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Flathead Lake Big Hole

8th June 2010

Testicle Festivals and National Bison Range

Panoramic View of Missoula Valley from the Mountain in the National Bison Range, once an Island in Lake Missoula      (please use scroll bar)

    It was a lovely morning, blue skies, warm with a gentle breeze blowing in from the lake. I strolled back from my first shower in three days, a rejuvenated man. Today I felt like a hike round the hills in the vicinity.
    I crossed paths with an old timer out taking his morning walk. We stood together in the bright sunshine chatting for some time. Thinking he was local, I asked if there were trails in the area. No, there weren't. I checked with him about the local rules and regulations for just striking out on my own path up the hills; would I need local landowner's permission? He said I would, and since the area was part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, I would need to seek their consent. "Where can they be found?", I asked. "Oh, down at Pablo", he replied. This was some way down the valley, and the idea was becoming more effort than it was worth, so I dropped the idea.
Breakfast by Flathead Lake
    It turned out he was local; he and his wife grew up here. They had moved away at one time, but were always drawn back to the area. I could understand why. He and his wife were now RV (Recreational Vehicle) people, as he put it. They had sold up and now spent the summer months up in Flathead country, and winter down in Arizona near the Mexican border, again near a lake so that he could indulge in his passion for fishing. I was beginning to discover a lot of Americans follow this lifestyle. He was a happy man, content with life. We wished each other a safe passage through life and went our separate ways.
Waterfowl Reserve in Missoula Valley

    I made breakfast and sat by the lakeside eating. This was heaven. I thought about the Cowboy Trail, and how I could not get the feel of cowboys driving their herds down that trail in bygone times. However, here I felt a closeness to how the Indians must have lived in the area and how they must have loved it. I sat contemplating, and before I knew it, two hours had passed.
    Time to head south. I called in at the tiny town of Polson down the road to use a launderette. It was a shame to be wasting such a sunny day on laundering, but needs must. I shared a joke with other users who said it wouldn't be sunny tomorrow. Blast! The launderette was an annex to a petrol station, which also served as a shop. I watched huge pickups drive up, wide enough for four people across the front seats. Huge people would disembark clumsily, waddle into the store, come out laden with bags of muffins and doughnuts plus a firkin of Coke, clamber back in their vehicles and drive off. I guess that was breakfast. I wondered what their life expectancy was. Total contrast to the lean, mean, fit folk from Vancouver. I could see why they needed such wide vehicles.
Mission Mountain Testicle Festival
Trestle Bridge
    I headed south along the 93 with the aim of visiting the National Bison Range in the Missoula Valley. On the way I passed through Charlo, a small village, where the Branding Iron Bar & Grill hosts the annual Mission Mountain Testicle Festival. I stopped off and asked the owner if I was too late. "Sorry, should have been here last weekend, it was a riot", replied the female owner. This raucous affair, that occurs in early June, combines the consumption of Rocky Mountain 'oysters' with live bands. For the rest of the year the hamlet is dead.
    I moved on to the National Bison Range. This was an area set aside with government funds in 1908 purely to provide a refuge for bison, They were in danger of becoming extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, only 100 wild bison existed with a few more kept in private collections. Note the word 'bison' used here. True buffalo are the Cape buffalo of Africa and the water buffalo of Asia. The American bison has been called 'buffalo' for so long now that the names are used interchangeably in the US. The only other bison in the world is called the wisent, which survives in small numbers on reserves in Europe.
Group of Bison - Calves are Rusty Coloured
    After a short video, I was given a map of the range which included the self-drive route I was to follow. This range was massive, and even had its own mountain in the centre. The self-drive trail was 19 miles long, winding through grassy plains with bison, deer, antelope and other wild creatures that I failed to spot, and also included a climb up one side of the mountain and a drop down the other. The range was partitioned up with fences in order to allow the bison to be rotated around the range so as to allow the grasses to rejuvenate. Such was the concern about preserving sufficient grassland that the herd was limited to 300-500 bison, the excess being sold off to private owners.
Thirsty Bison
    I didn't drive for long before I saw my first group of bison. They seemed to gather in groups of twenty or so, but smaller groups and individuals could be found. The drive took me around a bend and I caught sight of a pond. All of a sudden out leapt a bison; I had obviously startled him. He stood on the drive and stared at me. His coat was moulting. Bison usually roll on the ground or rub their bodies on trees to speed this process. When telegraph poles first came along, they targeted those. The railway men started putting sharp spikes on the poles, which only encouraged more bison. Back to the poor bison I had startled, he decided I was harmless and returned for his drink.
    I resumed my drive and came across a couple, the chap dancing wildly and indicating to me three antelope that he had spotted. I drove up the mountain, noting that the charging circuit warning lamp had come on again. Damn. Climbing the hill involved a trip through Douglas fir, whereas dropping down the other side was through Ponderosa Pine. Douglas firs grow on the north side of hills where their seedlings can get a foothold. Ponderosa pine are found on the dryer, warmer south sides of hills.
A Deer amongst the Wild Flowers
    Near the top of the mountain I parked up and walked a short trail to a rocky ridge that overlooked a good portion of the mountainside and surrounding Missoula Valley. This was a good vantage point for spotting eagles and osprey, none of which I saw. However, there were hosts of beautiful wild flowers, and I heard the melodic call of a bird quite close to where I was standing, but for the life of me could not spot it. Just then, Bob and Joy turned up, the couple who were excited by the antelope further down the slopes. I mentioned the bird, and soon Bob was hopping about among the rocks with his binoculars trying to spot the bird too, but to no avail. The pair couldn't help me with the wild flowers either. We walked back to our vehicles together. The couple had been to Cornwall, loved the tin mines, and had also toured Germany.
    We met again a short way further on at a group of information boards. The boards described how the whole Missoula Valley had at one time been a gigantic lake, the Missoula Lake. The lake was filled by glaciers during the ice age, and an ice dam had formed at one end to contain the lake. Rising waters eventually caused the ice to lift, and the dam burst. It was estimated that water flowed out of the valley at a rate of 9.5 cubic miles per hour. The waters surged all the way down to the Columbia River and then on to the Pacific, carving canyons and valleys on the way. Bob was blown away by this, wow after wow.
Wild Flowers on the Bison Range Mountain
More Wild Flowers
    I carried on my journey around the route, and as soon as I left the range, pulled over to lift the bonnet and check out the alternator which still wasn't charging the battery. Bob pulled up alongside me to check I was OK, I was in the middle of nowhere here and he didn't want to see me get stranded. What a kind thought from a complete stranger. I explained the problem to him; he could empathise since he had a similar problem some years back with a Ford. I said I intended to stop off at Missoula to get it attended to. Bob had his own car problems too. A recently acquired Renault he was now driving had worn out all four tyres in next to no time, and he was now faced with bald tyres and impending wet weather. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, and wishing each other well with our vehicles, we drove off in opposite directions.
    I set off to Missoula, about 25 miles further south, hoping the battery would last me till I got there. After five miles I felt the engine miss a beat, then a short while after, another beat. This was ominous and I knew I hadn't long to go before the van would be dead. I kept my eyes peeled for somewhere to pull in. Within two minutes I had ground to a halt on the side of the road. In a way I was glad the crunch point had been reached and I would have to get the problem sorted out. I was also glad it had happened in the US where I could use my mobile phone. I was soon speaking to the AAA, probably the best investment I'd made in years. In a short while a tow truck was on its way, and a hotel room had been booked for me (it was too late to get the vehicle repaired today).
    I had asked for the van to be taken to a Ford dealer in Missoula. Frank, the tow truck man, turned up with a cheery smile. He very painstakingly got the van hitched up, a slow methodical man. I had to intervene when he was trying to wrench the gear lever off in order to find neutral. I explained that the key was required to be in in order to achieve this. We eventually got going. As suspected, I learned that Frank was new to the towing business, his bother-in-law had spotted a gap in the market and had formed a tow truck company, and Frank was a hired hand. We discussed the beauty of Montana, which was the reason why he moved here from California. We drove under bridges built to allow wild animals to cross, and I mentioned how they were common in Banff National Park. Frank had worked on these bridges at one time. He pointed out that as you approached a bridge in the valley, a sign would be present in both English and Indian. Driving in one direction the English would say "Animal Bridge", but from the other direction it would say "Animal Trail". This was because of the two tribes in the valley, the Salish and the Kootenai, one did not have bridge in their vocabulary. He also pointed out that a lot of the trees had the tips of their needles turning brown. This was due to a small beetle that burrows into the trees, and was killing them. No economic preventative measures had been devised yet, nature's only cure was harsh winters to keep the bug numbers down, but harsh winters were becoming rarer. As we approached Missoula, Frank was getting agitated. He hadn't been down here for a long time and wasn't sure about the route to the dealer's, which was on the opposite side of town. He had to resort to calling folk who would Google the location. But he persevered and we got there in the end. The van was unceremoniously dumped. I thanked Frank profusely, he wished me luck with the van, and I put my keys with a note through the dealer's letterbox. I would have to wait to see what the morning would bring me.
    As I walked to my hotel for the night, I could not help but notice that almost every other building was a casino. I learned later that Montana is heavily into gambling. Maybe it stems from cowboy times. I little sad I thought. Sleep beckoned and I was soon tucked up in the first proper bed for ages, or so it seemed.
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Flathead Lake Big Hole

Uploaded from KOA Campsite, Butte MT on 10/06/10 at 21:45

Last updated 11.6.2010