It’s been a busy week and a half since Brett and Erica arrived – so busy that I’ve let myself be a bit late on the blog updating – tsk tsk! Anyway, we’ve been showing Erica some of the sights of hopping Helena, done some shopping, caught up with the extended Voegele clan, visited Glacier National Park and visited the town where Brett went to college.
For the record, in case someone doesn’t know enough about Helena to read the sarcasm in my description of Helena, it’s a relatively small city (pop. 30,000). At least to a couple of gals from Sydney. But it has its own charms; it’s been nice to show Erica around and for me to have a bit more time to explore. We checked out the old fire tower, the museum and the beautiful old church which makes you realise how important Helena was during the era when gold was plentiful here. Back in the day Helena had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the US. The church was funded by a couple of them and the materials were appropriately luxurious, with the stunning stained glass windows being ordered from Munich. To this day the Zettler firm claims that the windows created for the church are the most impressive they’ve ever made, and today’s craftsmen can no longer replicate their quality or depth of colour.
Having a bit more time in town has also meant that Brett’s been able to catch up with a few people he hasn’t seen for a while, including his aunts and uncles, most of whom came over for a family BBQ a few days ago. There were quite a few of them, and I’m glad there wasn’t a name quiz at the end of the day! They live in various parts of Montana, but here people seem to take a 2 hour (one way) drive in their stride.
Before Brett and Erica arrived I tagged along as Merlin and Laura drove out to the local Hutterite colony to buy vegetables. I thought it would be a quick drive but it was 1 hour each way! It was interesting to see the colony though; the Hutterites seem to be OK with buying modern equipment as long as it has a practical value, not just comfort or luxury. Historically they started out in Austria though they were persecuted and left, with most of today’s 42,000 Hutterites living in North America. Though I can recognise their language as Germanic I can’t understand it, it’s a variation of 16th century German which is now known as Hutterite German or Hutterisch.
We also spent a night out at the Whitetail, the Voegele ranch. It’s not a ranch in the sense that they grow crops or raise animals, it’s more a retreat and, in the season, a base for hunting. We were lucky enough to see a couple of elk, not an overly common sight at this time of year, though the bow hunting season had started. Hunting permits are strictly regulated and I didn’t realise that each hunter was only allowed to kill one animal per year. The number of permits and whether you can shoot a male or female is all controlled by the department for fish and game, who make decisions based on herd size. I still don’t think I could hunt an animal but it’s good to know that the people making decisions are thinking about long term sustainability. I did shoot a gun while up there (and didn’t do too badly at hitting the target), and Erica had a lot of fun driving the road grader around and making herself useful. The cabin was a haven of luxury despite having no running water or electricity. Propane tanks provided lighting and a working refrigerator and the pit toilet was amongst the best I’ve ever used.
On another overnight trip we headed up north to Glacier National Park, on the border with Canada. Its eponymous glaciers are melting rapidly due to climate change and they say that by 2030 none will remain. A photo exhibition comparing historical photos with more recent ones showed some striking differences, in less than 100 years. Despite the doom and gloom we enjoyed our visit. Or should I say, despite the awful weather. The first day was passable, if overcast, but on the second day we had almost constant rain. Still, what we could see of the valleys and mountain peaks was impressive, we did some nice short hikes and on our first day we were lucky enough to see a grizzly bear and cub. They got pretty close by the time we left, close enough that you didn’t need binoculars and started to wonder where the car was in case the mother bear decided to charge. But they were relaxed, eating berries and zig-zagging across the countryside in search of the next tasty bush.
We also saw a few other bits of wildlife, a pika (sort of like a squirrel), a marmot who stood and whistled on top of his mound, some bighorn sheep who hung out near the information centre and some mule deer we came upon on one of our hikes. All in all I think we did pretty well for only 2 days in the park. On the drive up there we also stopped off at a dinosaur museum which displayed an incredibly huge life-sized model of a Seismosaurus skeleton. First discovered in New Mexico in 1979, the bones show that the dinosaur was 41.7m long and stood 7m tall at the hip. The reason it was called Seismosaurus? Because the ground probably shook when it went by. Huge!
After an admin day today we’re heading off south tomorrow. We’ll do a few social visits on our way down to Yellowstone, spend a few days in the park, and then head down to Denver via the Rocky Mountains and Grand Tetons. Then it’s further south to Houston, Texas and then Louisiana for Brett to do some things for work though we have no idea when more work might be coming his way so it’s making further planning a little tricky.