My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pika: The Rabbit of the Mountaintops and the Canary of Global Warming

One of the species of wildlife I really wanted to see at Rocky Mountain National Park was a Pika. They are disappearing faster and faster as the earth warms and causes unusual weather events like drought, big winds,  and early or late springs.  Carol didn't disappoint and we got to watch two pika at different locations.

A pica in its preferred habitat

The pika is a seriously cute little animal - it's a fist-sized rabbit relative with Mickey Mouse ears.  It lives in the lower edges of talus fields at high elevations, usually above 7000 feet.  This is a  microenvironment where it can maintain its temperature.  Rabbits can't physically regulate their temperature very well and this one is so tiny that it can't get too cold, while it can't sweat or pant so can't be in too hot a place.  It doesn't hibernate and is active throughout the winter.   So it can easily get too hot or too cold, both of which can be deadly.  Some research is connecting bigger winter winds with pika demise.  The snow keeps them warm during the winter and needs to remain until the temperatures moderate. Also, it feeds very close to its den so if something happens to its food supply, around its den, it may not live.  And it the year is unusual and spring comes late, it may run out of food and starve or at least not be able to breed. Apparently only the babies go off to find a home.  They have been documented to travel up to 1.8 miles.  But they seem to remain in that place for the rest of their 3-4 year life, so their home needs to supply their needs.

It would often run back and shelter in the rocks, only to come back out if we stood still

Pika collect many kinds of plants and stacks them to dry under rocks to build up their winter food. Some of these plants are toxic when fresh, but the poisonous chemicals disappear while drying. I was interested to see one of the Pica I was watching apparently eating lichens off the rocks. Another cut down almost a third of the plant is was sitting by when I photographed it. I waited to get an action shot, but he ran so fast I couldn't see him in my viewfinder. I was amazed at the size of the plant material he was able to haul off.

Getting a snack only feet away from its den

This pika seemed to be eating the lichens off the rock

Another food source

Immediately after I took this picture, the pika bit off almost 1/3 of the plant to its right
and raced away up a rocky slope with it. The plant was easily three times as long  and
wide as it was. 

This pika spent a lot of time sitting interspersed with running, and eating. 

In many areas, pika are moving higher up the mountains and scientists think the species may be one of the first mammals to go extinct, as the rate of global warming increases and they reach the top of their individual mountains.  Other studies show that the pika is an indicator of good amounts of both winter snow and of underground water and ice, all of which supply water to people in many western states.  So it is often considered the "canary" of global warming - as it goes so may we.

Pikas are often found co-existing with marmots and this was the case with the first pika we found. The marmots live higher and among larger rocks.  Carol was excited to see an entire family of marmots where she only expected to see one.  Apparently mom and babies were in their den when she came by while helping with a geology tour in the park. I was too far to get any of the babies but we think we saw four that were about a third the size of the parents.

The marmot pair

Think this was the mom - saw it touch noses with a baby

I found some interesting sites when I looked for current research on Pika. Here are a few links, if you are interested in learning more about these animals.

If you live in any of the states that have pika, you might want to get involved in Citizen Science projects to help document where they are currently living. And if you will be in any of these places for your vacation, you can also contribute data.

Only if we can slow the rate of global warming will these animals continue to share our planet

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park

My friend Carol Bell invited me to visit her at her cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado, where she lives while volunteering at Rocky Mountain National Park. I checked the mileage - 627 miles from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and figured I could get there and back and have a couple of days to visit in a long weekend.

So I'm now visiting her and having a wonderful time, in spite of a day caught short by rain and lightening.  I got here Friday  in in time to relax on her deck and enjoy her hummingbirds.  She has three species coming to the feeders - broadtails, a rufus, and a calliope.  The day was getting cloudy, then got rainy so I didn't get pictures of most of them but did get a mediocre picture of the calliope.

Calliope Hummingbird

After a delicious supper, all cooked by Carole, we went out to the park for a few hours.  We saw at least 60 elk and three moose.

Part of a large herd of elk cows and calves

Young moose cow

Our plan for Saturday was to drive through the park, stopping to look at beautiful  views and take a series of short walks to look for birds. Our first stop was to look at the Never Summer Mountain Range, just starting to get lit by the rising sun. I enjoyed the flowers blooming along the road and got Carol to stop ane let me walk back to look at Indian paint brush and other wildflowers. While I was doing that, Carol got a quick look at a small group of pine grosbeaks.

First look at Never Summer Mountains

Roadside view

Our next stop was at Lake Irene.  We saw several species of birds, including a and a red crossbill, a lifer for me. All my pictures were blurry but Carol got a beautiful picture and let me use it.  We also saw a Clark's nutcracker. And I enjoyed watching a really cut golden-mantled ground squirrel. And I was excited to find what I thought was a large patch of  liatris was actually elephant head.  This plant  grows like liatris and is the same color but the individual flowers look like elephant heads.

Lake Irene

Red crossbill

Clark's nutcracker

Golden-mantled ground squirrel fattening up 

Close-up of elephant head

Then we went on up to the Alpine meadows to look for the white-tailed ptarmigan; The views were lovely and we saw several species of birds, including mountain bluebirds and a horned lark.  But no ptarmigan.  We met a man who works for Audubon and Carol told him where the bird had been seen. I enjoyed just walking through the wildflowers and looking at wonderful views.

King's Crown

Forest Canyon Overlook

Lava Cliffs

We planned to do more birding in the afternoon, over on the east side, but while eating a late lunch there,  it began to rain in a series of short showers. Each shower got progressively stronger and then we heard thunder and decided to come home. We both enjoyed a short nap before I worked on editing my pictures while Carol  cooked us another fabulous supper of pork loin, tomato and cucumber salad, and sauteed cabbage.

Tall coneflower and bee seen at our lunch stop

Our plans for Sunday are to run a shuttle so we can hike downhill from the Alpine Visitor Center- after all, it starts at 11,700 feet and comes down to the continental divide. We'll only have to hike 4.5 miles by doing it one-way.  And sometimes white-tailed ptarmigan are seen there so I still have hopes of seeing one.  Carol is also taking me to the volunteer get-together where we have a pot-luck of snack foods and a campfire.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quake Lake Visit

Natalie and I were looking for a place to visit that would not involve much walking, since she is trying to get over a knee injury.  Steve suggested we go visit Quake Lake.  This  190 feet deep, 6 mile long lake was formed by a huge earthquake in 1959, which resulted in great damage to the area, the lost of 28 lives, and the formation of a new lake in the Madison River, now know as Earthquake Lake or Quake Lake. The Gallatin Forest Service has put in a visitor center on the rubble just above the natural dam on the Madison River and has a self-guided auto tour to remember the dead and injured and to explain what happened in a few horrifying seconds the night of August 17, 1959.

Overview of slide area

We started at the Visitor Center which is built on the rubble of the  mountain that fell into the Madison River in Madison Canyon. We got there just in time to move into the theatre and see a movie that showed diagrams of the the faults involved as well as sharing stories of some of the survivors and pictures taken soon after the earthquake, showing both the landscape and rescue operations.

Then we viewed the exhibits and were moved by the stories told by the survivors, many of whom lost members of their families. Some were happy that the bodies of their families were found. The bodies of 19 of the 28 who died were never recovered. and are believed buried under the slide.

Looking up Quake Lake from the Visitor Center

The Corp of Engineers worked feverishly to build a  channel out of Quake Lake before it backed up to the Hebgen Lake Dam and caused it to fail.  Had this happened, two towns downstream would have been destroyed.

The end of Quake Lake- in 100 or so years the Madison River is expected to eat down through the rubble and the lake will drain away

The Visitor Center looks across the Madison River Canyon to the place where the mountain sheared off, filling the canyon and sending large dolomite rocks across to the other side. One of them is now a memorial to the dead, and has all the names listed on it.  Natalie and I thought we were doing an up and back trip and saved this rock for last but then went on to West Yellowstone so never saw it.

Rubble left when the mountain fell down

Where the mountain sheared off, above the Madison River Canyon

Another moving stop was the place that most of the survivors along the Madison River and Hebgen Lake came up to to escape the rising waters and then wait for rescue.   It was also the place smoke jumpers parachuted into to treat the wounded and where the helicopters landed to remove the wounded to hospitals.  Today it is a beautiful meadow of flowers and it is hard to imagine the horrors that occurred that night and the terror of the people who were there for many hours.

Some of the meadow wildflowers

But here is one story to give you a feel for that night:


(Editor's Note: Rex A. Bateman of Magna was with his family at Hebgen Lake last Monday and Tuesday when the area was rocked by earthquakes. Here is the story of the family's frightening experience.)
"It was a beautiful moonlit night and then three big shocks hit us."
This is how Rex A. Bateman, 3201 S. 8000 West, Magna, describes the first terrifying moments when an earthquake jarred the Hebgen Lake area in southern Montana Monday night. Mr. Bateman was staying in a cabin at Camp Fire Lodge, about 500 yards below Hebgen Dam with his wife and four children, Lance, 17; Layne, 15; Greg, 14, and Mark, 11. Also staying with the Batemans were Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Mander, Idaho Falls, and their children, Sybil, 17 and Jackie, 6.
When the first tremor hit, Mr. Bateman was standing outside the cabin.
Dives for Auto
"I felt the first shock at about 11:40 p.m.," he said. "I immediately knew it was an earthquake. I ran and dove face forward across the hood of Mr. Mander's car. I was afraid of the earth opening up. I hung onto the radiator ornament and cut my hand.
"The earthquakes increased in intensity. 'My God,' I said to myself. 'How long can this last.' Rocks along the cliffs started breaking loose and coming down. I thought it was the end of the world. I thought the mountain would disintegrate," Mr. Bateman said.
"There seemed to be a terrific pressure in the air and there was a lot of noise. We didn't get hit by the tidal wave of water breaking over Hebgen Dam although we were within 20 feet of the river. Everybody thought the dam was going to break," he said.
Head For High Ground
Mr. Bateman said both families piled into their cars "and headed for high ground." Most of the families met in an area of flat ground about 500 yards above the Madison River, Mr. Bateman said.
"Everyone was wonderful," he said. "We used station wagons as ambulances and started bringing the injured in. People gave away everything they had. When people came in without clothing, other people would give them what extra clothing they had. Several people were practically unclothed.
"What really made it bad during the night were the aftershocks which kept coming every few minutes. We kept waiting for another big one," he said. "I was sure that the dam would break. About three o'clock in the morning, we got a report that the dam was definitely going out. Big black clouds came over and we had lightning, thunder and rain. We were able to crowd everyone into cars and we waited out the night. It was a long night.
"The next day planes started flying over the area. One dropped a message saying that helicopters would fly in to remove the injured. Six firefighters from Missoula, Mont. parachuted into the area. Two men jumped during high winds and they were almost blown into the cliffs. The plane also dropped supplies. The firefighters had walkie-talkies and communicated with the plane," Mr. Bateman said.
"During the day, we cleared an area of sagebrush for the choppers to land on. We still didn't know whether or not the dam would break. When the helicopters came in, the injured were loaded aboard and taken out. The Air Force also came in with tents, food and water. A doctor came in," he said.
Later that day a construction company cut a road around the northeast shore of Hebgen Lake and the Bateman and Mander families were able to drive out of the area. After spending another night at Duck Creek, they drove to West Yellowstone and then to Idaho Falls.
The families brought out two children of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Armstrong, Victoria, B.C., who were hospitalized at Bozeman, Mont. for injuries. The children stayed at Idaho Falls with Mr. and Mrs. Mander until Friday when they were taken to Bozeman.
Asked if he wanted to return to the Hebgen Lake area, Mr. Bateman said:
"I'd go tomorrow if I could see the slide in Madison Canyon. However, I don't think I'll ever feel safe camping below that dam."
[Deseret News, August 22, 1959]

But below the meadow, there are remains of cabins that came off their foundations and floated around in the lake.  When the Corp got the lake stabilized, the waters receded, leaving the cabins in this low meadow along a very innocent looking Madison River.

Madison River with cabin remains in the meadow beside it

Close-up of one of the cabins

The final stop we did was at the Cabin Creek Fault. This formed through the campground, across Cabin Creek, forming a waterfall, and went on into the day use area, where I photographed it.  As it formed, rocks were rolling down the hill.  One boulder crushed a tent, killing  a mother and father. Their three children, in another tent, were not injured.

The Cabin Creek Fault

The area set aside as a memorial to the earthquake is 38,000 acres and has roads, trails, and campgrounds.  You can visit the see the several places the fault lines occurred and where other, smaller landslides happened.

Natalie and I were almost back to Red Rock Lakes NWR when we had to stop one last time to catch this sunset.

Sunset over Gravely and Madison Mountains

This was a great day of learning about the forces of plate tectonics and how lives can be changed in an instant. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paddle on Henry's Fork of the Snake River

Since Steve and Cheri brought an extra boat, I've taken on the task of making sure it gets its share of exercise. When I started planning things for my friend, Natalie to do while visiting me, they suggested that we paddle Henry's Fork of the Snake River  since we would be able to run a shuttle.  This trip starts below Big Springs, which pumps over 120 million gallons of water a day, and is the primary source of Henry's Ford of the Snake River.

Looking Downstream from Bridge at Big Springs

We didn't get started until mid morning and then we decided to tour Big Springs and also visit Johnny Sack's Cabin.  He was a bachelor but built an exquisite, luxurious cabin in on a hillside just above the springs in the early 1920's. . He cut his wood for the cabin with the bark still on the logs.  Then he treated them with linseed oil and buried them for a year. The glossy, bark-covered wood makes for an interesting wall and trim treatment.  He brought in oak from somewhere else to make the floors in the great room where he laid it in the log cabin pattern used in quilts. He also made all the furniture and even the light fixtures. I didn't get a picture of the outside of the cabin but it was built in the style of the waterwheel shed. 

Waterwheel and shed

Loved the hooks
All built by Johnny Sack

Bark-covered boards for artistic details

Oak flooring in log cabin quilt pattern

One of two bedrooms - furniture by Johnny Sack

He was the only winter resident in the area and spent his winters making furniture to sell.  He also built cabins for other people. He did all his work with hand tools, which are also on display. 

We also had to go look for the huge trout the springs are famous for but the sun was too high and only ring-billed gulls fought for the bread brought by visitors. 

We finally got around to running our shuttle about 11:00 A. M. and were on the river by noon, just in time to get to paddle with lots of  of floaters, including families with young children. And they floated in commercial rafts, canoes, kayaks, and inner tubes. 

Natalie and Cheri at the start

The river was clear and shallow and, especially at first, it was hard to follow the channel and find water deep enough to float our boats. But soon we worked around the sometimes beached floaters, and mostly had deeper water for the rest of the trip.  We only paddled 5 - 6 miles to the next bridge.  We mostly paddled though meadows but had some trees along our route. 


Natalie on the move
Chari and Steve

Then, after retrieving Steve's truck, and loading up the boats, we traveled about another 20 miles to eat lunch on Steve's property.  By this time it was mid afternoon so we ate the chicken and sweet potato salad I'd fixed for lunch and the green salad and Mississippi Caviar that Chari and I had fixed for supper. 

Lunch on Steve's property

On the way home we stopped at two magnificent waterfalls, the Lower Mesa and the Upper Mesa Falls, which are on the Henry Fork of the Snake River.  They sure made us glad we hadn't missed our takeout.  We made it home a little after 9:00 P.M. and were soon asleep. 

Upper Mesa Falls

Lower Mesa Falls from several hundred feet up and away

A closer view of the drops on Lower Mesa Falls

Another great day with wonderful friends.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Visit to the Past in Montana's Smallest State Park

This past weekend I visited my friend Kathy, a long-time birding and paddling buddy, who lives near Corpus Christi in the winter and in Bozeman in the summer.  She graciously took me to several places, one of which was Elkhorn State Park within the ghost mining town of Elkhorn, Montana, west of Bozeman.

We missed our turn but found an even better road a few more miles down Interstate 90.  It was a well-maintained dirt road with farms and hills along it. At one spot, there was a scenic rocky outcropping with lots of flowers. in small fields among the trees. We had to stop and take pictures.

Rock formation

Then we had to cut across to our original road.  The crossover road had an old hot spring that had been developed into a hotel with swimming areas top of the springs.   We stopped to check out the old hotel.  I couldn't talk Kathy into taking a soak, so we continued on to Elkhorn.

Beautiful old hotel at Boulder Hot Springs

Elkhorn is an old mining town which primarily mined silver but also mined lead and a little gold.  It was unique in that whole families lived here, rather than mostly just men as was normal in mining towns.

View of Elkhorn and part of the mine and tailings from a hill above the town

These wheels seemed to hold a story of a terrific wreck

The town itself has always had a few residents and most of the old buildings are on private land and are almost gone. The state owns only Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall.  Mixed among the derelict buildings are weekend cabins a a few full-time residences.

Almost gone

Better days are long gone

Part of mine operation

The mine entrance building
The State Park - Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall


One of the most poignant parts of our tour was a visit to the cemetery.  Most of the tombstones were on graves of children who died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1889. Many of the tombstones held the names of two children who died days apart. One family lost six children and the mother in one week.  I was glad that most modern families don't have to live with this kind of tragedy today.

The town had a high population of about 2500 people but it rapidly died away as mining slowed in the early 1900's. Tailings were still treated until 1937.

Hope no one was in this car when it was shot up.