Category Archives: Montana

Smokejumper School — Missoula, Montana – June 23, 2017

On June 23 we stopped in Missoula, Montana to visit the Smokejumper School.  Our already-existing interest had been heightened by having read a book by Timothy Egan.  As indicated by the title — The Big Burn — the book is about a wildfire that occurred in 1910 that burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana  — the largest wildfire ever in the United States. The book also details some of the political issues, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot (the first Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905 until his firing in 1910).  The discussion of Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power and the formation of the U.S. Forest Service provide the setting and background in which the action occurs. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot created the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. But critical politicians, under the sway of powerful and moneyed capitalists, accused the Service of governmental meddling into the rights of private business to exploit natural resources.  As a consequence, the Forest Service was slowly starving to death from lack of funding when the fire broke out. The fire resulted in raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation and highlighting the forest rangers and firefighters as public heroes. And so, even as TR’s national forests were smoldering they were saved: the heroism shown by the rangers turned public opinion in favor of the forests. Hence, the subtitle to the book: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.

At the Smokejumper Visitor Center , tourists can see many displays explaining firefighting procedures, smokejumping history, and other fire related issues.   We took advantage of a guided tour which lasted  about an hour and took us through the working facility of the smokejumpers, used for both training of new smokejumpers and as a smoke jumping base. The tour gave an in-depth look at the profession of smokejumping and allowed us to learn about jump gear, parachutes, cargo and aircraft.

Time well spent.


Pits & Mines — Butte, Montana; June 22, 2017

This last winter, while still in Bonaire, Barb and I read two interesting books by Timothy Egan.  So interesting, that they have influenced our travel plans as we head west.  One, Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West, is a social history, with each chapter dedicated to a particular site in the western states.  One of the chapters is about the rape of the environment in Butte, Montana.  We vowed to see for ourselves.  This posting is about that visit.

(The other book is The Big Burn, and that will relate to a later post in our blog.)

Berkeley Pit

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Berkeley Pit is a former open pit copper mine located in Butte, Montana, United States. It is one mile long by half a mile wide with an approximate depth of 1,780 feet (540 m). It is filled to a depth of about 900 feet (270 m) with water that is heavily acidic (2.5 pH level), about the acidity of cola or lemon juice.[1] As a result, the pit is laden with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals that leach from the rock, including copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid.

The mine was opened in 1955 and operated by Anaconda Copper and later by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), until its closure on Earth Day 1982. When the pit was closed, the water pumps in the nearby Kelley Mine, 3,800 feet below the surface, were turned off, and groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month.[1] Since the pit closure in 1982, the level has risen to within 150 feet of the natural groundwater level.

The pit and its water present a serious environmental problem because the water, with dissolved oxygen, allows pyrite and sulfide minerals in the ore and wall rocks to decay, releasing acid. When the pit water level eventually reaches the natural water table, estimated to occur by around 2020, the pit water will reverse flow back into surrounding groundwater, polluting into Silver Bow Creek which is the headwaters of Clark Fork River. The acidic water in the pit carries a heavy load of dissolved heavy metals. In fact, the water contains so much dissolved metal (up to 187 ppm Cu) that some material is mined directly from the water.

In the 1990s plans were devised for solving the groundwater problem. Water flowing into the pit has been diverted to slow the rise of the water level. Plans have been made for more extensive treatment in the future. The Berkeley Pit has since become one of the largest Superfund sites.

The pit is currently a tourist attraction, with an adjacent gift shop. A $2 admission fee is charged to go out on the viewing platform.

From other sources:

Butte is the largest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in America. It is their job, along with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology and other groups, to maintain it as a terminal sink and keep the pathogens contained to help the public stay safe and healthy.  Water levels in the East Camp/Berkeley Pit system will not be allowed to exceed the established Safe Water Level (SWL) of 5,410 feet

  • Within eight years of approaching the SWL, design of final water-treatment plant shall begin, with construction completed four years prior to the projected date for water to reach SWL. This will allow for a shake-down period, for optimizing plant operations.
  • Long-term, ground-water and surface-water monitoring program will be implemented.

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 snow geese perished in December 2016 in the Berkeley Pit’s toxic water, sucumming from both heavy metals and sulfuric acid, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The companies responsible for the pit, Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co., could be fined as much as $5,000 per bird. The report says the birds’ condition was similar to the 342 snow geese that died in November 1995 when a flock landed — almost 21 years to the day — on the pit during a snowstorm and perished.

Mining Museum

From the time it was located in 1875 until it was purchased by Marcus Daly and associates in 1879, ownership of fractional shares in the Orphan Girl Mine changed hands many times. The Orphan Girl eventually operated to a depth of over 3,000 feet. While not a huge producer according to Butte standards, by 1944 hardrock miners had removed a respectable 7,626,540 ounces of silver as well as lead and zinc from her depths. Cool temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees made the Orphan Girl—affectionately nicknamed “Orphan Annie” or “the Girl”—a desirable place to work unlike some “hot boxes” where temperatures could top 100 degrees. By the end of the 1920s, the Anaconda Company owned the Girl and operated it until the 1950s. In 1965, the Girl became the site of the World Museum of Mining with its stated mission to preserve the history of mining and the cultural heritage of attendant mining communities. Many of the original structures are still visible, including the 100-foot-tall headframe and the Hoist House, which houses exhibits as well as original equipment. Visible are the cages that were crammed with six or seven miners for their daily trip 2700-feet down the shaft.

The World Museum of Mining’s most prominent feature, besides offering underground mine tours of The Orphan Girl Mine, is the “composite re-creation of an Old West mining town, called Hellroarin’ Gulch.” There are fifty exhibit buildings, with sixty-six exhibits in the mining yard alone, that revolve around not only mining, but the ethnic and culture groups that worked in this dangerous profession It is described as “an authentic reproduction of an 1890’s mining camp. Buildings include a bank, funeral parlor, jail, post office, city hall, union hall, school, the sauerkraut factory, saloon, and Chinese laundry.

The highlight of our visit was the trip down into the mine using a special entrance created by the School of Mines for the Museum. Accompanied by a guide, our group descended some 65 feet. Although the original shafts were some 2700 feet deep, that is no longer possible, since the shafts are now flooded to a depth of about 100 feet.

Glacier National Park — June 15-18, 2017

Relaxing  — June 15-16

For the first two days of our 4-day stay in the Saint Mary Campground in the Park, we stayed fairly close to our base.  We did some short walks and visited the Visitor Center often for access to wifi that we needed to secure reservations for further into the summer.  (We didn’t even have AT&T phone reception at the campground.)  When we asked about the free shuttle service provided to transport visitors to the many points of interest, we learned a) that the road was still snow-bound (and blocked) that cuts through the Park from the east side to the west side through Logan Pass and b) the shuttle service on the east side was not yet operating.

Right next to our camper was a den occupied by a number of ground squirrels.  I am no expert, but I judge by the coloration that they were Columbian Ground Squirrels.  The literature also mentions that their most common activity above ground is standing at attention, and that certainly matched my observations.  Wikipedia mentions that they first came to the attention of the scientific community through writings produced by Lewis and Clark.

When we realized that we wanted to extend from two to four days, Barb made a reservation, getting one of the very last available.  When it came time to move to the new site, we discovered that it was already occupied with new campers.  Turned out a new Park employee had messed up and double-booked our site.  Although we had the initial reservation, the other campers had the site, and they had secured their camper and then disappeared.  What to do?  Finally a senior member of the staff realized that one of the group sites was not going to be used for the two additional days that we desired, and so we were permitted to occupy the roomy spot.

Apikuni Falls — June 17

Our first real hike was relatively short, up only one mile but rising some 700 feet to the Apikuni Falls, and then back down the same way to the car.  To get to the trail we had exited the Park and had driven up to the tiny town of Babb before re-entering in the “Many Glacier” section of the Park.

Swiftcurrent Nature Trail — June 17

Not sated, we continued up the road past the Many Glacier Hotel to the Swiftcurrent Trailhead, where we left the car, after having added the bear spray to our kit.  🙂  The Trail is an easy, level trail that follows the shoreline of the Swiftcurrent Lake in a 2.5 mile loop.    Early in the loop we encountered a Mule Deer that was entirely indifferent to our presence.  I didn’t even unholster the bear spray.  🙂   Later, we caught a glimpse across a bay of the lake of a Moose cow with a calf, but they were too far away for a photo.

Seven-eighths of the way around, we stopped at the luxurious Many Glacier Hotel for cups of hot cocoa.

Three Falls & Lotsa Steps — June 18

On our last day we drove up the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the trailhead for Sun Point, where we joined a small group led by a Park Volunteer for a guided hike to Sun Point and then Baring Falls, where the guided hike stopped but the trail continued.  Most of the group retraced their steps with the guide, but we continued onward.  The main trail continued on past three falls and then further.  Each of three attractions (Sun Point & two of the falls) on the portion of the trail paralleling the Going-to-the-Sun Road had fairly lengthy separate trailheads on the road.  We had entered the main trail at the Sun Point Trailhead, and would not use any of the other accessing trails with their own trailheads.  The nominal one-way distance from the Sun Point Trailhead to Virginia Falls was listed as 3.5 miles, but by the time we returned to our auto, Barb’s tracking software registered 8.3 miles!  No wonder we were tired when we returned!

Sun Point

Sun Point is the former location of the Going-to-the-Sun Point Chalets.  The site itself is spectacular, but little remains of what was once among the most desirable alpine lodging destinations in America.  The Great Northern Railway, under the direction of James J.Hill, built the Going-to-the-Sun Chalets in 1912 . The builders used local logs and stone.  Early visitors would board a vessel at the St. Mary Chalets for a one-hour ride up the lake to the chalets, docking on the lee side of a prominent outcropping. For a brief quarter-century, Going-to-the-Sun Chalets — affectionately known as “Sun Camp” — was immensely popular. Within two years of opening, the complex was hosting about 3,000 guests per season. The dramatic setting and the stunning vistas were straight out of a Swiss storybook. It was expensive, and required a significant amount of time to reach.  But the demise of Going-to-the-Sun was not a result of its high cost nor inconvenience.  Rather, the Chalets declined precisely because they had become accessible by road.  When the Park opened up to automobiles, the new generation might stop for a meal or to buy a knick-knack, but then would continue up the road to far cheaper and more convenient new tourist camps offering “auto cabins”, feeling that was all that was really needed after a day of exploring. The Chalets, with separate lodging, bathhouses, and dining areas, were simply too time consuming and expensive for the modern motorist. The number of overnight guests sank like a stone.  Lodging discontinued circa 1942 and the chalets were demolished after World War Two in 1948.  An ignoble death:  they were bulldozed off the cliff onto the ice below and set afire.   You can read more here.

(An interesting aside:  our guide told us that the small island on the south shore to the west of Sun Point used to have a cabin occupied by a notorious partier.  Although the island is not very close to the chalet sites, on one occasion the party got so loud that a chalet employee was sent out to row over to complain.)

Baring Falls

The pictures below show some of the sights along the trail westward from Sun Point, culminating with Baring Falls.

Saint Mary Falls

Sights along the trail from Baring Falls to Saint Mary Falls, culminating in three pics at the falls.

Virginia Falls

Continuing along the trail past Saint Mary Falls, we encountered Virginia Creek.  Often along the 0.7 mi trail from the St. Mary bridge to Virginia Falls, we saw dramatic rapids.  Virginia Falls itself was by far the most dramatic of the three falls we had seen along the trail.  It was time to turn around and retrace our steps to the auto.


We were told that there are only 25 glaciers left in the park, down from the over 150 in existence when the Park was created in 1910.  They are now so rapidly disappearing that there will be none by 2030.  So of course we wanted to see some.  Alas, they are not easy to get to, and not very visible from the roads.  One of the few visible from the road is Jackson Glacier.  The overlook is about 4.5 miles east of Logan Pass.  We stopped at the overlook with great anticipation.  Alas, clouds were obscuring the tops of the mountains, and what we presume was the glacier really only looked like a distant snow bank.   Here is my disappointing picture:

Yellowstone National Park — August 3, 2016

With Mom doing so much better, we felt able to leave Bismarck on August 1 to attend a “Cruiser Rendezvous” of current and former cruiser friends at the home of Tom & Leslie Arnold near McCall, Idaho.  Along the way, on August 3rd we spent the entire day — from sunup to sundown — visiting Yellowstone National Park. We left our RV just north of the Park at the Rocky Mountain RV Park, and drove down in our Chevy Tracker “toad” (the RV slang word for a vehicle towed behind a motor home).  Our first stop was at Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. “Mammoth” is an appropriate appellation.   I ended the day with over 20 thousand Fitbit steps.

Our next stop was at the Norris Geyser Basin.

Adjacent to the iconic Old Faithful Geyser is a huge parking lot and museums and visiter center and several general stores.  And three yurks!

And then the Kepler Cascades.

The most colorful pools were in West Thumb Geyser Basin, adjacent to the thumb-shaped West Thumb extension of Yellowstone Lake.

We observed the Lower Yellowstone Falls from two points.

As we proceeded along our “circular route”, we passed a gorgeous valley on our way back north,  and Tower Fall.

Near the top, we diverted to the east toward Slough Creek, were we saw much wildlife.

I had entered the Park with apprehension about there being too many people and vehicles, but I found the day’s experiences well worth the effort.  America’s first national park has good reason to be one of her most favorite.

Heading East — Island Park, Idaho to Glendive, Montana, August 20-27, 2015

On August 20 we moved on down the road to the Buffalo Campground in the Targhee National Forest. Buffalo Campground is located 26 miles south of West Yellowstone, Montana in beautiful Island Park, Idaho along the banks of the Buffalo River at an elevation of 6,200 feet.  There are no hookups, but the campground is huge and we found a nice pull-through site for our one-night stay.  Next day, we continued east to Bozeman, Montana, where we turned north and motored through lovely country some 10 miles to the ranch of Roxanne Linderman, nestled some 5 or so miles below the Bridger Mountains.  There we visited Roxanne and her sister Monica, who lives on a plot cut from the ranch.  Monica is a long-time friend of Barb – they were in school together as girls, and Monica has visited us on Tusen Takk II several times.  The ranch was homesteaded in the 1860s and still has log-cabin structures, including a barn, a chicken coop, and a portion of the main residence.  Roxanne has an interesting array of animals on the ranch, including llamas, alpacas, unusual breeds of sheep and cattle, and many types of poultry.  She was busy doing some haying while we were there, and I got a chance to do a tiny bit of tractor and truck driving.  Monica, silly goose, is still working as a computer consultant in hospital software, so she is only home from her job in Florida on weekends.  She had to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but we were enjoying our visit on the ranch with Roxanne so much that we delayed leaving until Monday morning.  Roxanne took me out on a dune buggy so that I could find and photograph a magpie, but instead we found a large herd of elk.  On a different walk, I found and photographed sandhill cranes in the grass.  Earlier, I had popped off a whole series of two in flight.  Processing later revealed the incredible extent to which they fly in synchronization — I illustrate the fact below with but two of a dozen photos.

On our way back toward Bozeman, we noticed that we had a chip in the camper windshield, so we made an appointment to have that fixed before leaving the area.   We deposited the camper at Sunrise Campground in Bozeman and spent the afternoon at the Museum of the Rocky Mountains, where we enjoyed the many exhibits about the dinosaur fossils displayed there, and also attended three (!) different programs in the planetarium.  Next morning (8/25) we got the windshield taken care of and then moved on down the road a bit to the little town of Roundup, Montana, where we spent the night in the nearly-deserted campground at their county fairgrounds.  We spent the night of 8/26 at the Big Sky Campground in Miles City, and the next night in Makoshika State Park campground near Glendive, Montana, the largest of the State Parks in Montana.  The name of the park comes from the Lakota Indian mako sica, which translates to “bad land” or “bad earth”, an apt description for the geology of the area, a fertile source of dinosaur fossils, including many that are now exhibited at the Museum of Rocky Mountains.