Greetings from Montana!
Wow, so very much has happened since the last check in. So much in fact that I should probably really get started if I hope to have any chance of staying within my general word quota – or rather, not exceeding my word quota by several-fold! I seriously considered busting this up into and “4” and a “4.5” check-in, but I’m just going to power through it so that I don’t get too far behind.
Basically the three big things are that: 1) I got to be an “ambassador” on behalf of my employer to the Blackfeet Indian Nation, 2) Meem arrived!, and 3) Bears!
Starting with my visit to the Blackfoot Reservation, I’ll first give a seriously abridged back story, sans a lot of details due to confidentiality issues (both legal and tribal). Basically, way back when the federal government set the boundaries of the Blackfoot Reservation, they cut out the most sacred area to the tribe, the Badger-Two Medicine region (so named for Badger Creek and Two Medicine River). This area is just south of Glacier National Park. The government of course gave a multitude of reasons for not giving the tribe their most sacred lands, none of which were really any good. Fast forward to the 1980s, the federal government then decides to start leasing areas of the Badger-Two Medicine to oil and mining companies so that they could start drilling and mining. A good way of describing this from the tribe’s perspective is that it would essentially be the same as putting an oil rig in the middle of Vatican City, or boring a mine shaft under the Holy Sepulchre. To make matter’s worse, the federal government didn’t even properly assess the environmental damage of these leases, as they are required to do under law. So, lots of litigation started, that has lasted to this day. A big recent victory was the cancellation of one of these leases after 35 years – and due to the litigation no sites were ever actually established. However, there are still 14 some remaining lease sites, and while the federal government has flipped its position in the past three decades – and now doesn’t want extraction operations there – the companies still have leases, and so it’s up to challengers to prove that the leases are faulty. The government tried to help by offering to buy-back all these leases plus credit, but as mentioned, several companies decided to hold onto their lease, even when the tribe offered them another extraction site (not on sacred land) in good faith. So, essentially, the nutshell version is that a bunch of oil companies want to drill on sacred land with leases they never should have got in the first place, but they did, and so now the resource-strapped tribe has to fight to stop the drilling, and has been for over 30 years. My employer is the legal force on the tribe’s side of the case, and as a result, we’ve had the rare opportunity to gain the trust of the tribe and our managing attorney is extremely well respected. So, two attorneys from our office got invited to the tribe’s annual cultural days in Browning, MT. This is a pretty big deal. However, one of the attorneys is out of the office, so I was able to slip into the vacant spot. I hope the general story makes sense, as unfortunately I am very limited in how much more than that I can actually discuss either due to legal issues or out of respect for tribal culture and it’s traditions of not sharing information with outsiders.
So, on Tuesday morning Tristen and I were up and ready to make the 5 hour road trip up to the region (we were just co-pilots this time around).
On the way up we stopped and got some sandwiches out of a silo (seriously).
Most of the areas of the drive were gorgeous, but this mountainous area a bit north of Helena was especially memorable.
They were actually doing some blasting when we went through, but we lucked out and were going in the direction with no slow-down.
Once we got through that area (which included passing by Wolf Creek, the coincidence of which will make sense in a bit) it was on to open prairies with the Rocky Mountain Front looming in the distance.
We passed by some storms, but never got into them.
The attorney I was with (who was relatively new to the area themselves) had only been up here once before, and during that trip it was really cloudy and rainy, so this was a nice sightseeing trip for both of us.
Although Day 1 of the event was in Browning, our little cabins were actually in East Glacier, which is a gateway to Glacier National Park in the same way that Estes Park is to the Rocky Mountain National park, albeit smaller.
This area, especially with the clouds, reminded me of Alaska in a lot of ways.
Once in East Glacier we passed the “Dancing Bear” Inn which I figured Valentino would like. It was actually where the attorneys had stayed last time, but it was full this time around.
Instead we stayed at the “East Glacier Motel and Cabins” which turned out to be owned by the exact same people.
We each had our own cabins, though Tristen decided to take up 90% of our cabin for himself.
After dropping our stuff off we headed back to Browning for the cultural event. For aforementioned reasons I can”t discuss much, nor do I have any photos of it. But we got to participate in everything from traditional games, to building traditional toys, to learning how to identify native plants and pelts, to hearing tribal songs (drums and chants), and even a keynote address from the Chief in Blackfoot (which he was kind enough to repeat [in it’s entirety] in English as well). We learned a bit about the Blackfoot language, such as how it’s not uncommon for a person’s name to change up to four times in their life, and how place names also tend to evolve as the place evolves. We also heard the perspectives of tribal members who had been affected by the oil companies, and got their heartfelt thanks for the efforts thus far. While I was mostly on the edge of it all, I still got teary eyed at a couple points. It was very clear that these legal battles were of huge importance to the tribe. They even presented gifts to the attorney and other advocates (non-lawyer people from conservation groups, etc. that had also helped in the good fight). Since I wasn’t originally on the docket (and honestly hadn’t done much) there was no planned gift for me, but one of the tribal members noticed this and offered me a sweet-grass candle made in the area as a stand-in gift, it was really cool and touching. If you know anything about Native American culture, then you’ll know that gift giving and receiving is of huge cultural importance. Then, after all the cultural events, we had food and a live band. It was a good time and I got to meet a lot of really cool people, both tribal members and non-tribal members alike.
On the way back to East Glacier the cloud cover had mostly receded making for an amazing drive.
The mountains looked almost “ghost-like” in the distance.
East Glacier is pretty much nestled right up into the base of the mountains.
We made a quick pit-stop at our cabins to dress into some warmer clothes (mountain nights are quite cool).
And then we went on a stroll through the town, or I guess village is a better term.
As you can see it’s a bustling metropolis.
We weren’t staying there (too pricey) but that didn’t stop us from checking it out.
We even stopped into their lounge and had a couple of beers – a nice end to a long day.
After that we headed back to our cabins since the next day was also going to be a big one as well!
The Badger-Two Medicine cultural days consist of two parts. First, the cultural event, and second a tribe-led hike into the sacred heart of Badger-Two Medicine itself, which is an extremely rare opportunity. Just to get to the area is a quite a drive, and then from there it was about a 10 mile round trip hike. So, we were up and on our way early, though we did stop and get a yummy breakfast, which included some amazing local cherry-raspberry pie (yes, pie for breakfast).
While waiting on a reporter to join us for the drive over to the carpool area in Browning, I found a map of East Glacier which kind of shows how small it is.
From there we drove back to Browning and met up with the group at the tribe’s community college.
It was a surprisingly nice building.
We had to meet up with people because the access road was ehm, a “4×4 Required” road I guess you could say, so we all sort of carpooled into more capable vehicles (which did not include our Dodge Dart rental). On the way out we got stuck waiting on a Bakken oil train, which I found ironic considering that I had spent a semester fighting Bakken oil trains. Everyone thought that the oil companies probably set this up on purpose (jokingly, if it wasn’t obvious).
From there it was a drive into the Badger-Two Medicine area itself.
The lower portions had moo-cows just roaming around, plus some wild horses (with foals!) that I couldn’t get a good photo of.
The hike consisted of two groups, a larger group on foot and a smaller group on horseback. Thanks to some litigation, you can no longer drive motorized vehicles (of any kind, including snowmobiles) into the “core” of Badger-Two Medicine, so the access road beyond a certain point becomes so rough that even a standard 4×4 would need to go pretty slow on it. However, one company retains vehicular access up to a radio tower that the federal government let the company install – without the tribes permission – but by and large, this road no longer gets by motor-vehicles used save for the very occasional maintenance trip up to the tower.
So, once we got to the point-of-no-vehicles we stopped and transfered to our feet or horse feet. Some people had actually offered to let us use a horse, but since I have never rode a horse, I was not about to hurt myself (or the horse) on sacred tribal land while trying to be an ambassador, so I went with my trusty feet.
The hike largely followed the (mostly) abandoned access road.
Most of the group were tribal members (of all ages), but there was a decent number of guests (such as myself) as well.
For some of the younger tribe members this was their first time out into Badger-Two Medicine, so you could feel their excitement.
It was very peaceful and serene out there.
We even had a puppy joining us on the hike!
There were quite a few dead trees in the area, I thought it might be due to beetles but was told that it was from an older forest fire.
Our first stop was at “Kyro Craig Lake.”
A lot of people took advantage of this spot for some lunch, including the horses.
Here one of the tribal elders told us some of their origin stories for the land, animals, and their people – which again, out of respect for their culture I won’t repeat here, other than to say that I learned that the Blackfoot word for mountain literally means “pushed up” – which I though showcased an extraordinary understanding of geology for a word that is several thousand years old.
After our lesson on language, history, and modern culture a good chunk of the group headed back down, while a smaller cohort (including myself) continued heading up – it was a bit steeper from here on out. No sooner than we had gotten started when one of the tribal members pointed out some grizzly tracks.
The road/path sort of looped up and around the lake area.
You could tell that the road was no longer being actively maintained in several spots during the climb.
It was a wonderful day for hiking – you can see the lake where we had stopped in the distance.
The wind picked up a bit as we got higher, but thankfully it wasn’t anything crazy like my last hike.
The first sort of plateau we reached offered up some wonderful views.
A couple more people turned around there, but the rest of us kept trucking upward, including two horse buddies.
It was right about that time that things started getting really rocky, and there was this black moss on the rocks that almost made them look like lava rock.
Here you can see the radio tower that was put in without permission – which also turned out to be where we were heading.
Here is a view from the top, if you look at that “little” valley about 1/4 of the way from the left edge of the photo, and about 1/4 of the way up from the bottom, that is where the cars were parked and we had hiked from.
Since it was the first time up here for a lot of the younger tribal members, it was a pretty cool moment.
Here is a view facing the more southern areas of the Badger-Two Medicine region, with the Rocky Mountain Front in the distance.
And here’s another shot of the area we had hiked up, including the prairies beyond.
And here is a ground squirrel that decided it liked me.
This is one of its buddies – there were so many up there!
Here is a shot that is looking towards Glacier National Park.
You can’t directly see it in that photo, but the oil lease site that had just been cancelled (and is now going to a court of appeals) is in the area of those mountaintops in the middle-right of the photo (not the distant snow-capped mountains, the closer grassy/rocky ones). Had the lease been approved (or if the cancellation is overturned) they would’ve ground the top of those mountains off, built access roads and pipelines, and put in derricks – which as you can imagine would kind of been a major detriment to land, never mind the fact that it is a sacred area.
After chilaxing at the top for a bit, we headed back down – it’s about 5 miles each way.
Our group got fairly spread out at this point, which made for some nice “solo” time to just enjoy the landscape.
Here is a shot where I turned around while walking back, you can see the tower up where we were.
And here is another shot like that, just from a bit further away.
Since I was now in “solo” mode, I actually got quite a bit ahead of everyone else and it was so, so quiet. I really liked it.
After that we all regrouped at our cars, then headed back into Browning, and from there the attorney and I started the 5 hour trek back to Bozeman (though thanks to some very like traffic and perhaps some speeding) we made it in about 4 hours and 15 minutes, though that still put me home around 9:30pm. The next day was a fairly normal Thursday (other than being quite tired from my busy two-day trip) but on Thursday night Tristen was pretty excited.
That was because he knew Meem was coming to visit us the next day!
We went in to work for a meeting in the morning, and then after that went to pick Meem up at the airport.
While Tristen does like to see his Grandma Meem, I think there are other things he likes about the Bozeman airport as well.
There is even a bear friend there.
After picking Meem up and getting her settled in for an afternoon nap, I headed back to work for the rest of the day, and then that evening Meem and I went out to eat (my first time doing so here outside of work).
We went to place called “The Garage” which – in addition to having really good food, had a crazy mirror-filled bathroom with a light-up logo that changed colors.
The next day (Saturday) we slept in just a little bit, and then of course had some cartoon time.
After that we got packed up to go see family (that I’ve never met before) up in Wolf Creek, MT. If you remember from earlier, I’d actually passed the Wolf Creek exit on Tuesday on my way up to Browning, so I knew generally where it was. Wolf Creek was thankfully only around 2 hours and 15 minutes away (rather than 5 to Browning). Tristen was ready for our second adventure of the week.
So we all loaded up into Moose and hit the dusty trail (both figuratively and literally) to visit family. They had a very pretty home in a secluded area outside of Wolf Creek. The road to get to their house was kind of crazy, but still not as bad as the Fairy Lake Access Road.
Interestingly enough there was a real deer just down the hill from the fake deer.
All in all it was a great visit with good food (elk burgers) and company, since you never know how long-lost family reunions are going to go, I’d have to say this one was quite a success.
The one bad thing was that during the course of our visit I noticed that Tristen had been injured.
What we think happened is that Meem accidentally caught one of his nostrils on something during the drive. The strings are actually connected, so when one nostril got hooked, it snapped the string and pulled both sides out. We still aren’t sure exactly how it happened, other than it happened in the car sometime that day after we left. Tristen claims it happened in fierce battle with a Mountain Lion.
I think I was more freaked out about it than Tristen was. I had to call SB and ask what to do, which amounted to not a whole lot I could do at the moment. SB suggested clipping the strings to prevent further damage, but I wasn’t quite prepared to lop parts of Tristen off yet, so I let him be for the time being. To his credit he adopted his mustached persona very quickly.
After parting ways with our Montana family we headed over to the 7R Guest Ranch. Given that Wolf Creek seems to amount to a gas station with a few dirt roads around it, I was surprised that it even had a place to stay, but it did, and it turned out to be a cool little place!
When you first pull up to the motel area you are on the backside and it kind of looks like crap, but the front side is much more pretty.
They had a nice little area out by the creek that would be great for events.
Plus it was cool to stay right next to Wolf Creek itself, since, you know, we were in Wolf Creek.
They also had a restaurant/bar that is only open Friday – Sunday where one of the owners plays music and sings while the other seems to manage the food/drink side of things (the 7R is owned by a couple).
It was kind of a cool and fun little place, and he was actually pretty good – far above and beyond the worrisome “Is this person going to be bad enough to mess with my enjoyment of the food and drink” territory.
Meem and I had a second-dinner, which was a sampler plate that turned out to be massive. We also had some beers. Once again, a good end to a long day.
Back in our (tiny-but-clean) room Mustache Tristen was quick to claim the top bunk, and so I was delegated to the bottom bunk (by Mustache Tristen).
While Meem took the central bed.
It was kind of funny (in retrospect). Being down in a valley it was getting pretty cool in the room, so before we went to bed I turned on the baseboard heaters. The result was that by around 1am it had reached 150 degrees in the room. So Meem and I both woke up and turned the heater off, and then turned on the vent fan on the window a/c. It was so hot in there that even sans heat it remained warm until morning.
After a relatively bad night’s sleep (sleeping in a sauna isn’t actually that pleasant) we got up and around. Mustache Tristen for his part slept marvelously in the inferno.
After some spectacularly bad hotel coffee (from a machine that didn’t look to have been cleaned since the 1980s), we were on the road. Our destination was breakfast, we didn’t know where breakfast was yet, but that was the goal.
On the way to breakfast we stopped at the Gates of the Mountains area (so named by Lewis and Clark themselves) for few photos, Tristen used the opportunity to sun while Meem took photos with her fancy new camera.
After that we headed into Helena for breakfast at an IHOP – my first time going to one in a few years. We had tasty pancakes. After breakfast we headed the rest of the way back to home, where we made a pit-stop to drop some stuff off and freshen up, then we went back out to see some bears, and not just any bears, but Grizzly Bears!
The “Montana Grizzly Encounter” is actually a bear sanctuary for rescued grizzly bears that can’t be returned to the wild due to bad humans – but thankfully good humans found them. Meem was the one who had found the sanctuary – I knew of one further away, but wasn’t aware of this one which is only like 20-25 minutes from my house! So we had to go.
Interestingly enough, the first thing you see is not bears, but rather goats.
They had a jar inside that said you had to put a $1 in it if you asked or wondered about the goats being bear food, I thought that was pretty funny – though I surprisingly did not think of the goats being nom’d.
Once inside the viewing area, you get to watch the bears nom, chill, and play. It’s kind of cool, the sanctuary actually has seven bears right now, and they come out of their dens in “shifts” meaning that at any given time, two bears will be out for you to watch, which is cool because it means that if you visit more than once you can see multiple bears! Meem and I were fortunate enough to arrive right around a “shift change” so we got to see four bears!
When we first got there, it was Jake and Maggi who were out.
Jake and Maggie are both 10 years old, and they believe they are brother and sister. Maggie is the smaller (300lb) one playing with the ball, while Jake is the larger (800lb) one chilling in the pond. According to the staff: Maggi loves to run, swim and throw things. She even taught herself how to make a snowball and throw it! She has hit a few visitors in the viewing area with her snowballs! While Jake enjoys playing in the pond, laying in the grass sunning himself and of course playing with Maggi. Their favorite foods include elk, carrots, grapes, avocado, dried fruit, trail mix and ice cream.
They were being silly bears, Jake kept flipping himself over in the pond (he was floating on a log) while Maggie was noming her ball.
Along the viewing platform they had a few signs, I thought it was crazy that Grizzy Bears can run 35-40mph.
So yeah, don’t bother trying to outrun one, it will just engage their predator mode and they will nom you.
I also found it interesting that Grizzly Bears vary so much in weight, with Alaska bears generally being much heavier than their “southern” Grizzly counterparts.
Personally I am not sure I’d want to meet a 1500lb Grizzly Bear in the wild! As an even-crazier reference, Polar Bears (largest bears in the world) have been known to reach over 2000lbs and the heaviest on record was nearly 2500lbs!
Maggie really seemed to like eating the pond slime.
Eventually Maggie decided that it was time to go inside her den and get some noms, so she started pacing to let the keepers know she was ready to go. Meanwhile, Jake just kept chilaxing with his log.
However, Jake did eventually decide to come out of his pond, and he was much bigger than his sister.
Jake wondered around for a bit while Maggie grew impatient with her humans.
Eventually though her humans got the point and let them back inside, Maggie sprinted right in there while Jake meandered over there all cool-like.
While they were getting the next pair of bears ready to come out, a staff member hid treats around the area – stuff like syrup, yogurt, cheese, meat, and fruit. This allows the bears to keep their natural foraging instincts intact. The birds also knew what time it was because they swarmed, but only until the bears came out, then they scattered really quick.
The next pair of bears to come out were Brutus and Bella. Bella literally sprinted out of her den and started hunting down all the delicious syrup (she passed up the other treats – at first – in favor of the syrup noms).
Eventually Brutus lumbered up out of his den. Brutus gave no shits. Brutus is 900lbs and the alpha bear. Brutus noms whatever Brutus wants to nom.
Brutus is 14 years old, and as mentioned, 900lbs. He likes roughhousing with Sheena (another of the bears), swimming in his ponds (yep, his), foraging for treats (slowly), breaking stuff, and hamming it up for visitors. His favorite dinner is a large elk and avocado salad with huckleberry ice cream for desert! Bella is much younger, she is only 4 years old – thus the huge amounts of energy. Bella enjoys playing with logs, climbing things, swimming, and showing off. Bella loves syrup, I mean loves it.
While Bella frenetically foraged for noms, Brutus mozied about, tossing some boulders around like they were cotton balls.
Bella climbed the rocks as if they were nothing, putting to rest any safety I ever thought I’d find in a tree from a bear.
Fortunately – and this was heavily stressed by the sanctuary – bears are not aggressive creatures. In fact they are really just curious gentle giants. Most attacks occur because of people being stupid, not the bear being overly aggressive. In further support of this, my one encounter with a wild bear was not a hostile one at all.
I enjoyed how the birds would follow Brutus around, because the birds knew he would find noms, but the birds stayed just out of arm’s reach at all times. My guess is that if he had wanted to, Brutus would have nom’d the birds.
While Brutus and Bella just recently got to know each other (it takes awhile for the bears to acclimate to each other – and some never do, so a few of the bears can never be out together) they seemed to be good friends.
After hanging out for a few minutes, Bella returned to nom all the food she’d passed up in favor of the syrup.
Brutus meanwhile, took a nap.
After a bit more watching, Meem and I went on our way – but not without picking up some magnets (Brutus for me, Bella for Meem – and when SB and I go I’ll get another one!). We had to head to the grocery store to stock up for the week as my solo supplies aren’t really adequate for two people. While at the store we picked up one of those basic little sewing kits so I could get a needle. I then proceeded to spend nearly an hour trying to meticulously repair Mustache Tristen’s nose without clipping anything. While I am terrible with anything sewing, etc. the result was pretty good. I basically managed to “push” the strings back in, so it’s not really repaired, but it’s certainly better than dangling strings.
Tristen seemed pleased with it (though slightly bummed about the lack of mustache), and it should be good enough to last until “Dr. Rom” (SB) can come out with some more supplies and take a loot at it. One nostril is now ever-so-slightly smaller than the other one, but hey, I did my best and it’s still better than clipping them.
After Tristen’s most recent surgery (he has had many, silly boy) we chilled for the rest of the evening because the next day it was back to a normal work week for the two of us. Meem is still around, and will be for a bit longer, but during the weekdays she has to keep herself occupied. 😉
And that pretty much brings us up to the present! I just happened to notice that this post came in at almost 2x my “word quota” for check-ins, so maybe I should have busted it up into a “4” and a “4.5” – or maybe I should just stop kidding myself, oh well, it’s more adventurous this way!
Until next time,