Thursday, August 24, 2006

Beartooth Diversion

One of the hikers we shared a campsite with in Glacier was a local from Bozeman. He recommended that, if we had time, that we make a trip to the Beartooth Mountains. We had the time, and from his descriptions it sparked our adventurous curiosity. We left Mom and Dad, who would continue exploring Yellowstone at a senior citizen pace, with plans to reunite a week later.

The Beartooth Mountains lie to the north of Yellowstone in Southern Montana. These mountains were formed from uplift during the Rocky Mountain orogeny. During the Pleistocene, glaciers scraped off the sedimentary rocks on top of the Precambrian granitic basement. Additional alpine glaciation carved cirques, valleys, horns and rock basins. Distinctive features of the area are the high plateau-type benches and steep rugged valleys, covered with hundreds of alpine lakes. The highest peak in Montana, Granite Peak (12,799’), is contained within this range.

Our first venture into the range was a 3-day backpack trip. The morning after our first night out we climbed out of the canopy of the forest to a ridge where we could see the lay of the land. The top photo is our view looking north from this high point towards the carved peaks and valleys. The second photo is a view of one of the many lakes we passed as we hiked.

After our hike, we drove the scenic Beartooth Highway. Built in 1936, it is another engineering marvel. It crosses Beartooth Pass at an elevation of 10,947’. At the pass is tundra vegetation, and spectacular views of the ranges. To our surprise there was a ski lift accessing one of the cirques. There appeared to be no base facilities, or even a road going to the bottom of the chair. We learned later that the lift does run from when the road reopens in April until July. There was nothing like a lodge at the top either – just a gravel turnout in the road. I can only imagine Montana at almost 11,000 feet during a late spring snowstorm – it was chilly enough up there in August!

We camped just outside Red Lodge, Montana in Rock Creek Canyon. Our goal was to do a day hike up Mount Rearguard (12,204’), via a trailhead accessed by a very rocky and steep former mining road. We started at the wilderness boundary, and hiked 2,500’ up to the summit. There was some question in our minds as to the actual summit location, since the top of the mountain was one of those broad plateau features. At on promontory we found an empty frosting container with a pad of paper. Inside were just a couple of entries – the register was placed at the beginning of August by a group lead by a gentleman just short of 76 years old. We judged that the actual peak was a bit to the north, so we hopped boulders to that point. The third photo is me on one of the boulders we assumed was the high point, but on closer examination of the topo map we verified the high point was at the register. Oh well, what is five or six feet. The fourth photo is the view to the east at Beartooth Mountain and Beartooth Spire, from which the mountain range derives its name.

A rest day in Red Lodge for laundry, a much-needed shower, groceries, internet, and sampling of the local microbrew completed our tour of this jewel of a mountain range.

Posted using wi-fi access from Cody Public Library, Wyoming.

Megafauna – The Yellowstone Chapter

We headed south from Glacier, stopping again in Missoula at the world’s greatest natural food store. Taking our time, we followed a dirt road along Rock Creek Canyon to Philipsburg, following the trace of one of Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams. Laying over a day, we hiked up Mt. Tiny (9,848’) on the fringe of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, vowing to come back again when we have time to go deeper.

Our next major destination was Yellowstone National Park. We entered from the north, driving through from Bozeman to Livingston then south through Paradise Valley. We drove along the Yellowstone River with thunderstorms building all around us, and picturesque ranches on either side – quite beautiful. The month of January sees the migration of 10,000 elk north along this route – a sight undoubtedly different than the thousands of Harleys and motor homes that go the opposite direction in the summer.

We spent a couple of days in the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs. Here the flowing hot springs have formed terraces of many colors. We spent one day hiking to Sepulcher Mountain for views and to escape from the tourists. The only domesticated animals we saw were a family of five at the summit. We were treated, however, with another mountain goat sighting (top photo) – he is the white dot seemingly stuck on a vertical rock wall. Our hike back followed a meandering creek, and at a narrow spot in a canyon there stood a moose with a full rack, snorting and chewing grasses from the creek bottom (second photo). He was nearly oblivious to us, just periodically turning to check if we were still there. Click here for the video.

We traveled on to the Roosevelt-Tower area. After one night there, we separated from my parents to travel north to the Beartooth Mountains (see next post). We left early to hike to the top of Washburn Mountain to visit yet another lookout. On the way we saw a group of 13 bighorn sheep from a distance in a meadow just below the summit. We met another hiker at the top who hiked in from the other direction. He saw the group, too, but from a much greater distance. As he snapped pictures with his particularly long telephoto lens, he commented how lucky we were to get so close. He would have been even more envious had he known we would encounter the group again on our descent, this time right on the road in our path. They were more interested in grazing and lounging than getting out of our way (third photo). Click here for the video.

We exited the Park at the Northeast Entrance. Here the Soda Butte Creek flows through landscape very much as the early explorers would have seen. Despite the many developed sites within the Park, it was here that we fully appreciated the preservation that national park status provides. Bison roam this area (fourth photo), and we once again were treated to a close range view of large animals. Click here for the video.

We have yet to see a grizzly bear, but we are still looking.

Posted using wi-fi access from Cody Public Library, Wyoming.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Under-Advertised Geology

Photo courtesy of Ali Brukner (a.k.a. Dad).
When you cross over Marias Pass on Highway 2 between East Glacier and Columbia Falls, Montana, you pass by a most significant geologic feature. If you stop at the roadside rest and read the placards there, you would not be any more enlightened. At this stop there is a 60-foot tall obelisk of granite commemorating the completion of the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway at this pass in 1930. However, if you gaze to the north at the cliffs marking the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, you will see the trace of the Lewis Overthrust. Here Precambrian rocks (one billion years old) have been pushed up over much younger Cretaceous (70 million years old) rocks. The light colored band rising slightly to the right marks the fault surface.

We only were aware of this from my casual research at the libraries we visit for internet access. We camped two nights at the Summit Campground right next to the roadside stop, railroad, and highway. It was a lovely spot, but it required cessation of conversation when trains passed by. Earplugs were necessary for restful sleep. But it was worth the chance to stay in the shadow of such a geologic splendor.

Posted using wi-fi access from Missoula Public Library, Montana.

This is what Mom has to say…

Note: This is a guest blog by my mother, Ilse Brukner. She is my inspiration -- she composes stories and poems in English, her second language after German.

I think it is about time that Mom makes a contribution to her daughter’s blog .

For 2 months we are on the road together and our time in Glacier National Park will mark the halfway point of this summer’s travels. We crossed Nevada, conquered Idaho and now we are exploring Montana and -- oh wonder! -- we are still on talking terms and love each other.

We developed a good travel system and are always on the lookout for a secluded campsite. Mostly we pull into National Forest campgrounds to have the benefit of the Golden Age Pass for seniors, which cuts our camping costs in half; though any US Government facility has the same advantage and a chance of us being there. Also, the National Forests offer dispersed camping which is our preferred type. There is solitude and where else can you see a moose walking by slowly? Looking for those sites is a challenge and it takes time to explore the side roads which are always dirt roads, mostly former logging roads. With 40 years of camping experience behind us, of which 20 years were spent in a jeep pulling a military trailer converted into a tent trailer by my husband Ali, we are only too happy to pass on our knowledge to the next generation anytime.

Now our rolling home is a van - also converted by Ali - which offers refuge to all of us on rainy days and cold evenings. Occasionally we even watch a movie on the laptop– the “Pink Panther” and all its sequels – cozily pressed together in limited space. Doris’ and John’s tent pops up like a bright yellow mushroom beside us.

The ideal campsite is to be close to some mountain peaks the higher the better, for “the kids” to climb while we oldies - now around eighty - stay behind, preferably on a river or lake, guarding the camp.

While our youngsters storm the peaks, we are contend to be the support team and our time is filled with an extended morning walk of about 1 ½ hours preferably uphill at the beginning to massage the hearts. Ali, an accomplished photographer, with his camera around his neck, will always find something to be immortalized. His second hobby is watercolor painting of spectacular landscapes which are more difficult to find. My time is spent with hand quilting and embroidery and both of us are avid readers.

There are nights when two camp stoves are going full blast, and others when we invite each other over for dinner. The young ones are vegetarians while Ali and I are careful carnivores. We both have good sized camping refrigerators powered by the sun and our computers are energized by solar, too, and so are the lights in the van.

Since we never know what’s around the corner and where we will rest our tired bodies for the night, we remind each other to have the gas tank filled in town and the water cans filled at every opportunity. Camping on a river or lake gives us the chance for an additional water source to do dishes and for body culture. Food we carry enough to last us for quite awhile. These three things are paramount with off-road camping.

We appreciate the north with its running rivers. There is water everywhere, an astonishing thing for us thirsty desert rats from Southern California.

Did I give you a picture of our present life? If so, I am gratified and this blog has fulfilled its purpose.

Posted using wi-fi access from Missoula Public Library, Montana.

Glacier Journeys – Part 3

Our last four days in Glacier National Park were centered around Two Medicine Lakes in the southeastern portion of the park. A bit less dramatic, a bit drier, but still rich in wildlife and glacier-carved landscapes.

On our way to the lakes, we drove through the town of Browning. Located within the Blackfoot Indian Reservation, it had the typical drabness and rundown feeling of a reservation. The grocery store, however, was well stocked in produce, and we loaded up after more than a week of dehydrated and canned foods. We had quite the variety of fruits and vegetables, causing the man in line behind us to ask, “Are you guys vegetarians or something?”

John and I headed to Chief Lodgepole Peak via Cobalt Lake for a day hike. It was over 15 miles roundtrip, so we again got an early start. The top photo shows John gazing from the peak. We were rewarded by being the first on top, and on our descent we came across a group of mountain sheep, which included a mother and her kid (second photo). Click here to see a video of them in action.

We followed that day hike with an overnight backpack trip. We made a loop trip around Rising Wolf Mountain, camping one night at No Name Lake. The third photo shows reflections of the early morning light on Two Medicine Lake looking up towards the canyon we were to ascend. It was a short day in, and we were at camp by noon. We spent the afternoon lolling on the lakeshore reading magazines and solving crossword puzzles. The next morning we completed a total of four passes, the named ones being Dawson Pass and Pitamakin Pass. This trail followed the grain of the sedimentary layers along the ridge on the backside between passes, as shown in the fourth photo.

We ended our Glacier journey with a rest day in camp. All summer we told people our goal was Glacier National Park, but we tend to live by the edict that it is the journey, not the destination, that makes the trip worthwhile. Glacier was more than I ever expected, and even if it was a destination, our time there was a journey in itself.

Posted using wi-fi access from Missoula Public Library, Montana.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Glacier Journeys -- Part 2

You would think after seven days and 60 miles of hiking, we would have enough. But we decided on a day hike from the Many Glacier Campground to Grinnell Glacier to see a glacier up close.

We were on the trail by 7 am – this part of the park has a high concentration of visitors and we wanted to beat the rush. Many stay at the Swiftcurrent Hotel, a Swiss chalet-style lodge built early in the 20th century by the railroads. It sits on the edge of the lake with the enormity of the glacial landscape in front of it. Hikers can take a shuttle boat to bypass a couple of miles, but it only diminishes the horizontal miles, not the uphill miles. We opted for the full mileage, about 13 miles roundtrip with 1,700 feet elevation gain. With an early start we could get ahead of the first shuttle boat.

The top photo of the day shows the view from the trail as it approaches the hanging cirque where Grinnell Glacier is nestled. The feature was named after George Bird Grinnell, who was one of the leaders who helped achieve national park status for the area. The glacier itself is not visible, but the silver thread of water emanating from the glacier can be seen on the rocky slope. We were the second to reach the top, after a group of very fit French-Canadians passed us on the way up.

The second photo is of the glacier itself. What exists today is more like a lake with ice floes. It is very different from pictures we saw in the lodge from a century ago when glacial ice filled the entire basin where the lake is today. On the right of the photo is glacial till left as a moraine from the receding ice. If we return in a decade we can expect to see no ice at all. Who can deny that global warming is happening?

We proceeded down, passing the multitudes of day hikers. Many were inexperienced, without hat or water, who would breathlessly ask us how far the glacier was. We passed a ranger-led group of about 30, all bunched up, barely a foot apart, as they moved like a Slinky up the slope. Apparently these groups bring their own medic, since one participant tripped and skinned her arm and leg. We were going to offer a bandage from our minimalist first-aid kit, but they were well taken care of by a guy in camouflage pants and a Marine t-shirt. He was stoic and all business, dispensing care from a kit with more supplies than we carry in our ski patrol vests.

We were glad for our early start, which allowed us to see the landscape in the morning light in relative solitude. The views were nearly as beautiful as anything we saw on our loop hike – this would be on our list of must-do hikes if you ever visit Glacier National Park.

Posted using wi-fi access from Columbia Falls Public Library, Montana.

Glacier Journeys -- Part 1

A couple of days before our arrival at Glacier National Park, Dad started to get grumpy and withdrawn. It took a really good joke to coax a laugh out of him. The rest of us were quite buoyant in our anticipation of reaching the northernmost destination of our journey. John and I had a multi-day backpack planned, and Mom wanted to see the sculpted glacier landscape. We realized that Dad was dreading the traffic and humanity that is part of the National Park experience. On the day of entry, the cars were all lined up at the entrance station, families were taking photos at the entrance sign, and the motor homes and travel trailers (Dad calls them “incubators”) were jockeying for position in front of the gift stores. Dad could only converse in grunts from the depths of his curmudgeonly mood.

John and I went to the backcountry ranger station to obtain permits for the backpacking loop trip we had planned. Most people make their reservations months in advance, but since we did not know when we would arrive, we decided to wing it – we could wait a couple days if needed. All overnight backcountry hikers in Glacier are required to camp at designated sites along the trail, and the number of people allowed at these sites is limited. We worked through our itinerary with the rangers, and with luck on our side, were able to get a place at each of the sites along the route we wanted. The rangers were amazed – they said this rarely happens. We were instructed to view a video about backcountry travel, including how to judge if a grizzly bear is about to attack you (bobbing head, raised hair on back), and what to do if one does (don’t run). We bought pepper spray as an additional measure of safety, just in case.

We were to leave the next day from Many Glacier trailhead, which was on the east side of the park, 50 miles along the Going to the Sun Road. Mom and Dad decided to forgo the drive and get into the first campground before it filled up. We parted ways, to reunite in a week. We felt a bit sorry for Mom, who had to mediate Dad’s happiness, but she gave us a wink that it would be ok.

We headed out on our seven day trek the next day. The first day was primarily in the dense trees of the forest. The heat wave that gripped the West was still in affect, so we were quite sweaty on arrival to camp. Each of the designated campsites had tents spots, and all cooking was to be done in a central area to prevent food odors from contaminating the tent sites. There were either poles or suspended cables to hang food bags at night away from the bears, or metal storage lockers. Pit toilets were also available – some more protected than others. The ones with a wooden enclosure had a crescent moon carved in the door. The open-air variety had just a wood box with a hole in it and a lid, leaving you to ponder the sunrise while doing your business. It was a rather social experience at each campsite, since we cooked with our neighbors. We met folks from St. Louis to Atlanta to locals from Montana. It was much like staying in a hostel.

The landscape over the seven days of our hike was spectacular. The concentration of glacial features was more than we had ever witnessed anywhere. Water was everywhere – from glacial lakes to falls that poured from the hillsides. The metasedimentary rocks lay in horizontal beads, with cliff forming layers, multi-colored in reds and greens. Ripple marks and mud cracks were exposed underfoot along the trail. The loop we traveled crossed passes with names like Red Gap and Stoney Indian. On our second to last day we traveled across a section called the Highline Trail, which had a couple of side trips to overlooks. The top photo of the day is from the Sue Lake Overlook. The second is from Ahern Pass looking towards Helen Lake and Elizabeth Lake, where we had camped just a few days before -- click here for a video. The forest is much lusher than our local mountains, and we picked huckleberries for our morning cereal as we hiked. We watched a herd of 11 mountain goats one evening traversing the cliffs above our campsite. We completed our loop convinced that the best way to see this park is by hiking the backcountry, and we had picked a route through the best of it.

We thought often about Mom and Dad, and whether they were having a good time. We hoped they would be at the trailhead when we came out, and had not bolted from the crowds. We found them in the campground, happy and content. They had worked their way through four different campgrounds in the park, took a boat ride across St. Mary’s Lake, hiked many trails, and were as enraptured with the landscape as we were. A forest fire had closed the Going to the Sun Road, which seemed to diminish the crowds on the east side of the park. We were grimy and hungry, so we bought a shower and we celebrated our reunion at the restaurant adjacent to the campground. The pizza was mediocre, but it tasted good to us with our bottomless appetite after seven days of trail food. The Fat Tire Ale on tap wasn’t bad either.

We continued our journeys through the park, which are chronicled in the following couple of blog posts.

Posted using wi-fi accessfrom Columbia Falls Public Library, Montana.

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