Monthly Archives: October 2011

Book Review: Young Men and Fire

Cold Missouri Waters

View from Stewart Peak, Missoula's down there in the smoke

I read a lot more in the summer. Long evenings in the tent lend themselves to getting lost in a book much more than evenings working on a map in front of a computer. Last night I finally finished Norman Maclean’s Young men and Fire. I started it while there were still several fires going strong around here which must have inspired me to pull it off the shelf. The fires have died down now (thank goodness) but I’ve been thinking a lot about them and their influence on the landscape here.

If you haven’t read it, Young Men and Fire is a detailed account of the Mann Gulch Fire, which burned about twenty-five miles outside of Helena in 1949. Thirteen people died in the fire, twelve smoke jumpers and the ranger who met them on the ground. Only three smoke jumpers survived. Maclean saw the aftermath of the fire firsthand which must have planted the seed that lead him to return to study the fire in detail decades later. He spent several years piecing together the events and decisions that led to the fire fighter’s deaths. The book, found in Maclean’s desk and published after his death, is a compilation of his conversations with the survivors and countless visits to the scene of the fire as well as research into the science and mathematics of wild fires.

In addition to being an explanation of the tragedy at Mann Gulch, the book is an account of Maclean coming to terms with old age. Researching the fire was the project that kept Maclean busy in the last years of his life. He writes about how the mental challenge of understanding the technical aspects of fires, as well as the physical challenge of getting to and hiking around Mann Gulch kept him strong and engaged.

evening light on burned trees

I think most people, especially those unfamiliar with wild fire find a post-burn landscape overwhelming. Silvery dead trees as far as you can see distract from the continuity of a green landscape. When Jamie and I were working in Yellowstone one friend of a friend described the park, post-1988 fires as “hell on earth.” Unlike most processes that shape the landscape, fire’s effects are immediately visible, measured in overnight transformations rather than centuries of imperceptible change. To me the post-fire landscape is much easier to look at on a macro scale. The patterns revealed in silvery wood, the flowers or the the curling of smaller branches into spirals. When I turn my eyes to detail, I’m less overwhelmed by the big picture.

Big Salmon and Hammer Creek Fires getting big

There were several fires in the Bob Marshall and around Missoula this past summer. One afternoon in August while Jamie and I ate lunch on top of Green Mountain we noticed a couple wisps of smoke drifting up towards the clouds over near the South Fork. We didn’t think much of it and headed down. About an hour later we came around the ridge to head down Trail Creek and the wisps had turned into giant mushrooming pillars of smoke towering over the landscape. Those were the initial runs of the Hammer Creek and the Big Salmon Fires which burned over eleven thousand acres in August and September.

I hadn’t read a book by Norman Maclean since my freshmen year of college when the “west” was still a conceptual landscape to me. Even after five summers in Montana I still think about wild fire in the abstract; big clouds on the horizon and hazy mornings in the valleys. Reading Young Men and Fire in the context of the landscape where it takes place was an entirely different experience from that introductory literature class. I’m still relatively new to a fire-shaped ecosystem and Young Men and Fire made fires a little more real for me and taught me a lot about what’s happening underneath those big mushroom clouds.

flowers in the burn, Camp Pass

Hunting and Gathering



Rifle season starts tomorrow and I’ve been thinking about hunting and gathering instincts a lot. Something about spending so much time living out of my backpack in the summer sends me into full-on domestic mode in the fall. I’ve been canning and dehydrating all kinds of foraged fruits- huckleberry-gooseberry jam, rosehip jam, rosehip jelly, plum jam, dried plums, dried cherries, frozen cherries. Hopefully soon there will be some game to cram into our freezer. We’re lucky to live in a place where hunting and gathering are both fruitful and status quo. When we tell people that we’re working on a new map of the Bob Marshall they often joke that we should put good hunting or berry picking spots on it. Some people even express concern that somehow we’ll give away they’re secret spot fishing hole or favorite hunting spot. Trying to include all those places on a map would clutter it (and ruin the fun), but we’ve certainly affirmed that the “Bob” is full of good spots.

rosehip jelly

Jamie often jokes that he needs a cattle prod to keep me hiking down the trail when it’s berry season. My urge to pick berries is almost uncontrollable. I could pick berries all day- something about the level of challenge, the meditative rhythm, the way it’s quiet enough to hear your own thoughts but busy enough to keep from being overwhelmed by them. When I used to work on farms picking strawberries or raspberries was my favorite task and huckleberries are the same. Something about having huckleberries (or any produce) preserved in the freezer (or canned) gives me a sense of security. It’s like having a piece of summer to take with me makes me feel more at ease with the transition to winter.

ready for the freezer

While Jamie doesn’t have the patience for foraging that I have, I don’t have nearly the patience for hunting that he has. I’ve gone along a few times and sitting quietly on a hillside waiting for something to happen just doesn’t do it for me. For one thing I freeze. For another I’m used to cruising along through the woods, hiking hard. Sitting there, or wandering around without a real destination I get bored. My thoughts feel too loud, time slows down. Still, it feels good to know that the ancestral  instincts to hunt and gather are alive and well, even in modern humans. Walking down the trail Jamie will spot a deer frozen a few dozen yards from the trail that I would never notice. But he’ll walk straight though the densest, biggest huckleberry patch that I’ve ever seen without pausing. It works out well in the freezer though.

Trip Report: Jewel Basin

I have a hard time with fall. On the one hand I love it. I love how the color of the light makes familiar scenes turn all soft and gold. I love how the air smells crisp and you’re almost guaranteed dramatic morning mist. I love how fallen leaves light up the ground and trails stop being dusty. But summer’s ending breaks my heart. I’m obsessed with reliable sunlight and long evenings. I’m never ready for long nights and unpredictable weather.

Hiking in the fall can be an adjustment too. Days can be the perfect temperature and so beautiful it hurts, but they can just as easily be wet and miserable. Nights are almost always long and cold. After spending all summer going to bed before the sun even drops below the horizon I’m surprised to find myself racing nightfall to camp. Most of our trips this time of year are day trips. As our schedules fill up with town obligations it seems to be all we have time for.

Last weekend we did a big loop day hike around Jewel Basin that made me feel a little better about the seasonal transition. It’s been on our to do list all summer but between road closures and fires and all the other trails on the agenda we just hadn’t gotten to it. It’s an area I’ve been wanting to check out for a while, perched high on the Swans and set aside just for hikers. Jewel Basin is accessible from either the Flathead Valley or the Hungry Horse Reservoir but after a summer of driving the east side of the reservoir we were happy to have a destination on the west side of the Swans that didn’t require driving along the reservoir. We headed up Saturday night and camped near the trail head to be ready for an early start on Sunday. We’ve been to a lot of trail heads and we’ve camped at a fair number of them. For the most part they tend to be pretty quiet places. I was expecting that on a chilly Sunday in early October we were pretty much guaranteed to have the place to ourselves. Boy was I wrong. Several other groups also headed up the trail that morning, including a large group of gossiping, giggling middle-aged women who followed close behind us.

Despite the number of people in the parking lot we didn’t see a soul once we were out of sight of the truck and out of range of the giggling cohort behind us. The trail climbs quickly from the trail head to an easy pass into a veritable alpine playground on the other side. The trail is well-graded and winds its way past peaks and lakes and through alpine meadows, mature forests and an old burn. The day was beautiful, a little too smoky to be the picturesque crisp clear fall day but the haze just seemed to accentuate the angle of the light. The undergrowth was lit up red and yellow and pale, about-to-turn-yellow green. It was beautiful, and driving home as we chatted about the projects on tap for the next few months I felt a little better about the transition to fall.

The specs:
We took trail 8 from Camp Misery over the pass, past the Twin Lakes to trail 55. We followed 55 all the way around past Tongue Mountain and Clayton Lake to trail number 1 (if anyone can tell me how the forest service numbers trails I’ll give you some kind of prize…). We followed trail 1 up Graves Creek, past Black Lake (beautiful!) over the pass and back to Camp Misery via 68 and 8. The whole loop took us about six and a half hours with an hour break for lunch (Jamie) and picking huckleberries (me). We used the Flathead National Forest map of Jewel Basin but the whole area will be on our upcoming North Half of the Bob Marshall complex map as well which should be available by next spring.


After a string of teasingly warm days it’s raining today and fall feels like it’s here to stay. We’re shifting our focus from the mad rush of hiking as many miles as possible to carefully putting all that data together to create some beautiful maps. Spending more time in the office means we finally have time to address some of the projects that have been on the to-do list for months. This blog being one of them. We want to bring you behind the scenes here at Cairn Cartographics and share pictures, tell trip stories, and discuss wilderness-related issues or events. Most of all we hope to inspire you to get out and explore some of the wild and beautiful places here in Western Montana or beyond. Check back soon for updates!