Backpacking in the Swan

By JULIA GOODHART

This past week, the Landscape & Livelihood students ventured into the Swan Mountains for a five-day backpacking trip.  We camped on the quiet shores of Sapphire Lake, and climbed around the Sapphire basin and neighboring watersheds with our field journals each day.  

Our main areas of study? The geologic history of the rocks we camped atop, the natural history of high-elevation fauna like pika and marmots, and whitebark pine ecology.

Our “before” photo! Ready for the eight mile ascent!

Our “before” photo! Ready for the eight mile ascent!

Students enjoy some of the first clear views of Holland Lake on our way up the canyon

Students enjoy some of the first clear views of Holland Lake on our way up the canyon

Enjoying the sunshine at Upper Holland Lake – six miles up!

Enjoying the sunshine at Upper Holland Lake – six miles up!

The alpine larch weren’t quite turning yet – but our yellow maples and red huckleberry let us know that fall is near!

The alpine larch weren’t quite turning yet – but our yellow maples and red huckleberry let us know that fall is near!

Sunset above Little Carmine and Carmine peaks – a beautiful welcome to Sapphire Lake

Sunset above Little Carmine and Carmine peaks – a beautiful welcome to Sapphire Lake

After settling into camp on our first evening, getting used to cooking for 14 people on two small WhisperLite stoves, class began in earnest the following morning. We began with argillite and limestone – the sedimentary rocks that form our big beautiful Swan Mountains. Difficult to fathom, these are some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet.

Argillite in the foreground and background! Red-purple argillites were formed in shallow, inland seas, while the blue argillites were formed in deeper water.

Argillite in the foreground and background! Red-purple argillites were formed in shallow, inland seas, while the blue argillites were formed in deeper water.

Andrea discussing glacial movement through the valley

Andrea discussing glacial movement through the valley

Evan admiring Upper Holland lake from above. Upper Holland is a “ tarn” – a mountain lake occupying a theater-shaped valley excavated by a glacier.

Evan admiring Upper Holland lake from above. Upper Holland is a “ tarn” – a mountain lake occupying a theater-shaped valley excavated by a glacier.

Next, we developed our understanding of topographic maps, and began learning to navigate using our maps and compasses – we were able to complete some map bearing exercises, but shooting field bearings proved difficult in the thick fog!

Using our compasses – Carmine and Little Carmine are somewhere in that fog!

Using our compasses – Carmine and Little Carmine are somewhere in that fog!

To truly test their abilities, students identified a point on the map to explore, found the appropriate compass bearing, and set off into the woods. Above, Mikie and Lydia are welcomed back with our first (and certainly not our last) snowfall!

That evening, wind speeds rose and whipped rain, snow, sleet, and hail at our beautiful but rather unsheltered campsite.  We hunkered down by the fire, choked down dinner, protected the stoves, rescued the flailing kitchen tarp, and laughed through the storm!

Fog settling in on Sapphire Lake

Fog settling in on Sapphire Lake

Four happy, chilly humans with backs to the hail and sleet – not so bad by our warm fire!

Four happy, chilly humans with backs to the hail and sleet – not so bad by our warm fire!

Others secure the kitchen tarp – Riley says, “Who needs shoes?”

Others secure the kitchen tarp – Riley says, “Who needs shoes?”

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Hard to beat this view. Little Carmine and Carmine clothed in fresh snow – all of which melted before we hiked out of Sapphire. We felt fortunate to witness this ephemeral beauty.

Searching the rocky slopes for evidence of pika and marmot

Searching the rocky slopes for evidence of pika and marmot

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The spaces between the rocks pictured above will remain dry as the snow begins to accumulate.  Pika harvest plants and store them in “hay piles” in these hidden cracks, securing enough forage to sustain themselves for the winter season. Though Pika are well camouflaged, we heard their high-pitched alarm calls and spotted a few!

Looking northeast into the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Looking northeast into the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Crossing the western boundary of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Continuing on to explore whitebark pine stands!

Crossing the western boundary of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Continuing on to explore whitebark pine stands!

It is impossible to traverse this area and fail to notice the hundreds of dead whitebark pine trees.  

Whitebark pine are suffering from a non-native fungal infection, blister rust, and from native mountain pine beetle infestation. Here, we carve away bark to reveal the galleries of the mountain pine beetle, responsible for the death of this 800-1000 year old whitebark pine tree.

Hot, dry summers and milder winters in recent years have allowed mountain pine beetle to be more successful, and more devastating, than ever before.  It is important to understand the complicated ecological relationships in this high-elevation area, and we think critically about our human role in this system.

Chilly and wet, but in good spirits and with a better understanding of our mountain forests and fauna, we left Sapphire in search of our valley-bottom home.  This time in the backcountry was a first for several students – an incredible adventure to be sure!