On Friday, April 11th, we found our way to Great Falls, Montana, by way of the Blackfeet Nation in central Montana. We intended to stay at the Air Force base in Great Falls, but their campground was still closed for the season. We found an open commercial campground and decided to stay for two nights because of the impending snowstorm that was approaching. Apparently many other people had the same idea. I think we were the only ones at the campground who weren’t “snowbirds” from Alberta!
On Saturday we decided to take in a few things that Great Falls has to offer to tourists. Even though the weather was cold and it was snowing all day long, we still managed to find our way to the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center. I had expected this to be a quick visit, but we were pleasantly surprised by the impressive exhibits and the sheer size of the museum. They had a “Junior Explorer” program that the younger kids did, and we even watched two different short movies in the movie theater about the Corps of Discovery Expedition by Lewis & Clark. One of the movies was a Ken Burns film.
In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This land acquisition essentially doubled the size of the United States. However, before settlement could take place in this uncharted land, the area had to be mapped out and relations had to be established with the natives who lived in this land. Furthermore, the Northwest Passage (the mythical water pathway that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) hadn’t yet been discovered, and citizen settlers would secure the area for the United States. Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead the Corp of Discovery in an unprecedented expedition to explore the newly acquired territory. Of course, the expedition would have failed had it not been for their Shoshone Indian guide Sacagawea. The purchased territory would later become all or part of 15 states and two Canadian provinces.
Most of their journey was by water until they reached the land that would become Montana. The river had five separate waterfalls, so the team had to portage around the river for eighteen miles. They thought it would take half of a day, but it ended up taking them two weeks! It was an arduous journey which included heat stroke, lemon-sized hail, foot infections from prickly-pear cactus needles, etc. But eventually the corps did complete their portage around the area of Great Falls, reaching the Rocky Mountains and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
(The story of the Lewis & Clark expedition is truly amazing. It is one of Steve’s favorite episodes in history. If you aren’t familiar with its particulars, I encourage you to investigate. It’s a fascinating story!)
After our time at the interpretive center, we drove to the Rainbow Falls of the Missouri River, which is very much changed from the time of Lewis & Clark. Nowadays the river is dammed and a hydroelectric plant creates electricity for the area population. We were going to try driving to see some of the other falls on the river, but the snow was still falling and we thought it would be best to stay on the main roads.
After we saw the waterfall and grabbed a bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, we drove to another area attraction: First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. I suppose because the weather was bad and it was still the off-season, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The visitor center had a nice museum with static displays of the buffalo hunt as the natives would do it, and we had a private presentation by a park ranger about the methodology of the buffalo hunt.
From 900 to 1500 AD, Indian tribes from all over the area would hunt the buffalo near this area. They would round up a herd and corral the herd toward a cliff by disguising themselves as wolves (in the back of the herd) or as a distressed bison calf (in the front of the herd). Because bison are near-sighted, once they started stampeding toward the edge of the cliff, they couldn’t see the danger until it was too late. In one hunt, enough bison could be killed to feed an entire tribe (sometimes two tribes) for an entire winter season – which is LONG in Montana! It is claimed that this was the most efficient hunting method in the history of mankind, as hundreds of bison were killed in one hunt.
At the state park, archaeologists have uncovered a depth of 12 to 18 feet of bison bones at the base of the cliff, along with some arrowheads and other First Nations artifacts. The cliff is about one mile long, and we tried to drive up to it, but our van just couldn’t maneuver on the snow-covered dirt and gravel steep road. It was too slippery for us! So instead we just headed back home.
That night we encountered our coldest night yet in the camper - 14 degrees! Brrr! The snow never stopped that day, and we accumulated more than an inch of snow. However, the snow wasn’t as much of an issue as the ice was. Our slide-out rooms on our camper had frozen open during the night. In order to leave the next morning Steve had to chip away all the ice on the tops of the slide-outs - a slow and tedious task – in order for us to be able to break free, close up the camper, and roll away. Eventually we did manage it, and we left Great Falls to continue our journey across the country.