Montana – Big Sky Country and Glacier National Park (Pt1)

Seeley Lake

Seeley Lake

This post is quite late, as work has been very busy since I got back. But better late than never

Montana. Just the name brings up quintessential mages of the American NorthWest. Wide open prairies, Densely wooded snow covered mountains. Deep valleys with rushing clear cold streams.

Montana has to be one of my all time favorite places in the world. I’ve been fortunate visit the region numerous times and we always see something different. It is one of the larger states in the US, as well as being one of the least populated. The scenery varies dramatically from wide open plains in the east to the Rocky mountains and continental divide in the west.

The first time we went there was for our wedding, when we stayed at Yellowstone National Park (most of which is actually in Wyoming). It was to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Six months later, Diane took a job with a company whose North American head office is headquartered in Bozeman, MT, which is in the southwestern part of the state about an hour north of Yellowstone. As a result, Diane visits head office several times a year. Sometimes, she gets delayed in returning and I’ve been able to join her out there for a weekend (gotta love frequent flyer points!). As a result, we know Yellowstone well.

This year, for our summer break, (in September) we wanted to do something different. This time we wanted to go to Glacier National Park, which is located in the northern part of the state, abutting the Canadian Border. As Diane had some business at HQ, we flew into Bozeman on the Thursday afternoon, rented a car and stopped by the office. One of the things about a small company in the middle of nowhere is that coworkers lend you things, like a cooler, bear spray (pepper spray used as a defense against marauding bears – I’m serious here), and lots of advice on where to visit whilst at the park. We were self-catering much of the trip, so a quick trip to the supermarket was in order for supplies, which went in the cooler,along  with ice. We had a quiet dinner in town and then slept for the night before leaving for the north the following day.

Bozeman to Glacier is about 400+ miles. You are going from the south west to the Northwest of the state. Fridays schedule called for us to travel partway to Glacier and stop overnight at a small place called Seeley Lake, where we stayed in a cabin in the woods by the lake shore. During this part of the trip, we traveled west from Bozeman along the Madison River and through the prairies, before turning north towards Helena (State capital), crossing the continental Divide at Mullens Pass and up to Seeley. Along the way, we passed through small towns and stopped where things looked interesting. I also spotted two series Land Rovers (one an S2a and one an S3) in the front of someones house in Helena. Unfortunately, I was driving so couldn’t get a picture, but as there was also had a Range Rover classic present, I would say the owner was a Land Rover Enthusiast. Some of the small towns looked deserted, whilst others were thriving. One of the big shocks for many people exposed the northwest for the first time is how big and empty the landscape is in parts. You can literally drive for miles without seeing a house, a car or another human. Some may find it threatening, though I love it.

Passing through the town of Three forks, a very quiet sort of town, we stopped at a traditional saddlery, where they make saddles by hand in the traditional manner. The place had this gorgeous smell of leather and glue, and we were given the run of the place and encouraged to visit the back workshops to see how they were made. Many of the tools, such as the sewing machines, were obviously old and well used, but still doing the job for which they were designed. We could have done some serious financial damage in that place. One thing that occurred to me was that the smell of glue was so strong, I’m sure everyone would have been high after a day working there……

Anyhow, after arriving at Seeley, we went for a walk and had dinner in town where we were able to observe beavers swimming in the river out back. Then back to the cabin and to bed with the gentle lapping of the water on the shore. The only disturbance was about 2 am, when I had to remove a mouse that had gotten trapped in the trash can. It didn’t appreciate being ejected into the cold night, but it was better than ending up in  trap!

The Open Prarie

The Open Prairie

Driving along the Madison River valley

Driving along the Madison River valley

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The saddle manufacturing work shop – Three Forks Saddlery

Diane sitting on the dock by Seeley Lake in the evening sun

Diane sitting on the dock by Seeley Lake in the evening sun

Our Cabin for the night - not much to look out on the outside, but spacious and comfy on the inside

Our Cabin for the night – not much to look out on the outside, but spacious and comfy on the inside

Interior View of the cabin - the living area

Interior View of the cabin – the living area

Interior view of the cabin - the sleeping area

Interior view of the cabin – the sleeping area

View of the lake from the cabin in the early morning sun

View of the lake from the cabin in the early morning sun

BNSF and Montana Rail Link Trains pass south of Helena, MT

BNSF and Montana Rail Link Trains pass south of Helena, MT

Summer Trips Pt 1

Summer is a busy time for me at work. A lot of students are trying to finish up their research and graduate before the new academic year starts, so after final exams are done in May, faculty are back in the labs and cracking the whips on their students to get them finished up. As a result, it gets very busy during the summer months and so we normally don’t get any form of break until September. Actually, this often turns out to be an advantage, as the weather is often good, the kids are back in school (so it is less busy) and the prices go down!

This year, we took about 2 weeks, and were on the road for much of it. For the first part, we drove up to Canada to visit family and friends. As you may know from reading these pages, I was actually born in Canada whilst my (British) parents were living and working there. This means that I am in the fortunate position of being both a Canadian Citizen and a British one. Generally, although I grew up and lived in the UK for over 25 years, now that I live in North America, I generally use my Canadian identity as that is what my US Permanent Residence card (aka Green Card) identifies me as. However, having dual UK / Canadian citizenship is often quite useful, particularly when traveling between North America and Europe – I just use the passport that gets me through the entry queues the fastest. However, it can also cause some complications, especially when I have to go on to an army base for work here in the US. Turning up at the gate with a Canadian passport, a US registered car and a British accent can cause a great deal of confusion to the guys on the gate, who are usually rent-a-cops and not official army, and are rarely the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Anyhow,as a result of being born in Canada, I still have close family and friends there,  and we usually travel up to see them several times a year. They reside in Laurentian mountains area, a rural part of Quebec about 100 miles north of Montreal. This is an area of farming and logging, but also increasingly holiday cottages. 25 kilometers away is Mt Tremblant, the biggest ski resort on the east coast if the fancy takes you. Personally, the thought of strapping 2 planks to my feet and hurtling down a mountain does not appeal that much, but there are over activities such as cycling and hiking, as well as lounging by (and in) various lakes. Time seems to slow when there and life takes on a much more relaxed pace, making it a great getaway from our usual frantic pace of life.

Baltimore to Weir is a distance of just over 600 miles. We normally leave on a Thursday night after work and drive up through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and into upstate New York, before staying the night at a motel, usually around Syracuse or Binghamton. We then push on the following morning, crossing the border and continuing up through Ontario and into Quebec, usually arriving at destination late afternoon or early evening on Friday.

Due to a variety of circumstances, we hadn’t been up since the New year holiday, and so as the summer wound down, I was definitely feeling that it was time to go. After a quiet Friday evening and an early night, Saturday was spent walking in Parc National Mt Tremblant. This is a vast provincial park full of canoeing, cycling and hiking trails. It’s up behind the ski resort and totally different – very wild and abundant with with rivers, lakes and wildlife. We took a relatively short hike (distance wise) of about 2 km each way, but in that 2 km, you climbed nearly 600 feet. It didn’t help that the day was very hot and humid (yes, it does get hot in Canada!) However, the view from the top over Lake Munro is pretty spectacular.

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View over Lake Munro

View over Lake Munro

We took some bread, cheese and meats with us and made a simple, but good, lunch just overlooking the view. Since it was so high and the climb so steep, it wasn’t crowded, which added to the enjoyment. The way down was a LOT easier and less energetic, but I stopped to photograph a tree which had grown around and over a boulder, as I thought it looked pretty interesting. Diane found a stream to dip her toes in to cool off for a while.

Tree growing around and over a boulder

Tree growing around and over a boulder

Diane in the stream

Diane in the stream

Getting back to the car after several hours, we stopped by the new visitors center to see the new exhibits, then headed for home, as we were due for dinner with some family and friends. This turned out to be a pleasant relaxing evening sitting by the lake watching the sun go down. The deer came out and nosed around, pretty unconcerned about out presence. Usually, we all bring a dish and so it was this time. A good time was had by all.

The following day we went to visit Parc Omega. This is a safari park near Montibello on the Ottawa river, full of north American wildlife and gives a good opportunity to see animals up close. I’ve been very fortunate to see wildlife living freely in various parts of North America and will write about this in a future post. However, as a day out, Parc Omega is well worth it and lets people see a good range of wildlife close up who may not have the opportunity to travel out to the wilderness. The Park is well laid out and the animals within it roam freely without constraint or interference. Despite living in the Park, they are wild and need to be treated as such. A few concessions have had to be made, with predators such as bears, wolves and coyotes have had to be separated from the other animals (or maybe some would start dissapearing….), but otherwise the animals live freely on several hundred acres. So here are a few pictures for your enjoyment.

Bull Elk

Bull Elk Through car windscreen

Bull elk alongside the car

Bull elk alongside the car – look at the antlers on him

Wild boar and piglets

Wild boar and piglets

Bison

Bison

An idea of how big this Bull Bison really was

An idea of how big this Bull Bison really was

Arctic Wolf

Arctic Wolf

Another bull elk in a stand off with the car ahead of us

Another Bull Elk in a stand off with the car ahead of us – gives you a good idea of his size.

Whilst the Doe Elk hope for a handout

Whilst another hopes for a handout

Wild boar alongside road

Wild boar alongside road

There were a whole host of other animals such as coyotes, black wolves, moose, musk ox, but the photo’s weren’t great.

All in all, we spent most of the day there and got to hike some trails to the old farm. These trails were off limits to the animals, and so it was safe to walk them. The only problem with a place such as this is you do see some humans at their most idiotic. Getting out of a car with a small child (despite notices not to do so) to pet the elk or progedhorn deer is just plain stupid. Still, I guess the gene pool could do with a little bleach!.

On the way back, we stopped at a fantastic Creperie and had savory crepes for supper – a real Quebecois dish.

Monday was spent as a quiet day – doing some reading and a little work (despite it officially being a holiday). It was incredibly hot and humid – in the upper eighties, and unfortunately all the bugs came out, so we retreated indoors. However, a nice day of R&R leaving us much refreshed until a storm blew up and knocked out the power for a few hours. Such things happen in that region and you just live with it!

Tuesday came and it was time to drive home. We left early morning and made the whole trip in one day, as we usually do on the way back. 600 miles in 11 hours is a lot of miles and we normally swap out drivers every 2 hours or so to keep the pace up. I have done it on my own and it is not a whole lot of fun (especially in a winter snow storm), but do-able. It is at those times you appreciate automatic transmission and the interstate system! However, the drive is a lot more pleasurable with Diane as a companion and we discussed lots of things and generally set the world to rights on the journey. One high point was seeing a a bear run across the road in front of us, but it was too fast to get a picture. Arrival back at home was about 11 pm, not too late, and we were mobbed by the cats before falling into bed for a good nights sleep after 12 hours on the road.

To follow – Part 2 – Glacier National Park and Montana.

A Good Day and an Unusual Use for a Land Rover

It was always going to be a long day……

As you may know, Diane and I are learning how to work with horses. We take lessons and volunteer at Graham Equestrian Ctr (GEC), a non-profit Facility dedicated to teaching people about horses. The facility is located in part of the Maryland State Park, on the North East side of Baltimore and has a diverse mix of people of all ages, abilities and disciplines. Being a non-profit (i.e. a charity), GEC tends to rely a lot on volunteers and so many of us get involved in the running of the place and its activities. This can involve anything from the usual mucking out and feeding of the horses, to repairing fences, writing policy documents, fund-raising, awareness, etc. Most of us have many different roles!

Much of what we do involves outreach activities. This can take many forms, but all have the common theme of making horse riding and the ability to work with horses available to anyone and everyone, not just the privileged or the uber-rich. One of the things we do is to give under-privileged children the chance to get up close and personal with horses by participating in working sessions with them. Normally these sessions are lead by Jim McDonald, one of the lead instructors, but this past Saturday, Jim was unavailable first thing so I drew the assignment.

So it was, I headed out to the barn about 7 am. Since my regular car was in for repairs to a slow leak in one of the tires and Diane wasn’t feeling great and decided to sleep in, I took Libby instead. As a result, I probably woke all the neighbors since Libby isn’t exactly quiet or subtle, especially at 7am!. Normally, if I take Libby to the barn, I go via the slower back-roads rather than the beltway, due to Libby being rather asthmatic and there being some pretty steep hills on the route. But at 7am on a Saturday, the roads were clear and we blasted chugged round the beltway with no risk of causing traffic delays.

The kids experience session went well and I think that they all had a good time. Unfortunately, I have no photo’s as I was talking for most of it! We generally start things off by explaining how a horse thinks and behaves, explain how to be around horses safely (“Quiet, Calm and put your cell phone away!”), and then get the participants to come in to the ring and clean up and groom one of the horses under supervision. Generally, we use our Canyon for this, since I know that he is used to it, likes children and is pretty calm. After the kids have finished grooming, we then we explain about saddles, bridles and bits and how to communicate with the horse. I usually get one of the kids to try and pick up both an English saddle and a Western saddle to show them the big difference in weight. This often involves questions as to “why are they are so different?”, why the western saddle is so much heavier and what they are used for. (A Western saddle is a working saddle for roping animals and needs to be much stronger to take the forces exerted on it). Finally, we spring the surprise on them – we put the saddle and bridle on and they get a Pony Ride! Some of these kids are from Inner City Baltimore and have never seen a large animal, much less a horse, so to actually ride a horse is a new and exciting experience for them. Often at the end, we get the request “Can I have another go?” All in all, whilst it’s very tiring leading the session (making sure everyone is safe and interested), we hope that it is an experience that they will take away with them.

Canyon earlier in the year having been playing in the snow

Canyon earlier in the year having been playing in the snow

Canyon and I took a bit of a break after this. By now it was 10:30 and we’d been going since before 8am, so we were both pretty tired and a little dried out. We were supposed to participate in a clinic with Jim to work on some issues. However, we both needed a break and whilst I lounged under a tree listening into the clinic instruction, Canyon had a drink and mowed the lawn (“Grass! My favorite food!”).

Canyon listening to Jim McDonald teach

Canyon listening to Jim McDonald teach

Canyon explaining something with Jim to Clinic Participants. It was hot so we are all standing under the tree for a reason!

Canyon explaining something with Jim to Clinic Participants. It was hot so we are all standing under the tree for a reason!

After a quick break for lunch (a doughnut), we then started work on the afternoons session, which was where the Land Rover came in.

GEC is the home base for the State Park Mounted Patrol. These are Rangers on horseback that patrol the various areas of the State Park, assisting and aiding visitors, keeping an eye on things (no bootlegging allowed!) and helping prevent problems. Along with mountain bikes (there is also a State Park Bike Patrol), horses can get into places in the back-country that motorized vehicles cannot and so provide a valuable tool for patrolling the park. Most mounted rangers are volunteers, rather like PCSO’s in the UK. They have much of the authority of regular rangers, but are not paid. New Rangers and their horses have to go through several training sessions and an assessment to demonstrate that they are proficient on horseback, and that their horses have the correct temperament for the job. Today was final assessment day and involved dealing with various distractions. To do this, we had set up an obstacle course consisting of various things such as flags, flares, floating balloons, a flapping tarp, a bridge, a moving bike, a pushchair (actually we used a wheel barrow as we didn’t have a pushchair!), mechanized machinery (the tractor got used for that one), a fallen log blocking the path and a car. Indeed the car had to fulfill two roles. In one part of the test, we had to mimic being stopped by the ranger and handing over our drivers license. In the second part, the vehicle had to mimic a police car with sirens and lights. Originally, the intention was to use Diane’s Prius (by now Diane had somewhat recovered and was also over at the barn), but the consensus was that it wasn’t imposing enough. Lets face it, whilst I love our Prius, it’s not very imposing!. So Libby got pressed into service. Which was how I found myself sitting in Libby handing over my drivers license to each ranger in turn as they did the course. Of course, Libby is RHD, so after confusing the first participant as they went through, who approached on the passenger side (this IS North America), I moved over to the passenger side for the rest of the exercise. None of the horses seemed bothered by the land Rover, despite having the diesel engine on high tick-over.

“What’s going on here then?

Peter McConaughy and Connor navigating the flares.

Peter McConaughy and Connor negotiate the flares.

Wendy and Dan (with Blondie) naviate the flares

Wendy and Dan (with Blondie) navigate the flares

Negotiating a fallen

Negotiating a fallen “log”

“Sir, can I see your license please?”

Connor isn't bothered by the tractor

Connor isn’t bothered by the tractor

The final part of the test involved the horses encountering a police car. For this, I was given a siren and a light bar and told to use them. How cool was that? It’s a long time since a Series Landy has acted as a police vehicle. (When I lived in Hong Kong back in the ‘80’s, all the police cars were S3 LWB station wagons painted dark blue). Of course, as with everything Land Rover, nothing is as easy as expected. The light bar was designed to be held to the car by magnets, which of just doesn’t work with an aluminium body. Still, we weren’t going anywhere so it just sat on the top. Making it work was harder, as it had a standard cigarette lighter connector, something Libby does not have. Still, I was able to jury rig something up from the 12 V connections on the dash. The test involved having the rangers circle the vehicle whilst blasting the siren, the horn and with the lights flashing!

Land Rover with lightbar and siren

Land Rover with light-bar and siren

Land Rover Carosel!

Land Rover Carousel!

Great fun! Fortunately, none of the horses spooked or were upset and all passed the test. However, as I sat their being circled by the horses, the thought went through my head was that this was a bit like being on a carousel! All it needed was fairground music!

So Libby got to be intimidating for once, all in a good cause. All participants passed and are now qualified Rangers. They will continue their training and have periodic refresher courses and assessments, which will be conducted at GEC, so I fully expect to do this again! Libby got to be useful and I had a productive, if long, day. What more does anyone really need?

Diane borrowed Blondie for a few minutes after the assessment.

Diane borrowed Blondie for a few minutes after the assessment.

Libby meets the original eco-friendly 1hp off-road SUV!

Libby meets the original eco-friendly 1hp off-road SUV!