Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rickard Canyons, a Little Belts surprise

While the state burns, meadows in Rickard Canyon remains green and lush

These three limestone peaks intrigued me

Canyon walls like those in the Gates of Mountains Wilderness

We were expecting a road and got a nice trail, probably maintained by outfitters

Caves everywhere in the limestone
The Little Belts continue to surprise and please.
On a Wayne's Wednesday hike combined with a Montana Wilderness Association exploratory we took a look at Rickard Canyon that part of the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study area.
This area is north and isolated from the star attraction of the Middle Fork, the river itself.  It is accessed from the road that cuts through the Judith Game Range and runs past the range headquarters.
We were told to expect to walk on a road part way and with this dusty and smoky season that prospect wasn't too enticing.
What we got was a walk up a couple of limestone canyons reminiscent of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness with meadows filled with lush, (still) green high grass.  The air quality even cooperated, opening to bright if somewhat hazy skies.  At least it was somewhat clear while we were there.
What was supposedly a road receded within two miles to a nice hiking trail that's not on the map, but what has been maintained, probably by outfitters.
Butterflies on groundsel wildflowers
Pressed by time constraints we didn't follow the trail to its conclusion, a trail that was pointed straight at Kelly Mountain.  I figured we were about 1.5 miles below the peak, where there is a trail that travels across the Woodchopper Ridge to the south and Kelly and Yogo peaks to the north.
While we assumed that this area might be dropped from the WSA boundaries, we came away convinced that this is a worthy part of the study area, and would support a primitive use designation if outright wilderness is not approved.
As you drive through the South Fork area you realize there are dozens of these canyons in the Judith part of the Little Belts.
The battle for the Middle Fork Judith has been going on for more than 50 years.
The Rickard area should remain as it is.
Our route in fuschia color in relation to Judith Game Range in Little Belts

Friday, August 11, 2017

Into Glacier's Belly again, a trip that almost wasn't

The full moon rises over Mount Pollock as seen from our Flattop camp

At Cosley Lake in the Belly

One of the numerous waterfalls 
Glacier is bursting at the seams and I guess I should have seen it coming.
Annually I apply for the ultra-popular Highline Traverse hike online in March.  I've been on this trip once before on a friend's permit.
I always get a rejection notice or a drastic change of route, even when applying early when registration opens in mid-March.
It is a trip I'll apply for again because my brother, Dan, would love to take it.
What I got this year was a pale imitation of what I asked.  Instead of Granite, Fifty Mountain, Stoney Indian, Mokawanis, Cosley Lake campgrounds, I got West Flattop, Kootenai Lakes, and the dreaded Goat Haunt and Mokawanis Junction sites.
My brother passed, and I almost did.
Fourteen at our Kootenai Lakes camp one night

The Porcupine spire above Kootenai Lake

Gordon Whirry relaxes at Fifty Mountain
However, I took a last ditch chance and asked friend Gordon Whirry, a retired Great Falls architect who had never been in the Belly River area of the park if he'd like to give it a go.  He did, and, gladly, we went Aug. 5-9, a five-day 56-mile trip that covered the north end of the park up its gut from the Loop and Packers Roost to Waterton Lake, up and over Stoney Indian Pass, and out the Belly.
I was worried that the hot weather and the smoke from the many nearby wildfires might ruin the scenery.  It altered it, but the scenery was great, and even enhanced by the smoke at times.
We were extremely fortunate to be able to change our campsites.
We swapped the concrete and busy shelter at Waterton Lake's Goat Haunt for a second night at Kootenai Lakes and got Glenns Lake Head instead of Mokowanis Junction.
I had visited, but never camped at any of these sites in my four visits to the Stoney-Waterton-Belly country.  I had day-tripped to Kootenai Lakes, but never stayed.
Gordon Whirry calls it a trip
While I had been reluctant to spend a second night at Kootenai, it turned out fortuitous that we got that because the hike there from West Flattop was nearly 15 miles with 2,220 feet up and 3,600 feet down in blistering 88 degree heat and smoke.  We needed a down day.
I loved the burned over West Flattop, and we camped with a nice father and daughter team from Wisconsin, climbing the ridge line above the camp for a look to the Highline Trail and peaks to the east.
The burn enhanced the views as we enjoyed a nearly full moon that rose over the Logan Pass area to the south as we readied for sleep. Loop/Flattop hike was about 8 miles, with a 2,600 feet rise.  We added a couple hundred extra feet with the bushwhack to the ridge line.
On the next day's monster hike to Kootenai Lakes, we were surprised by the lack of water in the Fifty Mountain campsite, and had to go upstream to find some.
Our 5-day route through the park in fuschia color
The smoke obscured the lovely views of the glacier filled mountains in the Livingston Range to the west.  The wildflowers, though, particularly the lavender cut leaf daisies filled the grassy tundra beneath Cathedral Peak.
We were shocked to see so many dry streambeds in this otherwise wet, west-side landscape.
The dry and open mountain side gave way to the thick and brushy vegetation and we were glad to get into the trees at our shady and cool Kootenai camp.
The camp sits below the pointed spires of the Porcupine Ridge and the lakes are really advanced beaver ponds where we found feeding moose, ducks and Trumpeter Swans.
With four sites that allowed four campers per site, the camp was full.  The second night there were 14 campers vying for space in the food prep area.  The folks were friendly, cooperative and quiet at night, and it turned out to be a pleasant, social time.
On our down day we walked to Goat Haunt and did side hikes across the long suspension bridge over the Waterton River and Rainbow Falls, some 8.5 miles roundtrip with another 500 feet or so of elevation gained and lost.
I gave up my pipe dream of climbing the Porcupine Ridge lookout and enjoyed the rest day, looking ahead to a 3,000 feet climb to Stoney Indian Pass in the morning.
The hot weather broke some the second night with a cloudburst that left our tents wet, the humidity high and the dense vegetation along the trail soaked.
We suited in our rain gear for the slog through the brush up Stoney.
At the lake it was warmer, drier, and breezy, a perfect place for us to unload our packs and dry out our gear, before climbing the pass.
A Glacier Guide doing 70 pounds plus sherpa work for personality Jack Hanna and his wife

Glenns and Cosley Lake as seen from above Mokowanis 
Gordon Whirry near Cosley Cabin with Bear Mountain in background

At the pass, the best part of the trip began, the walk down to the Belly's lakes, passing numerous waterfalls along the way.  Waterfalls of all sorts hung from cliffs, fed by glaciers and snowfields beneath Cathedral, Wahcheechee, Kip and Stoney peaks.
When we arrived at our Glenns Lake Camp we were thrilled to find a shaded site right on the lake, a site even surpassing the beauty of the Kootenai camp.  We had walked nearly 12 miles this day.
In the morning we were awakened by the other-worldly screams of loons that got us going.
Our final day was spent walking the length of Glenns and then Cosley lakes, viewing the Gros Ventre Falls, being treated to the open views of this eastside exit that included massive Mount Cleveland, the highest point in the park and the country we had walked through from Stoney Indian Pass on down.
Then, we completed our trip with the 1,000 feet, 1.5 mile walk up to the Chief Mountain park entrance car lot, having walked another 13 miles on our final day.
It was a great trip, a surprise in the heat and smoke.
Impressive suspension bridge over Waterton River

We ran into lots of dry streams in this drought-stricken area

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A week's worth in Glacier and Great Bear

A "selfie" at Dickey Lake in Great Bear Wilderness
My wife took off for a week in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with her hiking group, so I took a solo run to Glacier Park and the Great Bear Wilderness.
Although Great Falls is filled with smoke from the many fires, the area I chose was clear and less hot.
In the park I backpacked into Morningstar Lake in the Cut Bank Creek drainage and went for a look at Ole Lake via Firebrand Pass, and in the Great Bear traversed Grant Ridge and was challenged by brush on the hike into Dickey Lake.
The park was quite full of tourists and campers and I found myself irritated by the crowds in East Glacier Park, which has obviously been "discovered," transforming it into a busy hub rather than a sleepy byway.
I camped one night at the park's Two Medicine Campground, but opted for the less busy and quiet Red Eagle Campground near the Two Med damsite at the turnoff to the park.  This Blackfeet run site is pretty disorganized and rustic, but the scenery (Scenic Point and Rising Wolf mountains) is stunning.  I hope the Blackfeet are successful with this.  This part of the park needs more campsites than the Two Med campground.

Finally, Morningstar Lake

Dawn breaks over Morningstar Lake in Glacier's Cut Bank Creek area

One of the two moose I had in camp, just a few yards from my backpack tent
I had been trying for a backcountry permit to backpack into Morningstar Lake for the past 10 years.  I was lucky enough to score one on this trip and thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
It is roughly 7 miles into the lake via Cut Bank Creek, but I added another 3 miles after setting up camp and going on to Pitamakan Lake.
I had seen Pitamakan Lake from the high ridge above it many times on annual Dawson-Pitamakan hikes, but had never been to the lake.  It was well worth the extra effort.
The camp at Morningstar Lake is very lovely, the lake more a beaver pond.  I did see a beaver at work there as well as two young bullmooses who grazed within 100 feet of my camp.
The walk from the Triple Divide/Pitamakan trail junction is open and lovely, showing off spectacular waterfalls, and Bad Marriage, Eagle Plume, Medicine Grizzly and Red mountains.
It was a hot hike, but it cooled off at night with strong breezes blowing through camp.
I was joined by a couple from Minneapolis who were going into Medicine Grizzly Lake, a nostalgia trip for the husband who had been taken there as a child.
When they left me at the Pitamakan junction I was joined by a Michigan hiker on his way to Two Med.
Folks in camp were not friendly and I did not meet them.
In the morning I walked out, passing maybe four groups on their way to Triple Divide.

Grant Ridge traverse in the Bear

Great Northern Mountain, highest point in the Great Bear, dominated the western horizon 
The large glacier on the north face of Grant peak in the Bear

Another selfie, this one at the Grant Ridge high point with southern Glacier Park peaks as backdrop

Over the years I've been trying to hit the various U.S. 2 portals into the Great Bear Wilderness and Glacier Park.
Grant Ridge traverse was one of those portals.
It begins at the Stanton Lake trailhead/parking area and climbs the west side of the ridge, breaking through at the ridge top and then returns via a walk down the top of the ridge that descends to the east and a hidden trailhead just off Highway 2 about fourth-tenths of a mile from the Stanton trailhead.
It was a perfect hike for a blazing hot day.  I was in the trees for most of the day, which opened in strategic parts revealing breathtaking views of Great Northern and Grant mountains, the two monarchs of the Great Bear.  Ripe huckleberries helped, too.  Where the trail to Stanton Lake splits, the Grant Ridge traverse is the left for and there is a wide stream crossing.
Once I hit the ridge line I got stunning views of Glacier Park's southern boundary including the St. Nicholas spire and two of the park's 10,000 foot monster mountains ---- Stimson and Jackson.
On the way up I could see milky green Stanton Lake recede as I climbed.
I did not see another person on this 11 mile roundtrip trail.  I gained and lost 3,700 feet.

A look at Ole Lake

Eagle Ribs peak dominates northwest skyline as seen from Ole Creek trail

Summit and Little Dog mountains above placid Ole Lake
Over the years I've returned time and again to Ole Creek, mostly hitting it from the U.S. 2 Izaak Walton Ranger Station.  Other times from the Fielding portal, which requires crossing the railroad tracks near the Snow Slip Inn.
I've been to the Ole Creek campground, and used Ole Creek to reach Scalplock Mountain and the boundary trail.
But until this trip, I had never been to Ole Lake at its head.
I had seen Ole Lake from the top of Summit Mountain.
I decided a long hike via Firebrand Pass would be my route to this remote backcountry lake and campground.
It meant starting at the Lubec trailhead, which required railroad track crossing.
I love the hike to Firebrand,  some 5 miles and a gain of 2,000 feet, but I had never been down the other side of the pass, and it was just too inviting not to go.
It was a hot and clear day, but for the first time in many years there was no hard west wind blasting me at the pass.
The surprise was how steep the pass is going down into Ole Creek.
Another surprise are the animal trails that criss cross the mountainsides.  It gave me some pause to decide which of the trails was the Park Service's Ole Creek trail.
It was another 3 miles down to the lake, the first 2 miles out in the open with terrific views of the back sides (north) sides of Summit and Little Dog mountains, so prominent from Marias Pass, and hidden and striking peaks like Eagle Ribs, Despair, Barrier Buttes, Soldier, Battlement and Skeleton.
I passed loudly through dense (grizzly) forest for another mile before reaching Ole Lake, a beautiful dark green lake in the shadow of Skeleton, Summit and Little Dog peaks.
I stayed awhile to drink in the remote beauty of this area before turning around the climbing back out to Firebrand and then Lubec.
To my great surprise I had seen no one all day long on this high summer day over 16.4 miles.
I had gained and lost almost 3,800 feet on this trek.

Dickey Lake in Great Bear

This snowfield calved into Dickey Lake while I was there

My first view of the lake
Chalk up another hike from U.S. 2.
I had seen the Forest Service signs for Dickey Lake for the past 45 summers, and avoided it, thinking that a lake so close to a highway and Glacier would be overrun.
In fact, it was the last hike of my trip and I wanted something easy to do after my hike to Ole Lake the day before and saw that it is only 5.4 miles in length roundtrip.
Boy, did I get my signals mixed up!
It turns out that this is a very challenging hike despite its brevity.
This hike is located just one Forest Service Road west of Essex, and three miles up a logging road to a cramped parking area on the road itself.  Forget parking at the trailhead, some 75 feet above the logging road.
There's a wade across Dickey Creek.
It didn't take long for this overgrown trail to close in on me and I found myself walking in thimbleberries, elderberries, cow parsnip, alders and stinging nettles above my head.  I found the trail by feeling my way forward in a small rut.  There was no way I could see a "trail" most of the way.  
There were occasional glimpses of what was to come ---- a headwall with a big waterfall that I knew I would have to ascend to reach the lake.
At one point I lost the trail altogether in a large fern thicket that tossed me about.
This is where I think I lost my bear spray.
That gave me plenty to think about as I thrashed about in some of the most prime grizzly habitat I've ever seen.
At the headwall, the vegetation became less intense, and to my surprise there was a pretty good, but extremely steep climbers trail for the final two-tenths of a mile and 600 feet of vertical.
With several vegetable belays I reached the lake and felt that I had accomplished something and was richly rewarded with a great view.  It had taken me 3.5 hours to cover the 2.6 miles to the lake!  Because I knew the route on the way down, it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes.  I had gained and lost just 1,400 feet. 
Some easy hike!
At the south end of the lake are a couple of snow fields, one which calved into the aqua colored water with a crash while I was there.
High above there were waterfall rivulets coming off other snow fields.
I drank in the beauty of the area for more than an hour before my most tentative trip down the steep headwall.
I'm not sure I've ever seen such a crude Forest Service trail.
But what the heck, this is wilderness, man.
The waterfall at the Dickey Lake headwall

This was my "trail."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Old favorites: Patrol, Route Creek Pass, Our Lake, Pioneer Ridge

Enjoying a gorgeous day at Our Lake

Mark Hertenstein fights gale-force winds just below Route Creek Pass

The new Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary sign on Patrol Mountain Trail 

The past couple of weeks have been filled with family obligations and a trip to the Calgary Stampede.
But, I still managed to get out and enjoy quick trips to old favorite destinations in the Front:  Patrol Mountain, Route Creek Pass, Our Lake and the Pioneer Ridge in the Little Belts.
Of note are the new Bob Marshall Wilderness Area boundary signs posted on Route Creek and Patrol Mountain trails, reflecting the boundary changes made by the Heritage Act two years ago.
Particularly surprising is the wilderness sign immediately at the beginning of the Patrol Mountain trail near the trail head on Straight Creek.  It is a nice, large new sign that adds "Helena" to the name of the Lewis and Clark National Forest reflecting the administrative consolidation of the two forests.
The boundary for the Bob on the Middle Fork Teton River is now four miles up the trail toward the pass rather than the pass two miles further up the trail.
The Our Lake boundary marker is a simple marker that could be easy to miss, and about a mile from the trail head.
Each visit to the Front reinforced how special this area is.  I find myself savoring, rather than rushing through the hikes, more intent on the experience rather than the destination.
We experienced gale-force winds on Route Creek, where we abandoned plans to climb Old Baldy.
A large grizzly track not far from a scat pile filled with undigested buffalo berries

 We found many ripened buffalo berry bushes, and a nice grizzly track and some scat with undigested berries.  Smoke from forest fires filled the air on our way to the trailhead, but otherwise we had a pretty clear day.
Samantha Chapman was on her day off and away from the Patrol Mountain lookout, so I missed her for the first time in many years.  I think this might be her 15th or 16th year at the lookout.
We took neighbor kids up to Our Lake and found some snow remnants at the large waterfall fed by the lake.
I did the 5-mile Pioneer Ridge loop with a Colorado hiker in town for a family reunion.
The Patrol Mountain lookout cabin 
The large waterfall below Route Creek Pass

Monday, July 03, 2017

Testing myself: Mount James in Glacier

Beargrass at the foot of Mount James

On the summit of Mount James

More views from the top

Hiking to Triple Divide Pass in Glacier Park is a challenging day hike.  It is 14.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain and loss of 2,500 feet.
But just like the TV ads that sell gadgets, "wait, there's more," when you reach the pass.
If you're like me, you're lured to consider Triple Divide, Razor's Edge or Mount James peak, all reachable by routes from the pass.
While I had set out for a simple day hike to this breathtakingly beautiful pass, I noticed that the southwest ridge of Mount James (elevation: 9,375 feet) was bare and climbable.
Mount James is the big boy at the head of the Cut Bank Creek Valley in Glacier.  It can be seen from U.S. 89 as you drive from Browning to St. Mary, and it is clearly visible looking up the Red Eagle Valley from Going to the Sun Highway.
It is large, tan scree and talus pile from the pass.
It also looks deceptively close from the pass.
That was my mistake.
While it is another mile-and-a-quarter from the pass, it rises another 2,000 feet over that distance.
At the pass I met a couple of recent high school grads from Northern Virginia on their way from Atlantic Creek backcountry campground to the foot to Red Eagle Lake.
I encouraged them to join me for the climb from the pass, and to my surprise, they did.
I didn't think they'd want to climb with someone old enough to be their grandfather.
What was impressive was that they did the climb with full backpacks!
Since it had been more than 20 years since I did this climb, I had forgotten what a pain in the ass the diorite (black rock) spires were to traverse.  I remembered that skirting them to the south would be a much better route than fighting them and the tangle of trees that protect their flanks.
It was a very hot day, but we had breezes that became cooler as we neared the summit.
The views from the top of this mountain are as good as any in the park:  three of the park's six 10,000 footers were in clear view ---- Stimson, that dominated the southwestern horizon, Mount Jackson with its glacier fields, and Mount Siyeh.  We looked down on the various valleys of the park, marveling at the alpine lakes, the snow fields.  Off to the east were the Great Plains, shimmering like an ocean on the horizon as far as the eye could see.
There were very few hikers on the trail throughout the day, and no one else but the three of us on the peak.  Early in the day I met a group coming down from the pass, 11 Continental Divide Trail hikers going from north to south, who hoped to complete their hike by November.
I saw three bighorn ewes, and a mama and two small mountain goat kids and one pile of bear scat.
This hike was a test for this old man.  At the end of the day I had gained and lost 4,800 feet of elevation and covered 17 miles.
I was really pooped from the experience!
I had to get off the trail to let this bighorn ewe pass

A weeping wall along the trail thoroughly soaked me as I pass under it

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A week's worth: Fairview again, CDT at Rogers (twice), Wolf Butte

At Lewis and Clark Pass 
Silky Phacelia were abundant

Beargrass was thick near Rogers Pass
Primrose were everywhere
A standard CDT view near Rogers Pass

Nearing the top of Green Mountain, the high point on the hike at 7,450 feet

As Spring turned to Summer 2017 I got extremely active with the great weather, climbing Fairview for the second time in a week, doing two variations on the Continental Divide Trail between Rogers and Lewis and Clark passes and doing my annual climb of Wolf Butte in the Little Belts with my son, Demian.
I took and re-took these hikes simply to enjoy the aesthetics, and the athletics.
Of particular interest were the wildflowers on the stretch of the CDT between Rogers and Lewis and Clark passes.  Rogers is easily accessible from Highway 200, just under an hour's drive from Great Falls.  Lewis and Clark Pass is reached from the Alice Creek trailhead in the Helena National Forest some 14 miles from Rogers Pass on the Alice Creek Road.
Usually at this time of year we enjoy the alpine flowers atop the CDT above Rogers.  But, this year everything seems accelerated. Yes, we saw some alpine flowers, but they were fading and being replaced by other varieties.  Where we normally see Forget-Me-Nots and Douglasia now, they've faded and have been replaced by Miner's Candle and Primrose and tons of Loco Weed.
On Sunday we hiked from Alice Creek trailhead to Lewis and Clark Pass and then to Rogers, covering 10 miles and climbing 3,000 feet in brilliant sunlight.
After reaching Cadotte Pass we began to see other hikers who had come up from Rogers, checking out the wildflowers.  We later found out that most were from the Missoula area.  Their interest was piqued by a story in the Missoulian newspaper extolling the blooms along the Divide.
I have been going to this area for 45 years, and have never seen so many cars at Rogers Pass.  I teased the Missoulian's Rob Chaney that his article made Rogers look like a Bozeman-area trailhead.
There were lots of grizzly diggings or 'rototillings' on the hillsides between Green Mountain and Cadotte Pass.
The views along this stretch of the CDT include the Red Mountain skyline, the tops of Steamboat Lookout, Caribou Peak, Ear Mountain and Table Mountain, the Great Plains, and as far south and west as the Flint Creek mountains near Deer Lodge and Philipsburg.  On a clear day the Island Ranges of Montana, including the Sweetgrass Hills, Highwoods, Bearpaws, Big and Little Belts and even Snowies are visible.
What an amazing thing it is to have this national scenic trail in our back yard!