Monday, September 28, 2015

Big Timber and the Natural Bridge

Camping on the Boulder River

Dogs on dash
Traveling east on I-90, we had made reservations to spend a couple of days at the Spring Creek Campground near Big Timber, MT.  We had stayed here before under less than ideal circumstances which you can review (if you wish) here.  It's is a beautiful site right on the banks of the Boulder River.  We were parked with our nose right on the riverbank as you can see in the accompanying photos.  Last time we were here was during spring melt and the river was really roaring.  This time around the flow was a little more restrained but still respectable and we really enjoyed our time here.

With an extra day scheduled for exploring, we drove south along the river through beautiful ranch lands  for about 25 miles and ended up, more or less by accident, at Natural Bridge State Park.  This is a nice little park built around a landmark where, over hundreds of thousands of years, the Boulder River gradually eroded away a sandstone wall until it finally broke through and created a span crossing the river.  And here it is...
Natural Bridge ?

We couldn't figure out how mother nature eroded those guard rails until we finally realized that this is NOT, in fact, the Natural Bridge.  No, the Natural Bridge is here... least it was here.  The span actually collapsed into the river gorge in 1988.  But there is hope. 
Water returning to the river bed
Just downstream from this point the river plunges into an underground channel and shoots out of a cave opening about 75 yards further along.  So there is still kind of a natural bridge although it is
more of a natural tunnel.  And it isn't big enough to handle the water volume in the spring, so for a couple of months a year the water partially goes back to flowing down the old river bed over the top of the tunnel.  But as time and the elements continue to work, they say that the tunnel will gradually enlarge and will eventually form a new bridge.  That's why they haven't changed the name.  Why go to the trouble of changing all the signs when you're just going to have to change them back in half a million years?  Now that's what I call planning ahead.

Eclectic artifacts
The pavement ended at the park, but we continued on a dirt road for another 5 or 6 miles for the lovely views, then turned around and drove back to Big Timber.  There we visited the local historical museum,  just because it was there.  Like other small town museums we have seen, it was mostly a collection of artifacts contributed by local families with little apparent organization and no overarching theme.  Visiting the museum did little to add to our understanding of Big Timber with one exception.  There were two docents who both looked old enough to be city founders and they were able to explain to us why "Big Timber".  I mean, there isn't a tree visible for miles.  It turns out the town is located at the confluence of Big Timber Creek and the Yellowstone River.  The creek took its name from stands of trees a hundred miles upstream.  The town took its name from the creek.  Logging was never a "thing" here.

There were a couple of interesting displays.  We always like to see collections of old medical tools.  It makes me long for
Medical Tools
the days when you didn't have to waste time fooling around with anesthesia.  Just get six or seven burley guys to hold down the vict... er, patient and carry on.  The other interesting room was a collection of old time cowboy chaps.  Never seen one like it.

Adjacent to the museum building was an old schoolhouse, which we ignored, and an old Norwegian style storage building from the last century.  Much of the far northern Midwest was settled by Scandinavians who apparently have an inexplicable fondness for blisteringly cold winters.

Having fulfilled our culture educational requirement for the week, we drove back to our campground to enjoy our riverfront lodgings before packing up in the morning to continue our journey to South Dakota.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Yellowstone, Because It's Not on Fire

Yellowstone, the alternate destination.
After we left West Glacier, the master plan called for driving around to East Glacier where we were supposed to meet up with Paul and Ruth again for a week.  A couple of things made this unwise.  First of all, Paul and Ruth were back in Washington after Paul developed some increase in his back problems.  They will hopefully get back on the road later this summer.  Second, you will recall that East Glacier is still actively burning, making it a less than desirable destination.  Our ultimate goal was to get to our rental house in the Black Hills about the time the last scheduled tenants for the summer left at the end of August.  We were perfectly happy to take a leisurely drive across Montana, but even we can't drive that slowly.  We had some time to kill.  So we called around and managed to get ourselves a week long camping spot in Gardiner, at the north entrance to Yellowstone.

Group of bison ogling a herd of tourists
We were last in Yellowstone in 2010 and spent a week (half in West Yellowstone and half in Gardiner)  and we went just about everyplace you could go on 4 wheels so we didn't feel we desperately had to see everything again this trip.  We mostly wanted to do some wildlife viewing and were not particularly interested in breathing the sulfur fumes down in the geyser basins.  The one place we did not go the last time was the Lamar Valley, in the far north east corner of the park, so on the first day that's where we headed.  It turned out this was bison country. 

Pairing off
Now normally bison wander in segregated herds, the females congregating in larger groups than the males.  But August is the mating month and they all come together in one big happy buffafamily.  Males and females do some dancing around each other and gradually pair off.  Here you can see a large male staying close to his chosen sweetheart.  Does he protect her?  Provide for her?  Bring home the buffabacon?  Well no, not really.  He is mainly there to drive away competitors while waiting for her to go fully into estrus.  Then he will do his best to get a new little buffalo started before he bolts back to join his brethren and tell bawdy stories about his male conquest for eleven months.  Raising the kids?  That's her problem.  Life is good for the male bison.
How romantic
A lone pronghorn comes to the party "stag".

The elk mate in September, so we were a little early for that show.  The males were all up in the mountains somewhere preparing  their head mounted weaponry for battle, but the females were hanging out around Mammoth Hot Springs and the Gardiner River posing for pictures.  You can see a few here.

Elk cows hanging around Mammoth Hot Springs
Lunch time

Calf crossing the Gardiner River

Out on the prowl
We did drive over to West Yellowstone and visited the Bear and Wolf Discovery Center.  In the old days, of course, you couldn't visit Yellowstone without seeing a dozen bears sitting on the edge of the road begging for tourist handouts.  But now that such interaction is strongly discouraged,  it is pretty uncommon to see bears out and about in the park.  The Discovery Center has about a dozen grizzly bears that, for one reason or another, can't live in the wild.  The most common reason is that they became accustomed to humans at some point and are now considered too dangerous to roam at will.  Rather than just shoot them, they are adopted by the center so we tourists still have a way to get our grizzly fix.  About once an hour the keepers hide food around the display enclosure, then let out a couple of the bears to "forage".  Of course, the bears have learned all the hiding places and they know that if there isn't anything in hiding place A this time around, there is sure to be something in hiding place B or C, so they just methodically make the rounds.  At least it brings them up close to the audience side of the enclosure for a good look, and they are impressive to look at.
Dozens of crows fly in to steal their share of bear food
Grey wolf
There is a similar routine with the grey wolves but there are fewer of them and they only eat a couple of times a day, so you need to be there at just the right time.  The center also has a few eagles and other raptors and, for god only knows what reason, an enclosure for ground squirrels.  These seemed a little out of place amongst all the top predators.  As one of the more interesting displays, they had a collection of maybe 2 dozen "bear proof" food and garbage containers that had been successfully ripped open by determined ursines.  Clearly, bear proof is a relative term.
Bald Eagles
"What the hell am I doing here?"
By our 5th day in Gardiner the smoke from the numerous fires to the west had really moved into the area and going out sight-seeing became more depressing than enjoyable, so we just hunkered down in our RV and read or did chores for the last 2 days.  Then we packed up and headed east again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Near the start of the Going to the Sun Road

In 1887, Theodore Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club.  He idolized Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as pioneering men who hunted extensively while opening the frontier, but (at least in Teddy's imagination) realized  the consequences of over-harvesting game.  (Boone only began to realize these consequences late in life, after he had helped wipe out all the buffalo and much of the other large game in Kentucky and had to move to Missouri to find more.  Davy Crockett only gave up shooting wildlife to go shoot Mexicans instead.)  The club was (and probably still is) basically a group of wealthy men who wanted to preserve nature and wildlife primarily so they could go out and kill it.

Two members of the Boone and Crockett Club, George Grinell and Henry Stimson, became enamored with the area between the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations in the late 1800s so they got the club to spearhead efforts to preserve the area.  They got help from the Great Northern Railway which had built a line through Marais Pass and wanted to promote tourism along the tracks.  They were opposed for awhile by mining interests, but when it finally turned out there was nothing there worth mining, they were finally able to lobby congress to designate the area as Glacier National Park in  1910.

For 20 years the main way to reach the park was by rail, so Great Northern's lobbying dollars paid off handsomely, but by the 1930s vacationing by car was becoming the norm and in 1932 the Going to the Sun Highway was completed.  We learned while we were still in Washington that the eastern half of the road was closed due to fires and the air was pretty smokey when we arrived at West Glacier, but when we drove into the park the next day we discovered that they had managed to open the Going to the Sun Road all the way through... sort of.  You could drive all the way from West Glacier to St Mary, but on the eastern half of the road you were not allowed to stop your car and you "might" still see areas of smouldering or burning trees.  Not knowing what to expect, we headed up the road.

It turned out to still be pretty impressive.  The air was hazy but not as bad as Spokane or Missoula had been.  And when you got near the summit (which took us about three hours) the scenery was truly gorgeous.  We drove to the top and a few miles past, then decided we weren't really interested in seeing the burnt out eastern slope, turned back around and  went back to West Glacier.  The pictures can tell the rest of the story.  Enjoy.


Two Medicine Lodge
The next day we drove over the previously mentioned Marais Pass along the park's southern border and into the east side of Glacier to Two Medicine Lake.  Before the Going to the Sun Road was completed and most visitors arrived by train, this is where you went if you visited Glacier Park.   Now it's a lesser known secondary destination.  No one told us what the two medicines were.  I'm guessing they were just aspirin and Tylenol but I hear bear bile was popular among the natives for much the same reason that Viagra sells so well today.  It was a nice day trip that resulted in a few more pictures to share.  We considered driving up to look at some of the devastation further north but decided there was no point in getting all depressed so instead we drove out Hwy 89 a ways into the Backfeet Indian Reservation.  Although it is a major US highway, this is Indian land, so after a few miles the pavement disappeared and we drove on gravel as far as Browning, then got back on US 2 and returned to West Glacier.
Rising Wolf Mountain at Two Medicine Lake
One odd thing  about the RV lifestyle is that you do keep running into folks. We met a couple at our campground in Oregon named Geoff and Mary Jan parked a couple of slots over from us.  They seemed really nice and had recently moved into a smallish RV and come out west from North Carolina.  Fair enough.  Then after we had been at Chimicum a couple of weeks we were walking the dogs one evening and who should we run into but Geoff and Mary Jan.  Now that seems like a bit of an odd coincidence but life is sometimes that way.  So we left them in the Olympic Peninsula and headed off to Spokane and Missoula and then on up to Glacier.  When we pulled into our campground in West Glacier, guess who pulls into the driveway right behind us?  Yep, Mary Jan and Geoff.  Now this is starting to get creepy.  I'm pretty sure at this point that we are being stalked.  Anyway, we went out to dinner with them a couple of times and discovered that, strictly by chance, we will also be at Yellowstone together.  Then they are supposedly heading back to Durham, NC for some family get together.  If they show up at our house in the Black Hills, I'm calling the FBI.