• Bill Cunningham with Xena.

    Northern Montana plains help fulfill bucket list trip with man’s best friend

    Story and photos by Bill Cunningham

    We all have dreams, some of mysterious origin. Others, well, we know exactly where they come from. And I knew exactly when the seeds were planted for a dream I harbored for 20 years.

    I had just read A Hunter’s Road by Jim Fergus.

    Fergus and his faithful Labrador lived the ultimate upland game bird fantasy by hunting in 24 states, including Montana, over a five month period.

    Someday, I promised myself. But “someday” was delayed year after year – seemed like it would never come.

    Until last fall.

    I had a heart-to-heart with my loyal hunting partner, Xena, a 9-year-old -going-on-1 Labrador cross breed with boundless gusto for the hunt.

    “You know Xena, we’re not getting any younger.”

    Tail wags.

    “How about spending a big chunk of October exploring a big chunk of Montana chasing upland birds?”   Tail knocks over everything in its path.

    Come mid-October, us two old dawgs hit the road in a tiny old pickup towing a tiny camp trailer. The idea was that the trip would be open-ended, sans artificial time constraints. We would mostly hunt public land or open private land, such as state Block Management Areas, or BMAs.

    Xena in the field. Photo by Bill Cunningham

    Xena in the field. Photo by Bill Cunningham

    My theory is that a public land hunt can match that of private leases if one is willing to hunt harder.

    Success would be measured by quality field time, not by birds in the bag.

    Lowering the harvest bar held two advantages: I would be less disappointed by my lousy shooting and, lacking a freezer, I would need to eat as I go. How could I possibly consume the daily limit of three pheasants, eight huns and four sharpies anyway?

    With the pressure off, I could simply revel in sunrises, broaden my Montana horizons with inspiring prairie vistas, and watch Xena pursue running roosters.

    And this is how it turned out during the golden days of October across a wide swath of northern Montana.


    We left Choteau with no firm destination. I pointed east and 150 miles later, ended up on public land along the Judith River near Denton. Along the way, I noticed that fields had been scoured by heavy rain. I’d heard that entire upland bird populations in Montana’s heartland had been wiped out by torrential rain during August. Here was another excuse for not bagging many birds – nature had beat me to it.
    I marveled that there were any upland birds given the vagaries of weather, habitat loss and predators. At least my inconsistent shooting greatly improves the birds’ chances of survival.

    After setting up camp along the river, I learned from a hunting couple, Terry and Linda, that hunting pressure had driven most of the pheasants across the river.

    Terry tried to wade it, but had to turn around in the swift current.

    Having anticipated high water, I crossed in my pack raft, with Xena swimming alongside. We were soon hunting in cover so thick that I could only hear the pheasants Xena was flushing.

    And so it went for the next couple of days: lots of miles and misses punctuated with boredom when my mind drifted elsewhere.

    While working back upstream to the raft, I reminded myself that to hunt properly the pace should be deliberate but not too fast. I should be at home on the land with a Zen-like contentment that comes with being in the present.

    Just then, Xena locked on a scent, charged into a thicket, busting a rooster whose brilliant colors glowed in the azure sky.

    The felled bird was delivered to hand with a look that said, “It’s about time, Dad!”

    A thunder storm arrived that evening prompting me to move camp from the gumbo bottom to the bench above.

    After the move, I went on the hunt with local habitat specialist Virge Gluth, who plants food plots and shelter belts for upland birds.

    Miles later, we entered dense patches of snowberry lining a serpentine stream. Xena flushed a rooster followed by a heroic blind retrieve.

    Once again, we would enjoy the fruits of our labor, this time with one of the gourmet recipes in A Hunter’s Road, which had inspired the trip in the first place.

    That had me reflecting again: When hunting public land, one has to out-walk the competition to be successful. It all begins with quality habitat, which is why Gluth’s habitat work is so vital.


    During his “personal journey into the romance of open country,” Fergus hunted with a host of memorable characters.

    In like manner, and after my time with Gluth, I headed to Malta to rendezvous with my old friend Bob Jamieson, a retired outfitter from British Columbia.

    Jamieson has an amazing gift for stumbling upon just the right person at just the right time. He befriended Bob Skinner, a Malta bow maker, who in turn got permission for us to hunt private land just south of town. We saw but didn’t kill any pheasants. This led to nearby state land along the Milk River where we saw but didn’t kill even more pheasants.

    We made a quick trip to nearby Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. It was way too hot and dry for Xena to pick up scent, and besides, the birds had been hammered by heavy rain and hunting pressure.

    Instead, we got there to see what really good bird habitat looks like and it was impressive.

    The next day at the Malta City Park, Xena was barking at Lindy, an early morning walker. Turned out she and her husband had recently retired from ranching north of Circle where her brother-in-law still ranches.

    Lindy said the pheasants there are so numerous they’re a nuisance.

    Unable to resist we made the 3-hour drive to Prairie Elk Creek. Along the way, we drove through desolate badlands and wondered if there could possibly be any upland game birds within 50 miles.

    Upon entering the ranch we obtained permission, set up camp next to a pond, and marveled at the number of pheasants running around the buildings.

    Our euphoria ended the following day when Jamieson missed the only rooster we saw. No matter, pursuing game birds was merely an excuse for exploring new country.

    After a couple of days, Jamieson headed home and I made one final sweep through pheasant cover.

    To my surprise, both Xena and I did our job and produced a rooster for the pot.

    Heading home, we made a grand sweep toward Jordan, across the Musselshell River and ended up on the West end of a BMA swath along McDonald Creek.

    We hunted as a team, flushing, shooting and retrieving well. By the end of the morning we were “bagged out” and ready to find a campsite.

    Coming full circle, we ended up alongside the Judith River where the odyssey began two weeks earlier. After six miles and six hours, we drug into camp with a few birds and memories that will last forever.

    As you read these words chances are Xena and I are somewhere in this magnificent space we call Montana, reliving the dream.

    Bill Cunningham of Choteau became a “dog person” somewhat late in life but can’t imagine life without a Lab. He writes from Choteau.   

    To read more Montana stories like this all year, subscribe today! 

  • Eva Amundsen, 104, with awards. Photo by Jenny Montgomery

    Montana disability rights leaders reflect on 25 years of ADA

    By Jenny Montgomery

    When disability civil rights leader Justin Dart landed at the Great Falls airport almost 30 years ago, an enthusiastic crowd of activists was there to greet him.

    “It was truly amazing to be part of that whole push,” said Mike Mayer, executive director of Summit Independent Living in Missoula, recalling a historic 1988 visit to the state by Dart. “We drove up to Great Falls to meet with him.”

    Wearing his signature cowboy hat, Dart listened carefully during his visit as Montanans with disabilities shared personal stories of discrimination in education, work, housing, transportation and other facets of life in a rural state.

    An ironic mistake at the beginning of Dart’s visit cast a glaring light on the lack of understanding about the realities faced by many Americans living with a disability: Dart was picked up from the airport in an inaccessible van; he and his collapsible wheelchair rode on the floor in the rear cargo area.

    “All you could see was his cowboy hat bouncing up and down,” said Bob Maffit, then the state’s first Independent Living Coordinator and now chief executive officer of the Montana Independent Living Project.

    Maffit was horrified at this arrangement.

    Undaunted, Dart told Montana’s disability leaders how important it was for Congress to hear directly from them about the obstacles they faced.

    “It brought home to us that we weren’t isolated, we were part of a national movement,” Mayer said.

    Disability activists across the state are celebrating 25 years of access and opportunity in 2015, as they recall the vivid moments leading up to the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and reflect on the particularities of life with a disability in Montana.

    To read the rest of this story and more Montana stories like this all year, subscribe today! 

  • George Gildersleeve helped build this mining camp in the early 1920s. It remains almost fully intact today. Photo by Kurt Wilson

    Historic mining camp offers chance to step back in time

    By Kim Briggeman

    Photos by Kurt Wilson

    In a way, this remains George Gildersleeve’s Father’s Day gift.

    He was in his early 20s in 1924 when George convinced his father, Ike, and Ike’s brothers, Charlie and Lee, to move their mining attentions over the hill from the Trout Creek watershed to the headwaters of Cedar Creek.

    Most of a century later, you can search the old gold gulches of Montana and not find anything like the compound the Gildersleeves and the Kansas City Mining Co. built in 1930 and 1931 in Snowshoe Gulch.

    A U.S. Forest Service survey in 1995 called it “the most complete Depression-era mining camp remaining in western Montana.”

    Today it’s just as intact, just as secluded, and even more secure in its post-mining days as a family-owned complex of rough-hewn cabins, shacks and shops.

    George Gildersleeve was 88 in 1991 when he died in the Superior hospital, clinging fiercely to this haven 17 miles up the creek.

    “When he was up here, he felt that he was the king on the mountain,” Sue McLees, George’s lone surviving offspring, said. “As far as he was concerned, he owned all this.”

    “As far as you could see,” McLees said in unison with her niece, Anna Haskins. They smiled at the memory.


    The mountains of Mineral County sang their summer song early this summer, and the canyon that stretched from the Gildersleeve camp down toward the distant Clark Fork Valley shimmered in the unseasonable heat.

    Here and there a sprig of beargrass already bloomed. Snowshoe Creek was less than a trickle, though water splashed merrily from the spring 200 feet above camp. It’s the source of a gravity-fed water system rigged up decades ago to provide plumbing to some of the cabins and, later, the chicken coop.

    Half of the latter is rigged out as a shower, heated by a propane grill, a car radiator and copper tubing.

    Resourcefulness thy name is Gildersleeve, though none of the family in this neck of the woods goes by the surname any more.

    Neither Charlie nor Lee Gildersleeve had children, and George was Ike’s only son. He married Fern Dodson in 1931, even as the camp was being built. They had two daughters, McLees and her older sister, Gloria (Weaver), Haskins’ mother, who passed away in Superior in 2010. Gloria had four daughters, Sue had two more and a son who died young in a car wreck.

    With all those girls involved, the names on the title these days are Weaver, McLees, Johnson, Mattfeldt, Mayes and Schaefer.

    “When I was in high school, I was determined that when I got married, he was going to have to change his name to Gildersleeve, because there weren’t any more,” McLees said.

    By whatever name, it’s the extended family connections that bring children, grand- and great-grandchildren, in-laws, cousins, and an occasional visitor to the camp in the good weather months.

    What McLees called a paperwork snafu while routinely renewing their mining claim in 1994 led the Bureau of Land Management to declare the Gildersleeve claims abandoned. The Forest Service posted no-trespassing signs on the buildings, which seemed doomed.

    “We realized there was quite a history there and the camp had a lot of historical significance from the early mining history in the Cedar Creek area and the longevity of the Gildersleeve family being up there,” said Nancy Rusho, forest geologist on the Lolo National Forest. “We really worked to try to figure out the best way to preserve the property.”

    The solution was a land swap. The family purchased 20 acres in the Seeley Lake area, then exchanged them with the Forest Service for 20 acres on Snowshoe.

    Though subject to some regulations, George Gildersleeve’s descendants now own the camp that he so loved.


    Milo McLeod was archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest when he prepared a nomination of the Gildersleeve mining camp for the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service accepted the nomination and listed the camp in 2002.

    It qualified first because it was part of the Cedar-Quartz Historic Mining District that rose after Montana’s last major placer gold rush. In late 1869, Louis Barrette and Basile Lanthier found gold in Cayuse Creek, a tributary 10 miles below the Gildersleeve.

    Perhaps within weeks, it’s thought that a handful of the thousands of miners who flooded into Cedar Creek made it up to Snowshoe. For much of the 20th century, before and after they built their camp in 1930, the Gildersleeves maintained the mining legacy.

    The Gildersleeve camp “played an important role in the life of the upper Cedar Creek drainage during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s,” according to the National Register nomination. “Its location on the upper reaches of Cedar Creek, as well as its telephone link to the outside world after 1938, made it a popular stopping place for hunters and travelers.”


    Flanked on one end by the creek where placer ore was sluiced and on the other by a now-barricaded mine shaft into which operations moved when the creek dried up, this is a 1-by-12 camp – another basis for its national historical significance.

    The structures are similar in design, made of the rough-sawn boards cut by a portable steam-powered sawmill in 1930. Snow depths are legendary up here, and support poles are used to keep the main bunkhouse from listing under heavy loads.

    According to the National Register nomination, the construction style in the Gildersleeve camp is typical of “Depression-era mining camps that utilized simplified construction and relied on affordable, available, and often recycled construction material.”

    In a corner of the cookhouse, an old-time phonograph is set in a dynamite box. Its horn is made from the aluminum skin of a Model A Ford, circa 1930.

    “I don’t know if it didn’t run or what happened, but they left it up here over the winter,” McLees said. “Well, the snow crushed that car.”

    “I was an accountant,” Anna Haskins said at lunch time in the cookhouse.

    A Superior girl born into a mining family, Haskins worked for Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Mining Co. in Elko, Nevada.

    “The stress was unreal,” she said. “I got up here and it was just like it actually fell off my shoulders.”

    Each spring when the snow goes, Haskins and her husband Tim head up to the Gildersleeve. For the past eight years she’s stayed, riding herd on whatever needs fixed, showing the occasional visitor around camp, and basking in its history.

    Tim Haskins, a federal mine inspector, returns to the camp on his days off. Generations of Gildersleeves and their extended families make the drive to Snowshoe Gulch from Superior and other places to work, hang out, and drink in the delicious solitude.

    “Now I stay as long as I can in the fall,” Anna said, “and I can’t wait to get back up here in the spring.”

    You probably wouldn’t ask George Gildersleeve this, and the question may sound “idiotic” even to his daughter and granddaughter, but what’s the appeal of the Gildersleeve?

    “It’s like a different world up here, like you step back in time,” said McLees. “I think what people really enjoy (is) it’s so calming. I don’t know if there are words for it, how you feel when you’re up here.”

    “It’s the memories,” Haskins said. “Oh, yes.”

    Kim Briggeman is a longtime Missoulian reporter. He writes from Missoula.

    To read more Montana stories like this all year, subscribe today! 

  • Bob Thaden works on Tongue River Winery grapevines. Photo by Susie Wall

    Treasure State Hidden Gem: Tongue River Winery

    Story and photos by Susie Wall

    Your first hint that Tongue River is not an average winery is when you notice the “Location” section of its website lists GPS coordinates. The second hint comes when you realize that proprietors Bob and Marilyn Thaden and son Josh are the sole sources of labor at Tongue River.

    They perform all the planting, harvesting, pressing, bottling and labeling on their two acres to create an annual flow of 2,000 gallons of exceptional wines in the outskirts of Miles City.

    Winemaking began as a hobby for Bob and Marilyn.

    Bob was a pastor for 30 years. Marilyn was a speech pathologist.

    One day Marilyn said to Bob, “If you’re going to make this much wine, you might as well sell it.”

    Soon after, the joys of gardening combined with the thrill of a constant challenge and an endless supply of learning opportunities turned a hobby into a livelihood.

    The Thadens grow almost all of the grapes and fruits that go into their wine on their own property.  Rows of vines heavy with hearty European and wild American hybrid grapes such as Frontenac, Marquette and La Crescent are found beside branches laden with raspberries, currants and chokecherries.

    The quiet beauty of the vineyards belies the struggles of making wine on the unforgiving eastern plains, and Bob and Marilyn are constantly waltzing an intricate dance with the elements.

    “Nature is a bad mistress,” Bob said.

    The grapes they grow were chosen for their ability to withstand temperatures down to 40 below zero, but this is no guarantee every harvest will bring forth a plentiful crop.

    The timing of frosts does as much to effect the yields as plunging mercury.

    One of these unpredictable cold snaps in 2014 caused Tongue River to suffer a total grape crop failure.

    Despite the challenges, it is evident that the Thadens are addicted to the art of making wine.

    In addition to their love of working the land, they revel in the social aspect that comes with owning a winery.

    A typical day finds them buried among their vines until the chime of a cell phone alerts them to the next round of curious wine lovers peeking through the tasting room door.

    Soon after the alert sounds, you will find Bob and Marilyn deep in conversation with a new set of friends while they proudly showcase their hard earned bottles of Apple Ice and Tongue Tied red.

     Tongue River Winery Tip Sheet

    Where and when to go

    Either take the Broadus exit south off of Interstate 94 and follow the handmade “Winery” signs or plug 46°22’50″N 105°50’22″W into your GPS to find yourself at the front door of Tongue River Winery.

    On that door you will find cell phone numbers that will bring Bob or Marilyn in for a tasting.  As the website notes, the winery is open all legal hours but to schedule a visit or make sure someone will be around, call (406) 853-1028 or send an email to trwinery@midrivers.com. If you are unable to visit the winery, wines can be ordered online at www.tongueriverwinery.com or found in 25 retail outlets from Circle to Dillon.

     When you’re there be sure you try

    A glass of haskap wine. Haskap is edible honeysuckle also known as honeyberries. It resembles an elongated blueberry and tastes like a cross between strawberries, cranberries, blueberries and raspberries. The Tongue River proprietors believes they are the only winery in the country that makes haskap wine, so snatch up the opportunity to sample this delectable and unique wine. Finish up with a sweet treat with sips of Cherry Pie. Bob thinks that it resembles the real thing so much he suggests pairing it with pie crust.

    Where to go if you admire the art on the walls of the winery

    Much of the artwork that adorns the tasting room was produced by friends of Bob and Marilyn. To continue your interest in local art, a stop at the WaterWorks Art Museum is a must. After a long career as the supplier of the citizens’ drinking water, this century-old building now displays works by local artists such as Michael Blessing and one of the largest publicly viewable collections in Montana of the works of 19th century western photographer L.A. Huffman.

    Susie Wall is a freelance writer and photographer. She works from Missoula. 

    To read more Montana stories like this all year, subscribe today! 


  • Smoke Elser, 81, teaches the art of "mantying."  Photo by Tom Bauer

    Smoke Elser: A backcountry pack horse legend

    Smoke Elser is a legend in Western Montana.

    There isn’t anyone who can take on the backcountry like Smoke, who has been packing horses into Montana wilderness since he was in his early 20s.

    It’s no wonder he’s the focus of this National Geographic story entitled “81-Year-Old Wrangler Teaches Cowboy Skills to Navy SEALs, FBI.”

    Here’s a quick preview: 

    Ask around for Arnold Elser and you’ll get a blank stare—that name was forgotten long ago, when a young freshman from Cleveland, Ohio, arrived in Missoula for a season with the Forest Service working in a fire lookout. It didn’t take long for the vast, wild country to steal Elser’s heart (a local sweetheart named Thelma also played a role), and soon he was learning the tricks of the outfitting trade from northwest Montana’s finest horsemen, who were the era’s primary wilderness advocates.

    Dubbed Smoke by his mentor, a locally famous outfitter named Tom Edwards, Elser had landed in Montana, the cradle of the wilderness movement, at a critical time in history: Post-World War II expansion and consumerism were poised to irreparably change the West’s backcountry. Elser was swept along in the excitement and joined in the fight to pass theWilderness Act, even testifying before the Montana Senate.

    Read the full story here


  • Using plaster to create a protective jacket around a fossil, Michael D’Emic, at right, provides tips to Keegan Melstrom. Courtesy photo

    Digging up millions of years of Montana

    We really dig this story. Get it?

    Dinosaur dig revealing insights to Montana 103 million years ago

    By Brett French

    In a region of Montana known for a 1960s fossil discovery that forever altered paleontologists’ concepts of dinosaurs, Michael D’Emic may have unearthed the bones of three new species — one a mammal, another a crocodile and the third a dinosaur.

    Since 2007 Michael D’Emic has spent five summers digging at this site in the Bighorn Basin. His discoveries include three new species that he is waiting to identify. Courtesy image

    Since 2007 Michael D’Emic has spent five summers digging at this site in the Bighorn Basin. His discoveries include three new species that he is waiting to identify. Courtesy image

    “What’s really cool about the site is we’re getting a big picture of the ecosystem,” D’Emic said in a telephone interview from his home in Stony Brook, N.Y., where he teaches anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University. “We’re finding stuff that died in a flood, and a few seasons before, all collected in one area.”

    D’Emic is waiting to collect more bones from the specimens before he names or describes the new fossils.

    “He doesn’t want to say anything until he knows more,” said Greg Liggett, paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Billings.

    Fossil history

    In 1964 in the same region of the Bighorn Basin, south of Billings, John Ostrom of Yale University discovered the deadly curved talon of a dinosaur later named deinonychus, or “terrible claw” — a smaller, feathered version of the fierce velociraptors made popular in the movie “Jurassic Park.” Ostrom’s research into the dinosaur’s skeletal structure was the first to relate the animals more closely to birds than lizards and to defy earlier concepts of dinosaurs as slow and stupid.

    “It kind of started us on the whole dinosaur revolution of the past 50 years,” Liggett said.

    Liggett, who oversees the granting of permits to dig on BLM lands in his region, said the layer of rock D’Emic has targeted to chisel into is not as readily accessible in other parts of the continent.

    “I’m working one of the few sites still producing a lot of material, but logistically it’s difficult,” D’Emic said.

    Read the rest of the story here

  • Elk at twilight. Photo by George Tillman

    Top Reader Photos: Smoky skies and summer fun

    We’ve been seeing more than our fair share of smoky skies across Montana lately.

    First: We’re hoping all those firefighters working to contain the wildfire are staying safe. Never can say thanks enough to those folks.

    Second: Despite the smoke, we’ve been treated to a bunch of stunning sunsets and sunrises through the smog. You’ll see a shot here of that, thanks to Robin K. Ha’o.

    We’ve also got a great set of Top Reader photos to share. Including some rodeo and crystal clear night skies.

    Smoky storm at sunset near the Wild Horse Plains. Photo by Robin K. Ha'o

    Smoky storm at sunset near the Wild Horse Plains. Photo by Robin K. Ha’o


    Whitetails in the meadow. Photo by Whispering Peaks Photography

    Whitetails in the meadow. Photo by Whispering Peaks Photography


    Helena Youth Rodeo. Photo by Mark LaRowe

    Helena Youth Rodeo. Photo by Mark LaRowe


    Clear skies and stars. Photo by Jullie Powell

    Clear skies and stars. Photo by Jullie Powell

    You can see more of these photos at our Facebook page, fb.com/montanamagazine. Or, on montanamagazine.com



  • Tim Nolan paints some of the Silver Dollar Bar building on Wednesday in preparation for the business’ 80th anniversary celebration. The bar was originally on Woody Street, and moved to its current location after World War II. Photo by Tom Bauer

    Sillver Dollar marks 80 years of family ownership

    Here’s a great Montana story out of Missoula.

    The Martellos have owned and operated the Silver Dollar Bar there for 80 years.

    There’s no one better the Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman to tell us more about that impressive history:

    Ben Martello made his sons partners in the Silver Dollar 10 years ago, and they all work there to varying degrees. Photo by Tom Bauer

    Ben Martello made his sons partners in the Silver Dollar 10 years ago, and they all work there to varying degrees. Photo by Tom Bauer

    Family memory doesn’t stretch back far enough to explain why an Italian immigrant and railroad worker opened a bar on Woody Street in late 1935.

    Benjamin Martello purchased one of the county’s early liquor licenses after Prohibition and set up shop less than a block from the Northern Pacific tracks, in what’s now a parking lot between the red-brick Brunswick Building and the Missoula Public Defenders building.

    It was the last year the Peace Dollar was minted in the U.S. Martello called his new establishment the Silver Dollar Bar.

    After World War II, he and son Domenic moved the business across Woody Street and just down the block to 307 W. Railroad St. There the “Dollar” has remained and so have the Martellos.

    Ben sold the bar to Domenic in 1960. When Domenic died of a heart attack at age 50 in 1974, ownership went to his wife Mary and their three children.

    “We inherited it and my mother said, ‘Why don’t we just sell it?’ ” said Ben Martello, their only son and a Missoula optician at the time. “I said, ‘Let me try it for a while and at least make it to 50 years.’

    “That (1985) was my goal then. Now we’ve been here 80. I’ve surpassed my goal.”

    Read the rest of the story here

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