Pete Fromm at Gates Park Ranger Station in Bob and on his fish planting job. Me at HQ Pass
My trip this past weekend resulted from one of those friendly encounters with a neighbor.
I see Pete Fromm almost daily walking his two boys to school.
One of those days near the end of the school year I asked him what he planned to do for the summer.
He mentioned that he was heading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a 20-day stay at the Gates Park Ranger Station where he would be helping the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department with a project to establish grayling in the North Fork of the Sun River.
He responded positively when I asked if he would like a visitor.
Most people reach Gates Park by way of Gibson Dam outside Augusta, walking along the north shore of Gibson Lake where it meets the North Fork Trail through open meadows and stands of timber burned over the past 20 years. It is a distance of 20 miles.
A much shorter route is to go over Headquarters Pass off the South Fork of the Teton Road, some 13 miles. However, there’s much more elevation to gain and lose on this route --- about 2,100 to pass, and a drop of 2,700 feet to Gates. Then, you’ve got to do it all over again in reverse when you return.
In the spring it is chancy to take the Headquarters Pass route because the pass is often choked with deep snow until mid-June.
We decided to try it that way, anyhow.
What further complicated our trip were the torrential rains and high-mountain snows we’ve been receiving the past week.
We knew the trail would be muddy with running water and the pass questionable.
It was raining lightly when we went in last Friday morning.
We hit the snowline just under 6,800 feet. The pass was another 1,000 feet above us.
The trail showed signs of some snowshoers who had hiked it partially.
My friend Mark Hertenstein and I decided to abandon the trail and head straight for the pass, kicking footsteps into the snow and post-holing. We picked a route as far away from the avalanche chutes as we could find, spooked by the avalanches of rock and snow we were seeing and hearing as we ascended.
We had regressed from spring back to deep winter in those 1,000 feet.
Using the trail on the other side of the pass was out of the question. We found as much as 2-feet of new, wet snow on the top and the trail was covered with it and followed a path directly below those avalanche chutes.
We simply headed straight down from the pass through patches of bare rock and some relatively stable snow.
We quickly found the trail at the bottom that changed from snow to slush to running water to mud-holes as we descended.
On the other side of the pass some of the cloud cover began to clear and we began to see the features of this Sun River headwaters country.
This Headquarters Creek area burned severely in 1988, and fire crews successfully fought to keep it from jumping through Headquarters Pass, where it could have swept down the Teton country.
There are numerous snags here, but the under story is coming back and small trees are evident throughout.
The view here is eerie, but one can see the spectacular snow-capped peaks surrounding it much better than before the fire.
Headquarters Creek was very swollen by the moisture and running in a torrent toward the North Fork. What is usually a small, easily crossed stream was a tough up-to-the-thighs wade, or scary across-a-log trapeze walk.
The North Fork was a roaring coffee-colored powerhouse.
Thank goodness for the pack bridge. It would have been impossible to ford it in such conditions.
We started to get more frequent glimpses of elk and whitetail deer and even spotted a black bear grazing not far from the trail.
We arrived at the cabin at dinnertime, just ahead of a lively young, three-person Forest Service trail crew.
Gates Park is where homesteaders gave it a go more than a century ago before wilderness put this land off-limits to mechanization and permanent residents other than wildlife. There’s a main log cabin, a bunkhouse, root cellar, several outbuildings (one of which survives from the homesteaders) and corrals.
There’s an ancient little-used airstrip where grazing rights have been claimed by deer and elk.
The most prominent mountains on the horizon are Beartop Lookout, Lookout Mountain, Sheep Mountain and Slategoat peak.
By Forest Service standards, the main cabin where we stayed is plush.
Mules had packed in a refrigerator and a stove!
Our host at the cabin, Pete Fromm, is a nationally acclaimed writer, whose books include the Indian Creek Chronicles, a story about how as a college student he became a salmon egg caretaker in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area. The book is a story of that winter camp and what he had to do to survive that solitary environment.
This is the second year he was doing this grayling work for FWP.
Certainly not as rustic or solitary as his Indian Creek Days, the Gates grayling project is an apparent parallel, one that he will make into a book.
His routine is to walk a 9-mile up and back route each day along the North Fork, checking the conditions of tanks of grayling eggs incubating in three tributaries along the river. To keep the eggs viable he’s had to build dams to create pools of water, move lots of rock, and adjust water flows.
When we arrived he was dealing with a new problem --- what to do about too much water that had the potential to wash away the project.
Outside Alaska there isn’t much of a grayling population in the U.S. Montana Fish and Game had packed in some 90,000 fertilized grayling eggs this year, and set up this system. They’re hoping to provide the state a backup environment for grayling in the event the only population of river grayling in the state, the Big Hole River, meets a catastrophic end. Grayling has done well in some Montana lakes, such as Lake Elizabeth in the Belly River country of Glacier National Park. The eggs were taken from and fertilized by Big Hole grayling.
Fromm said last year’s fry hadn’t taken to the North Fork of the Sun, but had worked their way down and established themselves in Gibson Lake. The hope is by setting them up in the feeder streams, there will be a better chance of establishing them in the river.
Fromm’s become an adept reader of animal tracks in the trail and showed us grizzly and wolf tracks. A couple of days before we arrived he had encountered a fresh grizzly kill, an elk calf. He showed us what remained of the carcass, some bones, a gut pile and hair scattered every which way in tall grass feet from the main trail. He figures it was the work of an adult and younger grizzly.
You can understand why he travels with both bear spray and a high caliber sidearm as he patrols this remote country alone.
Pete has had more company this year than last. There were two sets of trail crews, a group of old smokejumpers on an annual Memorial Day trip to clear trail, and the assorted backpacker on the way to the wall or points north. One was an odd, young, obsessed man traveling ultra-light across the U.S. with a 12-pound pack.
Certainly, Hertenstein and I helped disturb Fromm’s solitude and put a crimp in his writing routine.
I was thrilled by the chance to see this North Fork country and to realize how close it is to Great Falls.
The trip was a nice way to make contact with a neighbor, working outside the stereotype I had of him in a wild setting.