Our plan was simple: to hike, camp, ride horses and enjoy nature in two of America’s most spectacular national parks, Glacier and Waterton Lakes (Canada). Who knew, though, that we’d also learn about ancient animal massacres? Or, that we’d view the site of the deadliest landslide in Canadian history? Not us (my wife, Eileen, and I). Nor did we anticipate shooting Bud Light Lime-A-Rita cans with a BB gun, or (to temper the seemingly violent tone of our trip) appreciating Montana’s lakes balancing on a piece of fiberglass and while sipping chocolate wine. It just goes to show that no matter what you think you’re gonna experience when you travel, you’ll likely get a lot more.
Here’s a sampling of some unexpected encounters that befell us while visiting the Crown of the Continent (in Montana and southern Alberta). First, our arrival: Russ – a goofy, fun-loving Peace Corps friend that I hadn’t seen in over 15 years – met us at the airport in Missoula. It was 12:30 pm, and his first question was, “Do you like beer?” Little did we know that Missoula is famous for its microbreweries, nor that there was one conveniently located just seconds from the airport. After traveling 2300 miles and two time zones, we were up for anything. And, sure enough, free tastes of Big Sky Brewery’s Moose Drool and Trout Slayer quickly helped us forget that we’d risen at 3:30 am after just four hours of sleep. Montana was already looking great, and that was only an hour into our 16-day trip!
It turns out that Missoula is the kind of place where you can quench your thirst with brews of 10%+ alcohol content; take a ride on a 38-pony carousel hand-produced by hundreds of volunteers; climb a mountain without a flashlight at 10:00 on a summer night; enjoy three simultaneous farmer’s markets within four downtown blocks on a Saturday morning; and get out any latent aggressions (albeit, doubtful that there would be any) by blasting holes in aluminum cans with tiny balls of steel. I mention the latter since we did actually spend our second hour in the city shooting BB guns in Russ’ back yard. It felt quite rewarding, in a perverse sort of way. Must have been that western plains air… Or, the Moose Drool.
While I’m on the topic of libations, I want to mention that that we took great pains to keep our trip evenly balanced. To that end, we engaged in a tasting of another Montana’s finest fermented products on the last day of our trip. As we headed back to Missoula, we stopped at Mission Mountain Winery, the first bonded winery in the state, on the banks of Flathead Lake. It didn’t take much to get beyond the yellow diamond-shaped warning sign: “Wino Xing” with a picture of someone crawling on all fours. And, after tasting seven different vintages, we were ready to run another risk – that of arriving home with wine-soaked clothing. We were lucky. All four bottles (including that chocolate wine) that we purchased and packed into our checked suitcases made it home safe and sound.
In between those bouts of alcoholic foolhardiness, we found ourselves sobered by deathly deeds in the form of historic acts of nature. A visit to rural Alberta beyond the national park was all it took. Lest you jump to the conclusion that Alberta is a deadly place, I’ll let you know that its southernmost section is quietly rural. It’s a place where ranches and prairies abut the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and where heritage tourism, agriculture and alternative energy are the main industries. But, two of its major attractions are Frank Slide and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, sites of historic carnages. With names like that, we couldn’t resist making a visit and injecting a little money into the local economy by doing so.
Frank Slide, it turns out, is not an honest piece of playground equipment. It is – or was, at 4:10 am on April 29, 1903 – a landslide that, within 100 seconds, dumped 90 million tons of rock onto the town of Frank, killing 90 people and leaving a rock pile 14 meters deep covering an area of 3 km2. We approached it from the east, stunned by the view of a concave mountain with house-sized boulders that were thrown across the river at its base and up the hill on the other side. The Interpretive Center explained what had occurred, attributing the cause of the disaster to its inherent unstable formation, early spring freeze-thaw activity, and the active coal mining that provided economic livelihood for local residents. And, the excellent video dramatization of the event revealed the wisdom of native peoples: for centuries they had refused to camp near what they called “the mountain that moves.”
Sixty-odd miles to the east of Frank is the site of another type of massacre, this one premeditated, purposeful and planned with utmost care. It’s Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where for 5500 years indigenous peoples drove buffalo off a cliff (now 11 meters high, but once over 20 meters before the pile up of bones and debris). Bison, the true name of American buffalo, were the life bread of early residents of the plains, who used all parts of the animal for food, tools, clothing and shelter. Again, we viewed the videos at the Interpretive Center to gain an excellent but graphic picture of buffalo jump ritual, while learning that the name of the site referred to a young and curious plains Indian who camped out under the cliff to watch the buffalo fall, but ended up with his own head smashed in. Looks like he didn’t even need to travel to find the unexpected.
Finally, I want to recommend another sport that’s a tad bit safer than standing beneath falling animals. It’s paddle boarding, which we tried for the first time on Whitefish Lake, north of Missoula. It’s all the rage now, and I see why. I’ve decided that it’s a sport for the common man/woman – i.e., challenging at first (well, for the first three minutes) but quickly masterable. We even saw a dog riding one, which inspired me to try out some yoga poses while on board. The results: Down Dog – worthy of a gold medal; Tree Pose – dunk in the lake…