John & Brenda's Excellent Tour travel blog

Our tour boat the "Pirogue"

Juvenile bald eagles driven from their nest by a forest fire

Rock formations in the Gates of the Mountains

Natural stone arch in the Gates of the Mountains

Site of the Mann Gulch Fire

Main Street Helena, Montana

August 4

Our stay in Helena was originally intended as a stopgap before our arrival in Whitefish so we really had nothing planned. However, after looking through the tourist guides for something to do, we found the Gates of the Mountain Boat Tour about 17 miles north off I-15. The Tour is on a dammed reservoir on the Missouri River through land designated as Gates of the Mountain National Recreation Area, which is part of the Helena National Forest.

As part of our Lewis and Clark theme this tied in, as Meriwether Lewis was the first recorded white man to see the area in 1805. The reservoir was closed to the usual recreational boating due to the raging forest fire nearby designated as the Meriwether Fire. Luckily the boat tour was still operating and we just made the noon sailing aboard the "Pirogue" (pronounced peer-oh), named after the type of craft manned by the French-Canadian boat crew with Lewis and Clark.

The tour started off slowly as our very informative guide Cliff putted along telling us of the eons of geology and the more recent history of man relative to the area. We were immediately enthralled as Cliff took us by amazing sandstone cliffs with almost hidden stone arches and tall pinnacles of rock topped with osprey nests. The active forest fires burning along the reservoir had burned out a bald eagle nest with 3 juvenile eagles being cast out prematurely. One of our cruise-bys took us near 2 of the eaglets sitting in a tree close to the water's edge.

We had heard of the horrendous forest fire of 1949 in Mann Gulch, which had killed 13 smoke jumpers when the wind changed in a box canyon. This innocent appearing gulch ran right down to the water and we were able to observe several memorials to the brave fire fighters. Cliff related the sequence of events of that tragedy and the subsequent changes to the protocols of fighting wildfires that were instituted. He had a personal stake in those learnings, as his son was also a smoke jumper.

It turned out to be a fabulous tour of 1-¾ hours for the $11 fee. We were so impressed by Cliff's knowledge and the importance of this wilderness area to Americans and our own perspective at their pride in their history. We returned to Helena to find some lunch and had a very pleasant repast at an Irish pub near Last Chance Gulch (actual name of Helena's main street). Our server, Lorell was very pleasant and entertaining and the food was excellent.

After a short walking tour of Last Chance Gulch, we returned to our hotel for a nap and a late snack dinner after our big lunch. Our repair request for the weed whacker air conditioner had either gone unanswered or the repairs were ineffective as we were entertained by the periodic arrhythmic cadence.

August 5

Awaking one more day to a smoky morning, Brenda had her morning workout while I enjoyed (once again!) the complimentary breakfast (with real eggs and sausages at this Day's Inn). We loaded up for our 400 km trip to Whitefish via Missoula. Passing over the Continental Divide 30 kms west of Helena, we dropped down to a beautiful but hazy valley along the Little Blackfoot River. This is where I remembered and Brenda learned that all water on west side of the Divide flows to the Pacific and on the east side, to the Atlantic (except the McKenzie, I think?).

As we got drove west, the smoke went from haze to very thick so that by the time we entered Missoula we could barely see 4 or 5 blocks ahead. The mountains had virtually disappeared, which was a disappointment because they are so beautiful and normally prominent through here. We headed north on State Highway 93 toward the Flathead Valley, Kalispell and Whitefish.

Our route took us to and along the west side of Flathead Lake, which at 44 kms long and 16 kms wide makes it the largest freshwater lake in the US west of the Divide. Again we were disappointed as the gorgeous scenery was all but hidden by smoke. Part of our reason for this route was that it was recommended by brother Wilf who had hoped to join us here along with his wife, Heather. Wilf was really disappointed we couldn't connect here due to their other commitments because he has really fallen in love with this gorgeous valley and wanted to share it with us.

We travelled through Kalispell and the final 20 kms north to Whitefish on Whitefish Lake. Whitefish is famous as a ski area for its Big Mountain Ski Resort (recently renamed as Whitefish Mountain). We found it hard to get a handle on the town on our arrival due to the heavy smoke in the air. We located our reserved condo and found it to be small but functional. Brenda was happy to shop for ingredients for home cooked meals and get back into a real kitchen.

Cooking (and the Food Network) are her passions and it really shows in her fabulous meals. She was worried that the Journal will reflect that our first meal was her famous pasta but it truly is my craving after weeks of "road" just let me say we had a great pasta dinner to start our Whitefish stay.

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