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)

Monday, November 14, 2016

On the Ledges

Glacier Plants, color pencil, 10" x 8"
Note: A high quality digital reproduction of this painting is now available for $100 plus shipping. Quantities are limited.

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On my second day at Sperry Chalet, I began to work in earnest. Renee and others on the staff had told me there were some ledges full of wildflowers along the Sperry Glacier Trail, in the cirque between two waterfalls, that other resident artists before me had really liked. After breakfast I set out with my gear and pack lunch to find the ledges.

Waterfalls on the Sperry Glacier Trail

The Sperry Glacier Trail sign indicated it was 4 miles to the glacier; the sign was in a lovely glade with a small cascade. Once past this level stretch the trail began to rise gently, and effort once again was necessary to gain ground--I was carrying my camping stool, color pencils, sketch book and camera as well as water & lunch. Fortunately, the trail leveled off here and there, making it much less strenuous than the climb to Sperry Chalet.

Glade below Sperry Chalet

The first waterfall was a bit farther than it looked from the chalet, and the sun had already risen over the ridge above the trail when it came into view. A metal bridge over the creek was anchored to the rocks by chains. One had to climb over a few rocks before stepping onto the bridge, and some of these were kind of wobbly.
The first waterfall: Sprague Creek.
The bridge over the falls.

I managed to climb onto the bridge and cross the waterfall--a lot more water there than one would suppose from a distance, flowing with considerable force. On the other side of the bridge were the remains of a wooden bridge that had been discarded, likely an older one that had become too rickety to be safe. As I learned over the next weeks, there was quite an amount of foot traffic on this popular trail, and the trail crews worked long, hard hours to maintain all of these trails during the season.

There were many flowers growing among the rocks, specially wherever there was water: Pentstemons and Spirea, ferns, grasses and sedges, bear grass and Indian paintbrush.

Pink Spirea (Spirea splendens or densiflora)

I walked for about another quarter mile looking for a likely place to sketch. Eventually I found a clump of Pentstemons growing by the side of the trail with lots of Spirea around it and, as there wasn't much level space other than the trail itself, I set up my stool and gear right there, leaving just enough space for one hiker to pass.

Wildflowers on the ledges.

Upon closer observation, this Penstemon was a different variety from the plants I had seen on Siyeh Bend a few days earlier-- this plant had small, oval leaves and seemed shorter. I included a sedge that had caught my eye around the Chalet--it had dark, almost black, seed heads with bright yellow pistils. Small bees were buzzing all around the Pentstemon flowers.
I sketched happily for a couple of hours while the sun heated up the ledge, then took a lunch break. After lunch I worked a bit more, but the light had now changed direction too much, and it was time to call it a day.

As I was packing up, some hikers returning from the glacier called my attention to a grizzly bear that was foraging in the cirque below us. It was so far away they had to point out exactly where the beast was, between the branches of Sprague Creek, before I could spot it.

Grizzly bear in the cirque.

I walked back towards Sperry Chalet and met another group of hikers who were also watching the bear; they loaned me their binoculars so I could observe the grizzly a bit more clearly.

Grizzly bear.

I was glad to be far away--even from a distance, it appeared to be a beast of impressive size--mesmerizing! That evening I heard the story from a couple who had been hiking at Sperry Glacier when they crossed paths with the grizzly. They were going up the staircase at Comeau Pass on their way to the Glacier when the bear decided he wanted to come down. They told me when they saw the bear coming, they backed up against the stone wall, trying to become invisible and not panic, bear spray ready. Fortunately, the bear didn't seem to be interested in them, and simply moved past, passing them a scant ten feet away--the photo they shared was incredible!

In the evenings during coffee hour, I would peruse a book of Glacier wildflowers in the Sperry Chalet library to try to identify the plants I'd seen, and learn more about others in case I came across them later on. I also brought my sketchbooks to share my work with the guests at the Chalet.

Over the next week I worked on turning my sketch into a finished piece, the result of which you see above. The original drawing is being donated to Sperry Chalet, but I am offering fine-art quality digital prints of it for $120 (matted). Please contact me at if you are interested in buying one.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Fall Garden Interlude

Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia) with Russian sage (Perovskia).

As a break from the postings of my Montana adventures, today I wanted to post a bit about this year's late summer and fall garden and share photos of some of my flowers. Most of my plant purchases from late spring (and even one from the previous fall) had been held over in large pots during the summer, since my travels and the merciless biting bugs had not allowed much time for planting them earlier.

Plants awaiting new homes.

This fall has been the warmest since we moved to this area, with very spotty rain, so the first focus of my fall gardening frenzy was to get all these plants in the ground. This meant expanding my flower beds considerably to accommodate them. I'd bought a dwarf butterfly bush (Buddleia) with pale lilac flowers and a spirea (was it coincidence? I didn't know I would encounter so many of these plants in Glacier N.P., but now this plant will remind me of those others).

The Little Indians border in October.
Planting the Buddleia and the Spirea.

I decided to put the Buddleia and the Spirea towards the back of the Little Indians bed, near the Asclepias, in hopes of attracting more butterflies to the back yard. The Aster laevis which had been eaten to the ground by deer the previous year, finally bloomed, thanks to the garlic spray I've been using, as well as the camouflage the Asclepias provided. Finally, a few butterflies are starting to show up!

Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on Itea bush.

This shot looking at the east side of the house gives a good idea of the expansion that has taken place during this year's growing season. If only I could speed up the growth more! But Nature has its limits, even with lots of fertilizer.
The east garden.
Viburnum 'Brandywine' with Gaillardias

I'm partial to the berries of this variety of Viburnum 'Brandywine' at the stage where the berries start turning pink. As the season progresses the berries gradually turn blue. 

Backyard bed with pink dogwood and hibiscus.

The bed I laid out in the back yard last year is developing nicely--the pink Kousa dogwood 'Rosy Teacups' has gained a couple of feet in height and width (with protection from deer depredations), but the star of this summer was the pink hibiscus that our neighbors gave me, grown from seed from their plants.

Pink Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutus)

Such a knock-out color! This variety of hardy hibiscus can be deceptive--it dies back over the winter and is very late to start growth in the spring, so for a while I thought it was dead. Good thing I left it alone, it eventually re-grew. I like it so much I bought another one this fall, a white variety with a red center. They're wonderful flowers that blossom at a time when very little else is blooming. 

Pink Asian lily with Bouteloua grass clump

This bed was also planted with about a dozen Asiatic lilies, but I'm afraid I got this bargain purchase in the ground a bit late, and they didn't grow until late in the summer--one plant actually bloomed in late September, but the rest, despite a few buds, were too late to open before the first frost cut them down a week ago. The ornamental grass Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition' in front of the lily is another plant that has been struggling in my garden, but it seems to be making some progress. Perhaps next summer I'll see an explosion of bloom in this bed. There's still so much empty space to fill...

Back yard looking east.

To remedy that I bought another bunch of native perennials at the Arboretum's Arborfest, including more of the lovely Swamp Sunflower, and asters. I'm currently working to plant those, along with more spring flowering bulbs, before it gets too cold to work outside.