18 May 2013

A Night on the Prairie (Big Hole River, southwest Montana)

Spring comes, hills green up, elk return to calving grounds, and trout feed: it's time for a night out on the prairie of the Big Hole River valley. The view from my campsite is striking:

At sunset, the sky gets even better--going from orange to pink in about 10 minutes:

The nights are still frosty--good weather for a wool jacket and a blazing fire:

Historically, the Nee-Me-Poo (Nez Perce) called the upper Big Hole Valley Iskumtselakik, "the place of ground squirrels." It's an apt name. I'm not sure which species of ground squirrel -- Columbian, Uinta, Wyoming, or Richardon's -- is most common. The Big Hole is at the intersection of all their ranges. To complicate matters, some of these species interbreed, they can all share the same burrow system and their larger cousins, Yellow-bellied Marmots, also live here. So far as I can tell, the several species sort out by proximity to the creek and rockiness of the ground. All of the species are wary and, when alarmed, sit up straight and give a shrill whistle. It drives MollyTheDog absolutely crazy. She will hold rock solid at the sight of elk cows and calves or even flushing grouse. But a colony of ground squirrels? Forget it--she takes off like a rocket.

While MollyTheDog chases ground squirrels, I examine the excavated dirt around their burrows. It's a good place to find jasper tool flakes left by Indians long ago:

This landmark, a lava outcrop, stands high above the floodplain (behind the outcrop from this view):

According to local legend, this site was the apex for game drives. Rock piles or brush formed a sort of corral. This story seems confirmed by what appear to be butchering tools such as this:

I took a morning hike and did a little fishing, initially thinking I would kill a few brook trout for lunch. Instead, I released each of the half-dozen or so that I caught. I tried to get a photo of one being released, but they are two quick and I was left literally empty-handed (it's a photo of the one that got away!):

Along the creek, I found various other treasures, such as this piece of Western Pearlshell Mussel:

On a boggy meadow, I found this small projectile point (aka "arrowhead"). It's a mystery to me why the First People made it from coarse, quartz-like material rather than from the abundant fine-grained jasper found here. Perhaps it was a practice point, or had been leached by the tannins in the bog?

These bits of glassy petrified wood caught my eye:

I investigated upslope from the fossilized wood and found some larger chunks (note the one with the dark, glassy core):

 Perhaps someday this skull (from a skunk?), will also become a fossil:

As a child, after I first heard the expression "pushing up daisies" I imagined corpses beneath every flower. There is some truth to this, of course, as all the things that die (human animals included) help fertilize the soil. A macabre thought, given the wealth of blooms on the prairie right now. Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) carpets the partially shaded borders near lodgepole pines:

The Spring Beauty's leaves and corm (root) are a tasty source of vitamin C (the roots are marble-to-golf ball in size). I chew the leaves while hiking:

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) likes the same edge habitat, especially where winter snow drifts have lingered: 

On the drier, open areas several flower species brighten the landscape, including:
Pasque Flower (Anemone patens), a real giant among the mostly-tiny wildflowers:

False Danelion (Nothocalais spp.):

Larkspur (Delphinium spp.):

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.):

Longleaf Phlox (Phlox longifolia):

In wetter areas, Pretty Shootingstar ("roosterheads," Dodecatheon pulchellum) take over:

 The purple ones dominate the scene:

But there are lots of white ones too:

In the same area, but not so common, are Sagebrush Bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia):

Down along the creek (where I found the "arrowhead"), Sand Violet (Viola adunca) rounded out the picture:

Even the sun seemed to channel its inner flower spirit (helped along by high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals) by putting on this colorful halo (a "22 degree halo," to be precise)--time to pack up camp, this means rain is coming: 

Several pronghorn antelope amused me while I packed up camp:

On the way out, two moose said "Good bye:"

One of them has had a rough winter/spring, suffering a lot of hair loss probably due to "winter ticks" (dry spring weather favors winter tick outbreaks):

Once home, I checked myself and MollyTheDog for ticks--Mrs Rover doesn't appreciate us bringing these creepy guests into the house.

My little college held its graduation ceremony today--see you in the hills!

12 May 2013

Spring Wildflowers and Trout: Montana Awakes from Winter's Slumber

Our weather along the Continental Divide in southwest Montana has warmed but it's still very dry. On a recent family hike, dark clouds filled the sky and lightning flashed along the mountain ridges. But only a light rain graced the land, barely enough to make donning a jacket worthwhile. Outstanding sky, though, as with this "sun hole:"

Each spring at this time, I fish a small tributary of the upper Big Hole River. The main fare is brook trout--I like a mess or two dusted with cornmeal and fried, with a plate of sauteed dandelion greens on the side. Here's a tasty trout for the table:

The creek this year is lower than I have ever seen it in early May. Still, the rainbow trout are spawning (they run upstream from the larger river). I saw several very large fish (20"+) and caught a few nice ones, too--always exciting to hook up with a big fish in a stream you can jump across:

The high prairie, at first glance, looks desolate. But let's take a closer look. In this photo, you can see an arc of higher grass that defines part of a tipi ring:

Inside the ring, you can find buttery-yellow and blood-red flakes of jasper, knapped off by Indian sharpening their tools:

A friend I grew up with many years ago and with whom I've reconnected via FaceBook, suggested I try a test on the yellow jasper: heat it to see if it turns red. So on my way home from fishing I stopped at a local jasper mine used by Indians and picked up a few chunks of yellow jasper. Sure enough, at home in the kitchen over a gas flame, the heated yellow jasper turned red:

A close look at the bunch grass prairie also reveals many wildflowers.  Though they seem stunted by this spring's drought, there are many varieties to be found, including:
Hooker's Townsend Daisy (Townsendia hookeri):

Mountain Douglasia (Douglasia montana):

Cutleaf Daisy (or Dwarf Mountain Fleabane;  Erigeron compositus):

Sagebrush Buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus):

Wyoming Kittentails (Besseya wyomingensis): 

Pretty Shootingstars (Dedecatheon pulchellum), both purple:

and white: 

Sagebrush Bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia): 

and Hood's Phlox (Phlox hoodii): 

Daughter Emily passed through on a cross-country drive to the East, so we set off on a family hike to a favorite place: 

It's near a now-abandoned ranch established c. 1900:

There are always interesting artifacts to be found (strictly catch and release): 

This is a calving area for elk, and they time their return for "green-up." Here are a few early arrivals (they begin calving here c. 20 May): 

Along the creeks and willows, a few white-tailed deer can usually be found: 

Molly-The-Dog enjoys the remaining snowfields, but they won't last long with another 80-deg F day or two:

See you in the hills! 
EcoRover out.