17 March 2013

A Spring Hike in Montana's High Desert Hills

Cross country skiing down a steep, ungroomed runof Buzzy Trail at The Moulton last week, I made the turn at the bottom, took in a deep breath, and looked up at the azure blue Big Sky. I love to ski and am fortunate for having legs that have served me well into middle age and for having a excellent trails virtually in my backyard. Still, I have skied about 50 days since late November and was ready for a hike in snow-free hills. 

Spring is early this year in Butte America. Already, on the hill behind my home in Walkerville, the snow is nearly gone, the frost is leaving the ground, and tiny bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) rosettes are beginning to green up:

My friend Dave and I, with Molly- and Jack-the-Dog in tow, headed for the high, sagebrush desert hills of the lower Big Hole River. The elevation is about 6,000 feet -- approximately the same as Butte -- but mountain ranges such as the Pioneers (shown here, with Torrey Mountain and Tweedy Mountain, the two most prominent peaks) create a rain shadow so the area is very dry--less than 10 inches of precipitation per year:

It's good Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat, and we were barely parked and on our way when these three young rams ambled past:

Closer to the river, the carrying capacity for wildlife increases greatly, and it's common to see herds of Pronghorn Antelope:

The aridity means that bones, such as this rabbit skull, persist for a long time (note also the red-orange lichen that is common here): 

Luckily for the dogs, there are still some patches of snow that offer a welcome respite on a warm afternoon:

Limestone dominates the geology. Over time, the sedimentary layers have been lifted and tilted, and because it erodes easily, this makes for interesting patterns on the landscape:

Up close, the limestone proves equally interesting, sometimes eroding into feathery plates:

And sometimes showing a limestone conglomerate structure:

Though this area is very dry today, during the Pleistocene glacial periods from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 or so years ago, it was very wet and experienced large run-off events during interglacial warming periods. At the mouth of coulees, the wash of sediments created alluvial fans:

Vegetation sorts out into very specific niches that you can read from a high vantage point like a book. Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), "a desert plant in search of water," likes the deeper alluvial or glacial till deposits. Curly-leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), a favorite food of mule deer and bighorn sheep, is a limestone-loving shrub. Here you can see the sagebrush on alluvial deposits in the foreground, and mountain mahogany on the limestone outcrop in the back:

A desert shrub, Curly-leaf Mountain Mahogany is remarkably good at weaving its roots into the limestone's joints and bedding-planes:

Dave and I like climbing the limestone ridge outcrops or "reefs" that define the landscape here:

At the top of this one, we found an old, well-aid, cairn--a "Stone Johnnie." Basque sheepherders that tended flocks throughout this region a century ago built these stone piles to mark their grazing routes:

Well, the corned beef is in the oven, and it's time to start the cabbage and potatoes. I wish I could recall all of the poem Gramps used to recite each year on this day, but a few lines went,
   "He drank like a fish
    And ate like a savage.
    The only thing he didn't like,
    Was corned beef and cabbage."
Happy St Paddy's! 


Sylvia K said...

A delightful post, beautiful captures of a beautiful place and I love your grandfather's words for St. Paddy's Day! Sam Schnauzer says thanks for your kind words!! Hope you have a great week!

Secret Agent Woman said...

That's starkly beautiful and so very different from Spring here.

Spare Parts and Pics said...

Great post. I like your Gramp's quote!

troutbirder said...

A hardy place for hardy people. BTW I forgot to mention we had a wonderful Montana camping trip early last summer (while you were still in the Middle Kingdom). It was all nostalgia visiting long ago places with spouse and another couple. A good time was had by all...:)

ZielonaMila said...

Superb views, beautiful photographs. I am greeting

Merri said...

thanks for the cool geology lesson! I'm going to come back in one of my next lives as a geologist because there's so much I don't know about that. We *just* have tiny yellow flowers poking out along some of our trails!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

John Bardsley said...


Judy said...

If you want snow, I can send you some...
I love seeing the bones of the land, and the way you have explained the geology!!