Saturday, December 24, 2016

Red Monkey Flower

Red Monkey Flower (Mimulus lewisii), watercolor pencil with color pencil.

The storm and not passed completely--around 8 PM it rained again, harder this time, and then it got very, very cold. Once again I bundled up with all four wool blankets on my bed, and I was thinking we might see some snow on the ground in the morning, but it didn't snow.

Sperry Chalet on an overcast morning

My rapid descent the previous day had taken its toll--in the morning my knees were so sore I could barely amble down to breakfast. It was overcast and very cold. It seemed like a good day to spend hanging around the chalet. After breakfast I walked around looking for something I could sketch indoors, and found some beautiful Red Monkey Flowers right below the balustrade of the chalet. This was the same flower I had seen for the first time blooming in masses by the hillside rill on my hike up to Sperry Chalet. I'd seen a lot of it blooming along the ledges between the waterfalls on the Sperry Glacier trail--it was obviously a common wildflower here.

Sedge (Carex podocarpa) pencil sketch

I picked a sprig and placed it in a glass of water in the dining room, then sat at one of the tables with my sketch book and color pencils. The rest of the day went by quickly as I worked on it and later on a black and white sketch of the sedge with black flower heads. During breaks I perused the botanical books in the Sperry library.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hike to Sperry Glacier II

Mt. Edwards from Comeau Pass

Clouds began to gather on the west as I ate my lunch. My lunch companion's friends arrived as we were finishing, and he put his backpack on. The young men took off right away while I lingered a bit taking in my surroundings. From here I could see several expanses of snow fields zigzagging across rocky ridges. The trail had disappeared, but rock cairns piled every so often on the ridges marked the way.

Stone cairns marking the trail

A group of mountain goats were looking for grazing just below the pass, and scurried away as I approached. I wondered if they used the stairs at Comeau Pass to get over the pass (the grizzly earlier in the week had used the stairs), or if they preferred to simply walk on the rocks--either would be easy for them.

Mountain goats below Comeau Pass
Mountain goats

A group of hikers returning from the glacier passed me on a snow field, and the young men hiking  ahead of me were so far ahead I soon lost sight of them. Looking down the hill, the array of small lakes dotting the snow fields, and the peaks below were gorgeous.

Hikers going to Sperry Glacier
Trail to the glacier
View to the north

Lakes near Sperry Glacier

Even the lichens on the rocks were fascinating: bright orange-red and yellow-green. I followed the rock cairns as best I could, but somehow I must have veered off-course, and when I finally came around a promontory, I saw that I was a couple hundred feet below the glacier. I started back uphill too close to a rocky outcrop, and before I realized it, my foot had sunk down into an undercut in the snow. Fortunately it went straight down, and I didn't twist anything, just sank into the snow up to my crotch. That shook me up--what if I'd sprained or broken an ankle? How would I get back on my own? I was probably crazy to be hiking alone, at my age.

Hikers on Sperry Glacier

The sky was becoming increasingly cloudy. It looked as if a storm was coming, the question was how long before it would get here. After seeing the ferocity of the first storm a few days earlier, the last thing I wanted was to have to go over Comeau Pass during a storm--on those exposed ridges one could easily be hit by lightning.

It was about two o'clock and the young men who had gone ahead of me and played on the glacier were now coming back. I gauged how much more time it would take me to reach the plaque that marked the glacier, and it was more than I wanted to chance--my remaining energy was better invested on getting back over the pass before the storm hit.

With Sperry Glacier in the background
Near Sperry Glacier

Reluctantly, I decided to settle for a couple of photos standing in front of Sperry Glacier, which my young friend took, and then start back. Near the pass I encountered a family group with children who thought they had reached the glacier, and I explained that they had about another half-mile to go to get there. They continued forward, though I wouldn't have advised it.

Going down the staircase

I managed to reach the staircase at Comeau Pass just ahead of the storm. Once below, as I ran downhill on the trail, the winds buffeting the exposed ridges were so strong they almost knocked me down,--I would have fallen, except for  my hiking poles holding me up. I stumbled down the trail as fast as I could while the first drops of rain fell. As soon as I reached a less exposed area, I stopped to pull on my jacket and put the hood up, and continued hurrying down to lower altitudes.

The deluge I had expected didn't materialize, or the lightning, only a bit of rain, not enough to soak through. Yet the trail had become like a stream in places, the water tumbling down in torrents over the rocks. The flow of the waterfalls seemed to have increased, the sound of the water and wind overwhelming.

Akaiyan falls during the storm.

As I descended the storm passed, and my attention turned to the plants--they seemed to thrive with the periodic soaking, whether from snow melt or rain. I stopped to photograph some of them before heading home to Sperry Chalet.

Yellow mountain heath (Phyllodoce glanduliflora)

Alpine wildflowers and mosses
The storm over Sperry Chalet

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hike to Sperry Clacier I

The Sperry Glacier Trail.

Most of the folks who visit Sperry Chalet spend two nights (if they can get reservations)--to rest from the hike on the first night, then hike up to Sperry Glacier on the next day, and rest for another night before going back down to Lake McDonald. Those who can't get a second night's reservation usually hike up to the Glacier on the following day and then go back down to Lake McDonald, making for one very long hike on their second day.

The hike from Sperry Chalet to Sperry Glacier is about 3.5 miles one way, with an elevation rise of about 1500 feet up to Comeau Pass. Being fortunate to have ample time at Sperry Chalet, I could choose which day to hike up to the Glacier. After several days of conditioning with short hikes, I was ready to attempt the hike to Sperry Glacier towards the end of my first week.

Bear Grass along the trail.

The staff had told me there would be several difficult switchbacks on the way to Comeau Pass, and a number of slippery snow fields to cross--to watch out for undercuts in the snow, where one could easily fall through. I lightened my pack as much as possible, taking only water and lunch, with the usual extra layers of clothing and can of bear spray on my belt, and I put the snow tips on my hiking poles.

Akaiyan Falls.

I was already familiar with the first part of the trail between the two waterfalls, and didn't linger there to take photos, except for some really beautiful stalks of Bear grass. I made mental notes of other plants that I hadn't noticed before for future sketching excursions. 

Shortly after the second waterfall, the trail became steeper, and once again, I started needing frequent breaks to catch my breath. The vegetation was becoming sparser, but there were still plenty of alpine wildflowers to observe as I rested.

Alpine buttercups

As the trail rose, new views of the rock formations became visible, and I came across the first snow patch--it was much slower walking on this, because it was so slippery from the tracks of other hikers. The snow tips on the hiking poles were a big help, I was glad to have them.

Patches of snow on the trail.
The waterfall above the cirque.
Looking down at the trail.

Distances can be so deceptive in this kind of terrain--certain landmarks appear close, but the trail swings around wide, making the distance much greater than one thinks at first. Looking down at the trail below me, I got a much more accurate view of how wide the circle it really was, and how the switchbacks doubled back and forth. After this stretch the trail leveled out a bit and rose past several small lakes with a good deal of ice still in them.

On the Sperry Glacier trail.

At this point I passed a young couple from Colorado I had met at Sperry Chalet the night before, hiking back from the Glacier. It was around eleven-thirty in the morning and they had  already been there and were heading back towards Lake MacDonald--I wished I could be as young and physically fit as they were, but I wasn't doing too bad for someone my age. They were kind enough to offer to take this picture--I was sweating profusely from my exertions but reluctant to shed my vest in the chilly breeze.

Featherwoman Lake on the way to Comeau Pass.

I hadn't caught sight yet of Comeau Pass, but there were some lovely meadows around the lakes, and spectacular views of the mountain ranges beyond.

Meadows above the lakes
Wildflowers at the timberline.
Mt. Edwards from the trail.

The imposing mass of Mount Edwards loomed towards the left, its waves of geological strata scoured by the action of glaciers over eons. A hoary marmot clambered around the rocks nearby, and there were still more snow fields to traverse.

Hoary marmot near Comeau Pass.

Eventually, the snow fields led to the headwall that forms Comeau Pass. Dr. Lyman Sperry's party had to climb up this vertical wall to get over the pass; later on an immense ladder bolted onto the rocks was installed to make it easier (shudder!) for hikers to climb. To make the trek to the glacier less daunting, in the 1930's the Park Service widened a natural fissure in the rock (this was accomplished by trail crews using hand chisels), and a rock staircase was built into it, still used today.

The headwall at Comeau Pass
Going up the stair at Comeau Pass

As you can see, the rise on some of these steps is three to four feet in height, while the treads are very narrow, making for an interesting scramble up. The guy wire railing was a recent addition--the original railing was a rope that had to be replaced every few years--and very necessary on the way down. It's not hard to imagine what it'd be like to try this stair in icy conditions...

Looking down the staircase.
Comeau Pass and Gem Lake

After the workout getting here, it was a good time to enjoy lunch at the top of the pass. I sat on a rock while contemplating the views, but with the wind and exposure, drenched in sweat, I put on my jacket to ward off the chill.  The moment I brought out my paper bag lunch a tiny chipmunk showed up--how it is these animals know we're bound to drop a scrap or two?

Chipmunk joins me for lunch at Comeau Pass

As I was eating my sandwich, a young man joined me. We chatted as we ate--he was waiting for his three friends to catch up. They were from California, taking a trip through the Rockies, and had camped at the Sperry campground near the chalet.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sketching Day

Rachel soothes a skittish mule.

It was Thursday, and the mule pack bringing up supplies arrived around ten, after I'd finished my morning sketch session. After putting my gear back in my room I was walking down the Chalet's deck when I saw Rachel talking softly, trying to soothe one of the mules tied to the railing. She explained that the mules didn't like being on the rocky ground around the Chalet, and needed extra coaxing.

 Renee and the staff would pack the stuff that was going back down in large plastic trash cans the night before, so it would be ready to load onto the mules once the supplies had been unloaded. It was fascinating to watch how quickly and efficiently the staff unloaded and put away the fresh supplies while the packers re-loaded the mules with the stuff going back.

Renee unloads fresh supplies for the Chalet.

Today, they were sending down some of the old bed frames no longer in use, in addition to the usual dirty laundry, trash, and empty gas cylinders. I'm sure it took a good deal of planning and sometimes last-minute juggling on Kevin's part to keep the stream of supplies flowing smoothly. I imagine the cost of the mule packs running for the entire season might be the single largest expense for the Chalet.

The packers brought the mules to the back of the chalet, where I took photos of them from one of the balconies on the second floor. They duct-taped the bed frames into a nicely balanced A-frame.

Packing the bed frames.
A mule packer duct tapes the frames together
Leading the mules down.

After the frames had been secured, the men led the mules down to join the other mules tied by the dining room posts. For me, watching these young men work was like being in a western movie, except these guys weren't actors and their work was obviously hard. They seemed to enjoy it--a hard life, but probably a good one for these parts!

Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis)

After the mule train departed, I took my art gear to the area in back of the Chalet to sketch the pink mountain heather plants I'd seen there the day before along the trail. I worked on a color pencil sketch of it, and included a sprig of the subalpine firs that grew all over.

Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis) and Subalpine fir (Abies lassiocarpa), color pencil, 10" x 8"

I wish my sketch could have done justice to the beauty of this small plant, but all I could do was to try to render its features faithfully: the needle-like narrow leaves on the twisted stems and the bunch of tiny pink bells at the ends. The leaves of the subalpine fir look very similar, although it is from a very different family of plants than the Mountain Heather. Both plants showed new shoots of yellow-green leaves against the darker green of previous years' growth. In the short growing season here every plant had to produce new growth very quickly at the beginning of July to have it mature by the beginning of September, when the first snows would arrive.

My room at Sperry Chalet
My room.

After a few days my single room on the second floor facing west, was beginning to feel like home. I had arranged all my art supplies on the small table, where I could sit to work when my eyes needed rest from the bright light outdoors. The photograph on the wall was the work of one of the previous resident artists, and it was lovely to look at--printed on canvas. Considering its size, I wondered if it had been difficult to bring up on the mules, and how it had been packed. 

All personal effects were hung from hooks on the walls (there were no closets) because there was no way to keep small critters such as mice and voles out. I had staff privileges, which meant access to the one shower the staff shared (hot water was such a luxury here!) in a separate building, and I could hand-wash my clothes too. I' d been instructed to shower in the morning before breakfast or in late afternoon, while the rest of the staff was busy with other chores, so as not to get in their way. And I learned to hang my freshly washed clothes on the line so that nothing hung down within the reach of goats (they like to eat soap too--minerals!)

At night I hung my miner's lamp and a tiny LED battery-run lamp from my bed frame so I could read a little in bed before going to sleep. I usually have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and the first night, walking in the pitch dark was very scary--I kept picturing grizzlies lurking in the shadows of my headlamp, just waiting to pounce. 

But as time went on, I got over that and once I'd reached the deck of the Chalet, I'd turn off the headlamp to look up at the night sky. With no light pollution here, the Milky Way seemed so close and bright--it was a beautiful sight! It's amazing how much one's eyes can detect once the pupils adjust--I could make out the outlines of the mountain ranges, trees and rocks as I became familiar with them, and once in a while, catch sight of a mountain goat near the Chalet.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lincoln Pass and Lake Ellen Wilson

Last light on Gunsight Mountain.

It was the night of the full moon, and the staff at Sperry Chalet planned to hike up to Lincoln Pass to watch it rise. This would be a spectacular sight in the surroundings, and a number of guests, myself included, intended to join them. But around dinnertime, clouds began to move in from Lake McDonald, and a thunderstorm broke out just as it was getting dark. With rain pouring and lightning strikes, calling off the hike was the wise thing to do--we wouldn't have seen the moon in any case.

It got very cold after the storm, and I was glad to have four wool blankets on my bed to tuck under. The next morning was clear but so icy, I put on several layers under my new vest and old Polartec jacket to walk down for breakfast. After breakfast I got out my watercolor kit and began to formulate a plan for painting a watercolor of the view from Sperry Chalet...

The view from Sperry Chalet.

From these heights all that could be seen of Lake McDonald below was one small pale blue oval, but looking down the mountain peaks and crags from either side, and then the receding ranges of mountains on the other shore of the lake, this was a magnificent sight, worthy of one of the 19th Century landscape masters!

A few mountain goats grazed near by, so I kept a close eye on my gear, to make sure no goats would be tempted. Sketching out the composition and planning the execution took the better part of an hour, and by the time I'd put in a wash for the sky and defined the farthest mountain ranges, it was getting on towards ten. The shadows had changed too much to continue. I'd have to plan for time each morning to continue my painting.

My watercolor painting, day 1.

Two of the ladies on the staff, Karen, the baker, and Stephanie, one of the waitresses, had their scheduled afternoon off today, and they invited me to join them for a hike to Ellen Wilson Lake.  Gunsight Pass trail goes in the direction opposite to the Sperry Glacier trail--it rises up about 500 feet to Lincoln Pass and then goes down on the other side towards two lakes: Lincoln and Ellen Wilson Lake. The trail then rises again some 6,900 feet to Gunsight Pass and descends towards Lake St. Mary on the other side of the Continental Divide.

We started out around 10:30, walking behind the Chalet and past the Sperry campsite, passing a small pond. My companions joked that they had named it Pond Willie Nelson, a funny acronym of  'Ellen Wilson'. I had a hard time keeping up with my companions-- they weren't even breathing hard on the hike uphill, while I had to stop every thirty paces or so, but they were very patient with me. Today I'd come up with a way to tie my camera  around my chest with an old scarf  I'd brought along just in case, so that I could keep the camera on my neck and not have it swing from side to side while I walked. This way I could take photos along the way without having to stop to put down my pack, take out the camera, put it back in, etc. which slowed me down so much before.

Willie Nelson Pond and Sperry Chalet (on the right) from Lincoln Pass.

View of  Lake McDonald from the top of Lincoln Pass.

Karen and Stephanie chatted as they walked, and I commented occasionally when I had some breath left. They allowed me to stop frequently to rest and photograph plants, and Karen, who is a wildlife biologist, identified the few birds and other creatures we saw along the way. I asked them to point out the huckleberry plants, which I hadn't been able to identify with any certainty. I was surprised to learn one variety was so tiny--it was hard to believe they provided enough food for bears. But Karen said these berries were the sweetest. The plants were just starting to bloom.

Looking south from Lincoln Pass.

On the other side of Lincoln Pass the view of a whole new set of mountain ranges opened up. We off-trailed across some rocky ledges overlooking Lincoln Lake, a small blue-green circle with towering cliffs looming above it. The lake sat in a narrow bowl, and Karen said going down there would make her uneasy, it seemed like the perfect habitat for bears, where one could easily get trapped.

Lincoln Lake.

Hiking downhill towards the Lake Ellen Wilson overlook, we came across many lovely wildflowers: a flat area still soaked with recent snow-melt had large clumps of low-growing Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), farther on yellow cinquefoil and elliptical-leaf Pentstemon grew in patches among the rocks.

Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia)
Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis)

Pentstemon ellipticus

Lake Ellen Wilson came into view as we rounded another bend. The wind was frothing the surface of the glacial water, and cut into us like an icy knife as we walked out into the open. I was glad to have packed my Polartec vest and nylon jacket, and slipped them on immediately. My friends did the same with their gear--here was the practical illustration of why one should follow mountaineering advice.

Lake Ellen Wilson looking towards Gunsight Pass.

Lake Ellen Wilson from the overlook.

We would have been shivering miserably in our sweaty T-shirts if we hadn't had extra layers of warm clothing. Instead, we settled down on the rock to enjoy lunch in this marvelous spot! The overlook was marked by a huge rock and from it we could survey the oval lake with several long, thin waterfalls emptying into it and Gunsight Pass beyond. The sound of the wind and the occasional cry of a bird were interrupted once or twice by the noise of the helicopter tours overhead.



After a leisurely lunch we started back--my companions had to be back by four to work on their dinner chores. On the way back we spotted one lonely Mariposa lily blooming along a rocky embankment. I was surprised to find it in this environment, as I thought this flower was strictly a denizen of warmer climates .

Mariposa lily (Calochortus apiculatus)