Looking For Some Grass

I headed up the Rattlesnake Saturday because the story is the beargrass is blooming this year, and I figured I knew exactly where to find some. To my recollection it is the first time I ever went out into the woods specifically on the hunt for some kind of plant or flower. I found it, along with many other blooming, beautiful wildflowers. The smell in the largest concentrations of them was intoxicating. It was a perfect day outdoors; several hours of sunlight, shade, and the sounds and smells of the natural world. It is a kind of soul work, have no doubt.

As for beargrass, this is from the wonderful reference book Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper by Daniel Mathews:

Once you’ve seen beargrass in bloom you will have no trouble ever recognizing its wonderful flower heads again. But the flowering schedule is erratic. You often see only the bunched leaves. Communities of beargrass may go for years without one bloom — and then hundreds bloom at once. That often happens for several years in a row after a fire that reduces the tree canopy but leaves the soil cool enough for the beargrass roots to survive and resprout. Like the century plant, beargrass clumps grow slowly, accumulating photosynthates for years before venturing a flowering stalk. Having flowered, the clump dies, but its nutrients are siphoned off through the rhizome to a new offset clump.

Spring’s tender leaf bases figure in bear diets, hence “beargrass’; but the neatly clipped leaf bases you see here and there are more likely the work of a “brushpicker” gathering foliage for the florist trade.

By summer the leaves are wiry and strong. Native Americans wove them into baskets and hats.

Mathews writes more, but you get the idea. Speaking of hats, it was the trial run of my new Filson hat, which I think is quite snappy. Here are some shots from the outing, including the initial, post-tag removal moments of me under my hat.

Creekside Drama

The other evening a couple miles up on my (near) nightly ramble in the Rattlesnake I reached a spot creekside. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and I decided I wanted to grab a picture — it’s one of my favorite spots that, while definitely popular, doesn’t get near the traffic other sites do — before climbing a steep hill and returning to the trailhead. As I approached the bank, I thought to step out onto some flat rocks so that I could be farther out into the water for a better photographic vantage point. I took a step, heard a splashing at my feet, and lo and behold —

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This snake had a fish firmly by the tail. Up out of the water, the fish’s gills were still flexing steadily, but not quickly. My immediate reaction was to want to rescue the fish, which is strange. Yeah, I have learned a deep affinity for fish as I’ve become a more avid fisherman (how’s that for a contradiction?)(I’m certain other fishermen, and hunters for that matter, can relate), but why should its life be more important than that of the snake? So I left them alone, and sat back to watch the struggle unfold. I was transfixed, and found it oddly emotional.

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At one point a couple other hikers approached, with dogs, and I stood from my perch on a rock to try and keep the dogs away. The two hikers — young women — eyed me with looks of mild concern before ascending the hill I had intended to climb. I didn’t want the dogs to mess up what the snake was trying to accomplish.

The snake worked the fish around and positioned its jaw at the fish’s tail, clearly with the intention to swallow the entire thing. How it hoped to accomplish that I don’t know, but I trust it knew what it was doing. I could have remained until darkness watching, fascinated, but I had to return to Missoula and pick Julia up after work. I was pleased to witness it, though. Something I’d never seen before, and possibly never will again.

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The next night I returned to the spot, curious to see if there were any signs of what had happened. No dead fish, no bloated and belching snake, nothing. No one ever would have known what had happened there. Who knows what DID happen there. Maybe the snake pulled off its feast, maybe a dog — or bear, for that matter — came along and swallowed them both. I’ll never know.

I took the opportunity to take the pictures that I hadn’t the night before, though.

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I explored a couple little side trails on the way back that I hadn’t hiked before. Looking upstream I could see clearly that someone had built a cairn out in the flow, but there weren’t any obvious paths to access it. After some bushwhacking and finally some wading out into the current, I got a closer look.

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There were a couple cairns, which were cool enough, but what amazed me is that someone had taken the time and no small amount of effort to make little redirections of the stream so that it flowed over rocks, creating little pools and waterfalls along the way. It was like some guerrilla zen garden of some kind, and I loved it. Again, I could have stayed for hours. The pictures I took don’t do it justice.

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It made me happy. It proved that how we humans choose to disrupt nature doesn’t always have to be shitty, that sometimes we can actually make beauty. It was good to be reminded of that.

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Keep Chugging, You’ll Get There

I like to get out of the house every day and at least go for some kind of walk. At the old place it was a track behind the YMCA about 1/2 a mile away. It looped around some ball fields, and one figure-eight circuit was about a mile-and-a-half. Out where we live now, this summer I was walking around the track behind the Frenchtown Elementary school fairly regularly. I’d do two or three miles, then go jump in Frenchtown Pond. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous workout, but it was over an hour outdoors and it was exercise that I desperately needed.

The other night I didn’t have time to go anywhere, so I walked near the house. There is a road that connects us to the main road to our place that runs about 1/2 a mile. So down it and back is a mile. Depending on the time I have, I’ll do two or three. As I was finishing my last stretch, there was an old lady out on her porch. When I looked in her direction, she raised her fist in the air and shouted, “Way to go!” I smiled back at her, but was cringing on the inside.

Three cheers for the fat guy out trying to get in shape.

I’ve come to realize that my self image is tied very closely to my ability to do the things I most love to do: hiking, being active, doing stuff that has me on feet, usually huffing and puffing. But I kinda fell off the wagon at some point last year, I really can’t say when, it just happened. Not the alcohol wagon, as I’ve never been much of a drinker, but just anything resembling any kind of “healthy” lifestyle. It wasn’t a complete collapse, but it was bad enough. I slipped into a habit of eating shitty on the road, traveled a TON last year, and carried too many of those habits home with me without the amount of exercise I need to engage in to keep it at bay. And man, does it sneak up on you. 2011 was a good year, I got out a lot, regularly went on long hikes, etc. But 2012 . . . let’s just not talk anymore about 2012.

Had a couple injuries earlier in the year that hobbled me a bit, but I’ve worked through them. I’ve taken some longer hikes; six, eight, even ten miles at a pop over moderately difficult terrain doesn’t bother me, though I still get post-activity flares of aches and pains 100% resulting from carrying the extra weight. I did the Mount Si trail outside Seattle a couple weeks ago — four miles from trailhead to the top, with something like 3500′ of elevation gain, and back (and when you’re a lardass, the downhill is where the real punishment is) — and didn’t cripple myself. Bottom line is I’m getting there.

I’ve been going up the M here in Missoula whenever I get the chance, and man, does it challenge my ego. It’s only 600-odd feet of elevation gain over about a 3/4 mile or so of switchbacks, but it can be a haul. I’ve always felt it’s a pretty good barometer of fitness. At my best, I’ve done it in just under 15 minutes, bottom to top, but I’m not close to that at the moment. In fact lately, every time out there the friendly people of Missoula hit me where it hurts. Yesterday, a woman who had hiked up behind me, then ran back down past me on the descent was in the parking lot when I finished. As I passed her on my way to the car, she said, “Good job! Keep doing it!” As ridiculous as it is, I felt kind of insulted. Or at least my significant ego did. But I smiled and said, “I’ll do my best.”

Tonight I went again. About halfway up, a guy on the way down said, “Keep chugging, you’ll get there!” I wanted to snap, “Do you know how many fucking times I’ve been up here?!” but I didn’t. I smiled. Two switchbacks from the top, a young woman said, “You’re almost there!” I Smiled. At the top, some people sitting on the concrete surface of the M said, “Good job, you made it!” Smile.

I know there is absolutely no malice in these people. They are being encouraging, and their friendliness is one of the things I love about this town. But the guy I see in my head isn’t the one they see. They don’t see the guy who would not only buzz right up it at a quick pace, but would also do sprints training on the paths, which was the guy I was not so long ago. They just see some fat dude slowly putting one foot in front of the other, willing himself not to stop and rest. They aren’t seeing what I was, they are seeing what I’ve become, what I’ve done to myself.

I’m usually a little ashamed at my competitiveness, but not this time. I’m not competing with those people, or anyone else . . . I’m competing with myself. And I won’t be happy until I can get where I was, and beyond. I’ve always wanted to get to a point where I could run right up that fucker. And I’m going to get there.

View from the top via iPhone on a blustery day
View from the top via iPhone on a blustery day

Winter Wonderland

This is why I love Montana in the winter. These were shot on a quick hike at the foot of the Rattlesnake Wilderness on the NE edge of Missoula, maybe a 15 minute drive across town from my driveway, up the canyon to the trailhead. Wish I’d used my better camera, but these shots still capture how friggin’ beautiful this season can be.

          

Hiking Ch-Paa-Qn Peak (Squaw Peak)

As summer was winding down, I realized I’d been pretty lame about getting out and doing many of the things I love to do most. We’d gotten so busy with other things that too many activities I’d written down at the beginning of the year to accomplish just hadn’t happened, and it was bumming me out. I think my mood was paying the price for it, not to mention my enthusiasm to accomplish other stuff. When I don’t get outdoors, my verve for living an active life suffers, and I turn surly. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to put in the time. I’m a bit backlogged in my posting about some of these outings, but over the next couple weeks I’m going to try and catch up.

Back on September 12th I resolved to climb the tallest peak in the area. I’ve lived in the shadow of Squaw Peak for much of my life. It looms over the Missoula valley at just a hair under 8000 feet. In this photo taken from The M overlooking Missoula you can see it way off in the distance.

It’s Indian name is Ch-Paa-Qn Peak. A few years ago there was some hubbub about renaming it; I think it is supposed to be called “Sleeping Woman Mountain” or something like that, but I don’t know that it’s ever caught on. The reason is “squaw” is considered by many to be a derogatory term, though there seems to be some debate about that. I’d certainly never call someone that, but I don’t know that a lifetime of knowing that mountain by a certain name could be changed by someone deciding I was supposed to call it something different now.

My parents live just below it, and the drive to the trailhead pretty much starts at the end of their driveway. I went up the evening of the hike with my mom to scout out where the trailhead actually is, as it had been close to twenty years since the last time I’d been up there. As we took the road up into the hills — a road I’d spent much time in my youth on foot, on horseback, and via snowmobile — the views that opened up were gorgeous. In this first shot (as always, click the image for a larger view), the pale green valley you see in the center of the frame, with the tree line, is where my folks live. The trees border Six Mile Creek, which runs right through their back yard.

This is a shot of Missoula off in the distance.

A little higher up, and zoomed in a little, is another shot overlooking where my folks live.

As one ascends to the top of the ridge, about 13 miles or so up, the descent down the north side is onto reservation land. This sign cracks me up. I don’t know that there is a metal sign in rural Montana that isn’t full of bullet holes.

On our drive up, we saw a black bear on the road ahead, but he quickly disappeared before I could take a shot of him with my camera. After we located the trailhead, we drove back down the mountain. First thing the next morning I drove back out there and headed up for my hike. It was a gorgeous day — sunny and warm.

From the road across the top, one can see the peak looming ahead. Quite a different angle from below, eh?

Here’s the sign marking the trail; it’s only three miles to the base of the peak itself, and not such a bad hike, though steep in spots.

At times the trail was in deep shadow, with high brush on either side. I was armed with bear spray, but didn’t see anything more than some scat. I did hear an elk bugling way off in the distance. That was exciting.

2.5 miles later I had crested a long climb and emerged into an area less cloaked in trees. For about a half mile the trail kind of circles around. If you look through the trees in this first shot, you can see the peak in the background.

Suddenly, flashing through the trees I saw a large, pale canine shape. I was momentarily excited — could it be a wolf? If you ask some of the more ignorant local types, you would assume these hills to be crawling with Canis Lupis as they hungrily destroy all traces of elk, deer, livestock and scores of hapless children. But no, these turned out to be a trio of dogs with a couple humans accompanying them.

We met here at a crossroads where two other access trails from other areas join the one I took. They converge at this sign post, and from there the trail extends fairly steep to the base of the last couple hundred feet or so of peak.

Where that stretch of trail ends, the intrepid hiker must basically find a path over what amounts to a pile of rocks to reach the summit. This photo doesn’t do it justice, as it is steep and many of the rocks are quite large. I was on all but all fours at times, making my way up. It is a moderately difficult climb, but not too rigorous; just time consuming.

This is a large cairn right where the trail emerges from the forest. It is to help a hiker find their way back to the mouth of the trail back down after descending from the peak. There were also several faded orange streamers tied to trees; I tied an American flag bandanna I was carrying.

As this shot from the top of the peak shows, without some point of reference on the way back down, how one could easily become lost just finding the path after finding a way back down!

here are a couple cairns at the summit as well. And a stunning view in every direction that these photos simply do no justice to. I feel it’s almost pointless to even post them, but what the hell.

Here is a view looking Northeast. The mountains are the Mission Range. About mid-frame would be the hills that comprise The National Bison Range, one of my favorite places on the planet. If I turned slightly left, due north, way off in the distance would be Flathead Lake, and beyond that Glacier National Park and Canada.

Here is a look a little Southeast, with Missoula way off in the distance.

And here’s yours truly, perched atop the world.

After I took this photo I hauled my ass back down out of the mountains. It was a long, sweaty day, but worth it on a multitude of levels. I’m looking forward to getting back up there again. I know Julia wants to go too; don’t know if we’ll make it before the snow flies, but make it we will!