TURNED AWAY

Big Snowy Mountains rebuff 1st backpacking exploration

2012-08-09T00:10:00Z 2012-08-09T13:09:13Z Big Snowy Mountains rebuff 1st backpacking explorationStory and Photos By BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

DRY POLE CREEK -- One of my many genetic flaws is that I feel the need to keep pushing onward when good sense would suggest that I halt or turn back. I call it the pioneer gene, one passed down from my Scandinavian great-grandparents who may have defied good sense to homestead in Montana in the early 1900s.

Friends and family just think I’m a bit nuts, but I prefer to rationalize my behavior.

My pioneer gene sprang from its hideout in my head last Saturday during my first backpacking trip into the Big Snowy Mountains of central Montana. I was tagging along with the University of Montana’s Citizen Science Program on an exploration of Dry Pole Creek.

Bushwhacking

It hadn’t been an easy trail to find, since there were no Forest Service trailhead markers. And after a day of walking and a night camped out in a meadow filled with fresh elk sign, the second day’s hike along the route ended when the trail that was marked on the group’s map petered out.

There were still game trails wandering through the densely wooded creek bottom, as well as on the steep sides of the close-in mountains, but no clear route that would have been used by hikers – what the Forest Service calls a system trail. So the group decision was to turn back.

“No!” I wanted to yell. Every bone in my body wanted to press on to the original destination – a ridge top on the mountain range’s western flank. I hungered to see the view from the top of golden wheat fields below undulating toward the Crazy Mountains to the southwest and the Little Belt Mountains to the west.

I felt this way even though I knew that turning around was clearly the right idea. Our water was low, since Dry Pole Creek was really dry. Bushwhacking is slow, tiresome and usually a less-than-direct route, meaning continuing on would be time-consuming. And turning back early would mean a much more relaxed day, instead of wringing every ounce of energy out of my flabby body that pressing on and hiking back out would require.

Yet my pioneer gene had firmly gripped the reins of my giddy-up-and-go spirit. I considered pressing on alone, never a great idea and especially stupid in a remote area with little chance of rescue if something goes wrong. I hiked up the mountainside searching for a better trail to try to convince my fellow hikers to continue on. I found a path through the shale that I tried to build up as better than it really was -- a faint game trail.

Reluctantly I turned back.

The tease

I have hunted in the shadow of the Big Snowy Mountains since I was a boy. The range’s peaks – such as 8,681-foot high Greathouse – as well as family lore about Half Moon Pass have teased my pioneer gene. I’ve studied maps for routes across the island range, so called because it rises above the prairie like an island on the sea. But until Friday, I had not taken the time to venture into the mountains. And until Saturday, I had not been turned back from further exploration of the range.

So I hungrily sought more information from the trip’s leaders, Evan Holmstrom and Sara Meloy, who had explored other portions of the Big Snowies this summer.

They described the range as little visited, some of the other trails as hard to find and they noted a diversity in the flora – wet to the point of almost being tropical in some drainages, compared to the drier juniper and limestone route carved by Dry Pole Creek. Holmstrom extolled the virtues of Uhlhorn Trail, which ascends to Greathouse Peak and also accesses aptly named Knife Blade Ridge.

“I feel like nobody knows about them,” he said.

“It feels more remote than the Little Belts,” Meloy said. “Pretty much every trip in the Little Belts we ran into people on dirt bikes.”

Limestone features

All of the drainages of the Big Snowies seem to have one thing in common – large outcrops of Madison limestone. To me, the cliffs were reminiscent of similar ones along the Dearborn and Smith rivers – towering, ivory-colored outcrops carved into castle and fortress-like shapes, as well as odd fingerlike protrusions similar to the hoodoos of the Southwest.

Although Dry Pole Creek was dry, the valley floor was strewn with the pinkish blooms of wild bergamot, spindly stemmed yellow arnica and purple asters. Wild raspberries, strawberries and grouseberries prompted stops for snacking. Copper-colored butterflies glommed onto harebell and bull thistle blossoms in profusion.

Although we never saw any wildlife, there were fresh elk beds in the waist-tall meadow grass, as well as droppings. Bear scat and rocks overturned by a bruin searching for insects paralleled the trail. And near our campsite there was one tree that had been clawed and possibly used as a scratching post by a bear and maybe a mountain lion.

We saw no people and few signs that anyone had visited the drainage. The odd exceptions were one abandoned truck tire with a badly dented rim and what appeared to be a child’s lone bicycle training wheel. We conjured up tales of a criminal cougar that walked on hind legs and heisted the items from homes in the valleys below.

Coming back

So the Big Snowy Mountains are a wild place, partly because the mountains rise so steeply and access points are scattered. A portion of the range has been designated a wilderness study area since 1977, one of seven in the state managed by the Forest Service.

Someday soon, I hope to return to the Snowies to unleash my pioneer gene and finally gaze from the top of the steep, rocky range out across central Montana. On that trip, there will be no turning back.

Good sense be damned.

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