In Our Own Backyard….Speak softlyPresident Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And though he was referring to his political philosophy, his way of thinking certainly applies to life itself.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And though he was referring to his political philosophy, his way of thinking certainly applies to life itself.
On a recent junket to Montana, my husband, Ken, and I decided to tackle a remote hike not far outside Helena on the advice of our son Jason, who had hiked that very same wilderness with friends a couple of weeks earlier, spotting an entire herd of elk in a high mountain meadow.
Since he wasn’t there in person to direct us where to go, he sent us an email giving very specific directions. Ken brought his smartphone with him in order to refer to them as we hiked.
“The trail is actually a herding trail that wranglers sometimes drive cattle to free-range feed during summer up above the tree line on these peaks... the same place we saw the elk herd ,” Jason noted. “Like most trails in Montana, this one is uphill, but very gradual in comparison to most alpine trails, actually more of a road – like walking in the Forestry Center in Cloquet.”
We located the trailhead as directed and headed upward, filled with enthusiasm.
“OH!” I exclaimed as we forged through the towering trees. “This is absolutely BEAUTIFUL!”
“You’ll soon approach a small clearing to your left,” Jason’s note directed. “Notice the willow clump in the middle of this small wetland that was rubbed by an elk. This is the first of literally hundreds of antler rubs by elk and deer in this area.”
We were just beginning to wonder if we were on the correct trail when I finally spotted the willow clump.
“Look!” I proclaimed. “THERE IT IS!”
We rushed over to take a photo of the antler rub and moved on.
“You’ll soon walk out onto another larger clearing,” Jason continued in his email. “Then veer right and when you get to the far side of this little field, veer left and you will join another cattle road. This is the main road that will take you up into the alpine summit clearings, wildflowers, elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, etc.”
“INDIAN PAINTBRUSH!” I cried as I spotted a bunch of bright orange wildflowers and paused to take another photo. I soon came across bluebells, wild geranium and an entire clump of delicate, orchid-like flowers I later found is called “Fairy Slipper.” At each new discovery, I exclaimed in growing excitement.
“Follow this forest trail and always stay left on it as you gradually climb until ultimately, you’ll be above the tree line looking down on the valleys that surround,” Jason continued. “It’s beautiful. Be on the lookout everywhere just off the trail and back into the woods for all the elk and deer antler rubs.”
Our eyes swept from side to side along the trail, searching for signs of wildlife and antler rubs and pausing to study tracks in the soft dirt. Ken spotted a small aspen tree with most of its branches broken downward. Not far down the path there was a large rock overturned in the middle of the trail and several anthills that had recently been dug up. We suspected a bear had passed that way not long ago.
By then, we had really gotten into the spirit of things. It was no longer a regular hike, but more like a treasure hunt or an episode of “Survivor.”
“I feel a little like Katniss Everdeen in ‘The Hunger Games’!” I burst out.
“The trail will eventually take you down to a small stream crossing. At this crossing, if you look back to your right, another trail runs up another hill at a 45-degree angle,” the directions read. “This will take you up to the first alpine field above the tree line. It’s only about 300 yards or so to get there, and then veer left through a small strip of woods and you’ll walk out on to it. Walk uphill to your left and you’ll be able to look up at the upper fields above you. This is the point where I spotted the elk.”
As we approached, we heard coyotes howling in the distances, and the view from the high alpine fields took my breath away.
“Oh, this is SO gorgeous!” I raved, snapping photos and spanning the horizon in all directions, looking for elk. And while we didn’t see any, I could understand why this was prime territory for them, with its open grasslands punctuated by groves of trees for shelter.
“After you play around in that field and take wildflower pics,” wrote Jason, “hike back downhill to the stream crossing where the two trails converge. Cross the creek – should be just a little rock hopping.”
When we arrived at the stream and prepared to cross it, we spotted tracks in the mud – tracks of a large animal with a split hoof, likely elk, and they looked as though they had been made fairly recently.
“OH MY GOSH!” I cried. “Maybe he’s right ahead of us!”
“Follow this trail until it ends at another little stream,” Jason’s directions went on. “At this point, turn 90 degrees to your right and follow the little creek directly uphill. This will take you to the large upper fields and the summit of this particular area. It’s worth the uphill climb as you will come out into the opening and be able to see a very impressive view of the surrounding mountains. This is the final destination.”
And it was truly beautiful.
“I just LOVE this!” I exclaimed.
Jason’s lengthy note concluded by saying, “There’s a ton of wildlife in this area. It’s amazing. Matt and I were walking up on all kinds of wildlife and birdlife. Sondra and I saw deer, elk, coyote, osprey, eagles and marmots. Take pictures and move slowly. And Mom, be quiet during your entire hike.”