February Picnic

“Y’all gon’ PICNIC up there in all that???”  You bet yer ass, pard…

Well, it IS Montana, after all. And those of us who delight/endure the usual 6+ months of below-freezing weather have found ways… yes,ways to pass some of this frigid, snowy time. And occasionally we decide to have a picnic. That’s right. A sort of
sick, misplaced wishful thinking, perhaps, but probably more to the pioneer spirit which resides, to one degree or another in each of us out here, which speaks, “Let’s speed Spring along with a bit of a picnic, what?” Excuse me here… I’m watching Downton
Abbey on PBS as I write, and I so love the English’ version of English.

Anyway, we feel we can have a damned picnic any month we want to… that the weather doesn’t (usually) define what kind of fun we can have, or when. I love these winter picnics we have. They are a subtle way of thumbing our Montana noses at the elements at hand, and keep us thinking we are still in control of our own destinies here in the high country.

Last Thursday the ACME Groomers, of which I am a member, decided to trailer our four sleds down the Madison Range toward Yellowstone to a place called The West Fork Of The Madison River. The West Fork is cold, and often windy, and usually has more snow than some of the surrounding area around Virginia City. There are two main trails leading out of the West Fork parking lot. We chose the longer of the two… Standard Creek.
                                     Coffee Time On Standard Creek Trail

Standard Creek is a rugged and beautiful part of the southern Gravelly Range. We rode 23 miles in, and could have gone even farther. We picniced on top of a sunny hill at 20 miles in.

The day couldn’t have been better – sunny, in the teens, little wind. Our eldest member, Gene, was in fine spirits, for some reason. The rest of us were, well, the rest of us… fairly jolly, always on alert.  The trail, for the first 16 miles, is wide and well-groomed by a Virginia City guy, Eli Thompson. Average speed for the first 10 miles is 20 to 40 mph. Standard Creed is fairly narrow for that stretch, then widens considerably, with beautiful views of higher peaks and  granite outcroppings. The others ride by these views, more interested in whether their sled is heating up, or how long before “the picnic.” They’ve seen this stretch dozens of times, and the views are expectedI.

On the other hand, I gawk. And often I stop and take a few pictures, for every time we go out to a new place like this, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of this state.

For some strange reason Gene, our senior member, always chooses the campsite. And as is his bent, he always picks a windy knob to try to build a fire, and we all bitch at him incessantly. He endures it with a grin…he delights in rubbing us the wrong way a bit. But this day he failed. For the knob he picked was sunny, no wind and there were more than enough dead branches at hand for a good fire.

Larry dug down into the snow, and after 3-plus feet, decided that the fire either would burn or it wouldn’t. it was a 4-foot hole in the snow, with no bare ground under. But we placed some sticks on the snow and Gene placed a few little purple pellets among them, and in a minute the sticks began to catch and we had a fire… on the snow.

We dug out franks and buns, mustard and catsup from the sleds, and I dug out my famous potato salad. When I found that no one had brought plastic ware, or paper plates, or napkins, I fished them out of my bag as well. Why did I think to bring them?? Because my B had told me about a mens’ outing, in which no one bothered to bring the extra stuff. I remembered, brought it as a possible back up, and was an instant hero. “You brought plates? Great!” ” “you’ve got forks for the potato salad?” And, “Don’t suppose you brought any napkins…” Then, the coup de gras… I passed my flask of brandy to larry, who looked at me for a moment, as if he didn’t recognize me. It was a delicious moment. Thank you, B. The boys see me slightly differently today.

After lunch we rode three miles further northwest, past Wolverine Basin and back toward the Snowcrest range. We got nearly within rock-throwing distance of a prominent mountain, Black Butte, 10,5000 ft. I have not seen Black Butte from this vantage point and it was impressive.

                Equally impressive were some of the views on the ride back to West Fork.

                         Look what we get to see every time we go out!

Gene got his “sporting blood” up and promptly got stuck. Daryl rode up there and helped get him out.

We stopped and chatted with Eli, who grooms these West Fork Trails twice a week. He’s a good man. Eli’s in the orange jacket.

We loaded up and headed home at 4 p.m. A long day, a lot of deep snow, shoulders and legs sore, hands and feet cold. But… I had my brandy flask, and Larry and I sat in the back seat of Gene’s big diesel truck on the way home and got well. It was a great day, all around. Gene was in a good mood, I shared my “B raisin oatmeal cookies” with the boys, no one got hurt, we figured out how to get to the head of a few remote trails and we saw a bunch of great country. And that’s how it should be… when you decide to have a picnic in SW Montana in the Gravelly Range on February 14th, there, by god, better be a reward. And there was.

Steve Hulse

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