Mountain Transitions by Jim Connor

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Water at last… The falls on the North Fork of Boneyard Creek on Thorny Bar were roaring a week ago, as the rapidly melting snow filled gullies and basements. Much of the murky water here originated on the dump road. The water raced to an area where a local rancher had, years ago, dragged dead cattle and horses. Jim Connor photos

Johnny-jump-ups have been growing slowly inside a cold frame all winter. They are immune to the deepest levels of frost and are ready to bloom as soon as the snow melts and the sun can warm them a little. Jim Connor photos

Approaching a landing and union with its shadow… A Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly was flying around the porch of the warming shack at Chipmunk Hill last Sunday. The insect had emerged from hibernation for a flight after long months winter. The butterfly flew around the deck for several minutes before flying off over the expanse of white snow. Jim Connor photos

Bitterroot plants emerge very soon after the snow has melted. These two are only an inch in diameter but will grow rapidly while moisture lasts in the desert soil. Huge white and pink blossoms will appear after the leaves have died. Jim Connor photos

Butterfly on the ski hill

Brilliant sunlight reflected off the hard snow on Chipmunk Hill. As the sun warmed the top of the snow, it would soften and provide excellent spring skiing conditions. The snow base was deep, two feet or more, and could be skiable for several more weeks if warm rain failed to fall.

The day was mild, and no wind blew. The sky was hazy but mostly clear. The parking lot had become a mire of mud and soft ice with some ultra-slick black ice added into it. A mountain bluebird had flown across the road on my drive to Chipmunk Hill.

Bryan and I were the only people on the hill by noon last Sunday. Perhaps a few more would come to enjoy end-of-season skiing. Bryan and I were certainly going to ski whether anyone else showed up or not. We are both members in good standing of both the Challis Ski Club and the Challis Lions Club so we could do so legally.

The previous day, Saturday, had also presented excellent spring conditions on the hill. Eight skiers had shown up, and we all had a wonderful time. It was one of those days of magic and camaraderie. Polly had brought up homemade tomato soup and sandwiches, and some skied in T-shirts. The porch, snow free, was a nice place to sit during needed rest breaks.

Coffee was perking, and cocoa water heating Sunday morning. We waited for either more skiers or the sun to soften the snow before starting the towrope motor. Julie had sent up some corn chowder with Bryan, although she herself had not come. The best part of the chowder was the bacon in it. We had some of it and ate a lot of the cookies Julie had also sent. It must be viewed this way: if one does not want cookies to be eaten, she should not leave it for young boys to protect them.

The sun worked its magic on the gleaming concrete on the hill. It was time to start the rope. That Perkins diesel engine has been a wonderful addition to Chipmunk Hill. It is reliable, easy to start and barely uses any fuel compared to the previous contraption with a really old gasoline engine. In fact, the diesel uses less fuel than that old engine used crankcase oil. The only problem with the new engine a time or two was a dead battery. It was a bit odd, but the battery was quick to take a charge.

Bryan went up to start the engine and take the rope from its hangers. It was the old rope, the very one I had claimed would never last a single week, let alone the 12 weekends that Chipmunk ran this season.

Since I had labored less than mightily making coffee and heating water, I sat in the sunshine and commenced putting on my ski boots while Bryan did the hard work. He had already put on his boots in anticipation of the first run of the day. Boy, that hill was starting to look good.

A shadow drifted across my eyes. It moved slowly and gracefully, if such might be said of a shadow. Between it and the sun was a brightly colored butterfly. It was orange, yellow, rust and black. It seemed perfectly content to be flying over bright white snow. My mind went from its being in the winter sky as remarkably odd to “of course it is a butterfly.”

It was a butterfly with sharp corners on its wings, one of the tortoiseshells. Its wingspan was two inches. Later I would recognize that it was a Milbert’s tortoiseshell, although it bore much more bright yellow on its wings than I had ever seen. It ranges from nearly Mexico in the south to the edge of the tundra in Canada and Alaska. Its caterpillars eat stinging nettle. Those fuzzy and rather unattractive beings may be encountered in clusters by human gatherers of spring greens. “Yuck,” those collectors may exclaim upon sighting a cluster of them dining on nettle.

Milbert’s tortoiseshells, like many of their relatives, overwinter as hibernating adults. They hang in protected places such as under eves, in attics or in sheds. They also utilize more natural locations like caves or crevasses. They resemble, somewhat, dry aspen leaves trapped in spiderweb. Unlike the leaves, they are living animals, kept from freezing with chemicals not unlike antifreeze used in car radiators. They emerge from hibernation as soon as the weather is warm enough for their flight muscles to function. This is about the time that the first stinging nettle shoots emerge from the mud. The goal of the butterflies is to get eggs deposited on the new, tender leaves before other nettle-eaters get to them. It was unlikely that new nettle shoots were showing last weekend, but it was a good day to go out and look for them. Here on Thorny Bar, for example, the bitterroot leaves have emerged from the cold, rocky soil. While they are not related to nettles, it is probable that something likes to eat them.

While I was chasing a butterfly at the ski hill with a camera but not a net, Bryan was coming down the hill on the snow machine, but the rope was not moving. “Oh, oh,” I thought.

Perhaps that colorful butterfly represented the spirit of the battery moving into another plane of existence, one that would seem like its early demise. It would never take a charge again.

Lori and Jan came and hoped to ski; we all were before we realized that the battery was no longer serviceable. I considered taking the battery from the Ford, but that battery is now 13 years old and I hate to stress it or overwork it. It is still able to start old Fords but not higher compression diesel engines.

Bryan gave Lori a ride to the top on the snow machine and, later, Colton. Jan, of course, eschewed a ride and skied to the top without effort.

Thus it ended last Sunday at Chipmunk. Whether it opens again this year depends on several factors: correcting the battery problem is one, another is whether any interest in skiing remains.

I am sitting outside while writing this, barefooted as it should be. Quite a pile of snow lies on the north side of the corral, otherwise it is bare ground now with cheatgrass and kochia seedlings beginning to give the dirt a greenish cast. The ground is still moist, and they should do well. Ravens chatter in the warm air, and a meadowlark calls on occasion. Johnny-jump-ups have burst into bloom in the cold frame. These are the originals, the ones that resemble, closely, violets.

Winter nears its end. It has been a long and snowy one, and in most ways that pleases me. This is the last column I will write during this season. It passed too quickly somehow, despite all the rewarding things of it: skiing at Chipmunk and several bird counts. Rosy finches were entertaining despite having dug into my own food budget. I can never forget the rosy finch that, in escaping the lady merlin, had flown into the Tin Box and had hidden behind the shower curtain. While I am happy the merlin did not chase the finch inside, I must wonder what kind of column that could have generated. I wonder where each of them is now. A bluebird, at last, sits on the power line above my head.

The river was frozen across with jumbles of white ice for months. Fishing was quite limited in it. Last week it was clear locally, and fishing was good, although I caught no steelhead. That “threatened” native char, now called a “bull trout,” was easy to catch, and I released several. The largest was 20 inches and could have been a steelhead. This one was a female that had spawned last fall. She was lean and hungry seeming. She will eat dozens or hundreds of hatchery smolt when they are released next month.

One male cutthroat was 18 inches and possibly the most incredibly colored fish I have ever seen. He was as red as any sockeye salmon but was marked with many colors and hues. He even had a kype, a turned-up lower jaw. My camera was missing so he can only linger, however vividly, in my mind.

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