Friday, August 18, 2006

Gates of the Mountains

Twenty miles North of Helena along the interstate is an interesting geological formation known as the "Gates of the Mountains". In July 1807, as the Lewis and Clark expedition was working its way up the Missouri River along the rolling plains, they came to the place where the Rocky Mountains abruptly begin. From a distance, the river seems to disappear into the rock; only when you approach can you see where the river enters the tall cliffs, hence the description by Meriwether Lewis that this place was the "Gates of the Rocky Mountains". Today a downriver dam has created a lake and deep channel through the area and Brenda and I, along with our fellow fulltimer friends Dennis and Ann, boarded a tour boat for a two-hour tour (where have I heard that before?). With an entertaining tour guide/captain, blue skies, and calm water, we entered the "gates" and began our tour. The sheer canyon walls rise as much as 1200' on either side of river and in many areas were heavily forested. We saw eagles and an unusual cliffside osprey nest with fledglings, who watched us as we motored by. A real treat was seeing a river otter family with two pups; they seemed curious and entertained us with their play until the parents decided it was time to move on. We continued down the river to Mann Gulch, the site of a tragic wildfire in 1949 where 13 firefighters, the majority "smoke jumpers" were killed. It's a fascinating story of one of the first recorded "blowups", a phenomenon that creates a tornado-like fire which is estimated at Mann Gulch fire to have burned over 2000 acres in less than two minutes. Only three smoke jumpers survived; two young men who managed to outrun the fire and the foreman who amazingly made the decision to build an escape fire once he realized he could not outrun the flames. He set an area of brush on fire, laid down with a wet cloth over his face, and let the fire race over him. He later said that the fire picked him up and threw him down three times, yet he survived without injury. The event is described in a riveting book, "Young Men and Fire" written by Norman Maclean, who also wrote "A River Runs Through It". Near the gulch and accessible only by boat is a beautiful memorial and picnic area. The tour guide did a great job of describing the sequence of events and made it easy to visualize how the fire developed. A good synopsis of the fire is on a US Forest Service web site at
Turning back downriver, our guide pointed out an arch located high on the mountainside, and later an interesting formation called "rhino rock" for obvious reasons.
Finally, as we neared the dock we saw probably the most unusual sight of the day.......check out the boat with the hound hood ornament. He was having a ball; ears flapping and baying - we all enjoyed the show!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hot Weather and Wildfires

Wow - time has gone by so fast! I just realized it's been almost a month since our last post. We've become so involved in activities here at the refuge that it's almost like working for a living again....except that it's fun and our work is always appreciated. We're just getting over an unusual hot spell; almost two weeks of high 90's and four days over 100, a new Missoula record for July. Even though the days were hot, each night cooled off as soon as the sun set, and most mornings it was in the high 50's. Now, we're finally back to normal - mid 80's during the day and cool nights (this morning was 47 and we had to turn the heat on). Unfortunately, the heat has created a tremendous wildfire potential. It's difficult for us to believe how quickly the area went from raging rivers and snow-covered mountains to such dry conditions. An article in the local paper was interesting; when the moisture content of dead timber was measured last week, it was 12%. Kiln-dried lumber is 8%, a startling indication on just how dry the forest has become. It didn't take long for the fires to start; first in the mountains to our Southwest about 12 miles, then quickly another in the mountains 10 miles Northeast.........the next day another fire to our Northwest. The first one is still burning; the rugged terrain has limited the use of aerial tankers and it's grown to over 2000 acres. The other two have been pretty much controlled, although the fire to our Northeast destroyed three homes. Everyone's apprehensive that if thunderstorms develop in the mountains we could see fires throughout the state on the level of the 2000 season, the worst on record. On our "road trips" we frequently see the burned areas from that horrible year......miles and miles of burned trees in areas that will take 20 years to recover. We're in no danger here in the valley, but are keeping our fingers crossed that it will be a quiet fire season.
We've both been churning out products for the staff here along with staffing the visitor center. Brenda has been busy authoring a volunteer guide and updating the bird banding data base while I've been building an information kiosk, painting and patching, and doing other odd jobs to help out. We feel as though we're part of the refuge family after these three and a half months and it will be hard to say goodbye to all the friends we made when we leave in September. But that's what this lifestyle is all about, meeting new people and making new friends while exploring new areas.
We both had reached our limit of tolerance with the Jeep; poor mileage, noisy ride, and back-breaking seats might be fine for those in their 20's, but it finally became too much for us. After much looking and research, we settled on a Mazda Tribute, a small SUV with 4 wheel drive and lots of interior room. We're very pleased so far, it's comfortable, gets good mileage, and we'll have room to carry more stuff when we travel. One review called it the "Miata of small SUVs" because of it's quick handling. I attempted to confirm this by taking a 90-degree corner at high speed, but Brenda's screaming was a huge distraction so I'm not sure........but it's a LOT better than the Jeep.
Another upgrade for us is the arrival of Dennis and Ann Boyce, a couple that we met in Tucson this spring and who have become great friends. They came to visit for a week or two and now we've talked them into staying for two months as fellow workampers. They're great folks and have jumped right in as if they've been here for years. Dennis is retired Army but I'm considering forgiving him since he joined at a young age and probably didn't know any better since he's from Minnesota where there aren't any Air Force bases. Thanks again for checking on us, hope you're all enjoying the summer as much as we are!