21 March 2009

Spring Camping on the Montana Prairie

I gave up most of my Spring Break to finish a couple of conference papers and for faculty union business (damned "successfully sinister" people). For years I camped every month the year around, digging snow caves in winter and often going ultralight with a hammock and tarp in summer. Over the past several years, Dave Carter & I have been making a Spring campout on the high prairie off the lower Big Hole River. Dave took sick earlier this week, and I decided to go solo (with RTD of course).

What a different climate, just 35 miles away from Butte America. The Notchbottom hills are about the same elevation as Butte, but in a deep rain shadow (less than 10 inches per year precipitation). This is sagebrush steppe, but without quite enough water for the lush sagebrush that dominates the upper Big Hole--vegetation is primarily rough fescue and short bunchgrass, and the ubiquitous Plains Pricklypear(Opuntia polyacantha) cactus:

But also the occasional Spiny Star(Coryphantha vivipara):

Along the slightly higher north-south ridges that catch prevailing westerly rain and snow, there is enough mountain mahogany to make the mule deer happy. A few junipers grow in the bottoms of the washes, and around springs, especially as you get upslope, there are stunted Douglass firs.

Hiking around a region several miles from the river, you can feel how life is limited by water. A mile goes by without a deer track or nesting songbird, then you hear the sweet trill of male bluebirds staking out their nesting territory, you see a lone mule deer (click and enlarge--look for the white butt):

And then a whole herd of about twenty (click and enlarge--look for the Mickey Mouse ears):

And you know a spring is close at hand:

The water issues from a vein of limestone, then disappears as it seeps back into the shallow valley's alluvium a few hundred feet downstream:

The long spines of limestone, called "reefs," arc for miles across the hills like rows of dragon's teeth (note RTD hugging the shade):

After a day of hiking this high desert, fragments of song come and go in my head, words that define our relationship to scarce, beautiful, life-giving water:

* "Where the bluebird sings at the lemonade springs..." from Big Rock Candy Mountain (hobo song from the 1920s);

* "All day I face the barren waste, without the taste of water..." from Cool Clear Water;

* "Cross a little cactus desert under a hot blisterin' sun
I was thirsty down to my toenails, stopped to rest me on a stump..." from Desert Pete; and

* A bit of poetry by T.S. Eliot (from The Wasteland):
"...Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock..."

Geology is laid bare here. It's not the overwhelming majesty of Arches National Park or Monument Valley, but the majesty grows once you've been out a day or so and grow a set of "desert eyes" and come to appreciate the subtle beauty:

The simple color of lichen stands in stark contrast to the dull terrain:

Desert or no, we're at about 6,000 feet elevation, and it was in the low 20s deg F at night. Nothing like a hot sagebrush-fueled fire for RTD to warm up next to:

Sagebrush also makes good cooking fuel--once the somewhat smokey flames subside, they leave a fine bed of hot coals that make a simple mule deer steak taste like a gourmet meal:

We were a few days late to take advantage of fresh beef from this bloated carcass of a mother cow. She probably died calving near on a ranch several miles away near the river, and was dragged up this wash by a rancher:

I conveniently "forgot" my compass, which isn't much of a problem with landmarks like Block Mesa are visible:

Not a bad view from camp, either south to the Pioneer Mountains:

Or of the rocky outcrops next to camp:

Or anywhere up valley:

Here's one tired dog, catching a nap while I pack up:

This is horse country, and it's tough to cover on foot. I've heard there are "good" horses, and though I'ven ever met one, it would be a pleasure to ride one in rugged country like this someday. Well, back to Butte America, where there is still three feet of snow in the house shadow of the backyard.


Emma said...

Thanks for sharing your trip with those of us who couldn't leave Butte this week. I have come to love the subtle beauty of this place, and your photo essays expand it for me.

Anonymous said...

That orange lichen is something else. I'm not used to all the browns and tans, but it does make other thinsg stand out.

fishing guy said...

ER: It does still look cold in Montana. You made some great photos but the dead cattle were such a waste. I'm glad to show you my Spring.

Naturegirl said...

Man what an adventure!! Except for running into the cow..I think it's sad that this is how the owner treats this livestock after she died..I guess I would expect burying but not dragged out to desert for a free for all.
Back to your adventure..wow! I'm just into hiking day trips..I don't know if I could do what you do!! Happy Trails to you!

John Theberge said...

Interesting country side, we obviously don't have anything like that around here. Seems like it was a very pleasurable camping trip.

troutbirder said...

If my high school geology teacher had bee able to wax as eloquently as this, who knows what career path I might have chosen...

tsduff said...

Your pictures are beautiful - especially the panoramic views. Very interesting - and yes, thanks for taking us all along on the virtual painless trek as we sit in the comfort of our own homes...

I love the rock reefs and the mystical picture of the spring.

I'm surprised there were no varmints munching on the cow yet.

EcoRover said...

Thanks, Emma--spring is not complete without a "desert fix."

Citizen, you just gotta likem.

Fishing guy, I'm not sure why the ranchers do that. Probably there is some law or stigma about using meat from a mother cow that dies calving.

Naturegirl, for many ranchers, cattle are largely book-keeping entries for the business.

John, it's great having broad diversity of climate and elevation close at hand. I'm getting a little tired of winter this year.

Thanks, Troutbirder--I probably hang out at the brew pub with too many geologists.

TSDuff, I think the cow was very fresh. If it were closer to home, I'd like to watch the cycle of scavengers--coyotes, eagles, whiskey jacks, etc that clean up a carcass fairly quickly.

CountryDreaming said...

I actually like best the photo of what you refer to as "dull terrain." What appeals to me are the windswept lines fading off into an exceedingly spacious distance promising more. Now that's simply majestic.