27 August 2011

Skywatch Friday: Rainbows, Forest Fires and Happy Campers

College classes began this week, with all the usual hectic craziness. On an early morning drive downriver to the "mother ship" campus (University of Montana-Missoula), this double rainbow appeared as we drove out of a rainstorm:

We also saw the reason for the smoky skies in Butte this week--forest fires in the East Missoula area (here, a "spot fire" near the highway):

Last weekend marked the Annual Dr. Anaconda Lake Rendezvous, the last major campout of the season. Jim Handley redefined the term "happy campers" by grill roasting a turkey for the Saturday feast:

Geez, how do you follow that act? Andrea Stierle managed to find a way with this fantastic desert:

For many of us, the Annual Rendezvous is defined by hanging out at Montana's finest sandy beach. Kenia and Adler Patch entertained the Schahczenski dogs with kayak rides on the lake:

I like waking in the early morning chill, taking in the quiet forest and the mist rising from the creek behind our tent:

Soon the camp stirs to life. Hwe Tu and Frank Ackerman demonstrate their coffee making skills--Hwe on the chopsticks strategically placing embers under the coffee pot and Frank supplying kindling of just the right size:

One night, Brent Patch, his kids, and I bivouacked on a sandy point across the lake. They were in a tent, but I spent the night under the stars, drifting off to sleep with meteors flaming overhead and only a few distant worries about that bear sign I'd seen in the forest behind our little camp:

Last year, camping in the snow, three days seemed to go on forever. With this year's perfect weather, the weekend ended all too soon as we closed it out with the group photo (left-to-right: Don Stierle, Chukah-The-Dog, Kenia Patch, Brent Patch, Adler Patch, Andrea Stierle, Jeff Schahczenski, Celia Schahczenski, Woo-The-Dog, Donna Patch, Karina Patch, Jan Munday, MollyTheDog, EcoRover, and Sheikah-The-Dog (missing from all photos are hikers extraordinaire Debbie & Mike Stickney and daytrippers Lori Shyba, David Bunnell and Bill Macgregor):

This week's classes and start-up activities were a blur, but the end of the week brought the annual Clark Fork Watershed Education Program's celebration. The event included great music by Chad Okrusch followed by El Dealbreakers. How can you not smile when the band includes Garrett Smith on the tuba?:
A good week.

19 August 2011

Skywatch Friday: A Full Moon Sets Over Montana

It's been a sunny, blue-sky week here in southwest Montana. Many days there's not a single cloud all day.

Last weekend found us camped along the Madison River, watching the full moon set as the morning sun rose:

An osprey fished in front of our campsite; this one is carrying a fish:

We did not fish, but took in the festivities at Virginia City (a "frontier-era" tourist town) with friends Jeff & Celia Schahczenski, and made a fun kayak float on the river:

And of course we took in the soothing waters of Norris Hot Springs (and enjoyed their lovely hollyhocks):

The dogs waited patiently in a shady spot while we ate brunch and soaked:

Closer to home, Dave Carter and I got out in the Big Hole River country. Hmmm, why are the vultures circling?:

Oh, it's a dead (and very stinky) cow in the meadow:

While we checked out the cow, the turkey buzzards swooped in low over our heads:

On the high prairie of the upper Big Hole River valley, herds of watchful antelope played:

And, up at timberline, this young bull moose played peek-a-boo with us (I like the way moose think they are hidden while standing behind a little tree):

Look at these Big Hole haystacks--a bountiful harvest for the ranchers that need to feed cattle through the long Montana winter:

Note that these are true haystacks, not bales; made with a "beaverslide" (a ramp for stacking hay in a wind- and water- resistant pile; the cleat-track is for dragging the beaverslide from place to place):

And check out the cool, custom-made "buck rake" for pushing the hay to the base of the slide:

We are nearing summer's end, and as fall approaches we intend to milk every last drop of this sweet weather.

17 August 2011

Native Trout Revival: Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Silver Bow Creek, and Superfund

When I have a good day fishing, I recall the wise words of Butte conservationist George F. Grant: we don't catch wild fish because we are so clever--after all, how smart do you have to be to fool a creature with a brain the size of a pea? No, we catch trout because they are there. And usually, in the modern world, they're there because of people who have helped to restore and protect them.

Well, I had a good morning on Silver Bow Creek just a few miles downstream from my home, catching wild, native Westslope Cutthroat Trout--many (like this one) fat & well over a foot long:

If you imagined a perfect small trout stream (average flow c. 20 cfs), it would look a lot like this Durant Canyon reach of the creek:

And even better, there were riseforms of large trout slurping caddis flies and spruce moths:

For more than a century, there were no trout. Just a few years ago, Silver Bow Creek (at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River in southwest Montana) was still a lifeless, industrial sewer (NRDP photo):

Superfund changed that, and it's a great success story. The success came in two parts--remedy (i.e. clean-up) and restoration. On the remedy side, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated that the party responsible for a century of mining and smelting pollution -- Arco-British Petroleum -- clean up its mess. On the restoration side, the State of Montana settled for several hundred million dollars in a natural resource damage lawsuit against Arco-BP.

In a unique approach that integrated remedy and restoration, the state took the lead in an $80 million project that included additional funds for enhancements such as restoration work in German Gulch Creek--a major tributary of Silver Bow Creek.

When Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program began developing a restoration vision for Silver Bow Creek, the program was very hesitant to us native trout as a restoration goal. Many thought the creek could never sustain native cutthroats, and even optimists like me thought it would take decades. It was a hard struggle, but thanks to the support of many good people and organizations (see list below), it came together and in a series of meetings in 1997 both the NRDP and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agreed to embrace the goal of native fish. A big thank you from your most important client:

Folks who deserve special credit, in no particular order:

George F. Grant (1906-2008). George established Montana's first chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1972. He began campaigning to halt mine waste pollution of the Clark Fork River by the mid-1970s.

Board members of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. They attended a lot of meetings and wrote a lot of letters in support of Silver Bow Creek restoration, and also directed a $1 million restoration project on German Gulch.

Montana Trout Unlimited, particularly its Executive Director, Bruce Farling.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists Wayne Hadley (retired) and Ron Spoon.  After those 1997 meetings, Ron began collecting data on westslope cutthroat trout in German Gulch and was especially influential in convincing the NRDP that native fish restoration in Silver Bow Creek was a reasonable goal. Jason Lindstrom, along with his excellent field technician (and gifted cabinet maker) Ben Whiteford, are keeping Ron's commitment alive.

Board members of the EPA-funded citizens' group, Citizens Technical Environmental Committee--former officers George Waring, Mary Kay Craig, and John W. Ray were particularly effective leaders.

Montana Department of Environmental Quality project director for Silver Bow Creek, Joel Chavez. Also, the revegetation contractor for the project, Rich Prodgers.

My apologies to those I have inadvertently omitted from this short list of environmental heroes.

11 August 2011

SkyWatch Friday: anti-crepuscular rays, storm clouds, rainbows

Here in the clear mountain air of southwest Montana, crepuscular rays are fairly common--good old sun rays like those common most everywhere:

But we also see anticrepuscular rays fairly often (usually at sunset), rays that stream away from the sun and seem to converge on an infinitely distant horizon point:

The past week has also brought incredible sunsets (maybe there are forest fires west of us?):

Even looking east is colorful most nights:

And there are lots of great clouds beginning with the cumulus that puff up in mid- to late-afternoon:

Leading to evening thunderstorms:

And of course to rainbows (this is a double arc, albeit the higher one if faint):

August in Butte Montana: it's not heaven, but you can see it from here.

Big Hole River Trout Fishing: red hot on dry flies

I like to fly fish and do it often around my home in southwest Montana. From ice-out in March on the Jefferson River, to brook trout creeks in May, to halcyon dry fly August days on the Big Hole River--it's all good. Probably if you asked me at any moment while fishing, I'd tell you that NOW is the very best time to be casting a fly upon the water. The past few mornings on the canyon reach of the Big Hole River have been incredible: from 9 a.m. to noon, the trout are looking up (i.e. taking dry flies).

Brown trout like this are taking spruce moths and large fluttering caddis. Size 10-12 Elk Hair Caddis or Stimulators will do the job:

Rainbow trout tend not to be so selective, feeding on the smaller caddis (I like #16 or even 18 Goddards) as well as larger bugs. Also, as the sun gets high and the brown trout action tapers off, the (generally smaller) rainbows still feed greedily:

I'm the first to recognize it and my fishing friends will attest to the fact that I am a mediocre caster. I overcome this, in part, by using a leader of 11+ feet including a 5X or even 6X tippet of 2 feet or so--this allows for lots of slack near the fly, and hence a more drag-free drift of the fly.  Keeping hooks VERY sharp (I carry a little diamond stick) also helps make your fly "sticky."

While fishing, be sure to look up once in awhile. Otters, mink, beaver, and other wildlife such as pronghorn antelope and mule deer are common where I fish. Here's a mulie fawn with ears nearly as big as it is:

And here's a herd of pronghorn does and fawn feeding in a hayfield near the river:

Sadly, MollyTheDog is out of action for a few weeks when it comes to fishing or hiking. She cut her foot badly while running behind our house--requiring stitches and a cumbersome bandage. Sad puppy:

Tight Lines!

Like any river, if you're new to the Big Hole you probably need some guidance. Stop in and see Al Lefor at Great Divide Outfitters near "Silver Bridge"--he'll have the flies & advice you need, and offers guiding service too.
871 Pumphouse Road
Divide, MT 59727
Phone: 406-267-3346

05 August 2011

Pioneer Mountains of Montana--A Hike and a Bear, oh my...

My retired friends Dave Carter and Leroy Friel kindly let me tag along on a hike in the Pioneer Mountain Range, an hour or so south of our home in Butte, Montana. Leroy, who taught engineering at Montana Tech for many years, is now working on a book about the Pioneers. On our way back, we saw this rangy yearling black bear (maybe lost his Mama?):

To get back to the beginning, here we are setting out through a horse gate at the trailhead:

There are, of course, lots of mining ruins in the area. The hills of southwest Montana were much more populated a century ago than they are today:

We hiked up to a chain of small lakes such as this one:

And continued on up to a ridge with a view of more (and larger) lakes below (and below the lakes lies the town of Polaris):

The area has lots of Rocky Mountain Goats as evidenced by much shed hair in the meadows:

As well as fresh tracks (note they are much blockier than the heart-shaped tracks of deer):

In a meadow along the scree at the head of a small lake, we stumbled upon this lovely spring-fed pool:

In the woods, parks, and meadows, wildflowers are at their prime:

I seldom hike in the Pioneers, having abandoned the area a decade or more ago when it was being over-run by rogue ATV ("four wheeler") riders tearing up the landscape. The Forest Service has been gaining some control over the motorized users of late and we saw few signs of use in off-trail areas. Though only 50 miles as the raven flies from where the Pintler Range that I frequent, the Pioneers have a somewhat different floral community. Leroy was an excellent guide and helped me realize that the popular wildflower identification guides I use denote only a fraction of the diverse species in our mountains. A few new-to-me species included Tweedy Snowlover (Chionophila tweedyi), a penstemon:

Cusick's Speedwell (Veronica cusickii):

Red-stemmed Saxifrage (Saxifrage lyallii):

Storm Saxifrage (Micranthes tempesitva; not a 100% certain ID--there are many saxifrage species and of course they hybridize too, just to complicate things):

There were also the first white Pygmy Bitterroot (Lewisia pygmaea) that I've seen:

Along the way we also noted many familiar (to me) species, including Parry's Lousewort (Pedicularis parryi):

Twin Arnica (Arnica sororia; this ID is also complicated, since not all the stems were twinned, and many appeared to be hybridized with Mountain Arnica):

Lewis's Monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii):

And Sticky Geranium (Geranium viscosissimum):

As we ate lunch up on the ridge, storm clouds began building and we could hear lightning a few miles away (Leroy w/ his fine camera and JackTheDog):

Cutting the hike a bit short, we ambled back to the truck though the storms passed around us.