on National Forest Land just five miles north of Butte America, free to all (including dogs!), and groomed by ski club volunteers. The Moulton: yet one more reason why I wake up each morning thankful to live in such a fantastic place (directions).

OK, let's go (daughter Emily Munday, home for the holidays):

RTD says, "First, we must do our warm-up." She ain't called "Roly The Dog" for nothing:

Who's that knocking on my door? Wow, the woodpecker population has exploded given our big infestation of lodgegpole pine beetles. Here's a Hairy Woodpecker (Picoide villosus):

It's nice to warm up on the climb to the upper trails:

So many trails, and so little time. Life is short. Ski hard:

And put that sweater back on for the downhill run back to the truck:

Wow! You know it was a good day when you skied so hard, you broke a pole:

Yep, RTD agrees. Now let's jump in the truck and eat that biscuit:

Happy New Year, everyone!


The Moulton: Montana's Finest Cross Country Skiing Area

30 December 2008

Four Wheel Drive: A Short Course

Knowing how to operate a 4WD vehicle is important for anyone who likes to hunt, fish, backpack, ski and othewise enjoy the backcountry around a place like Butte, Montana. This post is for those who use a 4WD as a tool to get places--not for those who drive just to drive.

Like many kids growing up in the oilfields of Bradford, Pennsylvania, I learned to drive with a little Willy's Jeep. They were a common utilitarian roustabout and pumper's vehicle, and many -- like Gramps' Jeep -- were military surplus. My sister Kathleen began driving, as I recall, at about age ten. I didn't have her quick reflexes or good attention-span, though, so Gramps didn't trust me behind the wheel until I was twelve or so.

We learned to drive on "lease roads"--two-track paths through the hills that gave a pumper access to the oilwells on a particular lease. Oftentimes, the surface property was owned by one party, and the oil & gas rights by another. Furthermore, the original oil & gas rights owner usually leased out a seven-eighths working interest to the party that actually pumped & maintained the wells. Hence the term "lease" for an oil property.

Older lease roads were built by hand with horses & mules, and more recent roads were cut by a Cletrac "bulldozer" (similar to a Caterpillar). They were seldom well-designed roads: overly steep grades, poor drainage, sharp turns, rocky--what a great place they were to learn to operate a four-wheel drive vehicle!

4WD 101
First off, let's be clear: we're talking 4WD here, not so-called "All Wheel Drive" vehicles such as the Subaru Outback, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV. Jan's Subaru is just the ticket for highway travel in all conditions, and the occasinal off-highway foray on a good Forest Service road.

AWDs, however, lack the rugged construction (e.g. they have no frame), ground clearance, and other features of a true 4WD, such as my little '91 Toyota pick-up (only 330,000+ miles):

Do not drive off the highway unless you are prepared with some basic equipment & know-how.

Carry a shovel. Though it's best not to get stuck (see 4WD 401), there are times when you will need to dig out of deep snow or make room for a jack to fit in the mud. A versatile shovel has a semi-spade blade (a bit of a point) and a SHORT handle. You will only try digging out your rig from deep snow once with a long-handled shovel before sawing the handle off. The point helps when you have to chisel your way into hard-packed snow, ice, or rocky ground:

Weight the rear wheels. In deep snow or mud, a light rear-end will climb and lose traction. In my little Toyota Pick-up, I find four 80-pound sandbags (320-pounds) about right--placed directly above the rear axle. This is in addition to a bed-mounted toolbox with a lot of heavy stuff(chains, tire chains, come-along, etc.) in it.

Run good tires. True off-road tires are horribly noisy on the highway and may not perform well on slick, rainy pavement. "M/S" (mud + snow) rated tires are a good compromise. Consider an LT ("light truck") rated tire: LT tires have thicker & more rigid sidewalls for heavier loads and more resistance to rocks in a deeply rutted road:

All four tires MUST be identical. Rotate them every 5,000 miles to insure even wear. Consider studded tires if you spend much time on snowpacked or icy roads:

Carry a full-sized spare tire. Ideally it will match your other four tires, and you will rotate it with them.

Carry a 3/8" chain or nylon snatch strap ("recovery strap"). Either should be at least 20 feet long. They are necessary when you are pulling a stuck rig out with another vehicle, and can also be helpful when you are freeing yourself with a winch/come-along. A snatch strap is safer, and has some elasticity so you can "jerk" out a stuck vehicle. Two straps and chains have no elasticity so take up the slack slowly!

NEVER, EVER drive with 4WD engaged on dry pavement. At the very least, you will wear out tires fast and damage the drive-train. At the very worst, the vehicle will flip over on a turn and kill you. That said, some 4WD vehicles do have a feature that allows them to be operated safely on dry pavement: read your owner's manual.

4WD 201

Carry heavy-duty tire chains (note cross welded pieces on links in pic below). Lightweight chains will break frequently on rocky roads or if you must drive even a short distance on pavement/dry road. Ideally, have a full set of four chains. If you have only one pair, chain the front wheels and go slow especially if you're going downhill--the unchained rear end can break free and swing around very quickly! Carry a pair of gloves just for putting chains on and taking them off: it can be a wet, cold, dirty job. Chains must fit snugly--it can be a problem getting them tight enough. Try driving a short distance, stop, and catch another link to tighten the chains. Rubber tensioner cords (short, thick bungee cords) can help keep chains from slapping around, especially with a broken cross-chain. Carry a few extra links and "monkey links" (repair links):

Know how to put chains on. Practice in the drive-way. Two basic techniques are: (1) lay the chains out in front of the tires, drive mid-way over them, and attach; and (2) jack up a wheel, attach the chain, lower and move on to the next wheel. It should go without saying, but NEVER crawl or reach under a jacked-up vehicle so that you could be pinned or injured if the jack slips.

Chain driving tip: unless you are seeking an adventure, do not use chains to drive into a place where you intend to hunt, fish, or camp etc. Weather conditions can deteriorate (see 4WD 301): if you had trouble driving in with chains, then you might not get out at all. I've seen folks drive in as far as they could, then chain up and drive further--only to get stuck in the next big snow drift or mudhole, sometimes just a few hundred yards from where they chained up!

Carry a heavy-duty bumper jack. It's often called a "handyman" or "hi-lift" jack. If you're high-centered or in a deep rut, you can jack the vehicle up and kick it sideways. Stay clear of the jack when doing this. You can also use a hi-lift jack as a sort of winch or come-along, although this is awkward and it's much easier to use a REAL cable winch or come-along. NEVER leave the handle in the ratchet under tension unless the handle is pinned in place. The jack's cog can break or slip and launch a loose jackhandle through a human skull:

On rough ground when you need to go slow or on steep terrain where you need maximum torque for braking or climbing, shift the transfer case to low range (also called compound low). If you have lock-in front hubs, do not use low range unless the front hubs are engaged. Otherwise, you double toque to the rear wheels and risk breaking an axle shaft.

DO NOT ride the clutch to control speed. Avoid braking where possible. Use the transmission and throttle to control speed. Many 4WD off-road fanatics even start and stop their truck in gear without using the clutch.

If you encounter an obstacle that might be higher than your ground clearance, drive over it by keeping your front & back wheel on it. Know your ground clearance, and how it varies from the front & rear differential toward the suspension. Drive slowly enough so that if you do get hit an obstacle, you don't break anything.

4WD 301

Carry a winch or come-along ("power puller"). Some trucks have a winch mounted on the front bumper, but it can be awkward to use if you have to pull from the rear. Carry a tree protector and strap/chain assortment for maximum flexibility. Inspect the winch cable, use grease or a corrosion-protectant on it, and replace if it's frayed. For maximum torque, carry a snatch block so that you can double the line. The block can also be used as a pulley to change the angle of pull. When using a cable winch or come-along, through an old coat or blanket over the cable--that way, if the cable breaks, it is less likely to whip around and take someone's face off.

Heavy-duty come-along that I carry in the Toyota p.up (pictured with chains):

Manual drum winch that fits to my LandRover's front or rear (pictured with snatch block):

Do not buy a cheap come-along: cheap, thin cables break easily, and I've seen the pressed-metal frames twist apart. These are OK for stretching fence or hoisting an elk.

Lock-in hubs, manual transmission: I'm a traditionalist. I like lock-in hubs that allow the front wheels to "free wheel" when you don't need 4WD. And I like a manual transmission including a manual transfer case, as I've seen a lot of balky electric or push-button 4WD and hi/lo range selectors. "Warn manual locking hubs" can be fitted to most 4WD vehicles:

Carry an air pump. This can be a simple manual pump or an electric-operated version. This not only allows you to inflate a low tire, but -- more importantly -- allows you to let some air OUT of your tires when you need extra traction on loose rock, snow, or mud. At low, off-highway speeds, you can drop tire inflation to 10 - 20 psi. Traction improves greatly.

Scout ahead. Before driving into a mudhole, stream, or snow drift, get out and check the depth with a stick.

Carry a large bow-saw and ax. Sometimes you need to clear the road: remove a low hanging tree, or saw through a large downed tree so that you can then pull it out of the way.

Watch the weather. Warm snow is MUCH slicker than cold snow. Many times I've driven in through deep snow and parked early in the morning, and then had trouble driving out in slick, warm snow. And I've had to chain up to drive out through drifts after a mid-day blizzard all but obliterated the road. Warming temperatures can cause a firm, well-frozen road to turn into a muddy quagmire. Warming temperatures can also increase snow melt, so that the little stream you drove through in the morning is over the floorboards by late afternoon. Most people are fair-weather off-roaders, so you are likely to find yourself alone when you need help the most. Be prepared.

4WD 401

Don't get stuck (unless you are driving to test your rig, or need experience in getting unstuck). Learn the capabilities of your vehicle and do not get high-centered or buried in deep mud or snow unless that is the whole point of your adventure. To me, a 4WD vehicle is a treasure, and though I use it often I also want it to last a long time. Here's my '72 Land Rover Series III that I've owned since 1980:

Here we are, parked near a good cross country skiing area on a very snowy day. I knew the risk, and expected to be stuck when we returned to the truck parked in 20 inches of new snow that became very slick as the day warmed above freezing. Luckily, after just a half-hour of digging, we were free (I could have chained up and drove out, but I did not have far to go):


This blog post is only a brief introduction to the intricacies of 4WD off-highway travel. There are many good books and videos on the subject, and new 4WD owners should study up on them. There are also some EXCELLENT YouTube clips about specific 4WD skills. However, there is no substitute for experience. Put together a good 4WD kit and practice using it.

Have fun. Be safe.

29 December 2008

George Groesbeck, Jr: A Musical Tribute

George Groesbeck, Jr., of Butte, Montana, died earlier this month at the young age of 38. George was a talented guy at whatever he chose to do: Montana politics, flyfishing, golfing, music... I first met George as a candidate in an MS program at the college where I teach: he was notorius for taking an "out-of-the-box" approach to fulfilling assignments, such as performing an original song in lieu of a research paper. Not many students could pull this off, but George did (and he did it well).

Glenn Bodish of the Musueum of Fine Arts-Butte (MoFAB) hosted a musical tribute to George that was also a fundraiser for the two beautiful daughters he left behind. It was a great event: more than a dozen bands playing on three different stages for six hours, a potluck ranging from wild-game sausages to choice desserts, beer on tap from the Quarry Brew Pub, and a packed house with fans & friends from 8 to 80 years old. The spirit of Butte America really shines on such occasions.

The show opened with George Groesbeck, Sr, and his band. You could see where George, Jr., got his talent from. Each stage was decorated with tie-dye by Tim Mason, an amazing guitar picker and artist:

Kristy Dunks is also back in town (everyone, it seems, comes back home to Butte as soon as they can), and it was good to hear her clear high voice, talent for the banjo and other instruments, and original songs:

Ed Shaw, also known for reading his poetry at the Venus, picked out a Rolling Stones tune and a few other favorites:

Justin Ringsak picked up a great blues-style from his years in Chicago:

Chad Okrusch is always a crowd favorite with his tunes about the Big Hole River and the town of Opportunity:

And VertexVortex played its indescribable, head-tripping version of improvisational jazz:

I apologize to Sean Eamon and some of the other bands of whom I took pics but they did not turn out well--I neglected to grab a fresh battery for my camera and so the flash was quirky at best.

Thank you, George, for a life well-lived and for building a network of friends who will long remember you. A man cannot ask for more.

26 December 2008

Emily Munday: Slayer of the Mighty Christmas Tree

There we were, Jan & I the anxious parents: on the phone & internet trying to find out when our dear daughter might make her flights & connections from Boston, Massachusetts, to Butte America. With storms across the northern tier of the United States from sea to shining sea, delays were inevitable. At last, after an unscheduled night in Denver, Emily Munday caught a standby seat to nearby Boz Angelas (aka Bozeman), Montana.

Bright and early (10 am?) the next morning we left Walkerville for the annual Christmas Tree hunt. Everyone has their favorite place to cut a tree. (Did someone say buy a tree? Never heard of it.) Butte is surrounded by federal and state lands, so you don't need to drive far:

Remember Charlie Brown's Christmas? Now, that there's a tree:

And look, Santa's reindeer queueing up on a nearby hillside:

RTD, tree inspector, says "Mom likes natural decorations. Cut this Douglas Fir with all the little cones:"


After a short half-mile drag to the truck, we tied it on, and headed for home:

Merry Christmas, everyone!

22 December 2008

Merry Solstice Celebration

Don Stierle and Andrea Stierle have a cabin near the cross country skiing area at The Moulton. Some years ago, Jan Munday, Jeff Schahczenski, and Celia Schahczenski began hosting a bonfire/solstice celebration in lower German Gulch. It involved a fair hike to an undeveloped area. Stierles began hosting the party after they bought the cabin at The Moulton, and it provides a place for people to get inside and warm up. Plus, good skiing is close at hand.

The weather has been very cold, and Winter Solstice night was predicted to be -30 deg F or colder. At hour house, you can usually tell when temperatures hit sub-zero, as Roly-The-Dog & Phoebe-The-Cat start getting chummy and bed down together:

I reached Stierle's cabin with the "evening redness in the west" (Cormac MacCarthy Blood Meridian). Don & Andrea were just returning from a ski, as you can see by the frost in Andrea's hair:

Gradually, more folks (and dogs) found their way up to the cabin. The weather scared a lot of people off this year, and I think the human people were outnumbered by the dog people this year. We spent a few hours feasting on the potluck, Don grilled up several platters of hamburgers, I had time for a headlamp ski (RTD went back to the cabin before we made it 200 feet!). Returning, I had just enough time to kick off my skis, run in the cabin, and grab my old hat as Bill Macgregor was pouring diesel fuel on the wood pile:

It's been a good old felt hat, serving more than 20 years of backpacking, floating, flyfishing, and other outdoor adventures. But it was getting pretty ratty--to the point where Jan didn't like being seen with me in it. Last summer my little Tahiti boat got rolled up by a wave on the Big Blackfoot River. I held onto the boat and kicked toward shore--as my hat floated downriver. But Jerry Gless had his kayak in rescue position and saved the hat. Jan was not pleased with Jerry. He just happened to have inherited a pretty good old Stetson, which he gave me upon one condition: Jan could decide the fate of the old hat. And so, to the Solstice bonfire it went. Goodbye, old hat:

Meanwhile, the crowd gathered round the fire:

And felt the glow:

Mike Stickney insured no stick was left unburned:

"The flames climbed high into the night" (Don McClean, "American Pie"):

But watch those sparks. Good time to be wearing wool, and not fleece or other high-tech synthetic fabrics:

The fired died down, stars retook the moonless night sky, we hugged and all bid farewell but not goodbye.

19 December 2008

George F. Grant (1906-2008): A Eulogy

[From the eulogy I delivered at George's funeral Thursday 06 November 2008).]

George Grant appreciated the beauty, solitude, and honesty of wild nature. Moreover, as a "Butte Rat" -- native son of the great mining town, Butte America -- George understood that surface appearances give little indication of underground reality. He learned to see beneath the surface, both as a fly tyer of nymphs and when it came to the politics of environmentalism.

Others today will talk about George's commitment to family and environmentalism. I want to place George within the canon of angling and environmental literature with a few readings from the work of great writers such as Richard Brautigan (1935-1984), Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), and Norman Maclean (1902-1990).

The first reading is from Richard Brautigan, "By his sister who is in the crazy place now," Trout Fishing in America. It commemorates the spirit of George's life as a fly tyer:

Once, while cleaning the trout before I went home in the almost night, I had a vision of going over to the poor graveyard and gathering up grass and fruit jars and tin cans and markers and wilted flowers and bugs and weeds and clods and going home and putting a hook in the vise and tying a fly with all that stuff and then going outside and casting it up into the sky, watching it float over clouds and then into the evening star.

The second reading is from Ted Leeson, The Habit of Rivers: Reflections on trout streams and fly fishing. It commemorates George's love for a very special trout stream--the Big Hole River:

We see some rivers better than we see others. For whatever reason -- our histories with them, an unusual powerful aesthetic rapport, some unspecifiable eloquence -- a few such rivers, perhaps only one, come into focus for each of us more readily and significantly than the rest. They grow into places of deep fixity in life and align themselves like compass points in the mind's geography.

The third reading is from Wallace Stegner, "Haunted by Waters," an essay written to commemorate the life of George's close contemporary, Norman Maclean:

The Montana of his youth was a world with the dew still on it. Perhaps the time of youth always has dew on it, and perhaps that is why we respond to Maclean's evocation of his. But I lived in Montana, or close to it, during those same years, adn it was a world younger, fresher, and more touched with wonder and possibility than any I have since known. After seventy years, I still dream it; and when it is revived by these stories it glows with a magical light, like one of those Ansel Adams photographs that are more magnificent than the scenes they pretend to represent.

The fourth and last reading is from Maclean himself--the final words of A River Runs Through It:

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't. Like many fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and teh sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

18 December 2008

George Francis Grant (1906-2008): fly tyer, environmentalist, founder

I can't let 2008 slip away without paying tribute to the life of Butte's native son, George Grant. He was a noted conservationist, writer, and fly tier. Moreover, George combined two traits rarely dealt into the same hand: he was a good man, and a great man. Good in the sense of his loyalty to family and friends, environmental ethics, and humble lifestyel. Great in the sense of his political leadership, environmental activism, and fly tying creativity.

I met George in the early 1990s, and interviewed him in the late 1990s as part of a book project and for a biographical article. At 90 he was still living on his own, sharp as a tack, could recall minute details of his life, and tied flies. Although his cognitive abilities and energy slipped away over the past few years. But we watched a movie together each week during the winter of 2006-07, and he had some incredibly lucid moments--jogged by watching footage about the 1920s in the Ken Burns "History of Baseball" documentary (George played 2nd base for two local teams as a young man) and by some of the marvelous fishing scenes in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It." George on his 100th birthday examining a walking stick his father brought back from the Phillipines long ago (presented to him by his grand-nephew Mike Grant; CC-BY-3.0):

In 1933, the Great Depression caught up with George and he lost his job as a stenographer/clerk with the Union Pacific Railroad office in Butte. He recalled that moment as one of the happiest in his life. Though the UP offered him a promotion if he would moveto its Salt Lake City headquarters, he instead rented a cabin at Dewey on the Big Hole River and fished nearly every day from June to October:

Beginning in 1933, George dabbled in fly tying, and from 1937 to 1951 it was his main occupation. He invented a method of weaving hair hackles and secured a patent on it in 1939. Many of his flies, like the Black Creeper (pictured below) imitated the large stonefly nymphs so common in cold, freestone mountain rivers of the West:

Despite his age, the U.S. Army drafted George in 1942. He worked as a clerk in the Butte induction center, soon promoted to master sergeant, and was demobbed in 1945. He got into the sporting goods business and married Annabell Thomson in 1947. She became an excellent fly caster, and they spent many happy days together on George's beloved Big Hole River.

George was an avid reader and knew fishing literature inside and out. He read the history of how rivers in Europe and the eastern United States had been ruined by logging, polluted by industry, and bought-up by the rich. When the Bureau of Reclamation proposed the Reichle Dam project for the Big Hole River in 1965, George became an activist. He helped organize with local ranchers and a new national organization called Trout Unlimited, and together they convinced Montana's senators Mansfield and Metcalf to kill the project.

George retired in 1967 and gave himself over to the conservation effort. Allies such as Tony Schoonen (pictured below at George's 100th birthday party) and Bob Lienemann joined him, and they formed the River Rats Chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1972. Later, the group changed its name and became the George Grant Chapter.

As the editor and "Chief Rat" of the chapter's publication, the River Rat, George developed his voice and published two books, The Master Weaver (about his approach to fly tying) and Montana Trout Flies (still the authorative history of western fly tying). His TU chapter's newsletter became the official publication of Montana Trout Unlimited in 1974 (CC-BY-3.0):

Through George's writing and leadership, and with active lobbying with friends such as Tony Schoonen, they pushed the Streambed Preservation Act (aka "310 Permit") through the legislature in 1975. It was a first step in halting the destruction and dewatering caused by ranchers operating heavy equipment in river channels. It was a busy, heady time. From 1973 to 1985, the River Rats led a successful battle culminating in Montana's Stream Access Law--guaranteeing the right of the public to use all streams and river beds between the high water marks. From the late 1970s through 1990. Grant and Schoonen joined with other activists such as Al Luebeck to end unsustainable clearcutting of the Big Hole River watershed and to establish new wilderness areas. Although the effort to end clearcutting succeeded, the wilderness bill failed thanks to a veto by America's second-most anti-environmental president, Ronald Reagan. Tony Schoonen speaking at George's 100th birthday party (organized by his great-niece Alyse Curry; CC-BY-3.0):

George's environmental activism in the late 1970s led to his break with Montana Trout Unlimited and, by the late 1980s, to his break with the local TU chapter. Montana TU seemed to fear accusations of "environmentalism" for supporting wilderness or wild & scenic designations for rivers. And although the local chapter took George's name, it was controlled by -- and beholden to -- local mining interests. Even Montana Fish & Game (now called Fish, Wildlife & Parks) backed away from environmental issues as it came to be an increasingly politicized agency. FWP did honor George in a "paen to the glories of wild river and wild trout"--the documentary film Three Men, Three Rivers:

Ever the optimist, George sold his book collection and raised funds to establish the Big Hole River Foundation in 1989. For some years, the foundation was effective in promoting conservation along George's river, primarily through the leadership of then-Executive Director Jennifer Dwyer (now Jennifer Boyer). Sadly, this organization did not remain the activist group George hoped to create, and currently will not even take a stance against private bridges across the Big Hole River, built by wealthy landowners to facilitate real estate development.

Among all groups that George was affiliated with, only the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF)seems to honor the meaning and purpose of his life. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when George worked closely with and was honored with several awards from the FFF, it was primarily a fly tying history & culture group. Today the FFF continues that tradition, but is also a vibrant environmental organization--especially through its Endangered Fisheries Initiative and Native Fish Focus programs.

George Grant is dead, but he is well remembered. Let's hope that organizations such as the Big Hole River Foundation and George Grant Trout Unlimited do more than remember his name, however. Let's hope they honor his spirit by having the courage and wisdom to fight for Montana's Last Best River:

Those wanting to honor George Grant's life and legacy should consider a gift to the Federation of Fly Fishers: Donate to FFF.
Since originally posting this, I've been asked what George's signature looks like. This is a signed print of "Big Hole Brown," a piece of art by David Whitlock. The print was sold with a special "George Grant Limited Edition" of the book, Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole and its People (Lyons Press, 2001):