Into the Wind

Skalkaho Falls         Saturday the kids had another soccer tournament in Stevensville, Montana. I decided this trip to take my cross bike with the hope that I might be able to break off for a bike ride in the Bitterroot. Following brief consideration, I decided to miss the first two games which were being played at the same time early in the morning, in favor of hoping to make it back in time to catch the latter two. There were some clouds in the sky and the wind was blowing lightly, but there was not much moisture blowing about and the temps were reasonable. I rode south into the wind, winding my way up the drainage along the East Side Highway. I’ve always favored the East Side for some reason over the main 93 drag. This most likely is due to the excellent views and the nostalgia associated with past memories of the place. Cycling by Bell Crossing and looking into the old burn high above, a slight patch of grey along the wilderness border among the snow fields and the now emerging green colors of spring, a recollection surfaced immediately. The old burn is where I first harvested a decent Mule Deer buck when one could hunt in the area without special tags to do so… I’ll never forger coming across a middle aged fellow (it was the early nineties) who said he was from Ohio. He was operating a large hand held device with many buttons of numerous colors. “What is that?” I asked the guy. “A GPS unit,” he said, as the two of us visited in deep snow among the charcoal colored toothpicks that were once Lodgepole Pines. We visited for a while about Ohio and W.Va. and how he had found the Bitterroots, of all places, to spend his hunting season. Not too uncommon, of course, when the elk population was more abundant. I thought the device he was carrying was an old Motorola, a large handheld. Things have really changed, such devices now being found in one’s watch.
         I’ll never forget the excitement and elation I experienced later that same fall day, sighting the animal in the distance, its grey body moving cautiously among the burned stands. Mule Deer bounce along when spooked, unlike the Whitetail which charges off full throttle. Todd this year watched as two Mule Deer does and a buck got the best of him from quite a distance while we climbed up a steep recovering clearcut in the Blackfoot. A shot was never fired during the somewhat frustrating moment; but a lesson in animal behavior following a long additional pursuit had been learnt. After our having watched the two does, which remained nearby for quite a while, once more distant, the third animal surfaced from somewhere beneath the undergrowth. Cycling below Bell up the river to Corvallis, it was hard not to recall all of the fond past memories waterfowling along the river and throughout some of the ranchers’ fields. The birds would congregate along many of the irrigation ditches in the valley, some days making things pretty simple if the weather was right and we could get access. Geese are quite abundant now-a-days in the Bitterroot. Kids can get an education on waterfowling at the Teller Wildlife Refuge, whose HQ I cycled by as well, thinking about their conservation efforts and programs as I went by. Watching the kids learn during past Duck’s Unlimited banquets came to mind as well.
         It’s funny what one thinks about while cycling. I rode by an area where one of our former landlords used to live. She owned the duplex we were renting during our college days in Missoula. We became acquaintances and for some reason as I rode below her turnoff, I could vividly see the painting of “The Duke” hanging in her home’s kitchen area; her husband being a big Wayne fan. Many people really loved Wayne. My father’s favorite actor. Loathed Mitchum, loved Wayne. Things we recall…
         Riding into Hamilton, I chose the familiar Grantsdale cutoff road to Fish Hatchery Rd. and then dropped into the Skalkaho Valley. Riding along the irrigation ditch on Grantsdale, I cycled between two homes of formerly retired acquaintances. One a former area contractor who raised bees and honey for a hobby, the other a former California and Montana logger and his gardening housewife. “Knapp weed makes the best honey! I swear by it,” Vic would say. His son would drive loads of it down to CA for sale there. Smoky, the former logger, was a true outdoorsman who each time I visited, offered me freshly smoked fish to take home. Usually trout, though sometimes whitefish, which he loved to catch in the Bitterroot in the middle of winter when things were generally otherwise dormant. He had a collection of trout heads with their mouths open tacted to a board hanging in his garage. I recalled fishing with Smoky and Mildred at midnight on Holter and Hauser under the warm glow of the lantern’s illumination. They had a small Johnboat with a low horse outboard. We used primariarly corn. The rainbows in the reservoir were quite large with pink meat from their having gorged on freshwater shrimp, scuds. Great fish to eat, smoked or otherwise. One year Milderd gave me a vitamin container filled with poppy seeds, Orange California Poppies which she grew abundantly around their place and knew I loved. It was a nice gift. One year, following a successful outing fishing the West Fork, I snuck a large rainbow onto their front deck, surprising the two when they returned. “What a fish! Thank you,” They said afterwards, laughing. Smoky always had many great hunting stories to tell. Good people. I did not recognize the folks mowing the lawn at their former residence as I cycled by.
         The Skalkaho is a beautiful area. I rode past the former residence of another retired fellow I knew quite well. One year over lunch together at one of Hamilton’s older family establishments, the two of us looked out the window at all of the passing cars and Louis said, “Look at them, Garland. What do all of them do? I tell you, it’s just not real. Something’s funny,” Over a cigarette, he was singing our commoners’ perspective song. “They can’t all be wealthy retiree transplants,” I confirmed. The main employers in the valley were (are) the Lab, Forest Service and the Hospital (all government related) and a small pharma firm. The timber mills have long since closed and there is no significant private manufacturing in the area. When it finally hit, the Bitterroot took it almost at the scale of Florida and Arizona. It’s recovering, but it’s been a slow bell. Louis was a great fellow who operated a small sheet metal business and raised cattle as a hobby on the side. Loved to attend the national rodeo in Vegas and play golf on the local Hamilton course with rancher buddies. His old pasture was empty when I cycled by. I rode by the Rye Creek cuttoff road which winds its way south parrelling 93 through the East Fork. One of the Hamilton natives long ago had put me on it as a great place to hunt. Things have somewhat changed today, however, with the game number significantly off and special permits required. Great past memories circulated through my mind though as I rode by, soon beginning the climb to Skalkaho Falls. I rode by a half dozen Big Horn Sheep on the north side of the drainage. This is always a pleasant experience, watching their unique behavior in the rocky terrain. The character of the Skalkaho, these steadfast Rams and Ewes which season after season manage to survive the harsh elements and somehow also elude the vast presence of Mountain Lions and Wolves.
         It was snowing lightly and I realized I’d be glad I had my shell and rain pants in the pack for the descent. I looked into large swaths of charred stands of wood, contrasting with the still remaining large snowpack levels of April blanketing the floor beneath. I wondered where the snow line would be as I continued to peddle higher into the wilderness. The lower gate was shut due to the snow on the upper road and the inability to drive across and into the Phillipsburg Valley and Georgetown Lake area (of which I’ve often written). I passed a couple who were hiking down and somewhat surprised to see a cyclist. I said hello without stopping. There were a few game tracks in the mud on the road, but not many. I watched Ravens banter about below the cloud line, wonderful birds. Once I reached the falls, I did not stop, deciding to see how far up the drainage I could make it. It was interesting to note the changing turbidity of the Skalkaho, grey/green and high at the lower levels yet clear and beautiful as I rode higher into the mountains. Near the upper saddle I finally came across a large yellow grater which was a sign that the end was near. I made it around a few more bends and then was forced to turn around. Half soaked and chilled, I rode in my shorts in the lightly falling snow and breeze back down to the waterfall where I quickly took a photograph or two with my phone, changed into warmer cloths and then headed back to Stevensville to catch the afternoon games, which I managed to accomplish. Another fine day in the ‘root.

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