Saturday, October 20, 2007

Saturday Road Trip to Big Hole National Battlefield

I attempted to wake up at 7:30 a.m. this morning, but that didn't happen... I think I disabled the phone alarm in my sleep. I did, however, manage to climb out of the loft by 9 a.m., and after piddling around on my laptop for a while and trying not to notice the blue sky outside my window, hit the open road.

I headed south on Hwy 15 towards Butte, kept going down to the town of Divide, where I took Hwy 43 into the Beaverhead National Forest. A wide, flat, and fly fisherman's paradise called the Big Hole River parallels Hwy 43, and I followed it all the way to Wisdom. Hwy 43 is a gorgeous drive along the river, and the land around--the Pioneer Mountains high and white-capped to the west, long flat fields covered in russet willow--was mostly enveloped in snow. After passing through tiny Wisdom with its antler-decorated saloons and the painting of a voluptuous Indian maiden adorning one of its larger wooden buildings, I took Hwy 43 about twelve miles through cattleland to the Nez Perce Historic Park/Big Hole National Battlefield.

During two bloody August days in 1877, U.S. Army troops and about 750 fleeing Nez Perce battled it out in the Big Hole Valley, a wide-open field and marshland along a flowing, winding creek. This bunch of Nez Perce were non-treaty, and so had refused to be removed to a reservation. They were resting in the valley, thinking that after long weeks of running and military skirmishes, that they were safe... and some even thought that since they'd crossed into Montana from Idaho, they'd left their troubles behind.

But a U.S. Army colonel named John Gibbon had received a missive from a commanding officer, requesting that additional troops intercept the Nez Perce after they'd crossed into a place called the Bitteroot Valley. So 146 enlisted men, 16 officers, and 34 local volunteers headed towards Big Hole. They made camp across the creek from the Nez Perce encampment, where children were playing and the women had begun to cook, and planned to launch a surprise attack. In the middle of the night, they'd even stumbled upon a huge herd of Nez Perce horses in a steep meadow nearby. But it wasn't to be: an old Indian found them first, and after they shot him the chaos began. The white soldiers charged toward the encampment, firing into teepees and unfortunately killing several women and children. It seems like everyone was confused, and the result was tragedy, chaos, and death. (The soldiers had also dragged a Howitzer along with them, but some Nez Perce warriors had seen what they were doing and attacked the men with it, then disabled the heavy cannon and stole the ammunition.)

Despite their lesser firepower, the Nez Perce rallied and the soldiers were forced to a grove of pine trees... with Nez Perce snipers tailing them through a thick bramble of willow. While the soldiers hunkered down and dug frantic ditches for themselves and their rifles, the battle continued among the trees. The snipers held the soldiers there until the last moment, when they left to join fleeing family members. The monuments there report that "casualties were heavy on both sides."

The Big Hole Valley, and the battlefield itself, is really quite eerie. There are frames of teepees that mark the spot of the Nez Perce encampment; some have been decorated with colored cloth and animal skins by people visiting. The whole place is considered sacred to the Nez Perce, because it literally became a graveyard to those that fell. The long valley is marked by willow, and in the distance you can see white-capped mountains. It's truly a hauntingly beautiful spot.

I left Big Hole National Battlefield around 4 p.m., and decided to head home the way I'd come, back along the river. A gray, forebodingly huge snowstorm blew up in the Pioneer Mountains, but because the roads had been plowed I felt like I'd be okay. I ended up veering from my route and taking scenic Hwy 569 alongside the Anaconda Range, and towards the town of Anaconda. I was one of few cars on that rough road--the others only trucks--and for a while the snow blew thick and relentless. But after keeping my eyes in permanent squint to watch for cattle (they open-range in the area), I passed over some kind of line of weather demarcation and into the sun.

Suffice to say, I'm home safe and sound, and it was a gorgeous trip. Tomorrow, Kate Kahn and I are headed towards the Tobacco Root mountains, to do a 7 mile round trip hike to Lake Louise. Hopefully the bubble blister on my big toe and the sore spot on my heel will take it easy on me!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Boom-town Helena and Icy Days Ahead

Well, the trip to Glacier is a no-go: the weather is starting to get dicey, and most of the roads into the park are already closed. So, it just means I'll have to come back for that particular Montana Adventure... with Stuart in tow, of course.

Yesterday, I woke up, drank a ridiculous amount of coffee, and headed north up Hwy 15 to the state capitol: Helena. It was the first time I'd used a hairdryer and makeup in days. (Ha... my sister will smile at that.) Anyway, we'd gotten a bit of rain in Basin, which meant of course that the mountaintops around all got snow. The drive there and back was gorgeous, despite the gray roads, zooming truckers, and the aspens slowly starting to lose their golden leaves.

I've spent a few days in Helena now, and I like it more and more each time I'm there. The city--a large town really, except for quite a bit of suburban sprawl--sits in a long, flat, glacier-carved valley. Its lovely little downtown abutts Mt. Helena and the Helena National Forest, so those lucky enough to live in one of the aspen and cottonwood-lined cottage streets, or in the historic district with its Victorian mansions nearby have access to miles and miles of incredible hiking trails. So many parts of this state remind me of Alaska... and Helena, with its trail systems, is a bit like Anchorage.

I wandered around the Last Chance Gulch walking mall, popping in and out of art galleries and antique stores and boutiques. It was an afternoon of encountering kindness: from the cashier and jeweler who gave me great tips on exploring Montana, pulling out a city map while they cleaned my wedding rings, to the super-friendly proprietor of the Pickled Pear antinque store-- where I bought a beautiful, well-preserved edition of Ben Hur--who advised me to grab lunch at Taco del Sol.

At Taco del Sol, a small, downstairs restaurant on the Gulch, I was the only patron for a while (it was after 3 p.m.), and the cook made me a delicious burrito, welcomed me to Montana and offered more great tips about her city. After this I wandered into the Missouri River Artists' gallery, and saw the most incredible paintings by an artist named Brian Devon. If you get a chance, look him up: they're these stunning, dream-like pieces of the West that still seem fascinatingly realistic, and the colors are gorgeous. Two of my favorites are "Ghosts of the Buffalo Hunt" and "Shadowland." Sadly, I'd have to count my pennies for about a hundred years to afford one.

And so, I've decided that I'm certainly not immune to Helena's friendly western charm. I'll certainly return before I head back to N.C. at the end of this month. There's something to be said for living at the foot of a mountain, your travel among city streets punctuated by frequent views of snow-capped mountains and rolling yellow hills three hundred and sixty degrees around. It sort of makes you feel like you can do anything.

On the way home I passed a Ford truck with its back hatch opened, a gorgeous black lab leaning out, his ears flapping in the chilly wind. I snatched my camera from the passenger seat and tried to get it on film. I swear the dog winked at me.
To top off the day, Kate Kahn and I headed to the Boulder Hot Springs for a soak in the mineral waters that evening. Ahhhhh.... heaven. We swam in the outside pool, talked about life and watched huge mule deer--the size of prize-winning bucks back East--meander through the grass nearby and flick their big ears at us before disappearing up into the darkness of Deerlodge National Forest. Though it was a cloudy night, a crescent moon kept emerging ghost-like from the clouds above the trees. I'm not sure if life can get much better than this.

I'm including some photos of the day. And I'm still attempting to find someone around here who'll let me ride one of their horses, despite the fact that most ranches have stabled their riding programs for the winter and are just leading packed-out elk hunts. We'll see. If I'm able to ride, I'll certainly take photos. Happy October to all!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Photos from the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Here are the photos from the hike I described in the post below, as promised:

At the Edge of the World

My back aches, I have a blister the size of a gumball on my right heel, and I can't feel my legs from the knees down--but I'm exhilirated! Even as I sat for a half hour on the floor of my tiny shower here at the Refuge, letting scalding hot water rain down on my screaming muscles, I was exhilirated... awed... happy.

Today, Kate Kahn and I drove out to the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area, north of Butte on Hwy 90. We left Basin at 8:30 a.m., and not many souls were out on the icy streets. It took us two hours to get there, and thirteen miles down rutted and snowy forest service roads, but we made it. We hiked about a half a mile to the trailhead, which was up at Storm Lake. There we ran into two men and their astonishingly small dog, who had only made it halfway around Storm Lake before turning back: they'd smelled what they thought was a carcass, and fearing bears or mountain lions, abandoned ship.

Normally, I like to heed the locals on matters like man-eaters. But we thanked them for the info, set off around the lake to see what was up (me, I'll admit it, with a big fat stone in hand). We kept getting a whiff of something that smelled like rot, but not like rotting animal, so we made a lot of noise and kept going. (Plus, this area is only supposed to be home to black bears, not grizzlies, which makes a heckuva difference.) We hiked up through the forest, over streams and along the trail until we started to climb switch-backs that became quickly snowy and deep. The higher we climbed, the more intense the views became: glacier-carved valleys of cottonwoods, aspens, Douglas firs, and snow, farther and farther below.

It was icy going for a while there, but some intrepid cross-country skier had created a semi-path for us, and someone in very large boots (his tracks eventually headed straight down the mountain... yikes) had left us deep snow-holes to step in. Finally we made it to the top: Storm Lake Pass. We ate lunch on some rocks nearby, with an incredible white-capped mountain view 360 degrees around. The sun was bright and warm, making the day a perfect one for hiking.

We made the decision to head out around the edge of the mountain and up to the Goat Flat, which is an alpine meadow where apparently mountain goats like to hang out. We kept our eyes peeled--especially when we saw lots of goat scat on the trail--but no luck. We'd almost made it around the slicing curve of the mountain to the Flat when we came up against a dangerous slide area of deep snow, and decided not to chance it. However, I noticed that though the mountainside to our right looked like it was covered in scree (lots of loose rocks), there were mushy, vegetative places that looked climb-able. So, with Kate watching from the trail I dropped my pack and made the climb to the top, and she quickly followed.

Thank goodness we did! Goat Flat was incredible, and at the top of the Pintler Mountains, which are part of a ridgeline in Montana that follows the Continental Divide Trail. You truly feel as if you're on the edge of the world. We could even see out onto the snow-capped peaks miles away that mark the boundary with Idaho. The sun was so warm that we could've sat there for hours without worry. What a world! But we knew we needed to head back (it had taken us three hours to get up there) before it started getting dark, which meant the temperature would certainly drop.

The way back down was much tougher: snowy spots in the trail had become icy. But we made it back to the trusty purple P.T. Cruiser (my decidedly sassy rental car). We headed for home, stopping in the town of Anaconda--which boasts a smelter chimney taller than the Washington Monument, and was founded by Marcus Daly (who sounds like a member of the Irish mafia to me)--to buy coffee, which we sorely needed. After the 8 mile hike plus mountainside scramble, we were pooped.

Yet another incredible day in southwestern Montana. I'm quickly falling in love with these rocky peaks, stoic Westerners, and wide-open days. If I didn't love Stuart more, I might stay and turn cowgirl.

(Photos to come....)

Next on the agenda: a possible weekend trip to Glacier, horseback riding, and hopefully a long soak in the nearby Boulder Hot Springs! And, of course, lots of writing....