Two roads diverge at Lolo Pass. I took the one more traveled by. And that has made all the difference. Here were my choices: Montana State Route 93, which passes through towns and is the easier driving or swing out near the Bob Marshall Wilderness and take the virtually unsettled Route 83. I’d heard that Route 83 was more teeming with wildlife and much more scenic. When I asked the advice of some locals at the only café/bar/casino at Lolo Hot Springs, one answer struck me: “If you take 83, you better be an expert at defensive driving.” Seems that road is so teeming with wildlife that it’s pretty certain you are going to hit a deer or an elk or do a lot of swerving to avoid one. I thought about it for about three seconds and realized I’d rather see wildlife on some of the photo safaris I’m going on in Glacier and Yellowstone rather than observe local fauna on the hood of the Hobbit SUV.
As it turns out Route 93 was plenty scenic, immensely interesting and I even saw my share of wildlife. Here’s the best part of 93, it travels mostly through the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. While you might catch a glimpse of animals in the distance, you generally won’t see them splattered on the side of the road. That’s because, when the State of Montana decided to widen 93, effectively cutting the reservation in two with a large asphalt barrier, the Tribes rose up and demanded an intelligent wildlife plan. The result are a chain of wildlife passage tunnels under the highway and a few overhead grassed wildlife corridors. Unfortunately, except for the overpass, you can’t see them from the road. Which is exactly the point. They are wide and protected enough that animals pass from the mountain side of the reservation to the plains side easily and without danger. Infrared night vision cameras attest to how well traveled these wildlife corridors are. And speaking of the mountain side of the reservation, the Flathead tribes were the first to set aside a large part of their reservation as a designated wilderness area. It runs up to the west side of the Mission Mountain Range, adjoining the Flathead National Forest. The tribes work cooperatively with the Forest Service and both sides are open to all. But the reservation side includes the preservation of historic hunting routes and sacred spots as outlined by the elders. The tribes are using the preserve to maintain traditions including summer spiritual retreats and the gathering of medicinal herbs.
The next interesting stop was the Ninepipes Historical Museum of Montana.It turns out the Ninepipes are a local prominent Salish family. The fact that the museum is named after them is the first clue that this museum is something different. The impression is that Whites and Native Americans from all around the territory brought in their treasures from the attics and made a museum. It’s more informative, cohesive and filled with more valuable exhibits than it sounds. My impression from the museum is that even from an early day, there was much cooperation and friendship between White settlers and Natives. I’m extrapolating that from the many pictures of Natives and Whites posed together, showing prized bulls that they co-bred, appearing in rodeos together, and standing side by side in uniform before shipping off to fight in World Wars I and II. Even more interesting were the donated items that crossed cultures. I saw beadwork and pipes donated by a White family and noted as a gift from a prominent Native family. Then I’d see the donations of that Native family and, like as not, they were fancy Winchesters and farming tools that had been gifted to them by White families. The impression is also that the whole community decided to make a museum. For one large room featuring dioramas of early Indian life and typical wildlife, the backdrops are all painted by local artists and placards proudly announce which local hunter went out an bagged what specimen for the display. It’s a surprisingly intimate museum, like walking into a very large multicultural attic filled with valuable and often historic things (plus a few examples of beaded shirts made locally for the movie Dances with Wolves.) That sense of a community-made museum was enhanced when I entered the gift shop and chatted with a Kootenai woman who told me which items her family had donated.
In addition to these highlights, I passed the Bison Reserve and saw one lonely bison off in the distance. However, I’d learned from the Ninepipes Museums just which local families had started breeding and protecting bison back in the early 1900s and fighting for a reserve. Seems it was a cooperative effort between Native and White families. I also had dramatic views of Flathead Lake, which is recreational on one end, but reserved only for Tribal use on the other.
By this time, I was in Kalispell and starving. But it seems Kalispell is closed for eating on a Monday afternoon, so I had to resort to a Bennigans. However, I did pass on dessert until I could get up to the oddly named Hungry Horse, which bills itself as Montana’s Huckleberry epicenter. It would be a safe bet to say that two out of three businesses provide some sort of Huckleberry merchandise, from Huckleberry beauty products to Huckleberry trail mix to Huckleberry cream pie. Given my bad reaction to all things lactose, I opted for the Old Skool Huckleberry pie.
Tomorrow, I join Glacier Guides on a hike along the Highline Trail. They promised me that the guides carry bear spray — and that Grizzlies won’t attack a party of six or more. But if I don’t return, now you know who to blame.