Treasure State hidden gem: Judith Gap jail
By VINCE DEVLIN
Funny thing about the Judith Gap jail – it’s unlocked. You can come and go as you please, any time.
Funnier still – for such a small building (less than 300 square feet), you can spend a surprising amount of time exploring its interior.
The jail, which hasn’t been used for decades, is one of the oldest standing buildings left in Judith Gap, a small town of 126 people located midway between Great Falls and Billings in central Montana.
The winters can be harsh here. The Little Belt and Big Snowy mountain ranges on either side of the town funnel some of the state’s worst winter weather down upon Judith Gap, occasionally necessitating the closure of U.S. Highway 191, which runs through town.
But back in the day – that day being sometime in the early 1900s – some 1,200 people lived here. Back then, Judith Gap was a division point on the Great Northern Railway, and housed a railroad roundhouse where steam locomotives were repaired.
The jail reportedly got lots of use back then.
It’s a two-room facility – a 14-by-14-foot front room, and a 10-by-10 cell where prisoners were chained to shackles in the floor. As other buildings in the town were torn down before they fell down, locals restored the old jail several years ago.
There’s scribbling on the cell walls to be read, and in the front room, a thick old ledger where prisoners’ comings and goings were recorded. Go ahead and read it, or at least, open it up and take a look. It’s just sitting on a table waiting for you to do so, and its entries go from 1918 to 1949.
There are also a handful of curious items sitting out for you to puzzle over, including a jar filled with a black powdery substance. Might it be fingerprint powder?
The lack of a tour guide, set hours, protective glass over the ledger or any signs identifying anything actually make the jail a unique place to spend an hour or so poking around, and let your imagination run.
Pick up a notebook detailing the town’s efforts to restore the crumbling jail that’s also sitting on the table, and you may get caught up in some of stories also included. One says Judith Gap was once a major hideout for Industrial Workers of the World members, or Wobblies (and you can see references to them scribbled on the cell walls).
According to a story in the notebook, Judith Gap Wobblies were once rounded up and incarcerated in the little cell, which prompted Wobblies down the road in Harlowton to board Milwaukee trains and ride to Judith Gap with the intention of “burning the town down.”
As many as 400 Judith Gap citizens met them, armed with “anything from shotguns to pitchforks.” The Wobblies never left the train.
When to go: Anytime you happen to be passing through Judith Gap. Like we said, the jail, which is located on Meagher Street, is unlocked. However, winter might not be ideal (see above).
Anything else to see in Judith Gap? Look south, and you’ll see some of the 90 wind towers – all 40 stories tall – twirling away at the Judith Gap Wind Farm, creating enough energy to power 360,000 homes. Stop at Blade Park along the highway in town, and you can examine one of the blades up close. The 126-foot blade was damaged during installation, and donated to the town for display.
OK, I’m here, and it’s lunchtime: Swing by In the Gap, owned by retired Judith Gap schoolteacher Carol Gaugler. The bar and restaurant have historic photographs of the town on display.
Where to stay: Somewhere else. There are no hotels or motels in tiny Judith Gap. Harlowton is about 20 miles south, and Lewistown about 40 miles north. However, you can find plenty of other things to explore in the area, including the nation’s largest collection of HO scale Milwaukee Road models at the Upper Musselshell Museum in Harlo. Or, take a ride on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, a dinner train that runs between Lewistown and Denton.
By ALLYN HULTENG
Carole Sullivan is a culinary artist. Her creations are a mouth-watering fusion of fresh meats, earthy root vegetables, flavorful herbs and savory sauces that tempt and delight the palate.
As chef and owner of Mustang Fresh Food and Catering in historic Livingston, Sullivan, with assistance from her husband, Dan, has perfected the art of preparing what she calls “comfort food at a higher level.” Signature dishes such as grilled organic chicken sausages with apples, yams and onions, classic chicken pot pie and Indian lamb and potato stew have garnered a loyal following — including a long list of celebrities.
Regulars include actor Jeff Bridges and his wife, Susan, actor Michael Keaton, artists Clyde Aspevig and Carol Guzman, and author and documentary filmmaker John Heminway. She has also prepared guide lunches for President Barack Obama, catered for Martha Stewart and served Oprah Winfrey, Anthony Bourdain and Tom Brokaw, among other notables.
Yet Sullivan is pleasantly down-to-earth, even humble. With salt-and-pepper hair and a brilliant smile, she projects an aura of warmth and graciousness that belies her celebrity-laden client list. Minutes after meeting her you can’t help but feel a kinship — which is exactly what Sullivan wants.
“The best part of this business is getting to know the customers, what they like, and being able to create a menu that reflects who they are on a personal level,” she says.
Sullivan notes that her “takeaway” business was developed by the customers themselves.
“We always had a warm food case, but as people became busier, we needed to expand to meet demand,” she says. Made from scratch daily, the pickup dinners satisfy the desire for families to have wholesome, hearty food as the centerpiece of their evening meal.
In addition to the café, Sullivan oversees a premier catering business. Since arriving in Livingston some 17 years ago, she has earned a reputation for orchestrating beautiful spreads of exquisite main courses flanked by sumptuous sides followed by elegant desserts for all manner of events. Numerous requests for her recipes sparked the notion of writing a cookbook, “but I wanted it to be something different, something special,” Sullivan said.
Ranchers and longtime clients Elizabeth and Carl Webb have engaged Sullivan to cater their annual branding for years. When the couple called on Sullivan once again, it occurred to her that the event would make a great photo spread.
That thought spurred the idea to create a cookbook broken into distinct chapters, each of which would feature a client’s catered event. The result is “Gatherings,” a Montana-inspired cookbook filled with Sullivan’s delectable recipes alongside photography by renowned photographer Lynn Donaldson.
“Each chapter portrays an actual event; we had one chance to get everything right,” she said.
Included in the book is a chapter on the Thanksgiving menu which has become a tradition for Jeff and Susan Bridges and their family. Sullivan graciously shares these recipes, hoping they, too, will enjoy comfort and joy in fine food shared with loved ones.
Pancetta-sage stuffed boneless turkey
One approximately 6-pound boneless turkey with skin on (or you can use a boneless turkey breast if you just like white meat)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and 3/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 pound pancetta, thinly-sliced
6 fresh sage leaves
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Set the whole turkey open skin side down on top of a piece of plastic wrap. Place another piece of plastic wrap on top of the turkey and flatten it to an even thickness with a meat pounder. Remove top piece of plastic wrap. Season the turkey with half of the salt and pepper and evenly spread the cooled stuffing (preceding recipe) over the meat. Beginning on one side, roll the turkey into a compact roast. Place pancetta slices around turkey, tucking the slices underneath as well. Tie turkey with kitchen string in seven to eight places, evenly spaced apart. Season the turkey with the additional salt and pepper.
Place fresh sage leaves under kitchen string and dot the outside of the turkey with butter.
Place the turkey on a sheet pan and roast in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, brushing the turkey with the melted butter in the pan. Add an extra cup of liquid if pan is too dry (water or chicken stock will do).
Roast for approximately 45 minutes longer or until an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the turkey registers 160 degrees. Add more liquid to the pan if necessary. Transfer the turkey to a carving board.
Remove kitchen string from turkey and slice into approximately ½ inch slices. Arrange the slices on a platter and serve with gravy (recipe follows).
Pancetta and sage stuffing
8 ounces diced pancetta
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
4 cups dried ciabatta bread, de-crusted and cubed in 1-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon finely-chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large sauté pan, brown diced pancetta over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 8-10 minutes. Add the onions, carrots and celery, stirring until vegetables are softened. Add the cubed bread and fresh sage, stirring to coat bread. Place bread in a bowl along with chicken stock and allow to cool.
By SUSAN OLP
FROMBERG — In the reconstructed interior of the Little Cowboy Bar and Museum in Fromberg, remnants of a destructive December 2013 fire sit on high shelves.
Blackened bottles and a singed trophy decorate the wooden shelves. They are joined by community donations, including an ornate cross framed by barbed wire, a harness and pairs of cowboy boots.
The drawer of an old-fashioned cash register damaged in the fire sits atop a newly installed beer and wine cooler. A Jim Beam sign that had been tossed in a dumpster after the fire was rescued by a patron, restored and returned to the bar as a grand-opening present, bar manager Rachel Grandfield said.
The tavern reopened last Feb. 20, after nearly six months of work, she said, although the adjacent museum remains a charred shell. The establishment is owned by Randy Wike, who lives in Alaska.
The redone interior has a different look than it did in the past, Grandfield said. It also contains a blend of old and new.
The hardwood floor is original. The only other parts of the bar that survived the Dec. 11 electrical fire are the wood beams and the cinder-block walls.
“It gutted everything,” she said. “Before they tore off the roof, it was completely collapsed. The fire went into the ceiling.”
The walls are freshly painted. Polished bottles of liquor sit in three rows behind the bar, and a few gambling machines line the walls.
An electronic juke box has been added, along with a pair of wooden buddy bars that each seat four people. A pool table dominates the back part of the bar.
Wike hired Grandfield last June to oversee the rebuilding of the bar. Actual work began in September.
Some of what was lost in the fire is irreplaceable. Shirley Smith, who previously owned the bar for 40 years, filled the attached museum with a collection of cultural and historical items that helped tell the region’s history.
They ranged from beaded Indian moccasins, rifles and swords, original photos of historical figures, clippings and documents about a local outlaw and a collection of products once sold in the Bridger area.
The June 2007 issue of Esquire listed the tavern as the “best bar” in Montana, as a part of a roundup of what the magazine hailed as the best bars in the United States.
The hope, Grandfield said, is to resurrect the museum with profits from the bar.
“As we get people in, revenue from the bar will help rebuild the museum,” she said. “When it comes to the interior, we’ll have to rely on donations.”
That’s already begun, Grandfield said, with area ranchers donating items such as the harness and other equipment to help decorate the bar. Pictures of cowboys also dot the walls.
Wike, who didn’t insure the bar, paid to rebuild it out of his own pocket. But a lot of the work was done with volunteer help from the community, she said.
Wonders of the wild
By ROB CHANEY
Mike Schwartz can’t leave his desk for a cup of coffee without some new science spilling out in the hallway.
Researchers at the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula have hit the trifecta of delivery: better, faster and cheaper ways to keep tabs on some of the world’s most elusive animals.
What used to take biologists whole field seasons to guess at, this lab on the edge of the University of Montana can document in reams of data.
“We’ve got north of 75 partners who all want to coordinate regarding bull trout distribution,” Schwartz said. “Just five years ago, there was no way you could work with that many partners. Now we’re going to be running close to 10,000 samples to look for bull trout from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies. That would have been cost-prohibitive just five years ago – it would have been impossible.”
DNA analyzers in the lab can spot the presence (or absence) of specific fish in a whole river drainage from a cup of water. They can trace the family tree of a sage grouse from a tail feather. Don’t get them started on what they can tell when a grizzly bear poops in the woods, if they get hold of the poop.
The U.S. Forest Service owns the lab, but shares its discoveries throughout the scientific world. This past summer, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe signed an agreement for the lab to do genetic analysis of animals involved with Endangered Species Act listings.
“We realized there’s no sense in having two agencies take on similar tasks, even though we use the information in different ways,” Schwartz said. “We define the question together and pool resources, so they don’t have to turn around and build their own genomic facility.”
The answers found in the lab often prove that a species is or isn’t living in a certain spot. Miners and loggers need to know that so their work doesn’t hurt a federally protected species. Outfitters can learn if their hay has brought in noxious weeds. Biologists can find out if lynx from the Bob Marshall Wilderness have crossed the highway to mate with lynx in the Mission Mountains Wilderness or Glacier National Park.
The results will be so accurate that when someone challenges them in court or Congress, the answer won’t melt into some fuzzy/sorta/possibly mush. When things like the designation of regional habitat for sage grouse are on the line, that kind of reliability is crucial.
The National Genomics Center has three core functions.
Its E-DNA analytics labs can chart the presence of any animal in a stream drainage simply by examining the water.
Its forensics department can extrapolate family trees and genetic diversity of a species based on the evidence teased out of a single hair or feather.
And its genomics operations take the breakthroughs familiar from human medical science and apply them to animal health. A single test can produce several terabytes of data – the entire hard-drive capacity of a really good commercial desktop computer.
“Five years ago, I was looking at nine areas of an animal’s genome,” Schwartz said of the genetic blueprint carried in every organism’s chromosomes. “If I got up to 20, I felt I was doing really good.
“Now I have a grad student working on sage grouse who’s looking at 600,000 regions of its genome. I have another working on gray wolves who’s looking at 166,000 regions. Now our big question is: What do we do with all that data?”
Work on the human genome can tell if someone has a genetic weakness for certain kinds of cancer. The same techniques can show if bighorn sheep have a genetic defense against lung worms. If some sheep do and others don’t, wildlife managers might want to transplant some hardier animals into weaker herds to keep that genetic trait alive.
The ability can also show land managers where to deploy their resources. For example, one genomics team in Missoula is looking at subspecies of California fishers, which live in widely separated parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Probing the genetic information reveals which populations are at healthy levels and which might need some human intervention.
“Before, it was like looking through a little keyhole,” Schwartz said. “Now it’s like looking through a picture window. We can focus our conservation dollars instead of spreading them across a species’ entire distribution. We all know we have to be more efficient now.”
While some scientists in the lab work on simplifying that problem, genomics lab technician Katie Zarn hopes to make their job even tougher. Zarn takes scientific methods developed for human genomic analysis – which doctors use to see if you’re genetically susceptible to many kinds of diseases – and apply them to wildlife research.
“Our lab can get a single E-DNA at a time and identify a single species,” Zarn said. “I’m working on a protocol for taking hundreds of samples at the same time to assay for 20, 40, even 100 species.”
That would mean a single cup of creek water could reveal almost every critter in a drainage. You could tell if bull trout lived in its tributaries, and if leafy spurge was infesting its banks, and if osprey were using it as a hunting ground.
The new building on Beckwith Avenue houses about 20 researchers and technicians. It also has space for visiting scientists to share their problems and expertise as new genomic techniques develop. And its interwoven relationship with the University of Montana has provided experience for professors and students just across the lawn.
While it doesn’t bear the man’s name, Schwartz said the lab owes much of its existence to the work of University of Montana professor Fred Allendorf.
“He was the grandfather of conservation genetics,” Schwartz said of the longtime Missoula biologist. “All this local expertise has developed because of the people he taught and mentored. As a result, Missoula is the global place for conservation genetics.”
But where Allendorf spent long seasons in remote drainages of Glacier National Park observing and occasionally catching the critters he studied, the new lab does orders of magnitude more work under fluorescent lamps.
E-DNA coordinator Kellie Carim recalled her undergraduate struggles telling one inch-long fish fry species from another during stream studies. Now, a small water sample in the lab will tell her if a state fisheries program to eliminate every invasive brook trout from a mountain stream was successful.
“We tested after they’d finished, and found a brook trout signal,” Carim said. “They went back and found one brook trout about 400 meters from the eradication site. So they had to make a second effort. Otherwise, they would have put all that effort into eradication and bam – the brook trout comes right back.”
Rob Chaney covers natural resources and the environment for the Missoulian, and is a frequent contributor to Montana Magazine.
The joy of Discovery
By JACK BALLARD
“It pays to discover.”
Or so reads the long-running slogan of a major credit card company.
For Peter Pitcher, the phrase is doubly significant. Pitcher was born into a skiing family that turned their recreational passion into an occupation.
He spent his childhood in Aspen, Colorado. An opportunity to purchase a ski area in Santa Fe, New Mexico, landed his father (and the family) in the ski business. The Pitchers eventually expanded their ski enterprise with the acquisition of the Wolf Creek, Colorado, ski area. Like many children in family businesses, Peter soon found himself working for his dad in Santa Fe, a life-phase he dryly describes as “seeming like forever.”
When the family sold the Santa Fe area in the early 1980s, Peter viewed the transaction as an opportunity to discontinue working for his dad, who had reached retirement age.
In 1984, Pitcher made his discovery.
Discovery Basin, a small, local ski area between Philipsburg and Anaconda, was for sale. More specifically, the area was in foreclosure and slated for auction. The only bidder, Pitcher made what he describes as “a good deal” on an area sadly in need of what is known in real estate circles as a massive dose of “tender loving care.”
No stranger to the challenges of the family-run ski business, Pitcher immediately confronted a myriad of difficulties. “I bought at just the right time,” he remarks, his face lit with a fleeting, wry smile. “The Anaconda smelter had just closed and Butte was shrinking. The area had endured a series of short-term owners and was in tough shape.”
The first years were difficult. But Pitcher made another discovery. Larger resorts were abandoning perfectly serviceable, traditional (fixed-grip) lifts for those of the high-speed, detachable variety. In 1986, Pitcher was able to augment Discovery’s single old chairlift with a second, nearly new line of towers, cable and seating.
“The Jubilee lift really expanded our terrain for beginners and school groups,” he said. Jubilee’s terrain also attracted a host of enthusiasts engaged in a relatively new winter sport: snowboarding.
Success with the Jubilee lift prompted Pitcher to add more. The Limelight lift, located on a north-facing slope is a classic “backside” destination for skiers desiring challenging terrain. Runs accessed from Limelight, a second-hand lift purchased from Sun Valley, drop hard-charging skiers into some of the steepest lift-accessible terrain in the state of Montana.
Nowadays, Discovery runs eight lifts. Its footprint, er, ski track, sprawls across 2,200 acres and 2,388 vertical feet of terrain. Like many other Western ski resorts, the area operates primarily on Forest Service land.
Expansion of ski areas on federal lands is often difficult due to a cumbersome permitting process and potential opposition from interests who prefer to see less human recreation on mountain landscapes.
“A handful of really good people in the Forest Service helped with the Limelight and Granite lifts,” Pitcher said. “I don’t think it could happen today. Family-run ski areas often have a tough time on public land. They’re not able to work the system from the top down like big resorts or corporations with political clout.”
On a sun-drenched February morning, 30 women converge on Discovery’s base lodge. They’ve come to attend a women’s ski clinic hosted by Lisa Densmore Ballard, a former member of the U. S. Ski Team and a nationally renowned instructor who hosts over a dozen women’s clinics across the country each year.
Another 30 women will hit the slopes on the second day of the event. They come for the quality instruction and the price. Sponsored by Bob Ward’s Sporting Goods, headquartered in Missoula, and Elan skis, the skiers pay a nominal fee to experience Discovery’s snow and Ballard’s expert tutelage.
Ciche Pitcher, Peter’s son, now holds the reins of the ski area. An event like this, complete with a local partner and dozens of happy skiers, exemplifies his vision for the area. “Our main market is Butte, Helena, Missoula and all the small communities in that general region,” he said.
As the women drift from the parking lot to the base lodge, they pause at the ticket window for lift tickets. Most detour through the cafeteria for fresh coffee. Ciche mans the ticket window. Beatrice, his mother, bustles about in the cafeteria, her contagious smile seemingly illuminating the entire lodge.
“Family ski areas aren’t a glamour business,” observes Peter. Ciche and Beatrice have been at work in the lodge for an hour before the skiers arrive.
Beatrice manages the retail shop, along with the food and beverage service. When the women’s clinic breaks for lunch, the women join a substantial line in the cafeteria. Discovery’s food service is superb. The line of customers attests to Beatrice’s expertise and the Pitcher family’s commitment to offer excellent food at a reasonable price.
“Both my dad and my grandfather believed quality food and beverage that’s affordable helps draw people to a ski area and reduces the hassle of families having to pack their own lunch,” explains Ciche. “It’s part of the good feeling we try to create for people while they’re here.”
The closest community to Discovery is Philipsburg, an historic town with mining roots. Its main street is lined with historic buildings, mostly tall brick structures with narrow windows and stately wooden doors. Summer tourism is brisk; winter visitation is slowly catching up.
Ciche Pitcher notices the change. “We’re really excited when we see investment in the community,” he said. “The Philipsburg brewery (opened in 2012) has been a huge part of that and brought some night life to the community. We try to partner with those businesses in any way we can.”
Pitcher doesn’t see Discovery becoming a destination ski resort, but he would like to capture more overnight visitation. Two historic bed-and-breakfast inns in Philipsburg boast unique accommodations. The brewery and a growing restaurant culture provide additional impetus for overnight ski tourism.
One of a handful of family-run ski areas in Montana, Discovery’s place in the larger ski industry is more important than many might think. There is a connection between the Pitcher’s baby and the impeccably groomed slopes and elegant architecture of Sun Valley that goes beyond Peter Pitcher’s purchase of a second-hand lift.
“Smaller ski areas are where most people learn to ski,” notes Jack Sibbach, the director of marketing and public relations for Sun Valley Resort. “They are the feeder areas to destination resorts. They are integral to the sport, and we can’t afford to lose them.”
As the women from Lisa Ballard’s clinic depart the base lodge, it’s a tired but thoroughly excited bevy of skiers. Beatrice Pitcher, an avid skier herself, joined the group to hone her own technique. Despite the demanding pace of her day, she’s there to say good-bye.
As for the challenges ahead, Ciche embodies the spirit of an entrepreneur, both understanding and embracing change.
“We’re seeing more extreme variations in weather,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’ll have to figure out how to deal with climate change in terms of marketing and staffing to take advantage of the prime times.”
For the Pitchers and the skiers who enjoy their efforts, there’s still plenty to discover.
In his footsteps
By ROB CHANEY
Norman Maclean once claimed, “I don’t read books, I write ‘em.”
He backed up that boast with “A River Runs Through It,” which arguably transformed Montana’s reputation as Wild West battlefield to a place of literary refinement and distinguished fly-fishing. The storied professor of literature at the University of Chicago mined his own youth for a 160-page trio of tales about the Big Blackfoot River and logging in the Rocky Mountains.
But he didn’t get around to writing that novella until he was 70. Maclean only produced one more major work: “Young Men and Fire,” which was published posthumously. So it might seem risky to build a literary festival around an author who takes up such a small share of the bookshelf.
“That’s always a challenge for volunteer outfits,” said Ron Cox of the Seeley Lake Historical Society, which helped put on this past summer’s Norman Maclean Festival. “We have experience with the Tamarack Festival and Winter Fest. In June, July and August, we have a pretty full house. When it snows, we’re strong with cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the wintertime. But it’s a struggle for a place like this to have a year-round economy.”
Last summer’s sold-out tours of the book’s fabled fly-fishing spots and notorious wildfire slopes argue that Norman Maclean’s appeal goes far beyond bookworms. Instead, it could be a template for celebrating the style of stories shaped by place as much as people that won Maclean acclaim.
“We chose that title, ‘In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean,’ so we can turn to other writers who were influenced by him and by the tradition of Western literature,” festival coordinator Jenny Rohrer said. “Next year, we’ll be focusing on the film ‘A River Runs Through It’ with people like Annick Smith and William Kittredge, who wrote the original screenplay. We’ll be building it around stories that have that similar sense of character and landscape. And we’ll be doing it in a place where we can take you outdoors for a good portion of it.”
That idea helped the festival win a $20,700 grant to advertise its events at regional and national levels from the Montana Office of Tourism.
Even Gov. Steve Bullock joined the effort. At the festival’s opening, he recalled his own youth as a river guide in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on the Missouri River near Mann Gulch, where the tragic 1949 fire recounted in “Young Men and Fire” occurred.
“That was the cathedral of my summer,” Bullock said. “I’ve walked in the footsteps of Norman Maclean. He helped identify or cement a sense of place.”
Maclean’s family still has a cabin along the shores of Seeley Lake, which dates to the 1920s. The infamous “hooker scene” where Mclean and his brother Paul discover an unwanted fishing guest and his barfly girlfriend passed out, naked and sunburned amid empty beer bottles took place at Russell Gates Fishing Access Site.
The story’s finest description of fly-fishing happened somewhere around River Bend Day Use Area.
“No film is more closely associated with Montana’s landscapes and outdoor recreation than ‘A River Runs Through It,’ ” Montana Department of Commerce Director Meg O’Leary said in an email. “It has been inspiring travelers to visit Montana for more than 20 years, and this festival offers a unique chance to see the sights, hear the sounds and have the experiences that inspired Norman Maclean to write some of Montana’s most treasured literary works.”
Ironically, Maclean’s image of Missoula and the Blackfoot couldn’t be played by the actual places in Robert Redford’s movie. The film uses Bozeman and several east-of-the-Continental-Divide rivers to stand in for the book’s locations.
But that didn’t hurt the reservation lists at hotels and lodges around Seeley Lake last summer. Book fans from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Minnesota flocked to the event, observed by a British reporter coming from London’s Daily Telegraph, who was assigned to write about “Norman Maclean Country.”
“This all grew out of our “Open Book Club,” Rohrer said. “In seven years, we’ve had 58 authors come to Seeley Lake to read. We can get 90 people to come out to a reading in this little community – in winter.”
The summertime Maclean festival targets what are known as “geo-tourists” – travelers who want to experience unique, cultural and remote places.
“They’re the kind of people who want to attend a festival for a day and then go for an aggressive hike or see Glacier Park,” Rohrer said. “They want to see things in the way they used to be – places that are still relatively undeveloped and undisturbed.”
Haunted by waters
By BRETT FRENCH
Inside Jerry O’Connell’s wedding ring is a slightly altered inscription excerpted from the famous novella “A River Runs Through It,” in which the Blackfoot River is featured prominently.
The last lines in the book read: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
“That’s just one of the many reasons I love that woman,” O’Connell said.
Deborah, his wife, had one of these memorable lines changed to “and some of the words are ours” for his wedding band.
The Blackfoot region and its lore is that important to the Montana transplant who is the founder and executive director of the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper, a nonprofit grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the river. O’Connell even lives along the Blackfoot’s banks, about 40 miles northeast of Missoula, on a ranchette where his horse’s claim to fame is that it was once ridden by Prince William’s bodyguard when the prince spent time in the area.
O’Connell, 68, first became enthralled with the area and its people while hitchhiking through in 1986 on his way to take a solo backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In 1992, he moved from New England to the Blackfoot Valley seasonally until making a permanent jump in 2000.
Over the past six years, he has developed a side business providing tours of the river. This past summer, he led participants in a Norman Maclean writing conference on an exploration of some of the places featured in “A River Runs Through It.” He’s also spoken to school groups and teachers.
Although Maclean’s book may draw people from around the world to the Blackfoot River and its peaceful pools and ragged cliffs, O’Connell attempts to impart a larger sense of the place in his talks – its geology, American Indian and Lewis and Clark Expedition history, as well as the stories made famous by Maclean.
“There’s so much history in this area – Glacial Lake Missoula, the Lewis and Clark Trail – and it’s all woven into the fabric of this whole region,” he said.
Geologically, the Blackfoot River valley was carved by an incredible event, he noted.
As Maclean writes, “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.” His reference is to Glacial Lake Missoula, which about 12,000 years ago covered much of western Montana’s valleys — including the Blackfoot — with an estimated 2,000 feet of water.
When the glaciers damming the Clark Fork River and creating the lake broke loose, the massive waterway — which was the size of lakes Erie and Ontario combined — blasted a biblical flood across Washington and into the Pacific Ocean in roughly three days. During that time, the water carved the Columbia, Clark Fork and Blackfoot river gorges.
“In the process, it made a mess out of this place,” O’Connell said. “Icebergs came charging down this valley. Some made it to the ocean. Some got stuck and you can still see their footprints in the valley where they shed boulders from all kinds of rocks from Canada and all around.”
O’Connell is animated in his talks, pointing and gesturing for effect when necessary, his voice rising and falling to add emphasis, tone and mood. It’s clear from his conversation that even though he may have said the words and told the tales many times, he’s still fascinated by the place and its history.
Western explorer Meriwether Lewis also journeyed along the Blackfoot River Valley on his way back from the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and his crew were guided by Salish Indians.
“They were following a historic route known as the Road to the Buffalo,” O’Connell said. But the valley was guarded by what he referred to as “the bad-asses of the Northern Great Plains — the Blackfeet.” And when the Salish saw remnants of a Blackfeet war party, they left Lewis and his men to their own devices.
“There are still sections of the old trail that you can see, and travois marks, going across my property,” O’Connell said. It’s believed Lewis’ party camped not far from O’Connell’s home. He half-heartedly fumes that a teacher “bent over and picked up the most beautiful arrowhead,” just lying atop the ground, at a 200-year-old campsite he had visited many times. Why couldn’t that have happened to him? he wondered aloud.
In his journal, Lewis took note of the irregular country, a relic of the glacial age’s deposition of huge mounds of gravel, when he referred to one area as the “field of bumps,” O’Connell noted. Later, Lewis crossed out that entry and renamed it “the prairie of knobs.”
Just as intriguing as the ancient and aged tales are O’Connell’s stories about some of the more recent characters of the valley and unusual incidents.
For example, a 13-year-old Prince William — the future king of England — once spent time at a nearby guest ranch to escape the paparazzi during his mother and father’s notorious divorce. O’Connell said there’s a photo of the young prince, hanging in one of the ranch’s buildings, showing him suspended from a nail in a tree by his T-shirt collar while being doused with a garden hose — the punishment for not cleaning his cabin.
Or the cantankerous landowner who disliked trespassers so much that he once chained and padlocked the axle of an unwelcome visitor’s truck and even blew up a culvert to prevent another person from leaving.
At age 93, the curmudgeon died and was buried with his twin Colt .45 pistols clutched in his hands, arms folded across his chest, a bottle of whiskey near his body, O’Connell said.
The River Bend Day Use Area, downstream from O’Connell’s home, is where he believes one of the longest sections of “A River Runs Through It” takes place — when Maclean goes fishing with his father and brother, Paul, for the last time.
“Obviously it was a big day, because it takes up 34 pages in a book that’s only about 160-some pages,” he said. “It really is a remarkable stretch of water.”
Maclean describes it this way: “On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.”
Two springs ago, O’Connell was fishing with his wife in a pool just below the access site when he hooked a 14-inch rainbow trout. He was just reaching down to grab the fish when out of the depths of the pool surged a bull trout that latched onto the rainbow.
He called to his wife to shoot a photo of the incredible struggle at the end of his fly line when a 27-inch bull trout rocketed up to grab onto the other bull trout and rainbow. Mouth agape, O’Connell watched as the tussling trout disappeared into the deep water.
Cranking on his reel, he was able to recover one of the fish — the 27-inch bull trout — which somehow in the midst of the fray had become hooked by O’Connell’s tiny Hare’s Ear Nymph fly. Although fishermen’s stories are notoriously confabulated, O’Connell noted that he has a photo and a witness to back up his incredible tale.
Living in such a notorious region, living a life he once only dreamed of, O’Connell feels a deep connection to the Blackfoot River, fly fishing, Norman Maclean and his book. Maybe not so surprising is the fact that although O’Connell has emblazoned his dedication to the area and Maclean’s novella on his wedding band, others have taken it a step further.
He met a Swedish angler on Facebook three years who had the book’s very last line, “I am haunted by waters,” tattooed in 4-inch-tall Gothic letters across his torso. O’Connell was so impressed that he invited the man to visit him, despite his Hells Angels motorcycle gang looks.
“I was telling my wife I’ve invited this guy to stay at my house and showed her the picture and she was horrified,” O’Connell said, especially when the Swede took him up on the offer.
Turns out the guy was a rock musician who runs an Orvis-endorsed fly shop in Sweden and is also an expert on whiskey. O’Connell took him to the same pool where he’d caught the bull trout, along with his wife and the Swede’s friend, and all four of them hooked a trout almost simultaneously.
“It was just a legendary experience,” he said. “It was really cool.”
Attacking an avalanche
By AARON THEISEN
Dudley Improta, an avalanche specialist with the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation, carefully digs a pit on a finger ridge high on the slopes of Morrell Mountain, in the Swan Range east of Seeley Lake.
He uses the blade of his aluminum shovel to shave the sides, isolating a cross-section of snow as long as the shovel handle and as deep as the blade. He pokes a finger into a thin ribbon a foot below the surface, as if he’s checking the consistency of a still-baking cake.
He swipes at the snow with a brush, on the hunt for yet other clues. Finally, he takes the scoop of his shovel, places it atop the wall of the pit, and pounds with his hand. And just as if someone had placed that layer cake on a table and then tipped the surface, the top layer of snow slides off en masse.
Every year, avalanches bury about 30 skiers, snowmobilers and other backcountry enthusiasts in the United States, killing more people on national forest lands than any other natural hazard.
And with wilder winters and the increasing popularity of backcountry recreation, the potential for tragedy is growing. That’s why savvy backcountry travelers swear by their local avalanche advisory — it may well mean the difference between life and death.
In Montana, three centers – the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation, the Flathead Avalanche Center and the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center – provide avalanche advisories spanning the northern Rocky Mountains. Unlike the sophisticated satellite-aided analysis of traditional weather forecasts, avalanche advisories require field observations in some of the most remote, snow-choked terrain in the lower 48 states.
Slab avalanches occur when a weak layer of snow fractures under a stronger slab layer. In the United States, snow scientists generally recognize three avalanche climates: maritime, with relatively warm temperatures and a deep snowpack composed of few layers; continental, with thinner snowpacks and variable snow layers; and intermountain, a sometimes-unpredictable mix of the other two.
In maritime-influenced climates with heavy accumulations of snow – in Montana, portions of the far northwest corner of the state, such as the Purcells – avalanche specialists pay close attention to weather forecasts. What’s falling from the sky is perhaps more important than what’s already on the ground.
In continental and intermountain climates, where many shallow layers of snow, ice and frost comprise the snowpack, what’s on the ground is more important.
That means, in much of Montana, avalanche specialists spend a lot of time out in the field, looking at snow layers – how well adjacent layers are bonding to each other, whether weak layers are propping up the snowpack like a crumbling house foundation – and evaluating weather patterns to see how new precipitation might affect what’s already on the ground.
The hallmark test for snow stability involves digging a pit, by which avalanche specialists can assess the potential for initiation, the likelihood of a fracture occurring in a weak layer of snow; and propagation, the likelihood that a sliding upper layer will “run” across a distance.
Improta, who with avalanche specialist Steve Karkanen co-founded and staffs the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation, likens it to “finding the sleeping dragon.”
An avalanche specialist’s day usually begins before sunrise with a trip into the office to prepare the regularly scheduled advisory. Then it’s off into the backcountry on ski or snowmobile, to an area with fresh avalanche activity or where the snowpack hasn’t been assessed recently.
Avalanche centers cover a large beat; at the west-central Montana center, for example, Improta and Karkanen take field observations in a wide variety of locations: from the front-country – Lolo Pass, Lost Trail Pass, Montana Snowbowl – to the remote backcountry of the southern Mission Mountains and Swan Range.
Occasionally, they may even cap the day with an avalanche course for skiers or snowmobilers. Or with a fundraising event at a local brewery: Like most small avalanche centers throughout the U.S., Montana’s operate as donor-supported nonprofit groups.
“In the federal government, most budgets are shrinking, but avalanche centers have been able to thrive, largely due to the public support of our programs,” says Karl Birkeland, co-founder and director of the National Avalanche Center in Bozeman.
Its two employees – Birkeland likes to joke that “it’s the small center with a big name” – help oversee avalanche centers nationwide. “And it goes two ways: We get a lot of our money from the public, but we also get a lot of public buy-in and feedback. Our users really have a say in how things are run.”
Snow science is, naturally, a seasonal field. Most avalanche specialists have a summer gig: climbing ranger, rafting guide, fishing guide.
Just don’t call them forecasters.
“We used to call our position ‘avalanche forecasters,’ but we aren’t really forecasting like a meteorologist. We are writing an advisory based on prior observations,” says Improta.
He emphasizes that the term “forecast” gives the false impression that, for a given area, an avalanche will or will not occur with a given probability. But like a spring-loaded bear trap, avalanches usually require a push to release their potential energy – and that push often comes from the bottom of a snowmobile or a ski.
Snow science is also a young field. Researchers only began studying snow stability in the 1920s and 1930s, coinciding with the advent of modern alpine skiing. In the last 20 years, research has given scientists a better understanding of how snow stability varies across the landscape.
And increasingly, sophisticated snow telemetry sites – automated snowpack and climate sensors located in the high country nationwide – give avalanche specialists a wealth of information before they even set foot in the mountains.
This allows them to provide more accurate advisories to the public, but it also increases safety for the specialists themselves: Recent studies show that stability tests on shallow slopes can yield reliable data without exposing specialists to the steep inclines that tend to birth avalanches.
Not that technology takes the place of mountain knowledge or simple common sense.
As an avalanche specialist, “you’re out enough that you see people doing interesting things or taking bigger risks than you would,” says Improta. “Their skill level is such that they can negotiate steep slopes, but their avalanche knowledge isn’t.”
Advances in snow-sport technology, from fat, stable powder skis to more powerful snowmobiles, have also enabled recreationists to get farther into the backcountry in search of new stashes. That, coupled with the explosive popularity of winter backcountry recreation – for each of the last five years, backcountry ski sales have seen double-digit gains over the previous year – means avalanche specialists are digging more pits in more places.
“Twenty years ago, you had users at only a few trailheads, and you felt like as long as you got a handle on those places you’d be good,” says Birkeland.
The upside is that each user is another pair of eyes on the slopes – and, ideally, another stability test.
“We’ve got more and more people going into the backcountry, but we’ve also got more information,” says Birkeland. “So we’ve got higher demand for the services we provide, but we can actually provide a higher level of service.”
Says Improta: “More people are in the backcountry now, since the gear can get them there. And since more people are there, more people are seeing what can happen – and sometimes, that’s what it takes to make you a believer.”
But safe backcountry recreation still requires more than mere faith in an advisory; it’s a dynamic mix of understanding one’s surroundings and current conditions, not only of the snow but of one’s companions.
“An avalanche advisory is just that – an advisory. It gives a skier or sledder a place to start,” says Improta. “Fortunately, I think a lot of people do understand that you can get good information from the advisories, but in the end you’ve got to make a call.”
Laughs Improta: “It’s a simple problem, but only if you decide to stay off steep slopes. Then it’s no problem at all.”
Aaron Theisen is an outdoors writer based in Spokane, Wash. A beginning backcountry skier, he can often be found in the Bitterroot Mountains, on the Idaho/Montana border.