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Fall Fishing
It is still summer in SouthWest Montana, but fall creeps closer and closer. This year I'm not at all looking forward to the shortening of the days and the cooling of the weather. If you like me, are lamenting the things still to be done this summer, take heart. Fall brings with it a host of new activities to occupy our time. Among those is fall fishing. During the fall, the fish get more active, hunting for food to bulk up for the cold months of winter. Some of the really big fish, the ones that had carefully hidden under rocks all summer, get careless, and are more likely to bite. Brown trout get more aggressive as they get ready for the spawn in November, and Rainbows flourish in the late season hatches. 
What with bow and bird hunting, Saturday football games and the end of tourist season, the rivers in Montana are surprisingly empty. The days are cooler and crisper, which can make a nice change from the hot and mosquito-y days of summer, and the rivers of SouthWest Montana turn gold as the cottonwoods and willows change color. True, the peak fall fishing season is still a ways away, but it is better to make plans early, especially if you want a guide. Many guides move on to different work after Labor Day when the summer season winds down.




Exploring Downtown Helena

One of the best ways to explore a town is to go to its downtown area (unless you're in Butte, in which case you should head uptown). Unique shops and delicious eateries buzz around downtowns like bees around a hive. However, sometimes, it takes a little bit of orientation to figure out downtown, and Helena has the perfect answer.

The tour train is one of the best ways to start a trip in Helena. I can't claim that it did a very good job orienting me geographically (leaving the trolley station, it took me 20 minutes to make the 4 minute drive between the capitol and the walking mall) but it does give a good sense of the scope of stories you can find in the Queen City. The hour-long tour takes visitors on a tour of the capitol, through the mansion district and into Last Chance Gulch. The guide points out the most interesting features on each block, telling the stories of the people who have lived there. At the most important (and photogenic) sites, the trolley slows down so that riders can take photos. The tour train works well as an introduction to the city, a way of figuring out what bits you want to see more of. It helps, too, that the train tickets acts a coupons at half a dozen downtown business, earning holders discounted souvenirs and free ice cream. The tour isn't a replacement for wandering around Helena on foot, but it is a good opener, a way to break the ice between you and the Queen City of the Rockies.

While you're in downtown Helena, there's one stop you can't miss. Begun in 1922, the Parrot Confectionary has been a Helena institution for over 90 years. In fact the store existed as soda fountain even earlier-in the 1910s-but after a change of ownership it reappeared in 1922 as one of Montana's premier confectionaries. The Parrot occupies part of the bottom floor of the historic Lalonde Building on Helena's walking mall. Today, the Parrot is famous not only for candies with recipes dating back to the 1920s, but also for its old-fashioned soda fountain, serving up delicious malts, milkshakes, homemade ice cream sundaes, ice cream sodas and flavored colas.




Scheduling Snafus
The first time we decided to walk through Helena's walking mall, we found our way blocked by a complete lack of people. Dark storefronts blankly watched us as we wandered down the street, narrowly avoiding a street sweeping machine and a worker with recycling. The shopkeepers, citizens and tourists of Helena apparently consider 9:30 am an unthinkable hour to venture forth into Last Chance Gulch. The whole thing reminded us eerily of our trip to Virginia City a year ago. Every morning my wife and I scramble to make it to work on time, and yet on vacation we regularly show up before the town has had a chance to turn itself on. You'd think we'd learn by now that 10:00 am is the universally acknowledged decent hour at which to begin touristing.

When we got there, the creek wasn't even running.

We have impeccably bad timing. Last year-on the same trip that we haunted V.C.-we tried to experience the nightlife in Ennis on a Monday night, to disastrously uneventful results. Hoping to avoid the same mistake, we headed to Helena on a Wednesday night, knowing that Helena's famous Alive @ Five would be sure to entertain, only to find that rain had pushed the band inside and driven the street vendors home. So really this morning was just following the trend of impeccably bad timing. 

Fortunately the Placer Center hides a small coffee shop in its lobby. Said coffee shop-one Sweet & Savory by name-opens its doors in the very small of the night-the ungodly hour of 7:30 am, if you can believe it.  Sweet & Savory serves green tea chai. Chai. Brewed with green tea. I hope this is a thing in other places because dear goodness is it amazing. Later in our trip we managed to experience all of the fun shops and unique history of Last Chance Gulch, but there was something incredibly satisfying about wandering through the deserted mall, sipping a new discovery, soothed by the whir of the street cleaners.




Adventures at the Gates of the Mountains
10:00 am, mid-June, the present: Our intrepid blogger and wife leave the Helena Farmers' Market, navigating the unfamiliar streets of Helena.
350 million years ago: A cephalopod dies. Its body drifts through the shallow sea, finally settling in the thick mud of the sea floor. The sea recedes. The cephalopod and mud dry and harden, forming a layer of limestone as much as 2,000 feet thick. The rock heaves and buckles through volcanic, tectonic and glacial tumult. The Missouri river rushes through.
10:30 am, the present:
Having successfully (albeit slowly) navigated the Capital City's streets, our blogger turns onto I-15, headed north. They eat kettle corn purchased from the farmer's market.
1,300 years ago: Using buffalo blood and red stone powder, a shaman draws intricate pictures on an outcropping of rock above the Missouri. Draw by the rugged, inaccessible beauty of the place, natives of the area will venture into the twisting canyon, in search of spiritual inspiration for the next thousand years and more.
11:00 am, the present: Our intrepid blogger and his wife have turned off I-15, driven a few miles east and parked in the Gates of the Mountains parking lot. They purchase tickets for the noon boat tour.
209 years ago: Meriweather enters the area, William Clark takes a small party on foot, and Lewis stays in the boats with the rest of the crew. He writes: This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the water's edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. Every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. The tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us…it is deep from side to side nor is there in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot except one of a few yards in extent on which a man could rest the sole of his foot… from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.
11:45 am, the present:
Our heroes wait patiently for the noon tour. They are patient people.
106 years ago: Samuel Hauser begins construction on Holter Dam, downriver from the Gates of the Mountains. The dam is completed ten years later. It raises the water level but does not otherwise alter the canyon.

Noon, the present: Our intrepid heroes board the Canyon Voyager. They spend the next two hours hearing stories of the canyon, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Mann Gulch Fire, and the Hilgers who used to own the area. They see a bald eagle, merganser ducklings, a deer, and a vulture. They take pictures of rocks. They get, despite the application of sunscreen, slightly sunburnt. They have a delightful time, and later eat Wilcoxson's huckleberry ice cream sandwiches.




Hiking Helena
Perhaps the best advice you will ever receive: When hiking, be sure to bring along a 17 year-old high school soccer player. This way, if you and your party choose not to bring water and then a mile into your hike realize how bad a decision that was, you can send said soccer player running down the mountain to bring back some water bottles. Alternately, you could just remember your water bottle from the beginning.

Mount Helena City Park covers 620 acres on the edge of Helena. Trails crisscross the entire park. Some summit the mountain. Others connect with trails in the surrounding Helena National Forest. We took the "1906" trail. It makes sort of a spiral around Mount Helena, which makes it longer, but keeps it from being too steep. Don't be fooled by the "Powerline" trail. Even though it's really short, it goes straight up the face, and is absurdly steep. "1906," on the other hand, wends its way through open hillside and pine forest, and gives some really spectacular views of the city in the process. On the way down, I think we took "Hogback" and "Prospects Shafts." Neither had as much variety as 1906, but it was nice to make a loop instead of backtracking. The trails we took weren't terribly hard. They were just hard enough that at the end you knew you had been exercising. And the view from the top is absolutely worth it. We went in the middle of the morning on a humid overcast day, but it would make a beautiful early morning or close-to-sunset hike.




A post about the Post

People have been chronicling the doings of Montana for almost as long as Montana has been around.  Montana became a territory in May, 1864, before that, it had been part of the Idaho Territory.  By August of 1864, Montana had its own newspaper, the Montana Post.  According to the Montana Historical Society, John Buchanan published four editions of the weekly paper before selling it to Daniel Tilton.  Tilton hired Thomas Dimsdale to edit the paper.  Under Dimsdale, the Post had its most successful run.  During the vigilante era of 1863-64, Dimsdale's editorials waxed poetic about the nobility of the vigilante cause.  In 1866 Dimsdale produced a series of articles about the vigilantes, which he compiled and published as Montana's first book, entitled The Vigilantes of Montana or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains.  Dimsdale died of tuberculosis in September of 1866.

Thomas Dimsdale

Thomas Dimsdale.
courtesy of Bannack Association

As population and power shifted from Virginia City to Helena, so did the Post.  However, the Post lasted only a year in Helena before its building was destroyed in an 1869 fire of the business district.  After that, the newspaper divided into several different publications.  During its existence, the Post was a highly divisive publication.  At the time, Montana was a heavily Democrat area.  During the Civil War, men in the border states, angry at their homes for siding with the Union, had headed for the Montana gold rush.  After the war, Confederate soldiers, having nothing to return to in the South, had also headed toward Montana.  In the midst of this anger and disillusionment, the Montana Post preached pro-Unionism and radical Republicanism.

Although not Montana's biggest newspaper, and probably not its best, the Montana Post was the territory's first.  It chronicles a unique era in the birth of Montana.

The Library of Congress has digital copies of the Post, they can be found under "related links" at        

Tags:  history, Virginia City, Helena, newspapers




What on earth does 3-7-77 mean?
Recently, Brian Dunning aired a piece on his blog Skeptoid discussing the Montana symbol 3-7-77. In it, Dunning covered much the same ground as anyone else who writes on the topic: the fact that the Montana Highway Patrol and other Montana institutions use the numbers in their logos, the five or so main theories, and Fredrick Allen's 2013 book A Decent, Orderly Lynching. Beyond these, few facts exist to present.

As far as we can tell, the numbers have nothing to do with Montana's first, and most famous, Vigilantes. Thomas Dimsdale, the Vigilantes most vocal supporter, didn't mention the code in his 1865 book, and Nathaniel Langford, a prominent Montanan who participated in the first wave of vigilantism, said nothing on the subject in his 1890 book. As Allen pointed out, the uniquely Montana tag first appeared in 1879, and wasn't directly connected to a lynching until 1885. For about forty years, the code appeared fairly regularly, in situations ranging from shooing vagrants out of downtowns to the lynching of union organizer Frank Little. Today, nearly divorced of sinister meaning, the code shows up on everything from the Montana Highway Patrol to the Big Sky Brewing Company as a short-hand reference to the state's frontier past. What the numbers might have meant to the graffitios who tagged Helena's fences in 1879, we will never know. 

In A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean offhandedly assumed that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave (3 feet wide, 7 feet long and 77 inches deep). Judge Llewellyn Link Callaway, writing in 1929, claimed the numbers represented the 3 hours, 7 minutes and 77 seconds Vigilantes gave miscreants to get out of town. He claimed to have based this theory on his acquaintance with former Vigilantes during his childhood. Other theorists have added the numbers (3+7+7+7) and said that it represented the 24 hours criminals had to leave town unmolested.  

In a rare move for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning endorsed the Mason theory suggested by Rex Myers in which the 3 represents either the general number of Masons required to form a lodge or the specific number that formed the first lodge in Montana; the 7 represents the ideal minimum number involved in a decision; and 77 represents the number of Masons in Montana at the first gathering. This might be the first time Skeptoid has ever supported a Mason theory. Myers suggested that maybe the code wasn't so much a warning as a call for a meeting and that undesirable elements learned that the one often proceeded the other. Allen, however rejected this notion by noting first that several prominent Masons during the 1870s-80s opposed vigilantism, and second that the Masons have never been keen on publicly displaying secret codes. In the same article, Allen tossed around the theory that the code urged miscreants to buy a $3 ticket on the 7:00am stage for the 77 mile trip from Helena to Butte-basically a warning to get out of town. Warnings, though, need to be straight-forward so that everyone gets the message. Allen acknowledged that his theory, like the others, was pretty obscure.

A warning, a code, a cipher? Since their appearance on Helena fences in 1879, the numbers have befuddled generations of Montanans. That they had some link to vigilantism seems clear, but what was the nature of this link? Who scrawled the numbers on Montana's history? What was their intent? How did people interpret the signs? These questions we will probably never know, but that shouldn't keep us from speculating. What do you think?

Allen, Fredrick. "Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 51, 1 (2001): 2-19.
Callaway, L. L., Jr. "The Vigilante Numbers: Another Look at 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 25, 2 (1975): 83-84.
Dunning, Brian. "3-7-77: The Montana Vigilance Code."
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It and Other Stories. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
Myers, Rex C. "The Fateful Numbers 3-7-77: A Re-Examination." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 24, 4 (1974): 67-70




The Montanan Called Spokane

May, 1889.  The boisterous crowd at Churchill Downs went silent as two horses lunged for the finish line, well ahead of the rest.  One was the massive Proctor Knott, a Kentucky horse, winner of the Futurity, and the obvious favorite.  The other was Spokane, a much smaller horse, whom the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted as having eight to one odds (though other sources say six to one).  

Spokane's owner, Noah Armstrong had made his fortune in Montana.  He had his fingers in a number of pies, but the most notable piece of his empire was the Helca Corporation silver mines.  With his fortune secured, Armstrong had turned to one of his great passions: horse racing.  He built a grand three story round barn, complete with an indoor quarter mile training track, outside of Twin Bridges.  He also bought a bred mare, Interpose, and brought her to Montana.  While at a meeting in Spokane, Washington he received word that the mare had given birth.  In celebration he named the foal Spokane.  Spokane had a distinguished record as a two year old, and was favored to place at the 1889 Kentucky Derby, but the field was too strong for anyone to think he would win.

Spokane and Proctor Knott finished neck-and-neck, so close that no one in the stands could tell who won.  A few moments later, the crowd erupted as Spokane's number came up.  Spokane, the little horse from Montana, had won the Kentucky Derby.  He finished the mile and a half track in 2 minutes, 31.5 seconds, setting the Derby record.  In 1896, the Kentucky Derby was shortened to one and one quarter miles, meaning that Spokane's record will never be beaten.  If there's any doubts as to who was the superior horse, Spokane went on to beat Proctor Knott in two more prestigious races.

The distinctive red barn where Spokane was born and trained still sits north of Twin Bridges.

Tags:  history, sports, animal, Twin Bridges




Memorial Day Links
In my experience, the best way to predict Montana weather is to look at the calendar. Memorial Day and state track meets both mean rain. I hope that next week is absolutely beautiful, but if the weather forces you indoors, feel free to follow these links. Most of these sites don't have much to do with SouthWest Montana, but they inspire me to want to travel and explore, so I thought I'd share them with you.

The Central Montana blog is one of my favorites, it always makes me want to head over there.

Glacier Country's blog is also always inspiring.  Does anybody know if Montana's other tourist regions have blogs?

Ellen Baumler's blog "Montana Moments"(and her books by the same name) captures some of the most interesting little tidbits of Montana lore and presents them in short easily digestible stories.

I recently discovered The Last Best News, which covers news from Montana east of Billings, a bit (i.e. massive, vast portion) of Montana that I don't think gets as much recognition as it deserves.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Watch it, and realize how much you want to see the world.  Then (because this is a SouthWest Montana Blog) start your adventures in Montana.

One of my favorite travel blogs, The Everywhereist has nothing to do with SouthWest Montana, but everything to do with being inspired to explore the world.

Another recent find, Proof features the experiences and pictures of National Geographic's best photographers.

This video from National Geographic has nothing to do with Montana, or spring, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia, and starting at 0:54 includes one of my favorite interviews of all time.

Paul Salopek is spending the next 7 years walking around the world. His blogs are always remarkable. Actually you can't go wrong with anything from National Geographic (I might be a little obsessed).




A River Runs through It: Follow Norman Maclean through Southwest Montana.

Fly Fishing in Southwest Montana

Southwest Montana's creeks and streams open for general fishing this Saturday, May 17th. So it only makes sense that I would write another post about the greatest of fishing books: A River Runs through It. Whenever I read A River Runs through It, I get the urge to scurry into the woods and maybe try my hand at fly-fishing. Unfortunately, my outdoorsmanship evokes more Patrick MacManus (who once said his casting technique has "the exact same motions as those of an old lady fighting off a bee with a broom handle") than Maclean. I much prefer spending my time tramping through the willows, falling into creeks and eating sandwiches to perfecting a cast that achieves the perfect unity of theology and art, but that's just me.

If you love fishing (even if you're terrible) and love A River Runs through It, then you'll love this list A River Runs through It's Southwest Montana places:

Wolf Creek-In 1937, when the story takes place, Norman lives in Wolf Creek, near his wife's family. The little town is an extremely popular basecamp for people hoping to fish the Missouri. Seven miles north, the fishing mecca of Craig celebrates the opening of fishing season with the annual Craig Caddis Festival.

Helena-Norman's brother Paul works a news report in Helena. He spends most of his time at the bar of the Montana Cub, the oldest still operating private club west of the Mississippi.

Elkhorn River-Norman describes at length a day of fishing on the Elkhorn River with his brother and brother-in-law. To be honest, I don't know what he's referring to. I think he might be talking about Elkhorn Creek (which flows into Willow Creek, and from there the Missouri) just north of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, but I could be mistaken. Any thoughts?

Roger's Pass-On their way to fish the Blackfoot, Norman and Paul cross the Continental Divide at Roger's Pass, famous for having the coldest temperature on record (-70 F) in the continental U.S. On their way down, they would have passed through Lincoln. Norman also writes of Paul taking the "Nevada Creek Road" which is now MT 141.

The Big Blackfoot-the titular "River", the Blackfoot flows from its headwaters near Roger's Pass to Bonner, where it joins the Clark Fork. The Blackfoot is one of Montana's most famous blue ribbon trout streams.

The Montana Club, circa 1915. Courtesy:

A barn near MT 141

The Blackfoot River, near Ovando


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