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It’s 930 miles from Whitefish, Montana to Fruita, Colorado.  We left, as has become habit, around 800pm.  730 is close enough to Little Bear’s bedtime to ensure a tranquil transition to sleep, but M forgot her snowboots and he had to go back.  All night drives south may be a habit, but even with this being the fourth such in a year the departure seems un-natural.  I drove two hours to Missoula, where M took over and I slept until the lights of Dillon, and took over for her a little north of Lima.  I made it through the heart of the night and Idaho all the way to Tremonton before cratering spectacularly.  M resumed driving and I patted LB back to sleep, getting there first myself, and we both woke up in haze, the sun still hidden, conveniently next to the McDonalds in Lehi, Utah.  The playplace got LB back in a good mood, coffee did the same for me, and it took two breaks for walking and much backseat toy action before he succumbed to naptime not far from I-70.  Him staying asleep as we gassed up in Green River confirmed that fortune shone upon us, as by noon we were in our future home, walking in the park and having lunch.

Little Bear acquitted himself well over the next six days, house hunting, filing rental paperwork, meeting soon-to-be not-strangers at my new job, living in a hotel and then camping along the scenic trip home.  We’ve built a good life for him here in Montana, but every thing points to our promised new life in Colorado being more relaxed, more fulfilling, and happier.  Returning the a dark October of record rainfall only enhances the promise of desert sun.

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M and I met and fell in love in Iowa, but our early years in Utah and Arizona built the strength we’ve put to such good use over the last 15 months of parenting.  Returning to a land of harsh blue skies, pinons and junipers, soft canyons, and ugly badlands feels correct.  It’s the right place for us, and the right place for the rapidly growing kiddo.  Hopefully he’ll quickly learn about cactus, his initial (repeated) meeting with goatheads along the banks of the Green River doesn’t give too much cause for optimism.

Needless to say I never intended to become part of “the industry” but given that my parents met in an outdoor store, and how much time I’ve put into this hobby over the past half decade, this change in careers is pretty damn rewarding.  Nothing but two weeks, some delicate case transfers at my old job, and a whole lot of packing (and a sheep hunt) between us and saying a long-term, maybe permanent hello to the Corolla of western states.  It almost cannot happen soon enough.  We have big plans.

Only the big things

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Since we returned to Montana in early January, Little Bear has continued sleeping like a 6 month old should, which is to say not for especially long.  M and I are bumping along just fine, but smaller things like household organization, non-essential dishes, and alpine skiing are not getting done.  The big, important stuff like work, family time, outdoor time, and as much sleep as we can manage take up all our attention.

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While some of the little things will eventually demand time given, for the moment the status quo is not at all bad.  Little Bear loves long rides in the woods in his ski trailer, and my legs, arms and aerobic system love hauling 40+ pounds of baby and inanimate entourage around along groomed trails and ungroomed logging roads.  We two have been averaging 10 hours a week since the new year, and I’ve only turned the Chariot on its side twice.

This past weekend, to celebrate the brightest weekend since Christmas and my impending birthday, we headed over to the east side and a ski-in cabin rental along the North Fork of the Teton River.

The Rocky Mountain Front is higher in elevation than the Flathead Valley, but also gets more sunny days, and absolutely strafed with wind.  Our afternoon trip in was in no way unusual; gust to 40 mph, and plenty of heavy windblown snow and bare ice, even though several inches had fallen the night before.  Thankfully optimizing glide with the chariot is not a huge concern, as the ski bases took a beating.

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The Teton River valley, and the northern half the Front generally, has tremendous scenery and is one of the great hidden treasures of Montana, which is saying a great deal.  The limestone reefs and ridges look impressive from the highway, 30 miles distant with prairie between, but even from the higher summits in the middle it is difficult to grasp the magnitude and complexity.  Orographic loading feeds plenty of vibrant creeks in the late spring and summer, and that water has a task when it comes to finding its way out onto the flat.  The cabin is at the very end of the road, along the same Teton the pavement follows to the brink of the mountains, but our route required icy switchbacks up to the end of the plowing at the tiny ski hill, and a long ski down the other side.  The river takes the more direct route, cutting a sinuous canyon between sharp ridges, too narrow for the road builders.  I came through last May, and have wanted to get back ever since.

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Those last unplowed miles are not long, but we now carry burdens measured in both pounds (over 20, in fact), ruminations, and 2am wakeups, and were glad to reach the door, go inside, and get a fire going.

Most forest service cabins were built with utility (and snow and grizzly proofing) in mind, and conspicuously lack more than a few little windows.  This cabin has big ones, on all four walls, which together with the location and cozy amenities jump it to the very top of my all-time list.

That night, and all the next morning, we were content to play with the baby, read, drink coffee and beer, eat food, do chores, and generally stay put.  It was very nice.

Little Bear celebrated his fifth cabin and new sleeping bag (5 oz Apex and .9 oz illume15) by sleeping no better or worse than he has lately, and also as he has lately, being amusing and happy as only a baby can be at almost every waking moment.  He did us an even bigger favor on the drive home, napping for over half of it and mostly entertaining himself with a few toys for the other part.

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It was not a restful cabin trip, in the old sense of a vacation for both body and brain.  Words fail more often these days under the fog of a brain tired, as well as weighed down with responsibilities it has yet to fully grasp.  I do know that it was a good weekend, two exceptional days in an increasingly large pile of them, and that we will be back.

 

Forest Service cabins of Montana

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You should know about the forest service cabins in Montana.  Retired patrol cabins, ranger stations, fire lookouts, and private residences which have gone into public hands, they’re one of the great secrets of public lands recreation in North America.

Why am I writing about these cabins now?  Because the Forest Services takes reservations a half year in advance, and summer is six months away.

Most cabins can be driven to, as can the vast majority of lookouts, making them ideal for rest or preparation at the start or end of a backcountry trip, destination for visiting friends or relatives, and most especially for a relaxed weekend away.  Or has been our case recently, pseudo-camping trips with an infant.  M and I have gone on a number of cabin trips intending to hike vigorously and see much of the surrounding area, but that never seems to work out.

These days I make a point to pack at least one good, thick book and plenty of luxury food, while M prefers to pack a jigsaw puzzle.  Little Bear, who has been to four cabins, has yet to express preferences beyond a few toys/objects for drool.  My favorite cabins and lookouts are therefore ones in cool locations and with pleasant facilities, that provide the correct mix of luxury and immersion in the wild.

Aside from reservations in advance, cabin trips require a modest amount of preparation and planning.  A handful have electricity, and running or at least pump water on site, but as a rule you can expect a pit toilet, and plan on bringing all your own water.  If you’re making, and more importantly doing dishes for, fancy meals I’d suggest a minimum of 2 gallons per person, per day.  If you need some extra containers, plastic kerosene jugs are watertight, fairly cheap, and the appropriate blue color.

Other things to bring on almost any cabin or lookout trip include slippers (especially in winter), plenty of coffee and tea, fresh batteries in your headlamp, a battery or propane powered lantern, and a good skillet.  Most cabins are well stocked with dishes and cutlery, and many have a nice selection of cast iron, but sometimes the skillets are a bit rough.  A saw and hatchet or axe in the vehicle are a good idea.  The later to cut out any deadfall which might try to block the road, the former as a backup.  Only once has the axe at a cabin been missing, but when you were planning on cooking on the woodstove, and can’t split wood, life gets complicated.  On that note, be sure to bring some newspaper for tinder, cabins are often short of this crucial commodity.

All the cabins and lookouts discussed below can be driven to with a passenger car and a reasonably skilled pilot, under summer conditions.  The other three seasons can be a whole different affair.  If in doubt call the local ranger district, and be conservative.  During our solstice visit to Ben Rover the normally well-plowed North Fork road was subject to a holiday lapse, and a half foot of new snow on our last night made the spur from the cabin back to the main road dicey for our little hatchback.  Only 8 psi dropped from the drive tires and decent skill on my part had us not getting stuck (though my parents in the 4×4 behind us would have shoved us out).

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If you’re visiting the west side of Glacier National Park, the Ben Rover cabin is highly recommended.  A little less than a mile from the Polebridge entrance station, a similar distance from the Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon, and around 100 meters from the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Ben is a great base for hiking, backpacking, boating, fishing, skiing, hunting, or just hanging out.  It has not very good mattresses for eight, a propane stove, oven, and lights, and a nicer kitchen and interior than many houses.  A 50 dollars a night it is in my book a total bargain.  The only reason we’ve only stayed there on two occasions is not that it’s only an hour from our house, it is that the Ben fills up early, year round.

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Challenge Cabin is another local favorite.  A winter-only rental, the location may not be prodigiously stunning, but it’s a nice cozy cabin with a moderate ski in that makes for an ideal beginner outing.  The parking area is regularly plowed and right off the highway, and the 7 miles in is all on a road which gets regular snowmachine traffic, and is even occasionally groomed.  The stovepipe was recently replaced, and now getting the cabin sauna-hot is very possible.  A small creek nearby means that in all but the coldest weather it is not necessary to melt snow.

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Casey knows a lot more than I do about lookouts in Montana, but my favorite out the few I’ve stayed in is Garver, without question.  By definition lookouts have good views, but the position of Garver Mountain makes these views better than most.  As a bonus, Garver still has its wood stove.  Just don’t try to build your fire in the oven compartment.

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If you’re at the Basin Station cabin early enough in the spring you might well see bison in the field out back, before the NPS and state wildlife comes along to haze then back into Yellowstone (the above photo is from the park, I forgot to get one of the cabin).  What Basin Station is, year round, is a charming and affordable (less than 10 dollars more a night than many campgrounds) place to stay a 10 minute drive from the park entrance.  It has bunks, a quality wood stove, and windows on three walls.  It does not get much better.

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Cabins and lookouts are a great resource.  They aren’t camping, but as family and Little Bear have shown us in the last year, some times camping is more than you want.  Cabins are a great gateway, and hopefully serve to get folks out in the wood who wouldn’t otherwise venture beyond hotels.  This being the case I hope the Forest Service continues and expands the cabin rental program, especially by adding more facilities beyond summer trailheads.  It would also be nice to the see the Park Service get involved.  Until that happens, get planning, and get your reservations in soon.

 

The death of the Baring Creek cabin

IMG_7824A couple years ago I spent a few nights, alone, at the Baring Creek cabin along St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. A few days ago it burnt down in the Reynolds Creek fire.

IMG_7835The press copy about “the historic” cabin is somewhat misleading. Yes it was built in the 1930s, possibly by CCC labor. Yes it is hidden away in a gorgeous location, and was an excellent example of the classic one-room patrol cabins, back when such things were more systematically used. But the cabin was also 100 meters from a paved road, and the vintage look was taken away by the installation of a propane range and oven inside. Oddly, no propane lights were installed, hence my wearing of a headlamp when it was still light outside, as the classic cabins have windows both small and few.

IMG_2621The Reynolds Creek fire is noteworthy because it started and has primarily burned through old growth pine forest.  Not especially scenic stuff from a hiking perspective due to the lack of views, but very pretty if you have a good look, what with abundant moss and thick twisted bark.  The Reynolds Creek drainage is one of the very few places in Glacier I’ve seen lynx tracks.

IMG_2637The area won’t be the same for quite some time.  I’m not enough of a dendrologist to know how long it’s been since the Reynolds, Baring, and St. Mary valley forests have burned, but I’m quite sure it has been a long time.  Over a century, perhaps.  These forests are not especially moist, but they are dark, and hold onto the long snow of winter for a long time.  This spring they were, surely, fairly quiet.  Next spring they’ll be much louder, with standing dead snags, lots of flowers and greenery, and plenty of happy deer, elk, and bears.

I look forward to seeing it next year.

My favorite salsa recipe

R0010052Ingredients:

9 jalapenos
4 small onions
1 head garlic
2 cans stewed tomatoes with garlic
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
salt
olive oil

Slice jalapenos into ~1cm pieces, roughly dice onions, peel and halve garlic cloves.  (If you’re averse to spice, de-seed the peppers entirely or in part.)  Place in skillet or pan, drizzle with olive oil, and roast on the middle rack on 400 degrees, stirring occasionally, until done.

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Decant into large pot, add tomatoes, use vinegar to deglaze skillet, adding liquid to salsa.  Salt liberally and simmer for ~20 minutes, until things have thickened a bit and the vinegar has mellowed into the veggies.

R0010069Check taste and add salt if needed.  As it will be eaten cold, you want it to be a bit on the salty side when you call it done.

Pour into tupperware and store in the fridge for 24 hours before eating.

R0010074As I make it this is a spicy salsa, but not overly so.  I like spice, but also like to eat salsa by the cup as a legit vegetable side with roasted meat, scrambled eggs, potatoes, and so forth; and this can be eaten copiously without inducing tears.

Enjoy.

The National Bison Range

R0002096If you happen to be in Montana, driving between Kalispell and Missoula or vice versa, I recommend you take a few hours and swing by the National Bison Range.

Encompassing a low range of grassy mountains at the south end of the Mission Valley, the bison range is a beautiful place.  It has been managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service since 1908, when then president (and honorary president of the American Bison Society) Theodore Roosevelt designated it as such.  It was started with bison purchased from Charles Conrad, one of the prominent early residents of Kalispell.  These bison came to live in the Flathead, not a traditional home of bison, when a Pend d’Oreille man returned from a hunt east on the plains with four bison calves in tow.  That was in 1872.  12 years later fewer than 400 wild bison were still alive in the United States.  By 1908 the total population had grown a fair bit, due mostly to private herds like Conrad’s, but also to the presence of the US Army preventing poaching in Yellowstone National Park.  The bison did well on the range, and by the late 20s 28 bison were shipped north to Alaska, to start what is now the robust and wild Delta Junction herd.

R0002098oday the bison range is home to around 400 bison, and in early summer the bulls, not yet in rut, are content to hang out in plain site down low where the best dust wallows are to be found.

For us the range is perfect, and M at 8 months pregnant is not interested in hiking very far.  In most of the range you cannot leave your vehicle, something recent events in Yellowstone certainly endorse.  So bring binoculars and spend leisurely time looking at the coolest mammals on earth.

R0002103The range in good habitat for the full complement of native ungulates, including 1 month old pronghorn.  Elk, both deer sub-species, and bighorn sheep are also common sights.

As a hunter I can’t look at sights like these without something of an anti-Buddhist longing and sense of infamy, but at the same time hunting has made me appreciate patience and observation, and made my game eye much better.  We saw pronghorn pairs, like the one above, a half mile away up on the hills.  It’s sad to admit that in seven years of living nearby, this was only our second visit.  Surely that record will get better soon.

7 months

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The kid is due in just a little over two months, which means that life is already unalterably different, and that the rules of engagement have already changed.  As a matter of course M is now carrying around the equivalent of the heavist pack she’s ever had on a trip (which is not necessarily saying much as I carry most of the stuff anyway).  Last week I realized that the number of weekends until prudence would keep us close to home and the hospital were few, so I declared a last-minute vacation, took a day off, booked a cabin, and threw a bunch of stuff in the car for a few days in Yellowstone.

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Hikes were limited to 3 or so miles.  Thankfully the weather was flawless and an early spring had greened up even the higher river valleys, making the animals abundant, obvious, and from an outsiders view, profoundly happy.  We saw elk, whitetail and mule deer, bighorns, pronghorns, a large and glossy black black bear, and what seemed like close to a third of approximately 3000 bison which live in the park; as well a mallards, canada geese, an unusual number of very vocal sandhill cranes, and countless smaller and less singular birds, most of whose names I have in my haste and indifference never bothered to learn.

The first day we spent on the Blacktail Plateau and in the Lamar Valley, where you were hard pressed to look in any one direction for more than 10 seconds without noticing bison somewhere.  Curiously, we saw almost no calves.

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The answer presented itself the next day, driving in along the Madison River.  We pulled over to put the spotting scope on a few little orangish-tan patches bedded in the grass, sure signs of bison calves.  M then noticed a smaller light lump, the above calf, who was unable to stand and upon examination at 30x had obviously (umbilical cord) just been born.  Mom gave it a few licks and nudges, which prompted it to wobble up on stilt-like legs.

Soon enough the family came over to say hello and give encouragement, and the newest bison in Yellowstone (for the next ten minutes at least) was part of the herd.

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The rest of the day was given over to touristing.  We’ve both been to all the easily accessible sights, overlooks, and boardwalks, and while the infrastructure can tend to frame all those things in a way which disguises it, on a good day the wonder of the place trips you in mid-stride and rudely rubs your face with a place whose stature defies language and often, understanding.

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I can’t speak for Canada and Alaska, but I can say definitively and with absolute certainty that the heart of North American in the lower 48 is Yellowstone.  Geographically, hydrologically, epistemologically, and spiritually.

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It is, naturally, my favorite National Park, just like bison are my favorite animal.  The kids’ in utero country count stands at 3 (NZ, AU, USA) and park count at 4 (Grand Canyon, Zion, Glacier, Yellowstone).  There are a lot of years to come to work on both, as well as the numerous NPS units I’ve yet to visit myself.

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Today, we’re both enjoying the weeks with anticipatory leisure, and deeply looking forward to what it to come.  I know it’s the sort of thing that can never be told to you in way that you’ll hear (or maybe I’m unusually deaf in my obstinance), but I keep wondering why no one every told us how enjoyable and satisfying pregnancy would be, how good it will be for us and our marriage.  And presumably the good part is still to come.

Almost nothing

For the first half of this past week I drank no coffee.  Wednesday last we went on a hospital tour, and saw the very posh maternity ward where Little Bear will come into the world this summer.  Four hours later I was at home in the thralls of norovirus, vomiting hard enough I was worried I might break a rib.  I couldn’t eat or drink much the next few days, so wiping the caffeine slate clean seemed like a useful byproduct of the whole sordid affair.  Of course, I drained most of a liter french press this morning before getting off the couch for the days activities, so it did not take long for things to get back to normal.

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Coffee is one habit which has given my life shape for the last decade, plus.  In the recent years of post-grad school adulthood proper, my consumption has hardened into black only and frequent triple espressos, which seems appropriately dour.  I have yet to relapse back into the 2pm espresso habit.

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Wanderings outside have (obviously) been another defining factor, and they too have been quite mellow since we returned from New Zealand, to the point of seeming absence. Thankfully winter has in the past two months been wholly uninspiring, here in Montana, which has made my new inclination to stay home look less outstanding.  In the past I’ve written about the various ways to get outside more often, neglecting out of myopicicity the most salient point: prioritize doing so over social obligations.  In 2015, for the first time, staying local to attend a party is not appears responsibly, it is what I want to do.  Which is to say that soon everything will change, and that will be welcome.

(I still hiked ~25 miles this weekend.  An early spring will at least let me go into the Bob Open with decent dirt miles on my feet for the first time in the events history.)

Meeting the hype

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Some times, some things, even things which are famous and about which you’ve heard too much, exceed expectations. This happened numerous times in New Zealand, but no case was more clear cut than the pancake rocks of Punakaiki.

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The west coast between Westport and Greymouth is rugged, and the road which goes down it will make you ill. Partway down is one more in the series of steep headlands between beaches. This is Punakaiki.

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Waves from the Tasman Sea smack into limestone cliffs, and have over time carved canyons, caves, crevices, and holes into the fantastic compact limestone. Under M’s impetus we put the guidebooks to good use, and arrived right at high tide during a windy, rainy day. The spectacle cannot be well described. It was almost as interesting to close your eyes and listen as it was to watch. Hidden impacts precipitated sucking exhalations, after which came regular but unpredictable explosions up through gaps in the cliffs. On one occasion I had to sprint back to keep my camera reasonably dry.

Thankfully, the tide went back out and the impacts became less enthralling, and we were able to get a coffee at the cafe before continuing south.

The Harsh Fiords

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The first day on Doubtful Sound was the most trying of our whole New Zealand trip. The first third of a 26k day in tandem sea kayaks lulled us into complacency, before the main arm turned a little more westerly and the full force of the 30 knot winds slammed us in the face. Progress was excruciating the rest of the way up the arm, with a lunch break finally arriving at 3:30, five hours after starting. An earlier stop not only would have put reaching camp in doubt, but with only a handful of beaches in the entire fiord, was hardly possible at all.

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Thankfully lunch recharged everyone enough to make the crossing into Crooked Arm safely, and camp was tucked into a calm forest cove, complete with cook tarp and a big mesh tent to keep out the sandflies. My arms were shot, and I had to lay down carefully in the tent that night, least my twinging left elbow wake me. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke in a haze brought on by a full bladder and claustrophobia. The downpour outside was so fierce it seemed to slap down all air movement, and our little tent was stifling. Semi-panicked, I pulled off my shirt, ripped open the zippers, and leaped outside. The rain, drenching and cool, provided instant relief.

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The weather the next day was better than expected; clear, mostly calm, and we were surrounded by pulsing waterfalls brought to life by the inches of recent rain. Half the crew stayed behind due to fatigue, but my elbow held together, indeed the low-torque paddling and tremendous scenery made it feel much better.

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Fiordlands is massive, and built with rules I did not at first understand. How do 3000 foot granite walls, old, hard, twisted and dense granite, grow carpets of trees on 75 degree slopes? Evidently, the answer is that 30 feet of rain a year soaks the rock, moss infests the cracks and, over a century or so, accumulates enough biomass for seedlings to sprout, whose roots wriggle and grab, holding a forest tight to 12 inches of soil atop bare rock.  As can be seen by the blank patches, eventually a bit lets loose and a silvan avalanche comes down into the water.

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We saw a seal, and many dolphins, and the first freshly-used game trail I’d seen on all the west coast, and towering, monumental light as the sun came over the walls and onto the water, but it was the absurd basic physics of the place which left me most in awe.

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I’m not much on an ocean person, and in life-time a river person quite recently and only due to the dictates of western Montana.  I was a bit off edge all trip, even after the inexorable, backwards-pushing winds subsided.  Fiordlands isn’t a place to which I’m itching to return, unless it’s up in the tundra to hunt elk, but my images of it will remain vivid for decades.

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A note on logistics and planning: Doubtful Sound is not a beginner place to go sea kayaking, at least not without a guide.  The winds, currents, weather, and severe lack of places to get out of the your boat without tree climbing make it so.  At first we were just looking for someone to rent us boats, and only hired Sea kayak Fiordland when we found no one who would do so.  Turns out there’s a good reason for that, and that they runs a tight ship, with good guides and a great value for the whole experience.  Recommended.