30 March 2009

Winter 2008-09 in Butte America

Montana natives welcome a winter like this every few years. They claim it helps clear the state of pilgrims who visit in the summer, get taken in by perfect weather and gorgeous mountain scenery, and buy a ranchette and a horse.

I really like winter and skiing, but this morning felt like April Fool's Day 48-hours early. View out the back door:

Six inches of snow with foot-and-a-half drifts in the alley. Old RTD does not seem to be offering much moral encouragement, either. View down the alley:

Oh well, at least the sun is shining today and there should be plenty of water in the rivers for trout (and anglers) come August.

28 March 2009

Still Winter in Butte America

We've been teased by a little warm weather, but so far I'm more inclined to Nordic ski than trout fish. Not to say that I wouldn't like to start flyfishing--after all, it's nearly 01 April, and even for us most diehard fans of winter it's running a bit long this year.

Still, there I wake to greet each day for whatever it has to offer. Be it a gorgeous pre-dawn sky (as seen from the front porch):

The view south past Timber Butte to the Highland Mountains (also from the porch):

Sunrise at the parking lot for The Moulton ski trails:

A major hatch of snow fleas (Hypogastura nivicola), like pepper sprinkled on ice cream:

I did some reading on these tiny celebrants of warm & sunny but-still-winter days, and found they are not a "flea" at all, but a springtail--"soil-dwelling arthopods that eat decaying vegetation and fungi:"

Roly The Dog is pleased to come across fox tracks, plunging her nose into the snow for the deeply exhilirating scent. We came across some other tracks, however, that seemed to concern her. At first, I thought they were tracks of that lion that we smelled several weeks ago on a moonlight ski. But no, these tracks showed toenails. A wolf had crossed west-to-east on the upper trails near Nipper Junction:

This is the first wolf sign I have seen aroung The Moulton. Pardner Smith "cried wolf" about a sighting near his house along Moulton Road a year or two ago, but he's also the guy who claimed he saw a wolf while we were antelope hunting. Pardner's "wolf" was a coyote that passed by less than 100-yards from me, so I tend to doubt his wolf-identification skills. I should write a book titled Pardner Stories, but that's for another time.


The Moulton: Montana's finest classic cross country ski trails, just five miles north of Butte.

27 March 2009

Making Things Last (and I Love Sears)

Back from camping last weekend and somewhat renewed, I tackled that increasingly noisy drier. Mrs ER (Jan) left the house for some shopping with a friend, sniffing something about, "I can see a new drier in my future." Hmmm... now THAT'S a challenge to the weekend warrior-mechanic. Turns out a support wheel for the drum was worn out:

The wheel's hub is supposed to fit fairly snugly on the axle, and not be triangular & floppy like this:

What a great company, Sears & Roebuck--this drier (a "heavy duty" gas model) is nearly 20 years old, but I was able to go online and find the replacement part in a just a few minutes. (The new part arrived this week, so that will take care of Saturday morning--poor Jan, that new drier gets delayed awhile.)

Then it was time for an oil change and cleaning/regapping spark plugs on the '91 Toy pickup. Runs good as new--with just 340,000 miles.

I like making things last, and take inordinate pride (yes, the sin of pride) in petty material things like an old truck and Levi 501s:

Jeans get cycled through the new (1-year old):

--> faded (2-years old):

--> holy/holey (3-4 years old):

--> rag stage. Even at the rag stage, you can cut off a lower leg, sew one end shut, and make a rugged storage bag:

Now, if only I could find time for the big projects, like rebuilding that front porch...

23 March 2009

Rally 'Round the Creek

[This post is modified from a Montana Public Radio commentary by me for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (CFRTAC).]

You're invited to: Rally 'Round the Creek, a public event for the Butte community about the health of Silver Bow Creek. Butte Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, 1000 George Street, 6 - 8 p.m. Tuesday, 07 April.

The shamrock plant on our dining room table is blooming, Butte just got hit by a big snowstorm, and the bars have been unusually crowded: must be St Paddy’s Day, with springtime close at hand.

As spring and snowmelt renew the landscape, so must we renew our commitment to this beautiful land that we live in.

This applies at the national as well as the local level. Lois Gibbs was an upstate New York housewife who led a revolution in grassroots environmental activism when her Love Canal neighborhood was declared America’s first Superfund site. She founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, which has helped communities such as Opportunity organize against the powerful, polluting Arco-British Petroleum corporation. The Center also takes a stand on environmental policy issues of national importance.

Gibbs’ center just released a report about the current status of Superfund. Two problems are especially relevant to us here in Montana.

One problem is that corporations are increasingly using bankruptcy to evade the cost of environmental cleanup. Gold mining companies such as Pegasus have long used this ploy, but now it has spread to larger corporations such as ASARCO. Courts have ordered EPA to close this loophole, so let’s hope that problem is put to rest.

The other problem is at the very heart of the original Superfund legislation, which emphasized the “polluter pays” principle. When a responsible party such as Arco-British Petroleum is still in business, EPA holds it accountable for cleanup costs. However, many Superfund sites are the legacy of long extinct companies. In that case, a “super fund” was supposed to foot the bill.

Unfortunately, Congress allowed the Superfund tax on polluting corporations to lapse in 1995, and the fund went bankrupt in 2003. Since that time, the polluter has NOT paid: instead, we the people have been picking up the tab to the tune of more than one billion dollars per year.

Gibbs writes, “The time to act is now. The country cannot afford to continue bailing out polluters while the list of unfunded sites grows. Congress should restore the polluter pays fees and enable Superfund to move forward and respond to new toxic threats. The core principle of the Superfund program is that polluters, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up these deadly toxic waste sites…”

Let’s hope Representative Rehberg and Senators Tester & Baucus are listening.

Closer to home, the EPA-funded Technical Advisory Groups CTEC and CFRTAC are hosting an event called “Rally ‘Round the Creek” on Tuesday, April seventh. The event will educate folks about the Silver Bow Creek cleanup, ongoing problems, and proposed solutions. In addition to the talking heads, there will be activities for children and plenty of opportunity to chat with your neighbors about this important issue.

Silver Bow Creek, the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, has been the subject of a three million dollar per mile cleanup effort. Yet this cleanup is being recontaminated and is further threatened by toxic metals in runoff from the Butte hill.

Although the Butte hill Record of Decision for remedy was signed more than two years ago, it is stalled in the so-called Consent Decree. In the Consent Decree, the parties – Arco-BP, EPA, and Montana – must come to an agreement about how the remedy will be implemented. The Record of Decision was vague, allowing a whole series of trial-and-error strategies that could take twenty years to stop polluting Silver Bow Creek.

Simple solutions that are likely to be effective – such as capturing polluted runoff in a settling and treatment basin – should be tried sooner rather than later.

Silver Bow Creek’s recovery has begun, as evidenced by trout and other fishes found in recent surveys. We know that one day Silver Bow Creek can be returned to a self-sustaining wild trout fishery and a fantastic place for Butte families and visitors to recreate.

But we cannot take environmental restoration for granted. Unless the remedies for Butte and the creek that runs through it are coordinated, things could get much, much worse. We believe that agencies such as Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality want to do the right thing, but it’s always easier for government to do the right thing when people actively support that choice. As we like to say here at CFRTAC: It’s your creek. Wade in, and help make the future.

Come and join us at Rally ‘Round the Creek. The event is at Butte’s Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center on 1000 George Street, on the banks of Silver Bow Creek. The date is Tuesday, April seventh, from six to eight p.m.

Film & Colloquium by Director Rainer Komers

5:30 – 7:00 p.m. Tuesday 24 March
Free pizza & drinks
Engineering Hall 208--Montana Tech--Butte America

See Nome Road System (2004)— a documentary film (26 minutes)
about life and culture in Nome, Alaska.

Followed by director Rainer Komers, who will talk about his current project
featuring America’s largest Superfund Site:
Butte, Anaconda, the Clark Fork River, and Milltown Dam.

Sponsored by the Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation, Clark Fork Watershed Education Project, and Professional & Technical Communication Department.

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.

17 March 2009

Happy St. Paddy's Day from Butte America

"He drank like a fish
And he ate like a savage
The only thing he didn't like
Was corned beef and cabbage."
[Excerpt from a poem Gramp's recited at the St Paddy's Day supper table of my youth; a variation was sung by Benny Bell as McCarthy & McGinnis (1940s)]

You can read the calendar by the flourishing shamrock plant on our dining room table:

That's right, St. Patrick's Day--one of Butte, Montana's biggest celebrations. Marcus Daly, one of the original Copper Kings who helped build the Anaconda Copper Mining Company empire, encouraged Irish immigrants to come to Butte. Legend has it that they would steo off the boat in New York City, have a tag pinned on their coat reading "Destination Butte," and board a train.

What's St. Paddy's Day without a day-before snowstorm in the mile-high city (view from my office at Montana Tech):

Start the day off with a ski to forfend the calories from a couple of pints and a few slabs of corned beef:

Wow, it's snowing at least two inches per hour:

Bending the little lodgepoles over the trails like white rainbows:

Geez, my nose is red and not one beer (yet):

As so often happens in the mountains, the storm is followed by a clear, sunny day:

The highlight of the parade are the several piper bands:

Chuck Schnabel from the Quarry Brew brought the pub's mascot:

And dontcha know but the real St. Patrick shows up:

Lotta green in the crowd, of course:

Horses too are wearin' the green:

And what would a Butte St. Paddy's Day parade be without men in coconuts:

Erin Go Bragh!