Sweet Summer

We’ve turned the corner on summer, instead of feeling the luxury of extra time in longer days and open schedules stretching into the future, we’re looking September in the eye. We’re feeling the occasional hint of fall in a cool morning. There’s a reassessment happening, a taking stock of adventures planned and adventures had and a frantic planning to squeeze the remaining river trips, hikes and summer meals into the next few weeks. Maybe we feel this especially strongly in a college town where at times it feels like the whole city operates on a September-June school schedule.

Driving down some forest service roads the other day I was struck by how right now is the pinnacle of summer, that elusive point where foliage is full and green without a single hint of red or yellow. Orchards and gardens everywhere are bursting with the riches of late summer. Evenings are warm and lingering, days are hot and the hazy sky is buzzing with horseflies and mosquitos. As usual I feel like summer snuck through while I was looking the other way which is not necessarily a bad thing. The last few weeks have been full to the brim in a wonderful way- traveling to visit family, swimming in lakes after long hot days exploring a new mountain range, a few lazy afternoons on the river, some delicious summer meals with friends, and of course shipping out order after order of maps to wholesalers around Montana and customers across the country. I couldn’t really ask for more, but I’m still feeling the crunch to eat more corn on the cob and stand on top of some dramatic peaks and generally just soak up as much summer as I can before the days get noticeably shorter and life shifts into its fall schedule.

New Maps

It’s an exciting day here at Cairn Cartographics. We’re proud to announce that our two new maps are printed, just in time for summer.

Printing the North Half of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex map is the culmination of a project that has taken us close to three years. You wouldn’t be the first one if you told us that was an awfully big project to tackle as our first map. I won’t say there haven’t been moments when I’ve wondered if maybe we should have started with something smaller but over a thousand miles of walking and a fair amount of blood sweat and tears later I couldn’t be more proud.

I’m so excited about this new map of the Rattlesnake. Like a lot of people here I’m a transplant to Missoula and this map is pretty much the reason I’ve chosen to call this home. We are so lucky with our access to recreation- there are awesome trails in every direction that you can access right from town, there’s the Rattlesnake Wilderness which always surprises me with how rugged it is, there’s the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. The crazy thing is, until now there wasn’t a map with the wilderness, national recreation areas, and city open-space all on one page. This is the map I’ve wanted to own since I moved here and I hope it will inspire people to take advantage of this beautiful place we live and explore some new trails. See you out there-


Press Check High

Here’s the thing about making the types of maps we love for places we love: we don’t get a chance to use our own maps very often. We carry them everywhere and sometimes even if we’re driving through an area on the map we pull it out, but even then it feels more like fact-checking than using. Last week we headed out for a little visit to Great Falls to go to the press check for our next two maps(!). Since summer seems to have actually arrived over on the east side of the divide, instead of just teasing like it is over here we decided to make a trip of it.
Friday afternoon, after both maps were through the press and drying for the weekend we had some steam to blow off. Press checks can be stressful! We headed west to the mountains and pulled out our South Half map and looked for a good hike that would give us some views. We settled on the trail up to the old Steamboat Lookout site. It’s one of those rare places in the Bob that has a solid trail all the way up to a high point. It’s a  gorgeous trail that climbs a few thousand feet in a little over six miles right on the front with views out over the plains to east and over the whole Scapegoat Wilderness to the west. And you know what? Our map works pretty well! We spent a long time at the top looking out over the sea of peaks and picking out landmarks. It was a treat to spend some time just hiking, no GPS units, no note taking, just walking down the trail on a gorgeous day.Since I know you’re wondering: the new maps will be available any day. We’re just waiting to hear that they’re folded and ready and we’ll let you all know!

Our office made the Independent

I think Indy reporter Matthew Frank hit the nail on the head when he described our world as “expanding and contracting with the seasons” in this weeks “Up Front” column in the Independent. Thanks to Frank and Chad Harder we got a chance to share a little about the less glamorous side of making maps- and the little world of our office. Check it out!

Winter Sun

This winter was built up to be another La Niña year which translates to another winter like last year. Tons of snow and hardly a glimpse of the sun between November and March. However, it’s mid December and ski areas are barely open and we’ve yet to have a sub-zero cold snap. Not that I’m complaining, it’s not even officially winter yet and I’ve been loving the uncharacteristic sunny days we’ve been having.

Smells like vanilla

I took advantage of some of the sun last week to take my camera and the GPS for a walk.

looking back to town from Blue Mountain

It’s been really fun finishing up the GPS work for our upcoming Missoula map. It’s been a good motivator to branch out from my old favorites and explore some new trails.

Cool patterns in the ice by the Tower St trails

I used to be one of those people who ran or hiked with a basic watch and nothing else- not even an ipod. Now I regularly carry three different GPS devices plus maps with notes scribbled all over them. Not because I’m worried about getting lost or really concerned about my fitness. I’m just trying to figure out how to make the most accurate maps. And I still get lost sometimes.

Giving Thanks

Thankful for all our backers on Kickstarter. Our map wouldn’t be in stores today without all of you.

Thankful for all the wild places on this planet and the people who had the forethought to preserve them.

A wild place

Thankful for health and strong legs that carry me up and over mountains.

Thankful to live in a place where mountains rather than skyscrapers fill the view out my window and where the trails leading out of town are too many to count.

thankful to live in a place where I can walk places like this out my front door

Thankful for all the family and friends who have encouraged and supported us as our dream of making maps becomes a reality.

Thankful for seasons because hot summer days allow me to appreciate winter and long winter nights have me dreaming of endless summer sun but really I could never live without both.

changing seasons

And most of all thankful for the best co-worker/tent mate/tech-support/fixer-of-all-things-broken a girl could ask for.

Cairn Carto on Montana PBS tonight!

I joked last night that having a map that we made on TV is pretty dorky- it would be cool if one of us were actually on TV, or even our dog (we don’t have a dog, but if we did, that would probably be cooler than a map…)

But, we’re still excited that some maps we made will be featured in a Montana PBS special about Smoke Elser, an outfitter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I mean, it’s pretty exciting that the “Bob” is on TV to begin with, it’s just bonus that they used our maps! We made an overview map of western Montana and a close-up of the Danaher area. For those of you who have seen our map of the South Half of the “Bob,” the Danaher map will look familiar, we just made a couple changes to the map we published. It will air several times. Look for it Tonight at 7pm, Thursday 11/24 at 3pm, Tuesday 11/29 at 7:45pm, Thursday 12/29 at 7pm and Saturday 12/31 at  4:30pm

Now we just need to track down someone with a TV so we can watch it!

you can read more about the special here: http://www.montanapbs.org/3MilesAnHour/

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.