DAY ONE - SATURDAY, April 26

MY TRIP TO THREE FORKS

I plan to head to Yellowstone tomorrow but since I accomplished my chores yesterday, I find I have time for a little exploring.

Ever since I read the account of Lewis & Clark's journey from St. Louis up the Missouri to points unknown I have been fascinated by their ability to travel through wilderness, to read rivers and rocks, skills that were once perhaps common to mankind when we lived closer to the land, yet seemed especially developed in these leaders. But the place they called Three Forks was the center of my interest, where three rivers merge to form the mighty Missouri. I tried to imagine it, but couldn't understand what that land or those waterways looked like.

Part of my initial delight in buying a home in Bozeman was due to its proximity to that legendary place. So today I make time to travel there. First I look at several maps, trying to gauge the lay of the land, what leads where, which are the roads I should NOT take, etc. I decide to do a loop, from Huffine going west and then return via 90 east.

The day is gorgeous - warm and sunny - a distinct contrast to the hail and intermittent snow of yesterday!

I leave the civilization of Bozeman behind and see vast, open ranches on both sides of the road. There are fences erected around the few lone trees, I suppose to protect them from cows or wildlife or both. I cross a river, probably the Gallatin. There are many fields with horses, too, some lying down, enjoying a sun bath.

And there are mountains in the distance on all sides, covered in snow . It's easy to imagine bison roaming these hills and Blackfeet, too.

The road begins to climb and I see a llama ranch on the right, a red-tailed hawk on the left. For the first half of this drive I see a total of three trucks and two cars on this route. It feels so great to be in such an "empty" place.

The road dips again and soon I see another river, and on its shores a small park with a fishing area, and various un-unsed campsites. This is the Madison River. I can see that this would be a popular spot in summer. I see a huge flock of swans on the river and then I realize the are not swans but pelicans! And I start to see mule deer in various places.

Now the road curves upward through a bit of a canyon. The overhangs hold a great deal of snow in their shady, north-facing spots. I reach a town called Norris, pass a bar, a gas station and a wood-carving store. The fields here are a mix of agricultural and livestock. And here and there are ponds full of ducks.

I see a gray bird with a small body and huge wings - some sort of hawl or perhaps a kestrel? And I see a pair of sandhills, and some pronghorn. I come to a railroad crossing with no lights or warning signal. I suppose the folks here know to look both ways.

I cross a smaller river labeled "North Willow Creek". I see a sign for Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park - I can't resist turning to check it out. I find a small park, deserted with "closed" signs everywhere. It's way too early for the season. But I enjoy just being here and looking around, thinking that perhaps some of the Corps of Discovery may have set foot on this very spot.

I drive on, following signs to Three Forks. The land changes to dry sage hills, eroded rock slopes and stunted trees. I stop at a place called the "Parker Homestead", a fascinating mess of a sod home preserved here by a foresighted ranching family. There are signs on the fences warning of the presence of rattlers so I watch my step.

Soon I see another river and find a sign calling it the Jefferson. Cool! Now I've seen all three. I see cormorants fishing. I start to see homes, some built right above the banks of the river. The whole area is marshy, full of ponds and sloughs that beaver and ducks love. Next I see dozens and dozens of horse trailers and I think there is probably a rodeo in town. It turns out that I have arrived in Three Forks on a very special day - their traditional Horse Stampede event - commemorating a time when ranchers would bring their horse herds in from winter range to summer pastures.

The streets of Three Forks - well, let's say Main Street at least - is lined on both sides with hundreds of people, many families with kids and all have eager faces. It feels to me that the stampede is about to begin. Needless to say I know I need to get off the main drag but it's hard to know how best to do so. I make one turn and a burly official in a long, leather duster shows me the palm of his hand. I stop and roll down my window. He tips his hat to me, saying "Sorry, ma'am, this road is closed". I smile and say - thanks, I am trying to get to Route 90. He smiles and points me in the right direction and off I go. I drive slowly past the beautiful old-fashioned Sacagawea Hotel and see its white wooden steps thick with happy people awating the horses.

As I leave town and see the familar contours of a super-highway in the distance I also note the bumper to bumper parked cars on both sides of the road and the people hurrying to town to see the event. I regret not being able to spend more time investigating the town but my real mission is still before me.

And finally, as I come to the end of the ramp onto I-90, I see it. A wide, flat marsh, carved with dozens of meandering river channels. I see what looks to be a small Park on the north side of the highway so I get off at the next exit and turn around. I follow the signs and soon I'm in Headwaters State Park. THIS is the "real" Three Forks of history. The Park is ony half-way open. There are a few cars here, a jogger or two and two people having a picnic lunch.

I park Jenny and get out to explore a bit on foot. Now I finally understand. Three Forks? More like Thirty Forks! It's a high-altitude marsh of dozens and dozens of channels and as the land to the north east drops, they all combine to give birth to the Missouri. I can now envision Lewis & Clark following a trail up the Missouri and coming to this wide-open spot. How they might have made their way on foot through such a soggy area is the next mystery but they must have explored far enough to see the land rise again and see three distinct river courses. I suppose it's the kind of thing that's obvious to anyone who grows up with western topography but I just could never have envisioned a marsh area so vast, or at this altitude.

It seems like a bird-lovers paradise, as well. I see osprey, a great blue heron, geese, ducks and numerous song birds. I wander around enjoying the views and make a mental note to return in season so I can check out the displays.

I head back toward Bozeman but then take a side trip to see the Madison Buffalo Jump. It's a long, dusty and bumpy road, but for me, well worth it, to look up on such an historic site. There is also an excellent display at a lookout spot opposite the cliff. I have the place to myself, too, which is wonderful. The wind is merciless but the sun is strong so I take my time and imagine the scene 200 years ago.

And on my way back I see the first ground squirrel of this trip dash across the road, and shortly thereafter, watch a coyote trotting along a little stream.

In no time at all I am back in Bozeman, where I begin to pack for my trip to the Park tomorrow.

Today I saw: antelope, 1 coyote, cormorants, 2 sandhill cranes, mule deer, ducks, geese, 1 red-tailed hawk, 1 great blue heron, possibly a kestrel, an osprey, pelicans, a ground squirrel and a place called Three Forks.




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