In search of the rare Kelseya uniflora

Flowers make me happy.  And thankfully there is such a strong native plant community in our state that it’s possible to learn about the rare jewels we have in our midst. The Kelseya uniflora is one that I’ve wanted to see for years. So after our final pottery class this week, the other two families in our group, my friend Jean, and I, made the run to York, a small town 16 miles NE of Helena to find the diminutive flower that grows along the limestone cliffs of Trout Creek Canyon outside of Vigilante Campground.

According to the Montana Field Guide, there are very few areas where this unique – as in the only one in its botanical genus (hence, the “one-flower Kelseya” name) – can be found. Besides this beautiful little canyon, the Montana Native Plant Society’s newsletter (and I have to note that the Kelseya is the MNPS’s official plant symbol) said it is located along the Front near Augusta, as well as in the Centennial and Beartooth Mountains. Now that I know they are near Augusta, I’m definitely going to stay on the lookout to find another group of them.

It was discovered in 1888 by Francis Duncan Kelsey who came to Montana from Ohio, and was one of our first resident botanists in Montana who recorded a number of species, including his namesake. From what I understand, Kelseya is actually in the rose family, and is a low-growing mats with semi-evergreen foliage that thrive clinging to the rocky cliffs in these regions. The tiny, only about 1/4 inch in diameter, flowers are a bright pink and are exceptionally beautiful. It’s not hard to see why its such a celebrity in the plant world. It’s remarkable that something so gorgeous grows in such difficult terrain. I think there’s a metaphor for life in there.

When we made our little hike, we arrived at the Trout Creek Canyon parking area around 2, and with 6 kids and 5 adults, were on the trail 15 minutes later. The path itself is super easy with barely any elevation gain along a wide, flat former road. Within the first quarter-mile we noticed the Kelseya up in the cliffs, but continued walking until we reached the stream, maybe a mile down the trail. The stream was a source of concern for me this year because of the inordinate amount of snowmelt we’re experiencing, along with the subsequent flooding. I envisioned kids being swept away and went over every scenario (including turning back) when we reached the water. It was no big deal, at all. We all brought shoes to wade through it if that proved to be safer, but no one needed them. I even had my muck boots with me to be able to stand in the water to guide the kids across, but they stayed strapped to my heavy (because I also brought flower books) pack. In reality, the kids thought it was great fun to hop from the logs or rocks. And it was a good opportunity for us adults to practice our balancing skills. While we weren’t always graceful (and I almost lost my muck boots), no one would have made it on Funniest Home Videos.

Not long past the stream, the trail draws closer to the cliff and there were flowers all over it. Many of the plants were already passed their bloom time, but I was thrilled to find a few clumps still adorned with the pink blossoms.

We took our time heading back to the vehicles covering maybe 3 miles total, but overall had an enjoyable day with perfect temperature, no wind, and no mosquitoes. Ticks were definitely present. We saw one on the ground as soon as we got there, plus John found one on the back of his neck (thankfully not embedded) on the drive home, and Sara’s crew reported a couple, as well. It’s a reminder of why we always have to be vigilant at this time of the year.

Between the spectacular scenery of the box canyon with a profusion of flowers beyond the Kelseya, we’ll definitely be back to visit Trout Creek Canyon and the nearby trails.

Clematis were almost blooming

 

 

 

Going home to Mad Betty’s

A lifetime ago, in a galaxy far, far away I built gardens, a business, and a home. On 14 acres in Coram (purchased from friends for $18K!), the first thing I did was try to build a garden. Using my tried and true methods of turning the soil, I put a shovel in the ground, jumped on it, and teetered back and forth. With all of the glacier till (read: rock) I was going no where in the duff.  Not to be dissuaded, I decided to dig up the rocks ultimately building 220 raised beds out of stone and filling them with the gorgeous topsoil from the Creston area of the Flathead Valley.

Poppies with Desert Mountain in the background.

Whenever we weren’t away filming, which was cyclical, as the nature of the filming industry is fickle, I created gardens and made dried arrangements (something I’d been doing since high school) since I wasn’t about to stay home and twiddle my thumbs. And as I built more beds, I wanted to show more people. Ever since I was young, I dragged visitors to the garden to show them what was growing, so now I intended it on a grand scale. Every year, typically when my mother visited (she called it her annual work camp), we threw a big “Garden Celebration” where people toured the garden, visited the gift shop filled with dried flowers, books, soaps, etc., and enjoyed garden-inspired refreshments. Friends helped throughout the day, and though exhausting, it was a good time running up and down the hill talking with people and answering questions.

Then, I walked away. The gardens allowed me to rein in my rage over my soul-sucking marriage that was making me physically ill, but even tons of rock and dirt wasn’t enough. My ex bought me out of my portion of the property and I moved on to a new chapter of my life.

The former sign said “Shady Side Herb Farm.”

Over the years, my ex sold off chunks of the land for others to build homes or cabins, then finally sold the house and roughly 9 acres. The house eventually burned, and the 9 acres was split and sold again. Fortunately, the lower 3 acres, the ones with the shop and a couple of the small buildings find its way to a wonderful couple, Linda and Chuck. A few years back, Linda contacted me asking where the well and septic were located. The best description I could give her was under the heart garden and the moon garden. They no longer existed, so I wasn’t much help at all, but it was certainly enjoyable to talk with Linda, another avid plant person, about the property. And when she showed me their listing on Airbnb for their cabin (formerly my gift shop) called Mad Betty’s,  I was super excited.

Now the gift shop is comfortable cabin for people to enjoy the area.

She said previous owners turned the small barn into a livable space putting in a kitchen where the wreaths once hung, and creating an incredibly spacious and welcoming bedroom from the attic where rows and rows of dried flowers were stored. Even the side structure, originally used for storing odds and ends, evolved into a family room with a futon where a couple of people could sleep. In my wildest dreams, I could not envision such a transformation. I was thrilled.

Last week I had meetings in the park for work, so we had the opportunity to stay at the cabin and finally meet Chuck and Linda.  It was an absolute delight all the way around. They are the nicest, most-welcoming people, and I felt like I’ve known them for ages. And while they might not have turned the shop into a cabin, they certainly gave it life and personality. When we walked in, there were scones on the counter, fruit in the bowl, fixings for s’mores, and a bottle of wine on the table. In the freezer, Chuck had ice cream bars for us, and there was basic food in the refrigerator and cupboards. Even though we came well-stocked, it truly is like coming home where everything is ready for you.

The coolest kitchen!

I loved the kitchen area, which was the main part of the gift shop, as well as how a gas fireplace now warmed the house near the front window. Upstairs, instead of ducking your head to avoid being smacked by statice, it was roomy and open. There is now a balcony off of the bedroom, which is the perfect place to sit and drink coffee in the morning or enjoy dinner at night.

What a view from the balcony.

Sam and John thought the futon was an engineering marvel, and were beyond thrilled with the flat screen television (yes, we are behind the times at home). There are books and games, and plenty of ways to relax indoors.

Who would think the woodshed would make a great family room!

Outside, on the lovely stone patio (big kudos to whomever put that together), there is a terrific fire pit with plenty of wood and tools to sit back and enjoy a calm evening under the stars. (Backyard fires can be tricky here in gusty Great Falls.) We had a wonderful time building a small fire during our second evening there totally overloading on sugar and relaxing after a busy couple of days.

Time for s’mores.
Sugar-filled bliss.

I was equally thrilled to see how much still lived in the gardens. It’s early in the season, but obviously the lavender, oregano, lamb’s ear, and artemisia still thrive; some beds even have their metal plant markers.  The witch hazel I planted next to one of the cascading ponds is taller than I am. And the little lodgepole I allowed to grow next to it is well over 20 ft. high. Actually, there are a lot of tall lodgepole pines growing within the garden on the hillside. That is the greatest difference in the overall landscape with the trees obscuring the gorgeous view of Desert Mountain (although I heard that is about to be remedied). Even the foundation and initial construction of the stone greenhouse I was building remain almost as I left it nearly 20 years ago.

Oregano rules most of the beds.
The ponds still hold water.

The best part of everything was to experience the life brought back into the place. Yes, the house, with all of its unique touches from basically being scrounged together (and having most of the framing lumber cut from the property), is gone, but the once gift shop has a brand new purpose of bringing joy to a lot of people. The guest book is filled with comments on how much the guests love spending time there. It is pure joy to see it and a privilege to watch the improvements Chuck and Linda continue to make as they offer a home away from home for so many people who love this area. Progress is a beautiful thing!

 

Strength training routine to make hiking season easier

One of the greatest joys in life is learning something new, especially when it means improving something you love.  For me, this meant getting serious in the gym, relearning everything, to make packing weight up the trail exponentially easier and more enjoyable. It takes effort to reach high places. 

I am no stranger to the gym. Way back when, I was a national and world powerlifting champion, and for many years lifting heavy things – such as the rocks I used to build my 200+ raised bed gardens – was very useful. But with my focus changing, so did my workouts, particularly since I felt like I was physically falling apart with daily aches and pains. For nearly a year, my shoulder hurt to the point where I could barely grate a carrot. I thought surgery was unavoidable until I went to my chiropractor/miracle worker, Dr. Mark Stoebe of Great Falls Chiropractic Clinic. He said it was a mild impingement, and after a couple of treatments, sent me on my merry way with the instructions on exercises I needed to avoid. This meant no more overhead barbell presses, push-ups, bench presses, and other exercises that involved both arms moving the weight simultaneously, especially with a barbell.  The next issue is the diastasis recti I have due to multiple abdominal surgeries, so basically my goal is to keep muscles from separating any worse than they are.  It’s such hot mess that many traditional ab exercises are off the table.

So I turned to fantastic fellow homeschool mom and exceptional personal trainer Tamara Podry of Anchor Fitness. Tamara and her husband, Zach, started this very unique (at least for Great Falls) gym where personal instruction and focused fitness go hand in hand. It’s not a club open at all hours; instead they have a growing number of classes, along with invaluable one-on-one time helping people reach their health goals. I explained my new focus to Tamara, listed my limitations, and she took it from there.

After consulting with Dr. Stoebe, she understood what I couldn’t do as far as the shoulder goes, but came up with exercises to strengthen the joint – since imbalances or weakness are a significant cause of injuries – and we learned what core strengthening routines worked without feeling like my abs were tearing apart. She developed strengthening exercises for my legs, focusing a lot on my glutes and hamstrings since she said many of us are disproportionately strong in our quads. Plus, she included exercises for the lower back because, as any hiker knows, one of the first things we often do when we take off our packs is give a nice forward fold stretch. Hopefully, by strengthening this area I’ll need less of that even if I’m hiking 30 miles over a few days with 30 pounds on my back.

Here is one of the strength routines she put together, including the reasoning behind the moves:

Squat with one-arm dumb bell press – This is a dynamic move that incorporates the lower body, as well as excellent stabilizing and strengthening  of the biceps, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. It’s hitting a little bit of everything. I admit, I was concerned when she brought up this one because of the shoulder situation, but the dumb bells make all of the difference allowing a more natural angle. It’s been fine. 

Bent over rows – While the majority of hiking involves the legs, Tamara reminded me that we definitely use our back and upper body when we’re backpacking.  Whether it’s hoisting a fully loaded backpack up in the sky on a bear pole, having to use arms for a scramble, as well as simply using trekking poles for general hikes, it’s a full-body activity. The bent over rows (once again, with dumb bells) effectively works the upper back. After more of these, I believe they will even improve my rowing abilities in the raft.

Bent over row

Sumo deadlift – Although I always used the conventional form instead of the sumo, deadlifts were always my baby in competition. But the sumo deadlift, which is one with a wide stance and feet pointed farther out to the sides (not completely parallel), engages more of the gluteus medius that runs underneath the gluteus maximus and is important for single-leg weight bearing exercises, such as hiking. The trick, as least for me, is to focus on hinging at the hips and not overly relying on the quads, which is a natural thing to do. Tamara recommended using some sort of platform on each foot to allow for a greater range, then she gave a wicked little laugh, so I think that means a fair amount of pain. 

Good mornings – This is another lower back exercise that every hiker should do to make carrying a heavy pack that much easier.  Many times a barbell is used, but dumb bells are equally effective. Settle the weight on your upper back, or shoulders with the dumb bells, and hinge at the hips leaning forward to reaching roughly parallel from the floor. This is a good one to focus on reps and not necessarily heavy weight, and will really make a difference. 

Assisted pull-up – With the super-band, you don’t dare get the giggles or you might be shot up and over the rack. This incredibly strong rubber band helps  people, even if he or she couldn’t do a single pull up on their own, receive the full benefit of the exercise. Tamara showed me the dos and don’ts of stepping into the band, and helped me not kill myself, so I was able to complete pull-ups with my chin above the bar. I could really feel it in my lats (Latissimus dorsi) while performing it, and today I noticed how much my biceps responded to it. 

Bosu ball – I’ve long been intrigues by Bosu ball, but never attempted any of the routines myself since I wasn’t aiming to be on Funniest Home Videos. In reality, the Bosu is an excellent tool to work on balance and stability, especially in those smaller muscle groups that are often neglected. Tamara had me concentrate my weight on the stationary leg on the Bosu while tapping to the side with the other one, the bringing it up high in the front. That’s easier said than done, let me tell you! While my form wasn’t perfect, it will improve, and I can see how it’s going to help my ankles and supporting muscles. 

Plank with spiderman and twist – Despite my messed up abs, I can do planks. Tamara stepped up the effort by adding a spiderman, where one leg is brought up parallel and towards your upper body, followed by a twist. I can’t say that my form was textbook, but it really helps to keep the entire core stabilized. 

Side plank with leg raise – This is another one that helps stabilize the core. Last fall, I could only do them on my knees, but have progressed to full extension. Now Tamara recommended adding a leg raise as the best way to go to reap more benefits. At first she had me do 10 reps. No problem. The remaining 2 sets, she brought out the stop watch for 30 seconds each side with leg raises. I was dying. She wants my goal to be a minute. 

Stomping bear – This one looks easy until you try it. Starting on all fours, bring your knees just an inch or two above the floor, then alternate lifting your hands back and forth, just like a bear who is irritated might do. This hits a lot of muscles, including the core, legs, and arms. By the time we reached this final exercise on the last set, I was dripping with sweat. 

For this full-body strengthening circuit, which she recommends doing at least 2 times per week, we did 3 sets of 10-15 reps with minimal rest in between exercises. This bumped up my heart rate into the cardio level, which is an added bonus for the overall program.  The cardio work I’m adding to the program- a foreign world for me – will be addressed in my next installment of  since it is every bit as important as the strength aspect, and Tamara has done a lot helping me to understand the best way to go about it.

As challenging as it is, I am loving my strength program, and always look forward to learning something new. There’s nothing like having someone watch your form to ensure you’re utilizing the muscles the best way possible.  Numerous times throughout our training, Tamara corrects what I’m doing since I’m primarily focusing on breathing and generally not dying. There’s no point in cheating because it’s only cheating yourself in the end.  I would rather be sore now than have pain or extreme difficulty take away from the experience on the trail. 

 

Early hikes of the season

The spring is off to a slow, cold start, but we’ve still managed to make it to local trails for a couple of days these past few weeks. Our first adventure was a walk in Tower Rock State Park. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition came though the area, Capt. Lewis climbed this area to gain a better understanding of where the plains end and the mountains begin. 

It’s a steep walk up to the saddle below the actual Tower Rock, but there are lots of neat areas to see and explore. We had significant mud, and a lot more snow, than I anticipated, but it was a good day to be outside. There was even a bonus sighting of the bighorn sheep band that frequents the area. 

This region along the Missouri River is particularly stunning in the late spring when the yucca are blooming, but even in the barren early part of the season, the geology of the region is remarkable. This particular rocky outcropping always caught my eye, so I was fascinated to learn that it was caused by a pyroclastic flow from a volcano southeast of Tower Rock and interstate 15, according to a geologist friend of mine who is always so good about answering my bazillion questions about such things. It’s hard to imagine volcanic activity like that, yet the rocks make total sense of it. The day ended with multiple pairs of muddy boots.  The good news is there were no snakes and no ticks (both significant considerations when the weather warms), and an enjoyable time exploring the beautiful area not far from Great Falls.

Last week we ventured to the First Peoples’ Buffalo Jump in Ulm. Normally, at this time of the year, the trail would be clear of snow, yet this season we had to trek over several smaller snow fields. 

Besides the increasing number of waterfowl we spotted in flooded fields along the way, we spotted a couple of marmots in the rocks along the trail.

Once again, this wasn’t an epic hike, but it was a nice way to spend a pleasant day. No bugs, no snakes, just breaking in the legs and enjoying the sunshine.

Dehydrating our own camp meals

It’s March.  And although lower elevation trails should be clearing, there is still lots of snow on the ground. As a result, I fully admit being a wee bit twitchy. 

Beyond pouring over maps, checking calendars, and drooling over new gear while planning epic hikes and backcountry adventures, I am putting the indoor time to use by dehydrating our own camping meals so they are ready to go for even a last-minute trip. 

I’ve dehydrated fruits and vegetables for years, primarily for quick snacks or ways to preserve foods that don’t require freezer space or the time it requires to can them. But my eyes opened last year when I spoke with Chef Glenn McAllister, author of Recipes for Adventure and voice behind Backpackingchef. In his decades of experience, he’s learned you can dry just about anything, opening up a world of possibilities for camp cuisine. For another article, I later interviewed Judy “Heartfire” Gross of Lightheart Gear in North Carolina, as I quickly learned there are many ways to end up with fantastic and hearty meals. Besides making spacious and lightweight tents and practical gear and clothing, she is an avid backpacking who creates all of her own meals, often with the leftovers from daily meals. She was gracious enough to share some of her advice with me for another article setting me on the path of no return when it comes to ever buying pre-made trail food again. 

Having control over what we eat is especially important to me since my eldest son, Sam, has food allergies, which preclude us being able to use a lot of the freeze-dried meals on the market. And even those that are supposedly safe are a concern simply because I am fully aware of accidental cross-contamination issues that happen even under the best circumstances. The last thing I want is a reaction miles away from a trailhead or help. He and I (along with 4 other friends) have reservations at Granite Park Chalet this July where we are required to bring our own food, so I want to make sure it’s safe, as well as packed with plenty of energy and nutrition for exploring the area.

Stove at Granite Park

One of the first experiments, especially since it’s also something my picky boy will eat, was to make spaghetti with meat sauce. I used elk burger because it is naturally lean and made the sauce just like normal adding a can of Hunts tomato sauce and dried Italian seasonings. The only special consideration was making sure I chopped up the burger into tiny, tiny pieces. Once it was completely cooked, I spread it in the dehydrator and cranked the temp as high as it would go. My older Nesco reaches 155 degrees F., but a newer one, Snackmaster Express, I recently purchased goes to 160 degrees. As Judy mentioned, if it’s already cooked, it doesn’t matter if you dry it hot. The pasta is cooked like normal, although maybe a little on the al dente side, and is also dried. The one thing I’ll do differently on the trail is to use shells or a some other type of pasta to prevent the pokey edges of spaghetti from potentially puncturing a bag. This goes the same for chili, once again made with venison burger. When it’s time to eat, they can be mixed together and rehydrated with an equal amount of water. 

One of my recent favorites is what I call “Chicken and rice with vegetables.” I used Nature Fresh canned chicken (because it is safe for Sam), and because Chef Glenn told me that canned chicken rehydrates far better than freshly cooked chicken. I sauteed finely chopped (1/4 inch or less) carrots and celery in a little bit of safflower oil from The Oil Barn in Big Sandy, Montana. ( I do love knowing the source! ) Then I add the chicken, breaking up the pieces as small as possible. As it cooks, I add chicken broth and thicken it with a little flour. While the chicken and veggies are cooking, I make a big batch of brown rice then add a few big scoops of the brown rice and stir thoroughly. Spread the whole thing thinly on trays in the dehydrator and dry it on the high heat for 8-9 hours, or until it’s completely dry and brittle. I found mixing it up every couple of hours helps even out the process, although I try to be quick about it as I don’t want it to cool. 

As Judy recommended, I package the dehydrated meals in bags, mark them, and place them in the freezer. This way, I can grab individual meals whenever I’m ready to go.

To rehydrate, most of the meals seem to require roughly an equal amount of boiling water. This can be added directly to the freezer bag to minimize having to clean up any type of cooking pot. I’m also experimenting with using a wide mouth thermos since I’ve heard that it helps keep everything hot while rehydrating the meal. (Plus, another goal of mine with a thermos is to be able to pack in homemade ice cream on day hikes, but that will be a different post some day!) 

While some sort of meat is almost a necessity for Sam, I’m leaning towards vegetarian meals for my own travels. After my butter habit obviously did in my gallbladder this year, I dramatically changed my diet leaning heavily on plant based foods. It’s working beautifully and makes sense to continue on the trail. By dehydrating my own foods, I can make them power-packed with good protein sources and lots of vegetables. So I’m dehydrating quinoa, lentils, and tons of veggies. I never used to be a big lentil person – and I felt bad about that because Montana is the leading producer of pulse crops in the country – but I’m on a kick lately. A bowl of quinoa, lentils, and veggies dressed with a little fresh lemon juice is an excellent way for me to start the day so I’m going to do my best in recreating it for camp.

All food tastes better in camp, especially dessert. Since Sam does have a sweet tooth, I decided to try to make an apple crisp. For the crisp part, I mixed a cup of Wheat Montana oatmeal, 2 T. butter, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and 1 tsp cinnamon together. Then I spread it on parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake it at 350 degrees F. for 10-15, until crisp. For the apples, I used a handful each of dried apples (maybe a cup) and added a tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 tsp. of cinnamon, placing each serving in its own bag. To rehydrate, add 3/4 cup of boiling water to the bag of apples and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. Pour over the crisp and enjoy. This was definitely a hit! 

I truly have plenty to learn and do this winter to prepare for our hiking and camping adventures, and I am grateful for those who were willing to share their wealth of knowledge with me. Now I have to make the best use of my time indoors so we are ready to head for the high country as soon as the weather permits. 

And so it begins

Friends endlessly tease me because they know I don’t like winter for a multitude of reasons. The first is it prevents me from hiking. I spend all winter making plans, but become frustrated when the reality is months away. Gardening is also fairly limited, as well as being able to feel my hands or feet.   To round it out, the roads are often terrible, which wouldn’t be so bad except that I see a whole lot of people out there who obviously failed physics. And – here is a little piece of advice –  just because you have a big 4WD truck doesn’t preclude you from the physical laws of nature.  But since winter is seemingly unending (another reason I grouse so much), I do try to make the best of it.

Winter Solstice

We kicked off the season by celebrating the Winter Solstice with lights around the patio and a fire in our little portable fire pit. Knowing the days will soon grow longer gives me hope. 

Serious winter weather tagged along with the official start of the season, so we’re doing our best to enjoy it. The boys are making snow forts using one of the tree containers as a mold. If this weather holds, it will be impressive because they are far from finished.

This morning was particularly frosty and beautiful. Even Kelo was tinged in frost, yet was toasty beneath his blanket. He was standing in the sun when I sledded the bucket out to feed, and I’m sure his warmed, soaked feed makes him feel good even when it’s so cold.

Frosty boy

In the afternoon, Sam joined me for about an half an hour on his new skis. The blue sky is stunning and, although we had a slight breeze and only 9 degrees, we were still plenty warm. After dropping him off back at home, I continued for another 40 minutes using it as an exercise time as much as just being outside. With so many big hikes planned for 2018, I need to grab every moment of training, even when I’m too big of a chicken to brave the whackadoodles on the road. 

So far I’m keeping my spirits up despite the short days and cold. As long as I can get outside to enjoy our beautiful area, ticking down the days until the sun – and hiking season – returns will be bearable.

The sun will gradually stay with us longer now!

Early morning glide

Winter is here. With over 18 inches of snow on the picnic table and a forecast of more on the way, there’s no denying that this is the new normal for the at least the next 6 months. This morning was a clear -4 F with new snow, a full moon, and no wind. Time to bring out the skis. 

After donning the layers of cold weather gear, and sledding Kelo’s warm food down to our neighbor’s, where he now stays, I clicked on the skis and headed out while it was still quiet.

Deer tracks told the story of their evening travels, skirting along homes and down the road as if they own the place. The moon was full and bright, although I can never snap a satisfactory picture of it, and I’m amazed how the snow sat in the trees. In a land where most of the snow we see blows sideways, it’s a beautiful sight. 

The sun gradually illuminated the horizon with the Highwoods to the east of us, and by the time I returned home it was fully light. Breaking a sweat, enjoying a quiet morning, and being outside is on the top of my list of a good way to start the day.

 

The summer of heat and smoke

With over a million acres of Montana up in smoke during one of the hottest and driest summers in memory, it was a challenging season for hiking or doing much outdoors. Even after a healthy dose of precipitation this spring, the faucet turned off by mid-June and when the heat turned up,  all of that beautiful greenery turned to tinder.  The terribly hot (even for me!) weather combined with smokey conditions, kept us grounded.

Sperry Chalet dormitory in 2016

The greatest heartbreak of this record fire season was losing  the dormitory at Sperry Chalet on August 31, 2017. The Sprague Fire, which had been of little concern for weeks, blew up on this fateful night and the firefighters couldn’t keep it at bay. We knew it was a special time when friends and I stayed there in 2016, but we had no idea those new mattresses we enjoyed would only last a year. Thankfully, crews have stabilized the stone walls of the chalet to brace the structure to endure the winter, with progress to hopefully restore the hotel continuing in the spring thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

The second challenge this year was the record number of visitors to Glacier. When we went on a hike to Red Rock Falls in July, the amount of traffic shocked me. Cars were parked probably close to a mile up the road from Swiftcurrent when we arrived back to the parking lot in the early afternoon, which was something I’ve never seen before. By the end of July to the first part of August, I began hearing reports of visitors being turned away at the gate at Many Glacier, as well as parts of the North Fork. At first I thought they were erroneous, but after folks I knew were turned away, I realized Glacier had reached its tipping point.

Even with the challenges of too many people and too much smoke, we still managed to enjoy a few good hikes. During the first part of July, friends and their kids joined the boys and I to hike to Aster Park Overlook in Two Medicine.  It was a super hot day, but we still spotted a moose and the kids cooled playing in Two Medicine Lake after our short hike.

Cooling off in Two Medicine Lake

In mid-July, 4 friends and I climbed up to Scalplock Lookout from the Walton  Ranger Station near Essex with a group of friends.  I’d been up there years ago on Kelo, but riding the nearly 5 miles with an 3175 ft. elevation gain is a far different experience than hiking it.

Scalplock lookout

We got a late start on a forecasted hot day, yet a breeze kept us comfortable most of the hike. Huckleberries also helped keep our interest and the bear grass was beyond gorgeous once we reached higher elevations. Even though it was a heck of a pull, it was absolutely worth it for the remarkable views at the top.

Views from Scalplock

At the end of July, a group of us – with all of the kids in tow – went to Red Rock Falls. Beautiful weather, lots of huckleberries, and a cow and calf moose right alongside the trail were the highlights of the day.

Cow and calf right off of the trail

In September, my best friend, Stefani, came out for a couple of days of hiking. The smoke was a significant concern, but we lucked out with a beautiful first morning. Driving into the Many Glacier Valley we saw an enormous grizzly – it was so large at first glance I thought it was a moose – in Sherburne Reservoir along the shoreline followed by a cow and calf moose farther up the road. After grabbing a delicious breakfast sandwich at Heidi’s in the Many Glacier Hotel, we hit the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail by 10-ish.  The Iceberg/Ptarmigan trail is always impressive, although it wasn’t close to the stunning beauty we enjoyed during our June hike to Iceberg with all of the bear grass in bloom.

Heading to Ptarmigan via the Iceberg Trail
Switchbacks going to the Ptarmigan Tunnel

Yet, you truly can’t go wrong in Glacier. From the cut-off to the Ptarmigan Tunnel it’s a fairly steady climb through the trees before opening in a cirque. Ptarmigan Lake would be a nice stopping point, although being so close to the tunnel, you simply have to keep going. The switchbacks are a bit of a  pull, but I stopped to chat with other hikers, as well as look for bighorn sheep and other animals.

Going though the tunnel

The 240 ft. long tunnel, which I’ve wanted to see for years, is definitely worth the exertion. It’s impressive, particularly since it was cut through the mountain in the 1930s, and you know there wasn’t the modern equipment used today. And even though we were hot from walking along the open, rocky slope walking through the tunnel quickly cooled us, and we were nearly chilled having a snack on the other side out of the sun. The views on the north end of the tunnel are amazing looking at Elizabeth Lake and the valley heading to Canada. I wanted to keep walking.

Elizabeth Lake
Smokey evening

We spent the evening at my favorite east side home base at the St. Mary KOA in one of their cabins. My friend, Jennifer, joined us that evening, and after a delicious dinner at Johnson’s Cafe (and to answer the question… yes their “good soup” is excellent), Stef and I hit the hot tub to soak our weary muscles before hitting the sack. With a sow and cub seen at the entrance of the KOA before we turned in, none of us made the dash to the restrooms in the middle of the night!

Dusty boots are the sign of a great day

Day two was the long way to Grinnell Glacier because, even though it was September (normally not a busy time), we could not buy tickets on the boat. I even tried reserving tickets days before we went over there. It demonstrates the level of activity anymore.

Black bears on the slope above Josephine

It was a beautiful, although hazy, morning and we enjoyed our walk along Swiftcurrent and Josephine. At one point along Josephine, we noticed the boat stopped, as well as a group in front of us, and once we got up the trail a ways, we saw the two black bears feeding up the slope. It’s always good to see.

Grinnell is a classic, wonderful hike in Many Glacier. It’s easy to stop and take photos along the way, plus wildlife is typically abundant. We didn’t see any grizzlies, yet we spotted moose, ptarmigan, and a group of bighorn sheep rams nibbling on the mountain ash. Grinnell Glacier, or rather the lake surrounding it, is magical. We hung out on the shore, and I was so warm that I dunked my head in the icy water before we headed back down the trail.

Banff Springs

One of our final, bigger trips for the season was a trek up to Banff.  One of my all-time favorite programs I worked on for National Geographic was ‘Urban Elk’ where we filmed the bulls charging people and generally wreaking havoc on the community. While the elk are still in town, and they remain problematic, it doesn’t sound like the situation is quite as harrowing.

Banff is as beautiful as ever, although the amount of humanity shocked me. (This seems to be the theme this year whether it’s Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff.) It was mid-summer levels in mid-September. Of course, we had to tour the Fairmont Banff Springs, take my mother on a few short walks, and peruse the unique shops in downtown Banff.  We also explored the Cascade Gardens near the admin building. Even though a frost already nipped the blossoms, the incredible stone work indicated how gorgeous it is in the summer. I really need to go back to see them at their finest.

Love the street signs in Banff
Cascade Gardens

The summer didn’t turn out as I originally planned, by any means, and I decided  in a huff that I wasn’t going to make plans for 2018 just to cancel them. But after my little hissy fit, I can’t resist. In Glacier, friends and I have our eyes on a couple of overnight (or two) hikes, including a remote lookout. We’ll have to make a point to spend time there early in the season, or book somewhere to spend the night instead of trying to rush to a trailhead to find a parking space.  I also want to go farther north out of the touristy areas. Being in Banff reminded me of how much I love northern Alberta, so I’m already looking into options for the entire family to explore the area.

In the meantime, you’ll find me in the gym improving my cardio and strength, in the kitchen preparing dehydrated meals to take on our adventures, and undboutedly pouring over maps dreaming of a summer without smoke.

 

 

 

Springtime in Yellowstone

Experiencing Yellowstone at any time of the year is special, yet spring is always my favorite. Babies abound and the green landscape adorned with wildflowers is the best pick-me-up after our long winters. And, up until a few years ago, a springtime tour gave locals a chance to enjoy it without the crowds. I’m sorry to say, this is no longer the case. I realize it’s only going to become busier as the season progresses, yet the traffic and lines at popular areas was mind-boggling.

Beautiful morning in Yellowstone

Anticipating more visitors than in the early days, I made reservations at Bridge Bay campground 3 months ago through Xanterra, the concession for the hotels and some of the campgrounds. Although most of the available reserved camping sites are currently taken for the summer season (at least according to their website), I highly recommend this for anyone traveling to the park at practically any time of the year. I requested that we were near a restroom since having to walk one of the boys to the bathroom in the middle of the night would easier, and sure enough, we had a fantastic spot with a straight walk to one of the facilities.

We had a great camp spot, but the rain the first night was a challenge.

For most NPS campgrounds, it’s simply first-come, first-serve. You find an empty spot, possibly wrestle for it, stake it out, and pay for it immediately by filling out the little form and depositing your money in the box. Your stub proves it’s yours. At Bridge Bay, we entered one of the two lines formed to check in and received instruction on proper camping procedures, particularly when it comes to not attracting bears, which frequent the campground. Despite dealing with a continuous line of traffic, the attendants were courteous and helpful.

Bison are frequent visitors to the Bridge Bay Campground

It started to rain when we entered the north entrance, and it showed no signs of letting up as we pulled into Bridge Bay. We seriously wondered whether the rain fly and extra canopy Grant brought would be sufficient to keep us dry. We couldn’t ponder about it long. We were starving, so as soon as we pulled into our campsite, the first order of business was to set up the canopy over the picnic table to cook hotdogs since the hamburger and chicken were still solidly frozen. Once the rain stopped, albeit momentarily, we started a fire and made s’mores, each of us eating a couple apiece, before hustling to set up the tent and dive in once the rain began anew. It poured for hours, yet everything held and we stayed dry.

The Norris Geyser Basin is literally a hot bed for thermal activity.
Inside the Old Faithful Inn.

Weather on Saturday was completely different. Sunshine and warm weather was a welcomed change as we explored some of the thermal features and pestered rangers with questions. One of my goals for this trip was to sit down with Lee Whittlesey, the park historian who has written multiple books and articles on the extremely complex history of Yellowstone, as well as trying to gain my bearings on what the park used to be like. Although there are currently 983 structures within the park, it has changed considerably over the century of its existence. Our focus for the book veteran photographer Michael Francis and I are putting together, is to be able to paint a picture of what is happening in the vintage photos he’s collected giving readers a glimpse into what it was like. The first step is understanding what was available during various time periods, and this trip taught me, despite studying for the past several months, that I have barely scratched the surface. It’s going to be a fascinating journey.

People walking the boardwalk at the Norris Geyser Basin

During our visits to many of the popular geothermal areas, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the traffic was off the charts. Parking took skill and patience, both things I lack, especially when people are not thinking or are being rude. While we thoroughly enjoyed walking along the Norris Geyser Basin, and hearing a fascinating talk on Steamboat Geyser, the best times were when we could escape the crowds.

The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
The Dragons Mouth Spring at Mud Volcanoes. This was my favorite of the thermal features we visited.

The trick to avoid the masses is to be out early in the morning or later in the evening,  when people are typically having dinner. We were able to find a picnic area very close to Bridge Bay where no one was parked, allowing us a walk to the beach of Yellowstone Lake to spend time alone. Chorus frogs and water birds were our only company. And even though we were there for fishing, Sam and John preferred to look for frogs. I was happy to sit and listen to them, despite still being able to hear traffic from above.

Sunday we opted to walk a couple of miles along the Mary Mountain trail starting south of Madison. This 22-mile hike that was part of the same trail followed by the Nez Perce as they fled through the region reaches from the west side of the Grand Tour Loop Rd. to Hayden Valley, and appears to be an exceptional, if very long, day hike. Wide and well-worn, the trail was an old wagon road winding through open parks and forested areas, ultimately meeting up with the Nez Perce Creek within a couple of miles. Grant broke out the fly rod and tried his hand tempting the trout in the fast flowing water while I geeked out over wildflowers and the Sam looked for water striders. Grant almost landed a small trout, and the boys each took their hand at fishing. On the hike back we took a closer look at the trees rubbed from the bison. During our first day in the park, I wondered why so many were barkless on one side towards the bottom.  It was nice to be away from everyone and have a moment to breathe and notice the beauty of the area.

Where Nez Perce Creek meets the Mary Mountain Trail.
While Grant and the boys fished, I looked for wildflowers.

The Mary Mountain Trail is a perfect example of how easily you can avoid the crowds. Even though it’s on a busy route, only one hiker passed us on our walk into the creek, and a family of 4 from New Jersey (evident since they had no water, no bear spray, and no packs) approached on our walk back to the car. (On a side note, not being prepared with the basics makes me cringe since more than one person has muttered, “I’ll be right back,” intending to go for a quick walk that turns into a harrowing experience. Thankfully, their walk didn’t last long and we saw them back at the trailhead.)

Heading back to the car on the Mary Mountain Trail.

Yellowstone abounds with life – including humanity – at this time of the year. By heading out very early or later in the evening, or simply finding trails that don’t have interpretative signs along the way, you can experience the park on your own terms.

Bison are the epitome of Yellowstone.

 

 

Hiking Tower Rock

A few months ago my friend Katrina and I decided to create a Nature Club as part of our homeschool group. Our initial inspiration was the field sketch work of John Muir Laws, and while we do like to bring along the sketch books to be able to sit for a moment and draw what we see, not every outdoor adventure is conducive to it.  Tower Rock was one of them.  We’ve been itching to get back out on the trail this winter, yet after several cancelled trips due to extreme weather (we’re tough, but I below zero with single digit wind chill is a bit much) it was good to finally have a semi-decent day. Tower Rock is an ideal winter hike since the trail is short (less than 1/2 mile one way) and would be easy enough to scramble back to the car. 

This is what Nature Club is all about.

And besides being outdoors, hiking this distinct landscape with the black rocks jutting out of the rolling landscape as the prairie rolls up to the Missouri River in this region are where the Lewis and Clark expedition members gained their first glimpse of this completely unknown territory. From what I understand, they at least had some concept of the territory traversing the plains since it was similar to that in the Dakotas, but once they reached this area, they were witnessing a landscape like they’d never seen. They followed a native trail to the top of Tower Rock to gain  a better perspective, and Lewis wrote:

a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains by a handsome little plain which surrounds it base on 3 sides and the Missouri washes it’s base on the other, leaving it on the Lard. as it descends. this rock I called the tower. it may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to its summit, and from there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immense herds of buffaloe in the plains below. (Moulton 1987, 4: 387)

 

Where the trail ends and the climbing begins

For us, Tower Rock is part of the Montana State Park system, and is easy to find from Great Falls being located 10 miles past Cascade at exit 247. Although a county dumpsite is located right next to the parking area, the trailhead is pleasant and easy to find. Eleven kids with moms started the easy trail through the prairie landscape gradually climbing up the volcanic remnants. Every time we drive past this area, I look to see possible routes to the top, and at one point, I suggested we try a side trail. After a mad scramble on steeper-than-it-looked grass and rocks, we decided that was a bad choice and turned around. We followed the established trail to the sign where it said it ended, then continued farther to the base of Tower Rock. The last part was a steep haul, and a couple of additional students with their mom joined us by the time we reached the top. 

Once we were as high as we were going to go, since climbing the actual rock is best accomplished with ropes and a helmet, our main objective was keeping the kids from falling over the cliffs. I understand it’s a fabulous view from up there, but it gave every mother a heart attack as the kids all seemingly wanted to be way to close to the edge. 

Snow, actually more of a grauple, started while we were close to the top, and stung our faces on the walk down. But the kids were troopers and I don’t think there was much for complaining. They liked seeing the mule deer bedded down in the brush on either side of the trail, and simply had a good time being outdoors.

It’s nice to have the flexibility to take our education outdoors where the kids can not only burn off energy, they can examine the nuances of the natural world, and even walk in the footsteps of history. Tower Rock was a good kick off to this season’s hikes with many more adventures in the near future.

Tower Rock in the background as we head back to the vehicles.