Arts Fest 2022

This is the 4th year for Arts Fest in Great Falls. Street artists from around the country converge on downtown to paint amazing murals on the sides of buildings. I was sick and stuck at home for most of this year’s event, but managed to make it out Wednesday for the Artist Reception. There were some familiar faces, and a few new ones, but it was a great event. The pieces that the artists paint during the reception are auctioned off at the end. I had my eye on one, but my wallet couldn’t keep up with the bidding.

I’m hoping to run around to all of this year’s murals later this week, and will update the album when I do.

More info on ArtsFest can be found on the official website.

Teton Pass Area

My buddy Steve needed a Christmas tree, so we headed up towards Teton Pass to find one. Of course we brought the cameras.

I think I’ve mentioned this before on this site, but when I was a kid I never really ventured north of Great Falls. I missed out on all this beauty for years. Now that I’m back, I really want to explore it more. The entire Rocky Mountain Front is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

This is my favorite time to photograph trees from the air. There’s snow on the ground but the trees aren’t entirely covered, so there’s awesome contrast and patterns that create an interesting visual.

I haven’t put the drone up much this year, but I’m glad I brought it along for Christmas tree hunting. Ground level shots don’t really tell the full story of this area.

If you want more amazing Rocky Mountain Front aerial photos, check out Steve’s galleries.

And yeah, Steve found an epic tree.

Steve’s tree

Rural Cascade County

Could’ve sworn I’d posted this already, but apparently not.

When I was a kid, I rarely explored west of Great Falls. I stayed mostly to the east–from the Highwoods to the Monarch area. We’d camp at Holter, but never explored much between Great Falls and Holter.

After a little bout with Covid last December, I needed to get out of the house. So on the morning of January 1st, I loaded up the dog and we took a drive. Mornings are always best for random rural road trips, in my opinion, and this one didnt’ disappoint.

We wandered past the buffalo jump to Square Butte, then over to Cascade, and wound our way back home. The full moon was still visible when I drove through Cascade, but I couldn’t quite get the vantage point I wanted without going on private property.

It ended up being a great way to start the year.

Willow Creek Reservoir

Last Friday marked what would’ve been one of my best friends’ 46th birthday. Jer spent most of his life outdoors, exploring Montana, so every time I go camping I wonder if he’d like the camping spot. He was a mountain guy, so I’m not sure Willow Creek would be his favorite. But the Rocky Mountain Front is right there, so it’s close to the mountains. Not sure if that counts. I like to think he’d be happy just being outside, regardless of whether or not it was in the mountains, or the prairie.

Rocky Mountain Front
Rocky Mountain Front

When I moved back, I started exploring–first with Google Maps, then with my truck. I had no idea there were so many reservoirs in Central Montana. Over the past few years, I think I’ve decided that Willow Creek is my favorite. The shoreline is all public, dotted with dispersed camping sites. It’s best to get there mid-week before holiday weekends, because the spots fill up and nobody’s fond of the folks who try to squeeze in between two dispersed sites. Gotta leave some room to stretch out. Our basic rule of thumb is that if we have to tie the dogs up, the neighbors are too close.

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The dogs love Willow Creek

Water levels were drawn down earlier this year to allow for dam repairs, then stocked with big trout when the reservoir filled back up. We haven’t been able to catch a small trout this year–all of them have been in the 16 to 20 inch range. We’ve been fishing from a little raft with an electric trolling motor, using copper spoons, and haven’t been skunked yet.

Willow Creek West Shore
It’s a reservoir, so levels get low at the end of summer when the farmers need the water

It’s Central Montana, so wind is almost always a factor. Be strategic with your camper placement–the wind ususally comes from the SW, so park accordingly. The proximity to the mountain front also means potential grizzlies–though we’ve yet to see one while camping. Never hurts to keep the bear spray handy, just in case.

Camp site
Use your campers as wind blocks

The area is perfect for star gazing, and if you find the right spot, you can use the mountain front to frame the bottom of your shot. If you’re a wildlife photographer, you’ll find the usual assortment of birds, and the pelicans make great models. You’ll also find cows–they roam free around the reservoir.

Milky Way
Milky Way over the Rocky Mountain Front
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Pelican at Willow Creek Reservoir

On the south side of the lake there’s a boat ramp with a few standard camping spots and outhouses. Wind blocks are build around the picnic tables.

If you forget anything, or run out of beer, Augusta is only a 10-15 minute drive from the lake. And if you’re working remotely right now, AT&T has a decent enough signal in certain spots to push through a few emails. I wouldn’t trust it for any video conferencing, though. Verizon coverage seems to be about the same as AT&T. I got a better AT&T signal from the west side of the lake, but it depended entirely on where I was standing.

I’m still not sure if Jer would be a huge fan of prairie camping, but it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. He’d be right there by the camp fire, PBR in hand, happy to be out of town for a weekend.

Fire

Montana Feels Like Home Again

I left Montana for Portland back in 1996. It took a year or so, but eventually Portland started to feel like home. As time went on, I started looking forward to getting back home to Portland after visits to Montana.

Now that I’ve been back in Montana for a couple of years, it’s starting to feel like home again. I just got back from 5 weeks in Portland, and though I miss the people who live there, it is good to be home again. I missed these highways and skies.

Widow

For whatever reason, I’ve always been terrified of spiders. There are exceptions, (I’ll let a tarantula crawl all over my arm,) but for the most part, I avoid them like the plague.

I recently drove my mom and I to a little mini family reunion, and was reminded of the fact that when I was in college and living at home, she would have to remove the occasional arachnid from the shower before I would even set foot in the bathroom. I’m not proud. But the bathtub spiders were HUGE.

When I lived in Portland, I was constantly dodging giant house spiders. Seriously, they were everywhere. I even found a particularly giant one on my bed one afternoon. Almost had to burn the entire house down. So I had a dilemma: to kill or not to kill. I love animals, so I generally won’t kill them without a good reason (like they’re a tasty animal and I plan on eating them.) I came up with a rule for spiders. If they were either outside, or in a generally unused part of the house, I’d let them be. But if they were in my bed, or in my kitchen, or any other inside area I frequented, they had to die.

A couple of weeks ago I was working in the garage and noticed a creepy looking critter trying to hang out just inside. I recognized it from the old fake images from Iraq I saw years ago. It was a relatively small camel spider, which isn’t even a spider. They aren’t venomous, but they have crab-claw-looking pincers on their faces. It was even kind of cute in a nightmare-inducing kind of way. Apparently they like the shade, and this one was hanging out just inside the shade line in the garage. It wasn’t bothering anybody, so I let it be.

Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve seen a single spider in the house since I moved back to Montana. Actually, I had more wildlife in and around my house in Portland than I have here. It’s odd. At any rate, I’m getting used to seeing spiders in the garage.

At the end of last summer, when I brought the boat in for the winter, I inadvertently brought a hornet’s nest in with it. There was a large crab spider type thing in the garage window then, and it massacred every hornet that headed for the window in an attempt to escape the garage. I liked that spider.

This summer, there’s a new resident in the garage window. I glanced over at the window last week and saw her, just hanging out. I thought she looked familiar, so I got closer. Sure enough, there was a red hourglass on the underside of her belly. I’d seen a black widow a decade or two before, but this is the first one that didn’t run and hide immediately.

Since the first sighting, I’ve been keeping an eye on her. She’s a busy girl. She murders every single bug that gets caught up in her web. There are no hornets left in the garage, but plenty of other pesky things, so I like her too.

I’m really just hoping she doesn’t have babies in the window. How do you ask a black widow to go outside to procreate?

A Drive to American Bar

When my dad suggested driving out to American Bar for Father’s Day this year, I was all for it. I’m always down to check out a new bar. What I didn’t realize is that American Bar he was referring to isn’t a bar at all. It’s a sub-development on the eastern shore of Upper Holter Lake.

By boat, it’s a leisurely cruise up the Missouri from Holter Lake. By car, it’s a 2-hour jaunt over some less-than-ideal dirt roads. We stopped at the York Bar for lunch–if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it. The burgers were good, and the atmosphere is great.

We got there a little before they opened, but the local birds were entertaining enough to watch while we waited.

The sub-development itself is great. My only issue with it is access. Rain would turn the road into a shit-show, and snow would make it incredibly difficult to get there. Just across Upper Holter Lake is the Gates of the Mountains Marina, but the docks are private. I’m not sure if they’d let you lease a spot to make it easier to get to your property.

Even with the questionable roads, the drive was relaxing, and a great way to spend Father’s Day with my dad.

Mornings

One thing I love about summer is the early sunrises. I tend to wake up whenever sunlight starts streaming through my window, so in the summer I tend to wake up early. The older I get, the more I enjoy waking up early.

The other day, I woke up at 5:45 am. Wide awake. No point in even trying to go back to bed, so I grabbed my camera and hopped in the truck. The plan was to just grab a few shots on the way to my friend’s awesome new coffee shop in Great Falls, but I got sidetracked on the way there.

There’s a road that heads west out of Ulm. It’s marked with a dead end sign, so I’ve never driven it. Square Butte happened to catch my eye, and that dead-end road was headed in the right direction, so I decided to check it out. It didn’t quite do what I’d hoped it would do for the Square Butte photo (never rose up high enough to see the full butte,) but it was good enough.

Square Butte in the morning light.

The sky was just cloudy enough to keep the light interesting, and I found some areas I need to explore further later this summer. Definitely worth the drive.

I was on my way to the coffee shop by 7 am with a camera full of photos. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.

Delicious coffee at Broadwater Coffee Brewing

Sanford Park Campground, and a little camper history

There’s a running joke amongst my friends. I buy campers, sit on them for a bit, then sell them again without even using them once. The last three were like that. I don’t think the Ram van was my fault, though. The first time I loaded it up to go camping, it wouldn’t start. At least I made an attempt.

First there was the pop-tent camper. I was driving a Honda Element at the time, so I needed something super light. The pop-tent fit the bill. One of the aluminum rails was slightly bent, and required a fair amount of force to extend one of the slide outs. Ended up selling it for a little more than I paid.

After the pop-tent was the 1966 Aristocrat Travelier. A friend of a friend just wanted it off his property, so it cost me $50 in gas money to get it hauled from Seattle to Portland. I sold it for $400, never having taken it camping.

Not long after selling the Travelier, I bought my dad’s 1987 Dodge B350 camper van conversion. It was a tank. I drove it from Montana to Portland, parked it, and the first time I tried to go camping, it wouldn’t start. I broke even selling that one. The kid that bought it had some mechanical knowledge, and wanted to strap his motorcycle to the back and travel the country while working remotely. Millenials, amirite? I wish I had kept in touch with him–would love to see pictures of the van around the US.

Finally, last February, I decided to just bite the bullet and buy something new. The RV dealership near my house had a 17′ trailer on sale, so I went to take a look at it. It was part of their 2018 rental fleet, so it wasn’t exactly new, but I figured they probably inspected the thing every time it was rented, so I felt good about buying it. And the price was too good to pass up.

So for the rest of the winter, and into the spring, my friends were placing bets on whether or not this one would actually see a campground.

It did.

My buddy and I decided to head up to Tiber Dam to camp the weekend before Memorial Day. The forecast called for rain, but I lived in Portland for 20 years–you don’t call things off because of rain.

The drive up was windy but dry. I averaged 8mpg and burned half a tank of gas getting there, but it was an easy drive. It’s been decades since I pulled a trailer, so it took a few miles to get used to it again.

My buddy had driven up the day before with his camper, but had to run into town to meet up with his family, so I let his dog out of his camper and started setting mine up. The nice thing about a simple camper is that there isn’t much to set up. Jacks down, awning up, that’s the way we like to… Nevermind.

Once I was all set up, I rewarded myself with a beer.

Sidenote: Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale is my all-time favorite summer beer.

The dogs and I hung out for the rest of the evening, enjoying the peace and quiet that being in an empty campground offers. Why was it empty? We’ll get to that later.

Friday morning, I woke up to the pitter patter of raindrops on the roof of the camper. As forecast, we were getting a little rain. No big deal. The wind had picked up a bit, so I pulled the awning in and made my coffee and breakfast inside.

After a bit, I discovered one of the down sides to a small, simple camper: dogs with gas are lethal. So we decided that we needed to get out of the camper and explore a bit. I loaded them into the truck, and headed out.

This particular campground is in a little valley below the Tiber dam. To get out, one must travel a stretch of dirt road leading up a hill. It’s not a particularly steep hill, and when dry, it appears to be a pretty well-maintained road (the Bureau of Reclamation has offices next to the campground, so I’m sure they take care of it.) What I had forgotten, and in my opinion, the reason the campground was empty, is the type of dirt that graces this part of the state. Sans rain, it’s just nice dirt. But once it gets wet, it turns into a sloppy, slippery mess. I slid my way up the hill and stopped at a parking area on top to make a phone call (there’s no cell reception in the campground.)

When I was ready to leave the parking area, I was greeted by this image on my backup camera.

We decided to drive into Chester to fill up with gas, and discovered that all of the dirt roads were similar to the one leading out of the camp ground. The tires flung chunks onto the hood, the windshield, and the roof. I had a few concerns about actually dragging the campers up and out on those roads, but my buddy said I was being a wuss.

Friday night, my buddy and his family arrived back in the campground, and the quiet solitude was replaced by the happy squeals of kids. We spent most of the time in the campers, as the rain was really coming down at that point.

Saturday morning, we woke up to a little snow.

And a watchful hawk across the river…

We did a little more exploring on Saturday. It was cold, so we opted not to do any hiking. I didn’t care either way–I was just happy to be out of town and actually using my camper. We drove into Chester again so my buddy could fill his truck with gas, and so we could pick up some beer and brats for dinner. The roads were still sloppy.

As is often the case, the weather improved on the last day. We woke up to sun and birds and perfect camping temperatures.

After packing up, we headed up the hill.

I don’t know if it was the sun or the wind or what, but the hill didn’t seem as slippery as it was the days before. We made it up and out without much trouble. It was a long drive down the muddy roads to reach the highway, but nobody was in a hurry.

The road construction on Highway 2 ended up being worse than the muddy roads leading out of the campground. Just one huge series of potholes.

I learned how to dump my tanks in Cut Bank, said goodbye to friends, then headed south to Great Falls. The mud dried into concrete, and required a good hour of pressure washing to remove, but it was worth it.

I know it’s only one camping trip, but it’s one more than I’ve taken in any other camper I’ve owned. Plus, it was the first camping trip of the year, so double points. Ideally, this camper will let me comfortably explore more of the state, and drum up more content for this site. My plan was to take it somewhere every weekend, but life gets in the way sometimes. We’ll see how it goes.


Since the Tiber area is so huge, of course it gets its own project page.