Sunday, August 29, 2004

Tough way into the Bob Marshall

Atop Bennie Hill in the Bob Marshall Wilderness
It was a stormy day. We were tired of going back to the same areas.
It was a perfect prescription for an exploration day.
So, Saturday we headed up toward the entrance of the Bob Marshall Wilderness west of Dupuyer, up the North Fork of Dupuyer Creek, which flows out of a deep canyon between Old Man of the Hills and Walling Reef mountains.
We decided we’d just go out to see what was there, thinking it unlikely that we’d scale anything in the unsettled weather. Deep, dark rolls of storm clouds hung over the Rocky Mountain Front. We had originally set out to walk the Choteau Mountain ridgeline or do the Mounts Richmond/Sentinel traverse.
The mountains had a silver hue on them as we approached, almost as if they had been hammered by snow. It was a very odd light show where the sunrise was enhancing the limestone face of the Front.
We were armed with a Bob Marshall complex map, some advice from the Sage of the Front, Gene Sentz of Choteau, and some sketchy memories I had of doing this some 20 years ago on a trail run.
We knew we’d have to pass through some gates and be ready for four-wheeling, which I was sure my Rav4 was capable of handling.
To reach the trailhead you take the road west out of Dupuyer that runs by the new post office, passing through the Boone and Crocket Teddy Roosevelt Ranch. I remembered that I ditched my car far before the forest boundary many years back, and ran to the trail because the road was too rough for my sedan.
The Roosevelt ranch headquarters were easy enough to find, but we immediately headed off on the wrong road and after passing through four gates, were blocked by a locked gate just short of entrance to the canyon.
We worked our way back and found the proper road, which is south and east of the headquarters and then heads west toward the canyon.
The last seven miles of road is quite sketchy. There are four gates and four creek crossings and some pretty deep ruts and mud holes. This is not the kind of country you want to take the family streetcar, but my Rav handled it well.
You are less than a mile from the gates of the canyon when the road runs out in one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen.
The North Fork Dupuyer Canyon is one of the most beautiful on the front, very similar to the Blackleaf Canyon, but grander. The walls are higher and smoother, the creek faster and with more water in it than Blackleaf Creek, and the area much more pristine since Blackleaf has been logged, roaded and subjected to natural gas development.
You pass between Old Man of the Hills and Walling Reef mountains. This would be a much better way to climb Walling Reef than the much more accessible Swift Dam trailhead via Phillips Creek traverse that I had done some 10 years ago. The trail up the North Fork climbs to a high pass below a massive, unnamed ridge to the west and south. There are side trails up Canyon Creek that parallels Walling Reef and Potshot Creek that sits below Bennie Hill.
The weather cleared sufficiently for us to consider climbing Bennie Hill (elevation 7,830 feet). We took the Potshot trail and left the trail and the southeast ridge of the mountain. It is about 2,500 feet to the top, which is reminiscent of Beartop lookout in the Bob Marshall above the North Fork of the Sun River. There are steep limestone outcrops along the ridgeline.
We were very surprised to find the remains of an old wilderness fire lookout at the top of the mountain.
There were wonderful views of Patrick Gass, Bumshot, Drewyer, Crooked, Fields and Sentinel mountains to the west, and spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front peaks to the east. I later found out that this mountain was named for a small boy who had accompanied a forest ranger on a horseback ride in this area. It was hard to imagine how supplies were hauled to this steep mountain. I suspect from the pass above the North Fork and then up a ridgeline to the top of Bennie Hill.
We got rain on the way out, but it didn’t amount to much.
It was amazing to see how green this area was --- a tribute to the frequent rains we’ve received this summer.
We noticed that a bear had been very active along the Potshot Trail. There were many overturned rocks where he had been looking for insects to eat. Unfortunately we never got a glimpse of him.
On the way out we discovered that we could have saved about 10 miles of driving by heading directly west to the trailhead on the good road at the Pendroy turnoff on U.S. 89 rather than going all the way to Dupuyer.
We vowed we’d be back to this wild, unused part of the Bob Marshall soon.

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