• Before there was ultrasound …

    There’s a fascinating passage in Frank B. Linderman’s book, “Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows,” first published in 1930 and based on Linderman’s own extensive interviews with Plenty-coups.

    Among other bits of folklore here and there, Plenty-coups tells Linderman about a place near Pryor, Montana, called “The-baby-place,” which Linderman claims to have visited: “The sandstone rim above Arrow Creek juts out and overhangs a tiny pool of water which rises and falls with the streams of the district. It is roofed by the rock above it and is completely concealed by surrounding bushes, so that unless one knew the exact location he would not find it.”

    When the water is low in later summer, Linderman says, the shoreline of that pool leads to a cave, and on the beach there the Crow women who were expecting babies “often saw the tiny footprints of The-little-ones-of-the-pool, a boy and girl who dwelt there in eternal childhood and who possessed the power to tell coming Crow mothers the sex of their unborn children.”

    But there was a trick to finding out whether a child would be a boy or girl. The woman who was expecting would make a tiny bow and four arrows of different colors, red, blue, black, yellow. And she would also make a hoop and a stick. She would leave these things by that pool.

    “If, when she returned, the bow and arrows were gone she knew her child would be a boy, that his spirit had taken the mimic weapons to play with. A girl would have taken the hoop and stick.”

    It’s a good read about one of Montana’s great first nations. The University of Nebraska Press, through its Bison Books line, has done all the Great Plains a favor by keeping books such as this in print.

  • Spring migration at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area …



    011 snow geese & swans BEST SHOT by Linda Sentz

    (Submitted photo by Linda Sentz, Choteau)

    If you are a goose or a duck or a swan, it’s time to follow your compass north — and Montana is fortunate to have one of the great resting spots at the foot of the Rockies for migrating flocks.

    Linda Sentz of Choteau, Montana sent us this image of snow geese and swans at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area between Choteau and Fairfield taken on March 12, 2016. (If it’s the first time you’ve seen it in print, yes, the wildlife people really do spell it without an ‘e’ after the ‘z.’ But why does the lake on the official highway map of Montana seem to have that third ‘e’? Does anyone know?)

    If you also feel the call to migrate — at least as far as up Choteau way to check on the migratory waterfowl — check the Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area’s recording at 406-467-2646 first for information about bird numbers and conditions for viewing. As of March 17, 2016, wildlife officials said there were 500 to 600 swans present, though numbers fluctuate; and some 10,000 snow geese. Ducks also were arriving — northern pintails, mallards and wigeons thus far, with new ducks and species arriving daily.

    Ice is out so there is open water throughout the area; and roads are good, though they could turn muddy if there are showers.

    Go and see.

  • Great writing about the Great Plains

    Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat was selected for One Book Montana some years ago — maybe years and years ago by now — and it’s easy why. This novel from 1944 speaks beautifully of the wheat country east of the mountains as it was in the 1940s. The narrator is a college-aged woman not exactly certain that she belongs in Montana and she thinks of spring like this: “The wheat is green in spring, every other strip, and the sky above it is a bright blue. The low hills are green, too, for a month or so, and the prairie flats are blue and yellow and pink with shooting stars and crocuses and lupin. New sage grows in the palest green clumps and the road is still muddy.”

    It’s worth reading, or re-reading. She has a feeling for the Plains.

    An added plus is that if you get the University of Nebraska Press edition of this book from the 1990s, you get a Russell Chatham painting on the cover: Field near Suce Creek. Chatham, too, celebrated Montana during the many years he worked in Livingston.

    It’s art and writing such as this that makes you think about what Montanans are doing here out on the Plains next to the mountains. For some the answer would still be the same as when Mildred Walker published her novel in 1944 or when Russell Chatham finished this painting in 1990: Raising wheat.



  • Reading Matt Pavelich’s stories is a ride across Montana …

    What we’re reading these days is a collection of stories by writer Matt Pavelich, who was born in St. Ignatius, Montana, but lives now in Hot Springs, Montana. Drumlummon Institute of Helena published Pavelich’s short story collection, Survivors Said, in 2015.

    It’s worth a look. One of Pavelich’s gifts is a good sense of dialogue and a voice that changes in keeping with his characters. Particularly impressive is a short story called “Summer Family.” It’s about two teen girls and the narrator is one of them. Getting their voices right has to be quite a feat for a man. The Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas pulled it off once in a great piece of work called The Ice Palace, but it can’t be easy.

    But Pavelich does it well. Check out the narrator’s description of driving out to a Montana farm with her uncle:


    “You’re way above the road in that thing, up in the cab of his truck, and it is fun for a while, for a little ways, but then there gets to be a lot more of this state than there really needs to be, and you just keep going. You get off the bus, and then you get in that truck, and you drive, and you drive, and you drive, and you’ve already been over the mountains, but it’s hundreds of miles left to go, and you’re riding with Uncle Carl who tells you jokes he got from Reader’s Digest, and you try to laugh, but after a while it’s really hard, and he’s talking about his farm, his family, and It’s cut how much he likes ‘em, but we’re driving and driving, and the farther we go the less there is to look at, and you’re on and on, until you’re out there where the only thing there is in any direction is wheat fields and silos, and you can see for a hundred miles.”

    A good read.

  • The sky really is bigger … but why?

    There’s an interesting comment in a story that ran on the front page of the Missoulian on Sunday, March 6, 2016. In an interview with the Missoulian’s Rob Chaney, a professional guide guide from Nepal named Ang Dawa Sherpa who is visiting Montana told Chaney, “Montana really does have a big sky. I have traveled to a lot of other countries, and the sky here really is bigger.”

    Bigger? It could be so. But why? It can’t be just the mountains. Ang Dawa Sherpa is from the Himalayas, the rooftop of the world, so whatever Montana can marshal against the skyline is nothing like as high as what he’s seen.

    I worked once for the Grand Forks Herald, in the utterly flat Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota, where farmers were tearing out even the shelterbelts of trees their grandfathers planted after the 1930s. I wondered then if we might see more of the sky there than in other places because there was so little to interrupt the horizons — no mountains, just a low-lying ridge at each side of the valley, east and west.

    But then we went out west to Havre, Montana, on a story, and we drove south of Chinook to visit the Bear Paw Battlefield, just to see where the U.S. troops caught up with Chief Joseph. And there, looking around at the sky, I bumped into a rancher from that area who was showing some guests the site.

    “It’s true,” I told him. “The sky really is bigger out here.”

    He nodded and offered a simple explanation. “It’s because there’s no people,” he said.

    True? Maybe.

    Or maybe it’s simply that we feel the bigness of the sky most where the Great Plains roll up against the foot of the mountains, whether it’s the Bear Paws or some other range closer to the main stem of the Rockies. There are places in the western Dakotas and in eastern Montana where you can imagine you see the curve of the earth (and you can, literally, if a layer of clouds hung at the same elevation is making its arc across the sky). But what we still need are pillars to hold up the sky. That’s what you have in Montana.

    Lance Nixon is editor of Montana Magazine. Reach him at editor@montanamagazine.com

  • Lake McDonald by Bob Hosea

    Nov/Dec issue preview: Holiday Happenings

    Bob Hosea’s lovely cover photograph of Lake McDonald brought back so many memories of Glacier National Park’s iconic scene. I’ve never perched a Christmas tree along the shore, but I’ve shared many a lakeside rock-skipping competition, boat launch, happy hour libation and photo op there with family and friends.


    In fact, my last trip to the park was perhaps the most memorable – not only because a shroud of wildfire smoke enveloped Lake McDonald late last August, but because I shared that end-of-the-lake vantage with my dearest friends, most of whom had never been to Glacier before.


    I will think of them often this holiday season, as my family gathers to give thanks for the year’s many blessings: the birth of beautiful and healthy twins Giani and Giuliana, the start of preschool for their sweet older brother Vinnie, the days we each spent with lifelong friends this past summer, the promise of a new year at our door.


    This edition of Montana Magazine celebrates many of those same themes, including a wonderful Thanksgiving photo essay by Lynn Donaldson and Corinne Garcia, the perfect culmination of their yearlong “Last Best Plates” series. Lynn even coaxed her sister-in-law into sharing her much-requested pumpkin pie recipe.


    Brett French’s tribute to the late Norman Maclean and his fishing haunts on the Big Blackfoot River is another gem, made all the more special with the on-the-water commentary of Jerry O’Connell. I’m not sure anyone loves Maclean’s writing or the Blackfoot River more than O’Connell, who lives on its banks 40 miles northeast of Missoula. Just ask to see the inscription inside his wedding band.


    Our photographers combined their efforts for a special holiday edition portfolio from across the state. We spotted Santa in Lockwood and Missoula, Cowboy Claus in Ovando, toy soldiers in Dayton, and wide-eyed children everywhere. Share your holiday photos with us on Montana Magazine Facebook and Instagram this season, and we’ll include the best in upcoming editions.


    And no, we didn’t neglect to include a bit of Montana quirkiness in these pages. Reporter Vince Devlin and photographer Kurt Wilson made a trip to Judith Gap, where they spent a couple of hours in jail. We’ll let them explain.


    And we have plenty of fun in the wintry out-of-doors for you as well. Aaron Theisen went afield with the dedicated folks who help keep backcountry snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders safe during avalanche season. And Jack Ballard left his home in Red Lodge to visit another downhill destination, the Pilcher family ski area known as Discovery, just outside of Philipsburg. What a story they had to tell!


    Finally, all of us here at Montana Magazine want to take a moment to wish all of you – wherever you may be – the warmest of holiday wishes. We are thankful for your long years of support and friendship, and look forward to many more. May the holidays, and the year to come, bring you peace.

  • 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

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