20 December 2010

Winter Solstice; Yule Tree

As the days grow shorter and it seems as if the sun is about to leave the sky, we gather together for our annual Winter Solstice potluck celebrtion. Years past we gathered on local state or US Forest lands, but since Don & Andrea Stierle bought Frank Diebold's cabin at The Moulton, they have hosted the celebration. This year, three dozen or more foks gathered for the party. With deep snow closing the road, the gang arrived by skis, snowshoes, and some on foot.

Before feasting, I recruit daughter Emily to help pack The Yankee Boy cross country ski trail. Its steep ups & downs and twisting turns require a couple of snowshoe runs prior to grooming:

After packing, there is time for a ski (nothing like arriving back at the cabin with a big appetite!). Here is Emily followed by Andrea on the Wake Up Jim run:

After a big meal -- including a couple of Don's moose-burgers and a sampling of what everyone brought -- it's time for the big bonfire. Say goodbye to last year's regrets, affirm old friendships and make some new ones, and think about the year to come:

The next morning, Jan shoos Emily & I out of the house with a mission: bring home a Christmas tree! We drive to a favorite spot near town, park at the end of the road, and hike up a ridge dotted with Douglass Firs. What's this? Why, it's a herd of Santa's mule deer dashing across the hillside:

Instead of the usual Fir tree, Emily selects something a little different this year--a lovely, soft Rocky Mountain Juniper. She finds the wood a little tougher to saw through (meahwhile, MollyTheDog is keeping an eye on those deer):

It's a half-mile or so to drag the tree back to the truck, but all downhill on a crusty snow that (most of the time) supports our weight:

Soon we're back at the truck and ready to head for home:

Happy Yule-tide, everyone! If you'r out watching the lunar eclipse, watch out for Odin's Wild Hunt (aka the cowboy legend of Ghost Riders in the Sky ; here's a nice version of the tune on YouTube by Outlaws).

Shoulder Season

It's a shoulder season in so many ways. A season of change. The weather is below zero one day and rainy the next. Hunting season has ended and most of the butchering, jerky making, and other meat processing is nearly finished. Meat's in the freezer, let's go skiing! Work and family life are BOTH getting busier by the day. Students cram to complete semester projects or study for exams while faculty stay late at night and come in on weekends to complete grading. But we all want to socialize to, with the glow of Thanksgiving fresh in our minds and the prospect of Winter Solstice/Hanukah/Christmas looming. And to top it all off, my trusty first generation Canon Elph camera died (to be replaced by a newer version of the same line).

Wow, no wonder I haven't posted in a few weeks. Well, here we go. Let's begin with "Self Portrait at 20 Below Zero," taken while elk hunting (I knew it was not 30 below since you can feel ice on your eyes & your lashes freeze together):

Though cold, it was a windless day and ideal for hiking into the old mining camp of French Gulch. It was a lively town with a schoolhouse and cabins like this:

It was an era when many folks built their own home of logs cut & hewn by hand (note the adz or broad-ax marks):

A placer camp, miners moved stream sediments and cobbles to get at the underlying gold, piling cobbles into "Chinese walls" like this:

 Hmmm, judging by the frost from exhaled breath, someone lives among these rocks:

On the edge of town, there is this strange little cabin dug into a hill--probably a powder magazine where explosives were stored:

It was a good day for a cup of hot tea and a cheery fire!:

The weekend after Thanksgiving, friends gathered at Don & Andrea Stierles' camp at "The Moulton" for feasting on leftovers, socialization, and a cross country ski (Jeff & Celia Schahczenski pictured here):

On our way back to the cabin, we were joined by these three large, lost, friendly Bloodhounds (maybe lost by a lion or bear hunter):

Later that week, it's department party time! Let's cook a nice elk roast. Make deep cuts with a fillet knife:

Stuff the slits with garlic & olive oil (I use a chopstick to press the mixture in):

Then inject red wine, let marinade for a day or so, cook slowly, and slice for sandwiches:

After the party, take a stroll in Uptown Butte so that Celia can give Santa a little hug:

Back on the ski trails, watch out for the tiny "snow fleas" (springtails--they don't bite), like pepper scattered over the snow:

Molly-The-Dog takes advantage of a little break on a sunny morning:

But then why are we off-trail, she asks, wading through knee-deep (to a tall human) snow?:

Ah, the Yankee Boy trail has not yet been groomed. It's blocked by blown down trees:

Let's clear the snow away & get to work (why do these lodgepole pines so often fall in bunches?):

Sometime later, the work is done, and we can schuss our way along:

Back home, it's time to prepare for another dinner party. Let's see, cold weather, shanks from a tender white-tailed doe deer, an evening with friends... what does that add up to?:

Oh yeah! Osso Buco (mmm... smell that fresh rosemary & thyme!):

With baked Polenta, of course:

So here's to good food, good friends, and happy holidays!

22 November 2010

Winter is Here

Winter got off to a slow start in southwest Montana this year. But this week it made up for it--not much snow ( 6 or 8 inches in the valleys) but lots of wind & below-zero temperatures. Tomorrow's high temperature is predicted to be 0 deg F.

It's good weather for elk "hunting," which this year has consisted mainly of hiking around the hills, seeing cows & calves, and otherwise enjoying the scenery. The cold weather has the waterfowl migrating south, and as I lay before a hot fire on a bed of pine boughs I listened to the cackling music of snowgeese. Most were so high they appeared like tiny specks, but occasionally a low-flying flock passed over:

Sometimes hunting is about not shooting just as (sometimes) fishing can be about not catching. Despite having a white-tailed deer doe tag in my pocket, it just didn't seem right to kill this seemingly tame deer that was hanging out in the brush near my truck as I returned from elk hunting:

And this deer, seen on a Ruby River ranch where I hunted with Frank & AJ (Frank shot two does), was obviously a fawn (note the short face/nose in proportion to the head):

Driving home on the Mill Creek Highway near the old Anaconda Company "mule ranch," I saw an amazing sight. Two campers with Missoula license plates were pulled off along the road. My initial thought, "hmmm, strange place to camp, wonder if there's a break down?" Then I saw a bunch of college-aged kids in the field near the road, it looked like they were setting up several colorful tents. "Why would anyone camp along the road?" And they were carrying snowboards, but there are no steep slopes in this area. Then through the blowing snow I took this photo (forgetting to turn off the flash):

Ah, they're parasailing with snowboards:

How cool is that, in zero-degree weather with 30-mph winds? Might even be better than elk hunting!

08 November 2010

More Elk Hunting Scenery

In some ways, this is the best elk hunting season I've experienced since moving to Montana more than twenty years ago. No thanks to the weather. There has been no snow down low (that changed today!) and the snow up high has turned noisy. And I have not (yet?) cut a tag for my elk bull.

Ah, but the hunting is GREAT! First of all, there's no pressure: having a freezer full of moose took care of that. Though I would like elk venison for my family, AJ's family, and all our friends that appreciate it. There's also no pressure because the woods are deserted--there are no elk cow tags for the areas I hunt, and so most hunters have moved to "better" places. Good on 'em.

Even better, I have been into elk nearly every time out: elk bedded in the dog-hair timber of north-facing slopes; elk rambling improbably through the mid-elevation lodge-pole pines at mid-day; and great herds of cows & calves as morning light seeped into open parks. I've even glimpsed a legal (brow-tined) bull or two, and one giant-antlered beast with his harem. He was a half-mile away, but still...

Sometimes the beauty of a mountain day takes your breath away (never mind the altitude and steep slopes!). Other times, it's delicately subtle--like this faint rainbow from a light spray of morning rain (see it, arcing above the dead tree?):

And there are naps in front of a cozy fire, with a pot of tea and a couple of moose tacos:

On a hike/elk hunt with friend Dave, we visited the ruins of several cabins. These were built in the late 1800s as part of W.R. Allen's timbering/flume operation, supplying wood for the smelter and mines of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company:

Note how barren is this landscape. The loggers scalped the timber from it and then the soil was poisoned by arsenic and sulfur dioxide laden fumes from the Anaconda smelter. Only in recent decades has the land begun to heal from this devastation.

In addition to the cabins, we found this strange structure--perhaps some sort of log loading area or landing associated with the network of flumes that sluiced lumber from the Big Hole River watershed, across the Continental Divide, and down to the hungry smelter at Anaconda:

Sometimes history is written in subtle ways on the land, like rocks marking an Indian tipi ring. Other times it's like the smallpox scars that marked the faces of Indians after their contact with white European culture. Geez, we do seem to have that effect on people and land. Will we, as a culture, learn the hard lessons of sustainable living before our greedy lifestyle causes us to perish from the earth? Let's hope so--as Thoreau said, "In wildness lies the salvation of the earth."

Frank's First Mule Deer Buck

For some of us, it comes at the age of twelve. The culmination of years of practice with a rifle, tagging along with parents or grandparents, savoring a deer steak at the table, and imagining the role of hunter. For others, it comes much later.

Frank Ackerman is well past seventy years of age. A career with Bell Labs already behind him, he turned his energies to the college classroom. My school is blessed to have someone with his experience and energy--a professor who works tirelessly to improve his software engineering classes and to work with students on the Programming Competition Team.

Frank took up hunting last year. Friends and regular readers of this blog might remember the story of the three white-tailed deer does he shot in about five minutes last year. He is serious about hunting, and his regular practice with a .22 rifle shows in his marksmanship. Before season this year, he shot two-inch groups at 100 and 200 yards with my little .257 Roberts, using shooting sticks and not a solid rest. This is as well or better than I can shoot it! His regular practice also showed with the heart-shot he made on this mule deer buck (his first) at well over 100 yards:

Now, this is no great prize for those who measure the value of a deer by the size of its antlers. But such a person errs in mistaking quantity for quality. So what makes this little buck so special? Well, lots of things: hiking into the dark hills and watching the landscape unfold beneath a rising sun; looking out on that landscape to see several dozen deer, including a big 4 X 4 buck; passing up a chance at that big (stinky, rutty) buck for a clean shot at a forkhorn; hauling said forkhorn a half-mile or more back to the nearest road; and enjoying every morsel of the excellent steaks and other cuts.

Oh yes, and the most important criterion of all: it's Frank's first mule deer buck.

So here's to the mule deer, the rugged hills where they roam, the sagebrush they eat, and those who hunt them.

01 November 2010

Elk Hunting (just scenery; no blood)

Elk hunting: a chance to follow tracks into places you simply would never visit otherwise (bull elk track):

See the rosy fingers of dawn touch familiar mountain ridges:

See the beautiful bones of a long-dead Whitebark Pine on a remote, barren ridge:

Walk so slowly and move through the seams of the world in a way that does not alarm wary Pine Squirrel:

So long, that is, as you do not mess with PS's winter stash of Lodgepole Pine cones:

Realize that you are seeing many Downy Woodpeckers thanks to the abundant beetle-killed Lodgepole Pines full of tasty grubs:

Go where the wild Wolf goes:

Visit old cabins that you remember from ten years ago and wonder if you can find again:

Wonder why the oldtimers would build a cabin on the very edge of a mountain creek:

Find the remains of the old cookstove used to feed those many hungry lumberjacks that lived in the cabins:

Realize that this is a lamp oil can with spout:

Remember that you are elk hunting and that this is a good sign--a rub made by Bull Elk polishing his antlers:

Track a lone elk that you know is a bull (they pee to the side and knock snow from branches with their antlers) into its bed, cow-call to make it stand, realize it is a bull but a spike and hence not to be shot, and take his photo from 100 feet away:

Elk hunting: like having a second job for 6 weeks, albeit one you like!