Thursday, June 01, 2017

The last burst of May: Waterton, Glacier, Highwood Baldy, West Butte Sweetgrass Hills

A band of 14 bighorns gathered near a house, under a tree, in the Waterton townsite

One of a half dozen black bears we encountered in Waterton Park

Waterton's colorful Red Rocks Canyon

High water in Waterton Lake swamps shoreline cottonwoods

More bears on Cameron Lake Road 
A large cinnamon black bear presented himself along the Waterton Road

The May weather was ideal for hiking and we ushered the month out with trips to Waterton and Glacier over Memorial Day weekend, and then climbs of Highwood Baldy on May 30 and West Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills on the final day of the month.
Often Memorial Day weekend is marked by skiing in a spring snowstorm.
This year it was weather in the low 80s with clear skies.
The wildlife was really out in Waterton.  I've never seen so many black bears in all areas of the park.  We spent one of our afternoons hiking to Crandall Lake, where we found clear, hike-able trails.  We also hiked to Blakiston Falls in the Red Rocks Canyon.  Parks Canada has built some really great metal stands overlooking the falls.
Otherwise, we toured the park, ate great meals in the townsite and at the lodge and stayed at a fantastic bed and breakfast in Mountain Home, a small Mormon tourist community 10 miles east of the park.
Of course, we used our Parks Canada pass that gives us free access to all national parks in Canada during this the celebration of the country's 150th anniversary.
Our visit to Glacier was an east-side drive through with a stop at the Jackson Overlook and a hike to the Deadwood Falls.

A Highwood Baldy mountain-top view

It took some snow-slogging to get to the top

Ultra green Highwood Baldy with plenty of wildflowers

Annual Highwood Baldy Spring climb

An annual goal is to climb Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,625 feet), a Great Falls area landmark, before the cattle are turned onto the national forest in mid-June.
The problem is always the snow at the top, which remains until early June.
This year was no exception.
I slogged the last 400 feet to the top in deep snow, sometimes punching through up to my waist.
My route was the ridgetop walk just west of Deer Creek to the saddle below the large, grassy field below the talus-strewn summit cap. The route is from the spot where Highwood Creek comes across the road for the second time.  Instead of crossing it I follow a fence line to the ridgetop and stay on the ridgetop to the Deer Creek ridge.
The area was resplendent with wildflowers, but none of the alpine variety.
This is a deceptively rigorous climb of more than 3,500 feet and nearly 8 miles roundtrip from its start where the North Fork Highwood and main Highwood Creeks adjoin.
My heavy boots got even heavier after a soaking from the snow.  They seemed as though they weighed 10 pounds apiece.
I couldn't have found a more beautiful day for this climb.  The sky was a cloudless deep blue and the grass as green as Ireland.
I found myself stopping and soaking in the area's beauty many times along the way.

Our Wednesday hiking group follow the fence line up

Wayne Phillips conducts the "smudge" at the top 
Purifying smoke from the burning sweetgrass during the smudge

Steve Taylor on top in a tipi ring with East and Gold buttes on the horizon

Lots of talus on the way up and down

A bucolic scene, Annie Taylor and Wayne Phillips rest in the green grass, with Steve Taylor making his way down

West Butte in Sweetgrass Hills

It had been more than 20 years since I had climbed West Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills (elevation: 6,983 feet) on a cold April day with the late John Carr of Shelby.
A week ago I had climbed Gold (or Middle) Butte in the hills for the third time, and examined the best spot to approach West Butte at that time.
I love the Sweetgrass Hills, which rise like a vision on the dry prairie north of Shelby.
I view them on my many trips to Calgary or from points in Glacier Park or the Rocky Mountain Front.  On a really clear day, they are visible from the Little Belt Mountains.
This isolated island range is sacred to the Blackfeet and there are prayer flags that indicate the mountains are used in vision quests.
We found both prayer flags and tipi rings on the top of West Butte on Wednesday.
Our route began where Nine Mile and Coal Mine roads intersect about 17 miles west of Sunburst.
There's a fenced ranch there and a small creek running through it.  We parked on the road.
A public, state section of land is to the right (or east side) of Limekiln Creek.  Stay along the fence line until it runs out and then slog through the steep grass to the talus.  There are lots of good elk trails in the talus to the top.  It's a climb of 2,600 feet and about 4.6 miles round trip.
The top has a neatly built, tall cairn and is broad, offering a 360 view.  In addition to the tipi rings there were lots of elk sign.
Wayne Phillips, our leader on the Wednesday Wayne's Wild Walks, conducted a sweetgrass Indian "smudge" on the mountain top, burning the sweetgrass, the fumes we doused and purified ourselves in, and invoking the spirit of all living things.
To the east, East and Gold Buttes shimmer on the prairie;  to the north is Canada and the Writing on Stone Provincial Park on the Milk River; to the west Glacier Park and the Rocky Mountain Front; and south ranches, wheat farms, prairie potholes filled with water and a view that reminds me of a vast sea.  On a clear day one could see the Bearspaw Mountains to the east and south, but we had a haze that obstructed the view.
It was a hot day and so we got a 6 a.m. start from Great Falls.  We were on top before 11 a.m.

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