Big Sky Spotlight: Meet Becky Hillier
For the past two years, Becky Hillier has served as a volunteer board member for the Big Sky Honor Flight, the free trip to Washington, D.C., that honors and thanks the veterans for their selfless sacrifices. Hillier has so far made the special trip with hundreds of Montana WWII veterans.
Becky Hillier offers a very firm handshake. It telegraphs her focus and intensity – qualities she’s called upon since she competed in the Miss America pageant at age 17.
On a lark, Becky McRae joined friends trying out for the Miles City pageant. She won and went on to become Miss Montana 1988.
“I loved to sing and perform” as a member of high school choirs and plays, Hillier said. “I won Miss Congeniality, too, so that helped.”
She was the youngest contestant in the Miss America that year.
In 1990, she married Mitch Hillier, a Billings police officer. She and Mitch were living in Rapid City, S.D., and she enrolled at Black Hills State University in nearby Spearfish where a professor told her she was wasting time in school.
“He told me ‘you have talent, ambition and need someone to give you a break,’ ” Hillier said.
The break came in 1996 at the Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City, where she hustled a job from C.W. Wilcox at local KYUS radio station. Wilcox had broadcast her basketball games at Custer County High. At 6 feet tall, Hillier played post.
Two days later, Wilcox hired her. A one-woman news department, her days ran from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“I was exhausted. I wanted to be a real journalist. I had to prove myself. I started at the absolute bottom,” Hillier said.
She produced a 5-minute news blip for noon and evening broadcast. After three months in Miles City, a new NBC TV affiliate in Rapid City – Mitch had remained there – hired her, where she did the morning local insert to the Today Show. In a year, she was doing full news.
Moving to Madison, Wis., in 2002, Hillier was the main anchor and health reporter at WMTV NBC 15 for five years. The family returned to Billings in 2007. Hillier has a son, 21, who is a student at Montana State University-Billings and a daughter, 15, who is at West High School.
“It was burnout and I was looking for something outside journalism,” Hillier said.
In 2008, she joined the staff at Rocky Mountain Hospice. In 2010, she returned to broadcasting at KTVQ for a year. Since 2011, she has been the regional public relations/media relations director at Rocky Mountain Hospice, where she educates people as to the role of hospice care.
“There are so many misconceptions. Knowledge reduces fear. We are there for the terminally ill whether it be for 30 minutes or four to five years. Not just the final days or hours,” Hillier said. “It is a philosophy of care in the home.”
Besides helping raise money, Hillier is a cheerleader for the program.
“I am the captain of the Blue Bus when the flight gets to Washington, D.C. The 37-hour weekend is jammed with events so that the veterans get to see as many of the city’s memorials as possible,” she said. “Most important is the WWII Memorial.”
There have been seven trips from Montana that have taken 602 veterans. All from WWII, except one terminally ill Vietnam veteran.
“We have three buses and one van. I act as a tour guide and take roll call every time we move on. Have not lost anyone yet,” Hillier said. “At the banquet, I MC and sing the national anthem. The Vietnam veteran, who has since died, visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He was moved by the children, especially a Boy Scout in uniform who approached him.”
What does it mean to work with the veterans?
It has been a real blessing to get to know them, to make them feel like they are the center of the universe. [I am glad to have] done this really nice thing. Growing up in Miles City there were people who were in WWII who came to our basketball games. This has renewed my appreciation for them. I have an affinity for the military. At the end of my reign (as Miss Montana) I went on a USO-type show in 1989 to military bases in South Korea, Japan, Hawaii, Okinawa, Iwo Jima.
Why donate your time this way?
My boss, (Robert Meyer, regional executive director of Rocky Mountain Hospice) an Air Force officer in the first Gulf War, asked me to check it out. Was it legitimate? He offered my services. He really wanted to help get it off the ground. In January 2012, I joined the board to focus on media relations. To explain to veterans what Big Sky Honor Flight is – for them.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
We don’t get away a lot. We like to go to Red Lodge for a weekend. Also, there is a cabin on the Stillwater River where there is no phone or cable TV.
What three words describe Montana?
Beautiful. Majestic. Peaceful.
Jim Gransbery is a retired agricultural/political reporter of The Billings Gazette. He writes from Billings.
Glacier’s longest-running hiking crew forms close bond with park
Story and photos by Becky Lomax
On a gray drippy day, a group of 16 Flathead Valley hikers, ages 60 to mid-80, eyeball the pouring rain.
Inside their restaurant meeting place on the west side of Glacier National Park, no one looks at a menu to order breakfast.
The waitress, greeting the regulars by name, asks, “You want the usual?”
One member quips, “With the rain, maybe we should stick around for lunch.”
But weather does not deter these weekly hikers. Not rain, snow or single-digit temperatures.
Every Thursday, nearly year round, the Over the Hill Gang meets at the Glacier Grill in Coram.
After breakfast, they depart to multiple trailheads – some to lung-busting, seldom-visited peaks, and others to worn paths where every red mudstone and gnarled sub-alpine fir is a familiar friend.
It was 1976 when five men in their 60s launched the Over the Hill Gang.
Since then, the gang has grown, evolved with new faces, and garnered the reputation as the longest running hiking group in Glacier. The big adventurers have climbed to hidden lakes, bushwhacked cross-country routes, and summited crags, often returning after dark.
For hikers that could have bragging rights as giant as the roster of peaks they’ve climbed, they ditched egos years ago behind some clump of beargrass in favor of camaraderie.
Glacier’s Over the Hill Gang
Year Established: 1976
Headquarters: Glacier Grill, Coram
Membership dues: $0
Hiking day: every Thursday, year-round
Attendance: approximately 30, for peak summer hikes
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Goat Haunt: Glacier’s unlikely passport portal
You may – or may not – need your passport to get into this slice of heaven inside Glacier National Park.
It depends on how you get there. As writer Becky Lomax explains, Goat Haunt inside Glacier National Park is both accessible front country, and hard-to-reach backcountry.
But, for full disclosure’s sake, we have to tell you, there aren’t any goats in Goat Haunt.
Despite its remoteness, Goat Haunt has a unique history. Its name comes from Goat Haunt Mountain, an 8,641-foot high summit to the east, perhaps named by the Blackfeet for a concentration of goats.
But mountain goats do not inhabit Goat Haunt. The elevation is too low and the heavy forest surrounding it is not their favored habitat. The only goat is a metal weather vane on top of the observation pavilion.
Read more here.
And if you’ve ever been to Goat Haunt, we’d love to hear your stories – send them our way to email@example.com.
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Glacier’s Goat Haunt is an unlikely passport portal
By Becky Lomax
No roads reach Goat Haunt. The secluded Glacier National Park outpost is tucked three miles south of the Canadian border at the nexus of a few hiking trails. Despite its remoteness in Montana, anyone can get to this far-flung place.
For most visitors, the route is via Canada.
Isolated on the south tip of Waterton Lake, Goat Haunt is one of the least visited places in Glacier National Park. While Logan Pass clogs with cars each summer, Goat Haunt sees some day hikers arrive on foot, a few backpackers and boat tour sightseers every couple hours.
- To explore Goat Haunt through a Glacier National Park web cam, click here.
Beyond that, a motorboat or two stops by. Of the record-breaking 2.3 million visitors to Glacier in 2014, only 34,000 visited Goat Haunt.
“You’re so secluded in Goat Haunt,” said Denny Gignoux, co-owner of Glacier Guides that takes about 20 trips of backpackers in, out or through Goat Haunt every summer. “But it’s very easy to get into the backcountry. Trails get you into fabulous alpine country, and it’s a great destination for day hikers to enjoy and then return to the amenities in Waterton.”
Goat Haunt is part front country, part backcountry.
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Montana’s powerful tie to the Doolittle Raids
Montana has a powerful history when it comes to the Doolittle Raid that marked a moral boosting turning point for the Allies in WWII.
Several of the final survivors of the raid are from Montana, including David Thatcher and Edward Saylor.
Saylor passed away this week, at the age of 94.
He was a young flight engineer-gunner and among the 80 airmen who volunteered to fly the risky mission that sent B-25 bombers from a carrier at sea to attack Tokyo on April 28, 1942. The raid launched earlier than planned and risked running out of fuel before making it to safe airfields.
“It was what you do … over time, we’ve been told what effect our raid had on the war and the morale of the people,” Saylor told The Associated Press in a 2013 interview.
Tom Casey, a manager for the Doolittle Raiders, said in an interview that despite the risks, “they all volunteered to go anyway.”
“He did something very famous,” Casey said.
Saylor grew up in Brusett and spent 28 years serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Another Raider, David Thatcher, still calls Missoula home.
Thatcher is known for deflecting praise for this role in the raids.
He told a Missoulian reporter in 2013 that the mission was “just part of the war effort.”
Thatcher was part of a final Doolittle reunion in 2013.
The four of them flew to Ohio on Friday in a four-passenger jet sent over from Billings. They were met by two other Thatchers – son Jeff of Little Rock, Ark., and daughter Becky Keller of Jamestown, N.D.
Thatcher, along with Doolittle’s co-pilot Richard Cole, 98, of Texas, and Montana native Edward Saylor, 93, of Washington, met at the Doolittle Raider Monument at Memorial Park in Dayton for a wreath ceremony that was followed by a perfectly timed B-25 flyover, Dawn Thatcher said.
The fourth living Raider, Robert Hite, couldn’t make it, but he and his family watched the final toast ceremony on computers from their home in Tennessee.
Thatcher took part in the first bombing of Rome in 1943 and 25 other missions after the daring Doolittle Raid. He told interviewers it was all part of the job he’d signed up for when he joined the service before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Here’s to these brave men and all our Montana service members.
Lake McDonald Lodge, Granite Park and Sperry chalets reach century mark
By Becky Lomax
A flurry of new destinations threw open their doors in Glacier National Park a century ago. In summer 1914, Lake McDonald Lodge and two backcountry chalets admitted visitors who gaped in awe at the splendor — both inside and outside. This summer, 100 years later, visitors can have much the same experience as in the early days overnighting at these three National Historic Landmarks owned by the U.S. National Park Service.
If you’ve been there, done that. Think again. You might need to tack on a repeat trip to Lake McDonald Lodge, Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet.
Because although the lodges retain the look and feel of the original days with distinctive stonework and log beam-and-post architecture, a few recent changes make the modern experience different.
Stay in a chalet
For reservation information about Glacier National Park’s chalets visit:
Lake McDonald Lodge, www.glaciernationalparklodges.com, 855-733-4522
Granite Park Chalet, www.graniteparkchalet.com, 888-345-2649
Sperry Chalet, www.sperrychalet.com, 888-345-2649
To view the entire story on lodge and chalets, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Glacier’s mountain goats: Alpine icon under observation
By Becky Lomax
Mark Biel, natural resources program manager for Glacier National Park, estimates that up to 100 mountain goats hang around the Logan Pass in the park’s sweeping, scenic and well-traveled zone between Hidden Lake, Haystack Butte and the East Side Tunnel. Delighted visitors frequently encounter the high alpine icons in the parking lot and on the Hidden Lake and Highline trails.
Those encounters are under observation.
That’s in part because the human footprint is growing in Glacier National Park.
Despite a well-used shuttle system designed to reduce vehicles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Logan Pass parking lot still fills to capacity in midsummer by 10 a.m., and hikers have increased by 250 percent on some corridor trails. In addition to vehicle congestion and crowding on trails, the human footprint has upped pressure on wildlife, smashed vegetation, trampled trails wider, and spread non-native invasive plants at all shuttle stops.
The National Park Service – charged with balancing the delicate interplay between the visitor experience and protecting park resources – launched a Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor study to gather data to design a management plan. In addition to evaluating how to make the shuttle system financially viable, the plan aims to address congestion on the road and trails with an eye to the future. It’s a journey to answer the question of how to manage higher visitation, respond to future impacts and better protect resources.
To get tabs on the human footprint, the study is collecting data on levels of use and time of use on trails, roads and in parking lots.
But one of the big concerns is the increased pressure on wildlife, specifically with the interaction between humans and mountain goats in the Logan Pass area.
That’s where Biel comes in.
“We’re hoping that the study will give us a better idea of how to manage human interactions with wildlife,” Biel said. “Because mountain goats are so accessible at Logan Pass, it’s the poster child for human and wildlife interaction.”
Biel readily admits that little is known about mountain goats. Biologists don’t even know if the same goats hang out at Logan Pass year to year, or if the Haystack and Hidden Lake Overlook herds interchange with each other.
“We don’t even know when they come down from the cliffs. No research has occurred on mountain goats in the Logan Pass area to determine what impacts, if any, the high number of park visitors and associated trails and road may be having on mountain goats. We hope to learn more about the type and intensity of wildlife-human interactions as well as gain a better understanding of mountain goat movements on the landscape,” he said.
The three-year study, now in year two, is gathering data in several ways, including outfitting 20 mountain goats with radio and GPS collars. The effort unites the collaboration of biologists from the National Park Service, University of Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Last summer, the biologists collared six adult goats – one male and five females – that will wear the collars until they are programmed to fall off in 2016. The less expensive collars contain radio transmitters that provide information only when the goats are tracked on foot or by air. Two of the females sport pricey GPS collars, which log their locations every two hours by satellite. As of the end of May, Biel had received more than 3,300 data points per goat.
The GPS collars should reveal mountain goat movement patterns: how and when they use roads and trails.
“We want to develop base line of the use, so we can manage human interactions effectively,” Biel said.
Even though Glacier’s mountain goat population seems healthy to Biel, the collaring process yields a chance to gather further data. At least one collaring occurred adjacent to the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, offering hikers a rare look at the process. During the 20-30 minutes that the goat is sedated, biologists take blood, hair, mucus and fecal samples to assess health. Biologists hope tests can also reveal the levels of metabolites in goats that might come from licking antifreeze in the parking lots.
Biel hopes to answer one question: why goats hang out right near trails with so much human traffic?
Biologists speculate goats might be attracted to places where the number of humans may provide refuge from predators. This year, they aim to test that theory by dispersing bear and wolf scat in locations to see if the goats steer clear and broadcasting sounds of predators from a speaker to see how the goats react.
Because individual goats are hard to distinguish from one another, biologists may start marking some goats with a paintball pistol to observe repeated behaviors or interactions with visitors that may adversely affect the goats or humans. Before the paint fades away within two weeks, biologists should be able to track the goat’s movements by eyesight from a distance. Since the paintball pistol will also stimulate pain without injury, similar to hazing methods used on bears, biologists can also gather data on this technique as a method to condition goats to stay away from high use trails or other areas.
Wesley Sarmento, a graduate student from the University of Montana, plays a hefty day-to-day role in the mountain goat research. For 60 days last summer, he spent 12 hours per day keeping tabs on mountain goats at Logan Pass. On the Highline Trail, he watched goats block hikers from passing. He observed goats licking salts off handrails and places on the ground where people urinated. He saw a nanny charge when a person stepped between her and her kid. He spotted a feeding goat oblivious to a grizzly bear nearby, supporting the theory that the goats feel protected around humans.
Repeatedly, he noted positive visitor responses to the goats.
“People really enjoy seeing the goats,” he said. “Having close encounters with wildlife is an extraordinary experience, especially with the usually cliff-loving goats. For many people, it’s the highlight of their trip.”
Despite seemingly docile encounters between goats and people, Sarmento adds that visitors still need to maintain distance with the goats because any wild animal can be deadly.
While mountain goat research will aid the park service in understanding human-wildlife interactions, climate warming could pressure wildlife more with additional visitors.
“What if changing climate allows for earlier road openings and later closings, elongating the visitor season? What happens if visitation increases 10-15 percent? What does that translate to hikers on trails, cars on the road, and visitors trying to park?” Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance for Glacier Park, poses the questions the park service must answer in the corridor study.
Visitors will help provide the answers. This summer, the park service will administer visitor surveys at multiple locations to assess public reactions to possible future management actions, some submitted by the public last year. Some potential actions may alter how visitors use the park: regulating certain trails with day permits, charging for parking at Logan Pass, not allowing overnight parking at Logan Pass, putting a time limit on parking at Logan Pass and Avalanche, hardening trails like the Avalanche Trail to accommodate higher use levels, making the Highline Trail one way during peak season, eliminating shuttle stops at some trailheads, or requiring a shuttle to access some trails.
“We want to hear from the public as this plan progresses and get their thoughts, ideas, reactions and preferences,” Riddle said. “We need their input so together we can develop a plan that will assure protection of park’s resources and provide continued opportunities for visitors to experience and enjoy this special place.”
Whatever the study finds, it may eventually change the shape of the human footprint, as well as how we interact with Glacier’s alpine icon mountain goats.
Becky Lomax is a longtime Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Whitefish.
Meet the toughest kid in Montana
Koni Dole is a pretty inspiring (and tough) kid.
Dole, the subject of our Big Sky Spotlight for the May/June issue, lost his leg after a football injury in 2012. But as writer Jim Gransbery tells us, during the first game of the 2013 season, Koni was on the field.
With a pair of very intense brown eyes, Dole is the walking definition of focused. In a private interview after a strenuous workout accompanied by his best friend, Tanner Miller, Dole described his thought processes leading up to his decision that the way forward was to cut back his damaged leg.
“I was stuck in bed for a week,” he said. “Everything was OK. One day my parents (Nancy and Fualelei Andy Dole) came into the room. They were upset. There was a look on their faces.
“Everything that controls the foot was gone. I had a non-functioning foot. It was depressing. I had worked my (butt) off. I had goals. But the choice lit a fire in me. Actions speak louder than words, so I had to accept it. It was my best chance of coming back.”
The work to get back onto the field was painful and intense. Jim told me he’d never come across such a tough and determined kid. And in 2014, Koni will walk on to the Montana State University football team.
His answer to the question “What three words describe Montana?”: Close-knit communities.