Up a “minimally maintained” one-lane forest road (hand saw and ax recommended) is the Howe Lake Trail. This rustic road follows the fish creek ravine, overlooking an enormous beaver lodge in a wetland teeming with birds and notably absent of moose. As the road curves, hugging the mountainside it weaves around into relatively flat land recovering from the 2018 Howe Ridge Fire. The fire burned 14,500 acres in the three months from early September through early November, the result of a lightning strike. There are short, young pines in varying stages of regrowth and death in brilliant strips of color – greens, browns and oranges.
The roadside is colored in spring wildflowers; lupines, roses, yarrow, and Indian paintbrush. Columbian ground squirrels, ironically native to Montana, alert call and run across the road as my car eases along. Every time. For whatever reason, an approaching vehicle signals an immediate need to be on the other side of the road now! These ground squirrels live in large colonies and when one sounds the alarm they all run for cover. However, there is usually a sentry sitting tall on their back legs, peeking through the grasses quietly keeping tabs on the intruder.
The trail begins in a healthy lodgepole pine forest that somehow escaped the fire. Water from overnight rain beads on the leaves of grasses and prairie rose and soaks my pants as I brush through them on the narrow footpath.
Continuing along the trail, I walk through areas of last fall’s burn. The trees are shorter here. Some stand on blackened ground with bare limbs, completely charred; others, where the ground is blanketed with blooming flowers and green grass, are black just a yard up from the ground and have bright green new needles on their limbs.
In other sections, the pines are charred to the top where orange needles hang on their last breath. There is a stark contrast between the fallen trees completely burned to the ground, leaving mounds of black and gray char, right next to a vibrant green woodland.
Where it burns, how it burns, what it spares – its mind-boggling. That is the way of wildfire, seeming to carefully pick and chose who lives and who dies.
The path eventually turns and dips down to Lower Howe Lake. I’m immediately transported to the Wisconsin Northwoods. A substantial beaver dam, in place long enough to be sprouting a forest, holds the lower lake three feet above the outflowing stream.
Another beaver-made levee, ten feet further along the stream, reinforces the containment and provides a solid footbridge to cross the flowage.
A substantial lodge houses the engineering crew across the lily pad adorned lake. A sign says that the lake is closed to fishing until August 1st to protect nesting loons. The Northwoods indeed.
I lingered, enjoying the quiet and solitude while keeping an eye on the ominous skies. A deer peered back at me.
An older couple appeared abruptly along my remote trail. We talked about the majesty of the scenery and they showed me a picture of a grouse hunkered down along the trailside. I wondered if I had walked right past her. Before long, they headed back up the trail toward to road with a word of caution about a forecast storm.
The trail back was drier under the sunlight. I lingered to take pictures of the impressive variety of spring wildflowers in these mountains. I could fill a blog on just these blooms.
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