By Mark Bradley
As you enter Montana from the East you’ll soon see why it’s called Big Sky Country. An all-encompassing deep blue sky swallows you up providing a 360 degree panoramic view like none other I’ve ever experienced. Choosing not to follow the crowd along busy I-94, we instead headed due West on Highway 200. The two lanes seemed to stretch forever into treeless, green grasslands on the route to Great Falls with few distractions other than an occasional patch of wildflowers and a cow or two.
In fact, for over 200 miles until reaching Lewistown and my first distant view of the mountains, only a few tiny towns and occasional passing rancher in his pickup truck reminded me civilization had reached this isolated countryside.
In Great Falls, it was the Charles Russell Mansion B&B where I spent two delightful nights discussing the travels of Lewis and Clark in Montana with other guests and owners. (www.charlie-russell.com). The people in Montana are especially proud of their pioneer heritage and it shows.
Just a few blocks down the street is the impressive C.M. Russell Museum. Home to the largest collection of “America’s Cowboy Artist” works, a Browning Firearms Collection, Russell’s legendary Log Cabin Studio and home along with the works of many well known other, including local, Western artists past and present (www.cmrussell.org).
Russell grew up in St Louis but moved West as a teenager in 1880 to began painting and capturing the last vestiges of the Old West.
All along the Lewis & Clark Trail you’ll find Interpretive Centers but the one at Great Falls was my favorite. Located high on a bluff of the Missouri River near Black Eagle Falls Overlook, the center features the Expedition’s month long portage around the five waterfalls here with a lifelike two story diorama depicting the struggle. Today, accessible foot trails lead along the river giving you an opportunity to feel what was accomplished here 200 years ago.
My next Montana destination was Glacier National Park on the Canadian border. Known for its pristine beauty and wildlife, it remains one of America’s crown jewels of natural beauty.
I chose to travel Rte 89 from Great Falls to the park’s St. Mary’s Entrance which skirts the Rocky Mountains. This was once the home of the most feared Plains Tribe, the Blackfeet.
The Blackfoot Nation really consists of four separate Blackfoot nations sharing a historical and cultural background. The Siksika (which means Blackfoot), the Akainawa (also called Kainai or Bloods), the Pikanii (variously spelled Piikani, Pikani, Pikuni, Piegan, or Peigan), and the Blackfeet Nation. The first three nations are in Alberta, Canada, and the fourth is in Montana. “Blackfeet,” though the official name of this tribe, is actually a misnomer given to them by white authorities; the word is not plural in the Blackfoot language, and some Blackfoot people in Montana resist this label www.blackfeetnation.com. There are about 14,000 Blackfoot Indians today and Douglas Cardinal, world famous architect and designer of the National Museum of the Indian in Washington DC is a Canadian Blackfoot.
Many Blackfeet sell crafts and food to tourists. Purchasing a jar of “Bull Fight in Every Bite” Salsa from a warrior who told me he makes it himself, I was quickly inspired to find a cold beverage after sampling its “kick” aftertaste. My imagery of this once fierce warrior faded quickly as I observed him walking his toy poodle around the park as we left town.
Glacier National Park lived up to its reputation as big, bold and unpredictable as snowflakes greeted us and word from the Visitor Center was that the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road was closed due to a snowstorm at the summit. www.nps.gov/glac/home.htm
Luckily, the next day (June 8), the road had been cleared and driving this 50 mile long tribute to American engineering with breathtaking views around each mountainous curve was one of the major highlights of the entire trip.
There is a wide variety of lodging available near the Park and Red Bus Tours offer guided scenic tours (www.glacierparkinc.com). My choice was the ultra modern Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish MT near the West Entrance to the park.
It truly is a small world I found while wearing my Southern Illinois U sweatshirt in the hotel lobby. A gentleman asked me where I was from and then he proceeded to tell how he too was a native Illinoisan (Alton) now in the huckleberry business.
My huckleberry knowledge being limited to one Huckleberry Finn of Hannibal MO, I accepted an invitation to tour his warehouse where I was mesmerized by his application of this small purple berry into a myriad of products ranging from jam to Wild Huckleberry Body Cream (www.huckleberryhaven.com).
Never domesticated, the huckleberry is only found growing wild in the mountains of the West. That night Huckleberry Haven owners, Ed and Lisa, treated me to a meal featuring huckleberry beer and huckleberry ice cream for dessert. Both were unique and delicious!
So ended my visit to Montana and as I exited through Missoula and the historic Lolo Pass via US 12 into Idaho, I thought back fondly on my time in the Big Sky understanding now why it is so favored by some of Hollywood’s most famous.
Lewis & Clark crossed the Rockies on horseback through deep snowdrifts in Lolo Pass into what is now modern day Idaho but my rafting experience on the raging whitewater of the Lochsa River would be prove to be just as dangerous as my Great Western Adventure continues in the next issue: Idaho.
Huckleberry Pancakes from Rachael Ray’s $40 a day.
* 2 cups flour
* 3 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 2 eggs
* 2 tablespoons oil
* 1 cup milk
* 4 ounces huckleberries, fresh or frozen, plus extra, for serving
* Whipped butter and maple syrup, as an accompaniment
Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Then, stir in eggs, oil, and milk until mixed. Do not beat the mixture.
Pour 2 to 6 ounce ladles of batter on a lightly oiled griddle. Then, add 1 ounce of huckleberries to each pancake. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
Place the pancakes on a large plate. Then garnish with huckleberries, whipped butter, and hot maple syrup.