Monday, September 30, 2013

A trip in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

A blog by Sarah Capdeville

This weekend’s trip brought us to the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, an area of around 160,000 acres west of Anaconda, Montana. We came in through Fishtrap Creek on the southeast side of the wilderness and completed a near-loop for a three-day, two-night backpacking trip.

The focus of the trip was wilderness character monitoring; the Wilderness and Civ group would be completing monitoring on the final stretch of trail in the wilderness. This monitoring included using a GPS unit to mark data points that reflected noise (such as airplanes flying overhead), weeds, stream erosion, trail signs, and campsites. By comparing previous years’ data with the data we collected, wilderness managers can document use over time and produce concrete figures for the character of the wilderness.

We also had some fantastic experiences in the unique landscape of the AP. We camped in a beautiful subalpine larch forest where an icy cold stream wove through mossy clearings and over jagged rocks. The larch population is in fact the most southeastern population in Montana, and this time of year the trees were just turning a fantastic pale yellow. Winter had beaten us to the higher elevation; small clumps of snow rested in logs and in rock crevices. Thick whitebark pine also populated the area, looking surprisingly healthy despite the depressing evidence of their decline due to climate change.

On the second day, we split up and explored above the tree line, scrambling up the red talus slopes first to the Lost Lakes and then to East and/or West Goat Peaks, leaning against the biting autumn wind pushing over the ridge-top. West Goat Peak, standing at 10,793 ft, is the tallest in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, but wasn’t to difficult of a climb. It gave us spectacular views of the surrounding wilderness and Western Montana, including the Bitterroots and other ranges.

Another part of our wilderness character monitoring included wildlife, especially the iconic pika. Its characteristic “meeep!” calls sounded down from the rocky slopes, and on our last morning we spent some time sitting at the base of the talus slopes watching for the scurrying brown shapes. Pikas are adapted to cold, high-altitude habitats where they have access to both concealing rocks and forage. In order to survive the winter, pikas stockpile “hay-piles,” or mounds of forbs and grasses they forage below. The pika, like the whitebark pine, is greatly threatened by climate change. It can’t tolerate temperatures above 80 degrees F, and with temperatures rising, the pika has nowhere to go. We saw and heard a fair number of pikas, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them pose on rocks and call sharply into the clear air.

The trip showed us some beautiful country as well as making us aware of wilderness character. We took more notice of airplanes flying overhead and the impact of campsites. There is so much to take in when you’re in a wilderness area, especially when it comes to the character of the place. With quantitative data collecting, we were able to pinpoint aspects of wilderness that affected our overall experience, and that of future users. Still, the drone of a plane couldn’t damper our spirits too long with the squeak of a pika echoing on the talus slope above.

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