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.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Boulder River and Map Error Posts In Action

     A couple days ago I was flipping through some magazines at the gym, waiting for my wife to get out of the locker room. One of the magazines was Distinctly Montana. This magazine comes out seasonally, with 4 issues a year. I don't  know exactly how I feel about it. It's definitely a publication of high quality as far as pictures and articles go, though it often seems directed at those who can afford 5,000 sq ft log homes and people interested in purchasing 6,000,000 dollar ranches- two subsets of the population I will never belong to. But its got some good stuff, and an online subscription is free if you're interested.One of the articles was an interview with journalist  Tom Brokaw, who owns a ranch in the foothills of the Absaroka Range.  Mr. Brokaw talks about his ranch, what he likes to do in Montana, and some western issues. One of the things Brokaw mentions is starting his days with a dip in the West Boulder River. The thing is, Distinctly Montana seems unaware of where the hell that is.
    I've written before about the existence of two Boulder Rivers in Montana, and the confusion that follows from duplicate toponyms. I've also written before about always cross-checking published maps with the map in your head. So as I sat there waiting for my wife, I looked through the map of Montana at the end of the magazine. Next to the map was the caption: "We thought it would be interesting to show you where some of the stories in this issue took place in our great state."  Being the maphead that I am, I took a good long gander.
      There it was. They put all this effort into creating a smooth and highly polished publication, and then completely misplace the location of Tom Brokaw and his Boulder River. Brokaw lives in the foothills of the Absaroka-Beartooth, by the Boulder River that flows north, out of the high peaks and into the Yellowstone River near Big Timber.  Their map though, has him swimming 150 miles to the northwest, in the Boulder River that flows southeast out of the great Boulder Batholith and into the Jefferson River near Cardwell. 

       And there you have it. Which Boulder River

    The wrong one.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Argumentum ad Verecundiam Applies to the Map

    You cannot trust maps. Even those maps that would seem to come from the most reliable sources are often wrong. In argumentation, the Appeal to Authority is fallacious as to whether or not a proposition is true. The same could be said for geographic information. When it comes to maps, there are no absolute authorities. 
    I have personally caught numerous egregious errors on publicly available maps printed by both Government and Private organizations. With almost any map, if you are aware of the ground truth of a region, you can usually spot an honest error in toponym location or spelling. Errors of geographic location are a little more rare, but satisfying to spot. The best errors to find are those where the cartographer has created an imaginary place that doesn't even exist on the ground. Today I'll point out a funny error from an organization that you would typically apply "authority" to. But, that would be a mistake.
    Imagine you wanted to find a town in Montana and how to get there. You could use Google or Bing, but probably you would prefer a map from those who maintain and catalog the roads themselves: The Montana Department of Transportation. I in no way mean to slight the MDT. They work hard and do a wonderful job, despite constant bitching from the populace regarding snowplows, road conditions, and construction. The road miles per capita for Montana is significant, the country and weather rough, and the miles traveled per person far. They couldn't do it without Federal money.
    Any way, say you and your wife wanted to take a trip from Helena, Montana to Corbin, Montana.  Maybe you want to check out The Alta, one of Montana's great historic silver mines on your way, and then head to Wickes, Montana, to see the old Beehive Kilns, which will probably be gone in a decade due to degradation. You dig through your trunk, and bust out your map. It's an older one from 2007, and this is what you see.

     Alright, so you'll head south on I-15 until you get to Clancy. From there you'll head south a few more miles to Alhambra, and then you'll take a road southwest until you get to Corbin. There is only one problem: This would be impossible. There is no road heading southwest out of Alhambra. Also, Corbin is in the wrong place! So, we have an imaginary road leading to a very real community which happens to be located in an imaginary place. Damn.  But wait, as your wife is berating you for being lost and cartographically clueless, your downcast eyes notice another map on the floorboard under a McDonald's sack. You pick it up and behold, a Montana Department of Transportation 2011 map. You open it up, and things don't make sense.

No longer is there a road that goes south of Clancy to Alhambra. No longer does a road even exit Alhambra to the southwest. No longer is Corbin up in the hills near the National Forest Boundary. Somehow it has migrated ten miles southeast, and is on a completely different road. Now you'll leave Helena and head to Jefferson City, take the road southwest out of that town, visit Corbin, and continue down the road to Wickes. On your way home you better stop in at Tings in Jefferson City for a beer. 

     Is this an egregious error? I'm aware that not alot of people travel to Corbin to sight see, and even less live in Corbin (Maybe 50). But an incorrect road from an incorrect source to a real community in an incorrect location from the folks who keep track of the roads is unexpected. This is just one error, I have found a few similar ones, from MDT maps, to Google Maps, to Bing, to USGS Quads. 
     Cartography is not dead. The world is not mapped. For one, the world is always changing, Geography is not static. Secondly, the data is always improving.  Maps are made by fallible human beings. Notice the elevation changes between the two maps. Between 2007 and 2011, the city of Townsend rose 35 feet, Jack Mountain shrunk by 13 feet, and someone kicked a rock off of Crow Peak, thereby reducing its elevation one foot. Not really. New Geodetic Controls taking advantage of more accurate Geoid estimates with more accurate instruments were probably used. I don't really know. I guarantee those numbers will change in the future as well. Maps are amazing tools. The information provided in the State Map would take Thousands upon Thousands of pages to portray that same information in text. Love your maps, but don't forget about the most useful one you have: the one in your head.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ever Heard of The John Longs?

 Slide Rock Mountain and Ridges of the John Longs

     In the middle of western Montana, sandwiched between the Blue Ribbon Trout stream of Rock Creek and the Flint Creek Valley, there sits a mountain range, quiet and alone. Named after one of the first pioneer miners of the region, the John Longs are where you ought to find yourself sometime. I've only been acquainted with them for a couple of years now, but have made over a dozen visits. To the north are the Garnets, to the south the Pintlers, and to the west and east respectively the Sapphires and the Flint Creek Range. Surrounded by higher, larger, more well known ranges, the John Longs are a diamond in the rough surrounded by rough country. They are fairly unknown in Montana, and very little is written about them, despite the fact that they are over 300 square miles of beautiful public land, where solitude is easy to come by.
     The John Longs are high, smoothly rounded mountains with deep gulches and irregular ridges that trend east-west but could really go any which way. The southeast slopes are often grassy and open, filled with sweet smelling Montana sagebrush. The northern and western slopes hold thick conifer forests, and a lot of blow down. Between the peaks are high, forested saddles. Much of this range was logged in the late 19th Century, but on the ridges can still be found old growth Doug Firs, in the shadows of which the bear grass and flowers grow along the deer and elk trails. Though west of the Continental Divide, the John Longs don't get get the big rains or snow. Because of the Sapphires to the west, and beyond them the Bitterroot Wall, most east bound air masses have lost much of their moisture by the time they hit this range, and 12-15 inches of precipitation a year is about all they see.  The highest peak in the John Longs is a ridge east of Quigg Peak named Butte Cabin Ridge at 8468 ft.
      Geologically they are mostly Proterozoic Belt Rocks that were intruded in the later Cretaceous by Granite, helping to create the rich minerals that once motivated people to live in a now largely abandoned mountain range. After all, they are located in Granite County. The remnants of mining are all over these mountains but very hard to find. The mining was over by the early 20th century, and the places forgotten, but at one time great towns like Quigley, supported by the Alps Mining District, were bustling with over 1,000 souls. These places were in the middle of nowhere, and today almost nothing can be found of much of them. Amazing and bizarre stories of the ultimate boom and bust can found here. I highly recommend Terry Halden's Ghost Towns and Mining Districts of Montana, not only for exploring the John Longs, but for the whole state.
      Part Lolo National Forest, part Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, the mountains have ample public land. And though they lack lakes and wilderness areas, they have a good balance of Roadless Lands and seasonal roads. Babcock Mountain has a Bighorn Sheep viewing area that has as beautiful sheep country as you will ever find in all of Montana. It's a high rounded summit  covered with grass, sparse trees and rock outcrops, surrounded by a sea of mountains, definitely worth the trip. Higher areas like Tyler Point, Sandstone Ridge, and Sliderock Mountain all offer wonderful top-of-the-forested-world hikes that even on a Saturday in June, you will probably be the only human being on. Every big game animal in Montana, short of the goat can be found in the John Longs.
     From the Bangtails, to the Long Pines, to the Lima Peaks, Montana has quite a few ranges that are rarely a thought in peoples' minds, and even less are they trod upon. The John Longs are one of those ranges, containing quite a bit of the thing that we often value most in the people we love: Character.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Just Wave You Bastard

     There are a lot of things that make me feel like I am home- like I am in Montana. Certain customs reduce the friction of life. When two dirt road traversing vehicles cross paths in this state, there is an unwritten rule, and I am noticing its violation more frequently: The Wave.
    You know what I am talking about. You're on a seldom travelled dirt road, maybe the Gravelly Range Road, but it doesn't really matter. When you see an approaching vehicle you slow down, scoot your car over a little bit, and when you are just about to pass by, you lift a few fingers off the steering wheel and wave. A head nod is also an acceptable substitute. This was and is standard operating practice in the region I grew up in. It's a good thing to do.
     Having attended school in Bozeman, as well as Missoula, and done a hell of a lot of exploring in the surrounding hills, I have noticed that the closer your proximity to these two cities, the less the probability that you will get the wave. Things have changed since Maclean said," The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana."    When I am braving the gumbo of eastern Montana, or packing my gear to a different stretch of the Big Hole, I always get the wave.
     Should I get a little pissed off when my wave is returned by a blank stare, or worse, a disgusted glare? As if I am trespassing on their solitude? Well, I do. We are both on the same road, likely for the same reason. Of course, the wave's criteria is arbitrary, but if you are traveling at a moderately slow pace, say, less than 25 MPH, are on a dirt road, or haven't seen a fellow traveler for quite a while, the wave is appropriate. Frontage Roads are optional.
     So next time you cross paths with a fellow mountain or rural expeditionist in their own gas-powered chariot, acknowledge their existence, celebrate the closeness with which all Montanans have a propensity for, add a little friendliness to the woods, and give the wave.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Earliest Memory is a Good One: The Elkhorn Mountains

" I must admit that they have also become my “soft spot”. In addition to being a source of endless challenges, they have given me solace and fed me spiritually. The Elkhorns seem to be one of those places that cast a spell on the people who go there often, and like Mark, I am willingly under their spell forever."-Jodie Canfield, Elkhorn Coordinator- Helena National Forest 1991 - 2005    

     They call it "Childhood Amnesia". The inability to remember the first years of our life. Typically, one's first remembered event that lasts into adulthood occurs between the ages of two and five. Mine happened when I was four. It was dumb luck and it was beautiful on a late summer night in Montana. Out the window of a car heading southeast on Highway 287, the first memories I was to have that would last into adulthood were there. Flickering and twinkling on the backs of dark black monsters in the distance, the Elkhorn Mountains were on fire. My father was moving the family to Montana, and we were exploring for a final destination. Thankfully, not long after, I found myself growing up in the morning shadows of the Elkhorns, and came to love them and feel that they were mine.
     The Elkhorns are a much loved mountain range. No craggy peaks to speak of, no dark ominous canyons. Just rolling mountains, forested to the top, all leading to a primary spine that roughly runs on a North to South line for 21 miles from Helena to Three Forks. The upper reaches of the mountains hold some beautiful lakes. Leslie, Hidden, Glenwood, and the Tizer Lakes all surround the highest points in the Elkhorns: Crow Peak and Elkhorn Peak, with Crow Peak being the highest at 9,414 ft. These lakes are amazing. The Tizers are a shallow pair of Brook Trout filled ponds, accessible by the Tizer Lake Road that runs east out of Jefferson City to the headwaters of Prickly Pear Creek.  Leslie Lake can be reached from the Ghost Town of Elkhorn, and not only offers fish, but an abandoned miner's cabin that any one can stay in.  After you have had a bath in the tub that straddles a stream draining the southwest face of Crow Peak, you can also sign the guestbook, but you have to heat your own water, which is half the fun. The scenic jewel of the range is Hidden Lake, crammed right up against the northeast wall of Elkhorn Peak. Though it is only a short hike from the more accessible Tizer Lakes, you often have it to yourself, and nothing is better than being a lone fly fisherman on top of a rock, in the middle of a lake, on top of a mountain range, in the middle of nowhere.
    Geologically the Elkhorns were born of two events, millions of years apart. 70 Million years ago, sedimentary rock, layered thick from migrating inland seas billions of years prior, began to fault and move. This tectonic activity thrust and folded these layers toward a very different Montana sky. From this, the breadth of the the Elkhorn Mountains was established. 10 Million years later, this range became volcanic, and covered the Elkhorns and the surrounding area with molten rock. 60 Million years ago, there is a good chance that what we see in Yellowstone Park today is what would be witnessed in the Elkhorns. Active Geologic processes. This was a caldera. Through millions of years of erosion, the granite remnants left over from this time are largely what we come to mean when we talk about the Elkhorn Mountains. During much of this erosion, Late Cretaceous rivers carried sediment from the Elkhorns all the way to the Crazy Mountains of Central Montana. They share the same rocks.  For the last 2 million years, ice has covered and retreated from the mountains repeatedly, giving them their smooth, gradual ridges and rounded summits.
    The Elkhorns are almost entirely ours. Over 230,000 acres of public land make up the range, and a 160,000 acre Wildlife Management Unit is designated for the heart and spine of the mountains. Within this Unit is some of the most productive elk habitat in all of Montana. Every year since I was old enough to hunt I've been putting in for the Elkhorn Mountains "Big Bull Tag". I've yet to get it. But of course there is more than elk, and these mountains are an important island of biodiversity for the greater central Montana Rockies.
     Because the Elkhorns are higher than neighboring ranges, even those that carry the Continental Divide, they receive significantly more moisture. The high peaks hold snow well into June and July, and water from the hills drain into the Helena Valley, the Boulder Valley, and the Prickly Pear Valley, all leading to the mighty Mo. This moisture is not only conducive to the many wonderful lakes within the range, it also makes some very scenic waterfalls. The most well known being Crow Creek Falls. Reclaimed from the ravages of mining, this is a shining example of successful reclamation.
    Because of the variability in the types of rocks, as well as a volcanic past, the Elkhorns have been mined extensively. Many towns, no longer in existence, at one time rested on the flanks of the range. If you explore the Elkhorns it is no rare thing to find a lonely cabin, nestled in some miserable gulch, unoccupied since long before your own existence became an event. A great place to go visit is the ghost town of Elkhorn, northeast of Boulder, Montana. Many structures from the days of mining still remain, and a cemetery, filled with children who died in a Diptheria epidemic are reminders that life can be harsh, even in beautiful places.
   The Elkhorns are largely roadless, with only a few roads reaching the heart of the range. The main spine and northern half of the range lack roads and are a hiker's paradise. The southern portion of the range has more roads, primarily due to past mining activity, but still offers large tracts of roadless country. This chain also holds a proposed wilderness.
      When I was in grade school, I stole a map from my dad's office and plotted out a traverse of the range. From High Peak to Casey Peak, through the Tizer Basin and down in between the Boulder Valley and Radersburg. I figured I'd pop out somewhere south, maybe in the Tobacco Roots, then hitch a ride home. I never did it, and I regret it.  I love these mountains. They were my playground growing up and were my daydream viewscape when class was boring. (Mountains are always more interesting than class. It doesn't matter how old you are.) Being the romantic that I am, over a tub of fried chicken I asked my wife to marry me amongst the skeletons of decades old burnt trees,  whose fiery demises coincided with my first memory, near the headwaters of Crystal Creek, in the Elkhorn Mountains. She said yes. It's pretty cool how Mountain Ranges can become important aspects of our lives.

Friday, May 25, 2012

One of My Favorites: Frank Bird Linderman

     Montana has produced or fostered some really good writers.  One of the great things about so many them is that they are often relatively unknown, just waiting for you to pick up one of their books and be surprised. Frank Bird Linderman is one of those writers. His lack of acclaim can only be described as a damn shame.  He was a story teller of the campfire/bunkhouse tale variety. His books are anthologies of stories and yarns, and even his autobiography is chalk full of memoirs that could stand alone by themselves as individual narratives. Norman Maclean referred to the novel as a construct that was "Mostly wind". In today's age few remain, but when you are exposed to the skills of an expert story teller you begin to see why Maclean said that. These stories are told in a way that is never boring. Lots of action. Every sentence with force. If it couldn't hold an audience captive live, you may as well save your breath, and Linderman was a master.
     Frank Bird Linderman was a rare person in a rare time. He witnessed the waning years of a wild Montana, knew and befriended the free Native American in his element, watched it all go to hell(civilization), took part in it, and tried to reconcile with it. He produced 14 books and numerous magazine articles about trapping, Native Americans, Montana history and politics, and his own life. And he did it all very well. His books captured my imagination when I was a teen, and they still do.
      In 1885, at the age of 16, Frank Linderman left his parents and home in Chicago and went to the last bastion of wild country remaining in Montana: The Swan River country between Flathead Lake and what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  He had spent his youth poring over maps of the west and decided on the location, "most remote from civilization". He became a successful trapper and hunter, and lived this way for nearly a decade. Can you imagine? 16 years old and into the wilderness where lawlessness reigned. What a world it was.   Well known for his integrity, as well as being one of the few educated white men in the area, he was viewed in a positive light by both the Indian and the white man. Linderman wrote a fictional book based upon his trapping life called, Lige Mounts: Free Trapper, and it's a damn good one. Eventually, he met a girl in the now disappeared town of Demersville, south of present day Kalispell, and quit the trapping life. His struggles with quitting the "free life" are honest and elaborate, and as a young man I couldn't help but sympathize with his version of growing up, and my own.
      As a hunting guide Linderman had built a solid relationship with Samuel Houser,  the 7th governor of Montana Territory, and through him obtained a job as an assayer at a mine up the Bitterroot. This mine failed as most mines did and do, and Linderman's journey from the Bitterroot to Butte to Brandon, MT,  are admirable and give insight into the life of a turn of the century Montana miner. He was a man trying to provide for his family in tough times. Throughout his life he also owned a newspaper, sold insurance, authored books, and was a state legislator. His autobiography, Montana Adventure, is gem which I have read and re-read numerous times throughout my life.
       He was a state legislator for Madison County in 1903 and 1905, as well Assistant Secretary of State from 1905-1907. At the tail-end of the War of the Copper Kings, Linderman was a straight shooter in a sea of crooks. His stories of bribery, theft, and coercion are really appalling, and through it all he was one of the rare few who called Bullshit. This is one of the reasons he wasn't that successful in politics, which he clearly disliked. At his first political convention in Butte a fight broke out and he, "got a punch on the nose that made my face feel as large a stock saddle." Could you picture today's politicians acting in such a way? Actually, nevermind.
      Linderman was also friends with many now famous Montanans. He was close friends with Charlie Russell, and they were quite a pair joking and blowing hot air together. The book, The Long Friendship, by H.G. Merriam, is a wonderful account of their life-long association.  There is a story within it about their final hunting trip together near Linderman's retirement home at Goose Bay on Flathead Lake. Two old timers, hiking into the hills to hunt and camp, only to find that their bodies can't take it, and that it isn't fun any more. It's a sad and true reminder that we all take one last trip into the hills.
     Linderman also produced excellent histories of the Native American. He was friends with many well known indians, from Rocky-Boy to Red-Cloud to Full-of-Dew. He wrote a biography of Plenty-Coups, chief of the Crows, called, American. It's a book written with love that doesn't forsake accuracy.  Among the Native Americans, Linderman was known as Sign-Talker. During his time as a legislator, he wrote about the horrific conditions that Native Americans lived through in the slums on the outskirts of Helena. Old friends that he knew as free men in the wilderness were now destitute and starving. This sparked a fire within him, and he became one of the Indian's most motivated allies. Traveling all over the state and as far as Washington D.C., he fought for food and shelter for the indian, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Rocky Boy Reservation, home of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, in the Bears Paw Mountains of north-central Montana. One of the most interesting stories he tells is of taking the Cree chief, Full-of-Dew, to a laboratory to show him bacteria, to emphasize the importance of cleanliness in the Indian camps. The horror and bewilderment of a man who was free in his youth and was now a starving captive, being shown a world which he had never even dreamt of, is moving to say the least. A large collection of Native American clothing, pictures, sculptures and tools donated by the Linderman family can be seen at the University of Montana Library.
      So please go read some Frank Bird Linderman. His books are well written, and are written with love. He saw so much of it. The time of the trapper turning to the miner and lumberman. The demise and mistreatment of the Native American.  The war of the Copper Kings and the monopolization of an entire state. When you read his book, On a Passing Frontier, it's clear that he knows what he loves. He has stirred my imagination and made me care, he is actually the source of the title of my blog, and I guarantee he has got something for you too.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Montana's Tobacco Root Mountains

     I don't want this to be a geography blog that only covers mountain ranges. The non-mountainous parts of Montana often get short changed, and they shouldn't. But there are 67 mountain ranges in the state, 131 if you include the subranges, and I keep finding myself in the mountains so let's look at another great chain, or more accurately, blob.  The Tobacco Root Mountains are near and dear to my heart. My first experiences of backpacking and fishing alpine lakes took place in their upper reaches. They are stunning, accessible, and being nearly entirely covered in National Forest,  all of ours
     The Tobacco Root Mountains are 30 miles southeast of Butte. On their western side is the Jefferson Valley, to the north are the Mountains of the Boulder Batholith, and to the east is the Madison River and Gallatin Valley.  They are a tight cluster of peaks, covering an area 15 by 20 miles. Within them are 43 summits over 10,000 ft, and more than 50 mountain lakes.  The highest summit in the range is Hollowtop Mountain, a 10,604 ft beauty, and a great climb.  Though heavily roaded, this country has deep untouched canyons, where encounters with Grizzlies, Wolves, Elk and Goats are often found. Even high up over 10,000 ft you may run into a peakbagging Moose. I have.
     The Tobacco Roots are a pile of earth consisting of Precambrian basement rock with a granite heart. Ancient rock, dating back 2.7 billion years can be located in the range. Around 70 million years ago, a large batholith punched its way up and through the overlying bedrock, giving the Tobacco Root Mountains their igneous core.  Because of the minerals formed around this contact zone, this range shows the signs of significant mining. The gulches and mountain flanks hold and hide numerous cabins and rich evidence of excavations of yesteryear.  Despite all of the exploration and attempts, no large scale mining ever took hold in the range, and remnants are all that remain. To the Geology nerd the Tobacco Roots are a smorgasbord, and there is even a Geological Field Station owned by the University of Indiana on the eastern flank of the mountains.
     Some really great hikes can be found in the Tobacco Roots. One of my favorites is the Lost Cabin Lake trail. It is also a bike trail, so you have to watch out for two-wheeled maniacs (in a good way) flying down the mountain. It is a gradual, 4.5 mile ascension into some of the most beautiful mountain high country Montana has to offer. It's a great trail for introducing someone to backpacking, or in my case, seeing if my cardio is up to snuff for the high country with a small human being on my back.  The fishing is superb, and numerous summits give the hiker peakbagging options if a side trip is desired. The thing is, this could be said about tons of hikes in the Tobacco Roots.  Cedron Jones, in his book Peakbagging Montana, rightly points out, "the terrain is perfect for beginning peakbaggers: steep and with an alpine feel, but never too hard or gnarly."
     If you are looking for a short afternoon or morning drive, I highly recommend driving the South Boulder River Road. A few miles south of Cardwell, MT, the road leaves Highway 359 and heads southwest, right into the heart of the range. You drive through a beautiful canyon, and as you head south the Sedimentary formations get successively older, until you are driving through basement rock, which eventually turns into the igneous mass that is the center of the range. The vestiges of mining are frequent. The road gets progressively worse the further you take it, but you should at least make it just past the community of Mammoth, an old mining town, now turned into summer cabins. Just after Mammoth, you climb a small hill and enter National Forest. As you come over the top you are greeted by a gorgeous, grassy meadow. The river runs along the northern side of the road and there are numerous campsites and picnic locations along its banks. Gazing across the meadow you get your first real look at the heart of the Tobacco Roots. Ominous mountains and rock, juxtaposed against a green picturesque meadow. One of my favorite places.
    Around the Tobacco Roots are some of Montana's wonderful small towns. The great fishing town of Twin Bridges, near where the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole Rivers combine to form the Jefferson River, is a great place to stop and explore. When I was 19 but my I.D. said I was 23, I would always stop in the Blue Anchor Bar for a beer. It's a great little watering hole. Towns like Sheridan, Whitehall, Harrison, Virginia City, and Cardwell all have their own unique character, and supporting the small town shops and restaurants they have to offer is always a good idea. More often than not they are owned and operated by great people with great products.
     The Tobacco Root Mountains have it all. For the four-wheeler, sportsman, peakbagger, biker and hiker they are a playground. If there is one category in which they fall short it is large roadless areas. The mountains are heavily roaded. Most mining country is. There are still very wild roadless canyons and high country, but in comparison to the rest of the range they cover only a small area. There is a 96,000 acre proposed wilderness within the range, and it would be nice if at least one large chunk of the Tobacco Roots could be preserved wild in perpetuity. 
     These are your mountains. They belong just as much to that dirt-bagger thumbing for a ride you drove past on the way to work this morning, as they do to Bill Gates. That's the way public land works. What a wonderful thing. Get out and experience what is rightly yours, and if you're in the general area of the Tobacco Root Mountains, get out and explore them. How could you not?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rain is a Reason, Not an Excuse

     This weekend, I will be post-holing through the snow to some hopefully not iced over lakes to hopefully catch some fish. Orographic lifting makes springtime mountains in Montana perpetually rainy, and chances are it will be a wet weekend, and I really hope it is. For some reason, most people have a negative view of rainy weather. They will say, "It's gloomy out", or the "weather was bad". It makes little sense to me to save your cash for a "Rainy day". Because rainy days are the best time to get outside.
     In terms of precipitation, the large majority of Montana is classified as desert. Very few places in Montana average more than 14-18 inches of precipitation a year. The badland country on the southern fringes of the Pryor Mountains is the driest region in the state. The Beartooth-Absaroka have already caused most air masses that move through there to dump all of the moisture within them. The wettest region in Montana is the west face of the Cabinet Mountains, where over 100 inches of precipitation can fall annually. They are the highest obstacle that eastbound air masses must deal with between the Cascade Mountains of Washington, and the Mountains of Glacier National Park.
     Growing up in a place where rainstorms were few and far between, and usually short, I always jumped at the opportunity to go play in the rain when I was a kid. I would throw on my ridiculously yellow raincoat, and go climb in the rocks behind my parents house. I loved it.  Instead of keeping your kids inside when it rains, make rain an event. "It's raining out. Throw on your poncho and lets go explore!" I do it with my own daughter.
      Rain takes a place and changes its nature. Often to the point that what once was familiar can instantly seem foreign.  One of the reasons people seek the wild places that Montana has to offer is solitude. It's often my primary reason. Because of the general population's avoidance of the wet stuff, a rainy day can bring solitude to places typically crowded. Take for example the M Trail in Missoula. It is the most used hiking trail in all of Montana, and on a clear day it is crawling with people. But when a mid-latitude cyclone rolls through town, I can hike to the top of Mt. Sentinel and back down without crossing paths with anyone. The sounds and smells are different. The sights change color and texture. Being outside in a downpour really changes the way a place feels.
     Historically, there were very real reasons to avoid the rain and the possibility of soaking yourself and your belongings. Some of them still apply, but really don't need to. In late May and early June, when Montana is most likely to have a widespread deluge, it is usually warm enough that you don't even have to keep dry. Wear wool. It's tough, cheap, and keeps you warm when when you're wet. When it is raining and 50 or 60 or 70 degrees out, I wear a pair of woolies for pants and a wool flannel and just get soaked. The wool keeps me warm, I don't have to worry about staying dry, and I really enjoy the experience. If it's early spring or fall, I still wear wool pants but just have a water-proof outer layer for my upper body. In my opinion some of the best weather for hunting is pouring rain. You know where the critters are likely to be, you can move quietly, and chances are, no one else is out hunting. It's a rare feeling to have the mountains to yourself.
     We are coming into Montana's rainy season. It comes quickly and leaves in an instant. For a couple weeks in late May and early June Montana turns green, and you feel like you're in a different world. It's something else, and you should get out and take advantage of it. The outdoor locations you enjoy on a beautiful day can be just as rewarding in the middle of a drencher. Rain is in the forecast tomorrow for some of Western Montana, and the weekend is predicted to be partly cloudy. No matter what the weather does, you don't have an excuse.      

For the record, I do not endorse anyone going into the hills, getting soaked, and dying of hypothermia. Layer up and pack extra dry layers, as well as appropriate supplies in case things go south. There are no guarantees when it comes to Montana weather.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Montana's Lionhead or Henry's Lake or Madison Mountains

     I've spent the last week enjoying one of my favorite regions of Montana: The Lionhead Mountains. Actually they are more often referred to as the Henry's Lake Range or the Southern Madison Range. The fact is that most Montanans have never heard of them, much less visited them. Which is unfortunate, because they offer a unique Montana experience. 
     On the southern end of the Madison Range and to the east of the Gravelly Mountains, the Lionhead Mountains tower nearly 4,000 feet above the upper reaches of the Madison Valley. Like most of southwest Montana, block faulting thrust this range into the sky and left the valley below sometime around 60 million years ago.  The northern and eastern boundaries of the range are formed by Hebgen and Quake Lakes. The southern end of the Lionhead is bordered by Henry's Lake, Idaho, while the western side looks down on the Madison Valley and Reynolds Pass. 
     These mountains really are a  treasure. The northern two thirds of the Lionhead lies in Montana, and the remaining southern chunk is in Idaho. They are a high set of mountains, with nearly all peaks surpassing 9,000 feet and a range highpoint of 10,609 ft, at Sheep Point. They really aren't big in terms of area, and the whole of the Lionhead can be found within a 12 mile by 8 mile rectangle of earth. Half a dozen fish filled lakes can be found in the high reaches of the range, and crystal clear streams filled with native Cutthroat drain the melting snow off its high peaks well into August.
      In terms of recreation, it is a paradise. Nearly every animal that can be found in Yellowstone Park can be found in the Lionhead. The Griz, the Wolf, and large elk herds are numerous, and even the occasional stray bison will wander its way to the Hebgen Lake side of the range from West Yellowstone only 5 miles to the east. Because of the elevation, distance from major population centers, and other regional attractions such as Yellowstone Park, as well as the Madison, Gallatin, and the Gravelly Ranges, these peaks are seldom visited, and it often seems as if you've got the mountains to yourself. The Lionhead contains a proposed wilderness, and has plenty of hikes as well as a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. But if backpacking and hiking isn't your thing, this mountain range offers scenic snowmobile trails in winter and popular mountain biking trails in the summer. To top it all off the Lionhead are surrounded by some of Montana's greatest lakes. Quake Lake, where in 1959 a mountain sized pile of dolomite collapsed into the Madison River, killing 28 people and flooding the basin, forms the rift between these mountains and the Madison Range to the north. Hebgen, Henry's Lake, Cliff Lake, and Wade Lake are all only minutes away as well.
     According to the Montana State Library, they are officially the Henry's Lake Range. Numerous geographers have claimed they should be called the Lionhead Range, while others have said they really don't deserve their own toponym and should just be considered the southern end of the Madison Range. After all, geologically they are identical to the mighty Madison Mountains, and the only thing that really distinguishes them as a different landform is Quake Lake and the Madison River, which separates them on its short west-east run. 
     I don't think The  Henry's Lake Mountains is a good name for two reasons: It is a boring, unsuitable name for such a great pile of mountains, and it is geographically misleading. Henry's Lake contributes only to a small portion of this mountain chain's border. It is not nearly as significant a lake as Hebgen, nor as interesting and wild a lake as Quake Lake. The majority of the water that drains from the Lionhead Mountains enters the Madison River Drainage, and doesn't even touch Henry's Lake. Also, the majority of this mountain range is in Montana, while Henry's Lake is in Idaho. Those who appeal that they do not need their own feature name do have a legitimate point, but I don't see the harm in it. The boundaries we create for toponym distinction are often arbitrary, and to me, Quake Lake and the Madison River are boundaries enough. What harm comes from Montana recognizing one more mountain range?  The Lionhead is the name of a significant peak within this chain, absolutely worth seeing. It's an applicable name for a mountain range that is wild, sometimes frightening, and for the most part, left alone.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Books For Your Montana Road Trip

     I have what essentially is a "Geo-Kit" for any trip we take as a family in Montana, and you should have one too. It is a great way to add interest to the landscapes you encounter. It's also a great way to spark conversation with your fellow travelers, or drive them nuts, or embarrass them, depending on their acceptable threshold of Geo-nerdiness. A warning though, your trip may take a lot longer when every few miles you want to pull over and look at something, imagine the events of yester-year, or drive up that road in the opposite direction of where you are heading.
      Of course the first ingredient in the kit is a good map. There are plenty of atlases out there, and they all have their perks and downfalls, but I have become attached to the Montana Atlas made by Benchmark Maps, out of Medford, Oregon. These are recreation maps that are pretty good in terms of Public Land details, Geographic Coordinates, beautiful hypsometric tint, and being up to date. Also as a bonus, they have Alleged Bigfoot Sightings, which cracks me up. It's also a good idea to have one of the most basic tools for Geographic understanding, a compass.
     Primarily though, my kit is made up of books. 

This is Montana by Rick and Susie Graetz

      This is the finest book on Montana Geography out there. Rick Graetz, who founded "Montana Magazine" in 1970, is probably more knowledgeable about our state than any other living person. Rick is a  very popular teacher at the University of Montana, and I was lucky enough to take a few of his classes.  Rick and Susie are excellent writers, and have produced an easy but incredibly informative read.  The book covers the entire state, incorporating Geography and History, and doesn't short-change the eastern two-thirds of Montana like so many books do. It has general facts about the state as a whole, informs the reader about some great Montanans who have come and gone, and is excellent for use in High School and College level Geography courses. Every Montanan should own this book.

Roadside History of Montana by Don Spritzer

     Don Spritzer, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Montana, really knows his stuff. This book is exactly what its title says it is. Breaking Montana up into 6 regions, Roadside History of Montana  is a historical tour that follows along Montana's roadways. It contains pictures and obscure facts, as well as a superb bibliography. This is also a must have.

Roadside Geology of Montana by David Alt and Donald W. Hyndman

     This book provokes more thought in me than any other while travelling across Montana. Our state's geologic history is complex, and in some cases incredibly old.  Following along the roads of Montana and learning about the mountains, plains, and rocks around you or underneath you can really boggle the mind. Geologically we have everything in Montana, including mystery. The authors have included excellent maps to focus your attentions, as well as some really great pictures. This book will open your eyes to the massive timescales that precede all of us. It may also get you to start talking about rocks and dirt to perfect strangers or yourself, which may or may not be a good thing. I highly recommend this book.

Names on the Face of Montana by Roberta Carkeek Cheney

     Names on the Face of Montana is a neat little book. It's been around for quite a while. What this book does is explain the origins, meanings, histories and locations of the place names across Montana. Including many that are no longer on the map or the surface of the earth. Did you know that Kremlin, Montana is said to have been named because, "Russian settlers saw the citadel of Moscow in the Mirages that appear on the surrounding prairie"? Or that Clancy, Montana is named after "Judge Clancy", one of the most corrupt and crooked judges to ever sit on the bench, well known for sleeping off his hangovers in the middle of court cases only to wake up and make his decisions without ever hearing the arguments? The toponyms of Montana are fascinating, and you'll be spending so much time looking up the names on road signs as they fly by that you'll never be bored on a trip again. I don't believe this book is published anymore, but there is a similar one on the Montana Historical Society's website. I don't own that one, but if the Montana Historical Society wrote it, you can bet it's good.

     I haven't even scratched the tip of the iceberg, and could really go on forever. Depending on your interests there are other great resources out there. Personally I also always bring, Hiking Montana, by Bill and Russ Shneider, as well as Rockhounding Montana, by Montana Hodges and Robert Feldman. Depending on what part of Montana you're travelling through or to, there are numerous regional books that would be worth your time as well. Heading to the Bitterroot? You've got to read legendary forest ranger Bud Moore's, The Lochsa Story. How about the Flathead? Pick up Frank Bird Linderman's, Montana Adventure. Butte? Read Michael Punke's, Fire and Brimstone.  What books have added geographic meaning to Montana for you?
     The takeaway is that knowing the histories and stories that correspond with the places you see, the people you meet, or the ground you stand on, can enrich your thoughts. You'll never look at that location on the map the same way again. Every corner and locale in Montana has something fascinating about it that you don't know. All you have to do is discover it.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Which Boulder River?

      In my experience, if you ask the average Montanan where the Boulder River is, you will get one of three answers. About two-thirds of them will tell you it is south of Big Timber, running out of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. A sixth of them will tell you it runs through Boulder, Montana, along I-15 from Helena to Butte. And the remaining sixth will answer your question with a question of their own. "Which one?" 
     Any one of these answers would be correct. There really are two Boulder Rivers in Montana.  Not only do both rivers have the same title, but they also both discharge nearly the same amount of water. The daily-mean water-year count of the Boulder River at Big Timber flows at  23,226 cf/s annually, and the Boulder River at Boulder has a daily-mean water-year count of 25,440 cf/s. This though, is largely where the similarities end.
     There is a reason the Boulder River of Southern Montana is the more well known of the two. It begins at nearly 9,000 ft. in the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, flowing north over 50 miles. The river actually forms the dividing boundary between these two great ranges. Not only does it offer excellent fly fishing, it contains Class V rapids and one of the most beautiful waterfalls Montana has to offer, Natural Bridge Falls. A marginally insane kayaker has even gone over this impressive cataract. The valley it flows north through truly is breathtaking, with some of Montana's mightiest peaks creating the walls that surround it. Parts of the movie, "A River Runs Through It" were filmed here. Along its banks, dilapidated cabins show evidence of the first white occupants of the valley. Eventually, the river leaves the canyon and flows through the agricultural high plains that border the northern side of the mountains.  Near the community of Mcleod, the West and East Forks of the river pour into the Boulder's mainstem. Around 15 miles north of Mcleod, the river's mouth can be found near Big Timber, on the southern side of the Yellowstone River. In 1806, Captain Clark named this location, "Rivers Across".
      If from the mouth of Southern Montana's Boulder River, we head 150 miles northwest, to the Continental Divide along the Mountains of the Boulder Batholith. We will find ourselves near the headwaters of the other Boulder River. Originally named Field's Creek, by Lewis and Clark, it begins by flowing north off of the divide separating Silver Bow and Jefferson Counties. Curving to the east, it absorbs most of its water from the north, provided by snow melt and springs along the southern face of the proposed Electric Peak Wilderness area. Between Bernice and Boulder, Montana, it flows straight and fast along Interstate 15. Along this stretch the remnants of mining are frequent. The communities of Basin and Comet are both residual districts of a bygone mining era. Also present along the banks of this Boulder River are numerous Radon Health Mines. Many people go sit in these mines to breathe in small amounts of what is typically a cancer causing, radioactive gas, to cure what ails them. To each their own?  At the town of Boulder, the river curves south and leaves  I-15 and the mountains. It then meanders south through the beautiful Boulder Valley. In late spring the Boulder River rages, with plenty of snow to feed it. But in late summer the river below the town of Boulder is chronically dewatered, and often runs dry only to be replenished further near its mouth. This is a byproduct of irrigation needs, and over-allocation, by way of Montana's Prior Appropriations system. For nearly its entire length though, when the water allows, this Boulder River also offers some of Montana's most overlooked and under appreciated fly fishing. Around 30 miles south of Boulder, the river's mouth can be found near Cardwell, Montana. Here it empties into the north side of the Jefferson River.
        On one hand, it's a shame that these two rivers share a name. They both have something unique to offer, but  much of it gets lost in the confusion that follows from duplicate toponyms. On the other hand though, the names are fitting. Both rivers are filthy with their namesake, and independently the titles fit. It would be a good thing though, if more Montanans fell into the, "Which one?" category, instead of short-changing a river or themselves. Because until you've taken in both Boulder Rivers, you really are missing out.

Additionally: Montana also has a South Boulder River, originally named Frasier's Creek by Lewis and Clark, which has  nothing to do with either of these rivers, as well as a few Boulder Creeks.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spots of Time on Spots of the Map

"I also became the river by knowing how it was made."- Norman Maclean
      Now every good Montanan knows that Norman Maclean was full of unforgettable quotes. We've all seen the movie, and hopefully more have read both his books. But of all the gold nuggets Maclean gave us, his most overlooked and perhaps meaningful sentence stresses the intertwined relationship between geography and history.
      We must never separate a location on the map, from the events that have occurred there in the past. In present day America our young people (and our old), are geographically decrepit. Ever since 1983, when University of Miami Geography Professor, David Helgren, gave his senior geography students a pop quiz on basic world geography which they failed miserably, it's been clear. (Half couldn't locate Chicago) Helgren shared the results with his colleagues, who shared with the media, and Helgren was canned. Numerous studies since this have verified that American students are cartographically clueless.
       Geography is important for a multitude of reasons, and we can work to fix present day ignorance. We must require students to display geographic knowledge, we need to spend more time on geography, but more importantly, we need to make geography interesting.  One way to do this, is to never speak in strictly geographic terms. To far too many people, geography is reduced to uninteresting questions. "What is the capitol of....."
       Whenever teaching about a place, always incorporate the most meaningful past events that have happened there. Extend to multiple levels. Describe a location not only by its position on the graticule, but also present events and their relationship with modern history. Go back to prehistory, and even geologic history. Help students learn by relationship.
     Take Maclean's example. To someone who didn't know where they were or what had happened there, the river is just water flowing downhill. But to Maclean it was geologic history and the "Earth's Great Flood". It was Hydrology, snowmelt from the western side of the Continental Divide. It was economics, logging camps and dude ranches. It was personal history, fish he'd caught with people he loved.
     Often I play a game with myself. A geographic historical 10 x 10... Where are you? What happened there ten years ago? How about one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, and so on. Any number works.
     So this weekend when I climbed the hills above Belmont Creek, above the Big Blackfoot, I wasn't thinking only about elk antlers on the ground.  I thought about the great Montana story teller Howard Copenhaver, and the hunting yarns he's told that take place there. I am sitting with Norman Maclean, 80 years ago. He wrote about it: "On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us." These Ponderosa are still there, and you can go sit under them too. I look northwest into the drainage of the West Fork of Gold Creek, where 250 years ago Native Americans summered, escaping the heat and mosquitoes. The grove of old growth trees where they camped are still there. I daydream back 12,000 years, to ice sheets a mile thick, right on top of where I am sitting. In my head I create the place 600 million years ago, where migrating inland seas laid sediment down, stacking it over and over again, creating the belt rock that make up this mountain and the stone I am sitting on. Prior to that, I am back in time 2 billion years, imagining this mountain gone. I am in an ancient sea filled with cyanobacteria, photoshynthesizing, creating the oxygen we all breathe, billions of years later.
     All of this from a rock on a hill without a name. Geography isn't just maps. It's what the map represents, it's what the map was, it's before the map. By knowing a place you become it. And it works anywhere you are.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your Own Little Known, Seldom Visited

      Montana has some of the most scenic, recognizable destinations in the world. At one point or another, every Montanan should make a trip to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, or the Rocky Mountain Front. We've all seen the post cards of the The White Cliffs of the Missouri, or the Sleeping Giant. Symbols of Montana.  And though all are beautiful and unique, they aren't the places that aggregate into what I think of when I visualize what Montana is to me.
     Significant inquiry into the process of how a space becomes a place has been trending in the fields of Geography and Sociology. Of course things like recognition, nicknames, and accessibility, all factor in to how a space becomes a place, and gains meaning to social groups. But one of the great things about Montana is that we needn't recycle the same old places that have held meaning to the past or the masses. It can be far more personal. The amount of "places" in Montana can increase exponentially, and no one will ever know, because nearly anywhere in Montana can become a place of significance to you.
      The places of Montana to me, are that miserable, brush covered side of Bonner Mountain that was stripped of timber twenty years ago. It's Buffalo Wallow, northeast of Roy, Montana. Where solitude unmatched by any location in the western half of the state can be found 9 months out of the year. Or the Boulder Cutoff Road, where a trip from Boulder, Montana to Bozeman can either be fifteen minutes shorter, or an hour longer, or a long damn walk, depending the disposition of that day's gumbo. There is a hill at 8,000 ft. ASL, near Clancy, Montana, and on a clear night with little moon, you have a panorama of light reflections of Helena, Great Falls, Butte, and Bozeman, illuminating the atmospheric ether of one third of the entire state. 
      Surely you all have them. What I am saying is you can have more. Take a space and bring into being, a place. Pick an obscure spot on the map and go for it. You may as well stop for a beer in that seedy, small town bar. Get your rig stuck in the hills with someone you love, and walk for a day and a half before being delivered from isolation. Climb a nameless mountain in a nameless range. 
      The country is big, the people are few, and though the map may look complete, this is only superficial. The claims to "place" on the form of Montana, will be perpetually incomplete. Take advantage while your here.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hell Across Montana

                        "Now she's gone to Hell for keeps." 

     This sentiment was expressed to Frank Bird Linderman by an old trapper, disgusted by Montana's admission into statehood in 1889.   Though his feelings were produced by the sense of loss that came with a passing frontier, when we look at Montana in terms of toponyms, he couldn't have been more right. For this geographic flight of Montana's underworld, no place is more suitable as a starting point than Hell Gate Canyon. A crack in the earth separating the Sapphire and Rattlesnake Mountains, where the bones of ambushed Indians lay bleached for hundreds  of years, found and named by the first whites to enter the Missoula Valley. 
     From here we turn south, up one of the most scenic valleys in Montana. Along the way we come to Jim Hell Rock overlooking the ancient East Fork of the Bitterroot River. 
     Following the river to its source, we cross the Sapphire Divide and drop down into the Big Hole Valley, where a band of sleeping indians were ambushed, and women and children experienced Hell on earth. 
     Heading up the Big Hole, over its divide and into the Beaverhead  drainage, we head upriver to the southern fringes of the Bitteroot Range, also known as the Centennial Mountains, to Mount Jefferson. On the eastern slope of Mount Jefferson is Brower's Spring. The spring drains into the Western flank of the mountain and so begins Hell Roaring Creek, the ultimate beginning of the mighty Missouri, from which the water heads to the Gulf of Mexico. 
     Further west, over the Madison Plateau, where the ultimate tale of survival was told, sits Colter's Hell, and all the brimstone that goes with it. 
     Taking a north bearing out of Yellowstone Park we are greeted by the Devil's Slide, a layered vertical wall of limestone and quartzite on the eastern face of the Gallatin Range. The central divide of these mountains is called  The Devil's Backbone, which is fitting. 
     After the valley opens up we turn east and travel alongside the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S. If we travel far enough, we'll make it to Glendive, where the badlands of Montana's largest state park, Makoshika Park, dominate our view to the south. A 19th century American General once said that badlands looked like, "Hell with the fire out". He was right.
      At this point we are getting dangerously close to North Dakota, which no Montanan wants, so we turn northwest. Over dry windswept prairies we amble until we arrive at Jordan, Montana. Here, the Hell Creek formation holds one of the worlds greatest fossil beds, where mudstone and sandstone preserve a bygone burial ground over 60 million years old.
      Let's keep heading west, over grasslands and prairie, where homesteaders and cattlemen came for the good life. But as Joseph Kinsey Howard made clear, "Rain is all Hell needs", and most of them were gone before it ever came.  
       Further west we are finally back in the mountains, at Devil Creek, on the northern edge of the Great Bear Wilderness. If from here we head southeast, through three wilderness areas and across Highway 200, all the way to the northern block of the Boulder Batholith, we might find ourselves in one of my favorite gulches, at Go Devil Creek. The mountains are littered with boulders the size of houses, in between which the  old growth Ponderosa stretch for sunlight. 
     Nearing the end of our circut we head northwest, back towards Missoula, following the Little Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers, nearly always against the southern wall of  the heavily mined Garnet Range, the heart of which is dominated by Devil Mountain. A lonely, seldom visited rock obscured by the timber. Finally we are back through Hell Gate Canyon, where Hell Gate Winds blow.
     If heaven were a place that actually existed, I doubt I'd hesitate to trade residency there for any number of spots on the map of Montana. But it is worthwhile to remember, that for many of the occupants of yesteryear, Montana has had its fair share of eternal damnation. The Geography of today reminds us.