I consider myself a hard-core Minnesotan. I've lived here much of my life; travelled the world telling anyone who would listen how great our state is. I've apologized for snow in May, mosquitos the size of hummingbirds, 100% humidity and our "unique" brand of politics. I truly love MN so forgive me when I say this....Montana is the "Last Great Place".
For the past two years I've been working on a television production based in Montana. Wardens, airs January-June on Outdoor Channel. We follow the daily operations of Montana game wardens. Last week I had a chance to drive across the state filming for our upcoming season. What I encountered would be the envy of anyone who appreciates the outdoor lifestyle. Montana is the Treasure State. Spend a few days there and you'll understand why!
I travelled with my high-school friend Pat Pinske and Minneapolis-based (award winning) videographer, Cy Dodson. We caught the last flight out on a Sunday and three hours later arrived in Missoula. An hour long ride to Hamilton found us at the home of Wardens series creator/producer, Steve Puppe. A mere 1000 miles away from MN but feels like a different planet. I've made this trip five or six times before and one of my favorite memories is to open the door of Steve's truck and smell the mountain-fresh air. His place is surrounded by mountains and sage. I wish I could bottle the smell! When you enter Steve's house your are greeted by 40-50 sets of eyeballs from the trophy mounts that line his walls. Steve had been on the road for the weekend so we were also greeted with 40 degree temps indoors! Nothing a few chunks of oak on the stove wouldn't fix in short order!
After a few short hours of sleep we filmed a series of interviews and re-creations with a couple of Wardens. We needed a location with mountainous terrain so we drove down the road about 5 miles. As we drove back to our base the Wardens in front of us stopped and did a license check on a hunter. Turned out to be a bighorn sheep hunter, Toby Knapp (with Minnesota roots) who had just shot his first ram! With less than 200 rams shot in Montana each year we were pretty lucking to see this one and snap this cool picture.
We learned from Toby about pneumonia that is decimating herds of sheep in Montana killing over 60% of the sheep that show signs of the ailment. He had been hunting for 30 days and was on this ram for 5 when he noticed it was coughing and opted to take a shot. Turned out to be a trophy of a lifetime and not the last bighorn encounter we'd have this week.
The next morning we set off for a 2.5 hour drive to Anaconda. In Montana its best to measure distance by hours. Anaconda is probably less than 80 miles from Hamilton but you have to cross Skalkaho Pass which closes in the winter. It's about 160 miles when you have to go through Missoula. We had just had a dusting of snow so I made the decision to take Pat and Cy on a little adventure through the Bitterroot Mountains. We weren't dissapointed. Even before he hit the mountain road we crossed paths with two ewes and took some cool close up pics. Sadly, one of the two was coughing and would probalby secumb to pneumonia within the next 72 hours.
Shortly after our ewe encounter we passed the barricade and for about 25 miles we chugged along in a Chevy 2500 Diesel with a 4" lift kit following tire tracks from the only other vehicle to dare take the pass that day. My view for the next few hours looked like this:
In fact, it was actually much worse....at many points on the road you could only see the treetops 10' from the road. It was extremely steep and dropped several hundred feet at multiple sections. Near the pass the snow was over a foot deep and had drifted over the tracks we were following. Pat was kind enough to get out and blaze a new trail for us by foot so we could make it though safely. I seriously considered turning back at this point but the trip down the mountain didn't seem any more appealing than charging forward with our adventure. At the peak the snow was over 18" deep and deeper in some areas due to drifting...without the lift kit we would have been toast!
About half way through the trip we stopped at Skalkaho Falls. It's a beautiful waterfall that I saw last summer. It's a popular tourist destination in the summer but only snowmobilers will see it in the winter. Here you can see it side by side!
What seemed like a lifetime but was probably only an hour, we made it to the other side of the mountain range on a gravel road with a posted 70 mph speed limit. Once we hit pavement I stopped and kissed the gound. Seriously, Pat has a picture to prove it. I'm guessing we were one of last vehicles to make it through Skalkaho Pass before it was closed for the season. It was at that point that I decided to never challenge Mother Nature again like we did that day. Every few years in the spring they recover a vehicle and its occupants who didn't survive the adventure (we were told after the fact!). Needless to say on the return trip we stuck to the interstate!
Our choice to cross the pass was rewarded by what waited on the road a few short miles ahead. As we neared Anaconda there was a road sign with a flashing yellow light that read "When light is flashing look for Bighorn Sheep". We all thought it would be pretty cool to see more sheep and as we rounded the corner I yelled at Pat to slow down and watch out for the sheep. He was looking left and right and I screamed "they're in our lane!!". Sure enough four trophy rams were bunched up in our lane. The previous evenings snowfall and pushed them to a lower altitude and they were licking salt off the road. They were a little annoyed with our presence but hung out long enough to let us snap a few pictures.
Once we reached Anaconda we interviewed a vetranarian who had survived a bear attack earlier in the year. Turns out his daughter works in Plymouth, MN. Apparently all roads in Montana lead back to Minnesota!
We continued on to Bozeman for the night and hit a traditional hot spring. I used to think a natural hot spring would pools of water surrounded by mountains and boulders. Turns out many hot springs look more like your local YMCA. The only difference is the water is pumped in daily and cooled down from 160 degrees so you don't get burned. In short, it's like being in a big hot tub that smells like rotton eggs. Strangely, we enjoyed it!
The next morning we rolled on to Billings; Montana's largest city. We filmed a re-creation of an interesting investigation that resulted in multiple arrests. Tune in to Wardens this year for the details. While we were in the FWP district office Warden Kevin Holland recieved word of 2 poached deer that were killed and abandoned in their region. We decided to stake out the area hoping the poachers would return to make an effort to recover the animals. 4 hours between 10 PM and 2 AM didn't produce any action but we had a good time anyway.
The next morning we wrapped up our filming and drove seven hours back to Hamilton. We had our last shoot the next morning in the Missoula Crime Lab where we intereview a firearms examiner and took some great video with the GOPRO shooting bullets from a .40 handgun into a water tank.
So in about 100 hours we logged over 1200 miles and saw some amazing sights in Montana. As much as I love Minnesota I'm thinking someday I'll find my home in Montana. The hardest part will be picking a location! Actually not, if I can convince my wife I think we'll end up in Bozeman!
For more information on Wardens visit Outdoor Channel
For more information on Montana go to Travel Montana