Friday, July 11, 2014

Dear oh Deer

I love Map errors. I like finding them.

In Western Montana there is quiet little city of 3,000 residents called Deer Lodge - the county seat of Powell County, and home of the Montana State Prison, the Montana State Hospital, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, and bunch of good natured Montanans.

The  town of Deer Lodge  sits sandwiched between the Boulder Mountains and the Flint Creek Range in the Deer Lodge Valley, along the banks of the Clark Fork River.

Strangely, Deer Lodge is not in Deer Lodge County, which is the next county to the south, of which the county seat is Anaconda. We can thank the feuding
Copper Kings  for this fact.

There is also a Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, that surrounds the area. The largest of Montana's National Forests, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed these two separate forest areas which are now one, in 1908.

As I've mentioned
before, the Boulder Mountains were at one time, a Nameless Range. In the map at the beginning of  the greatest non-fiction book ever written, Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean, those mountains are labeled the "Deer Lodge Mountains".

All of these places derive their names from a geologic feature known as the Warm Springs Mound. Over 40 feet in height, this mound of minerals was built from thousands of years of bubbling, mineralized water. Serving as a landmark for the Native Americans who once occupied the valley, the saline nature of the minerals in the mound coupled with the green grasses that would maintain through the winter due to geothermic heat made this spot a haven for deer through thick and thin. Native Americans called it, "The Lodge of the White-tailed Deer". The mound is now on Montana State Hospital ground and no public access exists.

Now, a company called ESRI is the world's leading provider of Geographic Information Systems software. They are on the cutting edge of everything. They also provide numerous basemaps, most of which are really slick. Here is their National Geographic Basemap, which references National Geographic, as well as a few other sources.

Maclean's book labels the Boulder Mountains "The Deer Lodge Range", for which we can forgive him,
those mountains didn't really have a name at the time. But nowadays they are the Boulder Mountains. Spell check will only get you so far.

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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mountains I've Lived By

     A mountain doesn't need to be a range High Point, or have a certain amount of relief, or exceed some arbitrarily designated elevation to be incredibly meaningful to a person or groups of people.
     We can
derive extreme personal significance from places on the earth that, to the population at-large, are seemingly insignificant. I've lived in a few places in Montana, and always in the western third, and thus, always near mountains. Cheesy as it may sound I have loved mountains I've never stepped foot on, and I have allowed specific mountains to consume large portions of my life. So I'll share some of the Mountains I've Lived By. Maybe you've heard of them, with most you probably haven't.

Sheep Mountain

Sheep Mountain is near Clancy, Montana, where I grew up. This northeastern sentinel of the Boulder Batholith isn't much over 6,000 feet in elevation. My first experiences hunting were on its flanks, among hundreds of house-sized boulders. Sheep is a popular rock-climbing destination, and offers a folf course, the remnants of mining, and dozens of caves to explore and play in. Providing stunning vistas of the Elkhorn Mountains to the east, Sheep Mountain also has a mining claim completely surrounded by public land that was cut up into a subdivision for half-million dollar homes on its southern exposure - to the dismay of at least one Montana blogger.

Bonner Mountain

That peak with the snow near its top in the background is a false summit of Bonner Mountain.  For a while when I was in school at the U of M, I lived in one of the old white and green Stimson Houses that mark the entrance to the belly of the Blackfoot Canyon. My backyard was Bonner Mountain. Named after E.L Bonner,  this 6,807 ft peak overlooks the confluence of the Big Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers, though you can't see the confluence from the summit, and the summit can't be seen from the highway. This is the western-most point of the Garnet Mountain Range. From the top, the Rattlesnake, Mission Mountains, and Bitterroots shine in the north and west. To the east, lie the Garnet Mountains and to the south sit the Sapphires and John Longs. Looking east in the distance, across the Garnets and over the Potomac Valley, you can seen Mineral Peak lookout, a pixel on top of a ridge. There are no real public roads or well-defined trails to the top, and nobody visits this mountain only ten minutes from Missoula. Because of this solitude, I have seen Elk, Bighorn Sheep, and Deer all at once on the western slope of Bonner Mountain.

Mount Sentinel

Alright, so this one isn't seldom visited. In fact I feel confident in saying Mount Sentinel is the most-hiked mountain in Montana. Like a lot of people who attended UM though, I got a lot out of Mount Sentinel. Whether class was boring, or I was walking across campus, or I was stuck in traffic on Reserve Street, my eyes would wander to Sentinel. Living in student housing right next to the Mountain, for a while I tried to track the large deer herds in a journal I kept, in hopes of being the first to find a huge pile of sheds when the antlers dropped off their ungulate owners. That never panned out for me. I'd go to Sentinel for exercise and when it rained, solitude, and even though it is heavily used, there are a fair amount of hidden trails and less-used routes once you get beyond the M Trail.

Red Mountain

When I was 20 or so I lived near the head of Lump Gulch, and one mountain I often visited and could have explored endlessly was Red Mountain. Red Mountain is one of the higher peaks in the Boulder Mountains. It provides Helena her drinking water, and can be seen to the south as you descend Macdonald Pass heading east. At the base of its western flank is the old town of Rimini, on its eastern flank is Chessman Reservoir. A flume traverses its steep scree slopes, and collects snowmelt, diverting it to Chessman. The flume is really cool, and soon will be given somewhat of an overhaul.  At 8,150 ft on the summit, why Red Mountain got its name is apparent. You feel like you are on the surface of mars. What isn't scree is thick, beetle-killed lodgepole forest. Providing critters with excellent cover to disappear into.

Black Mountain

The distant ridge on the right with the sun shining on it leads to the summit. Maybe this one doesn't count. My folks own a parcel of sagebrush in the upper Madison Valley. I've never had an address there, but I've spent months "living" on that chunk of country so I'm counting it. On the southern chunk of the Madison Range, the Madison River and Quake Lake form the northern boundary of a separate range - The Henry's Lake Mountains. I've played in these mountains a fair amount, and spent hundreds of summer evenings staring at one of this range's peaks in particular - and I've never stepped foot on it. Black Mountain is at the head of Mile Creek Canyon, and divides Montana and Idaho at its 10,237 ft summit. It's kind of dark and ominous, and supposedly can be a deceiving challenge to climb. Someday I'll get there, but I have spent so much time talking about it, observing it from camp, and thinking about it, that I feel close to it.

Alta Mountain

This is the Mountain I live by now. 6,300 ft will get you to the top. It once served as the source of a very profitable silver mine, and the remnants are still there. When I was younger I'd play among the ruins and shafts, and splashed in creeks that ran as orange and thick as orange juice. Significant reclamation has occurred, and access is increasingly difficult. The latter is a common theme among too many places I used to roam, and I'm not that old. I'll end it with a view not of the mountain, but from it, looking west into the Elkhorn Mountains, from the top of a pile of mine tailings.


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.