31 January 2011

Moulton Wildlife in Winter

Despite the unusual fluctuations in this winter's weather (50 deg F one day, -20 the next), cross country skiing has been very good. We received a good base of snow in Thanksgiving and have been blessed with some fresh stuff each week since. I love the physical act of skiing--getting the wax just right for easy kicks and long glides, skating the flats with smooth 20-foot strides, climbing the steep aerobic hills without (if the wax is right) going into a herringbone, and carving pretty turns with my imitation telemark on downhill runs.

Nothing like waking up to a little fresh snow, looking west to the Pintler Range, and saying "Let's ski:"

For both solitude and exercise, the Buzzy Trail is wonderful and it leads to a lot of good backcountry too:

But it's not just about exercise: one could do that in a gym. Skiing is outside, solitude, Big Sky, weather, and critters. There is "watchable wildlife," like the charismatic megafauna (moose cow and calf--the calf is shown here) that hang around the willows below the parking area:

Most wildlife is primarily nocturnal, so we're more likely to see tracks than the actual animal. Among my favorites is Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus). They turn white in winter so even when you do see one during the day, it's often just a quick blur that camouflages into the background when it stops (watch for the black ear tips). But the large hind feet -- like little snowshoes! -- leave distinctive tracks and help the hare run on top of the snow to evade predators:

Their rabbit-cousin, Mountain Cottontail (Sylivlagus nuttallii), have more trouble getting around in deep, soft snow, yet are very common throughout the area. Note that Cottontail can be "right-handed" or "left-handed," depending on which front foot they lead with:

Weasels are called Ermine when in their winter coat (Short-tailed Weasel Mustela erminea with a black-tipped tail; the almost Mink-sized Long-tailed Weasel M. frenata; and the tiny Least Weasel M. nivalis) spends a lot of time under the snow seeking out mice. They're curious, though, and will pop up (pun intended) to look at you as you pass by. If you think you see one or see fresh tracks/tunnels, just pause and make some chirping noises to lure them out (see the black tail & ear tips?):

Many species of mice and voles are out and about on winter nights, too. Watch for tracks around squirrel caches or in meadows with grass and shrub seeds. With the right kind of snow, you can distinguish the footpad and tail length variations of different species:

Red Squirrel (or Pine Squirrel; Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are active during the daytime, as Molly-The-Dog is happy to attest:

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) often cruise along the ski trails as they make their way from one hunting ground to another. With their small cat-like feet and narrow gait, they can easily stay within the width of a ski-track:

Here's a (rather small) domestic cat track for comparison. Kitties have a rounder track that of course shows no claw imprints (that's a MollyTheDog track at the top):

And let's not forget the other wildlife -- the kids who party at The Moulton, get their car stuck trying to drive on the ski trails, spend a cold lonely night, and seek help from the first skiers to arrive the next morning:

Ah, The Moulton: Montana's finest cross country ski trails.

05 January 2011

The Moulton Cross Country Ski Trails: a brief guide

It's winter in southwest Montana and will be for another 10 weeks or so. Why not get outside for some warming exercise?

Just a few miles north of Walkerville and Butte, Montana, lie The Moulton Cross Country Ski Trails. Established in the mid-1970s by competitive skiers such as Paul Sawyer and John Mike Downey, the area has become a local institution and is now groomed by the Mile High Nordic Ski Club. The trails are on National Forest land, skiing is free, and dogs are welcome. Driving directions are here. A map of the trails is here.

The road/trail from the parking lot is "shared use" for skiers and snowmachines, and occasionally torn-up by locals thinking they can drive their truck or four-wheeler on a ski trail. It's a bit steep for novice skiers and can be quite a challenge. The Butte office of the Forest Service makes some effort to regulate motorized use, but it's a challenge. If you have problems, call Jocelyn Dodge, NFS Recreational Forester, at 406-494-0246.

You can think of The Moulton trails as a sort of three-leafed clover, with the stem leading from the parking lot to the south and the petals oriented west, east, and north. The petals meet at Mainshaft Junction, about one-half mile up the stem road/trail from the parking area. 

The west petal is defined by the Green (easiest Nordic designation) Neversweat Trail loop. It provides access to the easy Claimjumper trail and the Blue (intermediate) Sluice Box trail. Claimjumper connects the Neversweat loop to the northern petal via Amalgamation Junction. Neversweat also provides access to Big Flat (aka Moonlight Flat), parallel to and just above the trail:

The east petal is defined by the Blue (intermediate) Motherlode Trail loop. It provides access to the intermediate Nugget Trail and to the ungroomed, Black Diamond (difficult/advanced) Buzzy Trail. Buzzy connects the Motherlode loop to the northern petal via the Big Nipper Trail. Buzzy and Nugget also provide access to great backcountry skiing, from the poleline up to Reservoir Flats. Note that a short stretch of Motherlode, marked with orange signs, is for shared use by snowmachines:

The north petal (my favorite!) is defined by the intermediate Orphan Girl Trail loop. Instead of turning east toward Motherlode or west toward Neversweat, simply continue north up the road and through the private cabins/meadow area (historic Moulton Dairy). Orphan Girl provides access to two difficult/advanced trails -- Yankee Boy and Big Nipper -- as well as to the intermediate Little Nipper and In Vein trails:

All the trail names derive from Butte mines or mining terms. For example the Orphan Girl and Neversweat were mines, a Buzzy was a pneumatic drill, and Nippers were tool fetchers. I like the use of local mining terms for trails, rather than naming trails as an egoistic exercise like peeing your own name in the snow. 

The trails are narrow and primarily for classic skiing (i.e. "kick & glide"), though they are "skatable" by those seeking a challenge. Those who want interstate highway width trails groomed hard for skating should seek out the Mount Haggin trails along the Deep Creek highway between Anaconda and the Big Hole River valley.

After some years of seeing little use, it seems that many more folks are skiing The Moulton this year. I hope this little guide provides some help in orienting yourself. Welcome to winter fun!

More information:
Buzzy Trail
Yankee Boy Trail

01 January 2011

Skywatch Friday: Rocky Mountain New Year

Happy New Year to everyone!

The New Year was ushered in to southwest Montana by red morning skies forewarning a big snowstorm:

Followed by -20 deg F temperatures with blue skies so bright it makes you ache (view of Mt Fleecer south of Butte, Montana):

Of course, the skiing is wonderful--once it warms to around zero in the early afternoon!