Taking water’s measure

A three-day trip to measure Montana’s snowpack follows a century of tradition.


The lynx sat atop the carcass of a giant bull elk, licking frozen meat off the exposed neck.  As we approached from downriver, sliding our skis up the wind-polished ice, the lynx leapt over the cornice of snow above the river and padded away uphill to a patch of firs. The four of us stopped to look at the bull, keeping wary eyes on the ice. Beneath our skis, the currents of the North Fork of the Sun River showed in places as if through glass, the water coiling and bubbling, changing color as the low sun was eclipsed by banks of wind-blown cloud.

Around us yawned the North Fork Valley, its rich grassland wilderness locked tight beneath 56 inches of snow, and edged with ragged white and black peaks — Sheep Mountain, ­Slategoat. A herd of almost 3,000 elk summers here, but beyond the evidence of the dead bull, there was no indication that so much life existed — no track of deer or moose or wolf, not even hare, only the wide splayed prints of the lynx. The silence was absolute. It was 15 degrees below zero at 11 a.m. I tried to take a photo of the bull, but my camera was frozen. 

I was traveling in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness with Russ Owen, a fire and fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service; Bill Avey, the supervisor of the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests; and Kraig Lang, who has been the wilderness ranger in this part of the forest for most of his career. We didn’t linger; the cold was pure force, a presence that you moved through like a deep-sea diver, and we had a job to do. Over the next three days, we would ski a hundred miles in order to collect a season’s worth of data — and uphold the proud American tradition of knowing, at least in the arid agricultural West, exactly how much cream is there for the churning. 

  • Icicles build up on Forest Service backcountry ranger Kraig Lang’s mustache on a frigid snow sampling trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

    Courtesy USFS
  • Hal Herring and Lang weigh a snow core with a Mount Rose Snow Sampler.

    Courtesy USFS
  • Hal Herring, Bill Avey and Kraig Lang at the Gates Park Cabin in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which kept them sheltered from a snowstorm before skiing more than 20 miles out of the wilderness to the trailhead at Gibson Reservoir.

    Courtesy USFS

Snow surveys in the American West date back to 1906, when, on the colossal 10,785-foot Mount Rose in Nevada’s Carson Range, James E. Church first developed the techniques for measuring the water content of mountain snow. Church, a Michigander educated in Germany, was a professor of Latin, German and fine arts, but had a mountain climber’s heart and a scientist’s mind. He took a keen interest in his adopted region’s primary asset: water.

 Church built what would come to be known as the Mount Rose Snow Sampler, a 10-foot-long metal tube, 1.5 inches in diameter on the inside, with serrations at the base that allow the user to twist and cut through the snowpack to the ground. The tube is weighed on a portable scale hung from a ski pole; since one inch of water in the tube weighs about one ounce, the weight can be used to calculate both the snow depth and the water content of the snow in a specific area. Church also developed what he called  “snow courses,” a series of fixed measurement sites that cover a range of elevations, slopes and exposures. Each spring, data collected from the courses provide a detailed picture of the coming flood and irrigation season.

Church’s system was adopted across the West. In 1935, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service created the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecast. It now includes 900 manual snow courses as well as 750 automated Snowpack Telemetry Weather Stations — known as SNOTEL stations — across 13 Western states, including Alaska, mostly in high-mountain watersheds. SNOTEL stations automatically deliver snowpack and water equivalent information to the Natural Resources Conservation Service via VHF radio signals, but they’re not used in designated wilderness areas — and even SNOTEL sites have to be visited once a winter by somebody, to make sure they are working properly.  A new technology called airborne laser altimetry may one day render both SNOTELs and the Mount Rose Snow Sampler as obsolete as goose-quill pens, but for now, manual snow courses in wilderness areas are still monitored by human beings on snowshoes, skis or horseback, three times a season, in late February, March and April. It may be one of the last best jobs for an outdoorsman or woman in the Rocky Mountain West.

The Bob Marshall is one of the first wilderness areas created by the 1964 Wilderness Act, and it holds the snowpack that feeds the Sun River — called the Medicine River by the Blackfeet and other inhabitants pre-European conquest. In 1929, just below the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Sun, the Bureau of Reclamation completed Gibson Dam, which impounds 99,000 acre-feet of this snowmelt water at full pool. Gibson Reservoir made possible a byzantine irrigation system that caused a land rush in the Sun River Valley, and turned the Fairfield Bench, previously an almost uninhabitable plateau, into what is now called “the Malting Barley Capitol of the World,” with over 91,000 acres under irrigation. Fairfield, population about 800, has bucked the Great Plains trends of shrinking populations and shuttered businesses because of the federal water right from Gibson Reservoir — and the snowpack that fills it is protected on public land, in designated wilderness. Had the headwaters of the Sun River ended up in private hands, or been logged and grazed as hard as they were in the late 19th century, human life in this part of Montana would be a far more tenuous proposition.

It is one of the most successful public-private partnerships on the planet. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is renowned for its native cutthroat trout fishing, its elk and mule deer hunting, and its blooming beargrass utopias fraught with the ancient energies of grizzly bear, wolverine, wolf and cougar. But it exists because a century ago, people knew where their water came from, and knew how to make sure it would be around for generations to come.    

All we have to do is measure it. We hit the snow course at Sheep Mountain, then drop back down for the long run to Cabin Creek and the hardest day of the trip. The wind is constant and the country is remorselessly burned, mile after mile, the stark blackened snags of fir and lodgepole moaning and popping like a demented orchestra.   

We spend the night at the venerable old Forest Service cabin at Gates Park Guard Station, a woodstove-heated log palace stocked with books and magazines and grape Kool-Aid. Gates’ cabin, with its barns for pack stock and artfully rocked-in springs, was built in 1924, and is a remnant of the days when Americans took much more pride in their public lands. The next morning, we boomerang to the last survey site at Wrong Creek, nine miles each way, skiing a mixture of heavy mashed potatoes and suncrust, exhaustion barking close at our heels.

It is just dark when we shuffle back into the Gates cabin. Kraig and Russ Owen transmit the data over the cabin’s radio while Bill Avey and I cook a massive supper of spaghetti and canned pears. The battery-operated weather radio begins to squawk of a coming blizzard and extreme cold, and as we eat and soak up the heat from the woodstove, the warnings (“Protect your livestock.” … “Avoid travel. …”) become increasingly dire. Settling in, we joke that the next warning will simply say, “Kill yourselves now!” and we cut the radio, put out the lanterns, and fade away to the wind rising and crying at the eaves. 

Sometime before dawn, we awaken, the wind unabated, and the cabin is profoundly, almost shockingly, cold. We fire up the woodstove, start cooking all the food we have left, brew huge mugs of tea instead of coffee, knowing that our water bottles will freeze on the trail and there will be a long dry day ahead. Opening the front door is like popping the hatch on a spaceship while traveling between planets; the rush and roar and wind-driven snow, fine as sand, has covered the porch and piled up along the outer wall, and it moves in hallucinatory patterns in the shaft of light cast by the lanterns inside. 

We shoulder our packs, then struggle with frozen ski bindings. I zip my jacket to my chin and tighten my hood; when I exhale, my breath rises straight up and frosts my eyelashes together so that for a second, I cannot open my eyes. The ski track we laid in, the one that was going to make our return trip so very easy, has been obliterated by the wind and snow. The sky goes bluish-purple in the east, the line of mountains showing ragged and towering black as in a fairy tale. Russ Owen shoves forward. It’s 16 miles to Reclamation Flats, where there is a cabin we can use if we have to. Another six or seven miles beyond that, across the frozen Gibson Reservoir, is the truck we strongly suspect will never start.

Hal Herring lives with his family in Augusta, Montana.

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