Last Wednesday, July 1st, we hit the road again and this time we were blessed to have nearly a week away without internet or phone service.
Our journey first took us from our home in Polebridge, Montana to West Glacier where we had a parting rendezvous with friends. A group of us were greatly surprised when our friend Duke and his lovely wife showed up for dinner at the Highlander. You see Duke is very ill, and he has been couped up in assisted living throughout the whole Coronavirus thing. It was so nice to see him, no matter his condition. He was feeling pretty punk, but he basically said, “to hell with it, let’s go sit with our friends!” He really wanted to see us and it will likely be the last time all of us will together. I cannot say this more strongly, the people in our lives bring us our greatest blessings. And this is why I cannot exclude telling you about this brief stop as we headed out of town. We left West Glacier heading east at about 8:30 p.m..
We figured it was the fourth of July weekend coming up and we would not likely find any camping sites and would have to camp on some remote forest service road, but we were pleasantly surprised. Glacier Park Lodge and the east side of Glacer National Park is closed and this took the pressure off the camping in that direction. We stayed at Devil’s Creek campground. It is a small campground with maybe twelve sites and the creek running through it. It was only a pit stop for us. We stayed the night and headed out the next morning through East Glacier, Browning, and along the Rocky Mountain front to Great Falls. If you have never been out this way before Hwy 287 is a beautiful drive. The drive alone is worth the trip to Montana. We like it best when we take our old Volkswagon Cabrio convertible. We just turn up the tunes and enjoy the ride. But today our destination, in our 1961 International Metro Van, was the Crazy Mountains. We had the hammer down and were crusing right along at a whooping 60mph.
Our first stop, besides taking on gasoline, was Monarch, Montana. It was not a planned stop. There on Hwy 89, the King’s Hill Scenic Byway a sign read, “Fresh Pan Fried Walleye.” Well we don’t get much walleye on the west side of the divide so we couldn’t resist. Monarch is an unincorporated micro town, that means they have a restaurant and bar, nothing else but maybe a post office. We pulled into the Cougar Canyon Bar and Grill and split our Walleye dinner served with yummy mashed potatoes and asparagus, just as it should be served. The old building and surroundings were typical of a small town restaurant and bar, but it had a quaint deck out back with lovely views. James was the bartender and server and he put to shame all the big city servers. He didn’t hesitate asking us our names, insisted we try a certain beer and told us we could bring our dog to the back deck, then he brought her some ice water. If you were wondering, sharing food is not my thing (I like to eat). But this time we were not the slightest bit hungry, yet how could we drive by a walleye dinner? It was a great stop, the food and service was excellent! We were gastronomically satisfied and we were enjoyed being our retired selves again.
So off we headed to the “Crazies.” They call them the Crazies I guess because an Indian woman lost her husband and family to settlers heading west. It is traditionally said, “she went Crazy” afterwards. The mountains were actually called by the Crow Indians the “Crazy Woman Mountains,” but some civilized, politically correct european changed the name to the Crazy Mountains.
The drive south on Hwy 89 was quite spectacular. There are wide open spaces in Montana, bigger than can be imagined. The land in these parts is all pretty much privately owned by ranchers, mostly cattle ranches. The ranches are huge. Many are ten, twenty, and fifty thousand acre ranches. Much of the land was cleared years ago and it has mostly been in “the family” for generations, although that is changing rapidly. We were told the change has been a point of controversy for years. They say the ultra rich and silicon valley types are buying up land whenever they can; but it’s not all bad. Luckily for those of us who enjoy seeing ranch lands they are still leased out to local cow herd owners so the out of town owners can take advantage of lower taxes; rich folk are not fools with their money. Still, it is kinda sad when ranching land is passed on to people who only visit their thirty thousand acre properties for maybe a couple days or a months per year. Most use it just to entertain their citified friends. Often they stage hunting big game with their buddies or business clients, or sometimes it’s just the cowboy experience they share for a weekend. Don’t get me wrong, the old timers with huge ranches are not poor, but it’s a different vibe. When the old time rancher goes to town to eat, they look like hard working folks because they live here and do the “ranching” themselves! The “investors” or urban cowboys I like to call them, mostly buy their properties for show and tell. Most don’t fit in, and it just does not feel right when you see them out and about on their Escalade; and they tend to fight for all sorts of public land use restrictions on locals, and they disguise their legal battles as environmental concerns. But enough of politics. You can read about this in the media.
What we experienced as we drove to the Shield’s River Campground was awe. The views are big screen material. Huge views of green grassy ranch land with well fed black angus and elk grazing. And the partly sunny views of snowy eleven thousand foot peaks made our day. We arrived late in the day and set up camp.
The next morning we got up early, around 6 a.m. and soon after we walked up the road and into the mountains for a hike. There was a little bushwacking at first, but we finally got into the open spaces and headed upwards. The fields were wet with the morning dew and the sun made the grass sparkle like it was adorning a million diamonds. As we gained elevation we ran across an old unused logging road. Still ascending, I spotted an elk butt, then a second one. If you have never seen an elk butt once you have seen one you will never forget what they look like. The elk did, at first, not see us as we stood silently enjoying the moment. Our dog Ania was with us, but she was lower in the grass and could not see or smell the elk. We slowly made our way closer and eventually we all made our introductions. Surprisingly, our dog pretended she was only curious as she looked upon the two wild beasts and they likewise at us. We decided to ease our way forward and get a few photos. Within about 50 yards the elk seemed to become a little concerned and slowly moved away uphill. Ania, off leash, was even closer. She kept looking back at us as if asking, “Do you you see these two things mom and dad, what am I supposed to do, they’re not deer, they’re not grizzlies?” The elk finally trotted uphill and out of site. Ania had some great smells when we reached where they had been. We continued a little farther and we got some great views of the mountains and wildflowers then started back down the mountain. This time down a gully and into a big natural field, then back to the road. That hike we figured was four plus miles. It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, but the unusual thing about it was the ground was just beaten up with uneven elk tracks. It has been a wet spring and when the herds come through it apparently they mess up the ground and make it difficult to walk. There seems to be a large herd of elk here.
When we got back to camp it was mid morning. We had our tea (for me) and coffee (for Jackie). We ate our donuts and later we had lunch, took a nap, wandered about, and read a bit for the rest of the day. It was very peaceful. A bit later, I’d say about 5 p.m., a couple drove up to our campsite in a ATV asking the usual questions. What kind of vehicle is that? What was it used for, etc? But this time our guests turned from gawkers to unusual acquaintances. You see the whole reason we drove to the Crazies was to scope it out for bowhunting season. Jackie has a friend from high school who married a doctor in Washington state and he recently retired. He has been hunting the Crazies for quite a number of years. But he thinks he’s getting a bit old to be hunting such wild country all by himself so he asked me to hunt the Crazies with him this fall.
So back to our meeting the couple. They turned out to be ranchers leasing grasslands at the neighboring “rich girls” ranch. I call it “show and tell property.” Our friend in Washington also met the same couple some time ago and he has been driving over and helping them out for apparently years. He mends fencing, puts up hay, and does general ranch hand work. Our friend was a doctor, not a blue collar guy, and he just loves the hard work of being a ranch hand. So he drives over a couple times a year and helps the rancher out for free. He gets to work hard, ride horses, and accomplish things for others. People actually do this sort of thing! So now we also have met the rancher and his wife, and we had a nice chat.
The next day we went for a ride in the van around a big forest service loop road. We crossed a stream and looped back to camp. We just hung out the rest of the day. The next next morning we drove back to Wilsall and had lunch at “The Bank.” A locally owned bar and restaurant. The owners are also cattle ranchers and the beef they serve comes from American Aberdeen and Angus cattle. They are grass fed, no hormones, and locally butchered at a certified USDA processor in Columbus, MT. So the whole process is under their watch. The owner and ranchers daughter was our server. She told us about her families Muddy Waters Ranch and the farm to table concept they followed at this little bar 40 miles from Livingston. The food was great!
Later that evening we again ran into our new friends and invited them to join us down by the river for some chilled wine which we has cooling off in the stream. They agreed. But to our surprise they brought their own and one upped us by bringing cheese, crackers, and elk sausage; and I might add processed and seasoned to perfection. We had a fire going in the fire pit but it started to sprinkle so we moved under a huge old pine tree by the stream. The tree kept us completely dry, it was a Montana sized spruce. The evening went on which chats about our mutual friends, ranching, and of course hunting and fishing. But what fascinated us most was the cattle ranching. These folks had 800 cattle and twenty two thousand acres and still needed to lease land to feed and hay their herd. They, as usual, said, ” we cannot find all the ranch hands we need for such operations, but we have one helper that has been with us for more than twenty years.” Ranch hands as part of their pay get a little cabin. Forman get a house on ranch property and decent pay. They said, ” you’ve got to realize a ranch hand may not get city folk wages, but they also don’t have the expenses or the time or opportunity to spend all that money. It’s a decent living!” I didn’t quite figure out how the money works but I did figure the owners occasionally sell a prize bull, their calves, and some steers go off to slaughter. It was very interesting learning about ranching, laying down fences in the fall, putting them back up again in the spring, and mending them to keep the cattle from escaping. They had just trucked all 800 cows in a couple days to the grass ranch. We ran into a part of the herd as we headed to town and watched the cattle for quite a while. There we a bunch of them crossing the road. They had never seen such a van before. In fact the ranchers said they had never seen many people before that day. They also said, “Every cow has it’s own personality,” God sure is an amazing God! The rancers wife said when they first move the herd from home to the spring grasses and let them out they tend to follow her around till they become comfortable in their new surroundings. She said, “It can be a little frightening with 800 cows following you around,” ya think?
Well, I can’t remember everything else we did but I do remember we saw a moose and took a lot a pictures. We wanted to capture the feeling. A very warm feeling at that.
One more thing I personally contemplated. It’s a bit political but an interesting observation. Ranch land out here is generally not good farming land. If you look closely my photos show lots of green grass land. The ranch land is what makes the contrasting colors. On it there are vast opportunities for recreation, and the beautiful vistas for photography. I cannot imagine this land more beautiful. Just think about this, less ranch land and more wilderness is not always more beneficial. And if we were all vegans, well, we would at least need cows to create this kind of beauty. And finally, if cows create global warming, well for now that’s a trade off I cannot accept. This beauty is worth something.
Well, that’s it for the Crazy Mountain’s. We headed out and had breakfast back in Wilsall at a neat little restaurant located in a school bus. They called it “The Little LeBuski.” We had a breakfast burrito and a carmel roll. It was a decent breakfast.
On our way home we traveled through Townsend and Canyon Ferry Montana on Hwy 12 and stopped at the reservoir. When we got to Wolf Point I revealed my sneaky plan to my wife. Just up ahead was Craig Montana. It’s basically at the headwaters of the Missouri River and some of the states biggest fish are caught on the Missouri. We found an outfitter and scheduled a 1/2 day trip of fishing. She had no idea this was in my plans. She took it well. Unfortunately we could not go longer than a half day float because we were with Ania, our dog. She needed to stay in the van while we were out, so we found a shady campsite opened windows and the sun roof, put up our umbrella over the sunroof and headed out fishing the next morning.
Neither one of us had ever nymph fished. Nor had we ever run into 24 inch plus rainbows. We learned a lot from our guide. I being the more experienced fishermen, caught one whitefish and one very nice rainbow. But several got away and two broke my line. They were very tough to get in the boat, and I had not enough experience with fish this size on a 5 weight fly rod. Jackie unfortunately got skunked, but I think she had a great time. She likewise had hooked a couple fish on her line, but the were so big and she so anxious to land them that they too broke her line too. Live and learn. We also both learned a lot about how to “mend” a line. It basically means making sure the line does not interfere with the fly. The fly and line need to float in a neutral position to make the presentation of the fly as natural as possible. It takes a lots of finesse to land big fish that a thousand other fishermen have tried to land.
We left Craig about 2 pm and headed home. The highlights here were the absolutely gorgeous ride home and the pizza we got at John Henry’s Bar and Pizza in Choteau Montana along Hwy 287. Note, I’ve mentioned Hwy 287 a couple of times. I did it for a reason.
Back in West Glacier we picked up a 26 yr old hitchhiker making his way to Polebridge to begin a solo hike to Seattle and the Pacific Trail. We wished him well, and we are hoping he won’t run into too many grizzlies and we don’t catch the Covid from him. So this trip was only a 6 days but full indeed. At about 8 p.m. Monday July 6th we arrived home. We saw our beautiful home and thought, we are certainly blessed. We have had a wonderful time together in the old van since we retired, this trip included. It is especially good when we are disconnected… And we are glad we can share these good times with you.