My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Saturday, August 10, 2013


She travels back in time to visit Big Medicine, the white buffalo, hikes six miles up and down a mountain, photographs the entire length of a river, revisits the Lewis and Clark expedition, drives 520 miles and wins an argument with a huge bull elk.  And all that in one day. And while fasting.

Looking back on my last Thursday's exploits, I thought I might be superwoman.  But I was  probably just delusional after going at top speed for nineteen hours, making sure I got my trip's worth of adventures.

My odyssey began with a desire to go to the Montana Historical Society's Museum in Helena to see the famous bison, Big Medicine, who was born and died here at National Bison Range. Now his stuffed body is part of a diarama. I wanted to do a blog on him.

Then I figured, since I was driving 320 miles to do this, I ought to at least get my money's worth out of the trip.  I went on-line and looked up things to do in and around Helena.  Among the top attractions was visiting the St. Helena Cathedral and climbing Mt. Helena. So I decided I could easily fit them in, and if I started early enough, I could hike while it was cool and the other attractions were closed.  And I saw that I really should drive the extra 90 miles to Great Falls because it was so scenic.

I didn't make very good calculations - probably because I've been going too fast to stop and do much thinking at all - so I didn't even get to Helena until about 8:30 A.M., when I should have been there by 6:30 - 7:00 A.M.  When I arrived, I still had visions of a quick hike and of being finished by 10:00 A.M.  Of course, I didn't even know the distances until I got to the park. I decided to take the 1906 Trail up the mountain and then thought I was supposed to take the Backtrail back.  However, apparently I had the wrong trail in my mind.  After walking the Backtrail a while, I met some ladies and asked them if the trail was going to get me back to the same trail head I'd started from.  (I was, after all, going the wrong way, and knew it.)  They said, no, but I could switch over to the Prairie Trail.  I knew that one, since I had to make a decision to walk a steeper trail or a longer trail and chose the steeper one to the top. I managed to follow their directions and make it back to the trailhead.

I passed this hiker going down the Prairie Trail, a longer, easier route to the top

That was a beautiful walk.  The trails I was on wound through open areas and wooded areas, and once, past a rock wall. The town of Helena lay to the south and east of the mountain, looking into the sun.  The other side of the mountain looked over beautiful open hills and on into forested land.  If I had been even more dumb or delusional, I could have gotten on a trail that led off the mountain and into these public lands.

View to northeast from the top of Mt. Helena

I finally finished my hike around 11:15.  I knew that I would have to be at the cathedral between one and three since that was when the tours were. I decided to call and find out just what this meant. It turns out that a tour guide begins a tour and you just drop in and find him, then drop out again when you get back to your starting place.

After getting the information on the tour, I decided to go to the museum and see if I could come and go all day.  I was able to get a sticker which would let me come all day - and any other Thursday, since they museum only has tickets for different days they are open and don't date-stamp them. And I could also come back the next day - if he put a sticker on my receipt.  Pretty neat.

Bronc rider outside the museum

The museum was very interesting and had a lot of interactive stuff.  You could put on an Indian robe, see how you looked in an old wedding veil, use booklets to find stuff in the museum and do other non-technical interactive stuff. They had a lot of materials that you were allowed to touch.  They also have a big research library which I didn't use.

I stopped to look at all the brochures they had.  I excitedly opened the one on Great Falls and decided I might be able to make it to the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center and also check out Giant Springs and the Roe River that carries the water from the springs to the Missouri River. And of course, I wanted to see The Great Falls, for which the town is named. This is when the last little bit of reason disappeared and I was on to bigger and better adventures.

I still had to check off the cathedral so went over there, arriving a little after one.  The woman on the phone had told me to come any time and just find the tour.  There did not appear to be a tour, nor anyone waiting to lead one. So I took myself on a little tour and then set my GPS to direct me to  the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center in Grand Falls.

View from the back of St. Helena Cathredral

The drive was beautiful but, since I-15 now overlays it, it was impossible to stop and take pictures of some of the stunning views and the many paddlers.  I finally came off the Interstate and found a boat launch site.  Then I had to drive fifteen miles on a very poor road to get back on the Interstate.

A view of the Missouri River

By three-thirty, I was at the Lewis and Clark Center.  It was the most interesting and detailed place I'd visited that day.  I stayed a few hours but could have stayed all day.  I only got to see one of the movies - that a quick overview of the trip.  There is another movie that documents the portage around grand falls. And docents have talks after each of the movies. One of the interesting exhibits was of a boat with a rope you could pull.  Your pull registered on a scale, which told you how many miles a day you could pull the boat.  I could have done NEARLY two miles a day of the twenty mile portage. It took Lewis and Clark's men two weeks to haul all their stuff across.  They were so tired, that, when rest stops were called, they dropped down, instantly asleep.

Diorama showing how the expedition portaged around Great Falls - a 20 mile portage

I moved just past the Interpretative Center to Giant Falls State Park to see the falls and also the Roe River which carries the 156 million gallons of water per day to the Missouri River. Once listed as the shortest river in the world, it is only 201 feet long. So I'm not too delusional when I said I photographed the entire river  - and I did it in mere minutes.

Commemorative plaque

This is pretty much the whole enchilada - spring-falls-river

In the background is the Missouri River - upper right - Giant Spring - then the waterfalls and rocky river - all viewed from bridge over Roe River

The other piece of the river, looking downstream from the bridge to its  confluence with the Missouri River

Closeup of part of the waterfalls flowing out of the spring

 Then it was on to Great Falls.  Their beauty is much diminished because a dam has been built there to capture its energy and transform it into electricity. But it is still an interesting place.  I toured Ryan Island while I was there and took pictures of the dam and the river from the high viewpoint there.

A part of Great Falls

The rest of Great Falls

There was still enough light that I thought I could get to First Peoples Buffalo Jump.  But when I reached it about 7:00 P.M., I found it closed, and locked the gates at 6:00 P.M.  I did take a picture of an edge, before discovering  that the main part of the state park is below the jump area, while the area from which they jumped was about a half mile down the closed road.  This would be a neat place to visit again some day.

The actual buffalo jump was to the far right of this picture but this gives the same views.

Museum depiction of a buffalo jump

I didn't want to come back the same road on which I'd come, so had decided to take Highway 200 all the way to Missoula.  But Ulm is about fifteen miles south of Great Falls, on Interstate 15, so I drove back up to Great Falls before starting home.

The land along this route has many more prairies over rolling hills so I was glad I'd taken the route.  But I ran out of light about an hour away from Missoula so don't really know what this part looks like.

Then just as I was driving through the day use area, at National Bison Range, to reach the bunkhouse, a giant bull elk stepped into my lights.  He apparently was declaring ownership of the road.  He stood there and I stopped.  Then I eased forward.  He held his ground, so I stopped.  I backed up a little to see if my lights were confusing him and he moved just off the road.  I came forward and he came back on the road.  I revved  my engine and he took a few steps back to the side of the road.  I charged down the road  past him and he decided to give up and trotted off.

Yep. Superwoman!

But the rest of the weekend is truly mundane.  I will consist of visiting a doctor, doing house cleaning and clothes washing, and drying food for my vacation and to feed my friends in the Boundary Waters. I have a visit to Glacier National Park with a friend in a little over a week, then will drive to Minneapolis with another friend, stopping at Grand Tetons National Park, Red Rock Lakes NWR, my next summer's home, at a friend's house in Bozeman - and she's taking us up the Beartooth Highway - and finally at Theodore Roosevelt National Park  before dropping him off in Minneapolis, then going on to Grand Marais to meet friends for a two weeks of paddling in the Boundary Waters.  So I'm getting into crunch time on getting everything cooked and dried to have on the Boundary Waters.