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Texas brothers building fences in Montana

PUBLIC LANDS — They've captured some spectacular hunting country near the Snowy Mountains. They arrive in their personal jets. They're used to getting what they want.  They're not a great fit in Montana, but what the heck when you have that much money to spend.

Texas brothers expand their Montana land holdings
Farris and Dan Wilks, who now own 341,845 acres in Montana, primarily in the area of the state where Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley counties join, have moved up to 22nd in the nation for private land ownership, and after the Texas brothers' proposal for a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management near Lewistown was rejected, they proceeded to build a fence around the BLM's Durfee Hills, and the BLM plans to survey the location of the fence to ensure it's on the property boundary.

Montana seeks confidentiality for hunters, trappers

HUNTING —  Montana wildlife officials are proposing to keep confidential the names of hunters and trappers who kill any wildlife in the state.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Tuesday the proposal is in response to complaints that information obtained under Montana’s right-to-know laws is being used to harass and threaten some hunters and trappers.

He was unable to provide specific examples or say how many complaints the agency received.

An existing state law already bars FWP from disclosing identifying information about hunters who kill bears, mountain lions or wolves.

The proposal would expand that confidentiality to trappers and include all game animals or furbearing species.

The agency is requesting the Environmental Quality Council introduce a bill in the 2015 legislative session.

Managing federal lands would cost Montana dearly

PUBLIC LANDS — Montana Republican lawmakers looking for votes are frittering away time and money following Idaho's lead in trying to lead the state into a takeover of federal public lands, such as national forests, Bureau of Land Management areas and national wildlife refuges.

The arguments against this crap include the fact that the states don't have the money to do it, thus they'd have to sell off the lands or turn them over to private interests. 

That's not in the public interest.

Cost of Montana's management of federal lands estimated at $500 million
Should Montana assume responsibility for the estimated 25 million acres of federal lands that lie within its borders, and while state lands managers are working on what they believe such a transfer of control would cost, the Billings Gazette takes a stab at the computation and comes up with half a billion dollars. This is just one installment in a three-day series by Montana newspapers on the state's proposal to assume control of federal lands.

Also see:

Recreating on the national forest

Ranchers cautions about state takeover of federal land

Recreationists conflicted about federal land transfer

Author: Montanans value outdoor amenities

Editorial: Let's stick together to protect Montana's best wildlands

Newcomer faces uphill campaign

For Montana Democratic state Rep. Amanda Curtis, victory this November in her state’s U.S. Senate race will be a difficult task.

The first-term state lawmaker from the mountain town of Butte was selected Saturday by state Democrats as the party’s nominee in a special convention hastily assembled after U.S. Sen. John Walsh bowed out of the race this month in the wake of plagiarism allegations.

With little money or statewide name recognition, Curtis is thought to have an uphill climb to beat GOP nominee Rep. Steve Daines in a midterm election that is less than three months away.


Montana surplus big-game tags on sale

HUNTING — The wait is over for nonresidents still hoping to purchase a license to hunt deer and elk in Montana.

A number of first-come first-served surplus licenses, good for antlered deer and elk in most hunting districts, can be purchased online or over-the-counter at any Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office.

Nonresident surplus hunting licenses available include:

  • Montana’s big game combination license for $971,
  • Elk combination license for $821,
  • Deer combo for $575.

Montana’s nonresident combination hunting licenses allow one to hunt for deer and/or elk and include season conservation, fishing, and upland game bird licenses; and the hunting-access enhancement fee.

See Montana's  "2014 Nonresident Deer & Elk Combo Hunting Licenses."

Montana's big game archery season runs Sept. 6 – Oct. 19; and the general rifle big game seasons run Oct. 25 – Nov. 30, for a combined 11 weeks.

Deer and elk are found throughout most of Montana, where hunters enjoy nearly 35 million acres of National Forest and other public land, as well as about 8 million acres of land made available through the Block Management Program.

Montana Supreme Court upholds public access to waterways

PUBLIC ACCESS — A landowner’s claims that he can keep the public out of a portion of the Ruby River don’t hold water, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in a decision upholding Montana’s stream-access laws, the Associated Press reports.

The 5-2 decision favored the group Public Lands Access Association Inc. in its legal dispute with James Cox Kennedy, who owns about 10 miles along the river in Madison County.

The group said Kennedy built fences along county roads and bridges next to his land that prevented the public from using rights of way to reach the Ruby River.

Kennedy argued that the state’s 1985 Stream Access Law allowing access to streams within the high-water mark and a 2009 law allowing access from bridges are an “unconstitutional taking of his vested property rights.”

Read on for more of the story from the Associated Press.

Montana ski resorts smothered in powder

WINTER SPORTS — While much of the West suffers for lack of snow, Montana is flush with powder.

An AP news story today notes that the state has an above-normal snowpack already this year — good news for river runners planning their spring.

But for now, it's the industry adding a big exclamation mark to the mountain snow conditions with a media release, including the powder-hound photos above, all snapped in the past 10 days.

"Big Sky Country is enjoying some of the best ski conditions in the lower 48!," Montana Tourism points out. 

"The rest of MT's 15 ski areas have enjoyed consistent storm cycles since October. With more pow on the way — we're in a meteorological heaven," said Molly Ambrogi-Yanson, Tourism spokeswoman.

Montana mule deer declining; does to be protected

HUNTING — In what’s being called a “bold” move, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission gave initial approval Thursday to convert all but a few mule deer tags to antlered only, which would prohibit taking does in light of what appears to be a rapidly dwindling population, according to the Helena Independent Record.

In addition, the commission is proposing to eliminate almost all of the “B” licenses for mule deer statewide and for white-tailed deer in most of regions 4, 5 and 6; these licenses allow people to harvest more than one deer of the same species. About 30,000 B licenses were issued last year at a cost of $10 for residents and $75 for nonresidents.

The moves are supported by a wide range of hunting organizations, whose representatives noted that their members are seeing anywhere from a 60 to 90 percent drop in the number of deer on the landscape. It’s something commission members said they’ve also noticed.

Read on for more details.


Big Sky bigger than ever as three ski resorts merge

WINTER SPORTS — The  expansion of Big Sky Resort in Montana is BIG news in every way.

The resort's owners purchased neighboring resorts, Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks in August, and debuted the transformed mega resort — now the largest in the country — during the Thanksgiving holiday.

"The acquisitions make Big Sky the big boy on the U.S. alpine skiing and snowboarding scene," says Brett  French of the Billings Gazette. "The combination means more than 30 lifts, 4,350 vertical feet of drop and 5,750 total acres for riders to roam. In comparison, the other big dog — the tony Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado — has about 5,300 acres and 3,450 vertical feet."

The new Big Sky is treating skiers to the longest vertical run in the lower 48 states.

Read on for details from the Gazette story:

Roadkill: it’s what’s for dinner in Montana

Updated 11-26-13 at 9 a.m. with correction from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

WILDLIFE — Just in time for Thanksgiving! Montana's online permitting system to legally take possession of road-killed big game goes operational today.

A new state law allows people to salvage deer, elk, antelope and moose killed on roadsides.

According to reporter Rob Chaney of the Missoulian, anyone wanting to claim one of those game animals they find dead can fill out the online permit within 24 hours. State law enforcement officers will also have permits available if called to the site of an animal-vehicle collision. The permits are free.

The move could offer a lot of extra protein to Montana dinner tables albeit at the expense of beetles, ravens, eagles, coyotes and other critters in nature's clean-up crew.  The Missoulian reports:

  • In 2012, Montana motorists hit 4,754 whitetail deer, 1,977 mule deer, 220 elk, 72 antelope and 28 moose, according to state Department of Transportation records.
  • They also hit 39 black bears, five grizzly bears, six mountain lions, 15 bighorn sheep, an uncertain number of wolves, and uncounted birds of prey and furbearing mammals. Those predators, birds and sheep are not allowed for roadkill possession.
  • At least 17 other U.S. states allow some level of roadkill possession and consumption.

But Washington is not one of them. It's illegal to pick up roadkill without a permit in Washington.

Read on for more details about the Montana law and salvage permit system:

Wolf hunter kills malamute as it romped with skier

PREDATORS — Am I shocked that a wolf hunter has shot someone's pet near a popular Montana-Idaho winter recreation area?  Yes.

Am I surprised?  No.

And the Missoula County sheriff’s office is just throwing up its hands, saying there's nothing it can do as it ends its investigation into the fatal shooting of a malamute on Lolo Pass by a hunter who apparently mistook it for a wolf.

According to the story moved by the Associated Press, Layne Spence of Missoula said he was skiing with his three dogs on a quiet logging road near Lee Creek Campground Sunday afternoon when he heard a shot and saw his dog, Little Dave, fall down with a leg injury.

About 15 to 20 yards away, Spence said he saw a man wearing camouflage and carrying a gun.

“I started screaming ‘Stop, stop,’ and the man kept shooting,” Spence, 48, said. The dog was struck in the neck and died.

“My dog is lying there, dead and I shouted ‘What are you doing?’ and the guy said, ‘I thought it was a wolf.’ "

  • Photo above shows a pair of malamutes for comparison.

Spence said the hunter asked if there was anything he could do, but Spence said he was so distraught he told the man to leave.

When Spence returned to town he filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office.

The Missoulian reports the agency passed the case over to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service.

“There is no criminal activity here, and this is out of our jurisdiction,” Sheriff’s spokeswoman Paige Pavalone said on Monday. “We don’t have any witnesses and we’re not investigating the situation any further.”

Spokespersons for both FWP and the Forest Service had said Monday morning that they believed the case would be a criminal matter.

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Spence said. “Not every big dog is a wolf. These are pets, they all had their collars and lights on, they were all with me the entire time.”

He wondered what would have happened if he had a child on a sled or if a bullet ricocheted.

“There are other people who use the woods besides hunters this time of year,” Spence said.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains the Lee Creek campground for non-motorized winter use. Lolo National Forest recreation manager Al Hilshey said the area is popular with cross-country skiers who like to bring their dogs.


  • Hunters must be extra alert when hunting in areas such as Lolo Pass, where other people routinely recreate, and they should be accountable for their actions.
  • Dog owners must be aware that hunters can legally target wolves in Montana and Idaho. Dogs — especially malamutes and other dogs that resemble wolves in any color ranging from white to black —  should be wearing large fluorescent orange collars and even vests when recreating in areas where hunters could be out.

Bozeman Company Recycles Beer Bottles into Picnic Tables and Benches for Yellowstone National Park Visitors

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park drink their beer, recycle the bottles and now can sit on benches made of 1,000 beer bottles and now in place at Canyon Village.

a Bozeman manufacturing business, crafted a dozen picnic tables and six benches that consist of 99.5 percent locally recycled materials. Today, the picnic tables will be unveiled at Canyon Village for Yellowstone’s 3 million annual visitors to enjoy. GeoMATRIX installed six benches at Canyon Village in July. 

The co-owners, Alexa Calio and Jon Cross, use locally collected ingredients for durable benches and tables that must withstand temperature and weather extremes in the world’s first national park.

“Canyon Village is undergoing a substantial redo thanks to Xanterra Parks & Resorts,” says Cross, “and ‘Green’ is a very important component to the project. Our picnic tables and benches are a fitting addition especially since all the recycled glass came from Yellowstone National Park.”


Edit: Crass Judge Should Resign

District Judge G. Todd Baugh has said he’s sorry about the crass comments he made regarding a 14-year-old rape victim who later committed suicide, but that’s hardly enough. In handing down the sentence for former Billings Senior High School teacher Stacey Rambold last month, Baugh said the teenage victim was “older than her chronological age” and had “as much control of the situation” as the teacher who raped her. He then proceeded to suspend all but 31 days of a 15-year sentence for the teacher. The outrage against Judge Baugh was immediate, and he was profuse in his apologies. In an Associated Press story, Baugh said he was “fumbling around” in court trying to explain his sentence and “made some really stupid remarks”/Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont) Editorial Board. More here.

Question: Should District Judge G. Todd Baugh resign?

Official ‘Likes’ Breast Page By Mistake

Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who is seen as a possible Senate candidate in 2014, reportedly suffered from a Facebook snafu after "liking" a page devoted to women's breasts. A Republican operative captured a screenshot of Walsh indicating that he gave a thumbs up, or "like," on the Facebook profile of "Breasts.Proof men can multitask2" on Aug. 19, according to BuzzFeed. The "like" was subsequently deleted from Walsh's Facebook page. BuzzFeed quotes a "senior Montana Democrat close to Walsh" as saying Walsh "liked" the cleavage page by mistake/Judy Kurtz, The Hill. More here.

Question: Are you careful re: what you "like" on your Facebook page?

Re-Sentencing Of Rapist Blocked

Montana’s Supreme Court on Friday blocked a judge from re-sentencing a former teacher who got just 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student, a sentence that was widely criticized after the judge said the victim was “older than her chronological age.” Justices said Judge G. Todd Baugh (shown in AP photo) lacks authority to reconsider the sentence he gave former Billings teacher Stacey Rambold, 54. An appeal of the case already was pending, but Baugh had been seeking to possibly undo the sentence that was panned after his remarks. Baugh also commented that victim Cherice Moralez was “as much in control of the situation as was the defendant.” The girl committed suicide in 2010 while Rambold’s trial was pending/Matthew Brown, AP. More here.


Montana Patriot Challenges Pastors

On his Ridenbaugh Press site, Randy Stapilus discusses Montana pastor Chuck Baldwin, an author, chaplain for the Oathkeepers group and a speaker at the recent survivalist confab at Farragut Park:

Baldwin’s speech, available on YouTube, exemplified some of this, but it also featured a challenge aimed more at other stripes of conservative than at liberals. “It’ll come as a shock to many of you,” he said, that “government is not God.” Lots and lots of people maintain that it is, he said. (Specifics, naturally, were lacking.) That point in place, he then took aim at fellow pastors, a whole lot of whom, he argued, may be well-meaning but tell their congregations that government should be strictly obeyed “no matter what.” (Again, no names were specified.) He told the audience they need to “find a patriot pastor who will tell you the truth.” He helpfully pointed to an online list. Complete post here.

Question: Should pastors of conservative churches in Kootenai County/North Idaho become politically involved?

Cutline Contest — 6.3.13

Time 2 vote …

A bull fighter braces himself after slipping while protecting a fallen rider during the Dusty Gliko Bull Riding Challenge in Belt, Mont., on Saturday evening. You write the cutline. (AP Photo/Great Falls Tribune, Rion Sanders)

TGIF Cutline Winner — KCres2: "After her divorce, Ms Klum has progressed from Seal with a kiss to Steel with a kiss." You can see TGIF photo and read all 5 cutline entries here.

Montana’s Porcupine Ambassador

Sasha the porcupine is shown at Montana Wild, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park's education and conservation center in Helena, Mont. WP is a firm advocate of not interfering with or humanizing wild animals, and they've rehabbed and released other porcupines. But Sasha's story is somewhat unique and she's become an ambassador animal for FWP, along with the raptors and other birds housed at the center. Story of Sasha: Montana's porcupine ambassador here. (AP Photo/The Independent Record, Dylan Brown)

Question: Have you or one of your pets ever gotten to close to a porcupine?

Judge To Retire After Racist Prez Joke

Montana’s chief federal judge will retire following an investigation into an email he forwarded that included a racist joke involving President Barack Obama. U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull had previously announced he would step down as chief circuit judge and take a reduced caseload, but he informed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he now intends to fully retire May 3. The appellate court posted a statement by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski on its website Tuesday announcing Cebull had submitted the retirement letter/Matt Volz, Associated Press. More here.


Coal train cars derail in Missoula

Reminding us of the risks with coal transports, on Monday at midnight in Missoula, three cars on a Montana Rail Link train derailed spilling eighty tons of its contents. 

This doesn't exactly inspire confidence when sixty coal trains could be travelling through Spokane a day.

Full story HERE.

March 15 is first Montana deadline for hunters

HUNTING — Sportmen hoping to hunt big-game in Montana need to start plannning, now.

Deadlines are coming up in March, May and June to apply for permits and special licenses, according to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks:

            March 15 — deadline to apply for 2013 buck deer and bull elk hunting permits.  Successful applicants will receive their permits in April.

            May 1 — deadline to apply for moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison licenses.

            June 1 — deadline to apply for antlerless Deer B, Elk B, and all antelope licenses. Cow elk hunting opportunities are available as "Elk B" licenses; and doe hunting opportunities are available as "Deer B" licenses.

Applications for the May 1 and June 1 deadlines will be available in mid-March.

Montana’s eight-page application packet contains all the information hunters need to apply for special big-game hunts.

Montana wolf seasons closing with higher harvest

PREDATORS — With Montana's wolf season coming to a close this evening, hunters and trappers have reported killing 223 wolves during the state’s third season and the first that allowed trapping.

That's an increase of 53 over last season's total.

The general rifle wolf season began Oct. 20; trapping opened Dec. 15. Both seasons will be closed Friday.

With expanded hunting options and recently modified regulations, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has made up ground in its pursuit of reducing the wolf population.
Hunters shot 131 wolves and trappers caught 92, according to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks website this morning.
“Certainly it’s a step in the right direction,” said Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman in Helena.
IDAHO, which allows hunters to shoot up to five wolves and trap up to five wolves, is in the middle of its second annual hunting season. Hunters and trappers have taken a combined 245 wolves so far in the 2012-2013 seasons (169 by hunters, 76 by trappers). The current season closes March 31.

Montana law expands wolf hunting

PREDATORS — A wolf management bill that was fast-tacked through the Montana Legislature was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock said the law will allow hunters to purchase up to three wolf licenses and lowers the price of a nonresident wolf license from $350 to $50. He said the measure also will strengthen state wildlife officials’ efforts to manage Montana’s recovered and growing wolf population.

See the story in the Missoulian.

Montana ranchers bar hunting to protest public land buy

HUNTING — About 30 Montana farmers and rangers say they won't allow public  hunting on their land in protest of the state's purchase of a ranch along the Milk River.

Last month, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission OK’d the purchase of 2,992 acres of the Milk River Ranch from Aageson Grain and Cattle for $4.7 million. The agency says the land has great wildlife values, 10 miles of river shoreline, huge areas of intact native prairie and is an important wildlife corridor.

But the landowners have a lot of gripes, from the price paid to simple anger over the government owning land.

See the latest from the Great Falls Tribune.

Cougars may have bigger impact on elk than wolves

PREDATORS — While the war on wolves continues, mountain lions haven't been fasting.

Montana turns its focus to mountain lions in Bitterroot study

At midpoint of a three-year study of elk in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists were surprised to learn the role mountain lions have played in elk deaths, and they have begun a yearlong study of the big cats in the valley to learn more about that population. — Ravalli Republic

In some ways, now’s better than the good ol’ days for wildlife

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Of course there are ups and downs, but overall this isn't a bad time to be among the critters.

Montana wildlife numbers better now than 50 years ago

Most of Montana's suite of wildlife species are doing better than they were 50 years ago. The reasons for the resurgence are mixed, with federal protection of some species playing a part, protection of habitat another. — Billings Gazette

Travel: Feathering My Nest at Montana’s Vintage Whites Market

   I’ve followed Jana Roach’s Vintage Whites Market for several years and have written about her before, but I’d never been to one of her sales. There was always something on my calendar. So, when a planned trip to Whitefish and Kalispell, Montana coincided with the dates for her Christmas Market, I boarded the Eastbound Empire Builder at 12:45 am and dozed until we arrived in Whitefish just as the sun was coming up. I’d booked a room at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell (Red Lion Hotels is headquartered in Spokane so I think of it as a way to travel and still support a Spokane business) and the hotel shuttle was waiting for me at the Whitefish station.

   After checking in, I made a beeline for the Kalispell Fairgrounds and the Vintage Whites Christmas Market.

   I got there about an hour after the doors opened to early-sale ticket holders and the floor was crowded with shoppers. The  Christmas market is Roach's largest show and the 50-or-so dealers had filled their spaces with a variety of vintage items and I took my time at each display. I picked up a tall wood candlestick, a flat candle holder, a glass cloche, some old deer antlers, a few pieces of linen and a faded old wood sign with the word “Pie” painted on it.

   I finally got to meet Jana and we chatted a few minutes before I left. I dropped my treasures off at my hotel room and explored Kalispell on foot, doing some research and a little more shopping at some of the downtown stores. The next morning, after a big breakfast at the hotel, I had time for more Christmas shopping at the Kalispell Mall, which is adjacent to the Red Lion.

   When I was ready to go, the shuttle drove me back to the Whitefish Station. I was able to check my luggage early and spend the afternoon on Whitefish's wonderful Main Street before meeting a friend for dinner. The train had a weather delay so we were able to linger over our meal and catch up on one another’s lives before she dropped me back at the station.

   The next day, after unpacking, I pulled out the things I’d picked up at the Christmas Market. I put the candlestick on the mantel with the one I already had. I’d intended to put the glass cloche over a favorite bird's nest, something else I've written about before, to protect it and, although it hadn’t occurred to me when I bought it, I realized the flat candle holder was the perfect base, just the right size to hold the glass bell over the fragile nest.

   All in all, it was a great weekend. I got a train ride, a trip to Montana, a chance to do some treasure hunting and a chance to catch up with a friend. And just as important, I now have a safe place for the little bird’s nest that reminds me so much of my own little home.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Pronghorns give North America distinction

WILDLIFE — I go home to my hunting roots in Montana every year at this time, and the photo below (click continue reading) by Montana outdoor photographer Jaime Johnson illustrates one of the reasons why.

A photo I made from my annual Montana hunting trip, above, illustrates several more reasons.

Read on for a few biological pointers on why the pronghorn (also called antelope) is so special.

Travel: Canoeing Montana’s Missouri River

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    When I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet over the horizon and the weak light it cast was wrapped in the heavy mist rising from the Missouri River. I lay still, warm and bundled under a heavy layer of quilts, watching through the small window beside the bed as the day came into its own.  Soon I could see deer grazing in the rolling fields around the other cabins, all, like my own, early homestead shelters that had been moved to the Virgelle Mercantile and refurbished for guests.

    By the time I was up and dressed the coffee was ready in the kitchen of the old Mercantile building. I poured a cup and the steam rose from the mug in my hand as I walked back outdoors out to take photos.

    After a breakfast of whole-hog sausage and baked French toast, washed down by pots of hot coffee, in the company of others there for the guided fishing and canoeing trips offered by the Mercantile’s sister business, The Missouri River Canoe Company, we gathered our gear and took the short ride down to the canoe launch.Once our canoes were loaded we paddled away.

   This stretch of the Missouri River is shallow this time of year, no more than a couple of feet deep in some places. We made steady progress, paddling hard enough to get where we were going but stopping whenever something caught our attention. The beauty of September in Montana is that the summer travelers have gone back to work and school. We had the river to ourselves, but we were not alone. Deer splashed across inlets and an eagle sitting on the branch of a tall Cottonwood tree studied us as we passed. Farther along, a silent, watchful Coyote, camouflaged in the tall grass, turned his head to follow our progress down the river.

       Soon, warmed by the sun and the exercise, our jackets came off. There wasn’t a cloud in the wide blue dome of the sky and only an occasional gust of wind worked against us as we paddled.

    I listened as our guide, a genuine Montana woodsman who makes his living guiding, hunting and trapping along the river, talked about Lewis and Clark’s journey along the same route through what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It was, he pointed out, with the exception of the occasional barn or fenceline and the grey-green Russian Olive introduced by homesteaders as a way to shelter flimsy cabins from the relentless wind, essentially an unchanged landscape. Soon, at a bend in the river, the eerie Hoodoos and white sandstone cliffs so unique to that portion of the river, the aptly-named White Cliffs stretch, came into view.    One more thing checked off the list of places I need to see before I die.

    After a couple of hours we pulled our canoes onto a pebbled strip of beach and stopped for lunch, digging into the sandwiches and fruit like we were starving, as though we hadn’t eaten a massive breakfast that morning. As we ate, I thought about something one of the group had said the night before. He’d been telling a story and mentioned a particular day— a special day—as one of the thirty or so he actually remembered of that particular year. I’d never really thought about it before but he is right. Most of the 365 days of work and worry, scheduled appointments, hurried commutes and eat-at-your-desk lunches, blend into a blur. Not much stands out. But, once in a while, there are moments that stay with us forever, etched into memory. They are special enough to share.    

    We packed up the scraps left from our meal and pushed away from the shore, paddling on down the river. More white cliffs and narrow coulees. More photos. More memories.

    At the end of the trip, gathering our gear and hopping back into the van that would carry us and the canoes back to our cars at the Mercantile, I let what I’d seen and done replay in my mind.  From the moment I opened my eyes and let them rest on the fog-softened view, to the last spectacular mile of Missouri River wilderness before we pulled our canoes out of the water, the day was special. It was a day worth holding onto and, in that way, worth sharing.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Overnight idyll at Montana’s Virgelle Mercantile

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The two-story mercantile, a farmhouse, the old grain elevator, a bank building and a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across the grassland are the only visible reminders of the town of Virgelle, Montana. Settled in 1912 by homesteaders who rushed to claim their 300 acres in the harsh Montana landscape, by 1930 the boom was over and the little town was frozen in time

    After the last holdout left in the 1970s, the ghost town could have faded away but the property was purchased by a pharmacist who’d grown up nearby. He filled the mercantile space with an antiques business and turned the upstairs rooms into a Bed and Breakfast. One by one, original homestead cabins, rescued from the surrounding countryside, were brought in and refurbished. A vintage sheepherder’s wagon was added to the mix of restored accommodations.

    My room for the night was the 1914 Little Mosier homestead cabin. Big enough for a double bed, an oilcloth-covered table and two chairs, a big iron-and-nickel cook stove and a washstand with both a Coleman lantern and a battery lantern, the cabin faced the grassy slope rolling down toward the Missouri River. To my left, down the road a bit, I could see a working ranch. To my right, a bath house and the Mercantile building. A little further, more cabins and the rest of what remains of the original town.

    Dropping my bags in a chair, I opened the screen door and stepped back out to the porch and stood there a long time looking out, trying to imagine the scenes that had played out in the tiny cabin and others like it. I thought about what it must have been like to live there a century ago, a child on my hip, maybe another in a cradle by the stove. The family would have ached with cold in the harsh winters and been baked by the relentless summer sun. It’s easy to imagine early optimism giving way to fatigue and loneliness and perhaps, eventually, even despair. The reality of the hardscrabble life most early homesteaders faced would break most of us. Only the toughest made it.

    Grabbing my camera, chasing the golden light cast by the fading sun, I followed the path across the road and walked to where the old railroad sign still marked the town by the railroad tracks. A rabbit, startled by my footsteps, darted out and, deciding I was no threat,  skirted me, almost touching my boots, before continuing down what was obviously a trail, worn and defined by generations of other wildlife.

    As it always does, gazing out at the vast openness of the Montana sky and rolling grassland soothed the jangled tension inside me. Like many others, I am someone who needs quiet spaces but although I relish my solitude, I don’t need complete isolation to find it.  The little cluster of old buildings and cabins was perfect. There were a few others staying in the restored cabins and the sheepherder’s wagon surrounding the mercantile store, but voices were low and each of us seemed to be happy to be left alone with our thoughts.

    After a big meal served family style in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, in the company of other guests—there were only one or two others as it was late in the tourist season—I was ready to call it a day. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path back to my cabin. A bird, startled by my footsteps on the porch, returned the favor and startled me as it flew over my head and out into the night sky. Inside the cabin, the lantern painted the walls with shadows.

    I slipped between crisp cotton sheets, burrowing under the heavy hand-stitched quilts. The early September night was already cool, tinged with autumn, hinting at the winter that would come.

    As I lay alone in the dark, listening to the coyotes call down by the river and the rustling of nightbirds and small creatures outside, I closed my eyes. Content, warm, safe, and, for the first time in weeks free of the noise of a busy life, it felt possible to pick up the loose and broken threads of work and family and all the other nagging worries that fight for attention in my mind and knit myself back together. I closed my eyes and let the night sounds sing me to sleep.

More information about the Virgelle Mercantile

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com