23 September 2009

EcoRover is now The Lorax?

Journalist Jonathan Stumpf interviewed me and others for a video and article "Last Best Fish: Can Conservation & Collaboration Save the Big Hole Grayling." His good work is posted at the website NewWest (clink link for video & story--be sure to comment if you care about native fish/endangered species).

As one of "The Guardians," Jonathan characterized me as "The Lorax." Hmmm.... has a nice ring to it!

I'll try not to let it go to my head, but it's about the highest honor I've ever received!

22 September 2009

Mountain Grouse Hunting

In southwest Montana near Butte America, we are blessed with various species of native grouse: (1) Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) found throughout the northern tier of North America. In this area it is a "low elevation" bird, found primarily in river valleys and creek bottoms; (2) Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), also known as Fool Hen for its tendency to let you walk up within a few feet, are mid-elevation birds of the spruce and logdgepole pine forests. Its diet of spruce and pine buds make it somewhat unpalatable; (3) Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), our largest grouse, a creature of the sagebrush prairie. Practically extinct through most of its original range, "Sage Hens" are relatively abundant in Montana. Its diet of sage makes it unpalatable to many people, although for some hunters it is the King of Birds; (4) Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanchus phasianellus), also a prairie bird, but its diet of insects, seeds, and berries makes for a tasty dinner; and (5) Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)--officially known as "Dusky Grouse," but no one here calls them that.

Blue Grouse live on high mountain ridges just below treeline and seem especially frequent in whitebark pine forests broken up with parks and meadows. I find Blues in the same places I hunt elk. You seldom find a lot of them, but as with many mountain creatures, the quest itself is the real bounty. Saturday morning found "Little Brother" A.J., MollyTheDog, and me in the truck bouncing along 11 miles of bad road from the Big Hole River valley at 5,500 feet to road's end at 8,000 feet. We then hiked another mile and circled a ridge top at 9,000 feet.

Turns out MTD is a gun dog! For a pup less than a year old, she showed good bird sense: staying within range (well, most of the time), scenting & flushing birds, never flinching at the shot, and retrieving downed birds. Here she is dropping a young Blue at my feet:

The birds are well fed and tasty from their diet of pine nuts and grouse whortle berries. They store food in their crop before it moves on to the muscular gizzard where it is ground into a digestible pulp. Here's a grouse crop full of nuts along with a couple of whitebark pine cones:

Guess what other critter likes to eat pine nuts:

A red-tailed hawk ghosted us for awhile, hoping we would flush a grouse for it. It was soon mobbed and chased off by some whiskey jacks:

This was A.J.'s first grouse hunt. He missed a few and has yet to learn the art of swinging ahead of a bird ("leading" it) before shooting. Grouse hunting is a chance to reflect on the shooter's art of fine guns, like this little Winchester Model 12 pumpgun that Gramps bought in 1925:

He was recently married, and the money he laid out for this expensive gun nearly caused a divorce. Only Grandma being pregnant with my Dad and the many grouse, rabbit, and squirrel Gramps brought home for the table saved the marriage. Orginally chambered for 2&1/2 inch shells, Gramps filed the ejection port to accomodate the longer 2&3/4 inch shells that became standard after 1927. The lightweight 20 gauge is a beauty with its 25-inch barrel "Nickel Steel" barrel (I refinished the stock and had the metal reblued some years ago):

When I was 12 years old, it killed me to have to hunt with a cheap single-shot gun while all the men carried Winchester Model 12s, L.C. Smith double barrels, and other fine guns. That winter, I laid away a new shotgun at Ted Lundine's shop in Bradford, Pennsylvania for the princely sum of $182.50. I paid $5/week from my paper route money and the little Browning A5 "Light 20" was mine before the start of hunting season:

The day I paid it off, Mr. Lundine gave me a free box of shotshells. I've owned and hunted with a lot of shotguns since, including some fancy skeet guns, but the little Belgium-made Browning is still my favorite:

In hunting with A.J., I was transported back more than 40 years, hunting with Gramps and Bernard Dutka. When Molly flushed a grouse and I swung on it and shot, I felt like that 13-year old boy dropping his first bird with the shiny new gun.

14 September 2009

Magic Mountain: Peak Bagging Mt Evans, Montana

Mountain hiking is a meditative act that merges the mind & world. This is especially true off-trail when you make your own path, fully in the moment of finding the way, and alert to simple but very real dangers (like this wasp nest):

For much of the distance, however, Dave Carter & I hiked an old logging haul road with a few creek crossings (good to have a staff):

Over the years we've learned to pack light, with the heavy stuff (like elk steaks and antelope sausage) on the pack animals (Molly & Jack The Dogs):

We trust our water source and don't bother with filter pumps--especially when we can see the water bubble from a remote, untrammeled mountainside:

We cook over an open fire. This saves the weight of a stove, and the fire feels mighty good in chill evening air at 8,600 feet (EcoRover reading by the fire):

Morning dawned cold, in the mid-20s deg F, with heavy frost in the meadow below:

Then off-trail to our destination: Mount Evans. At 10,600 feet or so, it's one of the taller peaks in the Pintler of southwest Montana. Not technically in the Pintler Wilderness and with no trails to the upper basin or peak, it is seldom visited. But the cross-country route is easy through the open parks of the larch-dominated Alpine ecosystem (MTD with Mt Evans in the background):

Dave decided not to bag the peak. Good decision given the bad route I chose. In the loose, fine scree it was sometimes a matter of one step up & two steps down. Occasionally when there was "solid" footing, even a two or three hundred pound rock would shift under my feet. It took a little coaxing to keep MTD going. But as we neared the peak the mountain the footing improved (though steep with some hand-over-hand scrambling) and the Raven People cheered us on:

Climbing steadily on bad rock is strenuous, but the aerobic exertion clears the head and the endorphins flow. Beyond meditation: heady, exhilirating, totally transcendent.

According to notes in the peak jar, we were just the third party to summit this year. What a place, Butte America, with wilderness at our backdoor that so few visit. And what views! Here is the view East along the Continental Divide (the Twin Lakes/Lake of the Isle drainage is on the left):

The view West along the Continental Divide to Mount Howe (also a wonderful peak to scramble):

And the view West to Saddle Mountain/East & West Goat Peaks (top left):

Along with the omnipresent ravens on mountain peaks, there is always something happening. Today, it was a swarm of flying ants:

Despite the mineralization, prospectors found no motherlode, these mountains were not claimedby miners, and so they remain wild (mineralized quartz in the dominant granite):

MTD thanked me for choosing a better route down. Though steep, the thin soil and rock was held together in most places by a little vegetation. Pausing to glass a small park below Lake of the Isle pass, there were about nine Mountain Goat People (seven nannies and at least two kids). Even if the photos are not high quality, it was fun to balance binoculars on my pack and use them as a telephoto:

Just before dropping below the level of the park where Goat People would rise out of sight, I paused to glass again. Goat People were nervous. Couldn't be MTD & me--we were a half-mile away, no threat. Suddenly a large Black Bear person charged from the trees above into the goat herd. As the herd dispersed and ran up into the rocks, Bear chased them about three hundred yards and nearly caught a kid. Here is Bear after it gave up the chase (just above the leftmost tree in the lower center--I didn't have time to set up the binocs as a telephoto):

Remarkably, Bear did not see a nanny & kid caught in the open, running toward me. Perhaps the contours of land hid them from Bear's view. I expected Bear to chase them, and on open level ground it would easily kill Kid. I wondered if I should intervene with a yell.

But Bear headed down the basin toward our camp, and so did we. Amazing, as I have never seen black bears hanging out in the goat rocks. But this bear had clearly tasted goat before. Pausing at a shaded spring for cold water and lunch, a male redtail hawk flew into a snag just over our heads. Though not in words per se, Hawk Person clearly was checking in--something about "You OK?" After it looked piercingly into my eyes for some seconds, it glided down the valley leaving a distinct bit of parting wisdom: "We are hunters." I think it was including both Bear & I in that "We."

On the drive home, we marvelled at the changing colors (though the aspens and larches are not changing yet):

A couple of beers for Dave & I, ice cream for the dogs, happiness all around:

Mt Evans is named for Morgan Evans. He was Marcus Daly's land agent for the new town (and copper smelter site) of Anaconda, Montana.

10 September 2009

Skywatch Friday: Here & There in SW Montana

September, and the sunny cloudless days of July and August give way to cumulus waves of moister air, changing in time from a beamy sunrise (Walkerville, Montana):

To an evening wave of showers moving up the Clark Fork River Valley (looking west):

Bringing the inevitable rainbow (looking east):

Next day, clouds and blue sky combine at an aptly named hotel in Virginia City, Montana:

And highlight a towering bunch of hollihocks:

Dreamy shapes, here the Staypuft Marshmallow Man, march across the sky:

Evening comes again, the sun sets:

And the glowing gallows frames (mining headframe) of Butte, Montana stand tall against the night sky:

08 September 2009

Labor Day: playing the tourist, at home

Saturday & Sunday, Mrs Rover and I played the tourist with our annual visit to nearby Virginia City, Montana--"frozen in time, a historical gold mining town of the Old West." Along the way, we stopped by Ennis for the annual flyfishing festival, where the park sculpture reminds you of what's really important & enduring (horses & elk hunting):

Like many American cities, Ennis has joined the animal theme sculpture craze, which might have begun in Washington DC in 2002 with its "party animals" (donkeys & elephants) exhibit. In Ennis, the theme is trout. Here are a few of my favorites:

With a closeup of a fluvial Arctic grayling (still a few found in the Big Hole River; the scales & coloring on this model are great, but the proportions are a little off!):

Despite the public art, you still know you're in smalltown America when you can find a redneck pickup truck:

And redneck yard signs (composed using the Redneck Spellers Dickshuneery for "neuter" and "wierd"):

Virginia City is best known for the Vigilantes that hunted down and hanged crooked Sheriff Plummer and 21 other victims (without benefit of trial) in 1864. A few of the graves are marked on Boot Hill (nice touch with the multi-colored plastic flowers):

It's probalby just an accident that most of the Vigilantes were Masons, but the Masonic Lodge was a strong influence in early Montana history (here's the original lodge building in Virginia City; cf. "3-7-77," the number pinned on Vigilante victims, and which still appears on the shoulder patch of the Montana Highway Patrol):

In addition to bawdy entertainment at the Brewery Follies, Mrs Rover got in some holiday shopping at various unique stores, and I could appreciate the, ah, finer points of the old town--such as this coped-corner hand-hewn, log cabin:

Monday was reserved for our solemn Labor Day tradition--a hike in the woods and a couple of hot dogs on a campfire. With a frosty chill in the air the past few nights (and speaking of rednecks), it's hard not to think about hunting season. I should get out for a few days of blue grouse hunting, as the hills are covered with bird food such as Oregon Grape (Berberis repens):

And Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus):