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
They have forged an emotional bond with the park, their decades lending an intimate perspective of the changes Glacier is undergoing.
As some of the original Over the Hill Gang members faced the challenges of aging, the club began splitting into two or more hiking groups each week: one still tackles 20-mile hikes that include off-trail adventures and summits, while the other group walks fewer miles on trails.
Many of the gang’s early members, now in their 80s, hike in the latter. They joke about which group is the “A” team and which is the “B” team. But despite miles versus summits on the day’s docket, clear deference to the older hiking group leaves little question of who’s on the “A” team.
“Our trips have gotten shorter, and I’m through with counting peaks,” said 86-year-old Ivan O’Neil, the only one of the original five still hiking with the gang.
He’s summited about 120 peaks, many with the gang, and credits the group for bringing balance to his life at a time when he worked six days a week.
Despite his age, O’Neil has several more years to catch up with two early members who hiked into their 90s.
The gang rose to local legends when journalist George Ostrom joined the weekly treks. He hyped their escapades on the radio and in two books.
As the gang gained distinction, it grew in numbers.
But there’s no president of this club. No bylaws. No membership dues. In fact, if you ask what’s on the agenda for hiking that day, you’ll most likely get a vague, “Well, I don’t know,” or a joke. If strangers show up, they’ll invite them to hike, too.
While longevity on the trail is a hallmark of the gang, younger seniors now fill the ranks, and newcomers join annually. Numbers of participants shrink in winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but swell during summer to around 30.
Roger Wolfshorndel linked up with the gang four summers ago. He credits the camaraderie with helping him change his lifestyle back into healthier patterns, like when he used to hike frequently during his five summers at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Women have joined the hiking club, too.
Greta Kiremidjian hikes weekly with the older group.
“They’re the best group to hike with. They are so intelligent,” she said, referring to members who are retirees from law, business and medicine, plus one nuclear physicist.
On Thursday mornings by the time breakfast is finished, usually two or more destination are on the agenda.
No one consults a guidebook or map. Trail stats are in the octogenarian heads, and they can describe remote nooks of the park.
With the drizzle, the older group opts for Rockwell Falls in Two Medicine, acting on old park lore that less rain might be falling on the east side.
At the trailhead in Two Medicine, O’Neil, Wolfshorndel, Kiremidjian and three others bundle in rain gear.
O’Neil, who is legally blind from macular degeneration, uses poles for balance, but plods up the trail at a steady gait that would outpace many younger hikers. The Paradise Creek swinging bridge that would stop some 80-year-olds poses minimal challenge for the three hikers familiar with how to balance while stepping across the jiggling span.
At Rockwell Falls, O’Neil pulls out an iPad to snap a photo of the tumbling water, the large screen aiding his eyesight. Its use contrasts with the film cameras that used to document Over the Hill Gang trips.
Even professional photographer Robert Zavadil, who climbs higher up the falls to capture a better angle, has traded in his big, heavy camera and lenses for a small digital model.
Yearly, the oldsters still tackle their favorite trails: Iceberg Lake, Ptarmigan Tunnel and the Highline. For 20 summers, the gang aided the park service in opening the Highline Trail.
They shoveled tread paths across the steep snowfields from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet. They also cleared winter debris and fallen trees from other trails.
But after 2011, the park service nixed the volunteer efforts.
“The park got worried about these old guys with chain saws clearing out windfall,” cracks Zavadil.
The years of tromping Glacier’s backcountry gives the older gang members an intimate historical perspective.
Over the decades, they’ve seen substantial changes in the park.
“We used to have the park to ourselves,” O’Neil said.
But last summer, he recalls passing 250 people on the way out from Avalanche Lake. He also notes several off-trail traverses that show human impacts.
In Swiftcurrent, so many hikers have explored Shangri-La and the Snow Moon and Falling Leaf Lakes that now eroded paths mark the routes.
“For so long, I never realized how many tourists were in the park because we’d often get off the trail after dark,” Zavadil adds.
These aren’t simply old codgers whining about the good old days.
The National Park Service recorded 2.3 million Glacier visitors in 2014, a record-breaking year, and is examining management strategies for crammed parking lots and crowded trails on the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor.
In addition to melting glaciers, the gang has noticed more subtle alterations in the landscape.
“There used to be fewer trees. More areas now are covered by forest,” Zavadil said. Wolfshorndel adds, “From the Iceberg Lake Trail, you used to see Red Rock Lake. Now you can’t.”
Science corroborates their gut impressions with climate models and repeat photography from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center showing forests encroaching on alpine meadows.
As the gang hikes back from Rockwell Falls, Zavadil dives off the trail into the forest to photograph a wood nymph flower.
“I’ve been looking for it for 23 years,” he beams.
That sense of discovery, even after decades of hiking the same trails, epitomizes what the gang is all about.
The oldsters, rather than lament their inability to do the grueling climbs of earlier decades, they still revel in their love of Glacier.
No matter how the landscape itself or the faces of the Over the Hill Gang change, the core hiking crew keeps plodding on with a perennial sense of exploration.
No egos. Just camaraderie.
Becky Lomax is a longtime Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Whitefish.
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Treasure State Hidden Gem: Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum
By Vince Devlin
Photos by Tom Bauer
It would take more than a day to hit all the museums in Great Falls, but it would be time well spent.
No visit to the Electric City, of course, is complete without taking in the C.M. Russell Museum, where you can explore the paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of Montana’s favorite sons and one of America’s greatest Western artists, and visit Charlie Russell’s home and log-cabin studio as well.
There is also the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, considered one of the finest of its kind in the nation by many Lewis and Clark buffs. The Great Falls Museums Consortium can also direct you to the Montana Museum of Railroad History, the Children’s Museum of Montana or the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, to name just half of the consortium members.
- Read more about the Electric City here
In all the varied choices, don’t let this one escape your attention: It’s the Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum and Air Park.
It’s really quite fascinating, especially if you let a museum staff member show you around.
Malmstrom is a U.S. Air Force base without an airplane, control tower or flying mission. There are, however, helicopters at the base that patrol almost 14,000 square miles of the central Montana prairie.
That’s where 150 Minuteman III missiles and their nuclear warheads, capable of traveling 15,000 mph, are buried. Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
At the museum you’ll learn all about the missiles and the Cold War that brought them to Montana. The original concept, interestingly, was to place the missiles on train cars, not underground, and have them constantly on the move. The idea was that a moving target would be a more difficult target for America’s enemies.
Malmstrom may lack airplanes today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Established during World War II, the base helped shuttle almost 8,000 aircraft to Fairbanks, Alaska, from 1942-45. Sometimes they carried supplies, and other times it was the planes themselves that were bound for our WWII ally, the Soviet Union.
- See more photos from across Great Falls here
At the air park outside the museum you can see several of the planes that did call Malmstrom home when the base had flying missions during its first half-century, including a KC-97 stratotanker, an F-84F Thunderstreak fighter bomber, an EB-47B Canberra tactical bomber used for electronic reconnaissance and radar-jamming, not to mention an LGM-30G Minuteman Missile that gives the base its purpose today.
Malmstrom Museum Tip Sheet
Anyone with an interest in military history in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, will enjoy the Malmstrom Museum. But an interest in history or technology, period, will make it a worthwhile stop, and kids will like both the roomful of shelves filled with models of aircraft the U.S. military has used – from WWI biplanes to the stealth bomber and Air Force One – to the real things outside the museum in the air park.
How to see it
You’re free to wander the museum on your own and read about the exhibits. But we highly recommend asking if a museum staffer is available to give you a tour. You’ll learn lots more than is printed on the displays, and find your visit is far more informative and interesting.
Seeing the museum won’t cost you any money, just a little time – there’ll be some paperwork involved, seeing as you’re being admitted onto an active military base. They’ll help you at the Malmstrom Visitor Center at the 2nd Avenue North gate.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have questions, call 731-2705.
Vince Devlin is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. He writes from Polson.
It’s movie star season in Montana
Missoulians – especially those at the MADE Fair in downtown Caras Park – were excited by a couple of mega movie star sightings last weekend when Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were spotted shopping at the craft fair and buying coffee at a local shop.
The Missoulian’s David Erickson has the story:
Chase Taylor might be one of the only people in the world who has talked with Leonardo DiCaprio – arguably one of the most famous celebrities on the planet – without having any idea who he was.
Taylor spent Sunday at Caras Park helping his wife Paisley with her baby clothing business, Paisley Designs, at the Missoula MADE Fair, an alternative arts and crafts market featuring local artists.
A bearded man walked by, and Taylor did what any good salesman would do. He called him over to check out the baby clothes.
“My wife was out of the booth breast-feeding our son,” Taylor recalled. “Leo wasn’t interested in buying my wife’s clothes, but I pulled him in and talked to him. I was one of the very few people that got him to go into a booth. He was a very nice guy. It was a very brief conversation, and I gave him my business card and then he left. And then the lady next to me told me who he was. I had no idea.”
The man was DiCaprio, a five-time Academy Award nominee who probably doesn’t enter into many conversations with people who don’t recognize him.
“He looked like a normal Missoulian,” Taylor said. “He fit in very well. It was kind of cool to see someone that famous here on a very hot day.”
Read the rest of the story here.
Hit the road for this beautiful celebration
We’re quickly approaching a summer holiday weekend, and this year the Fourth of July falls on Saturday. Do you have plans?
Care if we make a suggestion?
How about the Arlee Celebration. Take a look:
Wherever you are along the Western Montana corridor this summer, you don’t have to go far to find our one-of-a-kind Road Trip for June.
That’s a good thing, because the Arlee Celebration is something everyone should experience.
The Celebration powwow, including several days of traditional dancing and a host of other events, celebrates its 117th anniversary this year.
- For the full Arlee Celebration schedule, click here.
The Arlee Celebration runs July 1-5 in Arlee. The powwow grounds are located just east of Arlee, roughly 20 miles north of Missoula on Highway 93. Signs from the road will help guide you in.
Last summer, up to 400 dancers participated in the West’s oldest continuous powwow.
It’s a powwow rooted in deep tradition and founded when Indian dances were illegal under Bureau of Indian Affairs rules.
However, according to the Arlee Celebration website, the BIA and Indian police didn’t find it illegal to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Read more here.
We’ve got a ton more summertime stories in our upcoming July/August issue. Want to take a look? Subscribe today!
Northern Lights wow sky watchers across Montana
The Northern Lights made a stunning appearance throughout the western skies earlier this week, including a rare appearance in the southern portions of Montana and down into South Dakota.
Luckily for all of us who slept through the show, a handful of Montana Magazine readers snapped photos and sent them in.
Here are a few for your viewing pleasure:
At 97, Montana war hero and artist gathering quite a fan base
If you’re unfamiliar with Ben Steele’s story, it’s almost unbelievable. Certainly one of the most inspiring you’ll ever come across.
The WWII veteran who was born in Roundup and survived the Baatan Death march and lived to become one of the Big Sky state’s greatest artists, is still making art at 97.
As Jaci Webb of the Billings Gazette found out, his spirit (and work) means his fan base is still gaining followers as well.
Lexi Winkelfoos traveled more than 1,000 miles to hear Ben Steele’s laugh.
Winkelfoos, 18, of Mount Gilead, Ohio, said reading about the horrors that Steele endured on the Bataan Death March left her with one desire — to hear Steele laugh and know that he found happiness.
Winkelfoos is one of a growing legion of the Billings artist’s fans. Those fans include actress Loretta Swit, who played “Hot Lips” Houlihan on the TV show “M.A.S.H.,” actor Alec Baldwin, who narrated a film about Steele and other POWs, and filmmaker Jan Thompson.
Winkelfoos discovered Steele when she read Michael and Elizabeth Norman’s 2009 book “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath,” and wrote a book report on it for her sophomore history class. Her teacher mailed that paper to Steele, 97, and a friendship was born, although the two are almost 80 years apart.
On Thursday at a Billings assisted living facility where Steele lives, Steele kept chiding Winkelfoos, who is on her second trip to Billings to see Steele. He told her to watch out that she doesn’t fall off a horse and land in a yucca patch out at his daughter Julie Jorgenson’s Musselshell County ranch. Wilkelfoos teases him right back about his own riding days when he used to jump the fence to get to Will James’ place.
“I don’t jump fences, or anything else, these days,” Steele said.
Winkelfoos knows right where Steele keeps his latest sketch book and retrieves it when visitors come around. Steele’s eyes shine when Winkelfoos tells their story.
Read the full story here.
Top reader photos: First-day-of-summer edition
It’s that time again: Time to highlight some of the best Reader Photos we’ve gotten in the past weeks.
This edition brings more than a hint of summer – which is appropriate because today marks the first official day of summer. We’ve got summer skies and summer wildflowers
Enjoy! And if you have summer photos from around Montana you’d like to share, email email@example.com.
Thanks to all who shared images. Happy Summer!
Montana author pens book about how to hunt everything
Our friend and contributor Andrew McKean has written a new book – and it’s taken on quite a monolithic topic.
All things hunting.
As Billings Gazette reporter Brett French explains, it’s a big book by true Montana outsdoorsman.
McKean has been the editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine for five years, the perfect venue for launching such an extensive book. Outdoor Life used to have a publishing arm that churned out a variety of sporting books, and McKean is hoping to revive some of that tradition. Future titles could deal with fishing and cooking.
In 60 chapters, “How to Hunt Everything” covers traditional North American game animals, like bighorn sheep and elk, to oddities like aardwolves — an insect-eating relative of the African hyena — and the Marco Polo argali sheep of Central Asia. Rather than break the sections of the book down by species or continent, though, McKean decided to tackle the animals by latitude, more befitting of the naturalist approach the book takes into exploring the different species.
He also wanted the book to be a bit unpredictable, strange and intriguing to keep readers engaged. Chapters include such specifics as suggested firearms and loads, calls, clothing, field judging different animals’ size and even tips on hunting from a boat for Alaskan moose. None of the stories are very long, making for much quicker reading than it would initially appear for the 300-page hardcover book, and a vast array of full-color wildlife, scenic and hunting photographs provide aspirational fodder.
McKean, who lives in Glasgow, wrote about one generous Montana hunter who donating his menagerie of trophies to the local children’s museum. It’s a truly wonderful Montana story.
- Read the full story by McLean here
As for McKean, his new book details personal stories about hunting in some more exotic locations.
His most difficult and ceremonious hunt was in Germany. Dogs were used to push roe deer through the forest. He was only allowed to shoot a doe, a fact made very clear by the “autocratic leader” of the hunt, but the bucks had already lost their antlers, making it hard to quickly distinguish a buck from a doe. Luckily, McKean was able to fill his tag. Here’s a portion of that story, taking place after he made his shot, as it is recounted in the book: “First, the jaeger who picked me up cut a green twig and placed it in the dead animal’s mouth. This letzer bissen, or last meal, is a formal thanks to the game for giving its life to the hunter. Then the jaeger dipped another twig in the animal’s blood and stuck it in my hatband before delivering a stiff salute: ‘Weidmannsheil!’ The hunter is duty-bound to respond with an equally hearty ‘Weidmannsdank,’ the scripted congratulations and thanks for the hunt.”
Read French’s full article here.