Monday, July 21, 2008

Summertime in the Bitterroots

It's hard to believe that we're already deep into the summer; it seems like just yesterday there was snow in the mountains....whoops, there STILL is snow in the mountains, although not nearly as much as in May. The rivers have finally fallen to normal levels, and we've settled into the summer weather pattern of days in the high 80s, nights in the the low 50s, and no rain in the forecast until late September. We've been taking it slow this year, but have still been out exploring. We recently visited the town of Deer Lodge and the Montana State Prison Museum. We'd been meaning to stop here on our previous trips through the area, and were glad we finally made the time; it's an interesting place to explore. The prison museum is one of seven museums clustered together on main street. Inside a wing of the old prison is an auto museum, and across the street are a doll museum, frontier museum, and others. What made the museum especially interesting is that it was abandoned in 1978 when the inmates were moved to a new prison nearby. Most of the furniture, equipment, and paperwork on bulletin boards was left untouched, so visitors get a real sense of what life there was like. A self-guided tour took us inside the walls, to the cell blocks, dining halls, administrative areas, and hospital. The history of the museum is detailed in many photos and exhibits throughout the buildings. The story of the 1959 riot, broken up by the National Guard using "bazookas" was interesting, and if you look close at the upper windows on the orange brick tower pictured, you can still see the damage from a bazooka round.
I've had a few opportunities to hone my new skills as a fly fisherman (it takes about 30 seconds to hone my limited skills), and on one trip my fellow volunteer Tom and I found this beautiful mountain stream in the Sapphire Mountains where had a great time catching wild cutthroat trout. Although most were small like the one pictured (note: I have VERY big hands....), I did manage to catch one that was 14" long - a monster in the small stream I was fishing. As a bonus, I only managed to lose 4 flies to trees that suddenly popped out of nowhere on my backcast. I've been returning all my fish to the streams since Brenda tells me that, while I'm gone fishing, she's practicing her fish-cleaning and cooking skills but needs a bit more time before she's ready. She first told me this in 1973.
If you've ever seen the Nature Valley Granola Bar commercials with the girl on top of the mountain, then you'll recognize the pictures as being from Lost Horse Overlook, just down the road from us and an easy 6-mile drive (mostly straight up) to a 7200' viewpoint. It's a magical place - one of our favorite places to visit and take friends to see. The beauty of places like this and Montana in general never fails to amaze us; as the state tourism motto says "Montana - The Last Best Place". We still have a lot of places to explore here; c'mon back and see where we've been!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Warmin' Up in Montana

Finally, the weather has returned to normal and we're enjoying warm (sometimes hot) temperatures. We enjoy the fact that even though the day may be very hot, as soon as the sun gets low in the sky the temperature drops to comfortable levels and we have cool nights. The rivers and streams are still raging; hopefully by mid-week they'll be calmed down and fishable. We've made the best of our days off, visiting new and old favorite places. Last week we drove north to Flathead Lake and the town of Kalispell. The lake is the largest natural fresh water lake west of the Mississippi, and is a big summer destination, with lots of golf courses, condo communities, and huge log homes on the hillsides. The lake is very pretty but we were disappointed in the town; lots of strip-mall stores and not much charm. After looking around and having lunch, we headed back south to the National Bison Range, a large area with mountains, streams, and grasslands. It was mid-day when we visited, and although the last time we visited we saw pronghorn, deer, and a young bear, the sun had driven the animals into the brush and woods and except for the bison/buffalo, it was a fairly quiet tour. From the Bison Range, we could see the beautiful Mission Mountains in the distance, and behind the small town of St. Ignacius, a deep canyon. It looked like there was a road heading into the canyon, so after a 30-mile trip to get to what was a 10-mile straight distance, we left St. Ignacius and headed back into the mountains. We were amazed to find a beautiful lake nestled against the mountains, with a startling view in the distance of what we first thought was snow, and then realized was a huge waterfall! Since it was back in the wilderness where no roads are permitted, we sat and watched through binoculars. What an amazing place! This is a place not listed in any travel guide yet takes your breath away; Montana is truly an amazing place.
June is our birthday month (both mine, Brenda's, and our daughter's), and we found that our fellow volunteers and our volunteer boss Bob also had June birthdays (confirmation that the truly attractive people were born in June). We decided to celebrate at one of the truly unique restaurants in the area, the "Grubstake". Located 2000' up a dirt road with lots of switchbacks above the town of Hamilton, it not only features spectacular views of the Bitterroot Valley, but an interesting menu and style. The menu for the evening was all-you-can-eat BBQ ribs and chicken, with side dishes, salad bar, and drinks (including home-made root beer). The owner, a delightful gentleman, strolled through the tables wearing a gunbelt and telling stories of the restaurant's history (the bear that bathed in the washtub, how they use snowmobiles to get to town in the winter, and others). As you leave, you pass a bucket filled with alfalfa cubes; if you don't pick up a few to feed the mule and horses just up the walk, the mule will bray and make a fuss until you go back and get a cube for it. This is a special place and we had a great time.
This year we managed to do something we meant to do our first year here but missed out on - the blooming of the Camas flowers in the mountains. The Camas completely cover a large area known as Packer Meadows, easily accessible on a good dirt road from the main highway. With all of the blue blossoms, it looked like an alpine lake. Another of our favorite wildflowers, known as beargrass, is in bloom at the higher elevations (above 5000'). It's an amazing plant; what looks like a fuzzy flower is actually a mosaic of small, star-shaped flowers. It's a great time of year here, everything is still green and the fire danger is low - hope it stays that way! C'mon back and visit!