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Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Quick Father-Daughter Rattlesnake Excursion

Elan, Kevin, & I (Ellie the photographer) in a meadow about four miles up Rattlesnake Creek from the trail head.
A couple of years back, my neighbor Kevin Dohr and I took our daughters, Elan and Ellie, for an overnight up the Rattlesnake corridor. 

Last year, we missed out on a repeat due to our pending move to New Zealand. But this year, we made it happen. 

We left the houses on Saturday at 3:15 pm, rode our bikes about 4 miles up from the trail head, and were at camp by 5 pm.

We had dinner, played in the creek, sat around the camp fire, went to bed, and in the morning had coffee and pancakes before the ride out. 

Both the girls and the guys got along well. I'm already looking forward to next year's excursion.

Ellie and I on the ride up.
Elan and Kevin on the way up

Girl Bike Power!
setting up camp
Girls playing in the woods



Thursday, September 1, 2011

Crossing 'the Bob' (or Wilderness as Re-creation)

This essay is pretty long, so it may be a yawner. Section III below gives our itinerary. Pictures throughout and at the bottom. 

Dave and I at the trailhead.
 I. Lucky in Wilderness
I can't deny the workings of luck in my life. From things out of my control, like my birth in Montana to responsible parents that put a roof over my head, fed and educated me, and introduced me to sport and the outdoors; to those that flowed from my personal choices, like my decision to stay in Montana for most of my education, through to a PhD in Mathematics at MSU-Bozeman, my eventual job as a professor of Mathematics at UM-Missoula, and my choice of life partner in my wife Jennifer.
Indeed, I've been blessed beyond what I could have reasonably expected, and when I count my blessings, high on the list is that I live in Montana, where open space, public land, rivers, and wild country are as accessible as anywhere in the lower 48.
Missoula is a case in point, but every institution in the Montana University System (MUS) enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to access to wild places and open spaces. In fact, I still dream of what my life would be like as a professor at Montana Tech-UM (a dream fed by Tech Professor Pat Munday's blog,, at UM-Western, or at MSU-Bozeman, as each of these institutions is close to wild places that I feel deeply connected to. As my PhD advisor at MSU-Bozeman used to say to me, 'If only I could clone myself.'
Scapegoat Mountain
Given that MUS professors are among the lowest paid in the nation, an obvious question is: Why do we stay? Well, not all of us do, but for many the quality of life in Montana is worth the sacrifice, and easy access to public land, including rivers and wilderness areas, increases life's quality significantly. Indeed, it's fair to say that the Montana way-of-life is tied to its wild places, even within the cities and towns, where open space is always within view, and, for those who crave adventure, wilderness is just a short drive away. 

II. Wilderness as Re-creation
The word 'recreation' translates from its Latin roots as 'to bring forth again', or to put it another way, 'to re-create'. The idea of recreation as re-creation rings a chord with me. In my day-to-day life in Missoula, quick trips into the surrounding national forest on my mountain bike or skis rejuvenates me and serves as my primary hobby and stress release.
But at least once a year, I feel the need for a longer trip, deeper into wilderness, further away from the trappings of modern life. Such trips serve to invigorate me for months, and even years, beyond their completion, and although physically punishing, are luxurious in their effect on my psyche.
However, making an extended trip into the backcountry happen is not easy. There's the difficulty of carving out a significant chunk of time from summer's already too full schedule, the guilt associated with leaving my family for nearly a week, the planning, and the expense in gear and in getting to and from the trailhead. In fact, when I think about it, the list of reasons not to go is relatively long and convincing, while the list of reasons to go is short and hard to defend, except to other Wilderness junkies.
In my experience, the likelihood of getting out into the backcountry greatly increases if you have a friend with a shared passion for, and desire to visit, wild places. As far as that goes, I have been fortunate in my friendship with Dave Sumner, an English Professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, whom I met in 1998 while we were both graduate students at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Since leaving Eugene in 2000, Dave and I have met several times for backpacking trips in Wilderness areas around the West: twice in the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, twice in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in eastern Oregon, once in the Dark Canyon Wilderness in southern Utah, an epic traverse of the Highline Trail in the Uinta Wilderness in Utah, and in the summer of 2011, an 80-mile crossing of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wildernesses, from the Dearborn trailhead on the east side to Holland Lake on the west side.

From camp one night.
 III. Crossing 'the Bob'
Dave, my wife Jen, two kids Alex and Ellie, and I crammed into our 1997 Toyota 4-Runner and drove the two-and-a-half hours from Missoula to the Dearborn trailhead, one of many entrances into the Scapegoat Wilderness and located at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Front.  After a hasty check of our gear, we shouldered our packs, said quick good-byes to Jen and the kids (who were off to visit family nearby), and began our trek.
We were getting a late start given our destination fourteen miles up the Dearborn at its confluence with Welcome Creek, so we set a brisk pace. In the two years since our last adventure, our regular correspondence in letters had tapered off, and so our usual vigorous discussions took a while to heat up. But we were soon touching on topics of perpetual interest: religion, wilderness, politics, family, literature, and travel, to name a few.

Sugarloaf Mountain
 The miles flew by with the good conversation and stunning scenery, but by the end of the day, our feet were sore, and we were ready for camp and our nightly routine of food and whiskey around the campfire. Though Dave and I strive toward the 'light packing' ideal, we make allowances for enough whiskey to last throughout our trips; after a long day on the trail, nothing relaxes the body and loosens the tongue like a 'few sips' of whiskey.
Dave on the way to the Peak of Sugarloaf
On day 2, we continued north along Welcome Creek, through an old burn, and over Straight Creek Pass into the Straight Creek drainage. About 9 miles into the day, we forded Straight Creek - by this point a small river worth a couple of days fishing and exploration - and traveled over a low pass to the North Fork of the Sun River drainage. Once at the stream, we turned south and set up camp at the first opportunity. The day had been only 12 miles, but it was rough going and our feet were feeling the effects of two long days on the trail.
The wildflowers were blooming like mad.
One of the things I like most about backpacking with Dave is the opportunity to talk with someone who shares a passion for ideas and the art of conversation. Our talks touch on a wide range of topics, from the abstract, to the personal, to our own hopes and dreams. The idea to write this essay, for example, came out of conversations with, and encouragement from, Dave while we walked the trail.

On day 3, we continued south briefly before swinging west and ascending to the Continental Divide at Observation Pass. This was the least visited section of trail along our route, with old blazes on standing-dead trees that I imagine had been put there by Depression-era CCC trail building crews.
The two of us on top.
At the pass, we dropped our packs and headed north, along the Divide, to Sugarloaf Mountain, a remote and awesome peak at the Scapegoat/Bob Marshall boundary. We followed an old trail, perhaps built by the same CCC crew, along a ridge to the base of the peak, and then struck out cross-country on a circuitous route to the summit.
The peak was worth the monumental effort required to get there, awarding big views and an unsurpassed sense of remoteness. By the time we were back at our packs, the detour had consumed five hours, and though we had six miles and a big descent to go, we were beat. Fortunately, our camp that night was one of the best of the trip, in an open meadow near Fiction Creek, with little sign of previous human use.

Our camp on Fiction Creek.

Ripples in stone near the Continental Divide.
Danaher Creek is more like a small river.

On day 4, we made our way to Danaher Creek, where both the valley and trail widened and traffic increased. At our lunch spot that day, we visited with an outfitter from Seeley Lake, the first person we had spoken with since leaving the trailhead. She had a large pack train, several hired hands, and 20 clients along for a 10 day Bob Marshall adventure. She spoke about worries that increased wolf numbers would hurt her fall business of taking elk hunters into the Bob Marshall. It was a prescient conversation, as Dave had been talking about an Op-Ed piece he was planning to write on the wolf management question for Portland's newspaper The Oregonian.
At the confluence of Danaher and Youngs Creeks, the South Fork of the Flathead River begins, and the valley widens to such an extent that other inhabited river valleys in Montana come to mind. From the start, the South Fork is a good sized river -- about the size of the Big Hole or the Bitterroot -- is easily floatable on a raft, and is full of cutthroat trout. In my mind, it's the presence of such river valleys in their pristine form that makes the Bob Marshall so unique.
Dave fishing Gordon Creek at its entrance into the South Fork of the Flathead River.

Camp on Gordon Creek
We set up our fourth night's camp where Gordon Creek enters the South Fork in another ideal spot. That evening, the fishing was good for small cutthroat trout, which accompanied our standard meal of rice, beans, and tortillas, and the views along the South Fork valley in the twilight were memorable.

Bear grass going over the Swan Range. 
Holland Lake with the Missions in the background.
Over the next (and last) two days, we began the long hike out to Holland Lake. The trail from the South Fork up Gordon Creek climbs gradually, through a massive burn, and finally living trees, to Shaw Creek cabin, where we set up our last night's camp. That evening we sat around the fire, enjoying our final evening's conversation, while finishing off the last of the whiskey.

The last day's hike over the Swan Range to Holland Lake saw the heaviest used trails of the trip; Holland Lake is the trailhead of choice for hikers from Missoula and Kalispell entering the Bob Marshall from the west side. The contrast with the early days of the trek, through the relatively empty Scapegoat Wilderness, were noticeable.
The hike down to Holland Lake trailhead from Upper Holland Lake is equal parts brutal, with a steep elevation loss, and beautiful, with views over Holland Lake to the Mission Mountains. We arrived at the trailhead on time, where Jen waited with pizza and Kettlehouse Coldsmoke beers to fill our bellies and numb our tire feet.
IV. Re-created
It's hard to put a price on such a trip. Sure, an outfitter could give you a dollar figure, but to do it under your own power and planning is immensely satisfying.
As professors in Montana, and in the West, Wilderness waits at our door. We have only to pick a spot, pack a bag, and go.
Such trips test our mettle, remind us of parts of ourselves we've forgotten or have lost touch with. We come out of Wilderness a little bit different and, I'd argue, a little bit better.
We're reminded that much of our rapidly changing world and busy lives lacks the weight of the truly important. Wilderness doesn't care at all about our problems, which reminds us to care a little less about those things in our own lives that don't really matter.
Another seventy years hence, I hope those old blazes are still visible on Observation Pass, and that hikers, such as Dave and I, are still using the forgotten CCC trail to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, perhaps seeking inspiration and a renewed sense of wonder in their lives.
It is good to know that there are places where this is possible, places where man's intrusion is only a narrow, lightly used trail, where changes occur with the rhythms of the natural, rather than the human, world.
On top of Sugarloaf, we could see an old game trail traversing the saddle along the plateau below us. It was a blue-bird day, and the peaks stretched out in all directions: Scapegoat Mountain to the south, the Swan and Mission Mountains to the west, the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountain Front to the north and northwest, and a hint of the Plains to the east.
We wondered how old the game trail was: 1000 years, more? The elk bounded on the high plateau, light spirited it seemed. Our feet were sore, and we still had a long descent to our packs and then miles more to go to our camp, but neither of us would have chosen to be anywhere else on earth.

Dave on the top of Sugarloaf Mtn.