A Bison Range, Mission Church Murals, and 4 Pounds of Strawberries

After we crossed over Lolo Pass into Montana and made a stop in Missoula to reprovision we began making our way back toward Libby. We had a few days before our build however so after consulting the map we decided to stop south of Flathead Lake. We already knew of the National Bison Range nearby and so started with a visit there.

The range was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt in order to conserve the decimated species – whose numbers had fallen below a hundred animals at that time. Federal funds were used to purchase a small herd of the animals from a private seller. Today between 350 and 500 bison roam the nearly 19,000 acres, maintained under natural conditions; in order to not overwhelm the ecosystem the herd is kept at that size and live animals are sold of every year. The refuge, though predominantly grassland, also contains ponderosa pine and douglas fir forest as well as riparian areas that support a wide variety of wildlife including Rocky Mountain Elk (none of which I saw unfortunately), mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and both black and grizzly bear, among others.

We (of course) opted to take the 19 mile drive through the refuge which allowed us to view hundreds of the magnificent bison, some of whom were quite close to the road. We spent at least 2 hours driving and admiring the creatures though we also took a short 1 mile walk on the trail at the summit of Red Mountain that provided us some spectacular views of the surrounding valley and the Mission Mountains to the east. We also happened upon a brown bear cub chomping down on the grass 10 feet from the road. I took a couple videos (obviously from the vehicle) that showed his face but upon reviewing my photos I realized that I didn’t get many good still shots of him. Mama bear was nowhere in sight.

As special as the bison were, we enjoyed just driving though the beautiful open grassland itself. It’s definitely a place I’d return – though I think I’d time my visit to early morning or late evening in hopes of seeing some elk.

This was the best still shot I captured of the bear cub:

In addition to our drive in the bison range we also stopped to admire the murals at St. Ignatius Mission. The present church was built in the 1890s next to the original wooden mission and is notable for it’s 58 murals, painted by Brother Joseph Carignano. Remarkably, Carignano was a self-taught artist, and worked as a cook at the mission. The paintings are fantastic both in form and in their use of vibrant color. Though I am unfamiliar with the biblical narratives they depict I am able to attest to their descriptive, life-like story telling.

Finally, during our stop in Missoula we had procured 4 pounds of strawberries which unfortunately all ripened at exactly the same time – approximately 18 hours after we departed. This meant that I got to experiment with a new recipe: banana strawberry muffins. I frequently make banana muffins in some form or another but I decided to try a different approach that resulted in some very yummy results indeed. They will be replicated! Still, with 4 pounds I obviously had to take more drastic measures and so I also made shortcakes for dessert(s) which was particularly great for me because strawberry shortcake happens to be my favorite. Sacrifices, sacrifices….