Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hiking in Humbug Spires Wilderness Area

At 9:15 this morning, Kate, Kevin and I (two other writers-in-residence here at MAR) headed out for the Humbug Spires, which is a Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Area about thirty miles south of Butte. I came prepared like the former camp counselor I am: my hip pack was filled with two water bottles, lunch, camera, tobaggon and gloves, chapstick (I fully blame my Aunt Kathleen for my addiction to the stuff), moleskin and scissors, and my headlamp... just in case.

The Humbug Spires is actually a primitive area; also, its 11,000 plus acres are designated for wilderness study. It's a gorgeous, rolling hill wilderness of nearly perfect Douglas firs--some of which are over 250 years old--lodgepole pines, and huge granite spires that make the whole place look like something out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I kept expecting Newman to pop up on the trail ahead, leaning against a granite rock outcropping and chewing on a piece of grass with a wicked gleam in his blue, blue eyes.

The spires themselves are magnificent, and they at times look like rock cairns placed by some ancient, dreamy giant. (I kept seeing the rock monster from one of my favorite movies as a kid, The Neverending Story, and waiting for one of the huge rock masses to wake up, unfurl himself and growl.) The spires are really rock outcroppings made of quartz monzonite, or so says the back of the topo map I picked up. They're a part of the Boulder Batholith, which is, apparently, "a large, late Cretaceous granitic intrusion." They're over 50 spires in this wilderness area, some rising to over 600 feet.

The day was absolutely perfect. It started off chilly, around 35 degrees, then warmed up with a crystalline blue sky void of clouds, and bright, warm sunshine that had us hiking in short sleeves and 60 degree weather by the end. At times the sun glinting off the white spires was so bright, I had to shade my eyes. We started up the Moose Creek trail, following the boulder-filled creek to our right up into the steadily rising hills dotted with boulders, tremendous trees, gray sagebrush and green juniper. Along the creek and surrounding it are bog areas of lush growth: yellow willow, aspen, sagebrush (further up in the hillsides) and various red, yellow, and green grasses. We even ran into unmelted snow from the storm last week in some of the cooler areas.

Apparently, this place is home to a variety of big and small game: black bears, moose, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, coyote, fox, bobcat, etc. Sadly, all we ran into was a bunch of cow poop on the trail... Kate said that the BLM sometimes leases land for grazing. I kept hoping we'd at least see a moose hanging out in the swampy meadows, or a flush a deer from a quiet spot, but no luck. We did run across three other hikers, older women with unleashed dogs, so the big stuff could've scattered early on because of them and their doggie smell.

The hike, which is listed as moderate, was pretty tough going on the way in. The topo map we picked up at the ranger station ended up (surprise, surprise) being pretty off, but we followed the creek, bypassed the remains of an old miner's cabin and were able to make it to one of the larger spires, called the Wedge. You can see the Wedge a ways away, white and pointed over the treetops. It's fascinating (and hurts my brain, quite frankly) to think of all the geolithic shifting that must've occurred to put that thing where it is. Kate and I made a scramble for its base, and the view out over the foothills and towards the snow-capped Rockies in the distance was well worth the slipping and sliding, fear of bobcats, and one almost lost water bottle.

I did learn a few things today, as we exited the forest around 5 p.m. (we'd started up the trail at 11 a.m.):

1. Distances in Montana are great, and take a lot longer than back east. Things look a heckuva lot closer than they really are. Be prepared!

2. You need more water out here. Though I'd brought two bottles, which at home would've been plenty for a day hike, we're at such a high altitude that it's so much dryer... and dehydration can set in quickly.

3. I really, really dig hiking in Montana. And I really, really want to see some wildlife.

I've included some photos. Enjoy, and go play outside, wherever you are!

P.S. We never did figure out why they're called the "humbug" spires....