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Swans and Ducks back in Gibson Park Pond

Swan releaseToday was the day domestic waterfowl were released into Gibson Park Pond in Great Falls.

It's a big deal - and I get just as excited as some of the little kids!

Each fall the domestic waterfowl are rounded up by Great Falls Park & Recreation employees and taken to indoor quarters dubbed the Honker Hilton. Pretty nice digs for waterfowl!

The swans and ducks have their wings clipped so they don't migrate or fly long distances.

They are year round residents of Great Falls - outdoors at Gibson Park in the summer and indoors in a warm and cozy building during our cold winters.

I'm always pleased that Great Falls Park and Recreation staff schedule the roundups and releases when school is out. Probably the most excitement comes from the kids although you can see big smiles on adults too.

Gibson Park is located just off the downtown area of Great Falls. It was named after Paris Gibson, founder of Great Falls.

Swans with sprayGibson Park features a variety of playground equipment for different ages, a paved walking trail, stunning flower displays in summer, beautiful stained glass and an art installation made from recycled materials.

A cabin built by an early day resident named Vinegar Jones has been relocated to Gibson Park. The cabin is the oldest residence still standing in Great Falls.

During summer months the park is also a great location for weddings.

Back to the waterfowl.

All of the swans are new to the group this year. Gibson Park Pond now has a pair of black swans and a pair of mute swans. I had never seen black swans so this was a treat for me. All of the swans are yearlings so we hope they are with us for many years to come.

Looking for a relaxing location - head to Gibson Park and enjoy the surroundings!




Lambing Season - Hard Work for Ranchers

Fort Shaw scenicLast weekend I visited with a ranching family near Fort Shaw and they said they were getting ready to start lambing, probably this week. Right away I set up a time to visit and get some photos.   

We had periodic snow throughout the week but, for the most part, everything that fell in Great Falls melted. I kept thinking about how those little lambs would react to cooler weather though.

As I drove south of Fort Shaw I realized they had quite a bit more snow than Great Falls. That made the landscape really look pretty with the white ground and contrasting cattle against a mountain backdrop.

As soon as I got to the ranch I headed to the barn where the ewes and lambs were. Rancher (and lambing assistant extraordinaire) John told me the Lamb at Warnersewes usually go into the barn when they are ready to have their babies. After the lambs are born he puts the ewe and her baby (or babies…multiple births are pretty common in sheep) in 4 foot by 4 foot wooden pens called jugs. This keeps mom and baby close together, they are warm and it’s easy for the lamb to get milk.

The first lambs were born Monday and I believe they were doing their afternoon exercises – jumping in mid air, just for the sake of jumping, then running on their spindly long legs.

John has two kinds of sheep – targhee and textile. The targhee seemed softer and a lighter color, almost white. The textile lambs had very tightly curled fleece and looked more beige than the others.

These sheep are raised for meat consumption. They stay at the ranch until they reach about 80 Bottle feeding lambpounds, then they go to a feedlot to gain another 20 or 30 pounds. I was amazed at just how small the lambs were. One was a “bum” which means the mother didn’t claim it. John and his wife took it in their house the first night to keep it warm and bottle fed it. Gosh, I would get so attached to these cute little critters!

We visited about potential dangers for the lambs. The ewes are shorn before they have their lambs and they can get hypothermia when the temperatures drop. Wool is a natural insulator so after shearing, it probably feels pretty chilly. Of course, the lambs can get hypothermia too and they don’t have much fat on their bodies when they are born. Predators are mainly coyotes.

I was at the ranch about an hour and a half and during that time four ewes delivered their lambs. One ewe was busy fussing over her newborn but Three lambsJohn said she was also getting ready to deliver one more lamb - she would be delivering twins! And, by time I was walking out the barn door, the ewe started to deliver a second lamb! This photo shows just how long those lambs' legs are.

When you see the amount of work that goes in to helping with lambing, tracking the ewes and lambs, feeding and protecting them, you gain a new respect for ranchers.

I had a fun and educational visit but I don’t think I’d make a successful rancher!




Birds, Birds, Birds at Freezout Lake WMA

Freezout lift offSpring snow goose migration is underway and Central Montana has amazing opportunities to see huge quantities of birds – right now!

I drove up to Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area between Fairfield and Choteau late yesterday afternoon. It’s an odd spelling on the WMA name, but that’s another story!

From Great Falls to Fairfield is about a 35 minute drive for me and well worth the time. Last spring I also went up to see the birds and I vividly remember the weather. Brrr…about an inch of snow had appeared the night before and a steady wind coming off the Rocky Mountain Front. This year was different though. We’ve certainly had our typical spring weather – snow one day, it melts the next day, sunshine, then back to cooler Freezout birdwatcherstemps. I checked my weather app and the temp yesterday was about 32 degrees, a bit of a breeze but not bad.

The phone recording at Freezout Lake WMA (406-467-2646) said numbers were a bit lower this year, perhaps due to our erratic weather. Ponds at the area are still iced over so conditions aren’t optimal for the birds. Although, they estimated between 70,000 – 80,000 snow geese were there, 500 tundra swans and a good amount of northern pintails. I also found out that the snow geese weren’t on the northernmost ponds, they were mostly congregating in the main pond. Good thing to know so I could be in the best location.

When I first arrived I parked not too far from the headquarters office and in about 10 minutes I saw Freezout veea fairly amazing lift off of birds. They looked dark in color and I wasn’t sure if they were the “white snows” as some refer to snow geese. I took a fair amount of photos but I was disappointed in the location I chose. I drove further in to the area and saw a few other vehicles parked. This was where I wanted to be.

About 10 minutes later I witnessed another amazing “lift off”. Then, again, about another 10 minutes later, a final lift off. Each time a group of birds did this the sound of honking was loud and the skies darkened with all of the birds covering what little sunshine there was. What an amazing sight to see!

The snow geese are basically resting up for the final leg of their journey to Canada, probably Alberta and Saskatchewan since our central flyway pattern feeds those two provinces. If the birds stay close Freezout gullsto the Rocky Mountain Front they get some helpful updrafts from the breezes over the mountains – almost like cruise control for birds. These birds have more than likely flown from California and yup, they are tired so this is a nice resting spot.

So, when the birds do their evening lift off where are they going? Well, supper is in the nearby barley and wheat fields in the Fairfield and Choteau areas. You'll see lots of birds, not just snow geese. Since grains are pretty easy picking here, this area is definitely "birdy". Gulls need food too and they were congregating in one nearby grain stubble field as I left Freezout.

If you combine the location on the birds’ route, the updrafts aiding their flight and the plentiful and nearby food supply, Freezout would definitely be a “destination resort” for the birds. It was my destination yesterday and I was not disappointed!




Record Breaking Russell Art Auction

Art Auction oneThis past weekend saw a record-breaking bid for the Russell Museum’s annual event titled The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit the C. M. Russell Museum. Long title, outstanding event!

This multi-day event was the catalyst for what has become Western Art Week in Great Falls, Montana. You could literally devote four days and evenings viewing a variety of art – variety in styles, media and price range.

Several hotels have art displayed in their lobbies and also in their rooms. Curious art shoppers (and lookers) can wander in and out of hotel rooms, visit with the artists and purchase art. The wandering part is free!

Art auction twoThe biggest event of Western Art Week is Saturday evening’s auction organized by the Russell Museum. It appeared to be a sell-out and I was thankful to find a seat as I arrived early.

Let me be clear, bidding was not on my mind! This auction is in a league of its own attracting collectors of high-end art, dealers and buyers for art galleries.

Food and a variety of beverages were abundant. After a few welcomes and a quick review of bidding rules, the auctioneer stepped up and the energetic pace began!

The auction catalog had photos of each piece and price range estimates. I was trying to follow along Art auction high bidin the catalog but bidding was fast and fun to watch so I just made random notes every now and then in the catalog. Several of Charlie Russell’s works were spread throughout the auction.

The highest bid for the evening was for a Russell oil (23 x 35 inches) painted in 1895 and titled “Offering A Truce (Bested)”. The painting’s theme – horse thieves and cattle rustlers. The winning bid was $1,250,000. Yup, more numbers in that price than what I’ll ever be bidding! It was so exciting to see the bid number climb and I’m sure those who were bidding had hearts beating faster than mine.

The estimated price range printed in the catalog for Offering A Truce (Bested) was $1,300,000 – 1,800,000 but the winning bid of $1,250,000 met the reserve and the gavel fell with a resounding “Sold” by the auctioneer.

Exciting, fast paced, fun and interesting. I hope I can go again next year!




It's Called Art In Action

Jerry McKellarThe Russell Museum’s Art In Action event is, in my opinion, one of the most fun events during Great Falls’ western art week. That could be because it is casual or it could be the chance to interact with the artists.

This year there were 22 artists participating in Art In Action held at the Meadowlark Country Club in Great Falls. The floor is covered with plastic to avoid any paint spills and artists and their easels are dispersed throughout the entire main floor of the building. Most have their artwork started when they arrive and then they just need to finish the piece. And...they also explain it over and over again to the curious onlookers as they wander through the event.

One sculptor, Jerry McKellar from Washington state, even allowed a curious little girl to participate in his art. At first I assumed this little gal was a granddaughter or friend but not so. She did have a parent there who was also participating in the event but she latched on to Jerry and was excited to be able to sculpt. I’d say she just may be a future artist!

Steve OiestadSteve Oiestad was working on a beautiful piece of art made with chalk. The subject was horses and it was titled “Bored”. I can just visualize these horses standing in a pasture wondering what to do next. Steve lives near Great Falls and his favorite subjects to draw and paint are cowboys and landscapes.

While the artists are finishing their works during this event, onlookers nosh food and beverages, enjoy live country music and stroll around the easels. There is lots of visiting and the room is loud! The event is capped off with a live auction of all of the artwork created.

Artists donate 100% of the proceeds to the C. M. Russell Museum and this year they raised over $100,000 for this worthy cause.




Western Art Week - My First Stop

Tom Marinkovich 2This weekend I was at the Great Western Living and Design show in Great Falls and I stopped to visit with Tom Marinkovich at his booth there.

Tom teaches art for Box Elder schools located on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation and is a talented artist in several different mediums. In addition to having his own booth at this show, he organized a bus of school kids from Rocky Boy to come to Great Falls and view all of the art shows that were open to the public. I’ve met Tom before and I’ve been to his studio, Marinkovich Art, located just off US Hwy 87 near the turn for Rocky Boy.

My favorite, and the only piece of art I purchased all during our major art weekend in Great Falls, was a blown glass vase done by Tom. It was difficult picking just one but I finally selected a short vase with wavy edges in shades of purple (a second-favorite color of my oldest granddaughter).

Juniper lampAs I visited with Tom he explained that in addition to blown glass, paintings and pottery, he has started working on batik.

He said the process is a challenge because you apply colors just the opposite of how you would on a traditional painting. I’ve already forgotten this tidbit but one is dark colors first, then light. The other is light colors first, then dark.

My favorite part of the Great Western Living and Design show is seeing different items – items made by hand weaving cotton, juniper tree trunks made in to furniture, western chaps adorned with curly sheep wool fleece.

The chaps even had leather on the back wool chapsand pockets for modern day cowboys! I can only hope that there wasn't a cell phone holder on these chaps. 

Obviously there were many more beautiful items created by the variety of vendors at this show.

I started taking photos of the different booths. Lots of talent. So much to see during Great Falls' western art weekend, so little time!  




Learning Central Montana Geology

Square ButteA few years ago Montana’s First Lady, Nancy Schweitzer, began a campaign to educate locals and visitors about our unique geology. I’m still learning, slowly but surely!

My latest experience was on MT Hwy 80 between Fort Benton and Denton. I’ve driven this route quite a few times and I must say, it is vastly different than US Hwy 87 which runs almost parallel about 25 miles south.

There are two prominent features on MT 80 between the little towns of Square Butte and Geraldine. One is the butte itself – best described as a mountain with its top cut off. The other is called the Shonkin Sag – best described by the name! There really is a sag in the mountains.

TShonkinhe history – about 50 million years ago the Highwood Mountains had a volcano that erupted a rock called shonkinite. It is dark colored and similar to basalt. About 65 million years ago magma injected eastward between layers of sandstone along the shores of a broad inland sea. In this area that magma bulged up to form a high steeple-like blister or laccolith. The laccolith solidified and formed Square Butte’s flat top. Vertical cracks that fed magma to the laccolith radiated out from the center of the volcano and are now called dikes.

During the Bull Lake Ice Age 70,000 – 130,000 years ago, the continental ice sheet spreading south from Canada blocked the Missouri River, backing up its water to form Glacier Lake Great Falls. The glacial meltwater poured eastward through the Highwood Mountains to create the Shonkin Sag. 

Cattle near Square ButteThat is incredibly detailed information but it describes these unique formations well.

Now, a funny story. I had stopped my car along the edge of the road to take a photo. A pickup truck came by with two older gentlemen in it. The truck stopped, the driver rolled down his window and said “hey lady, I bet you are trying to get cell phone reception out here”. I told him no, I was just taking photos. Then he told the other gentleman I was taking a photo. The guy then said, a photo of what? The driver said, darned if I know and off they drove.

Yes, they thought I was a little crazy but that’s OK. I had a great day, took some beautiful photos and I learned a lot too. Scenic drives, driving for pleasure or a Sunday drive – call it what you want, Central Montana is filled with hidden gems just waiting to be explored.




My First Visit to the MT Winter Fair

Stick horse boyIt's hard to believe that the Montana Winter Fair has been around for 67 years and I just attended it for the first time!

The Montana Winter Fair began in Bozeman and has been in Lewistown since 2003. I asked one of the organizers what the primary event was and she said there were many, many events. I had to experience the fair to understand just how many activities they did have.

The drive to Lewistown was beautiful - blue skies, a few clouds and not much breeze. There was very little snow on the ground, just some in coulees and ditches. I managed to get several scenic photos on MT Hwy 80 and 81 so my arrival in Lewistown was delayed a bit for the sake of getting some nice images.

The Central Montana Fairgrounds has several entrances off US Hwy 191 and I wasn't sure which one to take. It turned out that it didn't make much difference as most of the turns all ended up at different MT Winter Fair events.

My first stop was the pavilion where the stick horse competition was underway. I don't Alpacathink I'd ever seen anyone ride a stick horse that fast until the contestants came zooming by. In hindsight, I should have had my camera on "sports mode" because most of my photos were blurry. The kids looked like they were having fun and they all received a prize for entering the competition.

Next I went to Old McDonald's Barn and looked at the animals. I wish I would have had my granddaughters with me because they would have enjoyed this. Llamas, alpacas (and a couple of scarves woven from their fur donations), cows, bulls, goats, turkeys, miniature horses and more were in pens so you could get up close and view them.

Since I wasn't familiar with the fairgrounds I wandered around some looking for the Trade Center. I finally asked someone where it was, got directions, and off I went to see the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics.

I recognized Art Taft from KRTV right away and decided I'd be sure to get a photo of him taking the chilly plunge. Well, Art outsmarted us all and volunteered for the emcee duties, not the water fun. I would call him a chicken but, there were "plungers" dressed up as chickens! Polar PlungeAnd, a couple were in polar bear attire (white furry outfits). Several Special Olympians lit the torch and the plunging began. Everyone had fun and it was a good benefit for Special Olympics.  

Other Montana Winter Fair events included the Cupcake Combat (oh yeah, Central Montana is ready for the Food Network), vendor displays, food concessions for sale (yummy), Pinewood Derby races, fiddle contest, cinnamon roll contest, chili cook-off, photography show, fiber arts and quilt show, home brew contest, stock dog trials, youth feeder steer/all breeds heifer show, team sorting, evening music concert and cowboy church.

I didn't get to all of the events but I gave it a good effort!

One thing that impressed me is how the Montana Winter Fair spread events through the Lewistown community. Events took place at the Central Montana Fairgrounds, Brooks Market, Lewistown Art Center, the Eagles and Spotted Horse Gallery.

I'm not sure if I could pick a favorite event but I spent the most time at the Lewistown Fiber art spinnerArt Center downtown looking at the fiber arts, quilts and weavers, spinners, knitters and felters. They had beautiful fiber art and I was mesmerized by the spinning.

All told, the Montana Winter Fair is a wonderful tribute to agriculture - the root of our ecomony in Central Montana. The one day I spent at this multi-day event was fabulous and I'll definitely plan on attending next year's Montana Winter Fair in Lewistown.




The Arts in Montana

Spencer BohrenIf you had any doubt about how arts and culture are doing in Montana you need only spend some time at the 31st Annual Montana Performing Arts Consortium artist showcase held this weekend in Fort Benton.

This morning, with a to-go cup of coffee, I pointed my car towards Fort Benton and when I drove up to the elementary school I realized this event was going to be well attended.

The format for the artist showcase - each artist was allowed 12 minutes for a live performance and there were 5 minute breaks between the performances to reset the stage.

The variety in each performance was amazing.

First up was Sax 5th Avenue (OK, I was late and missed that one!). Great Falls-based Cascade Quartet was next followed by the Mud Bay Jugglers. There were three jugglers and a four piece band playing to their antics.The audience loved this slap-stick comedy. 

Spencer Bohren, performer and music educator, started his 12 minute set with a lap guitar and finished with a song while playing banjo.

Two Bit FranksMy favorite group of the morning session was Two Bit Franks, a five-piece group of guys who hail from Big Sky, Bozeman and Livingston. Bluegrass and good old blues were their options and the crowd loved them. This photo shows only two of the group. The unique instrument on the left is a mando-cello.

Also interesting was an actor who portrayed Theodore Roosevelt while mixing education, history and humor.

Eleven additional performances were spread throughout the day. Many folks were there to book artists for community concert series and some were booking for schools. People like me went to enjoy the variety of music and culture and we were not disappointed.

One final comment - this was all free to the public!

It was a great day and I'm glad I was able to enjoy the performers.




Ledger Art Exhibit Opens

Terrance GuardipeeTonight I went to the opening of a ledger art exhibit titled "Conflict, Courtship, Ceremony, and The Chase. Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is hosting the exhibition and it's well worth a visit.

Nineteen artists have ledger art displayed and some of them have several pieces. A standing-room-only opening lecture featured presentations by Monte Yellow Bird, Sr., Terrance Guardipee and Alaina Buffalo Spirit. After the presentations Terrance Guardipee explained one of his pieces on display.

What I learned from Terrance - his ledger art typically features one main image (a simple person he called it). They usually have shielded eyes (this one did also) and that allows the spirit to be present. Various colors depict power. Other symbols in this ledger art piece were depicting beaver bundles, elk teeth and thunder. There were many more interesting things to point out in his art and Terrance enthusiastically talked about them. This piece is titled "Medicine Hat" and was completed in 2013.

Guardipee's ledger art has placed first in the Santa Fe Indian Art Market ledger art  since that category began in 2009.

Admission to Paris Gibon Square is free thanks to a substantial donation from Farmers Union Insurance. The Square is located at 1400 1st Avenue North in Great Falls in a restored historic building that formerly housed a school.


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