On this trip, John and I have had a wonderful opportunity of broadening our knowledge of the culture and history of the state of Montana by spending three nights in Helena and another three nights in Great Falls. I wish we could say that we did our research and decided that these two cities were too good to miss. The real reason for these detours from our national park agenda were 1.) we had a credit from Agoda (sort of like Booking.com) that was set to expire and we found a hotel in Helena that would accept the credit and 2.) we had to cancel a reservation on the west side of Glacier National Park due evacuation notices for the Hay Creek fire and needed somewhere to go between Glacier and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were happily surprised that the stays in Helena and Great Falls were both really fun, interesting, and full of surprises. Also, the people in Helena and Great Falls were both very friendly and welcoming to us.
‘Jumping buffalo’ sounds so frolicsome and light-hearted, but a buffalo jump is anything but fun for the buffalo. This is something that John and I hadn’t heard of before we reached Montana and, specifically, visited First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. The buffalo jump was the way that native Americans, notably the Blackfoot and other Plains Indian tribes, historically hunted buffalo before the introduction of horses for the Plains Indians. The buffalo jump refers to a cliff, specifically chosen for the Indians to herd the buffalo over so that, in being forced off the cliff, the animals are injured to the point where a hunter at the bottom of the cliff could use a spear to finish it off. Of course, we wondered how the bison were enticed to go over the cliff to begin with, and it turns out that there is a real art to this involving a buffalo runner, who wore a buffalo skin and made noises to mimic a buffalo calf. This drew the attention of the lead cow, who followed the noise, inducing others to follow her. Other buffalo runners wore wolf skins and agitated the stragglers from behind. Done correctly, the buffalo were soon heading off to jump to their deaths. This type of buffalo hunting is thought to have occurred as long as 12,000 years ago. As awful as it sounds, the buffalo jump was a piece of the long-standing ecology of the region. Man, specifically the Plains Indians, were the apex predator for the bison, which otherwise would likely have had unchecked population increases, eventually leading to starvation. Plus, the tribes depended upon the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, and tools. Life without bison hunting was unthinkable for the Plains Indians.
Our first introduction to prairie dogs was also at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Of course, we’d always heard of prairie dogs, but had never really seen them in action, spread out with their burrows and mounds and in a constant state of activity. It turns out that prairie dogs are a very important part of the ecosystem and are complementary to bison. The prairie dogs like to graze on the heavily grazed sections left by the bison and they are also a keystone species, meaning that they are food for other important species, including eagles and black footed ferrets. They are very communal, living together in their burrows, and are adapted to alert the other prairie dogs to predators by standing on their hind legs and letting out a high-pitched call. The calls vary by the type of predator. Prairie dogs are all over the place in Montana and the Dakotas and they are so darn cute, it’s hard not to stop and watch them.
One of the first places we were directed to in Great Falls was the Sip n Dip, which is a tiki-themed bar that is located in the fifties-era O’Haire Motel. The wall behind the bar is a window into the motel swimming pool, where guests swim. A little before 6 p.m. every evening, the guests are politely asked to leave the pool so that the mermaid can entertain.
We gathered, along with a dozen or so others in the bar, a few minutes before 6:00 and soon enough, the mermaid entered the pool and swam around doing little flips and making other mermaid moves, while guests drank cocktails with little parasols in them. On Tuesday nights, the mermaid takes the evening off and a merman entertains. Sadly, it was not in the cards for us to see him.
A few years ago, the original mermaid from the movie “Splash,” Daryl Hannah, was in town filming the movie Northfork, and was game to don a fin and have a little swim. At other times, guests have gone for a skinny dip, giving the bar patrons a different type of show. The Sip n Dip was once named by GQ magazine as the #1 bar on earth worth flying for. I’m not sure I would get on a plane to go to the Sip n Dip, but it was well worth the three-block walk from our lodging.
The Mighty Mo’
The Missouri River is at a very wide point in Great Falls and is called the Mighty Mo’ by the locals. Giant Springs State Park is a short hop from downtown and is famous for being one of the largest freshwater springs in the country and for being noticed by Lewis & Clark. It is said that Sacajawea fell into ill health while the Corps of Discovery was in the Great Falls area and that William Clark himself went to the spring and brought back water, which revived and healed her. The section between the spring and the Missouri River is now the Roe River, the Missouri’s shortest tributary at 201 feet in length.
Great Falls is so named for the set of five separate waterfalls in the Missouri River encountered by Lewis & Clark. The falls caused the Corps of Discovery to portage an 18 mile stretch, taking them two weeks and creating one of the more difficult portions of the journey. Three of those falls, Black Eagle, Rainbow, and the Great Falls (or the Big Falls), are now hydroelectric dams, which have given Great Falls the nickname: “The Electric City.”
Cool stuff in Helena
We loved the history in Helena – it is the state capital and has a beautiful capitol building and a wonderful Montana Museum of History. Drive down the road a few miles, and there is a two-hour cruise on the Missouri River through an area dubbed by Meriwether Lewis as the Gates of the Mountains. We also happened to be in town on the night that the Montana Shakespeare Festival made its annual visit to town, offering an outdoor performance of the seldom-performed play “Cymbeline.” We picked up a picnic at the grocery store and joined the fun.
We were very impressed by the many contributions of the Montana Historical Society, which seems to be active everywhere. We learned from someone who works at the MHS Museum in Helena that, just a few months after Montana was organized as a territory in 1864 (statehood would not happen until 1889), legislation was passed to develop the MHS, which later became a state agency. There was a reason for this: the legislation was introduced and passed so that the Montana Vigilantes, who kept the peace in Virginia City and other parts of the territory, could control the narrative of their sometimes controversial activities. The MHS now sponsors museums and informational plaques posted in front of quite a few of the homes built in Helena and Great Falls in the early twentieth century. It was fun to walk the neighborhoods and read about the early owners and their houses.