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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hiking Morgan Summit in Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Hi Blog!

On Sunday, July 30, 2017, we decided to hike up into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest located between Heise and Victor, Idaho. This section of the national forest is the western most area of the forest. The Caribou-Targhee stretches from west Yellowstone National Park all the way down the west side of Grand Teton National Park and then stretches further west along the Snake River. We started our hike at the Morgan Summit parking lot.

Our first destination was the Hidden Vista. The trail was well worn and led through a mature forest with lost of diversity.

The vista did not disappoint.  It looked like a landscape painting in pastels:

We followed a side trail around the summit.

From this vantage point, we could look down another valley.

As we continued out trek around the summit, we were treated to numerous wild flowers.

Before long, we reached the Hawley Gulch Overlook. It was hard to see the gulch through all the trees.

As we continued our hike, we were treated to more and more wildflowers.

In the 1970s, the forest was hit with an infestation of pine beetle. After the dead trees were cleared, lodgepole pine was combined with other native varieties to produce a healthy mixture of species. Diversification of tree species and age affords protection against recurrence of the devastating epidemic. Here we walked through a grove of aspen trees.

After finishing our loop around Morgan Summit, we decided to head over to the Pine Loop Trail. On the way we were treated to more wildflowers.

As we hiked down from the summit, we saw cluster after cluster of blazing red paint brush.

The Pine Loop Trail is a figure eight lollypop trail. We dubbed this section of trail, "Leaning Tree Meadow."

While the trails are well marked, they are not well named. It took a little bit of topo map sorting to make sure we completed the figure eight.

After finishing our hike, we decided to drive further north through the forest:

Before long, we left the woods behind and entered the rolling grasslands of the Idaho plateau:

As we followed the old Hogs Back Road, we were treated to immense views in every directions. We now understand what they mean when they say, "Big Sky Country."

We drove past mile after mile of amber waves of grain.

While this old barn may seem like a relic of the past, the farm is still an active high tech operation.

Our adventure took us from the banks of the South Fork of the Snake River, through the woods of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, and out into amber waves of grain. As much territory as we covered today, it was only a small drop in the bucket. We can't wait to come back to Idaho and explore the Bitterroot Wilderness. Stay tuned.

Bicycling to Wolf Flats near Heise, Idaho

Saturday, July 29, 2017 was our first full day in Ririe (pronounced "RYE-ree"), Idaho, and we wanted to explore the areas around us along the Snake River.  We decided that bicycles were the most interesting way to do this.  We set out down the road from our campground, Mountain River Ranch RV Park, and across the Snake River.  Here's a view upriver from our road:

We also looked downriver.  Technically, this is the South Fork of the Snake River.  But this is the same river that flows south of Yellowstone and through Grand Teton National Park (Jackson Lake), and on into the main Snake River.  So this is the BIG ONE and we enjoyed watching its robust flow.

As we bicycled along, past Heise, we had beautiful views of the braided river, through wetlands:

Along the way, we spotted this osprey family:  the male on the left standing guard and looking for food, with mom and the chick in the nest:

Our bicycle route brought us along the north shore of the Snake River and into the Targhee National Forest.  We encountered the BLM's Kelly Island Campground.  It is developed, but requires boondock (dry) camping.  Yet the campsites had incredible views and we decided we would love to have found these as we planned our trip:

As we cycled along, we got some wonderful close-up views of wildflowers, including thistle.  Here are views of thistle blossoms at three stages of their maturity:

Pedalling further, we encountered spectacular views of the volcanic ridges along the fault against which the Snake River flows.  Eons ago, after lava flows, a great earthquake caused the valley south of this ridge to sink, leaving these steep cliffs:

The cliffs came right down to the road:

This was Kathy's favorite rock on the trip:

Our ride was about 16 miles.  On our way back, we stopped at the pizza parlor in Heise and toasted our adventure with some Idaho Brewing Company beer:

The day wasn't over with our bike ride.  When we made our campground reservations, we also reserved seats at a dinner show at the campground, known as Meadow Muffin Dinner Theater.  From the campground, three wagons, pulled by great draft horses, carried us over to the dinner venue:

The show itself was rollicking and entertaining, and we enjoyed every minute, participating with our hooting and hollering and foot-stomping.  Here, the cast gives us their best at curtain call:

A wagon ride back to our campground, and we walked back to our RV, laughing and thinking back on the friendly people we met at dinner and the hilarious time we had.

Warm Springs State Wildlife Management Area

Hi Blog!

Our last day in Deer Lodge was Thursday, July 27, 2017. Since we had already visited all the tourist stops the last time we were here, we decided to get out and about in the surrounding area. South of Deer Lodge is the town of Anaconda - where cooper was king.

Located at the foot of the Anaconda Range, the Continental Divide passes within 8 miles south of the community. Anaconda was founded by Marcus Daly, one of the Copper Kings, who financed the construction of a smelter on nearby Warm Springs Creek to process copper ore from the Butte mines.

All of the waste water from the smelter process was dumped into Warm Springs Creek. In 1980, this area was declared a SuperFund site. Retention ponds were constructed where the heavy metals from the smelting process could settle out before the water proceeded down stream. We parked at a picnic area on the east side of the largest pond. We decided to hike across the dike between two of the ponds. Here Kathy takes a break to watch several family of geese teach their young how to forage for grub.

The ponds are being managed by the state of Montana as a wildlife area. The banks of the dike were just brimming with wildlife.

As we reached the far side of the dike, a spillway added water to the Clark Fork River. This area is a flyfishing mecca. Because of the pollution, this part of the river is catch and release only. Because no fish are ever taken, they have grown to tremendous size.

On our hike back to the picnic area, we played hopscotch with three different blue herons. Because they are so shy, we never got close enough to catch a photo.

We found a couple feathers along our hike, which we plan to bring home to Flip, our cat. She has quite a collection of feathery play things. Here is Kathy Two-Feathers showing off Flip's latest additions to her collection.

With the possibility of thunderstorms, we decided to finish up our hike and head to Anaconda for lunch. We ended up at Peppermint Pattie's for their famous pork chop sandwich. While the pork chop was tender, it was breaded and deep fried which added more calories and fat than we would have like.

While we saw lots of geese, anhinga, ducks and song birds, we never saw any deer in the wildlife management area. However, on our coffee walk, we saw this sweet little girl about a block from our campground. Sometimes, that's just the way it goes.

Tomorrow, we head back into Idaho as we work our way down to Utah. Not sure what we will find when we get there, but I'm sure it will be fun! Stat tunes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

Today is Monday, July 24, 2017.  We heard about a rails-to-trails bike path called "The Route of the Hiawatha," which runs to the Montana state line from a trailhead near Wallace, Idaho.  The trail, together with the Trail of the Coeur d'Alene which runs through Wallace, Osburn, Kellogg, and west to Coeur d'Alene, was admitted to the Rails-to-Trails Hall of Fame.

The trail follows the former route of the Hiawatha trains.  The Hiawathas were a fleet of named passenger trains operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (also known as the Milwaukee Road) between Chicago and various destinations in the Midwest and Western United States. The train was named for the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In the late 1800's the Milwaukee Road was a prosperous railroad out of Chicago which decided to expand west.  The route proposed for the new line was through the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. The exploration on the Idaho side began in May, 1905, and by early 1907 the construction work began. The actual construction of the rail bed and the track was very difficult due to the forbidding terrain and the weather conditions. The cost of the project which was originally estimated at $45 million, ended up exceeding $234 million. It took nearly 9,000 men, Italians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Austrians, Belgians, Hungarians, Japanese, French, Canadians, Spaniards, Irishmen, Swedes, Norwegians, and others all working together from 1906 to 1911 to construct this Pacific extension.  As the construction proceeded, numerous settlements sprouted throughout the area.

In August 1910, one of the most devastating forest fires in recorded American history burned much of the natural forests in Northern Idaho and Western Montana. The fire burned 2½ to 3 million acres. It was so huge that a massive cloud of smoke spread throughout Southern Canada and the Northern United States all the way to the St. Lawrence waterway. The darkness from this smoke was so bad that for 5 days artificial lighting had to be used from Butte, Montana including Chicago to Watertown, New York. There were numerous stories of very heroic actions by the railroad employees who drove engines and box cars filled with people through the flames to the safety of the longer tunnels. Reportedly over 600 lives were saved in this manner alone.  Eventually, the railroad was forced into receivership in 1925, and never really recovered before its final bankruptcy in 1977.  The last train passed through in 1980. After that the line was abandoned.

With government funding and private donations, the rails were removed, and the construction of this spectacular wilderness bicycle and hiking trail was undertaken in 1997. The Idaho portion of the trail first opened for public use on May 29, 1998. The St. Paul Pass, or Taft Tunnel, was completed in May of 2001, and is now open for bike riding.

Most of the public starts the trail at its East Portal, at the Idaho-Montana border, and rides downhill for 15 miles to the West Portal at Pearson, Idaho.  However, this forces you to choose between a long, 15-mile uphill ride in the afternoon back to your place of beginning, or accepting a shuttle ride back.  These choices didn't seem acceptable, so we found a Forest Service road between Wallace and Pearson that let us park our Jeep at the bottom of the trail at its West Portal.  This let us bike uphill for 15 miles in the morning, rest and have lunch at the top, and then cruise back downhill another 15 miles to our original trailhead in the afternoon.

Our drive to the West Portal was an adventure in itself.  It took us up Placer Creek Road and over Moon Pass down into the valley of the North Fork of the St. Joe River, which we followed to our trailhead.  The St. Joe River valley is spectacular, and we found many spots where we would love to boondock.

Along the way, we spotted the charred snags of giant cedar trees that were burned in the 1910 fire that destroyed the forests and many of the communities in this area:

After an hour's drive, we arrived at our trailhead and began our ride:

The trail, 15 miles in length, with a steady 2% grade, boasts 10 tunnels and 7 trestles.  The views from the trestles were awesome:

The tunnels were equally awesome.  We were required to wear helmets and carry headlights in the tunnels because they were so dark.  One of the tunnels we passed through boasted an avalanche canopy to prevent snow and rocks from crashing down on the trail at the tunnel entrance:

The experience of riding inside the tunnels was surreal.  Many of the tunnels were long enough that we experienced the disorientation of near-total darkness inside.  Our way was lit only by our own headlamps and the occasional headlamps of passing bicyclists:

As the crow flies, the East Portal, our destination, lies only 4 miles east of the West Portal, where we began, but the railroad line - and hence, our trail - winds 15 miles to achieve its desired low grade.  As a result, it curls back upon itself, and for most of the ride we could look across to see the trail where we were going to ride (above us) or where we had ridden (below):

The most dramatic feature of the trial came at the end of our 15-mile climb:  the St. Paul Tunnel, which was over 8,000 feet long - 1.7 miles of utter darkness!  We entered with trepidation:

Inside, the tunnel was so long that, though the outside air temperature was in the mid-80's Fahrenheit, the interior was in the mid-40's, making for a chilly tunnel ride.  Just before we reached the point of shivering, however, we burst back out into the bright sunshine to the East Portal, where we sat and ate our lunch, watching the activities of bikers getting ready for their ride down the trail:

Once rested, we mounted our bikes and RACED back down the 15 miles to our West Portal.  We did it in less than an hour - at a pace of almost 20 mph!  Here is a video showing the experience of racing across the high railroad trestles on our bikes:

Once done, we drove back over the dirt roads, across Moon Pass, back to Wallace, where we slaked our deep thirst at Wallace Brewing Company, where we filled growlers with one of our favorite brews:  their Wallace Strong Ale.  With a short stop at a self-serve car wash to hose the heavy dust off our Jeep and bikes, we returned home to our campground, exhausted but satisfied with this unique adventure.

Hiking the Pulaski Tunnel Trail

Ed Pulaski is a friend of mine
When I'm cuttin out a firebreak line
He invented this thing like an axe I swing
and he never left a member of his crew behind.
When the fire jumped across the line
Took em down an abandoned mine
Then he drew his gun, said he'd shoot the first one
that got it in his head to try and step outside
Got everybody out alive
Cuttin' out a firebreak line.
- Steve Earle, "Cuttin' Out a Firebreak Line"

Edward Pulaski (1868–1931) was a U.S. Forest Service ranger based in Wallace, Idaho. He joined the fledgling Forest Service in the summer of 1908.  On August 20, 1910, Pulaski was credited with saving all but five of his 45-man crew during what is known as the "Great Idaho Fire," the "Great Fire of 1910" or the "Big Blowup." It had been unusually dry in 1910 and forest fires were rampant across the northern Rockies.

Pulaski was in charge of a crew of firefighters at a ridge dividing the watersheds of the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers, about five miles south of Wallace, when the fire suddenly broke out of control, overwhelming the crew.  He assembled about 45 men and advised them that they would have to try to make it to Wallace to save their lives.  He led them down the West Fork of Placer Creek.  As he approached Wallace, the band encountered flames coming up the canyon.  Ed revised his plan.  Drawing on his knowledge of the area and of the dynamics of forest fires, Pulaski led his men back uphill to safety in an abandoned Nicholson mine tunnel. After some of his men panicked and attempted to flee the mine tunnel into the raging fire, he threatened to shoot with his pistol any man who left. He never had to use his gun. Over the ensuing hours the raging fire’s smoke, heat, and fumes sent all the men into unconsciousness. Lying prone on the tunnel floor, all but five of the firefighters survived. The mine entrance, now known as the Pulaski Tunnel, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pulaski Tunnel Trail (just a few miles from Wallace, ID) traces part of the route that Edward Pulaski’s crew followed during their escape from the 1910 fires. The trail’s two-mile course brings hikers to an overlook across the creek from the Pulaski Tunnel.  Today’s lush spruce and fir forest belies the damage and tragedy of that century-old fire but interpretive signs along the way tell the story of the fire and miraculous escape.

We started late in the morning because we had other obligations, so the sun was already high and getting hot.  Still, we were eager to trace the route of this historic odyssey.  Here, Kathy examined the trail map at the trailhead before we started:

We followed Placer Creek up the mountainside from just above Wallace.  The stream was beautiful and offered us many opportunities to see and hear its cascades:

There were several bridges along the trail.  Most of them were recently built.  Here, David examines one of the largest:

About halfway up the 2 mile trail, we encountered a sign explaining that we were looking at a "buffalo blower, a water-driven ventilator for a mineshaft.  As we examined it, we realized this meant that a mineshaft was directly under our feet somewhere.

About a half mile further, we came to a sign marking a cedar snag that was the remains of a huge cedar tree whose top was burned in the 1910 fire:

My gosh!  The trail was full of Thimbleberry bushes, although many of the berries weren't ripe yet, and most of those that had ripened had been picked.  But we found maybe a dozen berries each to taste:

Eventually, we reached the Pulaski Tunnel.  The trail took us to an overlook which allowed us to look at the mine entrance from above and across the stream.  A local Wallace artist had recreated the timbers that are used to protect the mine entrance from falling rocks:

David found an informal path down to the stream, and then he rock-hopped across it to the old mine entrance.  A grate has been installed on it to keep people from entering and desecrating the site of the five or six firefighter deaths, but to let bats fly in and out:

The trail had over a dozen historical markers along it to explain the story of Pulaski and his men.  We finished reading the markers at the top of the trail, and then returned along it.  At one of the bridges, we looked out and our shadows waved a solemn goodbye to "Big Ed" and his men: