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October 21, 2012

The Larch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our fall color started this year in late August with aspen and then poplar.  Leaves haphazardly turned for the next month and a half.  The lack of coordination in the color multiplied with dull coloration and our dominant broadleaved trees put forward a display that bordered on bland from the wrong side.  My hope for this year rested with the larch.

 My first Montana fall arrived two months after I did.  By that time, I had found a mentor, Bob Chlupach.  Bob’s first Iditarod was in 1977.  His last had been in 2001.  While he had run teams of Alaskan Huskies his passion was with Siberian Huskies.  Finding Bob was among a dozen or so things that went incredibly well for me my first year in Montana.

I met Bob mid August and visited his kennel for the first time in September.  There, he hooked up a team and took me for a ride in his “chassis,” the frame from an old Volkswagon sporting a bench seat and rack and pinion steering.  A year later, I’d be taking a lesson from John Barron and John just happened to wonder what became of that chassis after Bob moved.  I assured him that Bob took it up to Alaska with him, it was an old ATV that he sold me.   Even Bob’s training chassis was famous. 

After about a mile run, we were back at Bob’s kennel.  While hooking dogs back up to their houses, Bob offered to let me come up on weekends to watch him train his dogs.  He didn’t have to ask twice.  For the rest of the season, the only weekends I missed were when his girlfriend asked for a little alone time. 

The one caveat was that if I was to see any runs, I had to be there by eight.  At that time, Bob lived near Lake Placid, about twenty minutes from Seeley Lake proper.  I lived in Huson, just the opposite side of Missoula from Seeley.  In good weather, the ride took an hour and a half. 

Working full time meant I usually didn’t complete packing until late Friday night.  Saturday sunrise typically caught me driving along the eastern side of Salmon Lake, a few miles before the turn-off to Lake Placid and Bob’s place. 

Salmon Lake runs north and south and highway 83 follows its eastern shore.  The sun would clear the mountains and illuminate the opposite side of the lake and stands of gold foliage I had never seen before, larch.  The Seeley Lake area has small stands of aspen, but nothing like further south in the Rockies.  However, whole mountainsides are forested by larch and, in good years, these whole mountainsides turn soft gold.  Unlike poplar or aspen, larch is a conifer.  The color of the gold is as intense as the aspen but needles reflect the light rather than leaves and this softens the texture of the color. 

Perhaps it was the romance of driving up weekly to learn from a master, or that I was in Montana in the first place, or the excitement of being able to run dogs so much closer to my house than when I lived in Silicon Valley, but the annual display of the larch has never been quite as breathtaking as that first fall I was here.  That is until this year.

As the aspen and poplar gave up leaves in random and uninspiring patterns, the larch seemed to be changing in a lock step, patiently holding quite a bit back until all the other trees’ leaves had hit the ground.  Which happened and the larch let loose.

The display varies from solitary trees, conical towers of soft gold in the green lodgepole forest to huge stands of the same soft gold draping mountainsides.  Both line sides of the roads I take the team up and down turning them into ornate passages worthy of Theaureau or Muir.  I’ve tried, with a little success, to photograph this.  But like most landscapes, photographs and words are no match for what our eyes and minds give us. 

I have always preferred the stark beauty of the desert or tundra or mountain summit to the forest.  I like trees just fine, but only a few really strike my fancy.  I’ll never miss an opportunity to walk through a grove of giant sequoias.  I’ve taken notice anytime I’ve passed through large stands of aspen while traipsing through the central Rockies or small stands isolated in the Sierras or here.  And I discovered the larch, the golden deciduous conifer, when I moved from the city to Montana.

   
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