Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Old Man and the Forest

My neighbor hunts. He hunts big game, as Ernest Hemingway did. He has other houses, one in another state, one in another country. He comes to Montana every autumn to hunt. He arrived last week, with friends and horses. Today he is gone. The signs say the hunt was a success. Ravens, loud and raucous, flock to his land to scavenge what is left of a carcass. They were not here before. Over the river, a raven will sometimes appear, flying upstream, with a hunk of red flesh in its beak. Now the coyotes have come. They howl in chorus in the night and predawn. They are not afraid.

So much for my attempt at Hemingway's writing style. Here's one wily coyote:

Tragic note: In 1961 Hemingway committed suicide with both barrels of his favorite shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, which is about four hours south of here. He is buried in Ketchum, and his memorial there contains these fitting words, taken from a eulogy he wrote himself upon the death of a friend in 1939:

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
Now he will be a part of them forever.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Weather is Here; Wish You Were Beautiful

UPDATE (11:00am, Sula time): The snow got heavier for a little while, but has stopped for now.

UPDATE (10:00am, Sula time): A light snow is falling this morning. The temperature is a little above 32 degrees, so it won't stick. The snow has put a damper on all the forest fires in the area. Hopefully it'll be what they call a season ending event.

ORIGINAL POST: Local Forecast for Sula, Montana (as of Tuesday night, Sept 29, 2009 at 10:00pm)

• Tonight: Rain showers early with precipitation turning to a mixture of rain and snow overnight. Low 34F. Winds W at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of precip 70%.

• Wednesday: Cloudy with rain and snow. Colder. High 39F. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of precip 70%. About one inch of snow expected.

• Wednesday night: Snow showers before midnight. Becoming partly cloudy later. Low 24F. Winds WNW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of snow 70%.

• Thursday: Partly cloudy. High 52F. Winds W at 5 to 10 mph.

• Friday: Times of sun and clouds. Highs in the low 50s and lows in the mid 20s.

It's raining now, so they've gotten it right so far. The rainfall sounds great hitting my metal roof and the skylights.  I believe this forecast is for downtown Sula, near the Sula Country Store on Highway 93. My place is about ten miles away and several hundred feet higher in elevation. The temperatures here are consistently eight to ten degrees colder than what is forecast for Sula.

Get Your Tickets to the Gun Show!

This brilliantly-named gym is in Darby, Montana.

Imagine the trash-talking in this place: "Don't make me get all Second Amendment on you."

The Sun is Headed South

The 45th parallel is the halfway line between the Equator and the North Pole.  My place is a little north of that, pretty close to 46 degrees north. Since the position of the Sun dipped below the Equator after the equinox on September 22, the Sun appears to be far south in the Montana sky. At mid-day, everything has a long shadow on its north side. I took this picture at 12:30 pm, looking due south.

If I had to judge, I'd say the Sun is as far south now as it would be in Dallas on the shortest day of the year in December. It will be very interesting to see how far south the Sun goes up here this winter and how short the days will become.

Montana Facts

Montana has one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Texas has 32. Texas has more representatives than you can shake a stick at, but Montana has more sticks than you can shake a Congressman at. There is no threat in Montana of gerrymandering resulting in long, skinny election districts running down one side of a road or highway. Other states with one rep: Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Helicopter Logging Project Halted

The East Fork helicopter logging project, which was about two-thirds complete, was abruptly halted by the Forest Service last week because a helicopter company out of Idaho complained that it didn't get a chance to bid on the work. The project, as part of larger logging and thinning initiative in the Bitterroot National Forest, was approved in 2005, but the helicopter logging was not done due to reduced timber prices. This summer, federal stimulus funds were allocated to complete the project. By that time forest fire season had begun, so the Forest Service chose to act quickly and avoid a bidding process, so they awarded the contract to a local company whose base is only 20 miles from the logging site. The competing helicopter company recently threatened to file for a temporary restraining order in federal court (damn lawyers), which could have stopped the project until next summer. In an effort to get the logging completed this year, the Forest Service halted the project and now plans to put the remainder of the work out for bids late this week.  They expect to award the new contract within the next three to four weeks.

Since the project is frozen, the local helicopter company is not allowed to do any more work.  They have packed up and gone home, leaving about 90 loads of cut logs stacked in various places in the forest, adding to the fire danger. This is one pile along the East Fork Road:


The World is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much With Us

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fire Update: Calm

The smoke plume I saw last Thursday was from the Table Mountain Fire, about 12 miles to my northeast.  The fire was caused by a lightning strike back on September 2, but it wasn't discovered until it started generating heavier smoke on September 12. Because it was in a remote Wilderness Study Area and did not jeopardize any structures, the Forest Service had been wisely letting it burn. Last week it began spreading further to the south toward some cabins, so the Forest Service began actively working to contain it with aircraft and ground personnel. You can see the current status of the Table Mountain Fire at Fire Incident Report.

The National Weather Service got it right on Saturday--it was cooler, dry and windy. The wind was generally out of the west, so it pushed the Table Mountain Fire more toward the east, although it continued to creep a little to the south. This is the view from my place late Saturday afternoon, looking northeast.

Naturally caused forest fires are an important part of the ecosystem, so they should be allowed to burn when they don't threaten communities. Some species of plants, such as the lodgepole pine, need the heat of a fire to allow their seeds to germinate. Moderate intensity fires also thin parts of the forest to the benefit of many species, and they add nutrients to the soil in the form of ash. If fires are not allowed to burn, dry fuels continue to build up, which can greatly increase the intensity of future fires. Despite the admonishments of Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear, a common mistake), no one can prevent all forest fires. Ted Williams, the living ecological writer, not the dead baseball player, wrote an excellent article back in 1995, titled Only You Can Postpone Forest Fires. Some parts of the article are a bit dated now, but it is still a good piece on fire policy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The National Parks on PBS

This series should be good. It premieres this Sunday night at 8pm Eastern Time.

For more information and some previews, go to

Friday, September 25, 2009

Open Request Line

If there's anything you're curious about that I haven't covered yet, please put it in a comment to this or another post, and I'll try to address it.  I've set it up so you can leave comments anonymously.  Anything related to life in western Montana shoud be fair game: weather, wildlife, places, day-to-day life, etc.  I'll leave on the anonymous comments as long as I don't get too much spam or too many pointless comments like "you suck."

Early Fire Update

It's very calm and 30 degrees this morning, not good weather to grow forest fires. Fires like it hot and windy. So far today, there's not even a smoke column, just a wispy layer of smoke hanging over the valley.

As long as it doesn't get too windy, there should be no big flare ups, but the Weather Service is predicting that a dry front will come through on Saturday and stir the winds up. For that reason, most of western Montana is on a fire watch. They're calling for cooler temperatures and rain next week.

Bighorn Sheep

Between mile markers four and six on the East Fork Road in Sula is a good place to see bighorn sheep. The grassy hillsides above the roadway are supposed to be ideal habitat for them, but most of the times I've seen them here, they've been right in the road.

These are all ewes or immature rams. Only the adult rams have the large, curled horns, while the horns on the ewes and the immature rams are short and only partially curved. Hunters that draw a bighorn ewe license in Montana's lottery system have to make very sure they do not illegally shoot a young ram. The only way to ensure they target a ewe is to get a good look at the sheep's business.

I once saw a mature ram standing in the middle of the East Fork Road, but I didn't have my camera with me. He stood and stared blankly at me as I slowly drove around him. I took it as brave defiance, but now I have come to understand that bighorn sheep may not be the most intelligent of wildlife species.

The East Fork sheep habitat, which includes the Broad Axe Lodge and Restaurant at around mile 5.5 of the East Fork Road, has been designated a Wildlife Viewing Area. The Broad Axe has large windows that overlook the hillsides, and they will lend you binoculars to scan for sheep while you eat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's Still Fire Season

In the Northern Rockies, forest fires are a part of life, the same way hurricanes are on the Gulf Coast. We've had a light fire season so far this year, and usually by late September a good storm comes through and officially puts an end to fire season.  But this September has been among the driest on record, so it ain't over yet. 

On my way to get the mail this afternoon, I saw this above the ridgeline to the north.

Wildfires generally have one of two causes, lightning or morons. I haven't seen any lightning or heard any thunder lately. [Ed: It was a lightning-caused fire that smoldered for several weeks.] Here is what it looked like from near "downtown" Sula, about 13 miles away from my place. (For those who haven't been here yet, there is no "town" of Sula, and the 222 residents are scattered all over the upper Bitterroot Valley.  The Sula Country Store on Highway 93 is locally considered to be "downtown." This spot is just a short distance from the store, down the East River Road.)

I drove up the Forest Service road on the south side of the East Fork, behind my cabin, to see if I could get a better look at the fire from a higher elevation.

Now a northerly wind has stretched the smoke across the eastern end of the valley.


This is the view over the roof of my cabin.

No worries yet. So far the wind is calm, and the fire is still at least one valley away, but it bears watching. Updates tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reading by the River

I moved my outside reading chair from the deck to a spot down by the river.

The railing around the deck obstructed my view and made me feel isolated from the wildness. Now, reading by the river, if the writing is good and transports me away, as good writing should, I sometimes look up and am surprised to see the river flowing right in front of me. It is a happy surprise, as though I have just arrived here for the first time. I felt something similar during the first month I was here, when I would often suddenly remember that I actually live in Montana.

"He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he'd never been before."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lucky Highway

I saw this sign up near Lost Trail Pass

Montana Birds

These are some of the birds I regularly see around my cabin.

Rufous Hummingbird. All of these left a couple of weeks ago for their long journey south.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Pine Siskin

Steller's Jay

Spruce Grouse (Franklin's)

Other birds that I see frequently but haven't gotten good pictures of: Clark's Nutcracker, Gray Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco and American Kestrel. 

Monday, September 21, 2009


How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life.

Venus and the Moon

Just before dawn on September 16, 2009.

For a guide to astronomical viewing opportunities go to Sky and Telescope and click on This Week's Sky at a Glance, under the heading Observing.  It has good information on when and where to look for planets, meteor showers and other interesting occurrences.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Helicopter Logging

A helicopter logging company has been logging on the slopes along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. They have three cutters and six riggers working in rugged terrain, cutting and rigging mostly trees that have been killed by an infestation of mountain pine beetles and any other trees the Forest Service has marked for removal. The riggers rig the downed trees so they can be flown by the helicopter to the loading area, where they are stacked on trucks.

The logging company posts two employees along the road to stop traffic when the helicopter crosses the road.

On the day I took these pictures, the traffic flagger told me one of the other loggers, while riding his motorcycle to work that morning, had hit a deer. "Lucky for him he had his brain bucket and leathers on.  His leather jacket was all tore up."

An article on the logging operation from the Ravalli Republic is at Heli-logging the East Fork.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

City Boy, by Keb' Mo'

"I want to be where my soul can run free."

Along the Big Hole River

The Big Hole River, formerly known as the Wisdom River, is across the continental divide to the southeast of the Bitterroot Valley. When Lewis and Clark traveled up the Jefferson River in 1805, they named three of the Jefferson’s tributaries after virtues they believed represented the President that sent them on their journey: philosophy, wisdom and philanthropy. None of these rivers retained their virtuous names. The Philosophy River is now Willow Creek, the Wisdom River became the Big Hole River, and the Philanthropy River is now named the Ruby River.

The name Wisdom is still represented in the Big Hole Valley by the town of Wisdom, Montana, population 114. Wisdom is the home of the Antlers Saloon, a laid back bar with friendly people. It is said they also serve great pizza, something we didn’t know and certainly didn’t expect when we were there. Next time we are in the Big Hole Valley, we will investigate whether this claim has any merit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

E-lectricity and Propane

I got my first full-month electric bill today: $33.72.  That is roughly one quarter of what my bill would've been in my old apartment in Dallas. The most obvious difference is that this cabin has, and needs, no air conditioning.  On hot days, you learn to open the windows and doors in the morning to let the cool air in, and then close them all by late morning to keep the coolness in and lock out the afternoon heat. It works pretty well. Another difference is the availability of natural light in the cabin. There are plenty of large windows and two skylights, so I never need to turn on any lights during daylight hours.

The final difference: the stove and the dryer are both powered by propane. I don't have any experience with propane running home appliances, but it is apparently very efficient. I've cooked a fair amount and run the dryer plenty of times, and I keep checking the gauge on my propane tank, but it has barely moved. My landlord told me that when she lived here she had the tank topped off once every two years. It reminds me of the old parody of Clapton's song Cocaine, titled Propane. My favorite line: "If you live in the sticks, and your income is fixed, propane."

Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine

Mari and I made the trip from Hamilton across Skalkaho Pass to Gem Mountain. This highway sign accurately describes the drive through Skalkaho Pass:

I've never seen so many adjectives on a highway sign.  There were still a few idiots who took this road while towing campers.

Near the top of the pass, you round one of many blind turns and come upon Skalkaho Falls.

Down the east side of the pass is Gem Mountain, one of the largest sapphire deposits in the world.  The gems occur here in a wide range of colors, and they are mixed in with a naturally occurring gravel of quartz, sandstone and other rocks. The folks at the mine sell buckets of the gravel for $14.00 each, and they let you use their screen boxes and wash trough to look for gemstones.

Sapphires are denser than the surrounding gravel, so the best technique is to shake the gravel up and down in the water trough to get the gems to settle to the bottom of your box. Then you work the box in a rocking motion each way to try to move the sapphires to the center. When you feel lucky, you flip the box and dump it onto a table, and the sapphires, which were supposed to have worked their way to the bottom, should be on the top of your pile of wet gravel. The mine employee who gave our demonstration said the sapphires would look like beach glass.

This is how the gravel looks after you dump it. We'd already picked through this batch.

We never quite perfected our shaking and dumping technique, so we still had to sort through the top of the gravel pile to make sure we found all our sapphires.

Notice the people in the back of this pic. There were a few characters there who meant to strike it rich, just like in the lotto, but where you have to get your hands dirty.

This is what we found in two buckets:

 Unfortunately, the large irregular piece at the bottom of this pic, just to the left of center, was a worthless piece of quartz. We showed our haul to one of the jewelers inside the shop, and she said we had several sapphires that were over one carat. Several of the largest were flawed, though, which she jokingly blamed on their having been stepped on by a dinosaur.

We didn't find anything resembling the Hope Diamond, but this was a fun way to spend an afternoon. We barely got this trip in this year, because the mine closes for the season at the end of September, and Skalkaho pass closes to traffic on October 15.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A River Runs Through It

The East Fork of the Bitterroot River is not the river of Norman Maclean's beautifully written novella, but they end up in the same place. Maclean's river was the Blackfoot, which joins the Clark Fork a few miles east of Missoula. The Bitterroot joins the Clark Fork a few miles west of Missoula. This is the East Fork of the Bitterroot at Ross's Hole near Sula, where Lewis and Clark met and camped with the Flathead Indians in September 1805.  The term "hole" was used by early trappers to describe an open area, usually a valley, protected by mountains. 

How Rustic is It?

One of the questions I’m asked most often is how remote and rustic my cabin is. While it’s fairly remote, it has most of the comforts of home. The cabin has:

• a water well and septic system;
• a full bathroom;
• a four-burner stove with an oven;
• a microwave;
• a full size refrigerator with a large freezer;
• a washer and dryer;
• electric heat; and
• an air exchanger system to allow the cabin to “breathe” because it is very tightly built and well insulated.

The only major appliance it doesn’t have is a dishwasher. I don’t mind washing dishes by hand, but you definitely have to stay on top of things or the dirty dishes will pile up quickly. Being so far from the nearest restaurants and stores, I cook more often than I did when I could drive five blocks for fast food, so I wash a lot of dishes. It’s a small price to pay for living out here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wisdom of Thoreau

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  Henry David Thoreau. Walden.

Monday, September 14, 2009


The sun sets behind the mountains . . .

as the full moon rises behind the clouds.