Thursday, July 28, 2011

The things in life that matter, or why we love Rock Creek

Unbeknownst to them, today was a good day for the Bull Trout.

Today, a state court in Helena, Montana blocked the construction of a proposed silver and copper mine in the Rock Creek valley right outside and below our beloved Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in northwest Montana (about 40 minutes from our cabin).

The mine would have caused a 38% increase in sediment in lovely Rock Creek and would have very likely ruined what is one of the most peaceful and scenic hikes in the Cabinet Mountains. The decision requires the mining company to start from scratch with the permit process, and this time to take no shortcuts and engage in no back room deals. It will require them to be in full compliance with the Montana Water Quality Act, which, given the figure above, seems unlikely.  We can only hope.

I won't go into the merits of the case against the mine, or how they got their "general permit" in the first place. Instead, if you are interested in the background, I suggest you visit the website of the Rock Creek Alliance, a conservation group dedicated to stopping the building of the mine in Rock Creek.

I should probably tell you up front that T and I are members of the Rock Creek Alliance. But why would two intellectuals who live in Northern Virginia care so much about a creek, meadow and lake in a little-known corner of Montana? Because to us, Rock Creek and Rock Lake are too special to lose.

We have hiked through the Rock Creek Meadow to Rock Lake four times, falling more in love with it each time. The first was on 27 April 2007. The winter had barely come to an end and the meadow was awaking to the merest possibility of spring. We were completely enamored as we passed through it, listening to water coming off the mountains all around us. As we climbed the final ascent to the lake, we got our first glimpse of the meadow from above and it was love at first sight. We had no notion that it only got more beautiful as the year progressed.

As we went up, the snow got deeper. We weren't sure at some points if continuing was the best course of action, but on we went, debating continuously until we got to the top and the most stunning lake basin opened out in front of us.

Rock Lake was still partially frozen and snow covered. To me, it was like another world. The peace and stillness were immense and we were awed and exhilarated to be able to spend those few moments as nature's uninvited guests.

A thawing lake is an intimate thing. Standing on the shore, or what you think is probably the shore (as you are no doubt standing on snow), looking over the half white and half deep olive blue expanse before you, is almost like witnessing a quiet moment among strangers. You don't feel as if you belong, yet you are reluctant to move on. This is a sensation I first felt while at Rock Lake on that April day, and have only been able to articulate as we have made our way to more and more lakes in the first half of the year, during their slow, elegant thaws. It is a process that will always be unknowable to us, as we can never hope to watch it from start to finish. Our brief observation seems almost intrusive, yet tearing yourself away is one of the hardest things to do, regardless of how much snow you have in your hiking boots.

Our second visit was in the fall of that year, 05 October 2007 to be exact. It was a weekend where we arrived at our motel in Clark Fork, ID tired and stressed in mind and body. We almost didn't get up and get on the trail, but thank goodness we did. Our trip through Rock Creek Meadows was an explosion of autumn color, and the light rain didn't seem to register. It was as if each step we took, in total silence lost in our own thoughts, shook away some of our stress and unhappiness.

Even when the glance up the mountain at our destination showed white on the trees and rocks, we persisted on.

By the time we made our way up into the lake basin and turned around, we were in the midst of a heavy snow storm. Even through this, the meadows were lovely, shrouded in mist, clouds and autumn gold.

The lake itself was enjoying its last moments of movement before its enforced winter stillness commenced. The wind from the snowstorm created ripples on the water and tore through our wet, lightweight clothes. We were woefully unprepared for the elements, still we hated to leave. Its beauty, while not picture postcard perfect, was otherworldly and lingering in the consciousness.

Going down I was wearing T's spare pants,  spare gloves and spare socks having brought nothing along. Although frozen and wet, there was a new found spring in my step and we talked to each other with animation and affection. The lake had healed us and its magic was confirmed.

Our third trip was on July 4th 2008. We had moved back to the east coast and had just taken the crazy step of buying the cabin in Hope. We had spent five grueling days moving in and getting things set up and wanted to hike on the 4th of July as was our tradition, but didn't have the energy to travel far. Rock Lake was the perfect destination. Summer had just arrived in the meadows and the creeks were high. As we went through the meadow, the water coming off the mountain was so loud that it caused us to raise our voices to speak. The waterfall next to the abandoned mine shaft was going full blast and we stopped to admire the unbridled power of water.

Funny how something as innocuous as snow can melt, roar and make its presence felt so strongly.

Again it wasn't a picture postcard perfect day at the lake. For while beautiful, the air was hazy and the water flowing off the mountains shattered the peace and complete stillness that we were used to. Still, by then we had come to realize that no day at Rock Lake was a not good day, and we were able to unwind from the stress and work of past few days.

As an aside, while crossing Rock Creek just before the getting back to the trailhead, my feet went out from under me in an instant in the strong current, and had T not been holding on to me with both hands, I would have been gone. It was one of those moments when you realize how insignificant you are compared to nature and how you will never truly belong in the wilderness, just be allowed to get to know it a little better.

If we were looking for the picture perfect day to visit Rock Lake, we found it on 27 July 2009. We had our husky Mei Ping with us and she was coming alive to the joy of hiking in the western forests. Huckleberries were thick along the trail and she watched me pluck berries from the bushes and eat them. She watched me so intently that I gave her a berry. She ate it and trotted to the next bush along the trail and started pulling them off herself. It was entrancing.

Rock Creek Meadow was alive with sunlight and summer glory. I truly believe that every shade of green was on display that day and it gave me such joy to look down on it, I almost stumbled on the trail not looking where I was going.

The lake itself that day felt like a gift. The water was cool on our tired feet and the sun was vibrant but not beating. We sat down on the shore and relaxed without the bugs moving in. It was a moment that seemed to be made just for us and Mei Ping too was enamored by all around her.

Headed out on that day, we stopped at one of the bridge crossings of Rock Creek so Mei Ping could cool off. Looking down onto the creek from the bridge, I realized what a huge loss it would be for us all if the mine was built.
This is no place for mine run off.

We got a much different view of Rock Lake a year later when we climbed Engle Peak and looked down into the lake basin from above, way above. From that perspective the mountains surrounding the lake took on an entirely different quality, no less beautiful, but less imposing and daunting. Looking DOWN on Ojibway Peak made me feel alive and powerful, but as with all feelings of power produced by the high of the outdoors, it was completely fantastical. I still had to get down that mountain.

Ojibway from the lake.

Rock Lake, its basin and Ojibway Peak from above, taken from Engle Peak.

And that is the story of our connection to healing, magical place known to the lucky few as Rock Creek. Some things in life are worth fighting for and we believe Rock Creek, the Rock Creek Meadow and Rock Lake fall into this category.

Thank you to everyone at Rock Creek Alliance for making this day possible. Even from my desk in Virginia, my heart is lightened and my mind stilled by the knowledge that this place will remain what it always meant to be, wilderness visited briefly by man and loved by all.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Selkirk Crest Hike in the Snow

As we noted in previous posts, we recently spent a few weeks at our cabin in northern Idaho.  Hiking was generally disappointing because of the heavy snow still on the ground in the higher elevations and the amount of runoff in the mountain creeks and rivers.  Many creeks were simply not crossable, and that cut out about 80% of the trails we planned to hit this year.  The other 20% were covered in heavy snow, and while we could hike those, climbing up a few thousand feet on top or through heavy, wet spring and early summer snow is not so much fun.  It is a slog.  Count on falling through on a regular basis (T) or sliding off (H) and getting wet feet no matter how good you think your boots are.  So, I guess what we're saying is that we do not have many photos to share this year beyond what we posted under the entry "Out in the Wilderness." The best hike, and therefore the best photos, are probably from a hike up to the Selkirk Crest on the 12th of July near Roman Nose Mountain.  Roman Nose is usually fairly accessible if you don't mind going off-trail.  Simply hike up to the Lake number 2 (only about 1.5 miles), then make the 700-foot climb up to the ridge above, which you can do on two feet with a little sweat, but without hands or ropes.  From there, turn left and walk the rock-strewn ridge to Roman Nose at 7,260 feet or turn right and walk to a lesser un-named peak which tops out at 7,010 feet.  We would choose the lesser peak largely because of all the snow. 

The Roman Nose basin has 3 lakes.  This is the first lake, called Roman Nose Lake Number 3.   It is a short walk from a parking lot which you can drive to with a high clearance vehicle. The road was blocked with snow right before the parking lot and the lot itself was still under snow, but we were able to get close enough.
The headwall of the drainage for the lakes below Roman Nose.  The other 2 lakes sit up in the hanging valley above the wall (Lake number 1 is just out of sight at the top of the wall) .  Barely visible in the right center of the photo is a waterfall from the upper lakes, which could easily be heard from a mile away. 
Our destination.  Roman Nose peak is on the left; the right peak is unnamed, but where we ended up after climbing up to the ridge between the two peaks. 
The trail.
Roman Nose Lake Number 2 with Roman Nose towering above it.  Interesting story about Roman Nose.  There were fire watch towers on top of the peak from 1917 to 1999.  During the Sundance Fire of 1967, a young 18-year-old fire watcher posted to the peak escaped a massive wall of flames fanned by fire-induced wind gusts of up to 95mph by leaping over the edge and hiding under a rock overhang.  He later said, "A rock shelf had an overhang, and I wedged back under it as far as I could.  Flames began roaring over it.  I saw blazing branches as long as my arm fly past the overhang and down into the forest around the Roman Nose Lakes."  Two other men were not so lucky and were killed during the firestorm, which fire burned almost 56,000 acres.  At its height, the fire moved 10 miles in 3 hours, according to the Summer 2002 edition of the Sandpoint Magazine.
Heading up the 700-foot climb towards the saddle between the two peaks.  H was not enjoying the snow, but the dog certainly was.
Another look at our destination, this time from the saddle.
Chimney Rock, one of the iconic peaks of the Selkirks.
Roman Nose lake number 2 from the top.
The top looking north towards Canada.
The 7 Sisters and Harrison Peak.
Hardy vegetation on the peak.
Another shot from the top.  That is some view.
On our way down.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Trails, Forts, Wagon Boxes, and a Massacre: 1860s Indian War Sites in Wyoming

The area bisected by Interstate 90 between the town of Buffalo, Wyoming and Billings, Montana also provides an interesting backdrop to America's westward expansion and the resulting clash with the native Indian tribes from the 1860s to the early 1890s, this time those of the Northern Plains, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe.  In an area no more than about 100 miles north and south of the Montana-Wyoming state line and about 50 miles east and west of I-90, one can visit the sites of the Battle of the Tongue River (1865), the Fetterman Massacre or “Battle of the Hundred Slain” (1866), the Wagon Box Fight (1867), the Battle of the Rosebud (1876), and the Little Bighorn (1876), plus a few other smaller and lesser-known sites of clashes.

A good place to start is Fort Phil Kearny between Buffalo (an interesting mix of cowboys, outdoor lovers, and artsy types) and historic Sheridan, Wyoming.  Kearny guarded the Bozeman Trail from 1866-1868.   The Bozeman Trail connected the gold fields of Montana with the Oregon Trail and generally followed the current trace of I-90 and I-25 between Bozeman, MT and Wyoming.   Kearny, along with two other posts (Forts Reno and C. F. Smith), protected travelers on the Trail, tried to prevent intertribal warfare between the Indians inhabiting the area, and attempted to draw Indian attention away from the transcontinental railroad construction to the south. Soldiers stationed at Kearny participated in a number of fights in the area in what was known as Red Cloud's War (1866-1868), including the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Massacre. The fort and the Bozeman Trail were closed in 1868 in a treaty with the Indians because both had outlived their usefulness with the advance of the Union Pacific Railroad to the south. Once the Army abandoned the fort, the Cheyenne burned it so only traces and a few relics remain. Meanwhile, the treaty established a huge reservation encompassing parts of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota, and the government promised to protect the Indians “against the commission of all depredations by people of the United States.”

A sketch of Kearny.
But there isn't much left today.  It is currently a state park with an interpretive walking path through the site, as well as a museum.  Placards offer insights into life on a frontier outpost in the 1860s.  Trust me, life was not all that exciting.  Between the occasional skirmishes with Indians, boredom was the chief enemy.  The bleak country and cold, wind-swept winters certainly did not help.  Alcohol was a frequent solace and desertion rates were very high. 

A reconstruction of part of the fort's wall.  A number of archeological digs have been undertaken in and about the site.
The park's museum is small, but informative and has some impressive displays.

Close by are the sites of two battles the soldiers of Ft. Kearny took part in:
The Fetterman Massacre or the Battle of the Hundred Slain:  In December of 1866, a military force of 81 men under Captain William J. Fetterman was wiped out here by a large force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  Fettermen and his men had ridden out of Ft. Kearny to rescue a woodcutting wagon train under attack.  What they did not realize is that the attack was a ruse to draw a column from the fort into an ambush.  When Fettermen and his men rode over this crest, they were attacked by a force of Indians estimated from 1,000 to 2,000 strong.   No one in Fetterman's force survived.  Ironically, Fetterman, a Civil War veteran, had boasted he could with 80 men "ride through the Sioux nation."  I seem to recall a British general saying something similar during the Revolutionary War.  I don't think that worked out very well either.

A close up of the monument.

Fetterman and his men advanced along this ridge prior to being forced back.   Occasional interpretive signs along the trail in the photograph tell the story of the battle and what it was like for both the doomed soldiers and the victorious Indians.
The area contains traces of the Bozeman Trail.

The Indian force attacked largely from the left. The last remants of Fetterman's force were killed around the area where the monument is currently located.

The Wagon Box Fight:  There isn't much to see here, but somewhere in this vicinity (the exact site is still disputed), a large Indian force (perhaps 800 Sioux) in August of 1867 attacked another woodcutting party.  This time, however, some 32 men (26 soldiers and 6 civilians) armed with breechloading rifles and taking cover inside an oval of wagon boxes used as a stock corral beat off the attack.   There is no interpretive trail here, but the placards you see do tell the tale of the battle.

A wagon box (in case you were wondering).

And close-up of the monument commemorating the fight.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Opening Up the Old Northwest: Indian War Sites of Ohio and Indiana

**This is the first of three blog entries** about visits to sites where the US military fought Indians/Native Americans to open up the west for American expansion.  One caveat - Indian Wars, whether right or wrong, are a part of our country's history. I am interested in them for this reason alone. I don't want to spend time discussing how politically incorrect attitudes were back then, the attitudes were what they were and our nation is what it is as a result.   Okay, back to the blog, the first part of which will focus on a few sites in what was known as the Old Northwest, while the second will take a look at places in the Wyoming-Montana area.

Every year one or both of us drive out to our cabin in northern Idaho. It is a long drive of almost 2500 miles and takes about three days depending on how hard we push ourselves. Yes, 2500 miles is a serious amount of driving, and yes, the monotony of the Midwest states with their seemingly endless fields of corn and the vast emptiness of western South Dakota and eastern Montana can challenge any driver's ability to keep their eyes open. Thank goodness for audio books to help pass the time because radio stations across the country seem to all be the same—bad—except for perhaps KPND, the “Inland Northwest's Progressive Radio.” And don't get me started on the talking heads that proliferate—or shall I say pollute—the country's AM stations. To add a little something to the drive besides audio books and when we are not trying to get out there as quickly as possible, we try to hit a few stops along the way. One year, it was Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, while another was devoted to antique shops scattered along I-70 and I-90. This year, I (T) drove by myself (ok, I had a dog with me) and decided to hit a few Indian War sites along the way, first in what was known as the Old Northwest and then in the Wyoming-Montana area. 

I started with the town of Fort Recovery, Ohio, which is about 50 miles north of I-70 near the Indiana state line. It is a quaint little town smack dab in the middle of farming country. Check out the fantastic movie "Hoosiers," and you will get my drift.  It is named after a genuine Fort Recovery, built by the US Army in the 1790s. More importantly, the town is the site of General Arthur St. Clair's little-known defeat at the Battle of the Wabash in October of 1791 at the hands Chief Little Turtle of the Miami tribe. It is fascinating that the battle is so little known because St. Clair not only lost, his force was nearly wiped out in what continues to be one of the worst defeats in US military history; certainly the worst in the Indian wars, including Custer's much more well-known disaster on the Little Bighorn almost 85 years later. Out of his force of some 1,400 men, St. Clair lost around 900, and it could have been much worse had the Miamis pressed their victory. When then President George Washington read St. Clair's dispatches on the disaster, he said the general was “worse than a murderer.”

One of the consequences of St. Clair's defeat was an increase in the size of the federal army (a contentious issue in the late 18th century) with the formation of what was called the Legion. The Legion was placed under the command of the General “Mad” Anthony Wayne of Revolutionary War fame. To make a story going over a few years short, Wayne took the Legion back to the area of St. Clair's defeat, built Fort Recovery on the site of the battle, defeated a Miami attack on the fort, and launched a campaign against the Miamis to clear the Northwest Territory (largely the current state of Ohio and part of Indiana), culminating in the decisive victory over the Indians at the Battle of the Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo in August of 1794.

In the town square is this well-maintained park and monument to both St.Clair's losses and a subsequent victory by Anthony Wayne when the Miamis unsuccessfully attacked Fort Recovery.

At the site of both St. Clair's defeat and the original Fort Recovery, there is a partial replica of the fort's stockade walls and a nice, impressive little museum recounting the battles and the history of the area's original inhabitants.  The museum also contains a considerable number of artifacts found in the local area.  Oh yea...special thanks to the lady running the museum that day.  It was a very hot day, and she let me bring the dog into the air conditioned museum.   I cannot imagine that happening on the east coast. 

Next on the agenda was the site of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, just off I-65 in Lafayette, Indiana, another key battle in the effort to open up the area of the Old Northwest for American expansion. Prior to the War of 1812, a new confederacy of Indian tribes under the great Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet”) resisted the efforts of Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison to secure title to Indian lands to provide room for more settlers. Harrison wanted enough settlers to qualify the territory for statehood and negotiated numerous land cession treaties with area Indians, including the Treaty of Fort Wayne on September 30, 1809, in which several tribal leaders sold 3 million acres to the US. The Treaty, however, was opposed by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa and by 1811, they were preparing for war by trying to build a confederation of Indian tribes and discussing an alliance with the British, who were doing their own scheming with the Indian tribes against the US, including providing arms. Learning of Tecumseh's and Tenskwatawa's plans and hoping a show of force would make the Indians sue for peace, Harrison marched west with a strong force of US Army soldiers and militia against their main village, called “Prophetstown,” in the fall of 1811. With Tecumseh absent trying to recruit other tribes to the cause, the Prophet on 7 November preemptively attacked Harrison's camp at Tippecanoe and was defeated. The battle is often portrayed as a decisive Indian defeat, but while the Indian federation was severely damaged, it held together under Tecumseh and fought with the British against the US in the War of 1812. It would ultimately fall apart with Tecumseh's death at the October 1813 Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. Tippecanoe also helped inflame public opinion against the British prior to the War of 1812. Meanwhile, Harrison would use the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” to remind people of his heroism during the battle when he ran for president in 1840.

The site of the battle is now a state park with a museum, monument, and markers honoring US military officers killed during the battle.  Unfortunately in this case, I was not able to visit the museum, it having closed about 15 minutes before my arrival.

Stayed tuned for part 2 of Indian War travels to sites in Wyoming and Montana.