25 July 2012

Backpacking the Pintler: American Wilderness

I'm still seeing everything through Chinese eyes. My students in Chongqing were mystified by the American concept of "wilderness"--untrammeled natural places where people are just visitors. Many, many people have been living in a highly advanced state in China for thousands of years, and there are few places that have not been intensively exploited and developed. The United States, on the other hand, has held a dense, resource-intensive population for less than 200 years. This unique American cultural geography, created in part by the European diseases that wiped out 90% of the First Peoples, helped Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and others craft ways to preserve wild, uninhabited places. That effort was expanded through the 1964 Wilderness Act and is now a widely accepted (if not fully secure--cf. the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling controversy) part of our environmental legacy.

As part of re-immersion into life in the Northern Rockies, I headed off to the Pintler Wilderness for a few days. I can see many of the Pintler mountain peaks from my home in Walkerville/Butte, making this "backyard wilderness" especially important (and intimately familiar) to me. I'm not quite re-acclimated to high altitude, so the 8 miles to my campsite in this Alpine basin seemed especially long:

I stumble onto this basin about 8 years ago. Technically there is a "trail" there, as evidenced by a dotted line on U.S. Forest Service maps and by this relic of a trail sign:

I smiled to set out on a path with no other human footprints--only the sign of deer, elk, and other critters were evident on the trail:

I was not always smiling after losing the sometimes-faint trail and having to cast about for blazes where the bark had largely grown over the blaze scar:

In the river valleys of Montana, summer is well underway. At 9,000+ feet, however, it is still late spring/early summer, with flowering Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax):

 And even some early spring flowers such as Pretty Shooting Star (Dodecatheon spp.):

In the evening, several large bull elk fed in a meadow near camp. Unlike the well-habituated elk in places like Yellowstone National Park, these are truly wild animals in an area where they see many hunters. Though too dark for a photo, I walked up on these guys the next day, and one of them (the smaller of the two) stood up from his bed and looked back at me for a photo opportunity:

Where's Waldo? Oh yeah! There he is:

Nearby, they had a mud wallow (reeking with their musk) to fend off flies during the heat of the afternoon (GOOD DOG, for staying out of that):

The moose in a lower meadow were much bolder, and though mid-day my presence did not seem to bother mother moose and her calf (luckily, MollyTheDog is rock solid about not chasing critters--though squirrels are exempted):

There was smaller game around too, including this frog (Columbia Spotted Frog, Rana luteiventris?) at the outlet of a small lake:

Once in the wilderness, I like to find a high basin, make camp, and then (usually the next day) go climb a mountain peak. For this trip, the destination was Fish Peak. As we proceeded up the steep ridge leading to the peak, we crossed a bench (probably a glacial moraine) with a lovely, miniature Alpine Larch (Larix lyalli) forest:

Closer to the peak, MollyTheDog sought out the snowfields for some cool-down otter-sliding:

Once on top, the view down to Hick's Lake and the nearby mountain peaks was breathtaking:

With an early start, we had plenty of time for a leisurely lunch on Fish Peak and a nap (on a rock ledge just below the peak) before heading back to camp:

There were plenty of wildflowers to enjoy, ranging from the tiny Moss Campion ( Silene acaulis):

To showy penstemon and arnica:

And stinky Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum):

In the high meadows between camp and the peak, I was pleased to log a new (to me) flowering shrub species, White-flowered Rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum):

After a sound night's sleep under clear, star-studded skies, it was time for one last breakfast fire (oatmeal course shown here) and the hike out:

The meadows along the lower (7,500-8,000 feet) creek valleys were dotted with Sego Lillies (Calochortus eurycarpus ): 

On the way out, I had to pause for this photo of a ranch gate. I didn't know you could train horses to do that!


sandy said...

What a lot of nice photos!
Lots of wildlife and wildflowers. It doesn't get any better than that.

I think that Sky Pilot is pretty, but of course I am not there to smell it. Your photo is better than the ones on google image.

Richard Gibson said...

I miss seeing the high country spring in July. Of course, it is up to me to go see it!

Thanks for the nice reminder.

Sylvia K said...

Ah, I do still miss Montana! And how beautiful it is! Your photos are wonderful and I enjoyed taking the trip through them! Obviously there is nothing nothing like Montana horses, clever devils that they are! Thanks for sharing the beauty! I'm sure it is good to be home again!

BLD in MT said...

Absolutely beautiful! I haven't been on top of a peak yet this year, but these photos make me eager for it to happen. What a most excellent variety of flowers and wildlife.

Max said...

20 years ago this summer, I completed a 50-mile, rain soaked hike through the Pintlers. I think we crossed the continental divide a dozen times. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

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Veronica Wald said...

"Waldo" is so pretty and shiny - the elk, moose, fox, and other critters we saw in Yellowstone/Tetons weren't that far along in mid-June, still shedding and ratty-looking.
I envy your wonderful sojourn over such gorgeous days and a star-filled night.
Yes, what one learns in China sticks with one for a long time afterwards. Glad you had such a wonderful experience that helps you look at the world in new ways now.

(Have been meaning to tell you, though, that the "prove you're not a robot" required for posting comments is truly daunting - I usually have to try 5 or 6 times to get it to work.)

troutbirder said...

Try to remember if we took the Pinter Hiway to fish Rock Creek some years ago but regardless of wherever they are I love to follow along on your hikes....

Judy said...

You are getting back into the Montana way of life again! Had MTD put on any weight without her walks with you?
I am guessing that Montana horses must be REALLY smart!!

Janie said...

The wildlife and wildflower photos are beautiful. Ha, ha, my horses can occasionally open gates, but I've never known them to close one!