Gates of the Mountains

Trip Start May 25, 2009
Trip End Jun 23, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Tuesday, June 9, 2009


This morning we were up early again to catch a scenic boat tour on Holter Lake, just a short drive from Helena.  The area is called the "Gates of the Mountains" because Lewis & Clark's party thought the big rocks jutting out into the river looked like they were opening and closing to let them into the mountainous canyon ahead.  Most landowners in the area have signed 'conservation easements' agreeing not to subdivide their properties or use the ranches for anything other than the farming they have been used for for hundreds of years, so the area is well protected now.

On the tour we saw pictographs from Native Americans which are estimated to be hundreds of years old, as well as some interesting rock formations and a nest of bald eagles!

I was especially interested that the tour also went past Mann Gulch, the site where 13 USFS smokejumpers were killed in a "perfect storm"-like series of events back in 1948.  It was the first time smokejumpers had been killed in the line of duty in the history of the Forest Service.  The story was detailed in Norman McLean’s book, “Young Men & Fire", which I had read in school many years ago.

That book stuck in my memory far better than the other useless classics we had been forced to sit through and I had always hoped to be able to visit Mann Gulch one day.  In retrospect, the tragedy bears sad resemblance to Mammoth Mountain’s 2006 ski patrol accident in which 3 young small-town men were killed also in the business of keeping everyone else safe.  It would have been nice to hike up the box canyon, but the boat did not let us out in the same area so the monument pictured is the one that they placed one canyon downriver at a nearby picnic spot.





I should also point out this Osprey nest on top of the rock!  Our guide says that these birds usually use the same nests over and over again for sometimes as many as 10 years.  The nests start out much smaller than the one shown, but over time they get dirtier and dirtier so the birds return each year armed with more sticks and feathers.

Then they simply put a fresh layer on top of the old ones and go about their business.  I was very excited to see this because I suspected that my black and white “mystery bird” from the Yellowstone entry might be an Osprey too.  (However on second look maybe not; if you look more carefully my bird did not have a white front so perhaps it was a juvenile bird or a young eagle after all??)


After the boat tour my cousin and her husband had to leave early enough to go back to their home in Billings, MT.  The rest of us had wanted to take a train ride through historic downtown Helena, but that attraction closed early so we drove and walked around instead.  “Last Chance Gulch” was once a large mining claim but is now a row of shops and professional offices right in the heart of the city.  We also went to Reeder’s Alley, the now-defunct fire lookout tower, and finally the hand-carved Great Northern Carousel.



The ice cream shop next door makes their own huckleberry ice cream but it must have been really good because by the time we arrived they had already run out!  Tomorrow we will resume our search because huckleberries are a local offering too uniquely Montanan to pass up.
Huckleberries (not pictured) look like small purple blueberries, but they are packed with more taste and they are much more tart.  My uncle told us that they all must be picked by hand and that the pickers must be wary of bears because the plants grow so high in the mountains and they have never really been able to domesticate them on commercial farms.  Any respectable souvenir shop here in Montana offers an array of huckleberry items, from lotion to taffy and jam.  My aunt and uncle have even served up huckleberry pancakes for breakfast one morning and huckleberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream one evening for dessert!


Actually, Jim has mentioned several times that the best food we have had the entire trip has all been here in Montana!  Everything is so fresh here, and very reasonably priced.  It also doesn’t hurt that my aunt and uncle are AWESOME cooks – Cheryl made turkey dinner and chili since we’ve been here and last night Dan gave us a bottle each of homemade cranberry and choke cherry wine.  Luckily Jim and I are driving instead of flying (like my sister and parents), so we get to take their bottles home for them too!  Sure hope we don't "forget" whose is who and drink them all....  ;)  We have explicit instructions to wait several months before opening them though to let the flavors age properly, so even we will have to try to behave!
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J Selhost on

I will visit the Gates of the Mts. this summer ... Lewis and Clark tour....
Thanks for posting these....I can't wait to see this area.

havervwilltravl on

You will love it! It's very beautiful, and I forget whether I said this in the blog or not, but I had a special interest in the area due to Norman McLean's book "Young Men & Fire", which I had read in school several (many, many, many!) years back. You might want to read it before you go if you have any interest. Makes the float trip a little more of a learning experience! Enjoy! :)

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