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It Was A Weekend of Lewis & Clark History
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Lewis ClarkGreat Falls hosts the annual Lewis & Clark Festival the third weekend in June each year. Gibson Park (named after the founder of Great Falls) was a perfect location for the festival - lots of shade trees, grass, a bandshell for performers and plenty of room to spread out a variety of activities.

The weather this year was perfect - plenty of sunshine but not too hot.

I took in the opening ceremonies where the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard always fires their black powder rifles to signal the festival opening.

The honor guard dresses in period clothing, most of it handmade by the members. They are sticklers for detail and enjoy bantering about the correct fabric, buttons and head coverings. 

Several tipis were erected on the festival grounds providing an awesome backdrop, visible to those driving by the park.Three tipis were also put up next to each other to form tipisa council lodge. Speakers presented at the council lodge and covered topics such as Medicine of the Corps, Uses of Hemp, Firestarting, Fishing Methods of the Corps and Weapons of the Expedition. 

Native American dancers also performed with drummers. This always draws a crowd and it gives attendees some information about the different dances and the clothing worn for each. 

A children's area at the festival teaches kids (and adults) how to trade for goods instead of using money. This year also featured several Newfoundland dogs (they are huge!). Capt. Meriwether Lewis had a Newfoundland dog named Seaman on the expedition. 

New this year was a swivel gun, a small cannon similar to what the expedition would have had mounted on their boats. Members of the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard fired the cannon throughout the day and each boom drew a crowd!

Another interesting demonstration was a blacksmith who always had a crowd listening, watching and learning. 

On Sunday of the festival weekend there are float trips (a fee is charged) that take attendees on the Missouri River through Wolf Creek Canyon and also from Morony Dam to the Carter Ferry. 

Guided hikes also take place on Sunday and this year's hikes explored Tower Rock (about 35 miles southwest of Great Falls), Sulphur Springs (downstream from Great Falls) and Ryan Dam (site of The Great Falls). 

This annual festival is sponsored by the Lewis and Clark Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls. The Interpretive Center is owned and operated by the US Forest Service and is open year round. A visit to the Center is a fun way to brush up on your history! 




I Never Tire of the View At Sluice Boxes
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Sluice panelsSluice Boxes State Park is just off US Hwy 89 north of Monarch, Montana. If you are driving north it is tempting to zip right by, and I suppose the same is true if you are heading south when you are picking up speed to climb the hill.

Don't be tempted to pass this gem by! 

Even a stop at the scenic overlook is worth your time. There are interpretive panels in an easy in-and-out parking pullout and the views are awesome. 

Why call it Sluice Boxes State Park

The area is a canyon with Belt Creek running through it at a pretty good pace. This was once a mining area and early-day miners  thought it reminded them of the sluice boxes used to separate gold from gravel.

The state park covers 1,450 acres and there is a seven mile trail following the grade of the old Sluice Boxes scenicGreat Northern Railway's Monarch branch. The railroad track was built in 1890 - that's a long time ago! It was abandoned in 1945. This old rail bed crosses Belt Creek several times so spring hiking means high water. I've hiked the area over Labor Day weekend and still crossed the creek twice. 

Your history lesson for today - the limestone cliffs rising up the the canyon floor are comprised of seashells deposited 330 million years ago when the area was covered by a vast sea. A slow uplift over time caused the area to rise. 

Well, that's enough history - head out and hike or go bird watching there (I saw a hummingbird the last time I was there, plus a lot of other birds).

Bring your binoculars, some shoes that can get wet and a walking stick. I'd recommend a camera too. Those cliff walls seem to change color as the sun hits them from different directions and you'll have lots of photo ops. 




More than Fiddles at Annual Camp
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fiddlerThis is one of those - I wish I had realized how fun this event would be!

A couple of weeks ago I drove to the St. Thomas Camp near Monarch, Montana for the evening concert at the annual Montana Fiddle Camp. I had never been there and had no idea what to expect. 

Well - it's a lot more than fiddles! 

You would have a hard time missing this camp - huge banners were staked at both entrances to the area located on US Hwy 89. And there were cars, pickups, tents and campers galore. 

I wasn't sure where to go so I carefully walked through a group of campers and saw three older guys outside strumming guitars. OK, wasn't this supposed to be fiddles?

I decided I had better ask them where the "open to the public" evening concert was being held because I couldn't see anything. I soon was pointed in the direction of a MAndolinsmall wooden building...one of those "you can't miss it set of directions". And, once I got there it was pretty obvious!

The building where the concert was being held was almost full!

Folding chairs were lined up and I could see a few empty seats but I didn't want to crawl over anyone with my camera gear. And, I wasn't sure where I should sit to get the best photos in the least intrusive way.

I stood at the back for awhile, then carefully made my way to an empty seat on the far side. 

The musicians playing were some of the instructors and I absolutely could have listened to them all night. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, a bass and several vocalists all performed. 

This was the 20th Annual Montana Fiddle Camp and there were a lot of students and fiddle and banjotheir families in the audience. I noticed a quote on their schedule - Keeping fiddle spirit alive, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. 

It was refreshing to see so many young kids learning to play instruments that aren't as common as some. 

There are several week-long camps where kids work in small groups with instructors. Each evening the instructors and students perform in concerts and dances. 

A good time - I will be back next year!





Charlie Russell Chew Choo Gets New Trestle
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trestle damageIn 2011, when spring runoff came downstream on the Judith River (the river I think should be called a creek because it is usually so small) it was devastating to many landowners. The Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, operator of the Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train, also had a loss when the Judith River trestle was basically destroyed.

This photo shows what a former straight track looked like after rushing water twisted the steel girders. It could have doubled for a roller coaster ride!

Water came so forcefully that it moved the piers, displaced the trestle deck and damaged two trestle towers. In a nutshell, the 100-year old trestle certainly wasn't safe. 

It took two and a half years of grant writing and lots of studying to get repair work started. Then it took from December 2013 to August 2014 to complete it.

Here's a bit of history on this short line railroad in the heart of Fergus County. It was originally constructed by the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway. Six 2-horse teams carried 20,000 pounds of building materials on a 25 mile trip. Foundation work was started in the winter of 1912 and they steam heated the gravel and packed straw around the concrete forms.  

Chew ChooThe new trestle construction saw some changes - over 100 years some things have changed! Although, the original steel girders were salvaged and reused. 

Today the Charlie Russell Chew Choo is running over the Judith River trestle, and a couple more, plus traveling through a tunnel. A prime rib dinner is served on board and strolling musicians entertain the crowd. Of course, train robbers love to lurk around trains so you just might see some of those too!

The Chew Choo runs every other weekend throughout the summer. Watch a video of the dinner train ride and find details at Charlie Russell Chew Choo.

Book your adventure through Central Montana soon.




Black Powder Shoot Near Havre
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Black powder signI travel to Chinook, Montana most Memorial Day weekends to connect with long-time friends and spend time with family. Each time I am on US Hwy 87 driving past the site of Fort Assinniboine near Havre, I see a sign about a black powder shoot.

How many times have I planned to stop and check it out and then decided I didn't have the time? Well, way too many so this Memorial Day I was determined to set aside some time to see the event.

I was on my way back to Great Falls when I turned at the sign for the black powder shoot. I wasn't sure how far I needed to drive but each time I came to an intersection there was a big red arrow directing me to the event.

As I drove through a gate off the gravel road I saw a lot of campers nestled in the cottonwood trees. I didn't see anything that looked like an event and I wondered if I had just unexpectedly joined a family reunion!

Before I went too far I saw a young man walking and asked him if I was in the right place. He assured me that I would see more people and some black powder shooters just around the corner. 

Black powder distance ahorI parked my car and grabbed my camera and a notebook. Several guys were sitting in chairs with spotting scopes and binoculars. Everyone seemed to be watching three guys with black powder rifles. I didn't want to barge in on anything but I wanted to get permission to get a bit closer and also to take photos.

Finally I caught someone's attention - OK, I probably was in someone's way - and I asked if it was all right if I was there. They assured me I could take photos, even get a little closer but then asked where my ear protection was. Darn, I didn't think about that but someone casually produced some ear muff-like protectors. 

I put the ear muff protectors on and wandered a bit closer. Jeez, for powder, that stuff made an amazingly loud boom! I was very thankful to have the ear muffs and won't even complain about how hot they were. 

Some of the shooters were dressed in period clothing from the mid 1800s, some wore regular clothes. While each match was going on nobody conversed much. I kept Tom Brown black powderwondering how I was going to figure out what they were shooting or how they scored. Everyone seemed to know except me!

Finally, there was a small break in the action and I was able to visit with some of the attendees.

Targets had been placed in different locations at specific distances. What I was watching was the longest distance shoot and that was 580 yards. Other targets varied from 270 yards to 368 yards.

There was a large whiteboard nearby with scores posted and the event was about to wrap up as soon as the last rounds were tallied. 

Different categories included shooting in specific distances but also with black powder round balls and then black powder cartridges. 

I visited with a shooter in period clothing and found out he made just about rifle resteverything he was wearing.

Several competitors had skills from blade smithing to woodworking. Many had made and donated items to be given as prizes for the competition. 

One interesting story about the prizes - a nearby area had a fair amount of beetle-kill pine trees. A shooter had harvested the trees and made chairs and shooting tables out of the wood. 

The Bullhook Bottoms Black Powder Club was formed in the 1970s. This was their 36th Annual Spring Shoot and it is an open invitation to other shooters. The Havre-based club also holds monthly shoots. 

The more I learned I realized this seemed like one big family.

Several people told me it was an open shoot and anyone was welcome to attend and participate. The event is always held Memorial Day weekend and it is family friendly. Black powder medallion

It is also open to spectators and I complimented the organizers on their signs - the sign near the highway was huge and at each possible turn in the few miles I drove there was a bright red arrow pointing the way for me.

It's about time I finally took time to attend this event. As I left I wish I had also seen the shooting action on the other two days.

Next year I just may have to stop earlier! 





Dinner With Wine Pairings at Elmo's Highwood Bar
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Highwood signWhen you mention the town of Highwood not everyone knows the location. They may have heard of the nearby Highwood Mountains which are easily viewed from the town or, some folks may have heard of their high school football team.

Well, Highwood is about 32 paved miles east of Great Falls.

There is a little creek that runs through the community (Highwood Creek) and the highway pretty much cuts through the middle of town. The main business in Highwood is probably Elmo's Highwood Bar.

Elmo's recently changed hands and the new owners changed the name of the place from just the Highwood Bar to Elmo's Highwood Bar.

I heard that the original bar was either named that or it was the name of the owner. No matter, the place is almost iconic in this small community.

Elmos tableAnother friend and I signed up for their Saturday night wine pairings with an Italian dinner.

Mark Tronson from Wines By Wednesday in Great Falls talked about each of the wines that were served and told us the region of Italy where the grapes for each wine were grown.

We tasted six wines in all, beginning with two varieties of white wine and moving on to some robust reds. Each table had maps showing the regions of Italy where the grapes were grown and some order forms if we wanted to purchase some of the wine served. 

We met some new friends who asked if they could join us at our table and we enjoyed a menu of spicy shrimp, bruschetta (this was superb!), penne pasta, beef steak and dessert. And, we enjoyed a nice variety of wine!

BruschettaI believe seating capacity at Elmo's Highwood Bar is 34. Word to the wise, when they schedule their next event be sure to get your reservation early because they ended up with a waiting list last weekend. 

It's about a 35 - 45 minute drive from Great Falls to Highwood - an easy scenic drive with rolling grain fields, lots of deer munching in the fields and views of an evening sunset that made me want to stop and take photos. 

Just getting out for a country drive was great. Better yet, I enjoyed some fine wines and yummy Italian food!

Give Elmo's a try when you are hungry for a steak. They schedule one kind of steak each Friday night so choose your favorite and make your reservation.





Release of Ducks and Swans at Gibson Park Pond
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Gibson with peopleI know spring is here when Great Falls Park and Recreation announces their annual release of the ducks, geese and swans from the "Honker Hilton" to the pond at Gibson Park.

Last Friday afternoon a good sized crowd gathered around one end of the pond to wait for the trucks and trailers loaded with waterfowl to appear.

I was a running a bit behind schedule - I arrived before the city vehicles but I didn't feel like I got the best spot for photos. Then, when I saw the excited looks on children's faces who did get a better viewing spot, I decided it was better for them to be close and I'd still get some good photos.

Three swans were in the mix of feathered creatures - two white swans and one black one. They looked so regal! I love those birds. 

A variety of ducks was also in the mix although I need my bird identification Gibson black swanbook to figure out what kind they were. 

It didn't take long for the ducks, geese and swans to get the hang of catching pieces of bread tossed in the water by many of the onlookers. 

The waterfowl will stay in the pond at Gibson Park until fall. Then the Great Falls park and rec crew gathers them into trailers and takes them to their indoor digs locally called the Honker Hilton. 

Kids and adults alike were having a grand time at Gibson last Friday. The weather was typical spring - a bit cool at times but the sun also warmed me.

Gibson Park, named after city founder Paris Gibson, is located in downtown Great Falls. It is a huge park and has a walking track around the perimeter, plenty of playground equipment, the Vinegar Jones cabin built by the earliest resident of Great Falls and a beautiful flower arbor which is a frequent site for Gibson ducksweddings and photos during the summer.

I'll be spending plenty of time feeding the ducks, geese and swans this summer. My granddaughters love to go to Gibson Park, play on the playground equipment and then feed all of the resident waterfowl.

We should all be so grateful for the simpler things in life!





Great Falls Becomes Western Art Capital
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Art boothIt happens every year about the third week in March.

Hotel lobbies and sleeping rooms transform into art galleries, events all over town are drawing crowds of art lovers and you can feel a quicker pulse as you move about Great Falls. The event - Western Art Week. 

It all began many years ago as the C. M. Russell Auction of Western Art.

Other art shows soon followed and now you can find contemporary art, western art, Native American art, handmade home furnishings and wearables. Many hotels are filled with art displays, shows take place at Montana Expo Park and the big Russell Sale now happens at the Great Falls Civic Center.

I'd like to report that I managed to get to all of the shows but I didn't. I chose carefully so I could connect with long time artist friends and also see some of the new shows. 

Art in ActionMusic entertainment is scheduled at many of the shows along with receptions, quick finishes and auctions.

One of my favorite events is Art in Action, held at the Meadowlark Country Club and sponsored as a fundraiser for the C. M. Russell Museum. Artists are set up throughout the lounge and restaurant and work on their masterpieces that are then auctioned.

It's close quarters at Art in Action and if I was an artist working on a piece I would be a nervous wreck!

The piece that sold for the largest bid was a painting of a neon sign that said Cowboy Bar - bright and colorful with a bucking horse. I enjoyed the piece this artist was working on. He was using a pallet knife and his subject matter was trees. 

Randy GlickAnother unique event is the Great Western Living & Design Show held at MT Expo Park.

While there are some booths that have what is considered traditional art (paintings, sculptings) there are many different works. I learned about felted wearables, dyed silk, hand carved pool cue racks, and hand carved furniture one evening as country western musicians played in the background.  

Western Art Week in Great Falls, Montana is an absolutely wonderful time - a time to reconnect with long-time friends, meet new artists, and maybe, just maybe, purchase some artwork. 

If you missed it this year make your plans for March 2016. There is something for everyone in every price range. You won't be disappointed!





Scenic Drive, Fun Road Between Great Falls and Helena
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I 15I have the opportunity to take the drive between Great Falls and Helena quite often. Sometimes I'm scrambling, in a hurry to get there when I didn't allow enough time. Other times I just have a lot on my mind and I'm a bit grumpy.

Well, it doesn't take long to relax and improve my mood when I head south on I-15 from Great Falls. I drove this route a week ago and stopped several times to take photos.

When I left Great Falls I saw rims of mountains to the west (Rocky Mountains), the Little Belt Mountains southeast, and ahead of me on the Interstate I could see the Big Belt Mountains. Another jagged range of rock outcroppings is called the Adel Mountains. 

The Adel Mountains are eroded remains of a pile of volcanic rock. They basically flank the Missouri River for forty miles as it winds through the canyon. The volcanic activity probably occurred 75 million years ago and continued for several million years. 

In the 1930s a modern paved highway connected Great Falls to Helena. It passed through the volcanic outcrops of the canyon and crossed the river twice, near Hardy Creek and Wolf Creek.

Today, an exit for Hardy takes travelers to recreation homes, multiple river access sites for floating and unlimited fishing opportunities. Wolf Creek is a small town straddling the highway and it is a great entrance to amazing river recreation. 

Present day Interstate 15 was constructed in 1960 and bypassed the original US 91 highway. I'm thankful the old highway is still in good shape. It's an awesome motorcycyle ride, or just a relaxed ride in any automobile. And, you can experience a Great Depression-era road.  

You'll find some small local restaurants and taverns along the way - great places to stop and chat up the locals. 

Time for a another drive on I-15? I think so!





Great Snow - Good Time on X-C Skis
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X-C skiingThe first time I ever went X-C skiing I took my two young children. It was a learning experience for all of us and I came home just a bit stressed.

I wasn't sure I was learning the sport as well as I could and the kids didn't seem too happy either.

Fast forward one week and both kids were asking if we could go again!

That was many years ago and I once again was at Silver Crest X-C Ski Area in the Little Belt Mountains.

The area has had many improvements - a nice warming hut at the trailhead, better trail markings, it is groomed twice a week and the parking and rest room facilities are much nicer. There are even dog sled trails in the area!

We hadn't had much snow in Great Falls and all week I worried that the snow wouldn't be great. My concerns went away the day before we were going when X-C warming hutMother Nature dumped 4 - 5 inches of fluffy snow on a solid base. 

I can't say enough good things about the day.

It felt so good to get out of the office and spend the day exploring the X-C ski trails. The sun came out after we were there about an hour and outer jackets came off. Well, the exercise kept us warm too. 

It was mid-week and we only saw one other vehicle with two gals in it. We chatted briefly with them before they started on one of the trails.

We didn't see any other X-C skiers for the rest of the day. It felt like our private mountain! What an experience!

Silver Crest is a real treasure and it is an easy drive on US Hwy 89, about 60 miles southeast of Great Falls.

Jim Dpna XcX-C ski rentals are available in Great Falls and you can find lodging near the recreation area in Neihart, Monarch and White Sulphur Springs.

There is still amazing snow at Silver Crest in the Little Belt Mountains even though snow at lower elevations has melted.

My advice - take a "snow" day and enjoy winter in Central Montana.



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