Big Sky Spotlight: Meet Kasey Austin
By Brett Berntsen
Photo by Kelvin Pinney
Montana’s mountains, rivers and valleys often speak for themselves, but to fully appreciate the beauty of Big Sky Country it helps to have a guide.
Kasey Austin is one of the best in the region. Indeed, the world.
Already a veteran of the industry at just 25, the Billings native was recently named the top family guide of 2014 by Outside Magazine. The recognition reflects Austin’s dedication to showing off her home turf with sprightly enthusiasm and awe.
“As long as you’re passionate about a place it will show in every single thing you do,” she said.
At the same time, it also helps to have a background jam-packed with experience.
Growing up, Austin’s father, Dan, ran a tour company out of the basement.
She remembers guides camping out in her backyard and swapping the “craziest” stories; climbing trees to divert wild animals away from guests, taking a blast of bear spray in the face, finding a human toe floating down a river.
“Back then I thought it was completely normal,” she said. “I thought that was every kid’s upbringing.”
Austin started tagging along on trips at the age of six, and began to rack up tales of her own; breaking her collar bone while biking in the Tetons, turning a corner to come nose-to-nose with a moose.
She soon embodied the lifestyle, constantly pestering other guides for tasks.
“I wanted to be a guide so bad,” she said. “I bet it was annoying.”
The involvement taught Austin the intangibles of tourism, spurring the development of her family-oriented philosophy. If the children are happy, she says like a mantra, the rest will follow.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who are intimidated by talking to kids, but there are so many questions you can ask. ‘What’s your favorite color?’ can turn into an hour-long conversation.”
Time in the field also provided Austin with a few tricks to brighten a dreary day. The most memorable involves eating a balled-up chocolate PowerBar disguised on the ground as moose poop.
“I had a kid puke once on my trip because he thought it was so real,” she said, adding in hindsight, “I’m not sure if we need to put that in the interview.”
But despite an upbringing that all but screamed destiny, a career in tourism was never written on the wall for Austin.
“I didn’t want to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” she said. “That’s not what I wanted to do in college.”
Instead she pursued teaching, graduating in 2011 from the University of Montana with a degree in elementary education. After no schools bit on job applications, however, it was either try and break into subbing or take a full-time position with the family business, Austin Adventures.
“I’m glad I chose the latter,” she said.
The trips that followed, around Montana and across the world, sealed the deal. While Austin emphasizes the demands of guiding – working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., constantly answering to guests’ needs – she says the work provides endless rewards.
“Everyone wants to have a cool job like this,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being a teacher anymore.”
Complementing her guiding savvy, Austin recently transitioned to the managerial side of the industry. As vice president of operations for Austin Adventures, she plans future trips and handles logistics, always remembering to view aspects through the eyes or binoculars of guests. She hopes to grow the business into the future, a goal fomented by her Outside Magazine honor.
“Awards are huge in this industry,” she said. “Everyone is looking for kudos.”
And now that she makes the schedule, she can pencil herself in to share the places she holds dearest.
“Montana is the easiest place to fall in love with,” she said. “I can do whatever I want, but Montana is going to show itself off.”
Can you describe your job as an adventure tour guide in two sentences?
My job as an adventure tour guide involves making connections with and between the people and places I work in. Sharing a passion and excitement for adventure, wilderness, and wildlife is the goal; I want my guests to fall in love with the same things I love.
What is the best part about guiding trips inside Yellowstone National Park?
The best part about guiding trips inside Yellowstone is seeing how the Park changes (drastically at times) from season to season. Wildlife viewing is probably my favorite activity (although it has a lot of competition) – I love seeing the bright red bison calves in the spring and the male elk in the rut in the fall.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
To relax, I go anywhere I can take a hike. Walking for miles and miles can clear the mind and create a fresh start to a busy week. My favorite hiking base is Red Lodge, MT.
What three words describe Montana?
Stunning. Refreshing. Adventurous.
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.
Crafting a living: For Western Montana artisans, handmade is a way of life
Story and photos by Jessica Lowry
Across the state of Montana, individuals are using their hands to create their livelihood. While it’s become trendy to eat artisan pickles from Brooklyn or purchase an entire hand-sewn outfit from the online retailer Etsy, across Big Sky Country the handmade movement has more to do with putting down your smart phone, picking up a craft and earning a living.
From Leah Morrow and Mary Ryan who own and operate Selvedge Studio fabric shop in Missoula, to Melanie Cross who teaches knitting in Kalispell, creating items with your hands and teaching others to do the same isn’t just a fad.
It’s a way of life.
Leah Morrow and Mary Ryan
Rows of brightly colored fabrics in cotton, linen and velvet line the walls of Selvedge Studio.
“What we do here is provide the makers with beautiful and unusual fabrics,” said Leah Morrow, 32, of the shop in downtown Missoula, that she owns and operates with her mother Mary Ryan, 55.
Selvedge Studio is in its eighth year of operation and in addition to selling fabrics, sewing notions, and patterns, the shop also offers sewing classes.
“A lot of people don’t know how to sew and they want to,” Morrow said.
The store provides a place for makers to learn new skills and work on projects. They even host an annual Project Selvedge contest where entrants sew outfits for weekly design challenges.
Morrow feels that the handmade movement has support from local community.
“It’s definitely accepted and appreciated in Missoula,” she said.
To read the rest of the profiles on Western Montana artisans who make their products by hand, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Granny Gordon: Rough Rider on the Bull River
Story and photos by Aaron Theisen
A citizenry suspicious of Washington outsiders.
Accusations of government land grabs.
Federal servants tasked with presenting an unpopular policy to the public.
The creation of Montana’s National Forest lands at the turn of the 20th Century echoes throughout public-lands debates a century hence.
In 1906, one year after its creation, the U.S. Forest Service established the Kootenai Forest Reserve, encompassing timber lands in the Kootenai River drainage of far northwest Montana. From Trout Creek to Troy arose public opposition to the Forest Reserve boundaries.
The frontier had been closed 10 years earlier, and settlers had resorted to squatting on abandoned rail lines, Indian territory and old mine operations. The creation of Forest Reserves struck some as a move by the federal government to lock up potential agricultural land from settlement.
Not aiding matters is that most of the fledgling Forest Service’s new hires were Ivy League-bred Easterners, graduates from Yale University’s then-novel forestry program, rather than longtime residents.
Locals dubbed them “instant rangers”.
“Most of the rangers weren’t local, and when you look at it from a public relations standpoint, it may not have been the best approach,” said Rachel Reckin, zoned district archaelogist for the Three Rivers and Cabinets Ranger Districts of the Forest Service.
Directions to the Bull River Guard Station
From Highway 200 turn onto Highway 56 follow this highway for approximately 8 miles and turn right onto the East Fork Bull River Road 407. Follow Road 407 about 1.5 miles to the junction with Road 2278 and stay to the right, follow this road for approximately 0.5 miles to the Guard Station.
The Bull River Guard Station was built in 1908 as the Ranger’s house and office. This structure was a primary ranger station from 1908 to 1920, surviving the 1910 fire. The cabin was home to Granville “Granny” Gordon, his wife and three daughters. The cabin is a two story building, containing 700 square feet. It is equipped with period furniture including three full beds and two single beds including mattresses. It has a sitting room with chairs, a kitchen and dining room with a hutch, table and chairs, and electric range. It is heated with a forced air electric furnace, and contains cleaning supplies.
The cabin is available for rent year-round.
It can be reserved by calling 1-877-444-6777 or visiting www.recreation.gov. The cabin rents for $55 a day with a seven day stay limit.
To view the entire story on the Bull River guard station, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Ready, Set, Go!: On a ride in the classic red and yellow buses inside Glacier and Yellowstone national parks
By Ednor Therriault
Whether you’re nudging your way through a road-blocking herd of grumpy bison in Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley, or trying not to wet yourself as you look over the edge of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road at the sheer half-mile drop into thin air, riding shotgun in a vintage National Park Service tour bus is the best seat in the house.
If you’ve experienced both of Montana’s national parks from the unique perspective of the throwback tour buses, you might think that apart from the paint jobs, Glacier’s iconic red buses and Yellowstone’s historic yellow buses are all the same.
But that would be like comparing apples and bananas.
There are plenty of tours to experience at both parks, from eight hour treks up mountain passes to quick evening rides.
Here’s more about the two tours writer Ednor Therriault took.
The Firehole Basin Adventure in Yellowstone: A three hour tour that takes riders to geyser basins along the park’s valley. Riders can also request drivers stop at specific sites throughout the drive. The tour leaves from the Old Faithful Inn and runs numerous times throughout the day.
There are plenty of more “adventures on land” inside Yellowstone. You can read about them all and fill out reservation forms here.
The West Side Crown of the Continent Tour in Glacier: An eight to nine hour tour that takes riders through Lake McDonald Valley and up along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Riders can eat lunch at the Many Glacier Hot, the tour then continues through St. Mary Valley and into Swiftcurrent Valley. The tour leaves from various sites around the park daily from June 20 through Sept. 21.
To learn more about all the tours, including the “Big Sky Circle Tour” and “East Alpine Tour,” click here.
To view the entire story on the famous park buses, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Welcome to Sugar Avenue: Billings refinery turns out millions of pounds of sugar each year
By Jennifer Mckee
Fall and winter in Billings is a time of odor. Newcomers and visitors often don’t understand these smells. They will even make fun of them.
But for the 110,000 people of Billings – fully one-tenth the population of Montana – the odor triggers the brain’s emotional messaging system each fall to begin pumping out messages.
Intellectually inaccessible, maybe even unreasonable, complex messaging about smell.
These are some of the messages they hear:
“The harvest is over.”
“The work has begun.”
“Food comes from work.”
“Food comes from Billings.”
“I am home.”
Billings’ signature smell that stirs these thoughts also conjures a kind of pride.
It is the smell of sugar beets.
The Western Sugar Cooperative beet refinery on Billings’ south edge produces 1.5 million pounds of sugar every day it is running.
Chances are, you’ve probably had some. It goes in Wheat Montana bread and Wilcoxson’s ice cream.
If you’ve bought sugar in Montana from IGA, WalMart, Albertsons or anywhere that stocks Western Family or Great Western sugar, you’ve had some.
Whole train cars of it go to Hershey, Penn., and you know exactly what that means.
From seed to sugar: How beets are turned to sugar
Seed: From mid-April to May, planting season begins for beet farmers on 150 Montana farms from Bridger to Custer
Root: From May through September the seeds begin to grow on the 24,000 acres of Montana farmland into what will become white, two-to five- pound, foot-long sugar beets. Beets contain up to 22 percent sucrose
Sugar beet: In September, harvesting season begins and roughly 1.5 billion of pounds of sugar beets are shipped to “beet dumps” around the state. Beets are then delivered by truck to the Billings refinery
Refining: From September through mid-February, once at the Western Sugar Cooperative refinery, beets are taken through a three hour process to make sugar. The refinery runs nonstop producing sugar
Sugar water: Inside the refinery every day beets are washed in river water, sliced with precision, dropped into a diffuser where steam coaxes out sugar. The resulting sugar water is then pumped into pans that induce crystallization
Crystals: As sugar crystals form, they’re sent through a centrifuge that blasts the last of the water from the sugar
Sugar: The sugar is spun dry and packaged. Every day of operation, the Billings refinery produces 1.5 million pounds of sugar. Sugar is shipped from the refinery to facilities across the world, including to Hershey, Penn.
To view the entire story on the sugar beet refinery, 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.
Montana Book Review: Montana parks inside and out
By Doug Mitchell
A look at the meticulous research examining the shrinking state of Glacier National Park’s icy namesakes. The story of an almost unthinkable hike across Glacier in the dead of winter. And a new tourist guide to the “granddaddy” of national parks, Yellowstone National Park.
Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a handful of books based in or about Montana.
The Melting World
St. Martin’s Press, New York – 2013
Acclaimed science writer Christopher White uses the real-life laboratory of Glacier National Park to give us a hands-on look at the research at the center of the worldwide discussion about climate change.
In so doing, White provides an insight not only into one of this generation’s seminal public policy debates but also into the frozen world of one of Montana’s and America’s true gems; Glacier National Park.
The Melting World is the result of White’s research between 2008 and 2012. During that time, the author joined researchers on the ground in Glacier to measure the size of the park’s namesake masses of ice. As White writes in the introduction to this groundbreaking book, “The story of ice is the story of climate.”
The Melting World tells the story of climate in a very even-handed, scientific manner. Even the most hardened climate change skeptic will have a hard time not being impressed by the meticulous approach taken by the staff of the U.S. Geological Services as they perform the tedious but important work of measuring the iconic glaciers.
The writing is strong and the journey through which White takes us provides a unique insight into both the science of climate and the magic of Glacier Park.
One of my favorite lines in the book has nothing to do with science. Late in the book, during year four of his journey, White writes “Glacier is the one place where I can live in the present, past, and future, all at once.”
I couldn’t agree more. That is exactly the feeling I get when I spend time in the park as well, but I think in that poetic sentence, White is also telling us a little about science. You see, research of the present shows that the Glaciers are shrinking and in that we can see the future.
As any good scientist should, White works hard to let the results speak for themselves.
For me, he goes too far in this regard, leaving some obvious conclusions unspoken and even making what I thought was an odd choice by changing the names of certain of the researchers to protect their anonymity.
There’s nothing in this well researched book about which White or the research staff should be embarrassed.
The Melting World is an important story at an important time written by gifted storyteller. It deserves a space on the bookshelf of any fan of Glacier National Park.
Sweetgrass Books, Helena – 2013
OK, I’ll admit going in that I just don’t get it.
inaccessible is the nonfiction journey of one man’s attempt to hike across Glacier National Park in the winter. Now I like hiking just as much as the next guy – perhaps even a bit more – but hiking across Glacier National Park in the winter? That’s just plain crazy.
Which is perhaps part of what makes Richard Layne’s book so irresistible. I’m a sucker for a good adventure book and given my love for and familiarity with Glacier Park, inaccessible was a must read. Once I started it was hard to put down.
Layne has a story to tell and he does it well. His solo adventure finds him facing thoughts of his own mortality and a foe in the harsh climate that seemed in some sense alive and on the prowl. At one point of high drama he writes, “To fertilize my fear, much of the time as I traveled the length of the elongated peak, the cornice lay hidden inside the clouds like a hungry carnivore lying unseen in the bushes next to the trail.”
Gripping prose for a gripping moment in an incredible adventure not meant for the faint of heart.
Now, those of you who might dismiss this ill-advised trip as the folly of youth, please understand that Layne is a fully-grown man of 63 years who has done this kind of thing before – many times before – in his 40-plus years of backpacking. He knew what he was doing, followed the rules and, to all of our benefit, lived to write about it.
For those of you familiar with hiking in Glacier, all you have to know is that his plan was to hike Hole in the Wall in the dead of winter. When you stop chuckling, read on. You see, to his credit, Layne had the same trepidation, and the multi-season story of his stalking of the access to Hole in the Wall is impressive both in its respect for the place and the author’s tireless preparation.
inaccessible is a book that will have you shaking your head. How can a guy nearly freezing to death be so worried about his next cup of camp stove coffee?
I think that kind of quirkiness is what I found so charming about the book and Layne. I’ve never met the man, but am betting he sure would be a fun guy to talk to, over a cup of coffee of course.
“The Best of Yellowstone National Park”
Farcountry Press, Helena – 2014
No conversation about parks in Montana can be complete without talking about the granddaddy of them all – Yellowstone National Park.
There is lots of good reading material about Yellowstone and this year Alan Leftridge, a former seasonal naturalist at Yellowstone and ranger in the Mission Mountains Wilderness adds a handy, easy to manage tourist guide to the bibliography.
“The Best of Yellowstone National Park” provides a little something for everyone. It is organized by topics and features the highlights for everything from “Best Day Hikes” and “Best Backpacking” to “Best Mudpots” and “Best Names of Natural Features.”
I tested the description of one of my favorite hikes to Slough Creek and the description is right on the money.
You’ll want and need other resources to plan a trip in to this American landmark, but “The Best of Yellowstone National Park” is a great place to start.
My only disappointment as an avid fisherman is that the section on fishing is a bit light. That said, it’s not a fishing book and, quite honestly, I’m at least a bit secretly happy that some of my favorite spots remain a mystery.
Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.