Cowboys, Woolies, and Bears

Watched a movie last night that I thought was fantastic; Sweetgrass. I’d seen it mentioned somewhere before and had it in the Netflix queue, then Julia’s dad recommended it to us so we hunkered down on the couch to check it out. We were not disappointed. Here’s the premise:

An unsentimental elegy to the American West, “Sweetgrass” follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.

It’s a documentary, but there’s no exposition, no narration, nothing. Just people living a vanishing lifestyle captured on film, performing the ultimate “show, don’t tell” philosophy of all good writing. It features excellent characters in a compelling “Man vs. Wilderness” story with conflict, suspense, and drama. Easily one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s the kind of filmmaking I love, the kind that demands the audience pay attention and not just sit and be bludgeoned over the head. Similar in some ways to another movie I enjoyed last year, Boxing Gym, only better. Highly recommended.



Always Carry a Camera

Yesterday I was driving out to my folks’ place to do a little work around their back forty. I always carry a camera when I head out there, you know, just because. Deer are abundant. Sometimes the elk herd is in the neighborhood. This particular trip I was keeping my eyes peeled for the gang of wild turkeys that reside in the area. About a mile from my destination, there were a couple vehicles alongside of the road, with a few people standing on the shoulder looking up into the trees. Via retro camera, the view was something like this:

“Is that a lion up there?” I asked as I exited my truck. Indeed it was. You can see it yourself up in the crotch of a couple branches there. Or, here are a couple better looks:

He was just hanging out, watching us. One of the guys standing there said he’d gone down over the bank because he thought there was a deer carcass someone had hit, when all of a sudden the lion came out of the bushes right at him and went up the tree. The critter looks pretty young; hope he got away alive. When I was back through there a couple hours later there were no spectators and the tree was empty. These pics are on full zoom and I futzed around enhancing them a little — I’m going to clean them up a little when I figure out how to do it. Still, that’s one cool animal. He could easily tear any one of you a new one if you crossed his path when he was feeling surly.

Never a dull moment in the wild, wild west, people. Don’t forget it.

Meanwhile, once the excitement had ebbed, I rolled a big roll of prickly farm output into one side of the open barn area:

. . . to serve as a windbreak to keep these critters warmer as winter bears down. Not sure these beasts deserve it, though.

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!

Blame Grandpa

Montana is a big state — the fourth largest in the nation, in fact. Yet there are less than a million people living here; 967,440 by 2008 estimations. Given its size, that’s not very many friggin’ people. When I am in larger cities and people ask me about Montana, I like to tell them that there are probably more people in a 10 – 20 mile radius of where we are at that moment then there are in the entire state. I’m often asked why that is, is there something wrong with the state?*

Looking at this picture from 1919 (just before Prohibition) that (allegedly) came from a Montana history book, the reason is quite apparent.

Clearly Grandpa said, “Fuck it, I ain’t quittin’.” Looking at these grim ladies, can you blame him? No wonder we have population issues here!


* Many people have weird ideas about Montana, those that even know where it is located, that is. That discussion could probably fill a blog post of its own.