Wolf and Sheep Tracks, Mercy Flight Memorial, Pictographs Make for Memorable Hike along the North Fork of the Sun River
The drive to Augusta was sunny, lighting up the mountains along the Rocky Mountain Front the whole way. Five gals from Great Falls met people from Whitefish, Missoula and Clancy at the Mannix General Store before heading to the Sun River Canyon for our Wagner Basin and Pictograph hike. And yes, it did turn out to be a hike instead of a snowshoe.
On the way, we were treated to views of Sawtooth Mountain to our left and Castle Reef to our right with the North Fork of the Sun River in between before we turned off the road to cross the bridge into Hannan Gulch.
Sara introduced the group to the work of MWA while Katie explained a little bit about the area, how a squatter named Hannan built a cabin and out buildings that were later commandeered by the forest service to create the Sun River Ranger District headquarters. She also explained about the Rocky Mountain Front being the entrance into the Bob with 59 species of concern from short-eared owls to shews to a dessert toad.
From there, Katie decided we should hike into Wagner Basin first since it was so windy and save the pictographs for when the sun was higher. The Basin already had sun shining on it. The snow was only a few inches deep, so we ditched the snowshoes and opted for yaktrax or just boots.
Before going into Wagner Basin, Katie led the group to the Mercy Flight Memorial plaque that commemorates the deaths of two doctors, a nurse and pilot whose helicopter went down on a sightseeing sidetrip on return from a training in Many Glacier. Drs. Stoick and Grimes and Nurse Berndt lost their lives while videotaping bighorn sheep in Hannan Gulch. It is assumed a gust of wind caught the pilot off guard. Due to the accident, the Mercy Flights today fly heavier copters, the crew must wear helmets and boots (they were in tennis shoes), the crews must report their position every 15 minutes and no sidetrips or sightseeing is allowed.
As we headed into the basin, Katie explained that the cabins were on forest service leased land. We saw Mary N's cabin along the way and saw where we normally park. The snow wasn't even deep enough to cover the rocky section, so we had to watch our step. Luckily, it wasn't icy. On this stretch, Katie noticed very large canine prints and many sheep tracks. We surmised that two wolves were chasing the bighorns in this area, that very morning, since the snow was fresh.
In the basin, we picked up another set of much smaller tracks alongside one of the larger ones. We figured these tracks were either a young wolf or a coyote following the wolves to eat some leftovers. Luckily, we didn't happen upon a kill site; however, we did see where the sheep scattered in all directions and the wolves separating to surround the herd. Most headed to the river.
Then we arrived at our destination in the basin: the skull tree. This tree has various skulls hung on it, all painted on the forehead with birds. Mary N's niece is the painter. Inside her cabin are many of these artworks. We also saw a white-tailed deer run across the field.
Then we turned around and retraced our steps to the cars. We decided to eat lunch on the bridge before heading out to see the pictographs.
After a quick lunch, we walked the trail along the shore of the North Fork Sun to the pictographs, which lie at the head of Mortimer Gulch. Many have been faded by weather and some taken home as souvenirs, but many nice ones remain, especially hand prints.
After we hiked back to the cars, we finished by looking back at the cliff at the head of the basin. Katie explained what a nice hike it is in the spring.
Then we said our goodbyes in Augusta and headed home. We arrived back in Great Falls around 3:30 p.m. Who went from GiG: Sara, Rose, Jaye, Katie