View Full Version : Sawing out a Hole in the Sky (a jaunt in the mountains).

06-09-2018, 03:33 PM
“There was just nothing at all to sunlight, and the mouth of Blodgett Canyon was just nothing but a gigantic hole in the sky.
“The Big Sky” as we say in Montana.”

Quoted from near the end of Norman Maclean’s story, ‘USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky’ in his book, ‘A River Runs Through It’.

Forewarning; my following story has a few ‘holes’ in it.

Last weekend:

On foot, alone, I headed up into Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot Mountains. I figured that I’d need three hours or so to walk the six to seven miles I hoped to make before finding a camp spot, preferably before dark.

Nice bit of trail work here going through the talus.


Wild flowers aplenty. Didn't get any good pics of them though. Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Arrowleaf Balsamroot …


The creek was roaring.


The plan, and my excuse for getting out, was to rendezvous with some folks who would be riding horses or mules up the canyon the next day, and join them for trail clearing work within the Wilderness.

06-09-2018, 03:45 PM
Shaped by glacier. Looked like it might be getting wet up there near the end of the canyon where I was going. Post-fire regeneration looks good here.


Passing some of the spires along the way. They are higher than they appear in these photos. Popular with climbers.


Keeper hole.


06-09-2018, 03:46 PM
I might have to try to continue this later. Painfully slow getting images to load. Maybe resizing them first would help?

06-09-2018, 03:47 PM
I'm not sure that I could live there, but my visits have left me stunned by the beauty. The fishing is a challenge, too.

06-09-2018, 04:00 PM
A cool, misty little gorge.



06-09-2018, 04:05 PM
Thanks! I had a housemate from the area in college, and always would have liked to visit. Maybe as we retire.
Thanks again,

06-09-2018, 04:07 PM
On up above the little gorge the trail leveled out somewhat and runoff water was running every which way. The trail here was flooded and was the worst path to take if you wanted to try and keep your feet dry, and I did. It was slow going picking alternate routes through the thick timber and brush and scrambling, over, under, and along, all the deadfall. At times I’d walk down the length of four or five big spruce logs before touching ground again.

By dusk I figured I’d made at least six to six and a half miles, and I’d had enough of slippery log walking for the day. I found an okay place to make camp, got into dry gear, ate a veggie sandwich and some beef jerky, and settled in for the night. The sky was calm and clear, and it would no doubt be getting chilly before daybreak.

I had brought along the book, Maclean’s, and I read a few random pages, which somehow always seem different every time I re-read them. Tired, the book dropped on my chest, and I drifted off … reflecting on, and connecting with … this place:

A couple hundred years ago and beyond … Nez Perce coming through here, right here, this trail, a spur of their ‘middle road’ to the buffalo through these mountains, maybe joining up with friends, the local Salish, to go on the hunt.

And Joe Blodgett … one of the early white settlers of the 1850’s, whose name is now printed on the maps of this place; Blodgett Canyon, and creek, a mountain peak, a pass and a lake. His life and history entangled with the Nez Perce as they came through the Bitterroot Valley in 1877, pursued by the U.S. cavalry. He joined the pursuit as a civilian guide and was a participant of that bloody day remembered as The Battle of the Big Hole. He survived the day, buried dead, and returned home. The surviving Nez Perce, not so fortunate, continued their flight.

And a hundred years ago … back in the day, when “The Ranger” and the young Maclean himself were working here for the even younger U.S. Forest Service, with their big strings of pack mules, and crosscut saws, the same saws as we use today. This trail I lay on is the one Maclean writes about, his big walk in 1919, in one day, from Elk Summit Guard Station in the Idaho wilderness to the town of Hamilton in Montana, about thirty miles.

And in my time … but still years ago, a friend of mine who had just read the story says to me, “Let’s go do Maclean’s big walk”. Now this guy, my friend, was all put together to cover ground, fit and tall and lanky, legs like a moose, a distance runner, a damn marathon runner fer chrissakes, and annoyingly competitive. Just about everything I am not. So of course I replied, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”

And we did.

We lit out of Elk Summit toward Horse Heaven Meadow, and in our zeal to get some miles behind us we blew right through the first fork in the trail at a pace that I thought might have been a little hasty, but I was keeping up. A mile and a half or so later, our young legs said to our young brains, “Hey dummies, shouldn’t we be going down a canyon and not up a mountain?” We looked at our map, looked at the surroundings, looked at each other, and realized we had taken the fork in the trail up to Diablo Mountain rather than down the canyon toward the pass into Montana. Backtracking was not an option on a bullheaded adventure like this, so we just had to continue on, bag the peak, then bushwhack a few miles off the backside and then pick up the trail again.

We stopped at the mountain top where there was a staffed fire lookout with whom we had a brief chat, took in the lay of the land, and headed off the backside to Hamilton. The bushwhack off the mountain turned out to be pretty good going in nice open alpine country. We picked up the trail again and as we passed the east end of Big Sand Lake, standing in the shallows, we saw the biggest bull moose I have ever seen. I will never forget, I hope, the image of him lifting his dripping, glistening head out of the water and gazing at us. Lord of the lake. It was like he was planted there to make the scene, the day, perfect.

Good memories.

Back in my tent, I had a nip of some spirits, medicinal, and slipped off to sleep. Like a log.

Gib Etheridge
06-09-2018, 04:11 PM
Nice photos JP. Thank you and looking forward to more.

When I see places like that I just want to go live there for a while. So many places, so little time. Y:o

06-09-2018, 04:38 PM
Happy to share the photos. Wish they would load faster though. Oh well, it's a rainy day here.

Back to the jaunt in the hills ...

Next morning after coffee and drying out my gear it was just a short ways to the Wilderness boundary and the trail conditions started to improve.

Park the motorcycles, bicycles, e-cycles, eff-cycles, jeeps, pedal cars, drones, and chainsaws … here.


Wilderness; a man-made border, and I suppose maybe the only one I really cherish. When I pass by these Wilderness boundary signs I always give a little thanks to those forward thinkers who worked to get at least some of the wild land of this country preserved. Passing this one on this day had a special profoundness.

06-09-2018, 04:59 PM
I’d brought with me a folding pull-saw with a two foot blade, a hatchet, and a couple wedges so I could work on clearing smaller stuff until the riders got in with the crosscuts. I sawed out just two small logs, poles really, that crossed the trail, and one leaner, before getting to the camp site in a big avalanche meadow. There was nothing bigger that needed crosscut work. Piece of cake mission this turned out to be.

(“Sawing Out a Hole in the Sky” ? Sheeyat, that's some big talk for cutting out a couple little poles with a danged pruning saw. But that title stuck in my head as I was walking, and that right there was the first hole I had dug for myself in this story. Had to fill it with something, and to any reading this far, well, you stepped in it.)

I had some time before the riders were due to arrive so I scouted the trail out past the camp site toward the pass another two miles. Only came across one log that needed to be bucked with a crosscut. Even a couple avalanche runout zones were clear. There were a few snow patches on the trail and hopefully those will be melted out when the next work party comes through. They will only have another mile and a half to clear to get to the pass. I hope they can make it to the top as it’s a pretty dramatic piece of trail work carved into that headwall, but I’d bet there will still be snow up there.


I love being in this high, wild country. On the trail I came across quite a bit of wolf scat, one dump that I figured was from a cougar, and one definitely from a bear, and lots of moose and deer sign. And not an iota of human sign, other than the trail itself, not even a footprint in these last two and a half miles. Watched a beaver for a while until it tail slapped and dove under water


06-09-2018, 05:22 PM
This is a spectacular photo! I can almost hear it.

Wish I could collect and share the smell of that place. I hung out there for a while, tossing pieces of wood into the water like a little kid, watching the line they took down the chute.

06-09-2018, 05:54 PM
I headed back to the camp meadow and within a few minutes the riders showed up right on time, give or take an hour. Seven mile ride in for them.


Dan’s string of four good, experienced mountain mules.


They had also packed in some feed to cache for the next work party’s stock.

Took the stock down to tie up, and we settled in for lunch and a review of the game plan for the trail work, and general BS.



While we were chatting at lunch, I was looking up toward the avalanche slope and noticed a brown spot of something that might have been animal about 300 yards away and pointed it out to the others. But it wasn’t moving and we just went on with the chat. Stump-bear maybe? I see a lot of those. Damn eyes aren’t what they used to be, but I kept looking. And then it did move. And it was a bear, making the scene perfect ... like that moose at Big Sand Lake all those years ago. The bear was a large one and colored just like a grizzly, but you can’t ID a bear here just by its color. It would not be impossible to see a grizzly in this country where they were once plentiful, but not likely these days and on back to the mid 1940’s, by which time they had pretty much been killed out. There have been a few confirmed sightings though in recent years.

06-09-2018, 06:32 PM
Great story, great read. Please continue!

06-09-2018, 06:59 PM
After lunch I gazed on the clear waters of the creek as it ran by the meadow. It’s deeper than it looks here, maybe four or five feet. Saw fish darting around. Enough to make me think about taking up fly fishing again, or water color painting, just to admire their colors and make the scene even more perfect.


The riders left to go buck out the one log I’d found up the trail a bit, and I started back down canyon.

The bear had gone down this way too, as did the breeze, so I wasn’t too worried about a surprise encounter. I thought about searching up the slope to see if I could cut its trail and find some good footprints, or some hair, or scat, but only twenty or thirty minutes had gone by since I had last seen it, and I figured the smarter thing might be to start making some noise and just head on down the trail. Given the character of the country here, yodeling might’ve been the appropriate noise to make, but I’m no vocalist and can barely croak out a ‘Happy Birthday to You’ even buried amongst a party crowd. If I have to. What I came up with for noise was a sputtering, poorly whistled rendition of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, and with apologies to the bear, I really hoped that no one within earshot was coming up the trail.

Those same calm, clear waters, reborn as snow and rain in high-country meadows, on its way to the ocean, and back to the sky …


06-09-2018, 07:10 PM

I paused a while at the pack bridge to look back and just soak it in. To the right the trail goes Out There, to The Hole, to The Country. To the left was an hour and a half walk back to the trailhead, the un-hole. And some ice-cold beers.

Hard to beat a good day in the mountains. My only regret was not getting a chance to work up a good sweat running a crosscut saw on some big spruce in the Wilderness with my pal Dan, before hiking out a twelve mile day. (Okay, that’s the last hole in this story. Maybe.)

06-09-2018, 07:15 PM
thx much.

06-09-2018, 07:54 PM
That looks exactly like a spot in Banff that I once fished! That was one of my best days on the river, ever! I don't remember if I caught anything, but the place was magical.


Domesticated_Mr. Know It All
06-10-2018, 02:24 AM
Thank you.

David W Pratt
06-10-2018, 02:42 PM
My favorite story in that collection

06-10-2018, 03:18 PM
Mine too David.

Rambling on ...

The next day, a little foot-sore, I figured the best thing to get the blood moving would be to go for another little hike. There’s a nice trail up to an overlook of the mouth of the canyon and a good place to take in the big picture without too much exertion.

The canyon mouth. The eastern edge of the Bitterroot Mountains, the Idaho Batholith, slopes down at about 30 degrees and continues under the valley and beyond. Geologists say the mountains on the other side of the valley, the Sapphires, once sat atop these Bitterroot Mountains.


Imagine that.


Or, to soar, like a raven …


... over the whole thing.

06-10-2018, 03:27 PM
And a Bitterroot blossom.


This is the first one I had seen this year. I start looking for them in mid-May and did not see any until the next day after the full moon, the ‘Flower Moon’, near the end of May, which I thought was interesting. They are in bloom now but it doesn’t last long.

Phil Y
06-10-2018, 05:27 PM
Great pictures, and words to go with them. There was a bit of a Clang! In my head when you passed the wilderness border sign and explained its importance, then got out your saw and whatever and started cutting down trees, leaving hard square cut stumps in that otherwise untouched environment though.