Mountain High 

The fires, they come…

Ahhhhhh, yes, it’s summer in Montana. Idyllic dreams of bounding through wildflower meadows between towering Ponderosa pines and majestic elk are being swapped for deep-seated fears about global warming and an alarming inability to breathe the crisp, clean, high mountain air for which the West is renowned.

As of press time, no fewer than a dozen fires are burning in Big Sky Country, reminding us of the now-infamous Summer of 2000 that rallied the malignant trifecta of hard-partying Hells Angels, iron-fisted out-of-state law enforcement officers and the long, broken-down train of Rainbow Gatherer contraptions.

But while most have heard about the brutal police riots that erupted, or the festivities occurring at the Gathering, we sometimes forget about the brutal vice that clamps down on Montanans now that the fire danger arrow points to “EXTREME.”

For instance: The Bitterroot, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Lolo National Forests have already enacted “Stage One” restrictions, which means that on Forest Service land, fires outside of established campgrounds are currently outlawed. Smoking outside of vehicles is now banned. Barbecuing on public land is illegal. And this is just the initial reaction. Soon, if the fire danger doesn’t abate, entire forests could be closed to public access. Mountaintop dreams you’ve had since last year vanish in a cloud of smoke, and hard-breathing folks check alarmedly into the emergency room. Overheating dogs and their owners may soon be forbidden from the Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, and every other river, creek and lake in the state. As state and federal agencies become paranoid about human-caused fires, Missoulians looking to escape the heat may be (as they have been before) denied the elementary option of dunking themselves in the precious, cooling waters.

My friends, you must take note when the weather predictors tell us that there’s no end in sight to these three-digit temperature days; with fires burning in all directions, public land restrictions could soon be upon us. The Big Creek fire near Stevensville ballooned from 50 acres to 500 acres overnight, and then doubled again the next day. Meanwhile, six fires are burning in Glacier National Park, including some in improbably high alpine areas. Fires also burn near Helena, Georgetown Lake, and in the Swans.

Fortunately, humans have the ability to learn from the past, and any adventurer worth the crusty salt on her brow will be looking to seize this very moment.

So, fellow mountain fools, search through the following options and find yourself an adventure with which you can make the most of this last week of July. Or, of course, head up that mountain you’ve always wanted to climb, or down that stream you’ve always wanted to fish. I’ll see you out there.

The Glacier Challenge is a multi-sport team and individual relay race that grinds without relent from West Glacier to Whitefish on July 26. Legs include canoeing, kayaking, running and cycling, and proceeds will help the Flathead Youth Shelter construct a permanent facility. The race is limited to 60 teams, so get your game-face on and check it out at:

The Glacier Institute, the venerable non-profit dedicated to educating all ages about our continent’s headwaters region, will host two field drawing classes for sketchers both beginner and advanced on June 28 and 29. Find your inspiration with qualified instructors—and an unparalleled subject: the ancient forests and snow-capped peaks of Glacier National Park. Call Kate (755-1211) or register at

In another Institute offering, Director of the Northwest Montana Historical Society Bill Peterson, Ph.D. will lead a $200, 13-student, two-day history tour of the park aboard historic Jammer busses. Call the Glacier Institute (755-1211) or register at:

Or you can join the Rocky Mountaineers (Julie Warner, 543-6508) on Sunday, July 27 as they crank up the 8,282’ Grave Peak, a hot, high summit south of the Lochsa River. Count on an on-trail 12-mile roundtrip that brings you to an “old cupola-style lookout on top” with lakes in every direction.

The New Rocky Mountaineers maintain their remarkable adventure schedule by leading three trips this weekend. Your first option, should you choose to punish yourself, is a Saturday, July 26 charge up the 9,061’ Mount Calowahcan (aka Mt. Harding) that includes five miles of trail, 5,800’ of vert and some shitcher-pants exposure on the final pitch. Call Russ Lamson (728-7174) for the beta.

Or, for the adrenaline-deprived, there’s a 20-miler up and over the Bitterroot’s Heavenly Twins the same day. This “not casual” adventure includes a predawn start, technical climbing, a commitment to safely finishing an unrelenting day and a wilderness experience of the highest caliber. Beware a fire burning in them thar parts, however, so call the unstoppable Luke Casady (777-0190) to confirm and prepare.

Fellow NRM-er Gerald Olbu (549-4769) will lead a coalition of the willing up the north couloir of the 10,157’ Trapper Peak. This route includes off-trail travel, steep snow and the option to swim in one of the Bitterroot’s most glorious alpine lakes.

If climbing closer and closer to the source of all this heat sounds like a fool’s progress, consider a Flathead Valley Community College outing to Wild Horse Island by sea kayak. On Friday, July 25 you can join wildlife biologist Carolyn Sime for a paddle to this wildlife-rich oasis in the middle of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. ACA-certified instructor Bobbie Gilmore will lead beginners and advanced paddlers across the drink, so call FVCC at (406) 756-3832 to get on board.

Hey photographers! Montana Filmworks founder Frank Vestey leads an instructional photo workshop on top of Big Mountain’s summit on July 30, providing photo tips as he leads budding shutterbugs down the trail. Call Big Mountain at (406) 862-2900 to shoot up a storm.

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