Mountain High 

Despite last week’s microburst of drought relief, the valley-clogging smoke that’s hidden the soaring parts of Montana will likely be drifting back into our little depression before you can say “I hate white rabbits!” And that lonely day of rain? Well, long-term forecasters are saying that it will affect the fire season only “marginally.”

And so, for the fourth week in a row, the main challenge for those who get their rocks off by running around in the woods remains the elusive task of finding The Place Without Smoke. There are many strategies to make this happen: You can call fire information (800-781-2811), you can check Web sites (www.fs.fed.us/r1/fire/ 2003fires/index.shtml), and you can scan the Web cams (http://dayweather.com/ MontanaCams.htm). You can even take a vacation, get into the rig and bolt like you’re a mobile creature with a primal need to breathe clean air.

But regardless of your survival tactics, Western Montana is presently the most on-fire place on the continent, and escape requires a certain amount of creativity.

The quickest, surest way to leave the smoke behind is to head to a very specific—and aptly named—area known as the Great Burn. Many have heard of it, but few know where it is. Fewer still know how to get there. But you’ve driven past its northern flank while heading west on I-90, and you’ve paralleled its southern border en route to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. Tucked between Highway 12 and the Interstate lies a hidden, lake-riddled high country chock full of mega-fauna like elk, wolves, lynx and grizzly bears. And it’s currently (as of press time, anyhow) smoke-free.

With Montana’s winds regularly blowing west to east, the Burn’s location west of nearly all burning land keeps the Burn’s air considerably clearer than the schmag that downwind Missoulians had been huffing, until last week, for the last month. For Western Montana’s competitive athletes, the Burn’s clean air is a god-send (are you listening, Judy?), as hundreds or thousands of soccer players, runners, cyclists, football players and other breathe-deep types have been left scrambling for ways to elevate their heart rates without blackening their lungs.

There’s a wide range of terrain, from fern- and waterfall-filled valleys to windswept treeless ridges, and the approaches leading into the Burn aren’t too arduous either. Creekside walks throughout the area make for an easy and pleasant option for folks looking for a smoke-free place to picnic, without an over-investment of cardio-effort.

And if you need to get further away and are just dying for a backpacking trip, the Great Burn Loop offers many options, including a popular 3-5 day, 30-mile route through the heart of this wild country. Anyone walking its length will see numerous signs of the fire that whipped through here in 1910 and will gain great insight into how a burnt Montana landscape rejuvenates and changes over the course of a century.

But before you head out, be sure to contact the Lolo National Forest at 329-3814 to check on fire restrictions, smoke levels and/or hiking suggestions.

Of course the Great Burn isn’t alone—there are numerous areas that will at any given time be smoke free. A lousy option, however, is Mount Jumbo, where a no-nonsense fire closure remains in effect. The DNRC and the City have closed all access to their portions of Mount Jumbo, the Kim Williams Trail, Mount Sentinel and the North Hills since July 23, leaving the Missoula Police Department perplexed as to why hikers, dog walkers and cyclists continue to defy the closure.

“It’s hard to understand why people persist in hiking or biking in the closed areas,” says Police Chief Bob Weaver. “If a fire started on any tinder-dry trail or mountainside, a person would probably not be able to get off the mountain fast enough to escape injury or death.” Closure violators can be fined up to $500, and Weaver encourages anyone spotting hillside offenders to call 911.

From 7–8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 3, hunters aged 12–17 can sign up for a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Hunter Education course at the 3201 Spurgin Road headquarters. Beginning on October 3, all youngsters wanting a hunting license will be required to pass the course, which includes two classroom sessions and one field test. It’s only $3, and it’s required, so make sure your young gunner signs up on time. Call 542-5500 for more details.

The snow-capped mountain that you can always see from town—except now—is Lolo Peak, the northern crown of what’s commonly referred to as “the Bitterroots,” and the Rocky Mountaineers are heading up to Lolo’s venerable summit on August 31. It’s a burly uphill grind, with a discouraging false summit, but if the air’s clear enough you’ll enjoy excellent views south over some of the range’s highest peaks. Call Julie Warner at 543-6508 to figure out logistics.

Join the UM Campus Rec folks for a five-session, $135 Fundamentals of Whitewater Kayaking course, and they’ll set you up with a boat, paddle/roll techniques and lotsa beta on how to be safe on the river. Sessions begin September 2 and again on September 23, but call Campus Rec at 243-5172 to get your space reserved.

Little is more satisfying after a day of sucking mountain marrow than a locally brewed, ice-cold beer waiting for your battered ass at the trailhead, and the Big Mountain Brewfest from 4–8 p.m. on August 30 will help acquaint the unknowing with Montana’s excellent assortment of brews. $20 will get you a beer each from eight of Montana’s larger breweries, and proceeds will help fund the S.N.O.W. bus taking skiers/riders from Whitefish to Big Mountain in the winter. There’s live music and food too, so call 862-2900 to find out more.

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