Friday, April 17, 2015

There's hiking in Glacier already (East Side)

Hard to believe that this was taken Friday, April 17.  Looks like summer's here in the park!
Almost out of habit I packed my skis, boots, and snowshoes in the car when I prepared to head to Glacier to enjoy a spectacular day of sun Friday.
This has always been a time of year when the snow was great there, even when it had disappeared elsewhere.
Luckily, I had also packed my hiking boots, because those were what were needed.
Yes, there's snow in the high country, but the foothills and many ridgetops there are already bare.
Even high peaks like Summit and Rising Wolf are only mottled with snow on their flanks.
I parked at Running Eagle (Trick) Falls in the Two Medicine country where the road was blocked, and decided to hike the remaining 2.5 miles to Two Medicine Lake.
On the shore on an April hike
The road was clear, although there were patches of snow in the shaded, wooded areas.
The lake was clear of ice, which offered an interesting counter-point to what looked like pretty good snow along the Continental Divide near Painted Teepee, Helen peak and Dawson Pass.
I encountered a lone coyote on the way up and throughout the day three other parties of road hikers.
Amazing that a great American national park would be so empty.
After enjoying the lake, I walked around the Two Med campground as far as the bridge to the North Shore Trail, and then circled back, deciding to give the Scenic Point Trail a try.
I'm glad I did, because I could ascend nearly 1,000 feet and more than a mile before I hit snow patches, which on other days when I had more time, I could have skirted.
I enjoyed lunch above the Apistoki valley with the lake below and Rising Wolf in full, glorious view.
After returning to my car, I decided to see what Marias Pass looked like and was pleased to see that Elk Calf, Flattop and Elk mountains all had what could be skiable snow if the sun softened it.
The pass parking lot was clear of snow, making the sign warning of avalanche danger seem out of place.
It was a glorious day that I enjoyed thoroughly, but I think the lack of snow could be a harbinger to a rough summer of fires.
Mighty Rising Wolf

Lone Walker at head of Upper Two Med Lake

Marias Pass is clear and Little Dog and Summit Mountains only mottled with snow

Apistoki Valley on way up Scenic Point Trail

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Highwood Baldy by new route

On top Highwood Baldy with Square Butte in distance

Plenty of snow on east face on summit cap

Drifts at ridge line, but clear until the trees with good snow depth on summit cap
Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,673 feet) is a classic spring/early summer climb near Great Falls.  I've skied this and snowshoed it before, but from different routes than the one I'll describe here.
The standard route is straight up the Deer Creek drainage bottom from Highwood Creek.  This requires numerous creek crossings.
Since this is early spring I wanted to avoid the bottom and the potential for ice and high water. Instead, I picked a ridge route between McMurtry and Deer creeks.
The traditional route requires crossing Highwood Creek three times before getting to the Deer Creek trailhead.
The route I describe here requires picking up the ridge about a tenth of a mile after the first crossing (just before the second crossing).  There's a pretty good game trail adjacent to a fence line here.  Pick your way along the fence line (you'll walk through a downed fence) to the ridge top, where the route is very obvious.  Just stay on top!
Cat's paws
Because this was so early I had to carry snowshoes and use them the last mile and 700 feet to elevation to the top.  While this is a dry year, the crown of Highwood Baldy, starting at 6,900 feet is covered with pretty good snow.  This route gains some 300 feet more than the standard route, so you'll do a robust 3,500 feet of elevation gain over nearly 7 miles if you choose it.
Along the way and in the grasses there were signficant numbers of wildflowers for so early in the spring:  fritilary, pasque flower, shooting stars, chick weed, spring beauty, cat's paws, sweet pea vetch, biscuit root.
The views are superior to the east where Square Butte near Geradline dominates.  But the Bearpaws, Little Rockies, Little Belts, Big Belts, Snowies, were all in view, despite an overcast.

For maps and more click here:  Highwood Baldy: new route

A sampling of the ridge line route (right side of photo)

My snowshoe tracks

Views to the south west 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

For the birds (Sharp-tail grouse, that is....)

The grouse danced in the field as the sun rose over the Highwood Mountains

Sharp-tail grouse drumming on their lek

Inside the viewing shed

Outise the viewing shed on a cold morning
After all these years I've finally witnessed the sharp-tail grouse mating dance ritual near Great Falls and think I now understand what all the fuss is about regarding their habitat.
On Sunday we were invited to the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, about 10 miles northwest of Great Falls, to the dancing area called a lek, where we saw some 40 males raise their tail feathers, puff their chests, pound their feet and clack their tails in a show for about 20 females, who seemed harassed and unimpressed.
We were housed in a small shelter built as a Boy Scout project (thanks Chris Gray of Troop 151!) and the birds performed almost if on cue about 50 to 100 feet in front of us.
The sharp-tail grouse have been using this area at least since 1988, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The FWS requires reservation and there is room for six viewers in the shelter.
We arrived about 5:45 a.m., and despite the darkness we knew the birds were there because we could hear them because their were already active with their dancing, also known as drumming.  We stayed two hours.
As the sun rose just north of the Highwood Mountains, the birds became more and more clear to us.
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise as well as quite the bird show.
I would put this experience in the category of the snow geese and tundra swans that swarm Freezout Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Fairfield each spring.  In fact, it was just a month ago that we saw the arrivals of the first geese and swans there on an equally clear day.
The Benton Lake site is on a very flat plain, which makes our big sky look even bigger.
I marveled at what I was looking at, and plan to return again and again each spring.
Snow geese in formation

Taken a month ago with arrival of snow geese at Freezout Lake near Fairfield

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Snow gone, so it's time to hike

The top of Windy Peak in the Highwood Mountains Friday
This has been the longest break I've taken from the blog in its 11 years of existence.
I visited a daughter in Portland, helped my mother move into a retirement community in Chicago and last weekend spent it with a grandson in Minneapolis.
So, it was high time to get back to the high country.
Lots of wildflowers already
At this time of year I'm usually skiing in the best snow of the winter.
Not this year.
Yes, there is snow above 6,500 feet, but we haven't got too much of it and what's left is pretty wind-crusted and hard, not conducive to the kind of skiing I love.
This poor critter didn't winter well
I went out Friday to test the hiking in the Highwoods and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
The road to Thain Creek Campground is in great shape and the trail to Windy Peak and beyond is in great shape.
In fact, I bumped into three other hiking parties when I was there.
I climbed Windy Peak (a bump in the range at 5.998 feet) and got really great views of the surrounding ranges including the Little Rockies, Bearpaws, Little Belts, Snowies and all the way to the Rocky Mountain Front.
There's still lots of snow on top both Highwood Baldy and Arrow peaks, but just above 6,500 feet.
My plan is go back Monday and climb Baldy.
I was very surprised to find numerous wildflowers in bloom; Pasque, buttercups, spring beauty, fritillary, oregon graps, among others.
The bottoms of the creek were shockingly green.
Word of caution if you go out:  the ticks are thick.
I still hold out hope that we'll get a couple more blasts of snow for skiing and to supply water for our streams this summer.
But if not, perhaps the hiking season has truly begun.
The creek bottoms were surprisingly green

Monday, March 02, 2015

A couple exceptional trips

My son, Demian climbing in one of the South Fork Teton drainages of Front
The snow was so good and it was cold enough that I had two exceptional backcountry trips last week.
Demian's avalanche gear
The first, last Thursday, was up the South Fork of the Teton with my son, Demian.
The second, Sunday, was a sort of tele-fest in the Kings Hill/Weatherwax area in the Little Belt Mountains.
The ski in the Front was particularly satisfying because my son showed me a new area, which will open up some real possibilities for skiing and climbing.  Many times I've skied into the bowl beneath Teton Peak.  He showed me an area below the peak just east of Teton.
 We skied up a spectacular valley and he climbed the peak on his skinned split board.  The snow was about six inches of powder sitting on a hard pack.  I found it difficult to set an edge and telemarked out while he climbed.
The skiing Sunday was in an area I've returned to many times.  The snow was a perfect 8 inches of powder that was set up just right for yo-yo telemark skiing.
Perfect telemark slopes in Little Belts Sunday

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It all adds up on Izaak Walton trip

We found pussy willows in bud at Three Bears Lake near Marias Pass beneath Summit Peak in Glacier Park
Thank goodness for Groupon!
This Internet discount coupon service allowed us to spend two nights at the Izaack Walton Inn in Essex for $99 ($107 with tax) for a room that normally retails at $159 per night!
At that rate, with gasoline and meals, a trip there can be a little pricey.
Dinners are in the $25 range.
Ski rentals are $20 per day.
It all adds up.
I understand that people like groomed trails and the Izaack Walton offers 33 kilometers of them on roads south of the railroad tracks.  If you're not a guest, it'll cost you $10 per day for a pass.
I'm not sure I can understand shelling out that kind of money when there's Glacier Park for free a short distance away across U.S. 2.
A bustling Nordic scene at Izaack Walton Inn
We had a great stay there last weekend, particularly enjoying the fire and quiet time for reading.
I don't care for the groomed trail scene and did it one morning before going across U.S. 2 to the Walton Ranger District trailhead and snowshoeing up Ole Creek, a very satisfying trip.  A couple of weeks ago, I used this trail to climb about half way up Scalplock Mountain.
Last Saturday, the conditions were too icey to ski, so snowshoes worked just fine.
And it cost absolutely nothing.  We encountered only a solitary cross country skier who was carrying his skis because of the ice.
The weather was at first rain and wet snow on Friday, and then the temperatures plunged to about 2 degrees and the skies cleared.
Our destination Sunday was nearby Marias Pass, where in the trees, the snow is generally good.
Temperatures which had been minus 13 in the morning were 25 above in the afternoon.
We had a nice snowshoe in about 6 inches of new powder on the Autumn Creek Trail, where we lingered in the Little Dog Mountain area.
Again, this was free.
We were excited to see pussy willows budding on the shores of Three Bears Lake.  A sure sign that winter is losing its grip!
On Saturday night we drove about 25 miles to West Glacier to the Belton Chalet Restaurant where we found gourmet food at considerably less expensive prices than at the Izaack Walton.
Bottom line:  watch for deals at Izaack Walton, ski or shoe in the park, eat supper at Belton.
After doing the groomed trails at the Izaack Walton

A frosty crossing of Ole Creek

Katie at Three Bears Lake beneath Summit Peak

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Snow in the Front

A quick trip back in fast powder

I'm sun-tanning in the Waldron bowl

Approaching the bowl
It snowed sufficiently on Sunday and Monday that we had pretty decent snow on the Rocky Mountain Front on Tuesday, good enough for a good ski to the North Fork Waldron Creek bowl.
The conditions were as ideal as I've ever seen them:  cloudless, deep blue skies; no wind; about 10 inches of new powder.
The only negative might have been that the powder was sitting on hard pack ice and where there had been wind or sun, that ice was exposed and could make particular areas treacherous.
It was only 10 degrees when we started, and it warmed up to over 30 degrees.
I skied with Jim Heckel to the 7,000 feet mark and we had lunch in the bowl in bright sunshine, enjoying the spectacle of the Mount Lockhart ampitheater.
We encountered only one other person that day, and oddly enough it was made son, Demian, who was up for the day from Conrad to climb Teton Peak.  Wish I could have joined him.  His photos from the top are breathtaking, with great views across the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Warm temperatures today and predicted again for Thursday before (I hope) winter and good skiing returns.
Coming up the bottom

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Resorting to hiking

The Gibson Reservoir trail not far from Big George Gulch
We didn't trust the snowfall in the mountains and opted for a hike rather than a ski on Sunday, and things turned out just fine.
Of course I was a little unsettled when I got home and found out that it had been snowing furiously at Teton Pass Ski Area just north of where I was hiking in the Sun River Canyon/Gibson Dam area.
Anyway, we took two hikes in about 2-3 inches of wet and quickly melting snow first along the Gibson Reservoir shoreline to Big George Gulch (4 miles roundtrip) and then up Hannan Gulch (5.5 miles roundtrip).
Hannan Gulch Ranger Station
The sun peeked through the threatening skies a couple of times and there were a couple of sucker holes.  It was just at freezing the entire day, but there was no wind and the hiking was quite pleasant.
The reservoir looked to be about 30 feet low and there was lots of open water.
On the way back to Augusta we spotted very large herds of elk in the distance on the Sun River Game Range, a sight that attracted not a few sightseers.  The elk were very tough to make out without binoculars, however.  But, they were there.
Gibson Reservoir Overlook

Friday, February 13, 2015

Looking for decent snow

Nice, but thin powder near the top of Kings Hill Peak
For more than a week now the local ski hills have been advertising "Spring Skiing."
The warm spell has taken its toll and I'm looking for any excuse to find some skiing.
On Tuesday night several inches of powder fell in the Little Belt, and of course, on Wednesday I was up on the hill looking around.
The powder provided a bit of skiing atop a pretty solid ice base.
I worked my way up from Kings Hill Pass to the top of Kings Hill (elevation: 8,031 feet), a gain of nearly 700 feet.
The day was absolutely beautiful, living up to the Spring Skiing billing:  bright, deep blue skies, passably skiable new powder and light winds. The winds were promising to make short work of the powder, however, and I kept my ski day short.
Kings Hilll outcrop
Once on top I skied the ridgeline to the head of Weatherwax Creek and the amazing bowls there where I took a couple of runs to the bottom.  I had to really work to keep from going out of control because of the icy surface beneath the thin vaneer of powder.
I came back by way of the power line right of way having covered more than 1,100 feet of elevation gain over 4 miles.
It will have to do until winter (hopefully) returns.

Click on this link for graphs, photos of trip:

Climbing Kings Hill on skis

My way down with lots of great views into the Divide Road area along the power line right of way

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

How to hike new wilderness areas in Front Heritage Act

Rocky Mountain peak is in the Our Lake Addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area under Heritage Act
UPDATE: This post has been updated. An earlier version had incorrectly indicated that The Deep Creek Addition also includes the South Fork Teton River Trail No.168,  along Rocky Mountain Peak’s east flank. Also, I had incorrectly indicated that it has yet to be determined if the lower reaches of Falls Creek were included. They will not be as per the agreement of all parties and the lines drawn on the Heritage Act map.

Access to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas has gotten a whole lot easier with passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.
The act added five roadless areas totaling 67,112 acres in the Front to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat, moving the boundaries of the wilderness closer to hikers, backpackers, snowshoers and backcountry skiers.
Dave Cunningham, information officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest, pointed out that people have had easy access to these areas all along, but that they just weren’t called, “wilderness.”
It may be some time before the U.S. Forest Service finishes its review of boundaries and puts out a detailed map.
Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz said that acreages in each of the areas, and which wilderness area, (the Bob or the Scapegoat) will have to be sorted out and approved by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.                                                                                                                                                             With what I can gather from looking at current maps and comparing them to the proposed boundaries in maps published by the Save the Front organization, here are descriptions of the five areas with some ideas on how to reach them.  These approaches will be covered  in the new edition to my book that should be out before the hiking season.
Devil's Glen is now in the Scapegoat Wilderness Area

  • Silver King/Falls Creek. Think Dearborn River and the 6-mile round trip Devil’s Glen hike (Trail No. 206 ) and you’ve reached the wilderness boundary, in this case the Scapegoat Wilderness, part of the Bob Marshall Complex. Walk the Continental Divide Trail between the Alice Creek headwaters and Caribou Peak and you will also be in the Scapegoat.
Cross the South Fork Sun packbridge and you'll be in Patrick's Basin Addition to wilderness

  • Patrick’s Basin If you’ve ever climbed Patrol Mountain, the area immediately north and east nearly to the Benchmark Road, is now in the wilderness. You can now reach the wilderness boundary from the Benchmark Campground almost immediately when hiking the Straight Creek/Patrol Mountain Trail Nos.212/213.  Patrick Basin also contains other large mountains like Allen and Sheep Shed that would be part of the Bob Marshall.  A major access is Lange Creek Trail No. 243. (reached via Trails 202,242 or from Gibson Reservoir).  Under the bill, you’ll be in the Bob and the Patrick Basin Addition nearly as soon as you cross the South Fork Sun  Pack Bridge at Benchmark, Trail No. 202.
Deep Creek Divide from the Deep Creek Addition will now be part of the Bob

  • Deep Creek.  This addition is a land of great gulches and high peaks. The rule of thumb here is that if the creeks flow toward Deep Creek, it’s in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. That would mean that hiking the Green Gulch/Reardon Gulch 19-mile loop (Trails No. 126,127,135) you’d be in the Bob along Slim and Sheep gulches, but not Green and Readon gulches. Another way to reach this would be via Blacktail/Mortimer gulches from the Sun River Canyon area (Trails No. 223).
The Our Lake Addition is now part of the Bob Marshall

  • Our Lake  This is probably the Front’s most popular hike (Trail No. 184), but the wilderness boundary is moved closer to the parking area near the South Fork Teton, and includes the east side of Rocky Mountain peak, the highest mountain in the Bob.  This addition also pushes the boundary closer to the trailheads of Headquarters Pass (Trail No. 165), and  Route Creek Pass (Trail No. 108).
The ridge between Teton Pass and Washboard Reef is now part of the West Fork Addition to the Bob

  • West Fork Teton  Just behind Mount Wright along Trail No. 114 to include the forks of the West Fork, like Wright and Olney creeks. The Wright Creek drainage, without a formal trail is particularly scenic with towering Mount Wright on the east and an extension of the limestone Corrugate Ridge to the west.  Previously, the wilderness boundary had been at Teton Pass, a hike of 5.5-miles one way. That is a hike I’d highly recommend.

The Heritage Act also designates 208,160 acres of the Front as “Conservation Management Areas,” where the restrictive Forest Service Travel plans are now set into law.  That means that much of the Front remains “de facto” wilderness without the title.
However, it would limit road-building while it protects current motorized recreation and public access for hunting, biking, timber-thinning and grazing.
And, importantly, the act prioritizes eradication and prevention of noxious weeds on the designated public lands. This, in turn, helps protect adjacent private lands.
Earlier, through the efforts of former U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and former Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor Gloria Flora, the Front was withdrawn from oil and gas development.
The Heritage Act was passed through an amendment attached to the 2014 Defense Bill and represents a compromise supported by then U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, a Republican, and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, both Democrats.  It was signed into law by President Barak Obama.

Here's the Save the Front coalition's proposed Heritage Act map:
heritage act map.jpg

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January thaw prompts Glacier visit

Snowshoers prepare to walk the Lake Mcdonald shoreline Monday in Glacier
Temperatures have been in the 60s and snowmelt running in the streets of Great Falls.
Monday was an unbelievably warm and sunny day and I was prompted to head out the door with skis and snowshoes, looking for snow in the high country.
What I found was an icy, corn snow.
But, no matter.
I used the snowshoes to climb half-way up Scalplock Mountain in Glacier National Park. Skis were useless, and a little dangerous on the ice.
McDonald Lake was as pretty as I've ever seen it.  There was beautiful snow in the mountains in all directions, blue skies and radiant sun, with an unfrozen lake.
It was such a great day to be out.
I tried to reach Two Medicine Lake, but found the road unplowed and too slushy to chance.
The Rocky Mountain Front was simply spectacular.
I drove up by way of U.S. 89 and used the new scenic pullouts between Pendroy and Dupuyer. I laud the state Dept. of Transportation for the wonderful job it did in engineering a straighter and safer highway with its reconstruction of that stretch.
Rocky Mountain Front from new U.S. 89 scenic overlook.  Old oil well in foreground