11 July 2013

First Backpack Trip of the Year: Honesty in Nature

Historically, you could not get into the high country before July, and even then you expected to posthole your way through knee-deep drifts. The low snowpack and warm weather this year (thanks to global warming) sent me packing for the mountains, escaping the 90+ degree heat.

Well, it wasn't just the heat: one of the reasons I love the natural world is the sheer honesty of it: you either hook the trout that rises to your fly or you don't; you either succeed in starting the fire or you don't. There's more: bird song, noisy tumbling water, blooming wildflowers--you can observe and sometimes even participate in this, but it doesn't much matter if you are there or not (though of course you can "participate" in ways that are destructive). Even the dangers are simple and honest: the grizzly bear doesn't plan to attack you professionally because it doesn't like you, she simply wants to smack you around for threatening her cubs or perhaps kill and eat you as a lesson for the cubs in how to kill easy prey. Treacherous people or killer grizzlies? I'll take the bear any day!

I love the Alpine cirque I chose for my first trip this year. Speaking of bears, we hiked fast but could not help but pause to admire this year's luxuriant bloom of Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax): 

We drop into the basin from across a timbered, gently rounded ridge. Then you are greeted by the craggy peaks of the Continental Divide:

For me it's deeply thoughtful moment and a photo opp, but MollyTheDog knows the TRUE meaning of an old snowdrift on a hot summer day:

We got a late start on the day, arriving at our campsite (I could find the place blind-folded, I think) with just enough time to pitch the tent, build a small cooking fire, and enjoy twilight on a peaceful lake (serenaded by the humming of mosquitoes around our ears):

The morning dawned clear and bright. Upon my return to Butte, I learned the temperatures in my little city hit 95 degrees. In the mountains at 9,000 feet I doubt if it was warmer than 75. At any rate, I had a goal: years ago, on a peak bagging trip, I had passed an old mine (complete with cabin) and wanted to find it again. It was not hard to spot in this open, Alpine larch park at the base of the scree. See the pile of mine tailings in the center of this photo?:

Let's try a closer look:

The mine is at a contact zone between granite and some kind of metamorphic or volcanic rock. This results in mineralization through heat and water/steam:

No large quartz crystals that I found, but zoom in tight and they're awesome nonetheless:

Let's venture into a shallow mine face to see what they were after (Oh look! The miner's pick!):

Hmmm... this green color must mean copper and other metals:

Out in the light of day, the ore is very beautiful:

We made a few passes through the timber looking for the cabin, but I tired of navigating snowdrifts. It's early spring at 9,000 feet. On the several miles back to camp, I paused to admire the Pretty Shooting Stars (aka "Roosterheads"):

And a mixed bloom of White Marsh-marigolds (Caltha leptosepala, with the smoother leaves), somewhat larger Globeflowers (Trollius laxus, with the cleft, divided leaves), and tiny Spring Beauties (Claytonia lanceolata): 

Near camp, you can see stacked cordwood and fallen trees from a century ago, when contractors for the Anaconda Copper Company were ordered by President Teddy Roosevlet to cease and desist in stealing timber from public lands: 

In addition to copper ore, timber, and wildflowers, there is other treasure in the several lakes of this Alpine basin: 

They are eating caddisflies that crawl from their stony cases, float to surface on a bubble of air, and -- pausing just long enough to be snapped up in the jaws of a trout -- emerge as a flying creature: 

The fish? Lovely, jeweled cutthroat trout. They are relatively easy to catch: 

But I killed just two for my simple camp supper (eaten with a pot of rice): 

As I ate supper, I watched storm clouds building over the valley (viewed from my campsite to the notch in the trees that marks the lake outlet): 

Soon, a magnificent thunder storm came swooping over the Great Divide a few miles to the west, sending me to my tent. The next day, after a leisurely morning hike and a bit of fishing, I packed and hiked out, arriving in Butte to join a gang of family and friends to watch the big annual "July 4th Eve" (03 July) fireworks display: 

The next day, we all set off to visit the Rainbow Gathering, a national week-long gathering on public land. Welcome Home: the Rainbow Tribe celebrates peace, love, and oneness with nature. Yeah, retro-hippies in a sense, as you might think from this tie-dye shade shelter and tiny rock village

There were about 10,000 folks at the gathering. We Love You: at least half of them gathered in Skinner Meadow (a huge upland park a half-mile or more wide and a mile or more long) to hold hands and gently "ohm" their way to a crescendo marked by drumming, dancing, and more than a little nakedness (here's the ohm circle of peace)

Peace Out!

07 July 2013

Summer Comes to Butte Montana

Prairies aflame with flowers, trout looking up for dry flies, shorts and sandals: it all adds up to SUMMER! We're on that ideal cusp where it still rains every few days to keep the hills green, and yet that rain hardly ever (hardly ever) turns to snow.

The 1864 Grand Victorian Ball for Peace 
It's the 150th anniversary for the founding of Virginia City, a gold rush town which was Montana Territory's capital from 1865 to 1875. Today it's a state-managed historic site and a fun place to visit. We spent the weekend there with friends at the Fairweather Inn:

We took in a bawdy evening show at the Gilbert Brewery Follies:

And, at the Grand Victorian Ball, we danced waltzes, quadrilles, reels, polkas, and other dances from the era--all to tunes played by a great bunch of fiddlers and other musicians:

Luckily, we were provided a program booklet with helpful information such as,
"Ladies should avoid affection, frowning, quizzing, or the slightest indication of ill-temper." Now do these ladies look like they could ever be accused of such unseemly emotions?:

Mrs Rover did not even show any ill-temper during the many hours she spent making her ball gown:

All told, we had a ball!: 

Wildflowers: Prairie and Mountain 
Near Virginia City, the Axolotl Lakes area (named for the neotenic tiger salamanders that never lose their gills) has seen more spring rain than areas closer to Butte. The wildflowers show their appreciation, with meadows of Blue Flag Iris (Iris missouriensis):

Upland areas are dotted with Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum -- shown here before and after flowering):

Sticky Geranium (Geranium viscosissimum):

And Owl Clover (Orthocarpus tenuifolius):

Near the lakes, there's Willow (Salix spp.) with it's inconspicuous but weirdly beautiful flowers:

And Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): 

Moving upland, the forest-prairie edge habitat of the Humbug Spires area (near Butte Montana) is drier but puts on a good show. In no particular order, we found Littleleaf Pussytoes (Antennaria microphylla): 

Foothills Arnica (Arnica sororia): 

Higher up, in the timber, you'll find its more common cousin Heartleaf Arnica (Arnica cordifolia): 

Lanceleaf Stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum): 

White Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron spp.):

Delicious sliced and grilled or in stir-fry -- a Giant Puffball: 
 Cut it to be sure it's in its prime and there are no incipient gill structures that mark deadly look-alikes:

My fungi knowledge is limited--I would not eat these, but appreciate the attractive composition they form with the juniper and a limber pine cone:

The hills above the town of Anaconda, Montana, were devastated for most of the 20th century by arsenic, heavy metals, and acid smoke from the 500+ foot tall smelter stack (seen here in the distance): 

Like the Butte Hill, there has been a slow but steady natural recovery. An early June hike showed colorful Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata): 

Elk Gentian (Frasera speciosa, also called "century plant" because it allegedly grows for 100 years before it blooms and dies): 

In the cool shade of a limestone outcrop, we found lovely Blue Clematis (Clematis occidentalis):

Showy Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium pulcherrimum) is aptly named: 

You can imagine the fruit when you see blossoms of Twinberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata):

A camping trip to the Big Hole Valley was well timed for the blooming Blue Camas, which at a distance looks likes water reflecting sky (there are lots of elk here too, just below Camas meadow in photo):

Along a shady trail in the lodgepole pine forest, there is False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum):

Though I'll separate them for this post, there's a clear connection between plants and geology. Along a dry area of the Continental Divide, you can feel the struggle of a spreading juniper to colonize the harsh landscape:

These Rocky Mountains 
Hiking around these mountains, geology is a character in the landscape. Fossils are relatively uncommon, but limestone outcrops near Anaconda show a few ancient sea creatures:

Chert embedded in this same limestone shows an interesting pattern from differential erosion--the softer, more soluble limestone matrix wears away leaving the silica material in relief:

The Humbug Spires come in many fantastic shapes. Here is Dave and MollyTheDog in a boulder field along a ridge:

In every direction, there was an interesting view:

Also, this strange, old antenna structure. I can't imagine what rancher or ham radio operator built this:

Look Up: Sky! 
Like geology, the sky too is a character in this grand landscape that is Montana. In Butte, we are often treated to gorgeous sunsets framing the many mining headframes (aka "gallows frames"):

Wind buffeting the ridges of the Continental Divide, along with the moisture carried aloft from the river valleys, makes for interesting clouds:

The transition from wet spring to dry hot summer makes for awesome storm clouds (and lightning storms):

Not infrequently, the passing storm is capped with a rainbow:

Butte America does fireworks in a big way--both the "private sales" that rival some town's whole display, and the major Independence Day Eve city display. Happy Birthday, America!