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In Search of Spring
March 10th - 14th, 2006
by Thomas J. Elpel, Jeff Blend and Phil Hacker

Group bundled up for early spring camping.

Day One: Thomas J. Elpel
     Winter in Montana is not especially cold, nor excessively snowy, although it can sometimes seem to last forever. We had plenty of snowfall in the mountains this year, and it was dry as usual in the valleys. It snowed a few inches in town one time back in November, but that was pretty much it. Sometimes we can go an entire winter without putting on our snow boots. In terms of temperature, there are cold spells, but it is often sunny and 30 F or 40 F in winter, which can be entirely pleasant--at least if the wind isn't blowing. So winter really isn't that bad here, but I guess I have a spring and summer personality. I'm totally ready for the warmer weather by the time March rolls around--itching to get out for a walkabout to stretch my legs and to search for signs of spring. It is only with utter disbelief that I have to continually remind myself that March is still winter, and the trees won't be leafed out until the middle of May!

     For our latest adventure, we decided to drive to southeastern Montana, where the elevation is a few thousand feet lower, in the hopes that it might be a bit warmer and drier than in the hills and mountains around home. We decided to walk from the Powder River to the Tongue River across Custer National Forest. Jeff invited his cousin Travis, and I invited our Green University interns, Phil, Kris, and Merian. Travis provided the king cab pickup truck to get us there.

Thomas Elpel hiking in Custer National Forest.      Jeff had been in the area a bit, studying coalbed methane gas development issues for the state, and he met a rancher, Art, who offered to drop us off and shuttle our vehicle back to his place near Birney. Art's family has been ranching in this area for several generations and he currently runs about 500 head of cattle. He and other farmers and ranchers have been fighting to protect the water from coalbed methane pollution, especially the salty water that is often pumped out of the wells and dumped into the rivers. They want the industry to develop the gas correctly, without polluting the land and water.

     The Powder and Tongue Rivers originate in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains to the south and flow in a northeasterly direction into Montana, eventually draining into the Yellowstone River. The rancher, Art, drove the truck, with all of us packed in it, about fifty miles through Custer National Forest to the Powder River near its confluence with Bloom Creek. At our drop-off point, we were about 15 miles north of the Wyoming border. We all got out, put on our packs, and started walking west back towards Art's house. Art drove away with Travis's car back to his house. We joked that he would keep the truck if we did not make it back.

     We began our journey not at the beginning of the day, but rather, just as the sun was about to set. The moon was almost full at that point, so night walking, even with clouds, was possible and pleasant. We climbed over some clay hills where pine, juniper, and yucca dominated the landscape, and we collected some dead yucca stalks to make handdrill and bowdrill kits for fire-starting. We then continued walking parallel to the road we drove in on. Several hours later we found a ravine out of the wind, and decided to build a fire to keep warm through the night.

Hike between Powder and Tongue rivers.       After helping to get some firewood, I climbed a nearby tree to stay out of the way while the guys started a bowdrill fire. They got several coals going, but as it turned out, their tinder was too damp. I helped out after I became concerned that the group might be getting excessively chilled. With a new tinder bundle and a fresh coal, I blew very, very gently at first to dry out the tinder, something I've never tried before, then finally blew the coal into flame.

      Each of us had just a single wool blanket and a poncho to sleep in, which is definitely skimpy for winter camping, so keeping warm can be a real challenge. The one exception to our gear is that I've been field testing a Land/Shark Survival Bag, so I brought that instead of a poncho. That wasn't exactly fair on my part, since the bag is nicely sealed along the sides to keep the cold air out, plus it has a reflective layer to help trap body heat in the bag. My initial tests last summer seemed promising, so I decided to give it a more rigorous workout on this trip. It definitely helped keep me warmer, although, as I would discover, it did have some drawbacks as well.

      Reflective bags or space blankets are really good at bouncing heat back to you, instead of letting it radiate out into space. Unfortunately, they do nothing to stop heat loss due to conduction, so if your body is in contact with the bag then it is like having a single sheet of plastic between you and winter. The bag would work best if it were possible to be suspended in mid air inside the bag, with the bag making an air pocket all the way around you, but that is somewhat challenging to achieve. So, I let everyone else sleep by the fire, while I slept on the dry needles under a nearby tree with the Land/Shark Survival Bag and my wool blanket. I didn't last long there, although it was mostly just my feet that got cold. I had wool socks on, but it wasn't enough. By this time, all the spaces were taken around the fire, except for one skinny spot where I could at least lie down and point my feet toward the flames. I slept there for the rest of the night. But ironically, the reflective coating on the Land/Shark survival bag bounced the heat away from my feet, so I still wasn't able to get warm. I eventually melted a hole in the bottom of my bag trying to get closer to the heat. I wasn't the only one to get too close to the fire. Kris burned big holes in three of his four socks. Merian and Jeff both burned holes in their blankets, and Jeff also had holes in his socks. There are definitely hazards in trying to snuggle up to a campfire in your sleep!

      One of the advantageous of a rough first night is that it almost guarantees that you will sleep better the rest of the trip, no matter how cold or uncomfortable the sleeping arrangements. It is a great way to "break in" to the camping mode. I think I got more sleep than just about anybody else, with the exception of Jeff who slept soundly through that first night. Phil finally gave up trying to sleep, and instead opted to just sit up and keep the fire going all night. Coming from Los Angeles, I think the cold was more of a shock for him than for anyone else.

Jeff Blend on early spring camping trip. Day Two: Jeff Blend
      We cooked barley cereal for breakfast, cleaned up the camp, and headed out to continue walking. We walked a long ways on this second day, and I got to know the guys a bit more, as did Tom. Kris is the son of a retired air force veteran who saw action during the first Gulf War. Kris has been using his own head (versus just mimicking society around him) since he was a young kid. Since about the age of eight, Kris has taken the initiative to recycle at home and practice wilderness skills. He has never been caught up in pop culture, and has been thinking and acting on his own since a young kid. Phil is from Los Angeles and is interested in things like permaculture and green businesses. Merian is from Vermont and finding his way and is interested in positive change in this world. It was nice talking with all three.

Yellow flower in early spring.       We walked, enjoying the morning sun, which helped to warm us and dry our clothes. At one rest spot we found the first spring greens, young mustards about an inch tall, and grazed and napped. At another stop, Tom found the first blooming buttercups and saw a bluebird, truly among the first signs of spring. But few other migratory birds have arrived from the south, so the landscape was extremely quiet.

     Travis found a huge elk antler with seven points, a thing of beauty that weighed between 10 and 15 pounds. He decided to carry it the rest of the way, despite its weight. We looked around briefly for the other antler, which may have been dropped nearby, but nobody really wanted to find it, since we were still forty-some miles from the truck.

Travis with huge elk antler.      Travis has done a lot of hunting in Montana. He grew up mostly overseas in Indonesia and the Middle East, but would always come back to Montana in the summers, where his parents were raised. He came back to attend the University of Montana in Missoula and completely fell in love with the outdoors, becoming an expert on the flora and fauna of the Northern Rocky Mountains. I thought this trip would be great for him, and he was interested in honing his primitive skills.

     We were continuing to gain elevation on our hike as we climbed farther into the hills between the two rivers. At the top of the drainage we crested to an open vista with a great view to the east and south. We had walked about fifteen miles since being dropped off, and could look back to the Powder River where we came from. We used our map to plot a course for the remainder of the day, and headed south towards Indian Creek. Much to our surprise, most of the valley drainages in Custer National Forest are privately owned ranching operations. Art, who had driven us to the Powder River at the beginning of the trip, said that his grandfather helped to establish this portion of the Custer National Forest between the two rivers. Clearly, the homesteads were grandfathered in when the forest was established, and remain in private hands rather than as public lands. We had to walk across several ranches before we finally found a campsite on Forest lands.

      Upon cresting a hill late in the afternoon, we saw a peculiar straight line of rocks that almost looked manmade, and when we walked down below the rocks we saw that they jutted out, forming an overhang overlooking a small ravine. Exhausted from our long walk that day, we decided to make three coal beds under these rocks, with two of us to a bed. This would hopefully keep us warm and dry for the night. We each dug a trench in the relatively dry and sandy soil under the rocks. Dry soil is hard to come by in the spring, so we felt fortunate to find some. Each trench was about five feet long, one foot wide, and about six inches deep. The excavated soil was piled to one side. I started a flint and steel fire in the pit that Travis and I dug and built the fire. Soon, the fire was as long as our trench, and the others used our fire to light fires in their pits. There was plenty of old wood in the area for the amount of fire we needed.

Digging coal bed for warm sleeping.      In a coal bed, the fire has to burn for about two hours, uniformly over the entire length of the trench to heat up and dry the surrounding dirt. After two or more hours have gone by, one waits for the flames to die down, then spreads the remaining coals evenly over the bottom of the pit. Then the original soil is spread back over the coals, forming a smooth dirt surface, much like the original grade. A poncho or plastic garbage bag is placed on the coal bed for a vapor barrier, and the bedroll is placed on top of that. Within minutes, one can feel the heat rise up through the soil. Built correctly, and covered with a heat barrier and human, the beds will stay warm all night and into the next morning. It is great to sleep on the warm ground in this way. We also cut some large yucca leaves and buried them about an inch down into the dirt to steam them overnight while we slept. In the morning, the steamed leaves could be used to make yucca cordage.

     One of the biggest chores on this trip was to melt snow for drinking and cooking water. We never did encounter any running water. We could eat snow when we were warm from hiking, but it consumes too much body energy to melt it when sitting around or already chilled. So we spent hours melting pots full of snow to drink tea, to fill our water bottles, and to cook. Drying our socks and shoes by the fire was also a never-ending task. We went to bed after a dinner of rice and lentils on top of our cozy coal beds.

Early spring snow on camping trip. Day Three: Jeff Blend
     I was perhaps the only one that did not sleep well due to being cold. The heat coming up from the ground was great and lasted all night as a coal bed should, but wrapping my blanket around myself was a mistake. As dawn began to break, Travis and I combined both of our blankets and laid both of them over us, and then I was warm enough to sleep. Everyone else was cramped in their beds but mostly slept well. The guys were so squished together that Kris was barely touching the ground.

     Our coal beds were still steaming when we got up. We made some yucca cordage and had a huge pot of instant mashed potatoes and gravy for breakfast. Then, we cleaned up camp. It was chilly and started to snow lightly. It was just a little too cold to sit around camp any longer, so we packed up and started walking. We walked most of the day down Indian Creek in a westerly direction, through lots of ranches, cows and barbed wire fences, though mostly on public roads. We kept walking and the wind and snow started to pick up, with visibility lowering. At times we were just barely warm while walking at a good clip. Merian and I talked about music and other topics to keep ourselves occupied. We marveled at all of the good music and art out in the world today, and our access to it via the internet and other technologies. We also talked a bit about dark and negative so much of the music and art is, and tried to think of ways to keep ourselves positive in everyday life. Everyone picked Travis's brain for his extensive knowledge on the animals that inhabit Montana. Tom found himself thinking, as snow and wind froze his beard, that maybe this time next year he would search for signs of spring a few hundred miles farther south.

Resting culvert out of wet winter weather.      After five or so hours of walking, and an encounter with a friendly rancher, we rested and snacked in an old section of culvert that gave us shelter from the wind and snow. We moved on, trying to get to an area on the map called Camp Creek. It appeared that most of Camp Creek was Forest Service land, plus the topographic map indicated that it was rugged terrain-which might offer some good shelter opportunities. We finally arrived at nearby Otter Creek, which we had to cross to get to the Camp Creek drainage. Otter Creek was frozen over, but the ice was not very thick. Tom found a spot downstream and slid across on his stomach to more evenly distribute weight on the ice. It was probably strong enough to walk on, but we weren't taking any chances. Getting soaked in winter weather can be deadly, unless a fire is quickly built. We all followed on our bellies, and reached the Otter Creek Road, the halfway point in our journey.

Backpack frame of sticks.      Inside the Camp Creek drainage, Merian explored a boulder field on one side, looking for a good shelter. We were damp, cold, tired, and the daylight was fading. Thankfully, he found a nice place where two huge boulders came together to form a kind of cave with openings at both end. Using our remaining daylight, we put ponchos on one end of the shelter to make a wall, then built a fire at the other end and collected a bunch of firewood for the night. I started a bowdrill fire, but was choking on smoke from the semi-damp grass tinder bundle, so someone else took over blowing the tinder bundle into flame. It started snowing harder.

     The floor of the cave was oddly shaped, too small for six people, and covered with cactus spines, probably hauled in by pack rats. Tom and Travis got the good spots first where there was flat ground near the sealed off entrance, and they quickly fell asleep with the aid of hot rocks in their blankets (they were furthest from the fire). Kris, Phil, Merian and myself struggled to get comfortable around the fire to sleep. None of us were very successful, and I tried for three hours to find something that would work for sleeping. The idea was to trade off with Tom and Travis so that they would sit by the fire at some point, and the rest of us could sleep. I tried to sleep up in a little nook about a foot high in the side of this space, but got too cold from the rocks. I was also coughing from the smoke.

Warming up under boulders.      The others around the fire were not doing much better. We were too cold, and the feet are always the hardest thing to keep warm at night. At one point, my body was contorted in several directions, with Phil's head against my armpit. At another point, I tried to fall asleep with my head outside the cave resting on the pile of firewood, getting snowed upon, with my feet near the fire. I suddenly let a huge fart rip, and did not realize that Kris's head was right near my butt. Despite our discomfort, we all laughed hysterically at this event. We also marveled at the erosion patterns on the huge boulders sheltering us. The patterns and firelight seemed to make this place very sacred-I imagined us as a bunch of Aboriginals in Australia, except that the weather was freezing and snow was falling. No doubt, nature has a lot of power that we miss out on in our climate-controlled buildings. The clouds finally lifted sometime before midnight, which put an end to the snowfall, but also ensured a colder night than if the clouds had stayed. I finally crawled back up into the nook with some hot rocks and fell asleep. Later, I traded places with Tom, used his blanket and Land/Shark, and closed my eyes.

Sun comes out after snow. Day Four: Jeff Blend
     I did not think I could get comfortable in the rock shelter, but it was morning when I awoke. The snow had stopped and the sun was out. None of us had slept very well, and we took a long time to get ready to go. Tom filled his water bottle with snowmelt dripping off a rock, while the rest of us boiled snow for water. About mid-day we started hiking, and continued west up Camp Creek over some difficult terrain. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the snow was melting rapidly.

     Along the way, we looked for little animals to hunt. Phil did some whittling, and cut himself badly. He wrapped his bandana over the wound. I think the wound may have drained some of his energy later in the trip. We kept moving and eventually emerged from the drainage on some flat-topped hills. At one point, we saw a three-foot circle of crumbled coal just sitting on the surface of a hill amid the grass. This is coal country-one of the largest deposits in the U.S., but I did not expect to see the coal at the surface!! Some of us joked about using the coal for fuel to warm us for the night. We eventually found a two-track dirt road and followed it towards another open, treeless plain that rose above the valleys and creeks. At one point, we saw wild turkey tracks, and also some tracks that looked like they might belong to a big cat. The sun was nearly setting and we were still looking for a place to camp for the night.

     Before reaching the treeless plain, where we would not be able to camp at all, we veered off into the trees and found a fifteen-foot deep gully that drained water off during storms. Tom came up with the idea of building two lean-to's facing each other with a central campfire. Three people could sleep on either side. Sounding like a good place for the night, we dragged two cross-poles (downed trees) to wedge between both sides of the steep gully. We then leaned a bunch of five-foot branches on one of the poles, filled in the gaps, and then dumped pine needles on top of the branches to seal it up. On the other cross-pole, we draped ponchos to create an airtight barrier to trap heat. These two walls (branches and ponchos) were designed to hold in the radiant head from the central camp fire. The fire would go all night, and hopefully we would all be warm. Kris and Tom took a while to light the fire, but finally got one started with a bowdrill. We settled in for a warm night of sleep.

Two lean-to ponchos for camping near fire. Day Five: Phil Hacker
     We did not stay as warm as we had hoped, and most of us were up at least half the night. We sat up to keep warm by the fire, and we were happy when daylight finally broke. We took our time getting ready, and we ate a lot of food-barley for breakfast, and some hot cocoa-which tasted delicious. Travis went for an early morning walk and saw six coyotes. Finally, we headed west over the treeless plain. Art's house, and Travis' car, were still about fifteen miles away. We hiked up on a butte, which provided a seemingly endless view across the rolling hills and prairie, all the way to the towering Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. From there we walked down Hanging Woman creek back to the truck.

     For me, coming to Montana from Los Angeles made the trip challenging. The cold was definitely an issue, but that's not what struck me the most. When I say struck, I don't mean like getting hit in the head with a hammer, more like tripping over a treasure. You might stub your toe and scrape your knee, but the benefit far outweighs the pain. The treasure for me was silence. If I had to attach a personal theme or title to the trip, it would be something like "Quiet Reflection", "The Pain of Silence", or "Big Pain, Little Noise".

     In Los Angeles there is rarely silence. There is less noise at night, but you can still hear your neighbor's stereo, cars honking, tires screeching, and dogs barking. Even when you cannot make out specific sounds, it is still loud. There is a background hum that never goes away. There is constant noise to distract you, and it is not just auditory noise either. There are lights from cars, billboards, and streetlights, all contributing to the visual volume. Cover your eyes and your sense of smell is bombarded by loud smells. Plug your nose and you notice the air settling on your skin. In L.A. you are taxed with constant sensation without rest. You come to terms with it on an unconscious level, and the constant stimulus becomes comforting. I would not have arrived at this realization without experiencing just the opposite on our walkabout.

     The first night I didn't sleep. I was cold, extremely cold, but enjoyed putting wood on the fire. Fire becomes a point of interest when you have little else to focus on. It seemed like living warmth. The next day and every day after that, we hiked.

Sunrise beyond long needle pine tree.      Sometimes the land was flat. Sometimes we contoured along the hills. But no matter where we walked, we were quiet. We usually walked in a line with varying distances between us, which made it difficult to talk even if we wanted to. I soon realized that we had been walking for hours without a word spoken between us. There were six of us, and no one talked. There was talk and noise when we picked a campsite and made camp, but once we were settled in, it was again mostly quiet.

     The march of silence continued through to each following day, and I began to reflect. The quiet, once it struck me, was a good point of focus. Conversation was obviously not desired, so I focused on something new, the silence. I also realized that nature was silent. At this time of year there were no birds, no animals, no noise. There were no ads, no lights, no cars, and no sound. Sure, there was snow, mud and rock, and our interactions with them sometimes served to break the natural silence, such as the muffled sound of footsteps in soft snow, but rarely. The mud that compressed under our feet was practically inaudible compared to the silence that flooded the prairie.

     There was wind, but it had nothing to dance with. The leaves were stuck to the ground and the trees were off in the distance, so we could feel the breeze, but it made no sound, no music.

     The landscape, although scenic in its own way, was extremely redundant. The vegetation was all the same--dry, dormant, and often flat on the ground. It was a soft landscape of dry grasses, sagebrush, and rounded hills, often with trees in the distance. There was no focal point. It was as quiet visually as it was auditorily.

Campers climb rocks for picture.      I became accustomed to the walking and rarely became fatigued, but the lack of stimulation left me at a loss. We didn't have food readily available, and hunger often set in while we walked, so I didn't even have food for a distraction. I was also bundled up in multiple layers of clothes to keep warm and dry, which further insulated my senses, making the sound of silence seem that much more overwhelming. But I was not about to shed any layers or take my hood off to expose my senses more. I was not about to trade comfort for frostbite, even if the comfort was completely monotonous. But in the immense absence of any stimulus, I finally started seeking distractions wherever I could find them.

     I managed to keep warmer by keeping my head down, which allowed my hood to shield me from the wind and snow, and ultimately led to my saving grace... footsteps. Although I could not hear them, I could see the heels of the person in front of me lifting and replanting repeatedly. I soon became fond of my new focus and it became a hypnotic rhythm.

     Engrossed and engaged in the pattern of the pair of feet marching in front of me, I was able to avoid thinking of anything at all. I didn't have to think about pace, distance, direction, or terrain. As far as I was concerned, the pair of feet in front of me provided everything I needed. I was free from all manner of physical responsibility, and my consciousness gave way to introspection. This is where I thrived. I begin by thinking about the walking and my immediate surroundings. But most of my time was spent on other issues in life besides the camping trip. Whenever we stopped or reached camp, I would ask any pertinent questions on subjects I had been contemplating throughout the day. This process was so central to my hiking experience that I learned to prefer the footsteps of specific people. I noticed that Tom and Travis had the most consistent pattern of walking, and I would seek out their heels in order to reach my desired state.

Resting after long hike.      The last day of the trip I made an exception, both out of necessity and curiosity. We walked the last nine miles or so of the trip down a muddy dirt road. Walking on the road was so repetitive that it would have been overkill to meditate on the footsteps in front of me. Besides, the weather was nice and conditions allowed for a more conscious physical participation. We walked in pairs, instead of in a line.

     I stuck up a conversation with Tom, which made the time pass very quickly, although my questions and all of his answers eventually made him start to lose his voice. Once he got some water he was back to talking again, and I was back to listening. There was so much information I got out of that last day, but I realized that it wasn't just the talking or the answers that was important, but the quiet contemplation that led to the essential questions. I never thought so much development could occur with so much silence in such a short time. It showed me that genuine quiet reflection can be an extremely powerful tool.

     We arrived at Art's house just before sunset, and were soon on the road back to Silver Star. Along the way, we stopped in Hardin and treated ourselves to a big meal at the Purple Cow diner. We were hungry enough that we picked up a plate of leftovers from another table to graze on until our own food arrived. We finally made it back to Silver Star sometime after midnight.

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