Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Record snowfall+record cold=We're skiing Oct. 1!

White everywhere on our drive to the trailhead.

Our drive was on sometimes scary one-lane road

On the trail

The river far below 
Mark at lunch under the sun

We stopped for some turns in this area

The snowy Dearborn with colorful aspens
It has been only four months and eight days since our last backcountry ski trip, but up to 4 feet of snow in the Front and temperatures as low as a record 9 degrees in Great Falls (and a record 19.9 inches of snow) made skiing a logical choice on Tuesday.
And, the sky turned a bright blue and there was no wind.
That big, wet snow deposited a pretty good base.  I didn't hit bottom all day, although a couple of rocks did show up.
The earliest I remembered skiing was around Oct. 5.
Oct. 1 is some kind of record, too.
We headed up through Augusta to the Dearborn, hoping the roads had been plowed and we might try Falls Creek.
The ride up was pretty hairy, sometimes down to one lane with piles of snow making it impossible to pull over should another car coming in the other direction would want get by.  We were lucky there was only one car and there was space for it to pull over and let us by.
Even in the dead of winter I've rarely seen so much snow in the fields and on the peaks.  It was white in every direction.
When we got to Falls Creek the parking lot had not been plowed.  We hoped that there would be space somewhere near the Dearborn River Trailhead for us to pull over, or maybe even the Christian school and camp across the road.
To our surprise the lot had been cleared and then a truck came up behind us.
Kraig Lang, the retired Forest Service Wilderness Ranger, immediately got out and came over and we renewed our acquaintances.  He had led me and Mark Hertenstein on a hydrology survey through the Bob Marshall Wilderness some 13 years ago.
He said the big storm came in while he was back in a hunter's camp and he was returning to pick up his trucks.  Through the snow he crossed the Divide and had left his horses near Indian Meadows not far from Lincoln on the other side of the Divide.  He was exhausted from riding some 20 solid hours to get out.
We skied in only a couple miles, just beyond the Forest Service property line, but we took side trips to the lip of a couple of overlooks to admire the blue sky, the bright sun, the emerald water and the sparkling snows that accentuated the rugged Steamboat Mountain cliffs above us.  On the way back we stopped to do some of the season's first tele turns.  The deep snow made them sluggish.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Skirting Ear Mountain before the storm

Wayne at the high point

The aspen are just beginning to color

The Ear Mountain country above us

The mountain adjacent to Ear we call Ear Wax 
Ear Mountain

We're told that in the next 48 hours the mountains will get up to three feet of snow and we'll be braving temperatures no higher than in the 30s.
So our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group took advantage of bright sunny and blue skies to skirt the edge of Ear Mountain from the state game range west of Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front.
This 7.5 miles (2,000 feet in elevation gain and loss) hike covered part of the northeast flank approach to the Ear Mountain climb, but proceeded west below the mountain on an old road, ultimately to a high point opposite Yeager Flats.
We were looking for Fall color and saw some, but not an overwhelming amount.  Fall appears to be late this year, but winter is right on its heels if you believe our forecast for the next five days.
This area is just south of the game range and north of the national forest on land that has been grazed hard and roaded this way and that.
Various trails and game trails come and go from every direction.  It appeared as though the road/trail had been recently bulldozed.
Wayne figured how to connect these disparate paths and deliver us to a high point that offered breathtaking views of the Front, with the Choteau Mountain country to the north and the Ear Mountain complex to the south.
We weren't far from the Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte property that we consider a grizzly bear preserve.
There was some thought that we might just walk through from the Game Range trailhead and parking area to the BLM Ear Mountain Trailhead on the South Fork Teton Road via Yeager Flats.
The visibility was so good that we were able to see the Sweetgrass Hills on the Canadian border to the north and east.
A humorous side note to the hike was the search for Peter Johnson's wallet that he had lost on an exploratory of this same hike last week.
No luck.
But, it was lucky that Wayne took us to this scenic spot on Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Falls Creek on the first day of Fall

The biggest falls on the creek
We were surprised by the coloration of this outcropping

This part of the canyon had shales the same colors as those in Glacier Park

Mark Hertenstein above the second largest falls on the creek

The second largest falls on the creek

Spectacular colors on the hike

I returned to Falls Creek in the Front on the first day of Fall, hoping to see autumnal colors, and I wasn't disappointed.
Besides the colors, what made this trip special was the off-trail hiking near the water's edge that revealed so much more of what this roadless area and major tributary of the Dearborn River has to offer.
We hiked in a deep canyon, occasionally scrambling to high points where it narrowed and saw deep, emerald pools of water that certainly must be filled with fish.  There were open slopes of Yellowstone-like yellowish rock in some spots, and areas of red and green shale that evoked Glacier Park.  We got up close to two major waterfalls, and then climbed to the canyon rim when it narrowed too much to follow the river bank.
While we saw stands of golden and red/orange tinged aspen, there were other trees that Jack Frost hadn't touched yet.
After enjoying lunch at the upper big falls we headed uphill, looking for a high trail above the Forest Service Falls Creek trail and located it.  We figure it is probably an outfitter's trail.
Since Falls Creek access was reopened a couple of weeks ago, we could see that the area is getting good visitation.  We saw a half dozen other cars in the lot and were passed by a couple of guys on horses.
We figure that this area is ripe for hunters who haven't been in here the last 14 years.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A summer-ending backpack into Glacier's Belly and Red Gap country

Gordon and Dan enjoy the views above Elizabeth Lake with Mount Merritt's Old Sun Glacier in view

The Eliabeth Lake Nymphs/Sirens lead Gordon and Dan in a yoga session

Gordon photographs Dawn Mist Falls on the South Fork of the Belly River

Dan crosses South Fork Belly on suspension bridge

The Belly River Ranger Station
Nataos Peak shines in the alpenglow above our Glenn Lake camp

A cold morning crossing of the Belly River with new snow on Mount Cleveland in background

The huckleberries in full color were too tasty to pass up on way to Red Gap Pass

A spectacular falls on Kennedy Creek below our Poia Lake camp

Brothers Tom and Dan at trip's end on Lake Sherburne
I haven't posted for a while, but it doesn't mean I haven't been active.
There have been several trips this September into the Little Belts, Highwoods, the Continental Divide Trail, Glacier and Waterton parks since my last post.  But I've written so much about all of these hikes in the past and nothing made any one of them stand out (although they were all worthwhile), so I didn't post.
What is worth writing about is the 5-day-50 miles plus backpack trip into Glacier National Park with my brother, Dan, from Indianapolis (formerly Chicago) and Gordon Whirry.
We had been excited about planning this trip because we finally got a permit for the Hi-Line Traverse, coveted backpack beginning and ending at Many Glacier that starts at the Ptarmigan Wall, with nights at Elizabeth Lake, Glenn Lake in the Belly, Stoney Indian Lake, Fifty Mountain and Granite Park before exiting through Swiftcurrent Pass and ending back at Many.
Dan had been applying for this trip for more than 10 years and badly wanted to do it.
Just prior to our trip, however, Granite campground was closed because a grizzly destroyed an outhouse.  Then the next possible go-to for the route was made unavailable when Flattop campground and access points between Logan Pass and Avalanche Lake were closed.  Another possible route ---- up from Waterton was also unavailable because Goat Haunt has been closed all summer and the boat won't drop off visitor from Canada.
Oh, well.
So, we put together an alternate trip that had us start at Many, go through Ptarmigan, camp at Elizabeth the first night, with two nights at Glenn Lake foot and a final night at Poia Lake after a 16 mile behemoth trek climbing 3,000 feet through Red Gap Pass.
We decided to chance that even though the forecast had high percentages for rain throughout the trip.
Lucky for us, the weather was sunny and clear for the first two days, although the wind howled all night on days two and three, and there was rain on days three and four and it was darn wet on day five.
We took a side trip on day 2, going several miles out of our way, to visit the Belly River Ranger Station and learn about the history of the area's first colorful ranger, Joe Cosley, who was notorious as a poacher, scofflaw and womanizer.  The female names of the lakes in the Belly country are no accident, they are Cosley's girlfriends, Elizabeth, Helen, Sue, Margaret, Janet, Frances to whom he had promised a diamond ring that he never produced, but had buried under an aspen tree bearing his carved name.  There were many of these trees, including a section of one preserved in the ranger station.  The cabin he built there more than 100 years ago is still in use at the ranger station as a storage shed. Cosley could never make the transition from a national forest ranger, who was allowed to trap and hunt in what became Glacier Park in 1910.  The creation of the park outlawed such practices, but he continued to trap and hunt anyway, until he was arrested and driven out as ranger.
This was my fourth time in the Belly country where the Belly River flows through a bottom dominated by some of the highest peaks in the park, including two of the 10,000-footers,  Mounts Merritt and Cleveland.
The last time I had been through Red Gap Pass was 35 years ago with my late friend Wayne Franks, when we did a route that went from Many Glacier through the Pass, with a stop at Elizabeth Head and back through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, climbing Mount Seward along the way.  However, I had made two previous traverses to the Pass from the Ptarmigan Tunnel, including one with J. Gordon Edwards, the legendary Glacier climbing pioneer and author of the "Climber's Guide to Glacier Park."
Ironically, as I had just explained the traverse to Dan and Gordon and as we approached Poia Lake on day 4, a group of Canadian women passed us on a day hike who had just done the pass and were on their way back to Many on what must have been a 20-mile day!  They also climbed Seward.
Our final night was a cold and rainy one, which made packing up a moist mess.  Poia was our least favorite camp site because it was tucked so far back in the trees without good views of the colorful lake.
We took the quickest way out, a 4.1 miles trek using the exceptionally steep Sherburne Cutoff Trail to the Many Glacier gate where our car was parked. 
We were charmed by the many young people we met along the trail and in campgrounds, especially two women we tagged as the "Elizabeth Lake Nymphs/Sirens," ---- "Bevvie the Free and Jill the Pill", who clicked their heels and led us in yoga stretching exercises on day 2.  We immediately missed these free spirits when they departed camp.
The alpine-glow sunrises and sunsets, the fantastic huckleberries and the climb to Red Gap, as well as the company of my two companions, were the highlights of this memorable trip.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Glacier's heavenly Hole in the Wall

Our group starting out in the rain at Bowman Lake

One of our sunsets at Boulder Head  
Katie near Boulder Pass

Mount Kinnerly pokes up its head at Boulder Pass 
Dave and Sandi at Lake Francis

Looking toward the end of Bowman Lake

We saw plenty of signs that autumn is on its way
I visited Glacier Park's spectacular Hole in the Wall for the first time in 18 years, camping there nearly 30 years since my first trip there.
This northwestern part of Glacier drains a number of good-size glacier that cascade hundreds of feet in wispy and thunderous drops over cliffs.
Katie and I and Helena friends Dave and Sandi Ashley spent five days, including four nights, in this North Fork Flathead section of the park.
We approached the hike from Bowman Lake, camping the first and fourth nights at its head.
In past visits I've approached Hole in the Wall from Waterton Lake National Park in Canada.
You get a significantly different feel from the Bowman Lake approach.  Half the hike is in deep forest and brush, the other half in high alpine terrain.  I prefer the alpine.
At the beginning the weather was horrid and we hiked in light rain the first day, and gloom and sprinkles the second day until the sun came out and stayed out for the rest of the trip.  We got thoroughly soaked both days.
The highlight of the trip was the high point, Boulder Pass at more than 7,400 feet, which gave us peeks at Kinnerly and Kintla peaks.  Kintla, one the six Glacier peaks over 10,000 feet was capped with new fallen snow from the precipitation, as was Mount Cleveland, the park's highest mountain in the distance to the east.
We reached that on Day 3 after a night at Hole in the Wall Campground, which is laced with waterfalls.  The trail to Boulder Pass is on high alpine ledges.
That same day we broke camp and descended from Brown's Pass to Lake Francis, where there is an isolated two-spot campground in the woods where we could see high waterfalls working their way down the massive cliffs into the lake.  I had camped here 30 years ago, but my memory tells me it was when there were camp spots right at the lake shore, not back and up in the woods.
We had an interesting night there when we were awakened by what we came to believe was an owl chasing some kind of critter that screeched and frightened us all.  We think the owl's wings slammed into our tent, but didn't knock it over.
The more than 1,000 feet of descent to Lake Francis from Brown's Pass featured more ripe huckleberries than any of us could eat.  The berries would explain why a couple of days earlier at Brown's Pass we spoke to hikers who had to use their bear spray when encountering bears.
Then, it was back to Bowman head and the campground.  On our first wet night we had been warned by a camping mother with three young boys that the mice had learned how to climb the food bag hanging ropes to get into food.  Unfortunately, we discovered first hand that what she said was true as mice had burrowed into our hang sack, ate through bags and left us mice droppings as a calling card.
Nonetheless, our second stay at Bowman head was dry, the night warm and the sunset spectacular.
On our fifth day we had a pleasant walk out along the lake and we were back at Polebridge a little after noon.
Although the weather turned nice, at Hole in the Wall we experienced a light frost.  Also, lots of ground cover had turned their falls colors.
Incidentally, this was the first backpack trip I had taken with Katie.
It worked out well.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Little Belts: Deer Point and Coyote peaks

Our long, grassy approach to Coyote Peak 
On Coyote peak looking toward Yogo and Baldy peaks

Annie Taylor found a tree with rocks in its branches and added some 
Near the trailhead a thunderhead was developing

I should know better by now.
During the summer it is tough to get me into the Little Belt Mountains with the Rocky Mountain Front and Continental Divide Trail country just as close with more dramatic scenery.
But when I am lured to the Little Belts I come away thinking that it is an amazing place full of wild-country adventures.
Such was the case on this week's Wayne's Wednesday Walks hike.
Wayne Phillips designed a 6.6 miles roundtrip hike that covered two peaks (Deer Point --- elevation: 8,150 feet, and Coyote Peak, elevaton: 7,990 feet)  and about 1,000 feet of gain and loss along lonely Trail No. 441.
This trailhead is reachable from a number of ways, but the easiest is from the Lone Grave turnoff at U.S. 89 (across from the Silvercrest winter sports recreation area) and driving up a pretty good dirt road (Road #3328) for about 5 miles as if you are going to the Big Baldy turnoff (Road #258 junction).  Instead of going to Big Baldy to the north, go south for a couple of miles.  The trailhead is not far past the better marked Hell Creek trailhead.
We started on what appears to be a trail that the Forest Service wants to discontinue because it has cut trees across most of the way.
A better trailhead (for the same destination) follows a good two track to a marked trailhead and the trail is lower, but parallels the old trail.  Both trails eventually come together below Deer Point.
These trails have been closed to motorcycles and are quiet and shaded.  There is a peace to hiking along them.
Both peaks break out into the open and offer grand views of Big Baldy and Yogo peaks and the vast Middle Fork of the Judith Wilderness Study Area to the east and below.  Deer Point has a rocky top, Coyote Peak is more scenic, reached through a large park of grass and wildflowers.  The long Kelly Mountain ridgeline comes into view from Coyote).
Although temperatures climbed into the mid-90s in Great Falls this day, we were at a relatively cool and comfortable 73 degrees, even out in the open.
Our route from Deer Point to Coyote peaks in the Little Belts

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Surprise! Falls Creek is open!

Falls Creek has numerous small waterfalls over broken limestone shelves

The Falls Creek valley looking toward the Continental Divide

One of the nicest falls on Falls Creek just a little than a mile from the trailhead
The flank of Bear Den Mountain

Dr. John Crowley does a knee deep crossing of Falls Creek
I was really at loose ends today as I tried to decide which hike I wanted to do.
After toying with a trip west of the Divide I settled on the Augusta area, checking out the conditions of the roads, some, like Elk Creek, which was washed out for the second straight year by Spring floods.
I decided I would go to the Forest Service Information Station and see what it had to offer.
But, the station was closed, so I checked out Elk Creek, and then headed to the Dearborn River access and to perhaps do the off-trail climb of Steamboat, and see what was going on with the construction of the new Falls Creek trail.
I started looking for any construction I could find as soon as I crossed the Falls Creek bridge.
About three-tenths of a mile beyond, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a sign in the back of a large, fenced field that looked like a parking lot.
I turned around and, sure enough, there was the new trail.
This is a big deal since the large and spectacularly wild Falls Creek Roadless Area was closed to the public about 13 years ago when the landowner, who had previously allowed access through a mile of his land, decided to deny access.
Countless times during those painful years I've driven by Falls Creek yearning to get back in.  This is an area that grants access to Table, Bear Den, Monitor, Twin Buttes and Caribou Peaks and the Continental Divide Trail while following a trail that follows a creek that cascades over broken limestone shelves.
The access was re-established by a land sale brokered by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, with participation by the Forest Service and Lewis and Clark County.
If you do this hike bring your water shoes.  There are two major crossings in the first 3.6 miles, the first about calf deep.
Because of the disuse over the past years the trail can be a tad tough to follow at first (tall grass has overgrown the beginning), but the further you hike, the better the trail becomes.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Our Lake to HQ with group of ten

At the high point.  That's Rocky Mountain Peak in the background

Katie on the way down to HQ Pass 
Looking down toward HQ Pass

The black bear that crossed our path below HQ
I've done this classic Our Lake to HQ Pass Front traverse many times, but never with as many hikers as we had for Wayne's Wednesday Walks this week.
In Wayne Phillips' absence, Steve Taylor led ten of us on this 8.3 miles, 2,800 feet gainer from one Front iconic spot to another, including a 8,600 feet unnamed peak and a challenging off-trail ascent and descent.
Taylor's route went from Our Lake on a good, but slightly exposed ramp I've used on previous traverses.  We didn't stop at the grassy saddle, opting instead for a leisurely lunch atop the unnamed limestone high point.
About half our group had never done this traverse and were thrilled by its challenge and the views of the lake and Big Baldy peak to the north and Rocky Mountain Peak to the south.  I was particularly gratified that my cousin, Mary Irene McCartney, from Owatonna, MN did this hike.  As a flatlander, she had never done an off-trail mountain-climb before.
I was disappointed that we failed to see any mountain goats at the lake or at the great basin below Rocky Mountain peak.  However, we were treated to a black bear who crossed our trail and despite being in close proximity appeared to be oblivious to our presence as he turned over rocks looking for insects.
It's still incredibly green from all the moisture we've gotten this year and the skies were relatively clear, increasingly rare as we've had annual big fire seasons.
We could very clearly see to the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.