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!

17 July 2012

Back Home Again: Sweet Montana

Though I leave part of my heart in China, it is good to be home again.

Car Camping
My friends had a camp-out all planned as a welcome event, out on the Big Hole River sagebrush prairie where the antelope play peek-a-boo:

Where we could spend the evening sitting around the fire:

Enjoying great views and dramatic sunsets:

Start the morning with a pot of coffee:

Then take a long hike, the hills dotted with elk herds:

And beaver ponds for the dogs to cool down and fetch sticks:

Wildflowers blooming (elephant heads, Pedicularis groenlandica):

Butterflies blooming, too:

An afternoon thundershower brought mammatus clouds:

Followed by a double rainbow:

On the way home, of course, there's a stop at Dairy Queen:

Hike at The Moulton

On a hike in the hills just north of our home, I was glad Molly-The-Dog heeled as we watched this curious badger:

We did not see Bear, but did find fresh spoor:

Not that I'm paranoid, but I did take the unusual precaution of arming myself since a human body was recently found in this area, and the murderer has yet to be found:

Montana Folk Festival

Good timing. A week after my arrival, Butte hosted three days of dancing, good food, and music from around the world:

This is the 5th year for this event (the first 3 were as the National Folk Festival). As usual, the Original Mineyard provided a dramatic stage:

With several other stages operating, it was hard to choose where to go (and what kind of music to dance to) at any given hour:

Yes, it's good to be home under the Big Sky:

12 July 2012

ZhangJiaJie: Vacation Wonderland 张家界

The last five of my precious days in China I vacationed in ZhangJiaJie, in part because the National Forest Park there was the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora in the film Avatar. If you ever have the chance, GO THERE! The landscape is stunning, there are many ethnic celebrations and performances, the food is excellent, and the people are friendly.

The film scenery:

really does look remarkably like the real place:

There were other reasons for my visit. My minority pre-graduate elite program students ZhuYiZoe

and ZhaoLuConstance

are from ZhangJiaJie and they generously offered to guide me in their homeland.

ZhangJiaJie Forest Park
This area of northwest Hunan is home to several species of wild chestnut trees, and I wanted to help volunteer Gary Robertson and staff member Sara Fitzsimmons of the American Chestnut Foundation by scouting the forest.  The Chinese trees are closely related to the nearly extinct American species, yet the Asian trees are resistant to the blight that kills American trees and this resistance might geko re-establish American trees. Sure enough, at least two species of wild Chinese chestnut trees are locally abundant, including Castanea mollissima:

and Castanea henryi:

 My treks included Tianzishan, Tianmenshan, Huangshizhai, Gold Whip Stream, and Yellow Dragon Cave. The scenery of ZhangJiaJie National Forest Park was stunning:

My enjoyment of the area was heightened by my two excellent guides, who knew some out-of-the-way trails where we escaped the crowds, drank pure mountain water:

enjoyed beautiful wildflowers:

and came to appreciate trail warning signs:

Where did that come from? Oh:

Anywhere in the park, troupes of monkeys are likely to show up. They are not troublesome, so long as you do not hold food in your hands or tease them:

Hmmm.... and what do they think of us?

eLuXing Bar/Hotel--and a backcountry hike
My enjoyment was also heightened by staying at the eLuXing:

Drinking at the bar, you could gaze up at the fish swimming above you:

Or enjoy a little quality time with the bar kitten:

The owner, Yi, is an accomplished mountaineer who led me on a hike into the backcountry, beyond where the road crumbled away:

Where a failed development (built streamside in a mountain flood area, really? how is that bribery of local officials for a building permit working out for you?):

has been replaced by a newer one (without, currently, a road to it):

Initially, much of the hike followed the would-be road:

And then the river:

And then a steep, slick, limestone creek:

Occasionally, there was a remnant of a trail:

The views were amazing, though I did not have the extra day it would have required to camp and then summit a prominent peak:

We saw no other hikers, and on our way down passed by some remote farms:

And eventually came to the backwater of a dammed river where we caught a boat:

To the dam and a waiting shuttle:

Readers who want to know about arrangements for hiking/mountaineering from the ELuXing can contact ZhuYi"Zoe" at 011.86.[need to find the number]--tell her Pat referred you.

The ELuXing's theme song was "All things are better than you imagine" by WanXiaoli  万晓利. Give it a listen on YouTube (complete with translated lyrics). AWESOME TUNE!

Entertainment and Culture

The Tujia, Bai, Miao minority peoples (among others) call ZhangJiaJie home:

The minorities put on some incredible shows and there are local museums where you can learn more about the culture. The theater shows include several excellent venues, including the Grand Theatre:

They have the excellent choreography I came to expect in China:

In addition, several shows make allusions to the world of Pandora in the Avatar film (only fair, given that the local mountains served as inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains in the film):

One show also included a particularly impressive Penis Home Tree:

My favorite venue was the expansive outdoors amphitheater set for the musical (based on a traditional Tujia folktale, The Fox Fairy, complete with a village built into the hillside:

And great voices and choral music:

Tusi Castle was another favorite stop:

I liked the dragon rainspout:

Folk music performance at the teahouse:

And the reenactment of the traditional crying ceremony (a bride-to-be spent a week or so crying each day with her female relatives):

ZhangJiaJie has its own native son painter, Li Junsheng 李军声. He uses natural materials, including sand and plant fibers, in his work:

I especially liked his paintings that integrated the human and natural landscape, in the best Taoist tradition but with a distinctly modern look:

YuanFen 缘分: Goodbye, China (until we meet again)
I will miss my students, the landscape, the culture, and the wonderful food of South China. The Chinese have a delightful concept of fate called "YuanFen." The ancient poets wrote, "It takes hundreds of lives and rebirths for two people to come to share the same boat together." In so many of my interactions with Chinese people and places, I felt a haunting sense of familiarity and strong sense of belonging.