August 13 – Since we had only spent the night in Great Falls on our way up to Alaska we decided to spend a few days exploring and catching up with Dave’s Montana relatives. Aunt Marilyn had done her homework and had a bunch of ideas on things for us to do. We started out at the Great Falls visitor’s center which gave us a brief overview of the history of the city. After that it was up to the brand new Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The center was built because the 200th anniversary of their trip is coming up and the Great Falls area played an important part in their adventure.
The quick history lesson (edited for the attention span impaired). The fledgling United States was afraid of other countries getting the land to the west of its existing boundaries and of other countries attacking from the Gulf of Mexico. They figured the best way to defend against this was to buy the city of New Orleans from the French (who were pretty good guys). President Jefferson sent negotiators to France to but the city, but that wacky Napoleon (who needed money for an upcoming war and knew he couldn’t defend the Louisiana territory if he was fighting in Europe offered to sell them the whole shootin’ match. The negotiators agreed to buy the whole area even though they hadn’t been authorized to spend that much money. When they got back to the U.S. they told Jefferson and Congress what they had done and everybody agreed that at around 4 cents an acre it was a pretty good deal. Of course, there was one little hitch, no one knew what exactly we had bought. The terms of the sale identified the Louisiana Purchase as comprising all the land that drained into the Missouri River. There was also the dream that there existed an easy route to the Pacific Ocean through a fabled Northwest Passage. Jefferson choose Lewis and Clark to explore the territory, find the Northwest Passage, make maps, and befriend the Indians on the way.
Lewis and Clark had to paddle, pole, and pull their boats up the Missouri River in their effort to find the headwaters. The Indians had told the explorers that they would find a great fall in the river and Lewis and Clark had figured that it would take them a day to get around the fall. When they reached what today is Great Falls they found five waterfalls in the river, each one separated by a few miles. They had to pull their boats out and portage them and all their gear for 18 miles to get around the falls (kind of like us on the Sarkar Canoe Route a few weeks ago). What was supposed to take a day took over a month. After conquering the falls they went on to find the headwaters but they never found the magic passage as of course it doesn’t exist. They had lots of other adventures, but those are another story.
Along one of the falls the Forest Service has constructed a brand new interpretive center that gives an overview of the trip including the preparations and what happened afterwards. The exhibits were very well done and were geared to all ages. The center also featured presentations by rangers on different aspects of the journey (Stacie paid close attention to the fishing talk). Unlike most interpretive centers where the same talk is given over and over again all day long, the talks here were always changing so in one visit we had the opportunity to hear four different talks and learn quite a bit. While there are many Lewis and Clark exhibits all along their route, most people agree this is the best one. After the interpretive center Marilyn drove us along the river and we scouted locations for a possible Missouri River experience of our own.
After dinner we got together with Dave’s cousin Jeff and his wife Kim and went out on the town. Since we had been in the wilderness we had no idea what any of the new movies were about so we all went to a mini golf course. We had a lot of fun and the course was very nice. On the way home it was decided that we had to experience the “Sip and Dip.” The April 2003 issue of GQ featured an article entitled “10 Bars Worth Flying For” which named ten bars in the world that were so neat it was worth the cost of a plane ticket just to see them. There were bars listed from exotic places like New York, Tokyo, New Orleans and yes, Great Falls Montana. The Sip and Dip is a throwback to a much earlier day in the world of motels when you needed a novel twist to get guests to choose you instead of the other places. When the hotel was a simple square two story concrete structure with a parking deck built in the middle. The pool deck was on the roof, with the actual pool taking up space on the second floor. The space for the bar was located next to the pool and the designers came up with zany idea of replacing the wall behind the bartender with glass so that bar patrons could watch people swim. How well it did when it opened we don’t know, but today it’s fairly popular. While there are probably a number of bars like this in the country, the Sip and Dip took it all a few steps further. The interior is decorated in a priceless Tiki motif with bamboo on the walls, grass roofs and colored lights. Sitting behind a console with an electric organ and four keyboards is Piano Pat. She’s been at the Sip and Dip since 1962 and performs her harmonized renditions of everything from Patsy Cline to Jimmy Buffet. Her raspy voice adds a special touch to every song. To top it all off on Saturdays and Sundays they have swimmers who wear mermaid costumes perform in the pool. There’s a story that while Daryl Hannah was is town shooting a movie she grabbed one of the costumes and revived her mermaid role from Splash. But, even if the mermaids aren’t performing there’s always a chance of catching a few skinny dippers who don’t know about the glass . . .
Needless to say, we had a great time (if only they had Alaskan Amber).
August 14 – When we finally got moving (we were at the Sip and Dip until near midnite) we decided that it would be nice to get the kayaks wet (it had been a few days). We had located a good spot in the river the day before, about a mile above the highest fall (and the dam that is there today). While things had been quite dry lately, there was still a swift current in the river where it got shallow. We put in below some very mild rapids figuring it was best for us to paddle up river that way we could let the current push us back to the launch site. The rapids gave us a good challenge as the water was very shallow so we couldn’t take deep strokes with our paddles to fight the strong current. We made it through the rapids just fine and from there it was easy calm water paddling against a much slower current. The Missouri runs through town and the stretch we paddled had houses on one side and some newly built hotels near a park on the other. Near where we launched there was a small sandbar with over 25 pelicans (yes pelicans) and hundreds of terns and gulls. We tried to get close for pictures but the pelicans would keep moving away into shallow water. The paddle was quite enjoyable and it was a new experience for us to paddle in just a bathing suit and life jacket (Stacie got a little too much sun).
After our paddle we enjoyed the sandwiches Marilyn had packed for us and then found a local grocery store to restock the cooler for our next few days. We ran into Uncle Doug there and he gave us his shopper’s club card which saved us a bunch! We had a great dinner of BBQ chicken and just as we were finishing cousin Jeff called to say they were going to a ball game (Great Falls has a single A team). Older son Gabe decided not to attend the game so it was Jeff, Kim and the two girls Serena and Laurel. The game was a lot of fun and it was a great bonding experience with the girls who enjoyed Dave’s magic pocket in his T shirt that always had another peanut in it.
August 15 – We awoke to a great breakfast of waffles and sausage. While Dave had run a full virus scan a few nights before and found nothing, the computer was still acting up. Every time it went on line the virus program found the LovSan virus and removed it, but the computer still froze up. Marilyn had noticed an article in the paper about the virus and had saved it. It recommended some sites to try and Dave spent a while fighting and finally after over an hour managed to eradicate it. We said goodbye (and a big thank you) to Doug and Marilyn and headed for Yellowstone Park, which was fighting three major forest fires. We had an uneventful drive to the city of West Yellowstone where we entered the park. We arrived at around 5:30 and stopped in at a visitor’s center. The ranger told us that four of the campgrounds were already full and that there were only a few sites left at the campgrounds that allowed reservations. We didn’t want to stay at any of the reservable campgrounds as they were set up for RV’s and had hundreds of sites so we decided to take our chances and headed for a small campground without modern facilities near the South entrance.
As we made our way through the park we found it smoky and visibility was very limited. We spotted some mule deer along the road and stopped for pictures. Over a third of the park was burned in the fires of 1988 and the area we were passing through was a victim. There were small pine trees growing among a forest of scorched trunks (known as “snags”). After about an hour of driving we reached Lewis Lake and the crampground we had chosen. It’s not a typo, we call the place we stayed a crampground because it looked like they had taken an ordinary campground and doubled its size by cramming another site in between the existing sites. In most places it was hard to tell which table or tent pad belonged to which site (in fact there were often only two tent pads shared by three sites). We were lucky and there were a few sites left so we grabbed the least offensive one we could find and set up for the night. Oddly enough, even though the park was fighting three major fires that were considered out of control campfires were still allowed.