Wednesday, Forrest picked me up from work and we hit the open road. After all of our planning it was a pretty surreal feeling to be leaving for real. Along the familiar road to Missoula, we even had a rainbow shine on our departure:
After a nice evening with Glen and Terry, we got up early and headed for Salt Lake. Between Butte and Idaho Falls, the temperature dipped as low as 12°F, reminding us how excited we were to be heading south.
After a long days drive, we arrived at Meghan and Eric’s house in Salt Lake City. And this time early enough in the evening to meet Zoe and relax over a couple of beers.
In the morning, after a coffee, we continued south to Moab. The sunshine felt so good! We reassembled the adventure train and then attended Robin’s school play. In the morning, it was time to get back on the road.
Although we’re really promising ourselves that we’ll move slower and travel less miles in any given day, we were on a time schedule to get to Maryanne and Seth’s rehearsal dinner. Despite the long day’s drive, we were able to snag some pictures of Sprocket crossing into his 32nd state, have some fry bread in Kayenta, and also make it to the rehearsal BBQ.
I had planned on working Monday and then a half day on Tuesday before the wedding but things sort of fell apart when, on Monday morning, the office manager asked me if I was working a half day and then hitting the road. Right there my motivation to be in the office drained away. Since I’d sort of been given permission (I mean, she had suggested it, right?) I called F and told him I’d be home by 3 and we could go.
When I got home, he had the van all ready to go. We put the hitch on the front of the jeep, hooked it up, put the bike on the back of the jeep, and hit the road.
We made a stop in Missoula to hit up Costco, Walmart, and Albertsons for the fresh ingredients and food for the week. The Costco Polish dogs for dinner hit the spot! It felt really good to get back on I-90 and feel like we were on our way “for real.” Monday night we made it to the truck stop in Butte, filled up both the van and the jeep, and crawled into our cozy Sprinter bed.
Tuesday morning we were up way before the sun and it started to crest the mountains just as we were passing (back) into Idaho. We made good time down to Salt Lake, fueled up and grabbed lunch at In-N-Out. The haze we’d driven in through most of Montana and Idaho seemed to still be surrounding us but we hoped that in the next few hundred miles it would dissipate. As we descended into Price we were disappointed to note that the haze was still following us. Reaching I-70 I was elated to be almost there but really sad to note that we could barely see the La Sals.
Once we arrived in Moab though, the smoke didn’t matter at all—it felt so good to finally be there! We drove to Danette’s house where we washed the van and the jeep and just finished as she and Robin pulled into the driveway. We got to catch up and discuss our plans for the wedding and relax with a beer or two before heading to bed.
After playing in the river and grabbing lunch at the O-aces (a dive bar in De Borgia) we drove up Deer Creek Road to the trailhead for Crystal Lake.
We set out up the trail enjoying what are probably some of the last beautiful days of summer in the Bitterroots. Sprocket found plenty of things to sniff—including some wolf scat. It was about a mile and half from the trailhead to the lake on which we gained about 1300′ of elevation.
The lake was really lovely. It was another gorgeous mountain lake—this one backed by cliffs to south creating a very dramatic setting. The water was deep and clear and not too cold for a mountain lake. Sprocket didn’t mind the scenery and was just excited for some awesome swimming.
Distance: 1.5 mi each way.
Elevation gain: 1,300′ (started at 4,175′)
After we played in the river, we visited the historic Savanac Tree Nursery. Located in Haugan, Montana. Starting in 1907, the Forest Service used this nursery to grow trees to replant the forest after harvest. In 1910, the nursery burned (just like the rest of the Bitterroots) but was quickly rebuilt. The nursery went through several rounds of expansion and remodeling culminating in a CCC construction period from 1933 to about 1939. The nursery ceased operation in 1969 but the grounds are open to the public along with a museum and several cabins that can be rented.
The museum housed in the Administration Building (which was free) was really cute. I love going and visiting some of the classic Forest Service buildings. Most of them have such beautiful classic wood interiors (with gorgeous furniture to match) and this was no exception. There were also some really cool old scrapbooks of photos and lookout logs from the area. We also wondered around the grounds some but didn’t fully explore all the old planting terraces and the arboretum.
On Sunday, we headed out for an impromptu Jeep adventure. When we reached Haugan, Montana, Sprocket insisted that we let him swim in the St. Regis River. The river was really low but that didn’t stop him from really enjoying some swimming time!
A couple Sundays ago, it was predicted to be in the mid-90s in the Silver Valley so we decided that we needed to go find somewhere to be on the water. We set off in the jeep for Avery. Instead of going the usual way via Wallace and Moon Pass, we headed south directly out of Mullan.
After attaining the ridge on the south side of town, we dropped down to Moon Pass briefly and then took Slate Creek Road to Avery. The road was mostly in good shape but there were a couple of washouts to keep the drive interesting.
Once we got to Avery, we had lunch at Avery Fly Fishing Company right on the St. Joe River. After we’d finished our lunch (and our ice cream cone), we headed up the North Fork of the St. Joe to try and find a place for Sprocket to swim. Along the way, we found a nice deep hole where he could get some swimming in. I even got in the icy cold water for a bit. (Forrest described it as “snow three hours ago” and watched from his rock.)
We made our way back to Mullan via Bullion Pass and Taft, Montana. It had been a long day but it was really nice to spend it together.
We hiked the Pulaski Tunnel Trail yesterday. I’ll have a post up about that soon (tomorrow?) but in the meantime, here’s a primer on what happened in Idaho and Montana on August 20 and 21, 1910.
In the summer of 1910, the entire Pacific Northwest was exceedingly dry—the first forest fires had started burning in Montana by late April. Fires burned throughout the summer but remained mostly small and isolated. Many of these fires were caused by lightning strikes but more were also related to the train traffic crossing the very dry mountains. Fire crews hired by the new US Forest Service (it had only been founded five years earlier) battled the small fires alongside 4,000 Army troops although many fires were left to smolder in remote drainages. (The troops sent to the Coeur D’Alene Mountain region included the all black 25th Infantry, Company G, the “Buffalo Soldiers.”)
On August 20, 1910, high winds hit the region and whipped many of the small smoldering fires into a giant fire that encompassed huge parts of Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Eventually, more than 3 million acres burned in the Bitterroots and surrounding areas. In addition to the 7.5 billion board feet of timber that burned, half of Wallace burned to the ground and the Montana towns of Taft, De Borgia, Haugan, and Henderson were completely lost. The fires killed 87 people including 78 firefighters.
There were some happy endings:Mullan & Avery survived thanks to backfires lit by volunteers. Ed Pulaski (the inventor of the pulaski firefighting tool) saved 40 of the 45 men in his crew by hiding in an abandoned mine tunnel (more on him tomorrow). The Forest Service’s importance to the West was cemented (although it would increase their adherence to a “total suppression” philosophy for decades to come).
Sometimes, when I’m reminded of the fires, I think of being down in these narrow valleys as winds blow flames around, I think of the descriptions of the sky glowing red, I think of the firefighters out attempting to halt the progress of the blaze without the support of helicopters and roads, and I’m flabbergasted they even were able to try.
This is Part 2 of our 4th of July adventure in Montana. (Part 1)
I woke up snuggled between Forrest and Sprocket and not too horribly cold at all. The sun was shining and we had the whole day for adventuring. We let Sprocket out of the tent as we emerged from the tent. It took him about thirty seconds to hop into the river. We pulled the tent into the sun for the dew to dry and ate our breakfast of bagels and cream cheese. Our plans to hike off of Vermillion Pass sort of got trashed when we had to head lower to find a camp so we decided to make up the day as we went along—especially since we didn’t have a map for the Kootenai National Forest and were functioning only with the bleed from our Lolo and Idaho Panhandle National Forest maps.
Forrest picked out Silver Butte Pass (4,272′, Pass #3) as a likely destination. Down the Vermillion River we went to the junction with the Vermillion River road. We took a quick look at Vermillion Falls and then branched off the main road to the Pass. As we wound our way up the mountain, I realized, “Hey, I’ve been here before!” And then, “Oh dear, I think this road only exits the mountains to the east.” (I totally had been there in Fall 2010 on my first Cabinets adventure). The east side of the mountains was a little further than we were planning on going but by the time I was sure I knew where we were headed we decided to go for it anyway.
Sure enough, we popped out of the woods on Highway 2 about thirty miles south of Libby. Although we didn’t have a map, we knew that most of the Cabinets were either official wilderness or a designated roadless area so we either had to go back the way we came or head up to Libby. We figured that Libby would have some sort of 4th of July festival so we headed that way. Turns out, Libby doesn’t have much of anything.
We bought some fruit and chips and decided to head back into the mountains to BBQ the rest of our hot dogs. We stopped to hike down to Kootenai Falls—pictures just can’t do justice to the amount of water moving through that canyon! Leaving the falls, we looped back south on Montana Highway 56 back towards Thompson Falls. We stopped to let Sprocket swim in Bull Lake but there were a lot of people around so we decided to continue on. Just south of the lake we started to get some amazing views of the Cabinets and then we spotted a Forest Service road heading up towards them. Based on the edges of the area we could see on our maps I guessed that it was a loop that would bring us back to the highway in about 10 miles so away we went.
We detoured up a spur road that seemed like it would give us some views. The maps even showed a lookout on top. The road ended in a buggy area with some decent views but we were hungry and decided to cook the last of our hot dogs before deciding what to do. Although we weren’t sure how far the lookout was (it was either a mile or 3 miles…) we decided to go for it. When we spotted the lookout, it was over on the next ridge, about two miles away, and since the bugs were really bad, Team 3Up made the call to settle for our views from the parking area.
After we made it back to the main road, going over Snake Creek Pass (3,604′, Pass #4) and then back to the highway, it was time to get ourselves home. The drive home over Thompson Pass (4,862′, Pass #5) and Dobson Pass (4,235′, Pass #6) was all pavement and uneventful aside from getting an ice cream cone in Prichard.
A day off in the middle of the week is sort of odd. It felt like it should be a weekend and yet we only had that one day! We decided to seize that day off and make an adventure out of it anyway. When I got off work on Tuesday, I came home, packed up our camping stuff and we all jumped into the jeep. The skies were looking a little stormy but I pretty much refused to believe it was going to rain on us.
As we set out towards Cooper Pass it seemed like we were leaving the weather mostly behind us. We cruised right to the top of the pass (Pass #1 for the trip at 5,791′) where there was still a decent foot or so of snow that we made it over fairly easily but we certainly hoped that there wouldn’t be any more on the other side! The drive down to Thompson Falls went quickly as we wound our way off the mountaintop.
We didn’t hesitate long in Thompson Falls, just stopping long enough to fill up the gas tank before heading up Graves Creek Road into the mountains. Hardly 3 miles into the woods, I saw a small bear run up into the woods. It was (we think!) a yearling grizzly! It’s big round light brown butt reminded me of Winnie-the-Pooh—less cuddly of course. After the bear headed off into the woods, it was back to the campsite finding mission. We were hoping to find a place to camp where we would be sort of sheltered from the wind and the high elevation chill that would be setting in soon. There was a severe lack of spur roads where we could camp so we just kept driving higher and higher. Next thing we knew we were at Vermillion Pass (6,026′, pass #2 for the trip).
As pretty as it was there in the shadow of Vermillion Peak, we knew we had to lose elevation fast if we were to have a hope of spending a decently comfortable night. (I’m still functioning with a 45 degree sleeping bag I bought in high school!) As we headed down into the Vermillion River valley, we came around a corner saw a nice big black bear in the road. We decided to spend the night where Happy Creek emptied into the Vermillion River.
Forrest started up a fire while I took Sprocket for a short walk. We cooked hot dogs for dinner (and were only a wee bit nervous about having seen a couple of bears…) before piling into the tent. I wasn’t too thrilled with leaving Sprocket in the jeep alone and I was also more than a little afraid of being cold into the tent he came. That makes one 6′ man, a 5’10” woman, and an 85-pound labrador…in a two man tent. He was a great cuddler and kept me nice and warm!!
Thursday, we decided to take the jeep for a drive. We all jumped in and headed up to Mullan Pass. At the pass, we decided to explore a spur road that headed to the north. It wasn’t too long before we hit a few downed trees and since we’d forgotten that we’re supposed to always bring the chainsaw we wound up taking a little hike.
The views from the road were really incredible. It headed up into a small bowl with bear grass and huckleberry meadows all around after giving us some expansive views east into Montana. As most roads do around here, it lead to an old mine site. This one still had a structure standing (I think it was a chute for loading ore). There was a road headed further uphill from the mine that we decided we should explore again soon. Continue reading “Exploring Near Mullan Pass”