Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Month in Montana

In case you didn’t know, I’ve (Shannon) been obsessed with Montana for some years.   When I was first driving across the country, 12 years ago, people would always mention MT as “the most beautiful state”  and tell me that I had to go see “big sky country”. Since then, I’ve been dying to get here.  And here we are!  
Our friends, Amanda and Tom, are Montanans and have a house in Helena.  We came out here to visit with them and they let us use their house as a base camp for touring around and they’ve provided their services as Tour Guides. We’ve been here a full month.  July 3rd to August 3rd and a jam-packed month it’s been. 

We started our trip off in Butte, MT on July 3rd for the fourth of July fireworks there.  Immediately we began to compare MT to MA.  Here’s a little list. 

Considering it was the 4th of July, the first (and most obvious way) that MT was different was that anyone can have fireworks!  In honor of our country's Independence, everyone was participating in blowing up a small part of it. Lots of folks had fireworks and were shooting them off in the streets which was nearly as fun to watch as the town display itself.  And not little morning glories or bottle rockets but the big, up the sky and make a fire-flower kind of firework.  It was an awesome pre-show and encore to the city’s display.   

Breweries and Distilleries 
While still in Butte we were introduced to the next exciting way Montana was different.  Distilleries and Breweries.  Our first night in MT we went into HeadFrame distillery and imbibed some of their vodka, gin, whiskey and creme liqueur.  I realize that most states (even MA) have tons of breweries and distilleries but this was a thing. The distillery had a tasting room (AKA bar) where you could buy drinks or bottles (limit of 2 per person per day) but it closes at eight (that’ s the law) and the whole thing had  a family atmosphere and people had their children in there sipping virgin versions out of the fun copper cups.  This was the atmosphere in all of the breweries and distilleries we visited-and we visited quite a few. 

License Plates 
Another fun thing about MT?   There are so many different license plate styles. I have never seen a state with SO MANY DESIGNS.   I’m not kidding. There’s the standard blue MT plate but then you can get the rainbow plate, the plate with the fish, with the elk, with the mountains, with the river, with a charlie russel water color.  Is is unbelievable.
Driving Culture 
People are laid back in their vehicles.   When you’re cruising through a town or work zone-people slow down.   They don’t creep up your back bumper if you are going the speed limit (which is 75).  They don’t blaze past you to rush to the next red light.  It’s a pretty nice driving culture. And sure, the other drivers don’t love it when they get stuck behind a car going 35 but they don’t cruise 2 feet behind them to annoy them. They just wait for an opportunity to go around.  What a concept! 

People are obsessed with this blueberry look alike.  They only grow wild which means that you can only get them when they are in season and only if you pick them or pay $45 dollars for 5 pounds if someone else picks them.   They are, we’ll admit, quite good.  They look like a blueberry but the texture is more firm and the flavor is more pronounced. More sweet and tart than a blueberry but with the mellow overtones that a good blueberry carries. Very nice. 

It seems like everyone that our friends have introduced us to hunts-this doesn’t mean that they are all hunters.  More than the vast majority of the state takes part in shooting animals to eat.   I’ve been in the grocery store with Amanda and we’ll be talking about her favorite ways to eat Elk and the 16 year old bagger will speak up with what he did with his elk,the 72 year old woman will chime in with how she makes sausages with her deer and the 57 year old father will talk about teaching his kids how to properly butcher the moose they were lucky enough to get a few years back.  It’s pretty incredible.  Amanda and Tom have also informed us that you can’t shoot anything you aren’t then going to eat.  You legally have to eat it all. Which I think it a pretty good policy.   

Those are some of the fun things we’ve noticed about MT. But just what did we do in this fine state? Here’s a little run down:

We spent our first week (and some days here and there) in Helena just settling in and hanging out with our friends.  We toured the Capitol Building where a statue of Janet Rankin resides and saw the massive Charlie Russell that lives in House of Representatives.   
We also went over and toured their Cathedral.  A massive gothic designed building with gorgeous (still original) stained glass and and the soaring pointed arcs that are standard with the gothic design.  We hiked a bit on Mt Helena,  swam in the city pool (there was a lazy river, slide AND a diving board),  sampled the Helena Breweries and ate ice cream. 
The Charlie Russell 

Stained Glass in the Cathedral 

Yellowstone National Park 

We drove down to Yellowstone our second week. Originally we had intended to bike around the park, but the roads were so narrow with no shoulder and there is SO MUCH TRAFFIC, that we opted against it.   Which really worked out fine because it meant we could camp in a different area of the park each night.   Every day we’d go into the back country office and ask them what was available. They they would set us up and send us on our way. 
We stayed right on goose lake the first night, a beautifully flat lake that caught the sunset and and then reflected the stars all night. 
Goose Lake Campground 

Goose Lake 
Next we were out in Washburn Meadow which, while a gorgeous walk through the wild flowers with the bison grazing in the distance under the shadow of Mt Washburn-we were beset with mosquitos and were forced to retire to the tent a bit early. This hike did afford us a private viewing of some pretty spectacular collection of “boiling mud pots” that the typical tourist wouldn’t see - making the trip feel a little more special.
Washburn Meadow Campground

Washburn Meadow 
Then we hiked along specimen ridge and down into the valley to camp near the Yellowstone river. This was a beautiful site that came out as a little peninsula between a creek and the river but was set up high above them both so you got a great view of the valley on both sides.  It came with a nice steep climb out the next morning. Perfect to wake you up and get the blood flowing!  We also found ourselves for the first time between two bodies of water, the creek and the river, that were flowing in complete opposite directions.  Very cool.
Agate Creek Campsite 

After Agate Creek 
The last day we camped (with Britt!) out near Canyon. A short three mile walk through woods, then meadow and out past a lake.   Thankfully this night was all about hanging out as the campsite wasn’t the most beautiful.  Luckily the bugs didn’t take to us as much as the night we were camped in the meadow!
Britt Campsite 

All of us with Britt! 
And while in Yellowstone we, of course, saw Old Faithful-three times!  And we even took a geyser tour of the area with the most geysers IN THE WORLD, the basin around Old Faithful.  We saw at least three more eruptions on that tour. So fun.  Fun little fact, there are people that sit and watch geysers all day to let the rangers know when they will erupt. They’re called Geyser Gazers.  We really like that.  We even saw one in action.

Lion geyser

Old Faithful 
And yes we saw wildlife. While we were hiking we saw bison, pronghorn antelope and mule deer.  From the road we saw bears, bison, sheep, a bald eagle, a grizzly bear eating a dead bison, a moose, and two swimming elk.  Pretty epic. 

Oh.  And and while this was almost tied with seeing the prismatic spring, the highlight was hanging out with Britt, our our suite (and sweet!) mate from the Ice, who was also on a little roadtrip. We had so much fun we made a plan to meet up with her again in Glacier the following week.


Missoula and the Breweries
Amanda and Tom both went to school in Missoula and took us out to see this adorable little town. It was great. They have a great little pizza joint that has a happy hour: a slice of pizza and a FREE BEER. (what?!)  There’s a delicious ice cream joint with a line down the block selling flavors like  “chocolate glazed donut” and “lavender”.  There's a tiny movie house that still uses 35mm film and was showing some kung-fu movie about the apocalypse. They have three (yes THREE) farmers markets every saturday morning, and of course we were there to see the Russian Punk band, Igor and the Red Elvis’, perform in the park (the bassist was playing the largest bass we’ve ever seen).  It was a perfect little college town. But the real reasons we went out there was to tour the breweries.   We got samples or pints in every one:

Big Sky

We even hit one winery and a distillery, the latter of which we got a great little private tour!


Draught Works 


Missoula Winery 

Big Sky 

Glacier National Park
When we got back from Missoula we took two days to do laundry and then went off again, this time to Glacier.  We started our trip in Coram visiting another ice friend, Erin. We stayed two nights at her cabin and since she had the day off, she drove us around to see the sights and little towns.  It was so good to see her and she is an excellent hostess.   We arrived to an evening of salmon and grilled veggies, we awoke to a morning of bloody mary’s and fresh fruit and that evening she directed us to the best possible dinner - a pizza joint smorgasbord.  Marvelous!

Britt, again,   met up with us again at Erin’s place along with her friend Scott.  After having our super fun meet-up, we took advantage of Britt and Scott’s knowledge of the park (they both worked in and around the park for awhile) and Scott guided us on an amazing off-trail hike up to this amazing (fairly secret?) place called Shangri-la lake.  It was pretty much our first time going off trail for a hike, and it ended with us “boot-skiiing” down a super steep scree hill and butt-sledding down to this amazing glacial pond called Iceberg lake.

That weekend, Amanda and Tom drove up from Helena and our friend Dan (from the Korea) drove down from Calgary and we all met up at Duck Lake (just outside Glacier) for some card playing, beer drinking, dessert eating good times.  We had an excellent reunion and a million funs.
After everyone departed we struck out on our own to see the park. 
We stayed in East Glacier area the first night and hiked out to Atlantic Creek which then afforded us a hike up to the Triple Divide the next morning where we saw the Hoary Marmot, a Pika, and lots of aggressive ground squirrels.
Atlantic Creek Campground 

Atlantic Creek Campground

Triple Divide Pass 
Then we drove the Going-to-the-Sun road over to East Glacier to hike a super easy two miles in to Lake McDonald.  A gorgeous site  in the middle of an old burn so the trees are these huge blackened telephone poles but with lush greenery and gorgeous purple wildflowers that are growing up below them and attracting bees and hummingbirds. The lake was warm and clear and it was beautiful to see the sun set.  That night was perfectly clear and the stars seemed to be framed by the pillars of the trees.  A gorgeous night!
Lake McDonald Campground 

Lake McDonald Campground. Can you spot our tent? 
The next morning we got up early for our easy 9 miles over to Arrow lake, or so we assumed.  Oh, we were mistaken. The first three miles were a steep, steep climb up and down in 90 degree heat.  It took us 2.5 hours. And then, after walking though the remains of an avalanche-broken trees and over MOUNDS of dirty snow, we had to slog through three miles of chest high overgrown trail that contained NETTLES, again in 90 degree heat. When we finally arrived at our campsite however, the lake was glowing in the sunlight and was crystal clear so we immediately set up camp so we could go swimming.  Unfortunately, as soon at we attached the rainfly, a storm blew in, complete with lightening and thunder.  Thankfully it only lasted an hour but when it blew over the temperature had dropped 25 degrees and it was too cold to swim.  Kind of hilarious, kind of infuriating.   The next morning was a rough 7 miles out to the car (chest-high overgrowth was now SOAKED WITH RAINWATER) but we made it and got back to Helena in time go to the community pool (which, you may remember, has a slide, a lazy river and a diving board).
Arrow Lake Campsite

Arrow Lake

The Cabin
We both started and ended our trip at Amanda’s Family Cabin. It’s 19 miles from butte and whitehall.  It’s an adorable little thing that was first owned by her grandfather and has now passed down to his kids.  Her cousins were up both times we visited so we had a grand time drinking, playing games and singing at the fire.   Her Aunt Connie spends all summer up here and has been a generous host, cooking us dinner and bringing us donuts in the morning (she is so sweet).    For Amanda and Tom the cabin is the epitome of Montana in the summer so we’re happy to be able to be here with them.

More Pictures.  Just for fun! 
Helena Cathedral.  Still the original stained glass. 

Entrance to Yellowstone National Park 

Chillin' by the fire at Gooselake Campground 

A bison  in Yellowstone 

Walking through Washburn Meadow 

The walk to Agate Creek 

Yellowstone National Park 

The Prismatic Spring 

The Elk Foundation 

Fun in the car. 

The view toward Glacier National Park over Duck Lake 

The walk toward Atlantic Creek 

Triple Divide Pass 

A view