Snowshoeing In Powder Snow

I do not know if it was receiving snowshoes for Christmas, or the slow start to our snow year, or the often icy snow which may cross country skiing less than 'fun'. I think a primary reason might have been the opportunity to get some trails packed in before the snow began falling in earnest. Whatever the reason I spent much more time in snowshoes this year - and really enjoyed it. However, there are some 'tricks' to snowshoeing in powder snow. Here are a few I've learned:

Choose your hiking companions carefully. A couple of furry friends are always happy to go. It is never too snowy or too cold or too windy or too . . .In fact, it is never anything but perfectly good day for an adventure.

Even more important - especially when rebreaking your trail after a new fall of fresh, deep powder (or - even more so - when creating a new trail), take along the rest of the family and all the friends you can find. While I LOVE my solitary treks (just the dogs and I), when there is new trail to be broken or an old trail to be reopened, the more feet the easier!

After just one good storm, even the best tramped in trail will nearly disappear. In fact, in spots which receive any wind to speak of, even a light snow can remove all traces of your prior passage. And, as I have found - the biggest KEY to keeping a snowshoe trail open in powder snow is to traverse it regularly. If you do not, it will just disappear. And, even if you do, as you can see in the picture on the right, it can still vanish (those are moose tracks - mine trail should be to the left middle).

Another obviously KEY is DO NOT FALL DOWN! While this is obvious - typically only 9-year-olds boys like to roll around in the snow - I have learned it is also very important. For, once the snow gets deep, it can be nearly impossible to get up. After all, there is nothing solid anywhere near the surface. Thus I have found myself wallowing around like a beached whale trying to find a surface to press on and get myself up. However, the only such surface is my snowshoe!

While my next 'key' will not make any noticeable difference to your snowshoeing excursion, since it is the KEY reason why people (at least the key reason why I) snowshoe, I think it ought to be in the list. My point: Look. While I have only seen a few moose, a few ducks, and a few birds, I have seen many tracks. It is always fun to see what has passed this way before my arrival - and the snow doesn't let them do it without leaving behind proof. On the left are the tracks of a running coyote. On the right the tracks of a weasel. In spite of all the weasel tracks I saw this year, I never saw the critters during my excursions.

The rest of the photos in this post are just to share the various tracks I have seen. In addition to weasel tracks (by far the most prominent tracks in the areas I have had tramped in trails), coyotes and fox have left behind their signs.

I have seen where a grouse landed in the snow (very cool - I didn't have my camera), the distinct claws of a weasel (I wouldn't want to meet him, small thoough he is, in a tight corner. Those are wicked looking toenails! Again no camera), the tracks of a lone wolf (yeah, you guessed, no camera), some small bird tracks (yeah. . .), tracks of a couple of elk (shown previously) and these tracks. The one on the left is from a squirrel. The one on the right . . .? I do not know.Some little critter. . .

Of course there are my tracks (seen above). But, more importantly, there are the tracks of my two always-ready furry hiking buddys. While these photos do not give perspective, Bo's track is quite impressive. In the snow his track can be nearly the size of my handprint (and, remember, a wolf's tracks begin at his size and go up!)

The photo of Rosie's track (on the right) was taken under a ridgline tree where the wind had scoured the ground nearly bare. Because her toes do not spread like Bo's, it is quite difficult to get a distinct photo of her track in soft snow.

And so - you now know the keys to enjoying snowshoeing in powder snow. Perhaps, like me, you've always thought it too much work for too little pleasure. However, IF you keep the trail open, it can be a TON of fun and a great workout to boot.

Lady of the Lake


More Book Reviews

More Book Reviews

This is my second book review posting. While I do not intend to make this a major part of the blog, I received several positive responses to my December 2011 book reviews so I thought I'd share a few more 'good' finds. After all, on a snowy day, what's better than a good read, a hot drink, and a cheery fire? Here's a few ideas for the 'good read' part.

The Pass - Thomas Savage

Published in 1944, The Pass was Thomas Savage’s first novel. While fiction, this book positively hums with real-life. Not afraid to present an accurate picture of the west - and certainly not controlled by rules dictating his character’s ‘proper’ actions - The Pass brings Montana high desert prairies to life in all their beauty and tragedy. And, well they should, as this was Savage's birthing ground.

Young Jess moves from Colorado to a ranch he purchases on Horse Prairie (which is located outside of present day Dillon). He settles in, begins ranching, and erects a home for his young wife, Beth. Together they work to build a life and better their lot on the harsh yet beautiful prairie. His dreams are big. Are they too big? This question haunts the reader throughout the book.

Lemhi Pass and Idaho’s Salmon River country come into play as Savage paints a picture of the landscape. If you have the least affection for Montana’s high desert and the slightest interest in ranching history, this book will grab your heart strings.

Strongly written with sharp contrasts, Thomas allows us to ‘feel’ the prairie. This is no modern sappy love story where everyone lives happily ever after. It is a very real look into the rancher’s life then or now. Furthermore, Savage possesses an uncanny ability to dive behind the facade into the emotions which drive our passions, desires, and motives.

Best of all, he records those thoughts and ideas in a way which only add to our reading pleasure. Here’s a sample: “Afterward Beth remembered the time before it happened, the uneventful days. Her longing for them was like homesickness and tinged with self-reproach. Because in those tranquil days she had not felt tranquil, only bored.”

Letters From Yellowstone - Diane Smith

I picked this book up in Yellowstone (at the Canyon store) thinking I would be reading a true-life journal. I should have looked at the cover more closely. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the read, and have Diane to thank for putting me onto another book which is true - is about Yellowstone - is historical - and is a very interesting read. I am reading and plan to review this book in the next few months.

However, Diane’s book did turn out to be interesting in its own right. The book’s format is quite unique as the entire book consists of a few dozen letters written by the book’s various key characters to other folks who play no role except as letter recipients. Certainly a unique way of telling a story, Diane pulls the whole thing off quite well.

While I do not agree with many of her basic philosophical premises, and we hold differing world views, I found her sprinklings of history interesting and at times enlightening. Furthermore, since her book revolves around recording the various plants which grow in the Park, this, too, was often fascinating.

Would I recommend the book? While I have found myself drawn more recently to real-life journals, this book was interesting and well written. In addition, its unusual format makes it a nice break from the often predictable novel format. For those reasons, yes, I would recommend the book.

A Mountain Boyhood - Joe Mills

Here is a book I would HIGHLY recommend. I loved this book. In fact, the only book I have recently read which has compared in literary beauty is A Lady’s Life in the Rockies by Isabella Bird (reviewed next). Even more fascinating, Joe not only begins his travels in the same area (Estes Park), he mentions Isabella in his book even though he arrived in the area a couple decades after her visit.

As mentioned, it was the author's use of language which impressed me most. None the less, I was left shaking my head at this young man’s nerve. It seems our fore-runners were made of tougher (or perhaps less cautious) material than most folks one meets today. Many times I cringed as I read about Joe’s escapades and many times I vowed I would not let my son see this book until he was an adult (at the earliest!)

Most of Joe's journal keeps you turning the pages enthralled or appalled! His first experience in the Rockies gives one a taste of the lovely word-feast to come: “There is not even a distant relationship between mountain miles and my Kansas prairie miles. The later area ironed out flat, the former stand on end, cease to be miles and become trials.”

One final ‘plug’ - Joe was an avid student of nature, particularly wildlife. His descriptions and observations had me laughing one moment and sniffing back the tears the next. His personal observations of wildlife caught in a fire were particularly heart-rending. While the description goes on in some length, here is a taste, “A fawn stopped within a few feet of me and stared about with luminous, innocent eyes. Its hair was singed and its feet burned. It lifted its left hind food and stared at it perplexed; then I saw between its dainty, parted hoofs a burning stick.”

Best of all - if you have a Kindle (or, I would suspect, a Nook), this book is a free download! It does not get much better than that.

A Lady’s Life In The Rocky Mountains - Isabella Bird

I cannot praise this book enough. In fact, it is one of the best examples of the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” For, who could really believe a lone woman would set off on horseback in the middle of winter and travel over 600 miles ALONE through the Colorado Rockies. Yet, Miss Bird did so - and in 1873!

Recorded as a series of letters written to her sister, this book, however, reads more like a journal than a letter. The story begins and ends in Estes Park, Colorado. Isabella, on her way back from a vacation for health reasons in Hawaii, boards a train in San Francisco and travels to the Colorado Rockies. Her real journey begins in Estes Park where she meets a cast of interesting characters. Her lone journey through the Rockies (really a big loop) is written with such brevity it takes on an air of the unreal - as if the experience does not seem unreal enough.

However, what puts this book ‘over the top’ on my scale is the quality of writing. This woman can WRITE! Her descriptive language is amazing. In fact, I would often go back and re-read passages just to enjoy her use of words. However, I have found others who called her writing ‘flowery’ and one person said they found her descriptions boring. I had to scratch my head over that!

The flavor and tone of Isabella’s writing begins with her first words. Thus, I’ll let you be the judge of her skills. “I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh. Not lovable, like the Sandwich Islands, but beautiful in its own way! A strictly North American beauty snow-splotched mountains, huge pines, red-woods, sugar pines, silver spruce; a crystalline atmosphere, waves of the richest color; and a pine-hung lake which mirrors all beauty on its surface. Lake Tahoe is before me, a sheet of water twenty-two miles long by ten broad, and in some places 1,700 feet deep. It lies at a height of 6,000 feet, and the snow-crowned summits which wall it in are from 8,000 to 11,000 feet in altitude. The air is keen and elastic. There is no sound but the distant and slightly musical ring of the lumberer’s axe.”

While there must be millions of novels and historic records of life in our area, I have found it challenging to find books set in southwest Montana. Granted, there are numerous books on Yellowstone - and I think I'm finding a few of the really 'good' ones - but I am still looking for the 'great' ones set in my neck of the woods. If you have suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Happy Reading!

Lady of the Lake


More Elk Lake Flora

While the snow falls thick and steady outside my window, the colorful pictures which cover my computer screen remind me of the summer beauty being nourished by the frozen precipitation we are receiving. My focus on summer flora in the dead of winter may seem a bit askew. However, my reasons are more practical than, perhaps, obvious. Flower identification posts are the most time consuming of all. The research for identification and edification takes time! So. . .while my days are less hectic, I am working to reach my original goal of identifying one hundred local plants.

Today we will focus on 10 more - moving the final count to seventy plants to date. When you realize that almost all of those plants have been wildflowers - well you get an idea of the varied and profuse flower garden growing naturally outside my back door. Even after all this time, I find them absolutely stunning!

61. Leopard Lily (aka: Purple Fritillary)

What I Knew - This unusually colored flower shows up in a variety of habitats. Yet it seems to prefer heavy shade and is often quite solitary. It is showy, even for its lack of color, because of its distinct spots. About the size of a half-dollar, it is easy to overlook as the top side is quite plain and, unlike many other lilies, it droops to face the forest floor. While I most often see this plant producing only one flower-head, on rare occasion I have seen more than one flower growing on a stalk.

What I Learned - There are other flowers known as Leopard Lilies which do not look at all like this plant. Thus if you are seeking more information, use its scientific name: Fritillaria atropurpurea. This flower is not listed in my Montana flower guide. I did find it in the Grand Teton flower guide. It is only alluded to in the Audubon Flower Guide.

Yet, this flower ranges from California to North Dakota giving it the widest range of the Fritillaria family. It prefers subalpine and lodgepole forests, can be found 6,000 to 10,500 feet in elevation, and is perennial.

I know I have further photos, but I have no located another before sending this live. However, I can tell you the plant reaches 4 to 24 inches in height, has long narrow leaf-less stalks (note the top portions in the photo), and is easily overlooked.

For a plant with such wide distribution, like the feline which shares its name, this little flower seems to abhor the spotlight. Not as useful as some of our wild plants, I did find Leopard Lilies can be crushed and applied to swollen body parts. Furthermore, the bulb is small but rich in starch and can be eaten.

62. Baneberry

What I Knew - These plants grow quite profusely in areas around the resort. The flowers are showy white columns often growing from a lush leafy low-growing bush. The fruit is brilliant red and about the size of a huckleberry. The plants often grow in the same vicinity, and the Baneberry's beautiful fruit can be tempting to the unsuspecting ‘picker’.

What I Learned - Don’t eat the fruit! This plant is quite poisonous. In fact, as few as five or six berries can make one very ill. Eat many more and you could die! In fact, some Native Americans apparently used the plant’s juice to poison their arrowheads. Fortunately the fruit is very acidic and not at all pleasing to the palate.

On the positive side, the plant’s roots have been used for menstrual problems. Furthermore they provide a healthy (and safe) feed for birds as our avian friends are not effected by their poisonous attributes. Even so, even their foliage is rarely consumed by animals.

While the plant also comes in a white variety, I have only seen the red ones growing around here. A fairly wide-spread plant, there are even varieties of Baneberry growing in Europe.

The plants grow 1 to 3 feet tall. They seem to prefer shaded locations and can be found under the forest canopy and along streams in west and central Montana.

63. Twin Arnica

What I Knew -A small yellow flower often seen in ‘pairs’ but occasionally in singles (as in this photo), this plant grows on a long slender stem. The plant has lance-shaped leaves. Distinctive for its bright yellow flower, this flower does not seem to be too plentiful around the resort. This particular photo was taken in the Centennial sand dunes.

What I Learned - Of the about 30 species of this perennial herb, 12 are known to grow in Montana. This particular variety grows on a stem 8 to 24 inches tall. The flowers are about an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. (This one is a bit shriveled - probably due to its not-quite-hospitable growing conditions.)

Arnica is used as a medicinal gel applied topically to strains, sprains, bruises and even wounds. It is believe the plant increases blood supply and thus accelerates healing. Internally it has seen use as a immune booster and to treat heart complaints. Presently its internal use seems to be limited to treating shock, pain, and injury.

64. Dusty Maiden

What I Knew - A bushy plant clearly adapted to its dry habitat, Dusty Maiden is a distinctive wildflower. It grows in small bushes and has odd, almost stinted, leaves. The flowers are pinkish-white and are more like long tubes than an open spreading flower. I have found this plant growing in numerous drier locations around the resort although I snaped this photo in the Centennial sand dunes.

What I Learned - The plant does well over a variety of elevations (1400 to 11000) and seems to prefer drier soils and rocky areas. It covers most of the western United States and British Columbia spreading as far east as the Dakotas. Unlike many wildflowers it can be cultivated.

65. Cushion Buckwheat

What I Knew - Although not as common as its cousin, Sulphur Buckwheat, Cushion Buckwheat can be seen quite readily around Elk Lake. Like its cousin, it is a fairly low growing plant rising from a leafy mat. However, unlike Sulphur Buckwheat, Cushion Buckwheat boasts no leaves on its stem.

What I Learned - It grows 6 to 12 inches tall. The leaves are egg-shaped and the leaf mats may reach 12 to 16 inches wide. Found in North America from California to Alberta, its flowers occur in several different colors (although yellow is all I’ve seen around here). There are several species - some unique to one particular area - and at least two are listed as endangered species.

66. Meadow Asters

What I Knew - This pretty purple flower is widely scattered around Elk Lake. Not as common as Fleabane (another purple daisy-like flower), I found this plant particular plant in the Centennial sand dunes. Pretty purple petals surround a bright yellow center. The flower grows on a stem ranging from 4 to 20 inches long.

What I Learned -In Montana, one may also find Meadow Asters in white or yellow. I’ve seen the white variety covering fields on the Idaho side of the mountain. Over here I have only seen the yellow and purple varieties - and never in such almost invasive profusion.

While this plant can be found throughout Montana, it is more profuse in the western regions. Further abroad it can be found from British Columbia to California but only seems to range east into Idaho, Utah, and Montana. This plant is a member of the sunflower family and thus closely related to the daisy. This family is made up of more than 20,000 different flowers.

67. Wartberry Fairybell

What I Knew -I think you'll agree. This is an unusually pretty flower. Its drooping nature makes it hard to photograph and easy to overlook. However, its distinctive twin leaves with flower head between makes it easy to spot - and identify once you know what it is! In fact, I have to thank one blog reader (Allen), for helping me identify this flower. Since my Montana wildflower book did not even have a photo of the flower, I was spinning my wheels.

What I Learned - There are apparently two different fairybells which grow in Montana. While my book says northwest, obviously this variety, at least, grows in southwest Montana. This photo was taken along the Hidden Lake trail.

The plant enjoys moist forests. It grows on a 1 to 3 foot tall stem. The flowers are a bit shy and often hide under the pair of leaves which flank the stem’s end. While my photo is of a single flower, I have seen pictures (in flower books) of supposedly this same plant with a cluster of white flowers on the end of the stem. I do not believe any of the Montana fairybells grow in clusters.

There appear to be several varieties of Fairybells which make it hard to identify this specific flower. Several different sites identify Fairybells but with different pictures on each one. Therefore I assume this plant must have different blooms in different parts of the country.

68. Pale Evening Primrose

What I Knew - This is a rare plant prefering the driest growing conditions. This particular plant was growing in the Centennial sand dunes. The species growing in the sand dunes is supposed to be on the endangered species list.

What I Learned - Varieties of Evening Primrose grow in British Columbia and most of the western states except California. The only place this plant is found in Montana is in the Centennial sand dunes.

The plants flower through July and into early August. The flowers are white with a distinct yellow center. The leaves are thin and short - looking more like green thorns than leaves. The plant is a perennial.

69. Painted Milk Vetch

What I Knew - This plant is rare and found only in a few places. I found these plants growing in the Centennial sand dunes. A very unique plant, if it were not for the lack of flora in the sand dunes, it might be next to impossible to spot. Its leaves look more like stems with no real ‘leaf’ shape. It is a low growing plant which is completely unassuming and unremarkable. The seed pod, however, is amazing.

What I Learned - Only found in the upper Snake River highlands of eastern Idaho and the Centennial sand dunes of Montana, this plant is considered rare although, apparently, not endangered. It flowers from late June into July.

It prefers old sand dunes at a limited elevation range of 6600 - 6700. It tends to be limited to moderately steep south and south-west facing slopes. It is a perennial.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I uncovered was on a medicinal herb page. Here I read the plant was dug after a rain and the root was eaten raw as a sweet. Other than its pleasant taste, however, the plant appears to have no medicinal value.

70. Silverleaf Phacelia

What I Knew - This is not an unusual plant. I have found it growing in many areas around Elk Lake. It seems to prefer drier, rocky soil. The flowers are its most prominent and beautiful feature. They grow in clusters on the top of the stem. The colors are vivid and their long stamen appear to have tiny yellow ‘balls’ on their ends.

What I Learned - There are about 200 species of this perennial herb all native to North and South America. There are several species which grow in Montana. One relative which we have already covered is the Ballhead Waterleaf. Most appear to have the distinct stamens and to grow in clusters. Also most appear to be purple.

The plant does not appear to have any medicinal uses. It grows stems from 6 - 15 inches long but some can reach up to 3 feet. The leaves are lance-shaped and covered with silky white flat hairs. The flowers are dull lavender and can even appear white. There are five hairy stamens in each flower.

And so we have reached the 70th plant in our goal of 100. It has been a colorful trip - one I hope you are enjoying. While it may be a few posts before we revisit this topic, I do hope to get us to 100 before the summer season rolls around. Then, as you hike out and about near our Montana Vacation Lodge, maybe you will enjoy the lovely color splashes all the more because of your increased awareness of these Montana natives.

Lady of the Lake