26 January 2012

Skywatch Friday: Winter Cheer

It's always clear and sunny here in southwest Montana except when it isn't. And that's mainly when you REALLY want it to be clear, as when the aurora borealis (aka "northern lights") was flaring up Tuesday. Oh, so it goes. We have had our share of bright winter weather with great views to the Highland Mountain range just south of Butte:

And some nice lensatic clouds that are especially striking in the clear morning sky (Snoopy?):

The Moulton moose has settled into its winter regime of browsing willows each morning:

I've settled into my winter regime of skiing the world-class classic trails just north of the city (ungroomed Buzzy has been especially nice with a little fresh snow every few days):

And MollyTheDog has settled into her winter regime of visiting her elk bone collection apres ski (check out those teeth):

Some so-called hunter dumped several elk and deer carcasses (along with assorted rubbish) in a vacant area along the Moulton Road.  Though an offensive act, it has attracted well over 100 ravens along with this bald eagle (all hastily depart as you drive past):

Bald eagles are a common sight in the river bottoms (we saw 4 on a drive down to Missoula this week), but one seldom sees them in the forests high up along the Continental Divide. But, to have spotted these carcasses, they must regularly cruise around the upper valley of the Clark Fork River watershed. Or perhaps they follow the ravens?

Some years ago, Mrs Rover and I picked up a pair of vintage "Smirnoff Mule" (i.e. Moscow mule) cups at a yard sale. Though typically a hot weather drink, we've been starting our winter evenings with a mug of this classic '50s cocktail (don't forget the lime!):



Having evaded the cell phone wave all these many years, in preparing for a semester in China I ran out of ever taller trees. Being out-of-touch while I was hanging out in the Pintler Wilderness, which we can see from our home, for a week was something Mrs Rover could abide (though not without a little grumbling). But 6,500 miles away for 5 months? OK: hello iPhone.

It's not like I'm a total Luddite. I joined the digital camera revolution 6 years ago, happy to be able to shoot hundreds of photographs on a single outing without feeling guilty about all those toxic chemicals going down the drain. The ability to crop, enhance, and electronically publish digital photographs has genuinely enhanced my life (and, I hope, the readers of this blog).

When daughter Emily bought me an iPod a few years ago, I was initially bemused. Oh, it was nice to plug into the car radio on long trips, but I wasn't going to become one of those insular people sporting ear buds... Well, my iPod -- loaded with podcasts from Hardcore History and This American Life, as well as 1,000 or so tunes ranging from Dylan to The Decemberists -- is now a frequent companion on my 1.5 mile walk to school and 2-hour morning skis. The inductive ear hooks are especially nice with my hearing aids--yet another electronic device that I depend upon.

Three years ago, I stumbled into an elk hidey hole like no other. Problem was, though in an area that I frequent 3 or 4 times each year, I was never able to find the place again. Problem solved: I now carry a GPS (courtesy of one of our local pawnshops). The machine has also proved invaluable for finding the most direct route to the truck or nearest trailhead when dark is coming on and I've got several miles to go and maybe a dead elk to come back for.

I do still have days when I bag a peak or go fishing without these tools (ah, except for the camera...):

Still, I think, where will it all end? Probably with me blogging about it.

19 January 2012

SkywatchFriday: Winter Life

Though us skiers would like a bit more snow, the weather has been gorgeous--lots of blue sky days whether as the waning moon sets over the cross country ski trails in the hills just north of Butte, Montana:

Or looking west to the mountain peaks of the Pintler Wilderness on my walk from Walkerville to my office at Montana Tech:

Critters in Winter
I love tracks and tracking. After spotting this pine marten track across a ski trail, I followed it as the as the marten wove its way through the pines searching for a not-too-wary (or quick) red squirrel (note the classic,  paired, offset tracks of the weasel-family):

 After cutting this red fox track on my walk to work:

I followed it across an open field until the fox came upon the tracks of a cottontail rabbit, which it then followed hoping for a meal:

Unlike the small-footed cottontail, our snowshoe hares are remarkable for their huge feet, which leave distinctive tracks and allow them to "float" and outrun predators (think of that small footed fox!) across soft snow:

Unlike these skittish, seldom-seen critters, the moose tend to be pretty calm this time of year. Sometimes you can ski past and they don't even look up:

Other times, though busy feeding,:

They do take notice and amble a bit deeper into the quaking aspen grove:

Cross Country Skiing

We are blessed with the classic ski trails at The Moulton just a few miles north of our little city. A few inches of fresh powder lured MollyTheDog and I out early one morning, seen here on the Double Jack run of the ungroomed Buzzy Trail (MTD doesn't slow down much for those turns!):

And after skiing, how nice to sit in the warm morning sun, beer in hand and cat on lap. Even with an air temperature in the teens (deg F), it's warm enough for a nap:

Life is good!

12 January 2012

Skywatch Friday: Blue Sky, Snow Squalls

The weather has been crazy thus far this winter with many days in the 40s deg F, about 15 degrees above our average. But then we'll have a cold snap, like this 0 deg F weekend morning with Mrs Rover, MollyTheDog and I on our habitual walk along the hill behind our home in Walkerville, Montana (I like the occasional excuse to don that boilerplate-heavy Woolrich coat I've had for 30+ years!):

The bright sun quickly reclaimed the frost laid down by the night air, and the shadow of a fence provides only fleeting protection as the sun arcs across the morning sky:

A full moon rising over the East Ridge of the Continental Divide called us out for a moonlight ski:

The following day our clear skies turned gray, and you could feel the coming change in the weather (skies seen here with a scenic outhouse at a nearby abandoned mine site):

Sure enough, snow squalls moved across the valley, and in minutes bright sun and clear blue sky could turn to stormy dark:

Here's a photo of another squall moving up the valley behind the Anaconda Smelter stack:

During a ski tour along trails near the Continental Divide at Mill Creek Pass, MollyTheDog and I were caught in a squall that dropped several inches of snow in just an hour. We ducked into the thick cover of some Douglass fir trees for a snack before heading back down the trails:

On a night when we aren't skiing by the light of the moon, we dropped by "Sparky's Garage"--a restaurant decorated with automotive memorabilia.  I like the "Kendall" signs because I once worked at that oil refinery back in my hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania:

Live music is another way to fill the long winter nights. The Hummingbird Cafe recently hosted my professorial colleague and musician friend Chad Okrusch:

Along with Tom Catmull, a musician from the downriver town of Missoula:

Outdoors or in, there's never a lack of enjoyable activities here in Butte America.

Montana Megafauna; A Hike in the Hills

As much as I like Montana's seemingly endless 5-week+ hunting season (never mind the 6-week archery season that precedes it), I have some sense of sympathy for the animals. It must be nice when hunting season ends, the blaze orange horde returns to light beer and football on TV, and the critters can poke their nose out without somebody shooting at them. Folks who see wildlife primarily in National Parks (no hunting) or nature shows have no idea how cautious charismatic megafauna need to be with human predators around (and also of course wolves, mountain lions etc).

On a recent hike in the hills along the Big Hole River, friend Dave Carter & I (and dogs Molly & Jack of course) explored an abandoned phosphate mine where federal agencies have been working to close in the open shafts and collapsing tunnels. As we sat down for lunch, we were greeted by the sight of a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep--a nearly full curl ram:

Though not too excited by our presence, he did keep a keen eye on us as he slowly grazed his way up and over the ridge:

This group of mule deer was considerably more cautious. Once they realized we were watching them bedded in the mountain mahogany along a ridge line, they stotted away (lower right in photo):

We continued our explore and came upon this interesting structure perched on the steep hillside near a convergence of mine tunnels. What could it be?

Let's peek inside... Oh, of course--an outhouse with a view!

We also searched around a nearby site where some old buildings had been razed. There wasn't much recognizable junk to be found, though this old can for "Pyrene" fire extinguisher fluid was interesting:

Construction activities to close the tunnels have exposed some interesting rock crystals:

On the hike out, MollyTheDog and her buddy Jack traded off carrying a nasty old deer leg:

My late friend George Grant often spoke of fishing at the "White Gates" in this area, and I think this might be the place he meant:

A creek flows under the railroad grade here. The old brick culvert was recently replaced by a more modern galvanized steel design. The river is gradually reclaiming the old red sandstone masonry, but for now enough remains for an interesting photo:

On the way out, Dave posed next to the old sign for the railroad siding (with some of the old mine buildings on the hillside above):

You would hardly know it is winter by the lack of snow in lower Big Hole River valley. On the hills above Butte, however, we are getting just enough snow to keep the cross country skiing good. The increasing snowpack is also driving the moose down from the higher elevations. MollyTheDog and I, on a dawn ski at The Moulton, came upon this yearling moose browsing a bit of sagebrush breakfast:

Once we passed and it scented (or heard) us, it ceased browsing and ambled deeper into deeper into the quaking aspens:

From the valley bottoms to the ridge tops, this is a great area to rove!

05 January 2012

Skywatch Friday: Warm Winter Weather

The holidays are past, the tree is down, and I've settled into a comfortable pattern of cross country skiing each morning before heading to college and working on my lectures for the upcoming semester in China. Our unseasonably warm weather continues here in southwest Montana--most days are running 10 to 15 deg F above average--daytime highs in the 40s! Global warming I guess. Remarkably, the snow pack up in the foothills (where the ski trails are) is holding on. And the sunsets continue to be absolutely stunning--is there a volcano erupting out in the Pacific to the west of us?

On the way home from a rare late afternoon ski yesterday, I had to pull over on The Moulton Road three times to take in the amazing sunset:

The colors and intensity just got better:

And better:

Until, finally, the light faded from the sky and I could get on home to supper:

On a suggestion from my old neighborhood friend Gary Robertson (oh the miracle of FaceBook!), I set my little Canon Elph camera to "cloudy" for photographing sunsets. It results in a color balance with boosted reds and violets--much closer to what my eye really sees. Thanks Gary!

Baker "Batavia Special": a classic American shotgun

I recently made an inventory of my firearms and came across a nice old piece that I had almost forgotten about. It's a classic hammerless sidelock double barrel with solid steel (i.e. not Damascus) barrels made by the Baker Gun Company in upstate New York c. 1910:

The Batavia Special was a utility, base-priced model with no fancy engraving, yet still the craftsmanship was outstanding. This model sold for $21.75 in 1909 (Baker Gun web site)--a time when the average American earned about $14 per week (http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decade10.html):

Did some laborer or clerk plunk down two weeks wages for this treasure?:

Dad was a sucker for side-by-side double barrels, and picked up this gun c. 1970. The buttstock may be original with nice walnut and well-cut checkering, but the beavertail forend was probably a later addition. Dad shot some doubles trap with it. He had better shooting guns for this purpose, but liked the Baker I think because of the sense of nostalgia and history that it brought to the line.