29 March 2013

Springtime in the Rockies: The Snowshoe Rabbit Moon

Spring is coming to Butte America, my home in the northern Rockies. Weather has been colder than average, we seem to be paying for the very mild winter. Still, it's warm enough to hike on the snow-free hills of the lower Big Hole River (see http://ecorover.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-spring-hike-in-montanas-high-desert.html ), while at the same time the snow base on the hills just north of my home has set up, making for excellent -- and true -- cross-country skiing. The Snowshoe Rabbits (yes, I know, Lepus americanus is a actually a hare) are much more active now and seem to appreciate the endless terrain that is now open to them: 

Given the ability to ski anywhere, trails at The Moulton are merely a suggestion. Still, it was nice to run a "trifecta" one morning on the area's greatest trails--Buzzy, Big Nipper, and Yankee Boy: 

The good base makes for easy travel on Big Flat (aka "Moonlight Flat"), with great views to my little city of Butte and to the Pintler Mountain Range: 

Big Flat is a fun place to skate ski, although I can't keep it up too long on my heavy "back country" Fischer E99s:

A small ridge north of Cabin Meadow has open terrain and a slope just right for my downhill ability. Note the darker green, Douglas-fir ( Pseudotsuga menziesii ) on the upper slope vs. the lighter green, Lodgepole Pine ( Pinus contorta ) on the lower slopes: 

Many of our Lodgepole Pines are dead, killed by the global-warming exacerbated outbreak of Mountain Pine Beetles ( Dendroctonus ponderosae ). Luckily, lodgepoles are prolific and lot of seedlings are sprouting up to replace the lost generation:

Coming off the ridge, I enjoy making a few telemark runs, and find it easy on spring snow compared with the earlier season's deep powder that causes me to flounder: 

This month's full moon, which I like to think of as the "Snowshoe Rabbit Moon," will light up the snowy hills (view from by backyard): 

OK, let's go night skiing. Maybe my last ski of the season, though--the trail back down to the parking lot was super ICY, scraped a season's worth of wax from my skis!:

 Well, time to start trout fishing. Stay posted. Happy Easter!

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! 

07 March 2013

Montana March Madness

No, I'm not talking about March college basketball. I'm talking time the march of time. It's fair to say that if I can't find time to write a blog post every week or two, I am too busy with the administrative details of life ("Oh, woe is me," cried the Department Head. And a dozen tiny violins played...).

Well, despite my whining, February was a good month. We celebrated the Chinese New Year, spent a weekend at Chico Hot Springs with friends, and I put in a few miles on the cross country ski trails.

Butte's Chinese New Year Parade: Short but LOUD

The Mai Wah Society preserves the history of Chinese in Butte, Montana through an excellent small museum and fun cultural activities:

The Spring Festival Parade ushers in the lunar new year, and begins with a crowd assembled in front of the Butte-Silver Bow Courthouse:

It's time for EcoRover to chat with friends:

Listen to a short speech of two:

And then follow the dragon as it dances through the uptown streets:

The dragon chases a pearl and stops at each business that has made a donation to the Mai Wah Society, where the dragon bows and offers the pearl of wisdom to the generous merchant:

All along the route, loud strings of firecrackers chase away the evil spirits:

It's wonderful week, and included a big potluck dinner hosted by Chinese-American friends and a more formal banquet at a local restaurant, the Four Seasons. With only ten fingers and most of them in use with chopsticks, I lost count of how many courses we enjoyed:

Taking the Waters

Butte, Montana is surrounded by numerous hot springs, ranging from undeveloped and charmingly natural (no extra charge for the inevitable dead frog) to full service resorts. Chico Hot Springs is in the latter category. We share a rental house there with friends for a few days each year, enjoying the sights of the Paradise Valley (such as these elk on a rancher's hayfield):

Some of us cross country ski on the local trails:

We don't stick just to the groomed trails, but go "off piste" as well.

Sometimes it's much easier going up than coming back down:

Who says cross country skiing is not a contact sport?

Back at the lodge, we soak away our aches and pains (and dull them with beer and wine), and take turns cooking (and enjoying) special meals capped with rich desserts like this tropical home-made cheesecake:

Come check-out time, no one is anxious to leave as we grumble about planning an additional day for our get-together next year:

Out & About 

Though the skiing remains excellent, the longer, warmer days will soon bring this to an end--there's barely any snow left behind our house:

When winter does become a bit much, a short drive to the lower Big Hole River or Jefferson River valley (usually snow-free)  provides a welcome respite and interesting sites, such as this old miner's cabin and adit:

 Note the well laid rock wall of the adit building:

 Cows have been calving, which keeps ranchers busy moving their herds to calving pens or branding

This herd of Rocky Mountain big horn sheep came down from the high country to the river bottom:

Well, the bald eagles are pairing up, so spring can't be far off:

Happy New Year!