Dodging Forest Fires in the Belt Mountains

We’re not in Oregon dodging that colossal fire—we’re still in Montana.

How can you top the Beartooth?  Our plan is to head north, cross Glacier National Park on Highway 2 (that we left because of the heat), and see if we can boondock for a good long while at my friend Jess’s family house on Flathead Lake. 

To get there, though, we want to hop from one Forest Service dispersed-camping site to another, all up in the mountains to stay cool.

Finding a Site

We tried near the town of White Sulpher Springs, which is close to my friend Tom (not the Tom who lives in Missouri, but the one who lives in Montana, obvs.). Turns out, a huge music festival is happening there this weekend (who knew Montana had become so popular?) with some of our favorite bands. However, not only is it sold out, but camping prohibits dogs (understandably), which prohibits us.  Dude, Taj Mahal, we were so very close. 

More significant to us finding a spot is that the National Forest roads in the area were closed due to forest fire as we were driving through. As in, we could see the smoke and the emergency vehicles on their way and we passed the Incident Camp at a ski resort. Good luck, White Sulphur Springs.

Our next potential site was 100% full, which wasn’t unexpected seeing as how it was just one site off the road.  

We even considered a little, empty Forest Service campground also right off the road, but there wasn’t any attraction there, just a place to stop for the night. 

Which is similar to what we settled for, but down a small, dirt Forest Service road off the town of Monarch, through the Little Belt Mountains, along the Belt River. We stopped at this pretty site, but as soon as we unhitched, we knew we’d leave in the morning due to vehicles barreling down the dirt road feet from the trailer, kicking up long trains of dust.  

This is a popular ATV route, and everyone who vacations from Great Falls is here this weekend.  (At least those not at the music festival or the Hell’s Angels meeting.)

After a dusty night, we left the trailer and drove farther down the dirt road, eight miles actually, and found this spot in a meadow overlooking the creek.  Perfect.  We pitched the tent to save our spot, then went to get the trailer.  

There was no need for us to have saved the spot; no other camper has come to the site beside us (which is a hilarious way to describe a site that’s so far away it didn’t even fit in this photo). People do drive by on the road way above us, on their ATVs and pulling their campers to park near the creek and fish. 

That creek is down below us, not as loud here as Rock Creek but flowing nonetheless, and Tracy’s been fishing it.  

We’ve played cards in the tent and saved a hummingbird that got trapped inside, and we walked out down some of the ATV trails. Banjo’s been hunting small critters in the tall grass around us, and, on the way here, Tracy saw a badger as well as pronghorn antelope. Spruce grouse scurry throughout the woods and on the roadside. 

Banjo Swims to Lead the Pack

We have to drive out to get cell signal (which, after three weeks now I do miss), and on one venture we decided to hike an official trail.  We tried several trailheads labeled on our map, only to discover they, too, were closed due to fire activity.  

It’s true we can see a closer fire that’s ongoing over the mountains from the campsite; in fact the first time I was alerted to it was when I was reading outside and became aware of the quality of the sunlight changing.  I looked up to see what apocalypse was up next and saw huge smoke blowing across the mountains, obscuring the sun. 

(Three days later as I’m writing this, the wind has died down and I can’t see the smoke from the campsite.  Hope it’s out.  I don’t mean to make light of the fires as just keeping us from camping and hiking; fire season here and in Northern California is terrible.)

After we were turned away from all our potential hikes, we kept driving down a windy, long gravel road in the mountains until we happened upon a state park trailhead that was open.  

It’s the Sluices State Park, named for what miners used to call these mountains. The geography from so much tectonic upheaval and glacier movement has created huge canyons that look like sluices, a kind of sieve (I believe) for old-school mining. A silver mine here was the cause of early development, including the railroad that we saw remnants from on the hike. 

The mountains are indeed striking, with deep-red cliffs and lots of ponderosa pines. 

On this trail, we crossed the Belt River (same as by our campsite) something like 12 times, twice with the water over my knees and flowing strong enough that I was hanging on to my new walking stick (thank you whittler Tracy) for my life. Okay, for the life of my phone in my pocket; I would have been fine if I’d fallen. Still, I haven’t backed up that phone since Michigan and I was glad not to go for a dip with it. 

Banjo doesn’t love the water.  She’ll wade in happily to cool off and have a drink, but she’s no enthusiastic swimmer.  She is, though, very competitive when it comes to hiking—she always has to be in front. 

On this hike, because crossing the creek was part of the trail, she pulled ahead even through fast-running water over her chest—for the sake of leading the pack down the trail.  Thanks for your help leading us, Banjo.  

Long-awaited Reunion

I mentioned that we tried to find a spot near my friend Tom, but we ended up driving two hours north of his house.  He’s like a superhero friend though—he drove out to us anyway, past Monarch, down the wrong gravel roads, through the woods to Grandmother’s house and back again.  Finally he found us.

Tom and I met in 18th-century English Lit. class, of all places, at the University of Montana in 1990.  He was finishing a journalism degree and I was getting an MA in Lit.  In truth, we were there to hang out with writers. 

Missoula back then held two distinctions: the most published writers per capita and the most mountain bikes.  Man, did we enjoy the company of those writers (Tom cemented lifelong friendships with many through a poker group, and I took a class in billiards to up my game with them), plus we both developed a love of biking as our main transportation. And then there was my friendship Tom, an even better find.

Oh man, just a couple of hours with an old friend is not enough, even when you jam in every conversation topic you’ve been waiting to share. Tom is the ultimate conversationalist. If you’re south of Missoula looking for a chat with a mason (the stone kind, not the secret society kind), a journalist, a poet, a poker player, an avid fan of the big three (the Boss, Dylan, and Elvis—Costello, of course) then look up Tom: he’s your man.  

He’s another reason to stay in Montana this summer and poke around every place we can think of.  Onward north!  

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