This little fellow is just the size of a baseball at present, but he will weigh about two pounds when fully grown. Blue grouse, AKA Dusky grouse, are still plentiful in western Montana where they prefer to live at elevations around 6,000 feet or higher. (Photographed in the Reservation Divide roadless area).
Yesterday a friend and I hiked about 4 miles of USFS trail #98 in the Reservation Divide Roadless Area, which is in the southeastern end of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains in northwest Montana and part of the Lolo National Forest. This roadless area consists of 16,970 acres (26 square miles), is about 20 miles in length, varies in elevation from about 6000 ft to 8000 ft, and its northern boundary is also part of the southern boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation. The trail head for USFS trail 98 is at 5900 ft and is accessed by about 9 miles of Forest Service roads after taking off of Montana Highway 135. The following photos provide a sample of the views from the trail looking out over the Nine Mile Valley. Note: This area was the site of a very large wildfire in 2002 and it is in the long process of recovery.
A few words about Roadless Areas:
Simply put, roadless areas are natural areas without roads, but such lands in the US are covered by a term that is more specific and refers to Forest Service lands that are called “Inventoried roadless areas”.
Inventoried roadless areas can be roughly defined as undeveloped areas typically exceeding 5,000 acres that met the minimum criteria for wilderness consideration under the Wilderness Act and that were inventoried during the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process, subsequent assessments, or forest planning. They total to approximately 60 million acres of land, most of which is in the western US, Puerto Rico and Alaska. (The state of Montana for example contains approximately 6.4 million acres, or 10,000 square miles, of Inventoried Roadless land.) I am happy to live fairly close to 15 of Montana’s roadless areas and I spend as much time in them as I can. Roughly half of the photos I post on this blog have been taken in or next to roadless areas.
On a clear, brisk morning in early October there was a light touch of frost at the trail head just off Forest Service Road 5498 in western Montana’s Coeur d’Alene Mountains : it would be an excellent day for a hike up to Burnt Fork Pinnacle, three miles up toward Reservation Divide on USFS trail 418 and inside the Reservation Divide roadless area.
There is nothing extraordinary about the Pinnacle which sits about 2,400 feet above the Ninemile Valley at an altitude of just over 6,600 feet and 1,200 feet below Three lakes Peak, another couple of miles up the trail, but it, like many of the old fire lookout sites, is a part of the history of this region, and it in particular has an interesting old story tied to it.
About 20 miles southeast of the Pinnacle is the Ninemile Remount Depot which, in or around 1932 when the L-4 style cabin used as a lookout on the Pinnacle was built, was home to what was sometimes referred to as “a thousand mule cavalry” of mules. In those days the only means the Forest Service had for transporting heavy loads was on the backs of mules, and at Ninemile the Forest Service raised a Mammoth breed of mules by breeding Morgan horses with Jacks. They became the elite of pack stock, weighing around 1,700 pounds and capable of carrying up to 300 pounds on their pack saddles. The Ranger Station is still there on the grounds of the remount ranch which remains the winter home of the Forest Service mules and horses that are still used in this region in the summers.
(For those who are not familiar with the old L-4 type cabins used as lookouts, here is a photo of one that still remains on top of Big Hole Mountain, fifty miles west of Burnt Fork. The one on Burnt Fork Pinnacle was destroyed in 1950:)
Big Hole Lookout cabin
Trail 418 is a reasonably good hiking trail and still quite suited for horse travel as well, winding through an old burn at the lower elevations
and some beautiful, grassy mountainsides as it ascends to the old lookout site.
From the higher regions of the trail, Squaw Peak, which was recently re-named Ch-paa-qn (pronounced “cha-pock-qwin”), can be seen to the east where it looks down on the Remount Depot from an altitude of 7,996 feet.
After three hours of pleasant hiking and a healthy climb of 2,400 feet, it was a pleasure to enjoy a sunny and leisurely lunch in a green and sheltered little saddle just above where the old cabin once stood,
study the higher country to the west,
Three Lakes Peak to the north,
the Bitterroot Mountains far to the south,
and the Ninemile Valley to the southeast;
and enjoy the recollection of this story about two greenhorn firewatchers who manned the lookout during one summer nearly eighty years ago:
Mike and Ellen were newlyweds who would be spending the summer in the cabin at Burnt Fork Pinnacle. When they left the Ninemile ranch for their 20 mile trip to the lookout with everything they needed tied to the pack saddle on a jenny, the ranch superintendent told them that they could entice the mule with a piece of candy if she balked along the way, and after a pound of candy she was following them just like a pet. He also instructed them that once the jenny was unloaded at the cabin they would simply have to head her back down the trail, give her a slap on the rump, and she would trot back on down to the ranch all by herself.
In these parts, weather conditions can change very quickly, even in early summer, and this time they did. By the time they arrived at the cabin, the weather had deteriorated into a regular old Montana blizzard with a very cold wind and blowing snow. Mike quickly unloaded the jenny, hustled everything inside the tiny glass house and built a cozy fire in the little stove. Stepping back outside, he pointed the jenny back down the trail and gave her a slap on her backside. She just stood there. When he went back inside to stoke up the fire, the snow-covered old mule walked up and just stared into the window with such a pitiful look that the greenhorns soon brought her into their already cramped quarters.
It was a tight fit that night in the 14 X 14 room, with Mike sleeping against one wall and Ellen against the other and a seventeen hundred pound mule curled up between. Next morning with a pat on the rump the mule, without further hesitation, went back home to Ninemile, all alone. (This story along with many other ones and some good locations and descriptions of the old lookouts is contained in the book Fire Lookouts of the Northwest by Ray Kresek).