Monday, June 30, 2014

Say Where You're From

    “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”   ―     Joan Didion
     When getting to know someone, perhaps one of the most seemingly common and irrelevant questions we ask one another is one of the most interesting and important:

"Where ya from?"

     Growing up, I would often find my friends answering the question of origin with a generalization:

"We're from Helena."

No we weren't. We were from Clancy.

      To most Americans, there are probably only 3 or 4 towns in Montana that they have ever heard of. To most Montanans there are probably 50 or so. Now, my friends growing up would tell you that it's just easier to name the closest large town that the questioner will have probably heard of than to elaborate on where Clancy was. But that's garbage.
     There is a world of difference between Helena and Clancy, and to take the easy and geographically apathetic way out forsakes the latter. It doesn't matter if you love or hate your place of origin. If you are from Bonner, Montana, say that. Don't say Missoula.  If you are from Ulm, don't say Great Falls. Use that opportunity to share the characteristics existing in your perception of the place. Be honest and talk a little geography! Tell someone something they don't know. Places only matter if we acknowledge their existence. I know the little places -the specific ones in my life- have mattered deeply to me.

      If you ask me where I am from, I will tell you "Clancy, Montana", and I will tell you about it. I will share with you the things I think you should know - the things that matter to me. From a simple question, we can share a simple fact about ourselves and Montana, and maybe something that matters.

Say where you are from.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

GPS-Enabled USGS Maps of Yesteryear

The United States Geological Survey provides us with the best maps out there of Montana's undeveloped country. They have been mapping the west since the 1800's, and most people who spend a fair amount of time outdoors have found an appreciation in the utility and accuracy of a 7.5 minute quad. What many don't know though, is that they provide access to all of their historical maps as well.

This treasure trove of maps is a useful and fascinating source of what can only be described as art. Cartography has changed drastically in the age of the computer, and even though we can do things now that past map-makers would have never even imagined, there is part of me that envies the blood, sweat, and tears that was necessary for making maps in the past. Cartographic styles and Toponyms have changed, rivers have migrated, and place names have been forgotten or made more politically correct. Towns have disappeared. Roads have replaced trails.

In Montana, depending on the spatial coverage and scale you are looking for, there are maps  available going all the way back to 1885. The really cool thing is the maps are geoPDFs, so you can use them on your GPS enabled smart phone and walk through (or float over), some historical country and reference the past.

You could float your boat over the now inundated river bottoms of the mighty Missouri, in the 1950 "Lake Sewell" map - the precursor to today's Canyon Ferry Lake.

Or visit the Three Forks of the Missouri and the Valley that goes with it. In 1888, 100 years before the scourge of the subdivision swept across the Gallatin Valley.

The "Hebgen Dam" map of 1950, before the earthquake of '59 caused the northern Henry's Lake Range to collapse into the Madison River, killing 28 people and creating a lake that exists to this day.

I know these maps are tough to see, but that is because they have so much detail (and blogspot has an upload size limit), and is all the more reason you should go download those that interest you.  Wander and wonder through the geography of yesteryear in places that have evolved on trails that have been plowed under. Every where has been mapped - but not everything. Everything changes perpetually, and it's pretty cool to see where and how.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Those Mountains Between Macdonald Pass and Lincoln

        So, the Nameless Range is officially the "Boulder Mountains". We still find though, that nameless ranges exist. Whether they have too many toponyms to pin down an official one or they have yet to be deemed significant enough to stand on their own, in Montana we can still find them. Let's take a look at one such range - the line of hills and peaks running north from Macdonald Pass to the upper Blackfoot Valley at Lincoln, Montana. This range is bordered on the west by the Helmville Valley and the east by Canyon Creek and the Helena Valley.

     There are no 'official' boundaries for Mountain Ranges. If you get down to it, where mountain ranges begin and end and what constitutes a range is quite complex.  Here is a map of commonly viewed Range Boundaries provided by the Montana State Library.

     The mountains we are looking at are #29 on the list, the "Nevada Mountains". Notice how Nevada Mountains is in quotation marks. That's because  those mountains don't have an official name recognized by the U.S Board of Geographic Names. The reason the Cartographer chose to name them the "Nevada Mountains" is probably because one of the more prominent peaks in this range is the 8,293 ft Nevada Mountain. The tallest peak in this range is actually  the 8,330 ft Black Mountain. Being mostly public land, these are some pretty cool hills that everyone can access. They are filthy with wildlife, trout filled streams, and beetle killed lodgepole forests. Most of the range is fairly heavily roaded.

     So why don't they have a name? One reason is probably the lack of picturesque prominence in their peaks. Most of this range is rounded, forested-to-the-top mountains. Another is the lack of lakes and popular "places". The southern end of this range has a ski hill, but other than that there isn't much but woods. Lastly, the surrounding ranges have much greater pull. To the north is the Bob, Scapegoat and Rocky Mountain Front, to the southeast the Elkhorns and Big Belts draw far more visitors. Other than Helena to the southeast, there isn't much for population around these hills.

     Interestingly, when we look at maps of the range, we can find three different toponyms. First you'll often find them labeled the Nevada Mountains. Strangely, when we look at USGS maps, specifically the 100K "Elliston" map from 1982 we find two more names for the range -neither of which are in the GNIS. How that works I have no idea. But I do like the names.

Above, we see that the northern stretch of this range is labeled the "Robert E Lee Range" in the 'Elliston' topo.
Here, the southern section around Macdonald Pass is labeled the " General Eisenhower Range" in the 'Elliston' topo.

     The Nevada Mountains? The Robert E Lee Range? The General Eisenhower Range? What should we call them? Any one out there could propose a name of their own, and put an end to the confusion. Every mountain range deserves a name.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Nameless Range Has a Name

    Consider the first post of this blog to be false....for the most part. For the last twenty or so years, all the authority figures of Montana Geography have claimed that the mountains between Helena and Butte were nameless. From Rick Graetz in the greatest Montana Geography book out there-This is Montana, to the Montana State Library geographic names authority - all have at one point declared the range to have no official name.  With improvements and updating to the GNIS it turns out those mountains aren't officially anonymous. They are the Boulder Mountains.

     Back in 1986, the Director of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Edward Ruppel, requested that these Mountains be named The Boulder Mountains.

     In 1988, the name was accepted. In the original USGS Proposal of Name form, there is a question:


If the name is descriptive, why is it appropriate?

Reports on Boulder Batholith Rocks of the Boulder Batholith weather to form large rounded boulders in much of this range. Boulder River transects range. Town of Boulder and Boulder Valley on east flank.


     So there you go. I have to say I am a little bit disappointed. So few major features remain unnamed, and though it is surely true that the name is descriptive, I thought we could do better.  Interestingly, the official borders of this range in the final acceptance form declare the northern border to be Macdonald Pass. Which leaves the hills between Macdonald Pass and Lincoln, nameless. But as we will see in the next post, that's not entirely true.

It certainly doesn't change the way I feel about them.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Heaven Across Montana

So, I'm a world-class slacker. I abandoned this blog for over a year. Mostly because my writing disappoints me. I'm going to give it another whirl.

This is going to be a Montana Geography blog. There are some really good Montana blogs out there. I frequent them on nearly a daily basis. From the political to the personal to the outdoor recreation to the historical-based blogs, I soak them up and will continue to do so. But I'm gonna focus on Geography, because as I've written before,
Geography kicks more ass than people realize.

     Nearly two years ago I took a fire and brimstone centric trip across Montana.  But let's be real. To most of us, Montana is the Promised Land. The material for this trip was significantly more sparse. Place-names referencing humanity's post-life happy place are tough to find, which I found to be strange.
      Let's start our journey at the top, of both a mountain and the Crown of the Continent, on the appropriately named Heaven's Peak. Here, on top of Glacier National Park's Livingston Range,  2,500 feet below vehicles crawl like a line of ants on their way to a mountain pass on the Going to the Sun Highway. If we fly over them, south to the Mission Range, we could stop and take a dip in The Angel's Bathing Pool. Just make it quick because submerging yourself in glacial meltwater requires thrift. Looking west toward Idaho, we should dive off the great relief of the Missions and just beyond Flathead Lake, settling on the summits of the little known Hog Heaven Range, a sub range of the Salish Mountains. Trying to stay close to the heavens, we should stay close to great peaks, so we head south now. Down Highway 93 through the beautiful and fertile Flathead Valley, over the small pass at Evaro and up the Bitterroot. Ascending one of Montana's most beautiful canyons in the Kootenai Creek drainage, we strike up the north Ridge of North Heavenly and behold views unmatched any where in the world, atop either of the Heavenly Twins. On top of the Bitterroots, to our west is a sea of peaks, to our east the intermountain valleys and ranges of Montana. All around us, we see what Maclean spoke of when he saw, "Poems of Geology", during his time in the Bitterroots.  If we descend back down into the valley and up the other side into the southern Sapphire Range, we could take a break and enjoy some wildflowers in God's Little Acre Meadows.  From here we have a way to go. East, over valleys and ranges, all the way to the tallest Mountain Range in Montana. On the crests of the Beartooths, we can see hundreds of lakes, one of which is the (not exclusively named) Lake of the Clouds. At 9600 feet, we are at the highest point of our journey. The air is a bit thinner, and only a couple stops remain. To the north, over rivers and prairies, we stop in Choteau country and survey Dioscuri Dam. Named after the twin sons of Zeus, this pile of dirt backs up Coulee Creek south east of Goose Bill Butte.  Heading on a bearing back to our starting point, we come to Liberty County, and the easily forgotten Utopia Oil Field, where the historical Utopia Post Office was once located. From here we are not far east of the front of the great Rocky Mountains and the peak where we began.
     Heaven isn't just some self-comforting idea humanity has come up with to alleviate anxiety over being done and dusted,  it's also a euphemism for happiness, which if you're in Montana, fits pretty  good.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a name?

TOPONYM : Place-name  

It turns out the GNIS doesn't allow hyperlinks to their site. Though none of the links in this post work, you can get to them by searching the domestic names at the GNIS site yourself.

“There are only five thousand Deer Creeks in the country. Let’s keep the America’s only Wet Ass Creek” - Norman Maclean, USFS 1919

      Ever been to Mud Lake, Montana? Don't worry if your answer is no, or if you have multiple answers, because there are 14 Mud Lakes in Montana alone.  When I tell you I shot a bull up Bear Gulch in 2008, it should come as no surprise that my telling you is almost meaningless, because there are 15 Bear Gulches in Montana.
   The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the Federal and national standard for all the geographic nomenclature and toponyms we find across our state and country. This database is overseen by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. Created in 1890, this board serves the Federal Government and the public as a central authority to which name problems, inquiries, changes, and new name proposals can be directed. In Montana, our state is represented in this realm of geography by a State Names Authority that is responsible for making recommendations to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names on behalf of the State of Montana on all name changes or new names. Maybe it's time to hit them up.
     Now there hasn't always been an accessible database of all the names across our state and country. So it should come as no surprise that duplicate toponyms exist, and that there are 13 Long Coulees in Montana. But that is no reason why so damn many should exist now. One of the necessary criterion for a space to become a place, is a name. A name that individuals can associate with the landforms and regions they use, have been, and often love. Names are important in Geography. 
      In Montana, the toponyms we see today often reflect the name of the first white person to map or claim a place as their own, which is why there are half a dozen Mikes Creeks in Montana. Even more often, the toponyms we use describe what the first namer saw while occupying the space, that after given a name, becomes a place. This can be a good way to declare a title. I think Big Bull Elk Ridge is a fine thing to call a landform.  But often, the labels we have assigned are far too simple and uncreative. Deer occupy  pretty much all of Montana, so it should come as no surprise that there are 11 Deer Creeks across our state. The same goes for coyotes, and there are 11 Coyote Coulees in Montana.  Often though, toponyms can be descriptive of the physical nature of the place. Hence, it is not a surprise that there are there are Nine Sand Coulees in Montana. But sand is not a very unique thing to find in a coulee, nor is Mud in a lake. The more repetitive a toponym becomes, the less useful that toponym is as a descriptive tool, not only to convey an image, but also to separate those places which truly are distinct from one another. Some of the best names are descriptions of the way that a specific place made the namer feel, like Never Laughs Mountain, or Lonely Night Reservoir.  It seems that sometimes the alias of a place is a reflection of what the namer was thinking of when naming a place, like Dancing Lady Mountain. Toponyms can reference the characters that existed within a location or existed around the time of name designation, like Slippery Bill Mountain. Some of my favorites are the names that evoke laughter and crass jokes from middle school children, as I am a pretty immature guy. How can you not love names like Gobblers Knob, Boner Knob, or Bloody Dick Peak?
     When toponyms become duplicate, and often repetitive, they not only lose their function as descriptive tools, they quite simply become boring. What follows from this is the potential for a place to lose the enthusiastic support and feelings from individuals that can help a place, through the conservation that comes from awareness, or some other instance, that may have otherwise been felt strongly about by many. For a while I lived in an awesome place called Lump Gulch, and I feel that some of the strength of my feelings toward it are derived in the kick-ass nature of its toponym. One of the things about humans, that is most universally recognized and appreciated by humans, is our potential to be wonderfully creative. Why not exploit this when it comes to what we call the places we occupy on this earth?

    For us, it would be mostly fair to say that things typically only will get named once. It is quite a privilege to decide what people will call a place for the indefinite future - to decide the order and specific letters the mind's eye will see when a place is thought about or spoke of, and to decide the sounds that vibrating atoms will make when a place is referred to. Our ability to hold dominion over the designation of places should not be understated.
     So what do we do? When it comes to duplicate toponyms, I say we decide upon a criteria of which one to keep. Whether it be the oldest, the most well known, or the most significant(size, elevation, flow, etc.) Then, we rename the rest. Maybe, we should turn a bunch of children loose to play in a gulch or on a mountain or at a lake, and never tell them the name of the place they are exploring and enjoying. At the end of the day, we should ask them what they would name the place. I'd bet the names would often be more descriptive, more unique, and more creative than the countless boring names we have for tens of thousands of features across Montana.
      We live in perhaps the most beautiful and varied landscape this side of anywhere. Our names should reflect that. I want to explore the Bald Mountain of Shonborn a lot more than I want to explore one of Montana's multiple Elk Peaks. I want to check out Fountain of Youth Coulee and Daughter of the Sun Mountain more than I want to see one of Montana's 11 Crystal Lakes. How could you not want to visit the Lake of the Stars, or  The Angel's Bathing Pool.
     Maclean once wrote, "One of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe." In doing so though, we mustn't forsake what has given us this privilege - our creativity and understanding. We shouldn't be lazy. There are over 100,000 words in the English Language. There's no reason for there to be 10 Red Mountains.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Favorite Road in Montana

     What is it that makes a road the "best", or your favorite to drive? Surely beauty is a criterion. Thoroughfares like the Going to the Sun Road, or the Beartooth Highway, are breathtakingly awesome. They are the postcard material of Montana. For me though beauty is only one aspect I desire. Another criterion would be "relaxability". The Going the the Sun Road is amazing, but it's too damn crowded. I spend way too much time trying to not run over bicyclists or rear end the white knuckled motorist in front of me, instead of taking in the grandeur.  My most important criterion though, is solitude. To me, the value of a road increases exponentially the more I feel I am the only soul on it. And that is why the Best F%&#ing Road in Montana is the Gravelly Range Road.
    The Gravelly Range Road rides the crest of the great Gravelly Mountains of southwest Montana for nearly 70 miles. This isn't just a pass between drainages, or a cut in the earth offering the enclosure of canyon walls. It's everything. Offering commanding views of nearly all of southwest Montana's mountain ranges, this road is the high trail of southwest Montana.
    The Gravelly Range is located south of Virginia City. The eastern flank of the range is marked by the long and beautiful Madison Valley. The southern fringes of the range end at the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge that sits sandwiched between the Gravellys and the Centennial Range. The west face of the Gravellys drop down into the Ruby River, above which the mighty and underappreciated summits of the Snowcrest Range shoot to the sky just a little further west. The North is marked by the Greenhorn Range, a subrange of the Gravellys, as well as the Tobacco Root Mountains. These mountains are unique. They are shaped like rolling hills, with grassy windswept summits, and dark forested canyons. Make no mistake though, these are mountains not hills. They rise over 5,000 feet from the valley floors around them to elevations well over 10,000 feet. Spring comes late, usually after the 4th of July, and just last week much of the Mountains still felt fresh and new, with green grass and beautiful wildflowers prospering in the high meadows. Meanwhile, the rest of the state is as dry as dirt.
     Cruisin the Crest
     The Gravelly Range is named because of the course pebble conglomerate that exists throughout the range and especially along its crest. It is similar in nature to the Sphinx Conglomerate of the Madison Range and the Beaverhead Conglomerate south of Dillon. Basement Rock in the lower reaches of the Range has in some places gone from Marble that has through millions of years, been altered to Talc. This Talc is unique to the world because it contains no Asbestos, and therefore poses no threat of cancer as opposed to other Talcs of the world. Few people know that Southwest Montana is one of, if not the, largest Talc producing districts in the world.
     The Gravellys could be a national park. They contain all of Montana's big, seldom seen, and endangered critters. I have seen Grizzly, Wolves, Antelope, Elk, and Deer in my drives across the range. Not only are they a safe place for the big animals. I have never seen so many predatory birds in one place as I have seen in the Gravelly Mountains. Hawks, Falcons and Eagles seem to fly like drones above your vehicle  as you traverse the high meadows. Maybe they are looking for movement in the grass caused by your gas powered chariot, or maybe it is just fun to fly above a car.
      A shady basin
     The way I usually access the road is south of Ennis. A few miles south of the wonderful town of Ennis, the Gravelly Range Road leaves Highway 287 to the west. You cross the plain of the Madison Valley until you arrive at the base of the Gravelly Mountains. From here, you begin to go up, and you will be doing so for a while. Once you are on the top, you cruise south. Staying above 8,000 feet for nearly the entire length of the range, you can see the whole of the Snowcrest Range to the west. To the east, the Madison Range towers above the valley. And in all directions, you see mountains and their ranges- nearly every range in Southwest Montana could be listed. You skip between high meadows along the crest, peaking over the west and east flanks as the road meanders, looking down into dark forested basins, that give way to deep lonely gulches. Flowers are everywhere. Much of this range is leased by ranchers, and there are herds of cows and sheep along the way, but the range is plenty big enough for both of you. Towards the southern end of the range you begin to see a giant bump in the rolling crest the road stays on. As you get closer it only becomes more beautiful and intimidating. Black Butte, the10,546 ft highpoint of the Gravelly Mountains, is a dark steep mass of rock and ice rising out of green and rolling meadows. The road cuts just to the east of it, and I highly recommend getting out and playing here. Numerous ponds dot the locations where snowdrifts last well into August, and climbing Black Butte will offer the traveler one of the finest views in Montana. From here you can head east, down Standard Creek to the West Fork of the Madison River and back to highway 287. If you want to keep on going, you can stay on the crests for another 15 or 20 miles,  until you finally drop down into the the southern foothills of the range, coming out in the beautiful Red Rock Valley. A two wheel drive vehicle is sufficient for the entire length of the road, given there is no snow, and you have good tires.
    Looking south to Black Butte

     This road has the beauty of any of the great roads in Montana -mountains, meadows, wildlife, water, and snow. It also is a very relaxing drive. The road is good, there are no narrow cliffs or traffic. Once you're on the crest you just cruise and take it in. Lastly, this road has solitude. On a beautiful August Saturday, just last weekend, I drove the length of the road for 70 miles. I met one family four-wheeling, two trucks, and government rig. If you are in Montana, or are a Montanan, or want a cool road to drive, drive this one. It's become a yearly thing for our family. I can't stress it enough. A road like this and the experience it offers could only exist in Montana. Drive this one now, before the snow flies, and the grass begins to brown.