Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?

This past Sunday, October 11th, our three dogs got a little tired of being cooped up in the house by three days of cold, windy weather. Getting anything done in my home-based office was out of the question. Those dogs wanted to go do something, even if it was just to take a ride along the base of the mountains and look at deer. Anyway, they just about drove me crazy, and didn't let up until I slipped on an insulated jacket, stuck on my usual camouflaged cap, and grabbed my truck keys.

It was getting toward late afternoon and early evening. The sun had finally popped through some thinning clouds, and it had "warmed up" all the way into the low 30s. I knew a spot where I could get about a hundred or so feet above the Clark Fork River, and take a nice photo back to the southeast. The softwoods along the river still had not turned yellow, something I had been waiting for, but with some fresh snow down to the base of the mountains in the background, I still thought it would make for a nice shot or two. So, I grabbed my camera - and Copa, Bob and Tully were soon watching deer out the truck windows as I drove through the river-bottom farm lands, crossed over to the west side and headed north along the river - slowly climbing until I was at the point where the river headed back toward the east side of the wide valley. It was a great advantage point, and after a few minutes, I had taken a half-dozen photos with my old Canon 35mm AE-1.

The winds had died, and to be quite honest, I was glad the dogs made me do this. I was enjoying being out as well. So, the four of us hopped back into the truck, and I drove another 5 or 6 miles on down the often rough gravel road that skirted the west bank of the river. After pulling into where a Forest Service road was blocked by a locked steel gate, the dogs and I got out for a little walk. The dirt roadway meandered up a fairly long, flat valley. The area was as much covered by grass as trees, and was a nice place to go for a several mile walk.

Copa, an Aussie-Shelty mix, is our "old girl", at 11 years old. She stuck with me, while the two boys, our lab Bob and lab-chow-pit bull mix Tully, raced ahead. Those two 3 year olds have a lot of energy, and love the adventure of running in a new area. They checked out everything for a quarter-mile ahead, coming back regularly to check on Copa and I.

We were about a mile into the walk, when I looked up to see Bob and Tully bearing down on us with all the speed they could muster, and when they shot right by and kept on running toward the truck, I sensed something was not right. Like an idiot, I had not thrown my old Ruger .44 Magnum in the truck for this short afternoon-evening excursion. When walking trails well off the beaten path, that ol' hogleg, carried in a shoulder holster, is a constant companion. Why? Wolves mostly. It has gotten that I can hardly take a walk in the mountains or in the foothills without seeing wolf sign - mostly scat filled with bone shards and elk hair. These aggressive predators are everywhere you go in western Montana these days. And they are a true threat to almost every other living thing. Dogs rank right up there among their favorite prey.

Now, Bob and Tully don't run from much. At least five times during the past two summers, those dogs have chased black bears away from camp - without reservation. And a few times they have sent bears running off the trails we've hiked. But on several occasions, when I knew wolves were in the near vicinity, the two would get very nervous.

Realizing that wolves or perhaps a mountain lion were likely the only things that would put such fear into them, I turned and watched for movement down the Forest Service road. Then I called Copa close, and made my way back to the truck - stopping now and then to watch my back trail. Nothing. When I reached the truck, there sat Bob and Tully, very ready to load up and get the heck out of there. And once in the truck, the two kept looking back up the roadway. We sat and watched for about 15 minutes. Still nothing. But the two dogs never calmed down, until I started the truck, backed out and headed for home.

I would give almost anything to know what they had seen...what had sent them packing down the road and back to the truck. My feelings are that we had gotten closer to things going bad for the dogs than I care to truly realize. I also know that I'll never leave that truck again without having the big .44 strapped on.

When hiking, do you take your dogs with you...and do you carry a firearm?

Toby Bridges

About the photo: Bob (in the rear) and Tully enjoy a morning hike up into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. When walking such back-country trails, MONTANA MOUNTAIN CHRONICLE host Toby Bridges always carries a .44 Magnum revolver, just in case of a run in with wolves or perhaps a grizzly.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Last Campout of Summer

The summer that would never end.

That's what some Montanans are now calling Summer 2009. Warm weather came earlier than usual last spring...and right up until the end of September, afternoon temperatures regularly soared well into the 80s. In fact, here in Missoula, our average daily high temperature last month was basically what the area gets in July.

My gal Christy and I love to camp, and through summer we get out and head somewhere at least every other weekend. One of our favorite areas is close to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area - a camping spot we can drive right to, adjacent to an excellent trout stream, with great trails for taking the dogs on a long hike. The area is teaming with wildlife - lots of white-tailed deer, a few mulies, elk, black bear, and moose. There's also a healthy population of mountain lions, wolves and a few grizzlies. So, for security purposes, we keep a Ruger .44 Magnum revolver close at hand at all times.

Whenever possible, we love to share the enjoyment of getting out with friends and neighbors, inviting folks to join us just about every time we go. At first, few took us up on it. Now, we have company just about every time we head out on a 3 or 4 day camping trip - and we think that's great. We love the company, and the conversation around the campfire at night.

But, most of all, we love the silence of the night as the fire dies down and everyone turns in. When the soft chit chat ends, all you can hear is the water of the creek babbling through the rocks, and maybe the occasional howl of a coyote.

The "endless summer" of 2009 let us crowd in a few extra camping trips. But, snow is now returning to the high country, and freezing temperatures at night are even putting the chill of winter in the air in the lower valleys. Summer has ended, and a short fall follows. By the time I pull out for deer and elk camp in about two weeks, chances are there will already be some snow on the ground, and at night I know I'll be sitting a lot closer to that campfire - and there will be an extra blanket over the top of my sleeping bag.

It's the beginning of another wonderful season here in the Northern Rockies.

Toby Bridges

About the photo: Christy is greeted by our lab Bob as she "walks the plank" into another of our favorite camping spots - high in the Bitterroots. Just 50 yards down from camp is a several hundred acre lake - where later this same day we watched a huge Shiras bull moose feeding on aquatic grasses. Out neighbors, Patrick, Lisa and Laynie (barely visible, peeking out of a chair), joined us on this late summer campout. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reflecting Back

This past summer, on June 24th, the day before my 60th birthday, I felt like spending most of the day entirely by myself. And I knew I could accomplish that here in the Northern Rockies by simply spending a day in the mountains.

I spend a great deal of time thumbing through the "Montana Atlas & Gazetteer" - looking for out of mainstream traffic places to go. And one particular mountain lake that set at about 7,000 feet, right along the Idaho border in the Bitterroot Mountains had caught my attention...way back in February. Knowing how snow that high can linger in some basins, I waited as long as I could, then put together a day pack, along with a spinning rod and some baits, loaded up in the truck with my two trail buddy dogs, Bob and Tully, and was headed out before daybreak.

I found the trailhead without any problem, at about 5,000 feet, and wasted little time heading out on a day adventure. It was just cool enough to require a light jacket, and the climb wasn't bad at all. Several times, I stopped along the way to glass a few cow elk on adjacent grassy slopes. By the time I covered the 4-mile walk in, I had seen 9 or 10 elk, and none had calves with them. But several times I had come across wolf scat, matted with young elk hair and bone shards. (This is a topic I will get into soon.) And about half-way up the trail, the dogs sent a 200-pound black bear running off the trail.

When I popped up over a slight rise and peered into the basin, the lake was even more magnificent than I imagined - and larger. It was easily 3/4-mile in length and about 1/2-mile across at its widest point. And from the deep dark blue color of the water, it was apparently very deep. A slight breeze had picked up. As far as the fishing was concerned, I liked the looks of the windward side most - with a lot of logs floated up against the shoreline, and looking not quite so deep. It proved to hold an abundance of 10 to 12 inch brook trout. In less than an hour, I had caught and released 15 or 16. Then, I climbed upon a rock to enjoy the scenery, and a bit of an early lunch.

The entire upper end of the lake was surrounded by towering steep ridges and sheer rock faces, with remnants of the winter's deep snows still coming down to the water's edge. I detected a slight movement on one steep face, and broke out my binoculars. It was a band of 9 mountain goats. I glassed them for about 15 minutes, then finished my lunch - with a little help from Bob and Tully.

The sun had warmed, and I slipped out of the jacket, rolled it up and used it for a pillow - listening to the water lapping against the shore, and the sound of the breeze blowing through the trees. Enjoying the serenity of the beauty surrounding me, I took a fifteen minute snooze. Then just laid there reflecting back on a good life, but not without a thought or two of tough times. Even though the memories were vivid in my mind, somehow, just laying there on that mountain distanced all of them. This was living for the moment at its best.

Another two hours of fishing produced easily another 20 of those colorful brookies -all released to fight another day. In mid afternoon, the dogs and I headed back down the trail, reaching the pickup about an hour and a half later. There was a young couple there at the trailhead, ready to head up for a night on the lake - and to do some fishing. They were the first people I had seen since driving the 20 miles of gravel road from the interstate early that morning. I asked if they had any small Panther Martin spinnerbaits, with a black blade and tiny yellow dots. They answered they didn't. So, I opened my pack and pulled out the one I had caught the majority of my fish on, and gave it to them - telling them to use it wisely...because that's what the fish were biting on.

It had been far better than just a great day. This was the last day of my 50s. And as I made the 70 mile drive home, to a woman I love dearly, I wondered if I would still be able to spend the day on that same lake on the last day of my 60s. And I realized that I had just set a new goal for my life.

Toby Bridges

About the photo: On the day before his 60th birthday, MONTANA MOUNTAIN CHRONICLE host Toby Bridges hiked into this remote mountain lake, to spend a day hiking, fishing and reflecting back. The spot proved to be an excellent choice for doing all three. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Born In The Summer Of My 60th Year...

Perhaps it has taken me longer to be "reborn" than it did for John Denver in his hit song "Rocky Mountain High"...but I'm sure the feeling is just as refreshing, and life just as good.

Now, I grew up in the farm country of west-central Illinois, in an area that sits close to the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers...where the elevation is only about 650 feet above sea level. So, it may seem a bit odd that a "flatlander" would undertake a blog that focuses on the outdoor lifestyle of the Northern Rockies. But, just because I wasn't physically born here...or didn't grow up here...doesn't mean I cannot consider this part of the country as "home".

I was 15 years old the first time I ever laid eyes on the mountains of the West, during a hunting trip to Wyoming. And all I can say is that I was awestruck. Photos I had seen of the mountains did not do the country justice. I had fallen in love, and knew that someday I would live where I could see the mountains every day.

It just took 45 more years to make it happen.

And now from where I live in the Missoula Valley of western Montana, I can look out the front window and gaze up into the Bitterroot Mountains...or walk out onto the back deck and look right up into an off-shoot of the Rockies - the Garnet Range.

By the time I had enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968, I knew every tree, every plant, every species of bird and other wildlife in the Midwest better than 90-percent of the older folks who had lived their entire lives there. And relearning all of that here will take a few years, but I truly look forward to the challenge. A single week does not go by that I fail to spend several days out in the wilds, enjoying this magnificent country.

Hopefully, some of you with the same love of the mountains will find this blog, and will freely share what you have learned - whether you are a third...fourth...or fifth generation native of the Northern Rockies, or a more recent wanderer who has just found their way "home".

Toby Bridges
Missoula, MT


About the photo: While camping this past summer, in the Bitterroots near Darby, after a night of rain at about 7,000 feet, I was up early the next morning, and took this photo as a warming sun hit a cold mountain lake, causing a burst of fog to rise and fill the surrounding timber. (Click on photo to enlarge.)