The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 3

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Rarely are strangers in the mountains thoroughly aroused. They need time or explanation in order to comprehend or appreciate the larger scenes, though they do, of course, have periodic outbursts in adjectives. But at timber-line the monumental scene at once has the attention, and no explanation is needed. Timber-line tells its own stirring story of frontier experience by a forest of powerful and eloquent tree statues and bold, battered, and far-extending figures in relief.

Only a few of the many young people whom I have guided to timber-line have failed to feel the significance of the scene, but upon one party fresh from college the eloquent pioneer spirit of the place made no impression, and they talked glibly and cynically of these faithful trees with such expressions as "A Dore garden!" "Ill-shapen fiends!"

"How foolish to live here!" and "Criminal cla.s.ses!" More appreciative was the little eight-year-old girl whose ascent of Long's Peak I have told of in "Wild Life on the Rockies." She paid the trees at timber-line as simple and as worthy a tribute as I have ever heard them receive: "What brave little trees to stay up here where they have to stand all the time with their feet in the snow!"

The powerful impressions received at timber-line lead many visitors to return for a better acquaintance, and from each visit the visitor goes away more deeply impressed: for timber-line is not only novel and strange, it is touched with pathos and poetry and has a life-story that is heroic. Its scenes are among the most primeval, interesting, and thought-compelling to be found upon the globe.

The Chinook Wind



The Chinook Wind

Cold and snow took possession of the ranges on one occasion while I was making a stay in the winter quarters of a Montana cattle company.

There was a quiet, heavy snow, a blizzard, and at last a sleet storm.

At first the cattle collected with drooping heads and waited for the storm to end, but long before the sky cleared, they milled and trampled confusedly about. With the clearing sky came still and extreme cold. Stock water changed to ice, and the short, crisp gra.s.s of the plains was hopelessly cemented over with ice and snow. The suffering of the cattle was beyond description. For a time they wandered about, apparently without an aim. There were thousands of other herds in this appalling condition. At last, widely scattered, they stood humped up, awaiting death. But one morning the foreman burst in excitedly with the news, "The Chinook is coming!" Out in the snow the herds were aroused, and each "critter" was looking westward as though good news had been scented afar. Across the mountain-tops toward which the stock were looking, great wind-blown clouds were flying toward the plains. In less than an hour the rescuing Chinook rushed upon the scene. The temperature rose forty degrees in less than half as many minutes; then it steadied and rose more slowly. The warm, dry wind quickly increased to a gale. By noon both the sleet and the snow were gone, and thousands of cattle were eagerly feeding in the brown and curly gra.s.s of the wide, bleached plain.

This experience enabled me to understand the "Waiting for a Chinook"

picture of the "Cowboy Artist." This picture was originally intended to be the spring report, after a stormy Montana winter, to the eastern stockholders of a big cattle company. It showed a spotted solitary cow standing humped in a snowy plain. One horn is broken and her tail is frozen off. Near are three hungry coyotes in different waiting att.i.tudes. The picture bore the legend "The Last of Five Thousand, Waiting for a Chinook."

It is "Presto! Change!" when the warm Chinook wind appears. Wintry landscapes vanish in the balmy, spring-like breath of this strange, hospitable, though inconstant Gulf Stream of the air. This wind is extra dry and warm; occasionally it is almost hot. Many times in Montana I have experienced the forcing, transforming effectiveness of this hale, eccentric wind.

The completion of the big copper refinery at Great Falls was celebrated with a banquet. One of the larger rooms in the new building was used for the banquet-hall. Out to this, a mile or so from the city, the banqueters were taken in a sleigh. That evening the roads were snow-and-ice-covered, and the temperature was several degrees below zero. A Chinook wind arrived while the banquet was in session, and although the feast was drawn out no longer than usual, the banqueters, on adjourning, found the snow and ice entirely gone, the earth dry, and the air as balmy as though just off an Arizona desert in June.

The Chinook blows occasionally over the Northwest during the five colder months of the year. Though of brief duration, these winds are very efficacious in softening the asperities of winter with their moderating warmth, and they are of great a.s.sistance to the stock and other interests. Apparently the Chinook starts from the Pacific, in the extreme Northwest, warm and heavily moisture-laden. Sweeping eastward, it is chilled in crossing the mountains, on which it speedily releases its moisture in heavy snowfalls. Warmed through releasing moisture, it is still further warmed through compression while descending the Cascades, and it goes forward extremely feverish and thirsty. It now feels like a hot desert wind, and, like air off the desert's dusty face, it is insatiably dry and absorbs moisture with astounding rapidity.

It may come from the west, the southwest, or the northwest. Its eastward sweep sometimes carries it into Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kansas, but it most frequently floods and favors the Canadian plains, Oregon, Was.h.i.+ngton, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado. It may come gently and remain as a moderate breeze or it may appear violently and blow a gale. Its duration is from a few hours to several days.

There are numerous instances on record of a Chinook greatly raising the temperature, removing several inches of snow, and drying the earth in an unbelievably short time. An extreme case of this kind took place in northern Montana in December, 1896. Thirty inches of snow lay over everything; and the quicksilver-tip in thermometers was many lines below zero. In this polar scene the Chinook appeared. Twelve hours later the snow had entirely vanished! The Blackfoot Indians have a graphic term for this wind,--"the snow-eater."

In most respects this wind is climatically beneficial. A thorough warming and drying a few times each winter renders many localities comfortably habitable that otherwise scarcely would be usable. The occasional removal of snow-excesses has its advantages to all users of roads, both wagon and rail, as well as being helpful to stock interests. There are times when this wind leaves the plains too dry, but far more frequently it prevents terrible floods by reducing the heavy snow covering over the sources of the Columbia and the Missouri before the swift spring thaw appears. The Chinook is not likely to create floods through the rapidity of its action, for it changes snow and water to vapor and carries this away through the air.

The Chinook is nothing if not eccentric. Sometimes it warms the mountain-tops and ignores the cold lowlands. Often in snowy time it a.s.sists the railroad men to clear the tracks on the summit before it goes down the slope a few miles to warm the m.u.f.fled and discouraged snow-shovelers in the valley. Now and then a wind tempers the clime for a sheepman, while in an adjoining valley only a few miles away the stockman and his herd wait in vain for the Chinook.

The Chinook may appear at any hour of the day or night. Occasionally with a rush it chases winter. Frequently and fortunately it follows a blizzard. Often it dramatically saves the suffering herds, both wild and tame, and at the eleventh hour it brings the balm of the southland to the waiting, starving birds.

The Chinook wind is a Westerner. Similar though less far-reaching winds blow in the mountains of Europe and Asia. In the West, and especially the Northwest, it has a happy and important place, and the climate of this region cannot be comprehended without understanding the influence of the Chinook wind.

a.s.sociating with Snow-Slides

a.s.sociating with Snow-Slides

Every snow-fall caused a snow-slide to rush down Bobtail Gulch. This run-off of snow was as regular as the run-off of storm-water. The snow which acc.u.mulated at the head of this gulch was a danger to the trail below, and if the snow showed the slightest hesitation to "run" when the storm had ended, a miner from a neighboring mine started it by rolling a few stones into it or by exploding a stick of dynamite near by.

During my stay at a miners' boarding-house in the San Juan Mountains a heavy snow-fall came to a close. "Has the Greagory run yet?" inquired the foreman of one of the miners. "No." "Better start it, then." Ten minutes later fifty thousand tons of snow went plunging down Greagory Gulch.

"This cabin will never be caught by a snow-slide!" said the prospector with whom I was having supper. "A slide hit my cabin in the Sawtooth Mountains. No more sleeping for me in the possible right-of-way of a slide! I sized up the territory before building this cabin and I've put it out of the range of slides."

All this was encouraging, as I was to spend the night in the cabin and had arrived after the surrounding mountains were hidden in darkness. A record-breaking snow of eight days and nights had just ended a few hours before. During the afternoon, as I came down from Alpine Pa.s.s on snowshoes, the visible peaks and slopes loomed white and were threateningly overladen with snow. Avalanches would run riot during the next few hours, and the sliding might begin at any minute. Gorges and old slide-ways would hold most of these in the beaten slide-tracks, but there was the possibility of an overladen mountain sending off a shooting star of a slide which might raise havoc by smas.h.i.+ng open a new orbit.

The large spruces around the cabin showed that if ever a slide had swept this site it was longer ago than a century. As no steep slope came down upon the few acres of flat surrounding the cabin, we appeared to be in a slide-proof situation. However, to the north was a high snow-piled peak that did not look a.s.suring, even though between it and the cabin was a gorge and near by a rocky ridge. Somewhat acquainted with the ways of slides, I lay awake in the cabin, waiting to hear the m.u.f.fled thunder-storm of sound which would proclaim that slides were "running."

Snow-slides may be said to have habits. Like water, they are governed by gravity. Both in gulches and on mountain-sides, they start most readily on steep and comparatively smooth slopes. If a snow-drift is upon a thirty-degree incline, it may almost be pushed into sliding with a feather. A slope more steeply inclined than thirty degrees does not offer a snow-drift any visible means of support. Unless this slope be broken or rough, a snow-drift may slide off at any moment.

In the course of a winter, as many as half a dozen slides may start from the same place and each shoot down through the same gorge or over the same slope as its predecessor. Only so much snow can cling to a slope; therefore the number of slides during each winter is determined by the quant.i.ty of snow and the character of the slope. As soon as snow is piled beyond the holding-limit, away starts the slide.

A slide may have slipped from this spot only a few days before, and here another may slip away a few days later; or a year may elapse before another runs. Thus local topography and local weather conditions determine local slide habits,--when a slide will start and the course over which it will run.

The prospector was snoring before the first far-off thunder was heard.

Things were moving. Seash.o.r.e storm sounds could be heard in the background of heavy rumbling. This thunder swelled louder until there was a heavy rumble everywhere. Then came an earthquake jar, closely followed by a violently explosive crash. A slide was upon us! A few seconds later tons of snow fell about us, crus.h.i.+ng the trees and wrecking the cabin. Though we escaped without a scratch, a heavy spruce pole, a harpoon flung by the slide, struck the cabin at an angle, piercing the roof and one of the walls.

The prospector was not frightened, but he was mad! Outwitted by a snow-slide! That we were alive was no consolation to him. "Where on earth did the thing come from?" he kept repeating until daylight. Next morning we saw that to the depth of several feet about the cabin and on top of it were snow-ma.s.ses, mixed with rock-fragments, broken tree-trunks, and huge wood-splinters,--the fragment remains of a snow-slide.

This slide had started from a high peak-top a mile to the north of the cabin. For three quarters of a mile it had coasted down a slope at the bottom of which a gorge curved away toward the west; but so vast was the quant.i.ty of snow that this slide filled and blocked the gorge with less than half of its ma.s.s. Over the snowy bridge thus formed, the momentum carried the remainder straight across the gulch. Landing, it swept up a steep slope for three hundred feet and rammed the rocky ridge back of the cabin. The greater part came to a stop and lay scattered about the ridge. Not one tenth of the original bulk went over and up to wreck the cabin! The prospector stood on this ridge, surveying the scene and thinking, when I last looked back.

Heavy slides sometimes rush so swiftly down steep slopes that their momentum carries their entire ma.s.s destructively several hundred feet up the slope of the mountain opposite.

Desiring fuller knowledge of the birth and behavior of avalanches, or snow-slides, I invaded the slide zone on snowshoes at the close of a winter which had the "deepest snow-fall on record." Several days were spent watching the snow-slide action in the San Juan Mountains. It was a wild, adventurous, dramatic experience, which closed with an avalanche that took me from the heights on a thrilling, spectacular coast down a steep mountain-side.

[Ill.u.s.tration: LIZARD HEAD PEAK IN THE SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS]

A thick, snowy, marble stratum overlay the slopes and summits.

Appearing on the scene at the time when, on the steeps, spring was melting the icy cement that held winter's wind-piled snows, I saw many a snowy hill and embankment released. Some of these, as slides, made meteoric plunges from summit crags to gentler places far below.

A snow-storm prevailed during my first night in the slide region, and this made a deposit of five or six inches of new snow on top of the old. On the steeper places this promptly slipped off in dry, small slides, but most of it was still in place when I started to climb higher.

While I was tacking up a comparatively smooth slope, one of my snowshoes slipped, and, in sc.r.a.ping across the old, crusted snow, started a sheaf of the fluffy new snow to slipping. Hesitatingly at first, the new snow skinned off. Suddenly the fresh snow to right and left concluded to go along, and the full width of the slope below my level was moving and creaking; slowly the whole slid into swifter movement and the ma.s.s deepened with the advance. Now and then parts of the sliding snow slid forward over the slower-moving, crumpling, friction-resisted front and bottom.

With advance it grew steadily deeper from constantly acquired material and from the influence of converging water-channels which it followed. A quarter of a mile from its birthplace it was about fifty feet deep and twice as wide, with a length of three hundred feet.

Composed of new snow and coasting as swiftly as a gale, it trailed a white streamer of snow-dust behind. A steeper or a rougher channel added to the volume of snow-dust or increased the agitation of the pace-keeping pennant. The morning was clear, and, by watching the wigwagging snow flag, I followed easily the fortunes of the slide to the bottom of the slope. After a swift mile of shooting and plunging, the slide, greatly compressed, sprawled and spread out over a level glacier meadow, where its last remnant lingered for the warmth of July.

Dismissing this slide, I watched along the range to the north and south, and from time to time saw the white scudding plumes of other slides, which, hidden in the canons, were merrily coasting down from the steep-sloping crest.

These slides, unless they had run down an animal, did no damage. They were composed of freshly fallen snow and in their flight had moved in old channels that had been followed and perhaps formed by hundreds of slides in years gone by. Slides of this kind--those which accompany or follow each storm and which promptly make away with new-fallen snow by carrying it down through stream-channels--may be called Storm, or Flood, slides. These usually are formed in smooth gulches or on steep slopes.

The other kinds of slides may be called the Annual and the Century. In places of rough surface or moderate slope there must be a large acc.u.mulation of snow before a slide will start. Weeks or even months may pa.s.s before storm and wind a.s.semble sufficient snow for a slide.

Places of this kind commonly furnish but one slide a year, and this one in the springtime. At last the snow-drifts reach their maximum; warmth a.s.sists starting by melting snow-cornices that have held on through the winter; these drop, and by dropping often start things going. Crags wedged off by winter ice are also released in spring; and these, in going recklessly down, often knock hesitating snow-drifts into action. A fitting name for those slides that regularly run at the close of winter would be Spring, or Annual. These are composed of the winter's local acc.u.mulation of snow and slide rock, and carry a much heavier percentage of rock-debris than the Storm slide carries. They transport from the starting-place much of the annual crumbling and the weatherings of air and water, along with the tribute pried off by winter's ice levers; with this material from the heights also goes the year's channel acc.u.mulation of debris. The Annual slide does man but little damage and, like the Flood slide, it follows the gulches and the water-courses.

The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 3

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The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 3 summary

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