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Life in Missoula, Montana.

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The Great Outdoors

Posts about wild lands, wildlife, and other outdoor pursuits. Hiking, biking, camping, and any other flimsy excuse people can come up with to be out in the woods are featured.

Capitol Reef National Park is a great place to connect to the elements of earth and stone. Here you'll find vast monoliths, huge rock formations, and towering cliffs in tones of brown, tan, orange, pink, red, white, and every color in between. As the daylight, weather, and cloud cover changes throughout the day, the colors change like a massive kaleidoscope.IMG 0599


The best way to experience the power and scale of the earth element here is by hiking. When you hike, you experience the rock up close and really feel the power of stone all around you. You hike through, over and between the rock, and the trails often take you along slickrock shelves and ramps. You may start in a low canyon with brown and red walls looming high above you and end up climbing up among white layers of navajo sandstone.


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I won't go into a lot of technical detail about the geology here. Whole books have been written on the subject and most leave me more confused than before I read them. Two things you need to know about Capitol Reef, though. One is that there are more layers of rock exposed here than almost anywhere in the Southwest (except the Grand Canyon). The other is that the elevation in Capitol Reef ranges from near 9,000 feet in the northwest corner to around 4,000 feet in the south. All this means that you can see lots of layers of rocks, each layer representing a different time in rock history. Rock dominates here and the variety is phenomenal. Above is a photo of the white knobs (domes) of Navajo Sandstone with black volcanic rocks in the foreground.

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The layers of rock represent 200 million years of clay, sand, gravel, volcanic ash, evaporated salts, and aquatic fossils that have been deposited here over time. It's easy to feel a connection with the past here among the ancient elements of earth.

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The Golden Throne (above).

You'll find monuments here, monuments of rock. Also spires, domes, thrones, natural bridges, and arches. When you gaze on the steep canyon walls, it's difficult not to see faces, animals, and spirits.

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When you are among these stone walls and formations, it is easy to feel the power of these places. There is a feeling of solidity, strength, and age-old patience in the rock formations here, and its easy to get a feeling of awe when surrounded by the high canyon walls.

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Cathedral Rock on the far right (above)

While the earth element is strong here, there are plenty of vistas with great views of the wide open skies to balance things out. The heat of the desert is balanced out by the green, lush growth around the visitors center, where giant old cottonwoods and a variety of fruit trees grow.

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In the last year, I’ve climbed ten different mountains. I’ve learned some things about myself and a lot about mountains. I’ve found that most mountains don’t let you just stroll to the top. No, you have to earn the top and most peaks make you work for it. They do this in a number of ways. They hit you with snow, wind, rain, and sleet. Trails are choked with deadfall. They offer you terrain so steep that muscles burn and you struggle for air. You sweat, you strain. One step, then another. How about some self-doubt? Are you a quitter? The mountain wants to know. 

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A mountain can turn you around, confuse you. If it doesn’t want you on its flanks, it can shrug you off like a dog with a tick. Sometimes you have to bushwhack through dense forest that slams your shins and grabs at your clothes. If you get overconfident, think you’re prepared and fit and raring to go, some mountains throw in additional obstacles. Snow so deep that the trail disappears. Trail signs that underestimate distances. Scree fields. False summits. A mountain makes you work, to struggle. It decides if you’re worthy.


Even for those who persevere, the summit can be a triumph or it can be the mountain’s final lesson. Fog, snow, or low clouds can rob you of your scenic payoff. Beautiful summit view denied. The mountain has decided that if you want that nice bonus, you’ll have to go through it all again. That’s right, you’ll have to work for it, and the mountain has decided you’re only half done. I believe that mountains want respect. They punish those who aren’t prepared, people who don’t bother to bring the right gear, or the right attitude. Some are fairly forgiving, while others really make you pay. And pay. 


You don’t conquer a mountain. Instead a mountain decides whether or not it allows you to get to the top. It decides how many obstacles to put in your way.


Most of the mountains I’ve climbed are relatively small, 7,000 to 10,000 feet. Not the high Andes or the Himalayas by any means. The consequences are not as severe, though the lessons are the same. A mountain can make you struggle, or a mountain can kill you. Bring the right attitude and be prepared and maybe, just maybe, it will let you see the top.

Josephine Pk0001

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Everything you need to know about getting the ideal tomahawk.


One of the earliest tools that humans ever made was the small, stone-headed axe. As humans evolved, axes were found to be great tools and powerful weapons. When the iron age came around, it was natural that people would make axes with metal heads and sturdy wooden handles. These were great farm tools, wood choppers, and weapons. For example, many vikings used axes as their primary weapon in war. This was because a good sword could cost more than the rest of their possessions combined. The axe, on the other hand, was a tool they used on their farms on a daily basis. They could sharpen up their axe, tuck it in their belt, and be ready to fight. In fact, the small axe was popular as a weapon in many parts of Europe for this reason.


In the 1600s and 1700s, elite British grenadier units were issued hatchets in addition to their regular weapons. The hatchets were useful for everything from breaking in enemy doors to chopping wood in camp. Presumably, they were also good in a fight, so they had many uses. Veterans of the wars in Europe emigrated to America and took their fighting tools and styles with them, including the axe/hatchet. In The New World, newly arrived Europeans found nNtive Americans that used clubs and stone axes (tamahakan, or tomahawks) for war. America's frontiersmen used axes for cutting wood, clearing brush, and for self-defense. Each group had different fighting styles, but all agreed that axes were useful as tools and as weapons. Being useful for both made it something well worth carrying.

In modern times, tomahawks have been used by U.S. soldiers in several wars including Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, the tomahawk is useful because it is both a useful tool and a deadly weapon, a trait that is all important to a soldier where carried weight is critical. Why carry a weapon and a tool if a tomahwak can do both? U.S. soldiers have found tomahawks useful for prying open crates, breaking into buildings, chopping up pallets, and more.

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Here in Montana, we have a lot of wild creatures. More than one person has had close calls with Moose this year. We have deer, elk, coyotes. I even saw a lone red fox the other day on one of my hikes, but the one animal everyone wants to know about is bears. Everyone who comes out to visit our great state asks about bears. What precautions should we take? How dangerous are they? If we're going camping, should we get a gun? So many questions.


I've dealt with a lot of bears in my life. I've seen them when I was biking, and when I've been hiking. I've had bears visit my campsite in the middle of the night. I've seen Grizzlies in Glacier NP, and in Yellowstone. I've seen the rare white Spirit Bears in B.C., and the big brown bears in Alaska. I've been in bear dens, and I worked on a grizzly bear DNA study. The end result of all this is that a lot of people ask me what to do about bears.

blackbearblack bear6338141481 ff6b922312_mGrizzly (notice the shoulder hump!)

Talk Amongst Yourselves

What do people need to know if they're visiting bear country? Well first you should know a little about bear behavior. Bears aren't malicious beasts just waiting to attack people. In fact, if a bear knows that you're coming, and that you're a human, they often just leave of the area. Usually bears don't want to deal with annoying people. If a mother bear has cubs, all the more reason for them to flee to the safety of the forest. So, the first rule in bear country is to let bears know you're coming. Make noise, and not just any noise, but sounds that identify you as human. That means talking loudly, especially if you're in dense brush where visibility is limited. You'll see people wearing bear bells, or whistling to signal their approach, but the bear biologists I have traveled with don't recommend that. After all, other animals whistle, and bells are just confusing. You want to announce, very clearly, that you are a human, and talking (or even singing) is the clearest way to do that. Talk or sing if you're coming around a blind corner or if you're in heavy brush, or anyplace else where you and a bear could get too close. A surprised bear is a dangerous bear, so make sure they know you're coming.

Don't Run

I realize you can't talk all the time (your hiking companions would kill you), so there's still a chance you could startle a bear. If you find yourself too close to a bear, don't run. Bears are predators. When things run, they are prey. Predators chase prey, that's what they do. Don't run and it won't set off a bear's instinct to chase. Besides, a bear can run faster than you, so it won't do you any good anyway. Also, don't make eye contact, especially with a grizzly. They take it as a challenge to their authority, and you don't want to do that. instead, talk calmly and quietly so the bear knows what he's dealing with. Give a bear every opportunity to get away. I've come across several bears in the wild, including a few mothers with cubs, and I've always had success talking quietly and giving them plenty of space. When they start moving away, take a few slow steps the other direction. Distance is your best friend here, but move slowly. No sudden movements. I came across a mother black bear with a cub last year. I stopped, stayed calm, and talked quietly. The mother maneuvered herself between me and the cub. i took a tentative step back while I talked. She seemed okay with it, since she really only wanted me away from the little one. I took another step. All good, but we were on a curving trail. When I took one more step, the trees that defined the inside of the curve were suddenly between us. To the mother bear, I had disappeared, and suddenly not knowing where I was was a problem. She ran two steps toward me, until she could see me again, then she stopped. She wasn't coming after me, but with a cub nearby she needed to know where I was. If I had run, things could have gone bad.

salmon bear

Keep Your Distance

So my best advice in dealing bears is to avoid getting too close. Watch the area around you. Keep your eyes up, and your head in the present. Look as far ahead as you can while hiking. Look for bears, and if you see one, don't approach it. A human might have a zone of personal space that extends about three feet in every direction. A grizzly might feel have feel that its personal space extends fifty yards, or a hundred. Maybe you see one seventy five yards away and decided to get just a little closer for a photo. Ooops! The bear's comfort zone was seventy four yards, and you just crossed the line. Now a huge bear feels threatened and it's blaming you. You might see a bear and think it wouldn't hurt to get a little bit closer. After a few steps you see a little cub pop up out of the undergrowth. Trouble. Keep your distance and stay out of trouble.

If you're going to a national park, a state forest, or a national forest, the staff there will know where, specifically, there have been bear sightings. They'll have rules for how to deal with food and garbage, and pamphlets about how to act in bear country. Bears in different places have learned different behavior, so local info. is the best info. Talk to the rangers and get all the information you can before setting out.


Bear Spray


Lastly, when people ask 'should I get a gun? or something similar I have some strong advice for them. No, no, and no. Don't think you should go out and get a gun if you're traveling in bear country. First off, You should only bring a gun if you are an experienced gun user who has a solid grasp of gun safety and handling. Otherwise you're just compounding your dangers. Second, if you are not an experienced shooter you won't have much success against a huge, aggressive bear. You'll be full of fear, nerves, and adrenaline. You'll have a lot of trouble handling a weapon safely, let alone getting off a shot good enough to stop a bear. Bears are much, much faster than you think. An angry one could be on you before you even think to aim. Last but not least, you could panic and shoot a bear that is really not a threat. You don't want to be responsible for the death of one of these great creatures because you overreacted and happened to be carrying the means to kill it. Instead, bring bear spray. It's a non-lethal deterrent that can send a bear running without having a nasty close encounter.

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Spring is here in Missoula and we can see summer on the horizon.

One of the national outdoor magazines once named Missoula one of the top places to live in the U.S. and their main reason was because of our perfect summers. Word got around locally and we all had a good laugh. Perfect? First of all, winter leaks into spring here, and sometimes into summer. A typical spring day here often includes sunshine, rain, hail, snow and graupel. Yeah, that's all in one day. Night time temperatures sometimes drop below freezing well past the middle of May. We've had snowstorms in June that broke tree branches and downed power lines. Winter, or the memory of it, lingers late here. The high mountain passes and trails nearby often are blocked by snow until July. Our summers may be great, but they often start pretty late. 

elkfireWhen summer does arrive, the great weather is often short lived. You see, we have five seasons here, not four: fall, winter, spring, summer, and fire season. Once the snow melts, the hills dry out pretty fast here. Fire season can start any time after that. Most people in Missoula enjoy some kind of outdoor recreation. In fact, that's why a lot of us live in a state with low pay and few jobs, but everyone knows that when summer hits, you'd better enjoy it before the state bursts into flames. Usually July is pretty dependable, but August is generally fire season. Whether fires are in Western Montana or over the border in Idaho, smoke travels east and settles in the Missoula Valley. visibility can be low, and the air smells like a camp fire. We have Stage One air alerts where older people and those with respiratory problems are encouraged to stay inside. Visibility is limited in the valley and the mountains around us disappear in the smoke. We see things through a gray screen, and little flecks of ash collect on the cars. The bad air gets trapped in the valley and the situation can drag on for weeks, or longer. As fires spread in nearby forests, manpower and resources are stretched to the limits. Daytime temperatures approach one hundred degrees and we can go weeks without a drop of rain. Forests get hotter and drier, and fire danger gets to dangerous levels. Many trails and campsites are closed for fear of fires, and we've had summers where all recreation in nearby forests has been banned. Our perfect summer turns into a smoky nightmare as we wait for the snow and cold fall rains to dampen the fires and push the bad air out of the valley. When it finally happens, fire season is over, but so is summer.

So, maybe we have perfect summers. A lot of us enjoy it and wouldn't trade it for anything. In fact, a lot of people in Missoula say that Summer is their very favorite month.

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