Thursday, December 26, 2013

But really, in Montana sleigh bells ring...

We all know the song, 'sleigh bells ring, come and listen...'  Out here this really does happen, and not just during the Christmas season.  Lone Mountain offers a trip back in time via a sleigh ride dinner.  It's cooler than Miles Davis, an igloo, or a hipster.  What about a hipster playing Miles Davis while living in an igloo?  Not sure on that one.

Anyway, when you arrive, Belgian draft horses are waiting, hitched to wooden sleighs.  Horses are creatures of habit, and so learn to work with one another, but only one other.  Larry and Curly always pull together, and would never dream of working with Mac.  Likewise, Mac only works with Charlie.  Not even a Moe could break up that first duo.

Eight to twelve people fill a sleigh, and you share a blanket with your neighbors, hoping to impart a little warmth to each other.  A softly spoken "Larry, Curly, hup" sends you off into the woods.  Snow-covered douglas fir and lodgepole pine tower over you while the moon peaks through the opening in the trees, lighting the way.  The stars of the Big Sky state complete the overhead blanket of Mother Nature.

Three times on the way up the hill the horses must stop for a rest.  The pines seem to exude a hush that nobody dares disturb save the tinkle of a bell as a horse shifts its weight.  In that moment it is easy to ignore everything else and solely contemplate you, in these woods, with these trees, people, and horses.

The rest of your life is just so much white noise.

Finally, the soft glow of the North Fork cabin comes into view.  You welcome the blast of heat when you disembark the frigid wooden sleigh and step in the door.  Propane lanterns hang from the ceiling and candles dot the room as you settle in to one of the large, communal tables.  At the front of the cabin towers a giant cast iron cookstove, that once roamed the country in a railroad car.  Behind it stands your chef and host for the evening, an 'old salt' who has been doing this for years.

Out of the beast pour warm, honey-molasses rolls, steaming root vegetable soup, Montana raised prime rib, roasted red potatoes, steamed vegetables, and bacon-sauteed mushrooms.  The chef, a character even off stage, leans over his cast iron throne to the nearest table, "Can I ask you a personal question?  How's the prime rib?"  Over the soft murmur of forks and knives a born-and-raised Montanan with a guitar sings his own folk songs and tells stories.  They might be true.  They might not.  A giant pot of cowboy coffee makes its way around the room after dinner as you enjoy the giant stove's last production-shortcake, topped with berries and whipped cream.

It is tough to leave the cabin, what with a belly full of hearty vegetables and prime rib.  But the trip back down the hill is a little warmer than the way up, thanks to the couple glasses of wine and the coffee that leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling.  The simple folk tunes help fortify you mentally against the outside world full of to-do lists and worries, as you hum choruses to the jingle of the sleigh bells back down the hill.

Is the meal good?  Damn good.  It might not be the avant-garde kobe beef tartar served with micro greens and essence of balsamic and cherry foam, but who cares?  Simple is good.  Salt, pepper, and beef are a trio that can go a long way together.  Was it a Broadway show?  No, but I am sure you found yourself enjoying it as much if not more by the way you hummed those tunes afterward.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel or the flavor of a well-cooked meal.  In many ways previous generations had it good, and I invite you to try it, if only for a night.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Frigid Temps & Awesome Rents

The other day in Bozeman after a brutally cold night, -29°F to be exact, one of my friends summed up Montanans' reply to the frigid temperatures, "We don't hibernate, we recreate!"  Indeed, the previous night downtown Bozeman hosted its annual Christmas Stroll, closing off Main Street and setting up booths for food and nonprofits, while the stores all stayed open and some screened films or hosted bands.  Santa made an appearance as well.  You would think -11°F would scare people off, but no, it was packed.  Needless to say, hot cocoa was literally the hot commodity that evening.

Back in Big Sky, I am moved in to Lone Mountain Ranch, where I will be working as a PM server in the dining room.  Originally, they put me in the A-frame, which has their ski shop on the bottom floor, but that room did not have a kitchen, so when a spot opened up in the Schaap House on top of the hill I jumped on it.  Check it out.  Upgrade.

OK, you might be convinced, but maybe not enthusiastic.  Let me show you my view.

Million dollar view or multi-million dollar view?  Either way, I'll take it.  Now it is time to get outside and recreate.  Today's forecast is calling for a relatively balmy high of 27°F.  Woohoo!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Montana Entertainment

There is no TV here at the ranch.  Most Americans might not know what to do with themselves.  Some of our guests do not at first either, but then their entire day magically fills itself up and they fall into bed exhausted.  In fact, there is not enough time to do everything we want to do.  Perhaps we should petition Mother Nature for 26 hours in a day.  That would certainly help.  Try it.  Turn off your TV for a week straight.

I say 'thank goodness' to our lack of 21st century 'entertainmen'.  Television is garbage.  How is that for a metaphor?  No other way I would put it.  Except for maybe when John Prine sings about it:

Blow up your TV
throw away your paper
go to the country
build you a home
Plant a little garden
eat a lot of peaches
tryin' to find Jesus
on your own

Why live vicariously through others when you have your own life to live?  Call your own shots.  Make it exciting.

Okay, rant over, time to dig down to the bottom of the garbage pile (although I hope this blog post is not complete trash).

Every fall we at the ranch take a trip into town for some raw, hormone-charged, sexual entertainment.  No, not the strip club.  Mammoth Hot springs, located just inside of Yellowstone, is the annual scene of elk in rut. Big bulls bugle to the females, saying something like 'hey good lookin' come join my harem, I'm the biggest and strongest around.  Check out my rack.'  Please Google 'elk bugling,' it is like nothing else.  It stays with you.  

Once they have a harem established, they have to maintain it by bugling and constantly running around to keep the females from wandering off.  They also duke it out with other males and anything else that is around.  Anything.  People and cars included.  There is a Park Ranger force dedicated entirely to closing off streets and creating a perimeter around the harems as they drift around town.  The females munch their way across the lawns, slowly migrating wherever their mouths take them.  Tourons (moron tourists) and cars in the vicinity are likely to be charged.  The bulls are given numbers by the Park Service to keep track of them.  Apparently last year #6 got 40 cars.  Have fun telling that to your insurance agent.

All of this happens right on the lawns and streets of Mammoth.  The grass covering the lawns is a tender dessert buffet for the elk, making it a natural hangout.  I mean, if someone took you out on a nice date dessert would only help, eh?  As well, in a National Park the animals are sacred, so there is really no stopping them.  More dessert and another car gets a busted out window.  The show must go on.

(sorry for no pics, the Yellowstone has been closed and I did not take any the last time I visited)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Peak Season is Over

The mercury is dropping and it is officially flannel season in Montana-fall in other words.  Even the mountains decided they were tired of being naked and Mother Nature graciously covered them in snow.  As they should be.

A group of us had planned on bagging the highest peak in the Absaroka mountain range, Mount Cowen, but it turns out Mother Nature had decided otherwise.  Peak season is over, just as the peak season at the ranch is winding down.  Sunday evening we trekked in 6 miles to camp at Elbow Lake, which is located right below the peak.  Around 11 o'clock that night the rain started and only stopped in order to turn to snow.  Considering that the peak is a class IV scramble-read: quite scary-with snow it was a no-go.  Oh well, still a fantastic camping trip.

While peaks are out of the question now, it is time for other things like fly fishing.  It should be turning on here pretty quick.  The snow on the peaks will only make the backdrop for that more beautiful and means that ski season is just that much closer...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pine Creek

Crazy Peak got the best of me last week.  That was definitively not going to happen this time around.  Time to head back to the top of the world and hike up to Pine Creek Lake, followed by summiting Black Mountain.  10,941 feet.  Not much to say about the hike that pictures cannot more judiciously describe.

Sometimes it is great to just walk and let your mind run.  Today was one of those days.

Waterfall on the approach to the lake.

A baby lake in between the lake and waterfall.  Black Mountain lies in the background, obscured by clouds.  I imagine this is what hiking in Scotland would look like.

Finally, the clouds broke as I got to the lake.  Time for a sunshine nap for rest and warmth-it was quite chilly-before ascending to the peak (right hand corner of this photo).

Victory amongst the clouds.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


99.5% can be disappointing.

Let me explain.  My weekly adventure took me to the Crazies, an isolated mountain range north of Livingston.  The goal: Crazy Peak, the namesake of the range, and my first peak over 11,000 feet, standing tall at 11,209.

Okay, but first check out this sunrise I was treated to in Paradise Valley.  To be so lucky.

The day broke bright and clear, with a smattering of fluffy lambswool clouds drifting overhead, a slight breeze, and temperatures in the 80s.  Nature supplied some candy along the trail in the form of wild raspberries, and the relatively flat part of the hike finished at beautiful Blue Lake.

After the lake things got interesting.  There is no trail.  It was up to me to choose a route to the top.  Visual aid below.  Hmmm.  Steep. obvious routes here.  Instead, I settled on a less direct route that came along the ridge from the right side.

A chute right in the middle of the photo above looked the friendliest to me.  Friendly as a snarling dog that is. Baring your teeth is almost like smiling, right?

I made it up the chute, and took the ridge as planned.  The views did not disappoint.

My only creature companions were ravens riding their version of a roller coaster: soaring up thermals before plunging down so fast I could hear the wind whistling through their wings, only to do it all over again.

There is no 'generic' mountain view when you are there, sitting on top of the world.  It never gets old.

Sometimes climbing on all fours-as I did up some of the chute as well-I reached what I thought to be the peak.  Negative, Ghostrider.  The real peak seemed close enough to reach out and touch, but required climbing down a steep, narrow chute, and then finding a way up an even steeper pitch with no obvious routes.

It is hard to tell what is going on here due to lack of depth perception in the photo, but needless to say this did not look like fun.  There also did not appear to be any route save for a super steep scramble that involved climbing up the scree you can see trailing down the right hand side of the peak.  As well, to get to that scary scree it looked as if you would have to literally do some climbing (something I later confirmed through a friend).  

I draw the line at the point where there is nothing to stop your fall in the case of a slip.  Where a missed hand or foothold is bad news bears.  And, in Montana on a peak like this we are talking grizzly bears.  Oh and did I mention that I had to double check every rock I grabbed on the way up because half the ones that appeared to be a solid part of the mountain moved and/or came out?

That was it.  Doneski.  Time to head down and give the adrenal glands a break.  I took a different route, just to the left of the false peak if you look at the picture from earlier when the question was which route to take.  Where the rock is all shiny.  From the top it did not look too bad.  It certainly was not worse than the way up, but looking back up toward the peak on the way down my first thought was "You climbed that?  Are you f-ing crazy?"  Well, Crazy Peak it is.

"To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is to labor."
-Robert Louis Stevenson

The journey was certainly worth it this time, despite not arriving at my destination-I certainly labored hard to earn that false peak.  The real summit could not have been more than 50 feet higher, so 11,159/11,209 = 99.5% of the way there.  Any other situation and that would be pretty darn satisfying, but hey, the adventure as a whole really was great, so I am putting a tally mark in the win column.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Beartooths Part Deux: In Search of Gold(en Trout)

At times, the structured half of my brain needs a mission and end goal to work towards.  Basking in the sun like a lounge lizard on my days off is satisfying for only so long, even after a long, tiring week at work.  After a little lounge time it hits me: a sense of urgency to squeeze every last drop of fun out of the 48 hours I have off.  That, and the surrounding mountains, peaks, and valleys are overflowing with juicy opportunities for adventure.  At times all of the potential things to do can be overwhelming, especially when wave after wave of people at the ranch start raving about this awesome thing they did over their weekend.  If you do not whittle them down to a select few and accept the fact that you cannot do everything, then you are likely to drown in the onslaught of opportunities.  Crystal Caves, Windy Pass, Electric Peak, Boiling River, the Sphinx, Grand Tetons, the list goes on and on.

Such Potential.  So juicy.

This past weekend I set out on a quest for gold.  Golden trout that is.  It is a subspecies of rainbow trout native to California that was transplanted to some lakes in Montana early in the 20th century because people thought they were beautiful and they were well adapted to high altitude lakes that remain frozen for a majority of the year.  As well, I added arctic grayling to the list, as they are a species now nonexistent in the rivers of Montana, but still cling on in a few lakes.

The Beartooths with their many alpine lakes were the best place to find both of these rare species, so off I went.  My map of the area has all of the lakes labeled with the treasure that lies underneath the water, so it was just a matter of finding the right two lakes close to each other.  As well it was just another excuse to visit my favorite place.

Beartooth Lake with Clay Butte in the background

I settled on a hike that started at Beartooth Lake and finished at Hidden Lake, the former filled with arctic grayling and the latter purported have a shimmer of gold the waves.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 miles judging by the squiggly line the trail took on the map.  Well, that and the fact that the map did not show a trail going to Hidden Lake, only one that ran near it.  Hence the name, perhaps?

The hike was gorgeous of course, and I fished in a couple of lakes along the way before setting up camp at Hidden Lake.  Then the search for gold was on.  My personal panning method involved a mayfly imitation, which worked on every lake, despite the fact that it was August.  Spring comes late in the Beartooths.  That and the trout in those lakes have such a short feeding window they will gobble up anything and everything.  And eat they did, but the search for gold was proved fruitless, aside from the fool's gold of cutthroat trout that I caught.  Gorgeous all the same.

The night came and went, bringing with it a quartet of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, which needless to say were not music to my ears.  After a final verse somewhere around 5am, the bad weather faded out and I rose to clear blue skies and a gorgeous morning.  My nose let me know a bath was in order after the previous day's hike, so I figured it would be fun to try and time a photo of me diving into the lake.  Chilly experiment, but good fun.  Also quite the challenge.

The best that I managed

After that it was breakfast, more fishing, and then hiking out.  Despite all of the fish I caught, the golden trout remained elusive, as did the arctic grayling.  A failure in one sense perhaps, but in reality just getting out there and enjoying nature while catching some fish is an excellent time by my standards.  A+ weekend.  The mission just gives my compass a direction to point instead of spinning in circles.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Beartooths

There is an anthology of works by Montana writers called 'The Last Best Place,' which has in turn led to become an nickname for the state, with its great swaths of wilderness and untamed land.  Places that humans may explore, but do not stay.  Places where bears, moose, and wolves hold title to the land.  Colorado, Michigan, and other landscapes have the potential to rival Montana's beauty, but have been overdeveloped.  Really, there is a cafe at the top of Pike's Peak?  Lame.  That is the territory of mountain goats and pika.  You have to earn that view!

One of these places, and my personal heaven on earth, is the Beartooths, a national forest just northeast of Yellowstone.  And let me tell you, it puts the 'high' in highway, topping out at 10,947 feet.  It is a landscape speckled with high alpine lakes swaddled by old growth forests, all perched atop a plateau of rock  that has been bent, crushed, and sculpted by glaciers.  Sitting right next to Yellowstone, it is the often overlooked little brother, and is mostly viewed from cars and bikes slithering along its tight switchbacks, leaving the woods juicily uncrowded and just waiting for me to sink my boots into them.

This past week I hiked up to the spine of the plateau, starting at the Clark's Fork trailhead, a 19 mile trek roundtrip.  Arriving Wednesday night, I had to abandon the idea of backpacking in part of the way due to thunderstorms, but in return had the chance to watch their dramatic effects from the safety of my car atop the highway.  The sunset was a top ten of all time for me.  Consider that a win.

Double rainbow!  Looks like you have to go swimming for the gold at the ends though.

The next morning broke clear with the sharp scent of sage brush greeting me.

On my ascent  up the trail I passed through new growth forests, burns, mosquito swamps, and ambling streams.  Near the top I hopped from lake to lake to the tip top, stopping to fish here and there along the way.

Aggressive 6-inch brook trout readily struck my mosquito fly, which only seemed fair after the mosquitoes almost ate me on the way up.  Is there a prettier fish?

Fossil Lake, perched just shy of 10,000 feet, yielded some Yellowstone Cutthroat trout, and then it was an easy descent along the same route, with some fishing along the way as well.

I took the long way home, going via Red Lodge and a four hour drive back to the ranch through rolling green hills with the Yellowstone River as a companion and the ever present mountains on the horizon.  The sunset over the was another winner, with a perfect orange silhouette of the Bridger Mountains that faded into yellow and then blue in the sky as the rolling hills turned to gold.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The West Boulder

Mountains, rivers, valleys.

Awe, adventures, vistas.

That, in a nutshell, is Montana.  Maybe corn kernel would be more appropriate since those were not even proper sentences and it was just the tiniest description of this landscape.  But then again Montana is not very proper either, so it fits.  Buttes jut out of the ground where you least expect them and mountain ranges stretch out all over the place like sleeping giants, making you travel around them so as not to disturb their slumber.  The glaciers packed up and fled so quickly they left boulders in the middle of fields, greatly inconveniencing farmers.  Bison and cows jam up the roadways and Mother Nature will piss rain on you any time she darn well pleases and then apologize five minutes later with some sunshine.  Maybe she's just a little bipolar.

I digress.

Every weekend I dive into a different part of the patchwork quilt of forests, stream beds, and peaks.  Thursday I took a gulp of air and then dove into the West Boulder, a drainage and so named stream just east of Livingston.  More accurately, I jumped in feet first, wet wading in just my bathing suit, looking to catch Mr. Trout.  It turns out Mr. Brown Trout and Mr. Whitefish were both home, as was their neighbor and sometimes friend, sometimes enemy (frenemy), Mr. Bear.  We all got along swimmingly.

While rigging up my pole (I had to hike in a mile or so, you see, and so had everything packed up) I noticed a log was moving on the other side of the stream.  Turns out that log was a small black bear, whose color would more accurately be likened to a golden brown loaf with a head that was baked a little darker than the rest.  Mr. Bear moseyed on down to the creek straight across from me, sniffed around, explored the brush a little doing his bear thing, and then rolled around in the water to cool off before moseying around some more and then heading up stream.

Where's Waldo?

Most of the time when a bear and a person meet up in the woods it ends up being like two little kids kissing...there is the 'encounter' and then one of them ends up running away and both want to pretend it never happened.  Well this time I think the bear just never noticed me between the roar of the rapids and his poor eyesight, so I was lucky enough to have a front row seat to his show.  Made my day.