Friday, December 31, 2004

O'Brien Creek on New Year's Eve


Some water showing, but the O'Brien Creek snow bridges were in
A backcountry ski trip down O’Brien Creek was a great way to bring a year to a close.
O’Brien Creek is the watershed of the old mining camp of Neihart about 8 miles north of the Showdown Ski Area at King’s Hill Pass in the Little Belts Mountains.
It is the premiere backcountry trail in the Great Falls area that has it all --- good scenery, consistent powder snow, and solitude. The Great Falls Cross Country Club maintains it.
The trail is straightforward --- start at King’s Hill Pass on the trail west of the pass clearly marked with diamonds. There’s about 500 feet of elevation gain, and then it is all down hill to Neihart. It passes through a nicely recovered clearcut, across Divide Road, which is heavily hammered by snowmobile use, down into O’Brien Creek through a series of beaver willows frequented by moose, and past the O’Brien Creek water treatment plant and summer cabin areas before depositing you back on U.S. 89 at the Montana Department of Transportation maintenance sheds.
It was bitterly cold on New Year’s Eve when I took off. It was about minus 3 in Neihart with a slight breeze coming in from the north.
Since I was by myself I had to hitchhike back to the top of the pass.
I’ve never had a problem hitching a ride. I just put out my skis and raise my thumb and the Showdown crowd or one of the snowmobilers pick me up.
On Saturday I was picked up by an 18-year-old Air National Guard employee who had just returned from a one month hitch in Iraq. He found the whole experience a tad confusing because the country is so diverse. He said it is possible that he may have to return. I told him it was a shame someone so young would have had to experience something like that.
At the pass there must have been 30 vehicles unloading snowmobiles.
I recognize that snowmobiling is probably the most popular winter sport in our area and King’s Hill is the center of activity.
The pass is quickly approaching a time when there’s going to need to be some kind of more orderly disembarkation of the snow machines. The air up there (in the vicinity of the Forest Service rental cabin) is quite foul from machine emission. The noise is frightful and a person wanting to access the two cross country backcountry trails there needs to be very careful not to get run over by the snowmobiles jetting back and forth across the highway. It is a very disorderly and potentially dangerous scene. I wonder if the snowmobile parking area could be moved away from the pass itself, perhaps north of the pass in the power line area so there isn’t such an intersection of skiers, cabin users and drivers heading to Showdown to cross country ski.
I’m always glad to get away from the pass as I begin my ski.
The snow machine users offer an interesting contrast to the skiers.
It used to be that in the battle for recreational lands, snowmobilers would point to cross country skiers as “elitist” recreationists implying a higher income.
All one would have to do is observe which recreationist is spending the most money in enjoying their sport. One snow machine is worth 10 times any cross country skier’s equipment. That doesn’t include the expensive vehicles it takes to haul the machines.
I’d argue the economics of snowmobiling makes the snow machine recreationist economically elitist. I sure couldn’t afford that sport.
The snowmobile is getting more and more powerful and venturing further and further into the backcountry where conflict with the cross-country skier is increasing.
I’m seeing the snowmobiles in areas clearly marked as off limits and reserved for cross-country skiers even as far more areas are set aside for snowmobiles.
Which brings me back to O’Brien Creek.
Snowmobiles continue to trespass into area marked for skiers.
Too much of the trail is shared by skiers and snow machines.
You can count on snowmobile tracks on the lower three miles of the trail, which gouge the trail, ice it up and make it difficult to navigate.
With all the snowmobile trails designated in the Little Belts and less than 35 miles of cross country trails set aside, you’d think the best cross country trail could be marked for skiers only.
All that aside, I had a great ski, saw no other human, and only heard the whine of the snowmobiles (although I had to ski on tracks) in the three hours it took to do the trip.
I was thankful that other parties had been over the trail before me.
There is about 8 inches of new snow, which would have been tedious to break.
Happy New Year!

4 comments:

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