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MAR

26

How to Survive the Big Foot Hunt in Elliston, Montana

You know what would make an Easter egg hunt so much better? Darkness. A slough. A gigantic bonfire. The responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages. And Sasquatch.

So basically, Lawdog's Saloon in Elliston should plan all Easter egg hunts ever. In that ideal world, here is how to survive:
Eat a hamburger - Oh. My. Goodness. Easily one of the best hamburgers I've ever had. Giant square patties on a toasted bun, perfectly juicy and steaming hot. Most definitely worth the wait, and it goes perfectly with a Cold Smoke.

Drink a Local Beer - With your burger. The bar has all sorts of local and national beers, hard alcohol, and special Big Foot shots, but the burger and the atmosphere cry out for a Montana Microbrew.

Bring cash - Nothing is more disappointing than finally getting up to the bar, the registration desk, or the food counter, only to have to turn around and find the ATM. Avoid the ATM fees, avoid leaving the bar without a drink. Be able to tip your servers generously. Bring cash.

Order food early - Imagine a kitchen that usually deals with a few orders at a time dealing with 500 orders all at once. Before the hunt, the wait for food was nearly an hour. This isn't a problem since you are hanging out waiting for sunset anyway, but you might as well get your order in early to ensure you have enough time to savor every last bite of deliciousness before the hunt gets under way.

Have a DD - You're headed to the grown-up version of an Easter egg hunt. You're going to want a Designated Driver. And if you are the Designated Driver, awesome! Lawdog's gives you free food, and in some ways the hunt is even more hilariously fun when you are sober.

Tip the cooks - Seriously. They're volunteers, and they are scrambling to get deliciousness into the bellies of hundreds of people who all want their food at exactly the same time. They do a fantastic job and deserve lots of appreciation.  

Be nice to the staff - They're almost all volunteers, and you're in their town. They do a fantastic job and deserve all sorts of recognition.

Tailgate - Registration closes at 6:00, but the hunt doesn't get underway until after 8:00. Let's face it, you're not going to find a place at the bar, which means you're going to end up in the parking lot. So find a way to wrap yourself in some blankets and sit down while you enjoy the food and festivities.

Wear boots - This was only the second snowless year, but 500 people tromping around turns snow into mud pretty quick.

Wear appropriate clothing - We laughed at the people who were wearing mechanic's overalls and muck boots, but when the hunt started and they took off, tearing through the bramble and the mud without pause, we realized how smart they were.

Be ready to fall - you're running through the woods at night. Even the DD's trip, fall, and sometimes careen headlong through the willows in search of balloons.

Grab the balloons - There's one Big Foot, but a bunch of balloons, that are redeemable for all sorts of prizes.

Carpool - For the size of Elliston (tiny) and the number of people (a lot), parking was surprisingly convenient, but it still makes sense to carpool.

Have a strategy - I'm not sure what that strategy should be. Someone found the Big Foot up a tree. That person probably had a strategy. The people who found the Rainier bottles? They probably had a strategy. The people with half a dozen balloons also probably had a strategy (sidebar: few things are funnier than watching mildly intoxicated adults tripping through the bushes with a handful of balloons trailing behind). But I can't help you with strategy, because whatever strategy we had, it certainly didn't work.

Have fun - it is a drunken Easter egg hunt in the middle of the night. Who cares if you win? (Is a thing that people who didn't get balloons say). You'll go tumbling through the mud and willows. You'll trip on sticks buried in the grass. You might find yourself standing in a puddle of water. But you'll love every minute of it.

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MAR

19

The SouthWest Montana Travel Planner

In February, SouthWest Montana unveiled their 2015 Travel Planners. These slim booklets feature some of Montana's best photographers in luscious displays that should make even those most likely to stay-at-home crave a SouthWest Montana adventure. These new travel planners had me dreaming my next trip, which is handy, considering my job. The travel planners make it very easy to turn dreams into concrete plans. Every location featured in the magazine doesn't just receive a prose description. Every location also shows up on a list and in a map. I've noticed that a lot of travel guides tend to focus on Helena and Butte. Even this blog sometimes runs the risk of being to Helena- and Butte-centric. But the 2015 planner does a very good job of listing activities, adventures, and locations all across SouthWest Montana. The 2015 travel planners break SouthWest Montana into digestible chunks, offering a full list of accommodations in every community in the region. With sections devoted to history, sightseeing, outdoor recreation, arts and culture, breweries and distilleries, communities, events, accommodations, guides, and state parks, you are sure to find exactly what you are looking for, no matter how you want to explore SouthWest Montana. And after looking through the pictures in the planner, and reading the descriptions, you will definitely want to explore SouthWest Montana.

Call 1-800-879-1159 for more information, or to order a planner. You can also order or download a planner online.

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MAR

13

Hunting for Big Foot in Elliston

A tradition since 1990, the annual Bigfoot hunt in Elliston is a giant game of, if not drunken then definitely buzzed, nighttime hide-and-seek. Before the hunt begins, Bigfoot (spoiler: a volunteer in a Bigfoot costume) hides himself somewhere among the brush on a 10 acre plot of land owned by the original owners of Elliston's Lawdog's Saloon. Revelers begin to trickle in by mid-day eager to beat the 6:00pm registration deadline. When night finally falls and the full moon rises, the hunt begins. In addition to Bigfoot-whose capture will earn someone the $150 grand prize-Lawdog's hides two human sized beer bottles-each worth an embroidered coat-and scores of balloons containing a total of over $250 in donated prizes.

The raucous and fun-filled good time is Lawdog's only 21+ event, although, anyone 18 years old or older is welcome as designated drivers. The Saloon fetes the Designated Drivers, last year they provided over $300 in free hamburgers, fries and soda. Perhaps because of Lawdog's emphasis on safety, Montana Highway Patrol didn't have a single DUI from the event last year. In fact, MHP actually called the owners and commended them on their management of the event, a rare occurrence indeed.

A Big Foot hunting license costs fifteen dollars, and registration closes at 6:00 pm, although the actual hunt doesn't get underway until nightfall. The length of the hunt varies considerably, the longest hunt to date took about an hour and a half. The Big Foot hunt has been an Elliston tradition for 25 years, and is one of the best ways to beat March cabin fever.

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MAR

5

St. Urho's Day: Butte's Warm-up for St. Patrick's Day

Courtesy of the Helsinki Bar

Every March 17th, Butte's reputations as a thickly Irish town and as a wide-open mining town converge in the raucous, beautiful mess that is St. Patrick's Day. Butte's St. Patrick's Day is justly famous, and the city's connection to Ireland well known. Not everyone in Ireland knows Montana, but mention Butte and their eyes light up. They know exactly the place you mean. However, Butte wasn't just an Irish enclave. At one time, Butte was one of the western United States' most important cities, and it attracted immigrants from across the world. Most important to today's blog, Butte attracted Finns. The Finns came later than other groups. However, by the 1920s the population had grown enough to form a thriving neighborhood: Finn Town. Finn Town has disappeared, consumed by the Berkley Pit, but a Finnish population still survives, and clings to its ancient traditions.

The tradition, in this case, is St. Urho's day, which comes from 1950s Minnesota. St. Uhro is a tongue-in-cheek invention, riffing off of the legends of St. Patrick and American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan. According to the story, the Finnish vineyards were faced with a terrible grasshopper problem (this was sometime in the mythic past when Finland had a climate conducive to grape growing). Urho yelled at the grasshoppers, and told them to leave Finland, and they did. All this happened on March 16th, and if you think this seems like an attempt to upstage St. Patrick, you might not be entirely wrong. Over the past 60 years, Finns in America have embraced St. Urho's day as a way to honor their Finnishness. St. Urho is especially popular in places (like Butte) with both Finns and Irish, because St. Urho's Day makes a perfect pre-party to St. Patrick's Day.

In Butte, the festivities center around the Helsinki Bar and Yacht Club, the only remaining Finn Town building. Bar goers elect a "saint" and "lady" of the day who get draped in bright purple and green cloth, stand on the bar, shout out something in Finnish, and then get toasted with shots of purple schnapps. From there, festivities (probably after a few more purple drinks) eventually spill over into St. Patrick's Day the next day. The fact that there are almost 63 different types of grasshoppers and crickets still living in Finland doesn't seem to bother anyone in the slightest. 

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FEB

26

Ski into a Montana Cabin

The rentable Forest Service cabins scattered across Montana are one of the state's best kept secrets. This winter, four of us made plans to ski into one. We made the reservations in January, back when Montana still looked like winter. I spent the next month frantically checking the weather, panicked that the unseasonable warmth would put a damper on our skiing plans. I need to remember that even when the lowlands are bare, the mountains still have snow. In fact, snow drifts almost made us ski in a lot further than we anticipated. To top it off, a blizzard blew in to southwest Montana on Friday and didn't let up until Saturday night. This made driving difficult but skiing ideal. We stopped three miles from Hells Canyon Guard Station (west of Silver Star) and skied the rest of the way in. The skiing was incredible. The cabin was perfect. I love renting forest service cabins because you are still roughing it, but you don't have to pitch a tent. The four bunks in this cabin had foam mattresses-the most comfortable I've encountered in a forest service cabin (though, admittedly, that's not a high bar). It had a table, chairs, a wood stove, all of the wood you could possibly need, and a random assortment of pots, pans, and dishes. I would always advise bringing a few dishes or pots just in case, but Hells Canyon Guard Station was one of the best stocked cabins I've been to.

We played cards, huddled by the fire, and ate chips all afternoon while snow fell outside, making it my ideal day. The sky cleared by nightfall, revealing the clearest, brightest, and most populated skies I have ever seen.  We could have spent ours staring at the sky, except that it was freezing, so we scurried back inside. Sunday dawned bright and sunny and revealed epic mountains we hadn't noticed the day before. The clear sky and inches of fresh powder made skiing out even better than skiing in, and the views just kept getting better and better. I know I write a lot about excellent ways to spend your weekends, but this might take the cake. Skiing in to a remote cabin, playing cards, relaxing by the fire, marveling at the stars (plus three planets and a sliver moon)…this might be the best Montana itinerary I could possibly suggest.

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FEB

19

Top 10 Places to See Live Performance in SouthWest Montana

SouthWest Montana has a flair for the dramatic. Each year, the region hosts more live performances than you could possible count. From elaborate annual productions like the Montana Folk Festival, An Ri Ra and the Montana Ballet Company’s Nutcracker to bands playing in bars and cafes across the region, SouthWest Montana will always entertain. There are, of course, far too many venues and performances to count, but here is a list of the top 10 places to see live performances in SouthWest Montana.

1.      Grandstreet Theater, Helena—Featuring eight or nine plays and musicals a year, the Grandstreet is home to Montana’s longest running community theater as well as a nationally-known theater school for kids in grades K-12.

2.      Motherlode and Orphan Girl Theaters, Butte—The opulent Motherlode Theater was built in 1923, and today serves as a as the home theater for nearly a dozen performance groups and events. The Orphan Girl Theater, on the lower level is a nationally renowned children’s theater.

3.      Opera House, Philipsburg—The Opera House Theater in Philipsburg host three different plays all summer long and features an ensemble cast of professionals from across the country.

4.      Myrna Loy Center, Helena—Tony winning musicals, indie movies, local bands, visual artists…the Myrna Loy center in Helena provides the community with an endless supply of high quality arts and entertainment all year long.

5.      Montana Shakespeare Company, Helena—In addition to offering two professional plays each summer (and occasional special performances like December 2014’s Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) the Montana Shakespeare Company also offers a fantastic week-long acting day camp for kids. (visit their website here)

6.      Living History, Virginia City, Bannack, Nevada City—Throughout the year, volunteers gather in three of Montana’s most famous ghost towns to bring the state’s colorful past to life.

7.      Virginia City Players, Virginia City—Specializing in 19th Century melodrama and vaudeville, the Virginia City Players at the Virginia City Opera House is the oldest continuously operating summer stock theater company west of the Mississippi. Plays run from May to September.

8.      Brewery Follies, Virginia City—Be prepared for a raucous good time at the Gilbert Brewery in Virginia City. Self-described as a “risque contemporary American-burlesque-cabaret musical and skit show,” the Brewery Follies provide a hilarious end to a day in Virginia City.

9.      Live! At the Civic Center, Helena—Helena’s longest running performance art series, Live! At the Civic Center offers a blend of contemporary and classical musical performances all year long.

10.  Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Various Locations—Each summer, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks packs a full cast and an elaborate set into a few vans and travels the Northwest, providing incredible theatrical performances to some of the smallest towns in Montana. (visit their website here)

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FEB

5

Helena's Holter
When we decided that we should dedicate the February blogs to the arts in SouthWest Montana, I thought I was going to have a pretty easy time of it. SouthWest Montana is absolutely riddled with artsy things. Art galleries and jewelry shops fill Montana towns. Many towns boast some sort of artists' community. Springs, summers, and falls in SouthWest Montana are positively rife with art walks and festivals celebrating local talent. And preforming arts? Don't get me started. The Grandstreet, the Myrna Loy, the Virginia City Players, the Brewery Follies, the Orphan Girl, the Mother Lode, the Montana Shakespeare Company, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, the Philipsburg Opera House . . . the list goes on and on and on.

My problem, it turns out, was narrowing the enormous amount of material into just a few blogs. I won't have enough time to visit all of the art venues in SouthWest Montana that deserve mention, let alone write about them all. So today I will focus on just one: the Holter Museum of Modern Art in Helena. For years the Helena Arts Council supported exhibitions and performances in Helena. Finally, in 1986, the Council managed to purchase the building of the former Montana Power & Equipment Building downtown. By 1987, the building had been renovated and opened as the Holter Museum of Art, named after one of Helena's pioneering families. From the beginning, the Holter has focused on two main things: bringing contemporary artwork to Helena, and offering high-quality community art classes. The Holter has succeeded magnificently on both counts. In fact, as early as 1989 one of the exhibits earned a half-page article in the Wall Street Journal, which definitely helped boost credibility. Today, the Holter Museum of art comprises 17,000 square feet, including two classrooms and five galleries. The Holter features some of the finest shows in the country. And did I mention that admission is always free?

There are countless ways to enjoy the arts in SouthWest Montana. You can visit one of the many museums and galleries, you could watch a play or go to the symphony, you could attend some of the many art shows and festivals. The scenery and history of SouthWest Montana have inspired some truly great artists, and a deep appreciation of the arts. The Holter lets you experience the best that Montana has to offer. When you visit the Holter you will see Montana artists on display alongside nationally renown names, and, perhaps best of all, the Holter teaches the tools for you to make art yourself. Is there a better way to commemorate you travels in SouthWest Montana?

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JAN

29

Take a Bite of History

Nerd moments happen, and there is nothing we can do about it. For example, I was recently walking through the grocery store when I saw the newest product from Hi-Country Snacks: Pemmican Bites. If you're like me, you've spent a good deal of your time reading about pemmican. It was, after all, a staple in the diet of Native Americans, and quickly adopted by anyone who ever spent any time trekking through the wilderness. Fur trappers, explorers, prospectors . . . everybody who was anybody ate pemmican. Native Americans developed pemmican by taking dried meat, berries, nuts, and seeds, pounding them, and mixing them with animal fat in a 1:1 ratio. It seems a lot like trail mix, if you put the jerky in a separate bag and replace the animal fat with chocolate (keep the ratio though). The result was a lightweight, long-lasting food source rich in proteins and carbohydrates. Pemmican turns jerky into a full meal. I can't imagine that pemmican tasted very good, especially if it was your only food source for weeks on end, but to me there has always been something exotic, romantic, and adventurous about the idea of pemmican.

I have no doubt that by producing pemmican Hi-Country is intentionally exploiting my tendency to romanticize old-time mountain men, but I don't really care. To produce this new, modern pemmican, Hi-Country took strips of high quality beef jerky, oats, soy flour, almonds, walnuts, dried blueberries, and dried cranberries. They mixed these ingredients with some sugar (cane, brown, and honey) and seasonings. The resulting small rectangles act very much like jerky. The consistency reminds me of very soft jerky, although there are a couple of different textures going on. In general, the bites taste a lot like jerky (the seasoning is almost exactly the same as Hi-Country's jerky seasoning). It might just be the power of suggestion, but I am convinced that I could taste the blueberries and cranberries. There are only a few examples of pemmican on the market today, and I think that Hi-Country's is probably the most "authentic" but between the sugar, the domestic grains, and the low fat content, I doubt it tastes much like the pemmican of yore. Did the bites boost my energy, survival ability and general manliness? I don't know. I was saving them for a sufficiently epic adventure (or, you know, a walk around the block) but I ended up snacking on the bites whilst sitting at my desk, typing on my computer.

I like them, and think that they would make an excellent hiking snack. But the lack of chocolate means they probably won't completely replace trail mix on my adventures.

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JAN

23

SouthWest Montana's Writer-Historian: Ivan Doig
I am a hypocrite. I am very proud of my own vocabulary. Sometimes if I write what I think is a very good sentence with lots of elaborate words, I will read it again and again, congratulating myself on my own cleverness. When I read, however, I much prefer things that are blunt and realistic. I enjoy reading poetry, and poetic prose, but it better be the likes of Dick Hugo, Bill Kittredge or Norman Maclean. The sort that socks you in the gut.  This has always complicated my reading of Ivan Doig. His triad of books detailing the Montana misadventures of Morris Morgan (which for want of a better description I have decided to dub the "Morrie Trilogy") could best be described as a writer's love letter to words. Or, to use a description more in keeping with the tone of the book 'a wordsmith's missive of absolute affection to verbose verbiage.' In the second two books-Work Song, and Sweet Thunder-Doig writes from the point of view of the main character, Morris Morgan. This choice (while a good one) inevitable leads to flowery, unnecessarily elaborate prose and utterly unrealistic dialogue.

That being said, Doig has done something extraordinary with these books. The trilogy very accurately captures the first few decades of the 1900s, a period of great transition in the United States. While Whistling Season (the first book) focusses on the rural agriculture of high plains Montana, the next two move us into Butte, one of the most important urban industrial centers of the west. Both books center on the Anaconda Copper Company's dominance of the state, perhaps the most important theme of 20th Century Montana history. Work Song addresses labor relations, and the Union's fight against the Company. Sweet Thunder takes a slightly different tack by exploring the Company's near monopoly of the press. Doig carefully incorporates a great many details-both significant and trivial-which add to the accuracy of the books.

Given the subject matter, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine a bleak, gritty, noir-ish trilogy. Doig does something entirely different. In book review language, Doig has written a delightful romp through Butte in its heyday. He has festooned the playful writing with colorful characters. The Sweet Thunder cast includes the fastidious Morrie, level-headed Grace, a pair of retired Welsh miners (who aren't related but look the same), a street-urchin called Russian Famine, and a doleful Editor-in-Chief. Morrie lives in the dilapidated mansion of a comically gruff vigilante-turned-librarian who embezzles library funds to build a collection of priceless books. This is Dickens-Lite. You are never quite sure if you are reading a social commentary or a social comedy. For that reason, I love this trilogy. Doig writes with knowledge and clarity. He has done his research, and perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun. 
The two books of the Morrie Trilogy that take place in Butte are:
Work Song (Riverhead Books, 2010)
Sweet Thunder (Riverhead Books, 2013)

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JAN

15

Southwest Montana: Fighting the Winter Blues one Adventure at a Time
Winter in Southwest Montana. It can be cold. It can be long. But it can also be a lot of fun. Made last year, this video showcases some (but not nearly all) of the incredible opportunities a Southwest Montana winter offers. Ice fishing, ice skating, ice sailing, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, snow shoeing . . . the list goes on and on. Of course, if the cold weather doesn't agree with you, there's plenty of warmer ways to stay busy this winter. Stop by a brewery, a distillery, or a café. Catch a show at the Grandstreet, the Myrna Loy, or the Orphan Girl. Browse through the region's unique boutiques. Most importantly, whether you spend your day outside or inside, make sure to explore all of the delicious places to eat in Southwest Montana.

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