The Missouri Breaks: Back to 1805.

On our second day in the Missouri Breaks we heard a four-wheeler grinding its way down the steep road to our camp on the banks of the Missouri.  A few minutes later a grizzled and weathered rancher with a border collie pup on the seat behind him pulled up and asked if we’d seen any of his cows.   Nope, we hadn’t.    We’d seen some across the river, but those weren’t his.

He reckoned he’d need to get out on horseback to find them; too many gullies and ravines for them hide in this country.

I reckon so too.   How do you find a few cows in the middle of this?


The Missouri Breaks is one of the most isolated spots in the lower 48:  with the exception of a few cows and the occasional rancher, you’re not likely to see anyone during your visit here.   The stretch of the Missouri between Fort Benton and the Fort Peck lake is also one of the least changed stretches of the Missouri; it looks the way it looked to both the Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


We were, in fact, camped near the spot where the expedition camped on the way west, on May 25, 1805, and where Meriweather Lewis also camped on July 30, 1806 his way to meet Clark at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers on their return trip.

In the May 26 journal entry, Lewis climbed the bluffs along the river, a “fortiegueing” job, but when he reached the top he was rewarded:  “from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.”  He could easily have stood at the spot where I took the above photo.   I was not too “fortiegued”,  having the benefit of a pickup to carry me up.

The road to Woodhawk Bottom, where we camped, is plenty steep.   You wouldn’t want to tackle it after a rain, that’s for sure.

We camped in the cottonwoods at the bottom.

We camped in the cottonwoods at the bottom.

See? Steep.

Evening and morning are when you can really appreciate the solitude and isolation of the breaks.  The nearly full moon rose across the river just as the sun was setting.


Coyotes called to each as the moon rose, and a crabby kingfisher zipped into the cottonwoods above us and kept up a rattling scolding until he decided we weren’t going anywhere, no matter how long he yelled at us.  Then, silence.

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Sunrise was magic as well.


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Can’t you just see William Clark sitting on this bank, writing up his notes?


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Glacier: Kintla Lake at Summer’s End

Summer is short at Kintla Lake; even in late August the nights are getting cold, the days are shorter, the squirrels are madly caching food for the winter, and you feel like the weather could turn at any moment.   The lake, always beautiful, changes from one hour to the next.     

12:30 p.m.  August 27.



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3:00.  Clouds are building.  Time to head to shore. 


A lone snake decides to head to shore as well.  









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7:30  The rain wins.  

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7:30 the next morning, looking like a foggy morning on the coast of Maine.  


Good morning for a hot cup of coffee.  


8:30.  Sun is trying.  


Not working, though.  


10:30  Hooray! 

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1:00  A trip to the end of the lake.  


7:30  All calm.  

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Road Trip: Bannack Ghost Town

July 17, 2013:  Flash Flood in Bannack.  

Billings Gazette photo

Billings Gazette photo

The annual Bannack Days celebration was scheduled last year for July 18 and 19, and we thought it would be fun to go check it out.  The rain gods, though, had something else planned for Bannack:  a flash flood that tore down the main street for 90 minutes.  There were about 20 people visiting the town that day, and some were caught by the flood, but all made it out alive.  Holy buckets.  Of rain.    But look at the blue skies in this photo.  Amazing.

Bannack was closed for the rest of summer last year.   I’d heard that the damage had been fixed, but I was worried that one of my favorite places might never be the same.

It was rainy for our road trip to Bannack this week, but the town looked just as it always has.    We camped on Grasshopper Creek, and had the town to ourselves in the late evening and early morning.

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There are two cemetaries in town, an early one on the hill right above town, and a later one a little ways outside of town.

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As always, it’s the children’s graves that pull at our hearts, even more than a 100 years after they’re gone.







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Moose, Mosquitoes and Bear Grass: Three Days in the Pintlers

Whoa…what’s that?”

Margaret stops dead, pointing into the trees.    I don’t stop in time and smack into her backpack.  I look where she’s pointing in the woods off to the right of us but don’t see anything.

“What?  I don’t…”     I’m scanning the hillside above us.

“Right there.  A moose!”

I’d been looking way too far.  A bull moose is looking back at us, not even 50 feet away.


Wow.  And yikes.  Anyone who spends any time in the woods knows that moose can be scary: a crabby moose is not to be messed with.     But this guy was mellow.  He looked us over, took a few steps, checked us out again, and then calmly went on his way.




We were almost to our destination:  Johnson Lake in the Pintler Wilderness.  From the trailhead it had been a five mile steady climb, with increasingly incredible stands of bear grass.  Bear grass is pretty much a northwest  alpine phenomenon; you can find it somewhere every year, but every 5 years or so the blooms can be especially spectacular, and this has been one of those years.    It looks like a sea of fluffy Q-tips.




Even our campsite was in the middle of the bear grass:


As we sat waiting for the sunset that evening, our friendly moose appeared on the opposite side of the lake.  He browsed around the lake, heading toward a couple who were fishing.   They didn’t see him right away, but when they did, I was pretty surprised that they didn’t back off.  The moose and hikers checked each other out,



and the moose decided that his best option was to swim around these blokes who were insisting on standing their ground.  Lucky for them he was one mild-mannered moose!

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He parked himself in the lake, probably only 25 feet from these folks, and spent the next hour feeding and entertaining us all.  What a story those guys had to tell their friends that night!

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As for me, I was happy to watch from my safe distance.  When the couple left the moose stayed a bit longer, but then something spooked him and he hightailed it into the woods.  He could move when he wanted too, that’s for sure!

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Posted in Adventure, Backpacking, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 25 Comments

Good Grebe!

I’ve been watching a pair of Red-necked Grebes on a local lake since early this spring.   They mated and built a nest in May, but the nest must have failed, because no little grebes ever showed up.  They hung around though, and a few weeks ago I saw the mating behavior again.  I eventually found their new nest, and last night we took the kayak out to check on their progress.

No grebes at the nest.   Uh oh.

But wait….there they are….and….success!    Baby on board!



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I’m not too sure about these grebes’ parenting skills.  I watched as they tried to feed the baby a fish that was twice as big as the baby:



Not surprisingly, junior couldn’t manage such a huge mouthful, and the parent dropped the fish.  In his excitement, the little guy toppled overboard:


The parents didn’t seem to know what to think about this flopping around behavior.


But he popped up again, and managed to scramble back on mama’s back.

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Ain’t nature grand?


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Exploring Rainy Lake

We have a new toy, and I’m just loving it.

DSCN8361 The cool thing about our new kayak is that it’s inflatable, which means we can fold it up and put in the camper.  And it’s a cinch to blow up.  Check it out:

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Nifty, eh?

We tested it out at Rainy Lake, a lovely little jewel of a mountain lake in the Seeley-Swan Valley.  Rainy Lake (and isn’t that just a perfect name for a lake?) is a loon nesting area, and I was hoping we’d see a loon carrying a baby on its back.   Mainly though, we were just happy to spend some hours on the lake, playing with our new toy.

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We watched a heron fishing along the shore,  and were watched by a bald eagle from his perch.



A couple of loons were calling to each other at the east end of the lake.  We got as close as we could without disturbing them, and – success! – one of them had a baby on her back!   The photos I got were from pretty far away, so they’re pretty fuzzy, but still…such a grand sight.  Can you see the little baby on her back?





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It’s Windy on Top of the World


It was 89 degrees and dead calm in the Skalkoho Creek valley when we left.  Now the wind is howling, and I’ve put on an extra shirt and the fleece jacket that I just threw in at the last moment, thinking it would make a good pillow.   But it’s all good.  I’m on top of the world.


The Gird Point Lookout is the fourth lookout we’ve stayed in, and it’s a dandy.    You can’t drive all the way to the lookout, but it’s a pretty manageable walk:  from the parking area it’s 3/4 mile up a hill.  A steep hill, yes, but not far.

The harder part is the 13 mile drive up the winding and twisty Forest Service road.  The directions tell you to budget an hour and a half for the drive, and that’s pretty much right.  But it’s not too rocky, so just about any car could make it.  (Although I noticed a number of folks who wrote comments in the lookout journal also commented on the flat tires they got on the way up.  The wind was also a common theme!)

After 12 miles, we got our first view of the lookout:


Every lookout has amazing views, but sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate; smoke or clouds can hide the scene.  But the wind just adds to the drama, and this place is full of drama.  We were even visited by a group of six mule deer bucks and a magnificent big horn sheep.  The wind died down just before sunset, which meant it was perfect for sitting out on the catwalk and just looking.



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Posted in Adventure, Backpacking, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 8 Comments