It snowed the first night of my residency in Montana’s southern end of the Bitterroot Mountains in the Centennial Valley. The cold front had dampened the historic 2017 Montana wildfires. The next morning snow covered the willows and grasses of Centennial Valley. I walked down the South Valley Road and crossed the field and entered the willow thickets that line Odell Creek. After an hour of slogging through wet willows, I headed back to my cabin. As I started back across the field, I looked up and there stood a huge bull moose stripping off willow leaves.
Returning to my cabin, I perused a topographic map of the Centennial Mountains that flank the wildlife refuge and quickly planned out a project: Walking Odell. I would hike and explore the length of Odell Creek, one of the original streams that flow into Red Rock Lakes, the headwaters of the Missouri River.
For the next three weeks, I embarked on a series of long hikes, trying to traverse the length of Odell Creek, from its beginning where it trickles out of the cirque basin of Slide mountain to the wetlands of Lower Red Rock Lake. The creek descends through Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir and into the high meadows of sage and balsamroot past the USDA Experimental Sheep Station. It parallels the old Pack Trail cutting through a 600’ deep canyon of rugged steep walls of Paleozoic rock on the western side of Sheep Mountain. It then enters the flat valley floor where it quietly meanders through moose habitat of willow, turning and bending, bowing and circling its flow into the shallows of Lower Red Rock Lake.