It’s fall in Montana. Leaves are turning. Trout are hungry. Stickers and burrs abound. Olive is caught in a Catch-22 of freeze or collect stickers. To take her outside with us with long hair is to invite a coat full of needles. To shave her is to guarantee hypothermia. Since we have no plans to head south soon we are debating a shave and a new coat or do we spend more hours cleaning her fur. Burr removal is a thankless chore. Olive hates it and resents every minute of our work. Yesterday we went fishing at the confluence of the Dearborn and Missouri rivers. There was an abundance of those football shaped burrs and some hound’s tongue for variety. After 2 hours of fishing we spent 40 minutes of de-burring. The fun to work ratio is pretty low. Anybody have advice? Should we shave? Should we keep up the removal? Mall walk? Leave Olive home?
Below is a raspberry tort I made for a dinner we had with Sue and Jay. Pea soup, salad and tort. The tort was from a recipe for Italian plum cake. The NY Times says it’s the most requested recipe in the history of the newspaper. I find that hard to believe since prior to this summer I have only known my grandmother to regularly make plum cake. I made one once a decade or so ago but I found the recipe on-line. I loved my grandmother’s plum cake but it was a rare seasonal treat. We probably got one piece a year. Burt’s daughter made one last week and like learning a new word the recipe was everywhere I looked. Facebook and the NY Times were filled with it. The benefit of the flood of commentary and news articles is I found the suggested variations. This cake is ready for anything you can throw at it. Since we had a bunch of Sue and Jay’s raspberries in our freezer we went that route. Soon I’m going to try the canned Portal pears. It’s simple and tasty. Give it a go. I used a casserole dish. The gNash is too small for a springform pan.
Also below is a helpful Public Service Announcement. Clean out the grooves on your log splitter before they fill with a rock hard debris. This log splitter had filled to the point that the splitter could no longer split. It took heavy application of hammer and chisel to remove the pressure hardened splinters from the groove. Team Gypsy Carpenter and Sue got the job done but we all agreed preventative cleaning would have been easier.
Today Burt and Jen are finishing up the bedroom wall texture at the Kila cabin. I was going to go but I didn’t have any work to do so I decided to stay here and catch up, read, shower, and veg out. Everyone has caught the last summer cold of the season or the first winter cold. I can’t be sure which. The cold caused work delays so here we are still parked in Whitefish working on a cabin on a hill in Kila. Tomorrow we depart towards but not to Helena. We will stop first in Seeley Lake and go grouse hunting with Pete. Friday we will resume what is the start of our southward migration to Portal Irish Music Week. Music camp is pretty much full this year. There’s been some last minute cancellations but they were fully paid and we (as do all viable travel businesses) have a no refund policy within 60 days of the event. I promised to refund the money if replacements were found but so far no luck. I kind of feel bad and I kind of realize this is a feeling I must deal with if the camp and my finances are to survive.
In between snotty heads and ceiling work we made a trip out to Glacier Park. We’d heard the remote Polebridge entrance is frequently unstaffed so we thought we’d take a peek at Bowman Lake. Unlucky us. The gate had a toll collector. Since it was $30 just to drive in and see an alpine lake we decided to walk around the free Forest Service side of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Burt is just 9 months away from his $10 lifetime parks pass so we’re going to try and hold out until then on paying anymore park fees. Next week will be the last one. $30 to get into Yellowstone and Grand Teton. That will be a worthy one. Now that I write this I realize we will be surrounded by National Parks in Alexandria. Maybe we will buy one more annual parks pass. Writing as thinking.
Anyhoo. Burt fished and I stumbled along the log laden shore. The North Fork of the Flathead is a famously log chocked stream. Every year it seems somebody is caught in a ‘widow maker’ trap of logs blocking the channel. In fall the water is low and the logs are on shore. Burt caught a huge fish. He was pretty sure it was a Lake Trout but I had just read the warnings about the endangered Bull Trout looking a lot like a Lake trout, also called a mackinaw. When in Doubt Throw it Back. We discussed and we could not come up with the identifying features for one or the other fish. We were outside cell range so the internet was no use. Burt threw it back. That stung. No trout for dinner. Then Burt caught another. I informed him it was statistically improbable to catch two endangered species in 5 minutes. Not impossible but highly unlikely. That fish shook the hook as soon as we decided to keep it. Further research proved Burt right. It was a Lake Trout. The two are very similar looking but can be distinguished if you know what to look for. Now we do.
The Polebridge Mercantile is famous as an eccentric general store in the remote north woods of Montana. For 25 years I have heard rumors of its extraordinary bakery. I have been by on many occasions through the years but mostly in a rush to get somewhere else or in winter when services are reduced. Burt had never stopped. He hadn’t even heard the rumors of the bakery. Now I take good bakery rumors with a grain of salt. Good is relative. In general, the farther you are from civilization and the closer you are to a major tourist attraction the lower the quality of food. There’s a handicapping system. People will say food is good when it isn’t when they are far from home. Also, many people say that the Wheat Montana Bakery has good stuff and I think they are mediocre. The packed parking lot defies my understanding. Yesterday was the first time I ever had the chance to stop in and sample the wares but I was not expecting much. I have a healthy suspicion of all baked good recommendations. I was wrong. Again. I am glad I do not live near this bakery. I’d be a blimp and broke.
Burt and I, showing massive restraint, shared a Flathead cherry and chocolate turnover. What a delight! Buttery, flaky puff pastry filled with a thick slab of not too sweet cherry filling drizzled with real dark chocolate. “That’s the best turnover I have ever had!” exclaimed Burt. It was true for me too. It boggled the brain because it wasn’t just a one hit wonder. The bakery was filled with tempting delights. Savory scones, macaroons, huckleberry turnovers, chocolate croissants, warm sandwiches…We had to leave so I could still buckle my pants. We will never fail to stop in here for a snack again. Best bakery in the universe.
The Gypsy Carpenters are back in western Montana, taping and mudding the new bedroom at the kid’s place. Rainy weather made all non-paved roads in eastern Montana impassible gumbo pits. Our two-wheel drive Dodge was no fit for the backroad miles needed to get to good hunting locations.
The big news here is we are now officially internationally known musicians and nationally working carpenters. The western U.S. was pretty tied up with regular, loyal clients from Arizona, California, Oregon, and Montana. This fall we’ve landed a project in Alexandria, Virginia. Burt and I are looking forward to returning to work, seeing the DC area, and east coast family and friends. The job came about from a happy Helena client with property in Virginia. It was a big enough but not too big job. You can follow along here.
In the meanwhile we have a couple of turkeys we found yesterday. Our shots brought out the local game warden. Recent bear activity made him worry we might have been shooting at the bear. That was kind of funny. We’d never shot a bear unless it was self defense and maybe not even then. Best to play dead is what I’ve always heard. A little bird shot will just piss them off. The warden was delighted to see we had shot a couple of perfectly legal turkeys and there was no bear in sight. We think we might have scared him out of the brush while we were stalking and he was out ahead of us. Out of sight for us but in plain view of the local neighbors when he ran across a road.
What I like about hunting is how I see so much more than when I am just walking. Hunting means cross country travel. Off-road and off-trail. There are lots of dazzling details out there. Spider webs, sun bleached bones, birds, empty and decaying homesteads. So much to look at. Montana has great tradition of fishing and hunting access and many private landowners work with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to allow hunters to hunt on their lands. Burt and I take full advantage of the Block Management Program and get out and walk in places usually off limits to private citizens.
This year we headed east to the Fort Peck area. Our friends Bob and Sue had offered us a place to visit and we took them up on the free parking and ample socializing. Bob is quite knowledgeable about the dinosaur fossils of the area and took us on a tour of the Fort Peck Interpretive Center. Sue kindly watched the dogs. It was the last 90 degrees day in Montana and we couldn’t leave them in the car. Montana has recently made national news with a dinosaur museum that adheres to a strictly biblical interpretation of Earth’s natural history. One of our gubernatorial candidates has donated copious amounts of money to this museum where cowboys saddled up dinosaurs and the earth is only 6,000 years old. Some of our finest fossils have been bought up and placed in this snake-oil museum with a heap of what I will politely call ‘mistaken’ information. I bring it up to say ignore this place and head over to Fort Peck. I so want you to ignore the humans comingling with dinosaurs I’m not even going to tell you where the bogus museum is. Bob said he visited it and lost a gasket right there in the place. The Fort Peck Interpretive Center has some of the state’s finest fossils and also a display of current live inhabitants of the area. You can check out native fish face to face. Bob even helped put together some of the displays. Part of me wanted to visit the home of patently false dinosaur information so I, too, could blow a gasket, but I didn’t want to pay $9 to enter. The Fort Peck Interpretive Center is FREE, FREE, FREE. Book your travel arrangements now.
I personally enjoyed the fish display. So often public aquariums are filled with flashy species from the tropics. Viewing live fish and learning what they look like is difficult in a freshwater area. Here we had a display of the area’s most important species and we could get a nice close look. The pallid sturgeon and the paddlenose are side by side. You can see an endangered species and it’s similarly looking cousin at the same time. That’s important stuff.
I never thought much of Havre when I made my twice yearly trips through the town. From Highway 2 it seems like an ugly railroad town that time passed by. Empty storefronts. Howling wind. A never ending horizon. No trees. Past hunting trips we’ve stopped to buy Red Wing boots from the authorized dealer. I always thought it was a boring place. I was wrong. I admit it. Just off Highway 2 are lovely treed neighborhoods. There’s a college. A great dive burger. At the edge of town just behind Holiday Village Mall is one of the finest hands-on museums I’ve visited. Whakpa Chu’Gn Buffalo Jump was discovered by a twelve year old kid in the early 60s. This boy was out rabbit hunting when he spotted something shiny in the dirt. John Brumley made a very important archeological find. Between the town of Havre and the railroad tracks was a buffalo jump used by pre-conquest Native Americans for some 2,000 years. Several different cultures used the area in that time. I’ll spare you those details because I am poorly equipped to accurately report on history. You can read about it here. In summary early peoples chased bison off a cliff. Some bison died, others had to be dispatched at the bottom. The meat was butchered and cooked and dried. The people moved on to the next campsite. Different layers reveal different time spans and cooking techniques. What I was blown away by was the interpretive work offered to a pair of people like us. We could touch real bones. We could use an atlatl (a devise that propels a spear) into a fake bison. During school group trips they cook bison using rocks and the kids eat the bison they cook. The museum sets up a rock filled fire pit and nearby they fill a bison skin with water. The heated rocks are placed in the water. Just 8-10 rocks can bring the water to a boil in a matter of minutes. Put your bison strip in the boiling water and it’s cooked in a minute. Our guide called it the Native American microwave. That was too much work for just us but it was great to know. This spot really let’s you get the feel for how the buffalo jump worked and how the bison meat was processed. Our guide was enthusiastic and informative. Plus you get to take a super exciting trip in a golf cart down a very steep hill. It was well worth the $9 entry fee.
The Gypsy Carpenters drove due east on U.S. Highway 2 for a couple hundred miles. We Spent one night at the well signed and ruled Fresno Dam and are now camped at the Fort Peck Dam. In between we saw some of Montana’s classic hi-line scenery. This is the prairie that spans from Texas to northern Canada. One millions of bison roamed the grassy hills. It’s gorgeous country that warms our hearts. Before we hit the road Burt and I and Elvis (pre-Olive) spent many weeks wandering the backroads of the hi-line searching for pheasant and turkey. Christmas day would find us holed up in some cheap roadside motel cleaning rabbits and birds despite the “No Bird Cleaning in the Room” signs. We always tidied up nice. Where else could you clean a bird on a 20 degree night after dark?
In Havre we sampled the locally renowned Ugly Burger. Without knowing precisely what an Ugly Burger entailed Burt ordered two. I asked for one. When they showed up with double patties Burt was mildly chagrined at the task before him. Especially when I gave him one of my patties. He ate 5 burgers on two buns without a hiccup. The burgers were fine and the onion rings were excellent. While eating I read the local trade rag. Below is the ad I noticed. Would someone please call this number for me and find out what this woman want? Ranch hand? Lover? Victim? Precisely who is finishing up whom? I did a reverse search on the number and her name is Davene. Burt and I are tempted to offer a two for one deal but not if there is some subtext we don’t get. I like ponies and I know cows say, “mooooo.” I’m thinking this is an example of penny wise pound foolish. The advertiser might have added quite a bit of clarity with a few properly spaced punctuation marks.
It’s been 7 years since we toured this country. The Bakken oil boom has added a lot of new trucks to the road. There also seem to be many, many new grain silos. Otherwise it looks very much the same and they say bird numbers are up. More on our hunting trip later. First the buffalo jump.
We are getting stronger but recovery days are still rough. That is my conclusion after another steep all day hike. Sunday we covered 10 miles. Monday I hardly moved. Sunday and Monday were spent in a campground (free) at the foot of Swift Dam. Fifty two years ago a dam at this location failed and killed at least 28 people. Knowing this a person might get the heebeejeebees staying under a dam. Well, maybe if the reservoir was full I’d worry but the reservoir was very low. Not much chance of a failure when there’s hardly any water.
I tried to find more information about the dam’s failure and the current dam’s purpose but there isn’t much out there on the internet. Fourteen or more inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours up and down the front. Dams were over topped everywhere and two failed on the Blackfeet Reservation. Flood damage ranged from Helena to the Canadian border. Most of the dead were on the Blackfeet Reservation where the two dams failed. There’s a detailed article in the Great Falls Tribune from the 50th Anniversary of the disaster. A new novel was just published with the dam failure as a plot point, too.
The current dam is owned by an irrigation company or cooperative. I’m guessing that’s why the site access is so ‘accessible.’ Unlike Bureau of Reclamation or DoE dams there are no warning signs or even rules posted. Any half able bodied and semi-intrepid person can scramble down to the top of the dam and take a stroll across. It’s feels like a transgression against the rule makers of the world to freely walk out onto this dam. One could fall. A person might jump. Here you are free to take your chances. Nobody, real or electronic, is watching. I liked it. We wondered all around. I even pretended we were water molecules floating over the spillway. I stopped before things got too real.
The fishing in this area is productive but access is tricky. First of all, one side of the river is Blackfeet Nation. You’ll need a permit from them to fish that side. Secondly it’s very brushy. I was too tired to deal with the brush. Ten miles the previous day made me impatient for fishing. After tangling my line one more time than I could tolerate (twice), I walked back to camp. Burt caught some beauties which I happily ate.
The hiking is gorgeous but there is a lot of horse activity. Horses make for messy trails. The Olvis quite like following horses. Trail apples all day long. I’m less enthused about horse poop all day.
More bears were spotted. And a band of kestrels. Seven headed south to Baja. We gave them our regards.
Today we are parked under the Fresno dam on the Milk River. This is in the plains of Montana. The mountains are two hours west. We are headed east to find some birds. Opening day is Thursday. It’s 90 degrees but we are parked under a cottonwood tree and the wind is blowing. And there’s internet access via Verizon.
We’ve been out of range and on the move. A lot has happened since I last had the opportunity to write. We popped into Helena and played Bridge and visited Ruby. Ruby was carried across the Rio Grande river from Mexico into Texas by her grandfather when she was an infant 95 years ago. Her mother was homesick and had returned to Mexico to visit her family. Ruby was accidentally born in Mexico. Her older and younger siblings were all born stateside. What a predicament. Eventually the family settled in Pompeii’s Pillar, MT. When Ruby went to Carroll College (in Helena, MT) in the 40s to become a nurse she finally became a citizen. Burt’s known her for 30ish years. We dropped by her apartment and sang her Cancion Mixteca. While in Helena we also did a couple of hikes and caught up on our laundry.
Burt got us a gig at Buffalo Joe’s up in Dupuyer and so we headed north to camp and sing along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The Front is my favorite scenic area in Montana. Massive cliffs that are the remnants of once undersea reefs jut out into the plains. The edge of big sky country starts here and continues for 1,000 or more miles into the Dakotas and Canada. The land is famous for dinosaur fossils. On the drive up we stopped at the overlook into Egg Mountain. Egg Mountain is a spot full of nesting dinosaur fossils. There are eggs, hatched and unhatched, and parents, and foraging predators all found in one concentrated locale. It’s similar to when birds gather together and nest in one place. While pondering the eggs we couldn’t see Burt found a fossil in the making. It’s a recently deceased red fox. I was tempted to add it to my collection of dead things but it was just a little too ‘damp’ and smelly.
Finally we made it to a campsite along the North Fork of the Teton River. With the towering reefs above our heads we strolled along some abandoned beaver ponds and plotted out a hike for the next day. Burt had remembered reading about Wright Mountain in one of Rosemary and Ed’s guidebooks while we were catching up on laundry and showers. Wright Mountain was just a ways further up the road from where we were camped.
The next day dawned cool and cloudy. That’s a good thing. I cannot recommend undertaking this hike in summer. A 2007 burn removed all shade and there is no water. The route is very steep. I was essentially miserable and delighted at the same time. The propranolol (beta blocker) makes walking uphill very difficult. Every step is a negotiation. The mental effort reminds me of the tricks I’d play to finish marathons. Just 100 more steps. Try a little slower. That’s not pain….Meanwhile I was very happy to be taking a hike in real mountains. I thought maybe I’d even make it to the top of a real mountain. Delusional thinking brought on by summit fever.
About two hours in we encountered a man on his way down. This guy was very perky and friendly but he said three things that hilariously sapped us of all will to go on. In the course of telling is what a great hike it was he mentioned that the trail above was much steeper than what we had already done (nobody asked), he mentioned that it looked like rain, maybe even hail (nobody asked), and he mentioned that the trail was really loose because the mules had torn it up (nobody asked). He made it sound like a nightmare and he out right stated, “of course you are planning to turn around at the saddle and not go to the top.” Hey buddy, “Nobody asked for your advice!” But alas, he was right. We got to the saddle and saw some heavy clouds and a very exposed trail heading even more steeply up into the scree. I could hardly put ten steps together at this point. We sat down and did what we do best. We ate. By my calculations we accomplished 3 miles and 2,000′ of elevation gain. We had another mile and 1,400′ more if we were to reach the top. It was not our destiny that day. Mount Wright is out there mocking me.
So team Gypsy Carpenters turned around and they were glad they did. The decent was rough. We had to rest twice going downhill. One time we nearly fell asleep. We must be maturing. In the end we were both satisfied with our accomplishment. The next day we did another uphill hike but only for a mile and a half. Clary Coulee is a gulch between the limestone fins of the front. In the cool coulee air we found unburned trees and a diverse flock of birds. Mountain chickadees and juncos and jays and a cooper’s hawk among other birds. I was wiped out from the day before but dutifully made my bird list and entered it into eBird.
That afternoon (Friday) we arrived in Dupuyer. We had a show to do. The Gypsy Carpenters put up their new sound system and put on the dog. Buffalo Joe’s attracts a diverse clientele. Hutterites (a clan of germanic collective living folks) and Blackfeet and motorcyclists and ranchers and young people and old were in town for a Friday night out. Some of the older Hutterite men looked like their heads were going to explode with delight when I sang the Bare Necessities. I’m not sure what they were thinking about but I was thinking about a bear and all the bears that live in the Dupuyer area. Burt says those Hutterite men are still singing that song out on their huge corporate ranches. With big smiles on their faces.
Next morning we woke up and the man with the plan decided we better head over the Great Divide and get our boat and bring it back east for a trip to eastern Montana. Bird season is upon us and there’s fishing to be done. So we left the gNash in Dupuyer and headed to Whitefish to collect the Sea King. We stopped in and saw Jen and ate an early dinner at the restaurant where she works. The next next day we hooked up and headed back into the woods just a wee bit north of Dupuyer. We visited Swift Dam. There’s a reservoir and more hikes and maybe some trout. That’s a whole ‘nother post.
We’ve had much fun this summer. Fishing, floating, singing, eating. Yesterday Burt sent me on a major bummer when we visited the Bear Paw Battlefield just south of Chinook, Montana. I’m serious. Standing at the spot where Chief Joseph finally surrendered at the end of a more than 1,000 mile journey full of skirmishes and deprivation that lasted from June until early October just 2 days walk from freedom in Canada induced a deep sadness at the futility of the human condition. That’s a very abbreviated version of events. What I was struck by was how this same thing is still happening all over the world and across cultures. The Nez Perce’s story is well documents and the National Park Service in conjunction with the tribes’ survivors has preserved many locations along this famous trail. The Bear Paw Battlefield out on the unchanged plains of Montana in sight of Canada is the perfect place to consider all the peoples of the world looking for safety and freedom. I have no answers. I am saddened and dispirited. It’s important to think about these things and so I will. It was there that Chief Joseph famously said, “from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever.” (October 5th, 1877.)
So here we are in Columbus (oh, the irony), Montana at a gathering called The Musician’s Rendevous. This get together has been happening for 30 years. Musicians from all over Montana congregate in a city park and we play music. It is a very good thing. We’ll put out some tunes and hope to soothe our wild beasts.
The other day Burt, Jack, Spinner (Jack’s wee chihuahua), Olive, Elvis, and I went fishing on the Upper Stillwater Lake. I presumed it was named still water because it is fed by a stream of calm water called the Stillwater. Now that I have personally visited the lake I think it is called Stillwater because there is still water in the lake. Barely. This float was a weed choked quarter mile row to a deep spot hemmed in by more weeds. I’m not sure if these weeds are the plague of the invasive weeds choking Montana’s rivers and lakes I’ve read about or a native phenomenon of endemic plants and late season low water flows. There was barely enough water to float and the vegetation was so thick we couldn’t use the putt putt motor. Another no-water boating adventure for Burt and Susan. I rowed us out across the green mat while Burt and Jack aimed for some open areas and tried to catch fish. Strings of water logged weeds weighed down every stroke but the boat moved across the daintily flowered top easily. Eventually we reached a deep pool with room to cast. Burt gave me the rod. First cast I hooked a large northern pike but lost it at the boat’s gunnel. Next cast I landed a biggie. This guy swallowed the hook so deep we had to chop off his head to recover the lure. Things were looking good. The rest was downhill. Over the course of the next hour I landed three in all. One was released due to it’s paltry girth and two more shook lose the hook. I used a fish shaped lure called Power Bait Burt had been carrying around for 6 years in his tackle box. I casted across the deep water towards the shore and reel in fast from the weedy edge through the pool. Burt and I took turns steering the Sea King in circles while the other fished. Neither of us wanted to row across more weeds so we motored around in this spot for about an hour. With our tummies growling and Olive begging for a chance to roam the shore Burt rowed us to the boat ramp. I took Elvis and Olive ashore and Burt and Jack tried for a few more casts. Burt finally landed a fish and we could head home. Three fish for dinner.