Monday, June 05, 2006

The green season

Tough going on a wind-exposed ridge line

More a nipple than a peak
Most of the year Montana is a brown, dry landscape.
Now is the exception.
Places like the Highwood Mountains call Ireland to mind for a small window at the beginning of June.
This is the time to see Montana at its most spectacular best. There is still a bit of snow in the high country while the hillsides are a lush, eye-startling green.
While I normally like the exposed, bare ridgelines for climbing, I couldn’t resist heading into the Highwood Mountains for some verdant backcountry last week.
I did one of my favorite early season hikes, the nine-mile loop starting up Thain Creek near the Forest Service campground that takes the hiker to the base of Windy Peak (elevation: 6,009 feet), a long ridgeline to the head of Briggs Creek and then down through the Thain Creek Campground.
In addition to the green vegetation the black hawthorne tree is in full white blossom bloom, and the yellow arrow leaf balsamroot covers hillsides.
H. Wayne Phillips enjoys the greenery of the Highwoods
My recommendation is to do this hike before July 1 when local ranchers let their cattle onto grazing allotments.
Highwood Baldy Mountain to the south dominates the horizon on most of the hike.
If you decide to take the short off-trail climb to the top of Windy Mountain you’ll be treated to views of many of the island mountain ranges such as the Bear’s Paw, Little Rockies, Little Belts, Sweetgrass Hills, and Snowies. Off in the distance is the Rocky Mountain Front.

‘Lion” in wait
A day earlier I was thwarted in an attempt to climb Castle Reef in the Front near Gibson Reservoir in the Sun River Canyon by an unusual encounter.
As I began to crest the mountain’s ridgeline after gaining about 2,000 feet from Wagner Basin the underbrush rustled and a couple of animals I originally mistook for deer jumped out in front of me, only about 15 feet away.
As they scampered off I was startled to see their long tails.
These were no deer, but two mountain lions.
I had seen and heard mountain lions in the backcountry before, but never this up close and personal.
Lucky for me they took off and didn’t return.
I retreated quickly to a high place, tried to look large and waved my poles and hollered.
When I settled down I noticed that on the other side of the ridge was a large grouping of bighorn sheep and their new babies.
The lions had been lying in wait, drawing a bead on these creatures.
I had been up wind from the cats whose attentions were focused on that meal, not me.
I was still cautious and thought it the better idea to retreat rather than proceed to the mountain top.
There is always another day.

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