Car packed and house searched for last minute items left in nooks and crannies, we left Fortine, Montana, passing the local On The Fly Cafe for the last time. We started north, through Eureka, then turned west to Lake Koocanusa, where we turned south–no trip is a straight line in the mountains.
Morning mist was just rising off the mountains, and though the sky looked threatening, we had no rain. The lake was a pattern of shimmering silver disks, reflecting the gray sky.
Our route across NW Montana crossed the Kootenai National Forest, as beautiful a drive as ever through the tall pines. We drove via Libby, formerly a mining town, now a superfund site with some impressive murals of local wildlife, then the road headed north again. Crossing into Idaho we drove a strange stretch through the panhandle, passing a tremendous number of rail lines full of freight trains mostly sitting still. Was it the Covid19 decrease in commerce, or a bottleneck on the line?
North Idaho is also home to some very large auto scrapyards. Huge, even. There were hundreds of cars spread across fields. Some had a few choice older vehicles lined up by the gate (school bus yellow Camaro, anyone?). Stretching into the distance were rows of increasingly distressed cars, trucks, and farm machinery.
We turned south once again, and headed for Spokane, coming out of the mountains into rolling hills that rapidly flattened out where we picked up the interstate. Suddenly, we were surrounded by wheat fields to the horizon.
By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Best Western Bronco Inn, in Ritzville, WA. We were tired from the long day, and had a picnic dinner in our room. Jonathan was pleased to find the “Grass Station”, next door to the motel, and paid a visit to check on their inventory. (NB: Bronco logo from motel appears over the Grass Station.
Day Two: Ritzville, WA to Cannon Beach, OR
The fields of wheat accompanied us south to the WA/OR border, but things changed when we crossed the Columbia River. The highway follows the river from Umatilla all the way to Portland, along the shore and past the Dalles, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Lake Bonneville Dam and power plant. Rock formations loom over the highway,
We stopped to picnic in a park along the roadside just east of the Columbia Gorge. The day was beautiful and we enjoyed the break from driving. After that, we made a beeline for Cannon Beach. Traffic through Portland didn’t slow us down at all, and we arrived at our new home in the late afternoon. A quick shopping trip to the grocery store around the corner and we could stop moving for a while. We can see the ocean from our living room. Ahhh!
Our month in Montana is ending, and as usual, there are still lots of things that we haven’t done. Glacier Park was a dramatic highlight, but there are many beautiful places in our corner of northwest Montana.
Driving to the end of the Road
This became a favorite pastime, picking a white thread on the map and driving until it ended. Usually this meant somewhere in the mountains, where the road was blocked to prevent further use, or there was a washout, or the road simply ended at a gate marked “Private Land, Keep Out.”
This is the way we ended up at the Canadian border, and other beautiful places. Bird-watching isn’t that great in the middle of a pine forest, but the scent is heavenly, and the lakes we came across were picture-perfect. We saw clouds in formation floating by overhead. When the sun beams out from behind a cloud it can create a gorgeous landscape, like something out of an Eliot Porter photo. As a kid, we called them “god-the-father clouds,” because that’s the way holy cards showed him, riding on a cloud surrounded by sunbeams.
We didn’t go to the end of the road, exactly, on our trip to Yaak, MT. It was more like the middle of nowhere. Yaak is smack in the middle of the Kootenai National Forest, an hour drive, at least, to get to the nearest town in either direction, one in Montana, the other in Idaho. Generally, people live in Yaak to get away from the rest of us, or they visit to go fly fishing on the Yaak River. it’s a kooky place, with lots of local Bigfoot images. The center of town consists of two bars facing each other.
When we weren’t driving to the end of the road, we were bird watching. . Any place where there is water bordered by bushes–the more overgrown the better–will hide chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, and flycatchers. The pine trees that are almost everywhere in Montana are home to more species of woodpeckers than we’ve seen anywhere else. I am not a bird photographer, it requires too big a camera and lens, but I take pictures of birds when I can, usually to try and identify them later. Here are a few photos of the wildlife we’ve seen in Montana, starting with birds. No bears or moose, but lots of interesting creatures.
Clockwise from upper left: Pileated woodpecker, two sparrows, Rufous hummingbird, Spruce grouse, hawk, Hairy woodpecker, evening grosbeak.
A flock of wild turkeys jumped to the top of the six foot fence encircling our house to eat cherries from the tree. Deer grazed around the perimeter every morning and evening, up to eleven one afternoon! Most of these were does, yearlings and fawns, but we did see an occasional buck sporting this year’s new antlers.
Clockwise from upper left: Buck with new antlers, deer in the road, the deer we began to call, “Doris”. She didn’t even get up out of the shade by the garage when we came home, and some of the deer who visit each evening.
We didn’t have to see wildlife to admire what was around us. The hillsides covered with trees stretching for miles was awe-inspiring, but also relaxing. Yes, there is lots of logging going on, but the forest is still here. We saw more problems emerging from the gradual expansion of housing than the actual logging. As one house after another is built in the grasslands home to grouse, partridge, sandhill cranes, and songbirds, their habitat diminishes.
There were some days when we stood surrounded by perfect habitat for birds, but saw and heard nothing. The stories you read about the decline of birds across the US are true. Often, the decline is based on a missing link in the chain of places that birds need in order to pass an entire year. They need places to stop and feed along a huge loop that may take them from Alaska to Mexico, the Caribbean, or South America. When there is no place to stop and rest, or no where to build a nest, then the birds no longer visit, or breed, and they begin to disappear. Even though Montana has lots of land for birds to occupy, there may not be land all the way along the annual route of some species, and their territory shrinks. That’s why having bird feeders in your yard may be the missing link birds need. Without them, they might not make it to Montana again next time.
We’ll miss the towering Douglas Fir, larches, and Ponderosa pines, the wonderful scent of pine trees in the hot sun, and the icy cold water in the pond. Montana in August is truly a little bit of paradise.
We found Glacier National Park just too crowded for comfort, and began to look around our area for alternative hikes and places to explore where we are not likely to meet a lot of other people. I was happily surprised to find that northwest Montana is freckled with lakes. Lakes of all sizes, too. Flathead Lake is huge, so is Koocanusa Lake, just beyond Eureka, with far fewer visitors. Trails lead from the roadside to interior lakes, trails circle the occasional lake, or follow creeks leading to lakes. We’ve had some excellent walks going to and from bodies of water.
Lakes may be like our pond, tiny pools. Another narrow lake became a bed of reeds this month, no visible water at all. Other lakes are fed and drained by rushing streams.
Some lakes are overgrown ponds, with reeds at one end and open water at the other. Many have gorgeous clear water, no matter what the size.
Big lakes can be isolated and largely empty, like Big Therriault Lake, at the end of a long road. Yet even when we visited lakes thinking to find visitors, sometimes there still weren’t any. We visited Tetrault Lake on a hot Saturday morning in August, and there was only one group fishing on the lake, despite the shore lined with houses, docks, piles of kayaks, beach chairs, and inflatable water toys.
Lakes surrounded by houses often have extremely limited access, or no access. We’ve had good luck finding a spot to look out over a lake by finding the local boat launch site. Glen Lake was the exception, where the entire shore was either swampy reeds or private land, with no boat launch, and lots of Keep out/No trespassing signs. We couldn’t get near enough to take a picture. We moved on.
A walking trail rarely circles a lake unless it is wholly within a National Forest like Big Therriault Lake, or in a recreation area like Swisher Lake. We took the short hike to Swisher Lake and found it completely deserted because the campground is closed this year. I took a swim to celebrate having the entire lake to myself. I did the same in the pond by our house in Fortine, but the pond was so cold I thought I’d get frostbite from the water!
We’ve walked along trails of all kinds. Our hikes aren’t very long and don’t go very far. When we’re birding, we may spend an hour going a few hundred feet. Without birds, we may cover a lot more ground in the same time. It has been wonderful to be able to walk on these paths.
We drove to the end of Burma Road, outside Eureka, MT, and ended up standing on the border with Canada. A wide swath cut through the forest marks the border, straight along the 49th parallel for as far as we could see.
NOTE: In these days of drones and motion-activated cameras, we opted NOT to cross the border, even as a humorous moment in our visit. The closest we got to Canada was the Canada side of the sign above. When we read about the cleared area along the border after our visit we found “the border space is 20-30 feet wide and is maintained/recut every few decades.”
Postcard views. Need I say more? Before our visit, I didn’t know that Glacier is one of the most popular, most heavily visited US National Parks, despite its remote location in northwest Montana. The peak season is barely three months, and some years less.
Visitors are down 58% this year. BUT, visitor levels in August (right now) are just about back to last year’s levels, and only the western half of the park is open. As the result, the open portion of the park is more crowded than ever. We were hoping to visit during a slightly less crowded time (Nope). August is a fabulous time to be in Montana, probably the best month of the year. Visitors seem to be aware of this fact, and put up with the crowds.
We left home at 7:30 am, and arrived at the park at 8:45 am. Purchasing our America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass ($80) went very quickly. The park attendant was behind a plastic shield, and no signature was required when using a card for payment. We drove to the Apgar Visitors Center, where there is a coffee shop and a park ranger answering questions. I was hoping for a wonderful gift shop in this popular park, but Covid 19 has ruined the shopping experience. There are a limited number of items sold, and only at an outdoor table. I think a much wider variety of Glacier Park souvenirs can be had online (bummer).
Traffic was light at first along Lake McDonald. On Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was not difficult to pull over to look at the lake, read informational signs, and see trailheads. As we went along, we passed more and more parked cars, and it became clear that hikers who want to spend the day on a specific trail really do need to be in the park around 7 a.m. (as guidebooks suggest) if they want their choice of parking spots. By 8:45 a.m., most parking spots at trailheads were full.
The drive was glorious and the day was perfect. We had cold weather all week, and the forecast was for hot weather (90s!) for the following week. We visited on the perfect day, clear skies and a high of 78o. The mountains appear to be much higher in the park than along the road to our house and in the Kootenai National Forest around us, I’m not sure why. The jagged gray teeth of young mountain peaks at Glacier are impressively threatening.
Heaven’s Peak is the first of the mountains that the road passes, followed by many others, each with its own name. Every inch of the park has been hiked and climbed by visitors since the days when only the Blackfoot lived here.
We intended to stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and take a walk on the Hidden Lake Nature Trail. The parking lot was a shifting scrum of SUVs jockeying for spaces that weren’t available. Some vehicles stopped mid-lane and put on their flashers to wait for a spot. We didn’t stay, deciding to push on until we found a less mobbed area. We saw our only wildlife by the Logan Pass Visitors Center, a mountain goat. (The photo is a mountain goat at Glacier National Park from the internet.)
We stopped to look at the Jackson Glacier. Statistics indicate that the park’s glaciers are disappearing, making it a pleasure to see one that is still present. Around every turn, a new vista of trees and mountains opened up.
At Sun Point we found our spot. There is a large parking area and plenty of spaces were available. The trail to Baring Falls gave us a short hike to a beautiful spot, just what we were looking for. We took our masks along, just in case, and it was a good thing. There were people all along the trail. After a few hundred yards of mask-on-mask-off-mask-on, I left my mask on. The path paralleled the shore of Lake St. Mary with views over the lake and the mountains. I would have liked to go down to the shore, but it was a steep scramble, and I stayed on the trail. We arrived at Baring Falls, a cascade that drains into Lake St. Mary. Visitors lounged on the shore, youngsters climbed on logs that crossed the stream, and others waded in the shallow, icy water.
Back at Sun Point after our walk to Baring Falls, we found a picnic table in the shade and ate our lunch. From there we continued to the end of the road at Rising Sun. There are signs and cones the direct cars to turn around here and head back. In other years, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open all the way across the park to the St. Mary Visitor Center. From there, visitors can make the return drive around the outside of the park. Though the return route is much longer, the time is about the same, as 2/3 of the trip is on Rte. 2, the major highway. You trickle along Going-to-the-Sun Road, come out of the park in the town of St. Mary, and drive another 1-1/2 to 2 hours around the perimeter of the park to get back to West Glacier. Some visitors choose to base themselves in East Glacier to hike the popular trails on that side of the park. Not this year.
The eastern portion of Glacier National Park is controlled by the Blackfoot Tribe. This year, the tribe decided that they did not want the risk that tribal members would contract the virus from visitors, and the east side of the park and that portion of the road are closed. They may reopen next year, based on the tribe’s decision next winter. When you consider that Native Americans have been badly affected by the Covid virus, the Blackfoot decision is understandable. In previous years, more than one million people visited Glacier Park. That’s a lot of potential virus-carriers.
The portion of Glacier National Park that is open is filled with spectacular views and lots of places to visit. Despite the ups and downs of the Year of the Pandemic (What animal should represent this year? A poisonous snake?), it’s a great place to visit. So many gorgeous vistas!
Post Script: I thought about finding a less visited area for a second visit to Glacier National Park, and Polebridge, MT looked like just the place. It’s a sort of side entrance, and there are several lakes to visit. I read about it online and found that I am not the first person to think of this. In 2020, entries to the park through Polebridge are up 40%. Instead, we are hiking on the trails around lakes near our house where we are usually the only ones out.
“You couldn’t take a bad picture here,” Jonathan said, looking out the car window.
He was right. Everywhere you look driving into the mountains around us are stands of lodgepole pine, narrow avalanche chutes blanketed in grass, and bare faces of stone bordered by undulating piles of scree.
The day was overcast and cool, quite a change from recent 90o days. Only a mile or two down the road, we pulled over, put on the turn signal and got out to stare overhead at a big hawk. A truck passed us, the passenger giving a “What the heck?” gesture.
Our destination was Big Therriault Lake, 28 miles to the east of our current home in Fortine. We stopped to take photos of deer, ducks, and the beautiful water of the lake.
The rain began just as we were ready to picnic, and ended not long after. We set out around the lake, a beautiful walk with the sun coming out, the lake turquoise and absolutely still. There were no other people on the trail. Nearly back to where we started, a woman glided by on a paddleboard, two people in kayaks not far away. Their bicycles leaned against the picnic table, pickup truck parked nearby. They had everything you could want for a Montana day at the lake.
We stayed in three different motels on our trip from Rochester, MN to Fortine, MT.
We ate takeout sushi in Fargo (terrible, don’t ever do that). We didn’t get sick, we just found the sushi to be inedibly dry, cold, and hard. We ate leftovers that we had with us for dinner in Williston (after the night of terrible sushi). We bought a rotisserie chicken in the grocery store in Havre.
Fargo, ND: Residence Inn by Marriott Fargo was very clean, as were all the places we stayed. Most people wore masks going in and out, but not everyone. Staff was behind a plexiglass sheet. They were helpful, for example, giving us the extra packet of coffee we requested. Coffee maker was in the room already. There was supposed to be breakfast, but we decided to visit Starbucks instead.
Williston, ND: Winterton Suites. Like most of these motels, Winterton was unprepossesing, painted in an unfortunate shade of slightly mustard-tinted yellow that seems to be popular with motels and rental properties this year. The bathroom was very clean despite decor approximating a gas station restroom. On the bright side, the managers were very cheerful and readily available, and the price was right, $100 a night. This was less than our other stops. We didn’t investigate breakfast options. The motel rooms faced a parking area, and not all rooms were occupied. We wore masks going in and out, but didn’t see other people except from a distance.
Havre, MT: Best Western Plus Great Northern Inn. This motel backs onto a BNSF railyard that emits lots of huffing and puffing, like a very loud AC unit, but inside our room we heard none of it, so I’m not sure it matters. The pool was open here and I couldn’t resist taking a dip–no one else was in it at the moment. The breakfast was limited to non-existent, though there was supposed to be something. I got an apple wrapped in plastic that tasted fine (I washed it again). Most people wore masks in the indoor spaces, but not 100% of people.
Next door to the Best Western was the highlight of our trip in culinary terms. The 406 Coffee Roastery in Havre had good coffee, and exceptional baked goods. The crumb cake was dense and delicious, with lots of crackly topping. The lemon poppyseed muffin was flavorful and large sized. We spent half as much as we had at the Starbucks in Fargo, to boot, including our big coffee drinks. There is a small park next door with a red caboose parked in it, very apropos for this town along the rail lines.
We chose places to stay that had a kitchenette and refrigerator so that we could renew our cooler each night. It proved useful when we found that eating in was preferable to eating out.
We took five days to cross the plains on the northernmost highway, Rte. 2, driving about 300 miles each day. We made a a couple of short stops each day, arriving at each day’s destination in the mid- to late afternoon.
Day1, July 28, 2020: Rochester, MN to Fargo, ND
One of Jonathan’s farm-to-table goals is to try locally made whisky, causing our unanticipated stop at the Panther Distillery in Osakis, MN. He ended up with two bottles, including Pike Street wheated bourbon whisky, “only available in Minnesota.”
Just down the road was our planned stop at Big Ole, a fanciful statue that commemorates the finding of a rune stone in Minnesota, proving that it was settled by Vikings long before Europeans. Though this story was debunked long ago, the statue remains as a local landmark.
Not far from the North Dakota border, we stopped in Rothsay, MN to see the world’s largest statue of a prairie chicken. The statue shows the bird at its most colorful, in the spring, when males inflate air pouches in their cheeks and do their mating dance.
I was sure this was as close as I’d get to a prairie chicken, as these birds have become rare with the conversion of prairie to farmland. We got to Fargo and checked into our motel. Jonathan went to pick up takeout, and returned with news that he’d seen a small flock of prairie chickens. We went to look and they were still there, though outside of breeding season prairie chickens look pretty regular.
Where did Jonathan find this rare species? On the lawn around an abandoned Hampton Inn, hiding in plain sight. One bird acts as lookout, like the one in my photo who’s giving Jonathan the eye. The rest graze, but if the lookout is spooked, all the birds duck down. They completely disappear. We watched a field for fifteen minutes waiting for the birds to reappear. When they didn’t come out, I assumed they’d sneaked off, and headed back to the car, accidentally flushing the entire group. Talk about going to ground! About eight birds were able to completely disappear in short grass. It was a lot of fun to see them.
Day Two, July 29, 2020: Devil’s Lake, ND
We decided to cross the northern Plains came in order to visit Barbara Breternitz, who lives in Devils Lake, ND, near her daughter and son-in-law. We know the entire family from our archaeology days. A wonderful socially-distanced visit ensued, including a picnic on the patio outside the tiny vacation cabin offered to us for the night by a family member. The family business was distributing oil and gas, and the cabin is packed with memorabilia.
Day 3, July 30, 2020: Devils Lake to Williston, ND
Driving across the entirety of North Dakota included a lot of flat landscape.
We broke our trip for two important stops. The Center of the Continent marker lies in Rugby, ND. This may seem a bit north for the center of anything, but it’s the center of all of North America, from northern Canada to Panama, and though the marker is said to be a few miles off, it worked just fine for us.
There was only one other stop I wanted to make in North Dakota, once again thanks to Atlas Obscura–the Whirl-a-Whip machine at Lakota Drug in Stanley, ND. We breezed across the state until we got to Stanley. There isn’t a billboard for Whirl-a-Whip along the highway, nor any signs in town. You only know that there is a wonderful ice cream machine at the drugstore if you are from the area or found it through the internet.
An older couple run the large store, while two young men work the soda fountain. The sprawling store was nearly empty, one customer waiting for ice cream. It takes a while for the counter guys to put the ice cream in the cup, sprinkle on the requested add-ins and put it in the machine, but eventually our creations appeared: one Whopper/Nutella/vanilla ice cream, one peanut butter/brickle chips/chocolate. Unlike most blended treats, these are made with regular ice cream, not soft serve. They were delish.
Day 4, July 31, 2020: Williston, ND to Havre, MT
360o of Wheat.
That’s Montana east of the mountains, more than half of the state. Wheat, grain elevators, rail cars by the hundreds. There are some other crops, but there’s a lot of wheat.
I also wanted to have a look at the Missouri River. The railroad was built to follow the river, and the highway parallels the railroad as it cuts across the prairie. On a map, the river coils back and forth like a stretched Slinky. As we drove, we’d pass a stretch of river, then fields, then another stretch of river. Up close, the river is muddy and wide, with not a soul in sight, though deer tracks in the mud right along the shore showed us where the locals pass unnoticed.
One small town after another dots the highway west. Our Prius becomes more and more unusual and pickup trucks the norm once we pass the Montana border. In Poplar, we slowed to a stop with the traffic, and the cars weren’t moving. I passed the bottleneck and found that the line of cars were backed up for more than two blocks leading off the highway and around the corner. We think it was a line for the local food bank.
By the time we reached Havre, MT (Have-er), it was late enough that we passed up the opportunity to visit Havre’s attraction, Havre Beneath The Streets. A century ago, fire demolished the town, and while rebuilding was underway, a number of businesses set up shop in the basement spaces that survived. Some of these have been restored and can be visited. When you’re next in Havre, have a look. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/4349
Day 5, August 1, 2020: Havre to Fortine, MT
Five days is one day too long for an overland trip for us. By Saturday, August 1, we were ready to be settled down again, but still had a full day of travel to go. We set out across the wheat, canola, and sugar beet fields toward the west, and finally began to see the outline of the mountains in the distance.
It was surprising to see even the small patches of snow that still remain on the mountains. Montana days have been very hot, 95-99o, much warmer than we ever expected. We passed through East Glacier, MT, a town adjacent to the Blackfeet reservation, complete with casino. This year the tribe opted to keep the east entrances to Glacier National Park closed. Our house in on the west side of the mountains, so we crossed the park on the highway, including the entrance to Glacier N. P.’s best known attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was bumper to bumper on Saturday afternoon. We’ll have to strategize when to make our own trip there.
We met Virginia at Fortine Mercantile, and she led us up Deep Creek Road to our home for the month. The house began as a log cabin, but is now an all weather home complete with central heating and air conditioning. The yard has lovely flowers and a group of tart (pie) cherry trees that are protected by a high fence. It keeps out deer and the occasional bear. We are careful to keep the gate closed. I don’t want to think about a bear playing in our trash can.
I’ll close with a few interesting things we saw along the way.