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.
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)
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?
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.
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)
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
, 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.
There are plenty of ways to spend a cold, windy January in SouthWest Montana. The region's breweries, distilleries and cafes are definitely an option. Ice fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, those too are options, but really kind of normal, don't you think? Why not try something different, something that makes even downhill skiing and snowmobiling seem tame? Why not strap yourself into a fiberglass shell supported by three narrow runners and let the wind hurtle you across the frozen surface of Canyon Ferry at speeds of between 30 to 70 plus miles an hour?
Canyon Ferry is a winter playground, and weekends find the area full of people ice skating, ice fishing, playing ice hockey and doing other things that start with the word "ice," so I can't say for sure that ice sailing is the most popular sport on the frozen lake, but it is probably the wildest. Ice boats-narrow fiberglass hulls on top of three runners and fixed to a large triangular sail-hurtle along canyon ferry from Christmas until March, maybe even longer if the lake's two feet of surface ice stays frozen. In the last 40 years or so, Canyon Ferry has become a destination for ice sailing. The lake is wide and long in an open valley, giving ice sailors plenty of room to maneuver and make the most of the steady wind that blows through the valley. The combination of generally dry conditions and frequent wind helps keep the lake's ice smooth and free of snow, perfect conditions for ice sailing.
One of the best ways to learn more about ice sailing on Canyon Ferry is take MT Highway 287 to the Silos boat launch, which is about 7 miles north of Townsend, on any weekend. There are almost always ice sailors out there. They seem to know all that there is to know about ice sailing at Canyon Ferry,
A Montana Hanukkah
The annual Hanukkah celebration in Montana's capitol building has been going on for five years now and gathers together members of Jewish communities from across the state, community members, the lieutenant governor, and rabbis for a celebration including the lighting of menorahs, prayers, blessings, speeches, the consumption of latkes, and the playing of the dreidel (which, incidentally, is not a word recognized by spell check). There are only a handful of Jewish congregations in the state, and a semi-reliable source (Wikipedia) put Montana's 2008 Jewish population at as low as 1,000. This wasn't always the case. At one time, other Montana cities, like Helena, boasted Jewish congregations. During the boom years, three different congregations called Butte home. Now, just one congregation, B'nai Israel, remains in Butte. With a building built in 1903, the congregation with some 30 members is the state's oldest. Congregations in other parts of the state are flourishing. Bozeman, for example, now has 3 congregations of its own. The capitol's annual Hanukkah celebrations starts at noon today in the rotunda, and everyone is invited.
Georgetown Lake looks deceptively remote. Over 6,000 feet above sea level and encircled by three jagged mountain ranges-the Anaconda Pintlers, the Flint Creek, and the Sapphires-Georgetown seems like a secluded mountain fastness. In reality the area teams with life. Vast wildernesses attracts backpackers and day hikers alike. Ghost towns hidden in the timbered ridges draw history buffs. Discovery Ski Area draws winter thrill-seekers. The lake, the lake entices boaters, campers, and, above all, fishermen who, even in the dead of winter, bundle onto the ice, lured by the fish that call the lake home.
One hundred years ago, cattle grazed on the creek bed now submerged beneath 16 feet of water. In the 1890s, Bi-Metallic of Philipsburg dammed the headwaters of Flint Creek, creating Georgetown Lake. From the dam, the water plummets straight down 700 feet, roils through the old power plant and flows peacefully into the Flint Creek Valley. The dam takes water from the very bottom of the lake, creating an unusual flushing effect. In essence, the lake has gotten cleaner, despite increased development. The lake supports populations of Kokanee salmon, and monster brook and rainbow trout. The relatively shallow and small Georgetown Lake has established itself as one of Montana's top ten fishing destinations, rivalling contenders like Canyon Ferry and Fort Peck.
Check out these awesome winter adventures you can have around Georgetown and the rest of Southwest Montana.
The Account of Canton
Many feet of water should cover St. Joseph's church. Built in 1875, on the banks of the Missouri River in the town of Canton, Montana, St. Joseph's is Montana's seventh oldest church, and was the first built by community members, rather than a religious order. The rich ranchland around Canton supported some of the oldest settlements in the area, and the Canton post office began operation in 1872. Three years later community members, many of whom hailed from Canton, New York, started construction on St. Joseph's. With its arching windows and fan light over the door, the white clapboard church references the Colonial Style common in the east but quite rare in Montana.
Canton lay far enough upstream from Canyon Ferry that construction of the first dam in 1898 didn't affect the town. However, the Bureau of Reclamation's much larger dam, which began construction in 1949, certainly did. Between 1949 and 1954, most of the buildings in Canton and along the Missouri between Townsend and Canyon Ferry were simply abandoned to the rising waters. Traces still remain on the bed of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Community members of Canton, however, couldn't bear to see their church witness the same fate and so campaigned to have the church moved out of the reach of the lake. St. Joseph's now rests on a knoll near the Canton cemetery, two miles from its original site. Today the building has become a community center on the little-traveled east side of Canyon Ferry. The church hosts free musical and historical performances during the summer months, and families gather in the church park and picnic area year-round.