Thursday, September 27, 2018

Colorado Mountain Lookout, Yellowstone and Teton parks

Colorado Mountain (right) on a ridgeline
Our route
The stone walk way at the top 

The top cairn with Black Mountain below 

Katie with ground cover and copious deadfall along the trail
 We finally got up Colorado Mountain Lookout (elevation: 7,217 feet) in the Lazyman Roadless Area in the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest west of Helena on our weekly Wayne's Wednesday Walks this week.
This followed a four day trip to Salt Lake City with sidetrips to Teton and Yellowstone national parks on the way home.  The red aspen and dramatic landscapes are a must see in the Fall.
My wife and I got part way up on a Montana Wilderness Association snowshoe walk two years ago.
This time, despite tons of windfalls on the upper part of the trail, we got to the top, a 8.5 miles, 2,400 feet elevation gain and loss on a gorgeous Fall day.
The trail is largely unmarked, which I found remarkable given that there was once a major lookout cabin there, now long gone.  Unless you knew there was a trail there you couldn't find it. The trail is not marked on the Forest Service map.
A break at top
It begins behind the Moose Creek Ranger Station, four miles up a good, paved road on a well-marked Rimini exit on U.S. 12 about 7 miles west of Helena, just below McDonald Pass.  Historically, this area was a mining district and is now part of the Helena Ten Mile Creek drinking water system.
It immediately gains a ridge west, above Moose Creek, climbing 2 miles to another flat spot to the south, where the Colorado Mountain summit ridge begins.  It travels up another 2.25 miles and 1,000 feet from here through deadfalls splayed like pickup sticks across the trail, which had to be dodged.
The grassy, exposed and windy top offers a great 360 view of the Helena area;  the Big Belts, Gates of the Mountains, Elkhorns, Continental Divide country into the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall and even the Bridger Mountains.  We could see Chessman Reservoir below.  Almost on top of us were Red Mountain another almost 1,000 feet above us at 8,160 feet, and the Rimini ghost town, and Black Mountain at 7,148 below us as a twin peak.
We were sad to see the lookout was gone, with only remnants of the structure's footings remaining at the high point.
There is a rock pathway to a rock outcrop in the trees to the southeast that offered shelter from the wind.
My takeaways from the hike:  it's terrific to have a national forest roadless area so close to a major city;  it's too bad that there's so much diseased and down timber there, the trail could be better marked.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Rock art near Lewistown, more Front Fall colors

Damage from South Fork Teton flood below the destroyed Rierdon Gulch trailhead is evident 
The ground cover is Fall eye candy

The wall above Rierdon Gulch resembles the Chinese Wall

A look down the valley from the divide

You best follow these cairns to find the trail head across the South Fork Teton

An example of the erosion
We got in a couple of quick trips this week trying to stay ahead of the approaching bad (Fall) weather.
We hiked the Rierdon Gulch Trail to its divide above Slim Gulch in the Front, and visited the Bear Gulch Pictograph/Petroglyph Indian site southeast of Lewistown.
The groundcover in the Front continues at its height.  Oranges, reds, yellows and lime greens spangle the forest floor, the aspens run yellow, orange and red.  The cottonwoods are golden.
Rierdon Gulch, like the South Fork Teton it drains into, was hammered by the Spring floods.
It destroyed the trailhead and the Forest Service has done a great job rebuilding it.  Follow the cairns from the South Fork parking area to find the trailhead.
Rierdon, again like the South Fork, has been considerably widened, trees uprooted and knocked down, and the banks torn apart.
In the higher country the high snowpack and heavy rainfall, including that which we have been receiving in recent weeks, has left erosion marks and soil slumping.
Rierdon is otherwise this incredibly scenic, narrow valley lined by a long, massive, limestone ridge resembling the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
We hiked nearly 5.5 miles to a high divide above Slim Gulch that descends into the Deep Creek country that is in the Bob now.  We gained and lost 2,700 feet in the nearly 11 miles we walked.
Why Rierdon Gulch was left out bewilders me.
It is some of the wildest, most scenic landscape in the Front, of international quality, with its high limestone cliffs and sweeping views in all directions from any high point.

Examples of the pictographs

Ancient hand print

Our tour guide Ray Vodicka explains the drawings

Our group viewing the cliffs and wall markings

Bear Gulch Pictographs/Petroglyphs

I can't really count our trip to this ancient, sacred and scenic place as a "hike."
Our Wayne's Wednesday Walk hiking group traveled to this spot off the Forest Grove Road, some 30 miles southeast of Lewistown to take a tour.
It is something I had planned to do for a number of years, but hadn't taken the time.
It turned out to be an amazing trip for its scope and scenery.
There are some 2,000 Indian pictographs and petroglyphs, along with considerable tourist graffiti going back as far as 1824, when a "tourist" etched his name in this soft limestone.
It is said to be the largest such site on the Great Plains and used by Natives for at least 400 years, but probably longer.
Bear Gulch is a tightly enclosed valley surrounded by large limestone rimrocks.
Using ocher and chert Native peoples seeking spiritual healing or revelation painted and etched other-worldly symbols, animals and people into these rocks.
This area is in private ownership and any tour must be arranged ahead of time by contacting (406) 428 2185.
Our tour guide was Ray Vodicka, whose mother, Sally, owns the place.  Tours cost $17.50 per person.
Vodicka, in his early 40s, is passionate about the place and adds a lot to the enjoyment of the tour.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Fall colors in full glory; a flurry of activities

The red aspens really lit up the Front

Mount Wright highlighted by aspens

Our group on the flanks of Wolf Butte

On the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier Park

The always beautiful Ptarmigan area
In the past week I've climbed Mount Wright in the Front for the second time this summer and Wolf Butte in the Little Belts, taken a side trip to the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and hiked to Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park.
What they all had in common was spectacular early Fall colors.
The most surprising were the reds in the Front aspens and ground cover.  In all my years of hiking there I've never seen such red.  The only other place I have seen red rather than golds and yellows in the aspens has been in Utah, where red predominates.
The Fall colors have been magnificent, if a bit early this year.
We saw them in abundance at Many Glacier on the Ptarmigan Trail.
They weren't as showy in the Cypress Hills, though.
The Cypress Hills trip included a tour of Fort Walsh, once the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted, a visit to Medicine Hat where we toured the famed Medalta pottery factory in the pottery district, a strange badland south of Medicine Hat full of "concretions" and an interesting windmill museum between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge in Etzikom, Alberta
My new favorite photo of Katie on a concretion in the Red Rocks Canyon a half hour south of Medicine Hat 
A sampling of the windmills at Etzikom, Alberta windmill museum

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Steamboat Lookout through the cliffs; 30 years after Canyon Creek

Mark approaches the base of cliffs

If you look really hard you'll see me ascending this (frightening) couloir (Gordon Whirry photo)

In the shelf (Gordon Whirry photo)

Mark and I in a spectacular spot (Gordon Whirry photo)

Walking the broken and tilted shelf
The roads outside Augusta washed out by Spring floods are finally fixed and open and gave us the opportunity to reach Steamboat Lookout Mountain Saturday.
Elk Creek Road is pretty rough, filled with potholes.  One bridge is still out, requiring a creek crossing.  But, the creek is now low enough that it's no problem.
We had intended to climb the peak via the good Elk Creek Trail, but instead concentrated on finding a new route to the top via the cliffs.
At the first big drainage and creek crossing after Elk Pass we left the trail and headed up through the burn and what appeared to be an opening in the vast cliff walls -- that appear impenetrable ---  guarding the peak.
I was uncertain whether the crack we saw was passable.
Mark Hertenstein seems always to believe there's a way.
There was a 300 foot patch of scree below the base of the cliffs that nearly did me in.  I'm having intermittent balance problems that forced me to all fours for much of this patch.
Hertenstein had gone far ahead and discovered that there was a (barely) walkable shelf below the cliffs that offered spectacular views and the possibility for climbing our way out to the top.
We had a nice lunch and watched the clouds pushed around the distant peaks of the Front and Bob and Scapegoat wilderness areas by high winds.
Mark found a great, climb able crack that took us to the next shelf above us that led to another crack and up on top.
All of us had been to the top of the peak numerous times and given the wind, we opted not to climb the remaining 300 feet to the top.
The views and shelf-walking were truly thrilling.  Why this Steamboat Ridge is not as popular for its grandeur as the Chinese Wall amazes me.
We enjoyed a leisurely six miles back to the car as the weather improved and the sun came out warming us and causing the early Fall ground colors to pop.  There were large patches of scarlet and purple huckleberry patches.  The slopes below the peak just  off- trail had been freshly rototilled by grizzlies looking for roots and insects.
We climbed more than 3,800 feet and walked 11.1 miles.

30th anniversary of Canyon Creek Fire

This is the 30th anniversary of the Canyon Creek Fire of 1988 that scorched 250,000 acres of the Scapegoat country, including this Elk and Smith creeks drainage.
The fire took a big run down Elk Creek the evening of Sept. 6, 1988.  I don't think I'll ever forget when it made its run.  The night skies of Great Falls west glowed red.
Nearly every year since I've hiked this Elk Creek country to assess the post-fire conditions.
Like the Yellowstone Fire of the same year, the regrowth is jaw-dropping.  The trees in most areas are 20 feet high and very thick, almost too thick.  There is diversity, too, with lots of Doug Fir among the Lodgepole. There are some southwest slopes that look pretty barren, but the north and east slopes are lush.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Tentatively on trail during a break from smoke

Walking through the Blackleaf Canyon 
With my sweetheart at the Blackleaf-Teton Pass

A Sticky Geranium leaf that Jack Frost got ahold of

Fireweed gone red

Looking east toward the Canyon walls

The clouds put on a show

In a narrow Blackleaf Creek canyon
We got a break Tuesday and Wednesday from the smoke that has shrouded our mountains.
We could see them for the first time in a couple of weeks after a shot of rain and snow that dusted the tops.
We made a break for it Wednesday to the Rocky Mountain Front and the Blackleaf Canyon west of Bynum, climbing to the Blackleaf-Teton Divde.
There was some smoke that we guessed was coming over from the Paoli Creek Fire in the Great Bear just south of Glacier Park.
At least we could see the mountains, although my smoke-sensitive wife still choked on the stuff.
The drop in temperatures has caused the ground cover to begin turning colors.  We witnessed brilliant reds, oranges and yellows in the vegetation, pre-saging the coming Fall weather.
We hiked in downslope wind.
Most folks walk through the high canyon walls on Blackleaf Creek, a short distance, and call it quits. Nothing wrong with that.
The advantage to walking to the divide, a distance of four miles (8 miles roundtrip) are the spectacular aspects of Mount Frazier, which dominates the landscape west of the canyon walls.
There are great views of Mount Wright from the divide, but we didn't linger because of the winds.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Backpacking in Glacier as fires move in

Gordon Whirry and Mark Hertenstein relax in Red Eagle Creek cool on a hot hike

A moose encountered on hike from Red Eagle Lake to Triple Divide Pass

Morningstar Lake's snowy source

Old Man Lake beneath Flinsch Peak

Smoky Goose Island in St. Mary Lake after Howe Ridge Fire blew up

Colorful Otokomi Lake

Goat Mountain outlined in Howe Ridge Fire smoke
Brother Dan on Pitamakan-Dawson portion of hike

I just finished a five day backpack in Glacier National Park with a side trip to Otokomi Lake that began with heat and smoke and ended with fire.
It was a trip with my Chicagoan brother Dan and Great Falls hiking companions Mark Hertenstein and Gordon Whirry.
We covered more than 40 miles on the backpack trip and then without Mark another 10 miles back and forth to Otokomi Lake.
The backpack trip went from St. Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake and included backcountry campgrounds at Red Eagle Lake, Morningstar Lake, Old Man Lake and No Name Lake and the thrilling Continental Divide walk between Pitamakan to Dawson passes.
When we entered the park the views were obscured by smoke from fires burning in most of the states south of and bordering Montana to the West.
I had been apprehensive about the trip because the forecast called for 106 in Great Falls on one of the days we'd be on the trail.
Although our first choice was for the Highline Traverse beginning and ending at Many Glacier, we later agreed that this East Side of the Park hike was entirely satisfying and probably better than our first choice.
Dan Kotynski (left) with Tom Kotynski on hike 
As we did last year, Gordon and I switched up our permits when we checked in at the Two Med Ranger Station, adding No Name camp and extending the permit by a day.
We were so glad we did as No Name, a lake I had sped past many years on previous hikes to and from Dawson Pass, turned out to be the best camp with fantastic views of mountain goats playing in the colorful cliffs above us on Pompelly's Pillar.
We also saw goats in our Morningstar camp, moose on the trail and in Morningstar camp, and bighorn sheep on the trail above Old Man Lake.
The huckleberry pickings, however, were pitiful.  The bears had obviously beaten us to these treats.
Our toughest day was the nearly 14 miles to Morningstar Lake from Red Eagle Lake, where we gained more than 3,000 feet going through Triple Divide Pass in heat that we measured at more than 90 degrees.
My water filtering "Switch Mini" turned out to be inadequate for such an ordeal and I put it aside and threw caution to the winds as I drank water straight from the sources I found along the way. 
So far so good giardia-wise.
The Red Eagle to Dawson Pass portion of the hike is lightly traveled but enormously scenic, with several creek crossings on wood and cable suspension bridges.
Our greatest excitement came at Old Man Lake, three nights into the trip, when there was a loud thunder and lightning storm that caught us without rain flies on our tents.  There was a made scramble to get them on in the dark to keep us dry.
I knew immediately that this would clear the air and drop the temperatures, but that there would be fire.
There were also high winds as we made our way from Pitamakan to Dawson, a precarious walk even without wind on a trail that hangs from the sides from Morgan and Flinsch peaks high above the Nyack valley.
This is where the scenery,  some of the best in the park, is most thrilling, revealing views to the center of the park and massive glaciers in the vicinity of Mount Jackson.
While wobbling my way I noticed to the north and west that a fire had blown up and it proved to be the Howe Ridge Fire.  When we got out we found that the Going to the Sun Road had been closed west from Logan Pass to Apgar campground, that nine historic structures had been burned on the west shore of Lake McDonald and the lodge and area had been evacuated.
While the temperatures had dropped the park's air once again filled with smoke.
No Name Lake was magical and we enjoyed the mountain goats and only one other party of two backpackers camping there --- real solitude!  We scrambled a moraine beneath the cliffs to get a better view of goats before breaking camp.
Throughout our trip we were entertained by backpackers from Great Falls and Helena with whom we had some connections.
When we got to Two Med campground we found it overrun by campers, hikers and tourists.
Likewise, in East Glacier Park, there were crowds like I had never seen before.
I can only guess that the folks driven from the West Side by the fires would be crowding the East Side.
Mark left us and we were lucky enough to find a camp site in St. Mary at Johnson's Red Eagle campground.
Before departing for Great Falls on Day 7 we did the 10 mile hike back and forth to the extremely colorful Otokomi Lake,  with a backdrop of high, red, argilite cliffs.  The lake is translucent emerald with a red shoreline.
The hike took us through the 2016 Reynolds Fire that burned just short of the Rising Sun campground, cabins and lodge where the trailhead began.
Although I carried a relatively light pack (in the neighborhood of 20 pounds), I think my backpacking days are numbered.  Even that small amount of weight may be too much for this septuagenarian.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Glacier again: Siyeh Pass to Sunrift Gorge

The view from Siyeh Pass south looking at Sexton Glacier

Mary McCartney wets her cold neck wrap in a snow-fed spring

Mary McCartney coming down from Siyeh Pass

A careful crossing with Martin coaching his Mom

On the high approach, with Piegan mountain and glacier behind us

Martin and Mary climb toward a high point at the pass

Matahpi Peak sits at the top of Siyeh Pass

One of the many waterfalls in the red Sunrift Gorge coming off Sexton Glacier

In the Reynolds Burn above St. Mary Lake
Against my better judgment because of the crowds and the smoke, I returned to Glacier on Thursday to hike the spectacular Siyeh Bend/Pass-Sunrift Gorge 10-miler.
To my great surprise, the trail was neither crowded nor smoke-filled.
We got one of the clearest days of the summer in the park because high winds (provoking a Red Flag Warning) had blown the smoke out onto the Plains.
I almost decided against returning to the park because of the smoke out on the Plains.
I had traveled to Cut Bank where I took in the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks presentation of "Othello" in the city park.  The local business community had made this a special treat by serving free picnic suppers to anyone who showed up.  The presentation, as usual, was superb.
After the play I traveled north and west 80 miles via Browning and the Duck Lake cut across road that delivered me to my cousins' Many Glacier campsite where I had stayed the previous week with them.
The temperature had been 97 on the Plains and only in the mid-60s in the park.  What a welcome relief.
We took the park bus to the Siyeh Bend to begin our hike and had the trail to ourselves until nearly Preston Park.
The Piegan Glacier to the west and Siyeh and Cracker peaks to the north were the outstanding features of our hike to Siyeh Pass.  We were passed on the trail by two climbers, male and female, who ended up climbing Siyeh AND hiking the pass and coming out the Gorge faster than we did the hike.  They must have gotten more than 5,000 feet of quick elevation gain.  Oh, to be young and strong again!
We lounged at the Pass, enjoying the snowfield below us and the remote Boulder Creek drainage to the east below us with its tarn and lake.
Cousins Mary and Martin then climbed a high point from the pass and we started down the glorious east side drinking in the the views of Sexton Glacier on Going to the Sun Mountain and the Red Rock Canyons below us.
We had fabulous, clear views of Little Chief, Mahtatopa and Red Eagle Mountains to the south above St. Mary's Lake.
Along the trail we passed a couple of fresh piles of grizzly scat, full of (probably) huckleberries, although we didn't see any ripe hucks ourselves.
I had hoped we would catch the wildflowers in their full glory, but it was past their peak, but still terrific, particularly the magenta-colored Indian Paintbrush, deep-blue Gentian, purple Penstemon, and varieties of other yellow flowers including emerging Blanket Flowers.
Our only worry was that in enjoying this floral show we might miss the final buses of the day, but that turned out to be needless worry as we caught a 6 p.m., and we were out of the park by 6:30 p.m. and on our way back to Great Falls.  Our last mile was walking through the 2016 Reynolds Fire Burn and reveling in the forest's regeneration.
Of course, the hike was sweetened by the company of my McCartney cousins, Mary Irene and her son Martin Suarez, both of Minnesota, who showed up ready and able to hike for nearly 10 solid days!
Come back Mary and Martin.  You are already missed!