Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with My Dad - The Gates of the Mountains

Itinerary: Corvallis - Helena, MT
Miles: 178

In June, despite pandemic and civil unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to see his sisters in Texas and Montana.

Screen shot from Gates of the Mountains Tour Gallery
Once it was decided that I'd be going on this trip with Dad, aside from visiting family, he had three places he wanted visit. The first was the Berkeley Pit, which we'll just have to make another trip in order to observe it (see previous post). The second place was The Gates of the Mountains. But this wasn't just going to be a quick drive by. Nothing is quick in the great mountain west. No, we were going on a guided boat tour of the actual location named by none other than Meriwether Lewis.

Per Wikipedia: 
Captain Lewis wrote on July 19, 1805:
...this evening we entered much the most remarkable cliffs that we have yet seen. these cliffs rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. ... the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles ... I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.

We left Corvallis and Aunt Charlotte early. We had a three hour drive and the tour began at 11 a.m. Weather was looking good that day but not-so-good weather was on its way. Dad wanted to stop in Walmart to buy a point and shoot camera–the kind with the screen on the back. He only has a flip phone so I had been taking all the pictures. I could tell he felt a little left out. While planning for the trip, I looked to see if disposable cameras were still around as I knew anything above that would just be a frustration for Dad but he wanted a real one. I built this little detour into our itinerary so we had about 45 minutes to get this done. And as expected, since cameras aren't the popular gadget, they were all the way in the back corner of the Walmart. I told Dad I'd push him in wheel chair or he should drive the electric one and I'd sit on his lap. He was having none of it. Not at 8 in the morning, for sure. So we slowly made our way to the camera section. The selection was slim but we found one made my Kodak. As we're checking out I spotted the $5 CD rack and asked Dad to pick out some new road tunes. The current ones had run their course ten-fold. So he picked out Alabama, Hank Williams and one other. I have to admit, the change in music was nice, but truthfully, they didn't hold a candle to the old timers that Dad loved. Back in the car, I practically pulled a muscle trying to get the blister pack open. Good thing Dad never leaves his house without his pocket knife. Now I'm not nerd, but I do know we needed to also buy a memory card but I wasn't sure which, and since the camera was sealed tight I had to kinda guess. I put the card in the camera, showing Dad each step that I knew he'd forget in five minutes. I powered it on and of course I got an error message. Curses! So I opened the quick guide that is in 3-point type (how do old people function in this world with letters that small!) Oh and it didn't help that I had contacts in to help me see distance but are utterly worthless for seeing close up. My heart rate was climbing. I repeated the steps with the same result. Maybe I bought the wrong type of memory card? Then I thought, What Would Ryan Do? Look at You Tube! Huzzah! I typed the camera model and question about memory card install into You Tube and the first video I clicked on was done by an old dude who knew exactly what I had done wrong and after watching it a couple times, I got the relic to fire up. I was so stoked! We had about a minute to spare on our itinerary so all was well! 

Dad with his new toy.

The GOM headquarters is outside of Helena, Montana. According to Wikipedia, its genesis came from a settler named Nicolas Hilger. He was a judge and rancher (we drove through his family's ranch to get to the tour site). In the late 1800s, he had a steam ship made in Iowa and had it shipped in two pieces via the new Northern Pacific Railroad. After it was assembled, the ship, dubbed "The Rose of Helena" steamed its way down the Missouri to his ranch. For almost two decades tours were given to select people excited to see the wild west. But those tours went on for weeks, to Great Falls and back. Can you imagine what that was like back then! 

We arrived at our departure destination. There was a marina with both private and public boat docks and a wonderful lodge with a cafe and gift shop. Below the large deck that looks over the marina, was a historical timeline of Gates of the Mountains, Inc. complete with photos and objects, professionally mounted and displayed, unlike the original steam engine, "Rose", which sat rusting away between it and the boat docks. Oh the stories it knows.

Gates of the Mountains HQ

Our boat for the day.

This plate was on the original Rose of Helena.
I bought Dad a hat as a trip souvenir and a sticker for me from the gift shop. They also had books about the area. There was a historic fire that killed 13 fire jumpers in 1949. The author, Norman MacClean, penned the story about the fire titled "Young Men & Fire". He's more famous for the story that became a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt called "A River Runs Through It" (one of my top ten movies). 

Finally it was time to depart. Dad and I wandered to the docks early since it required him to walk down a long flight of stairs. He was wearing his Korean Vet hat. 

"Where's the hat I just bought you?" I inquired. 
"In the car. I'm not sure if it fits." Of course.

Dad was first to board and he chose a seat outside, near the stern, on the starboard side, which was great, not only for the views but to keep Dad clear of potential Covid carriers! The Captain got on the mic and introduced himself and gave a few safety talks as we backed out into the lake. Slowly, we headed towards the canyon as the captain gave us the history of the Gates of the Mountains tour company, the land that surrounded it and the family who started it. That got us to the entrance of the canyon where his stories turned to those of Lewis & Clark and the Shoshone Indians that lived in the area. I noticed while he told these stories, he was looking up at the cliffs with binoculars and it made me happy to think that he wasn't just recalling a script but that he was still excited enough to be looking for something cool to share with us. And it paid off. We saw some deer, a giant eagles nest, and a smaller Osprey nest. He knew this area not only from the water's edge but also its backcountry, as a guide. One story in particular was about how he guided the grand child of one of the smoke jumpers who had died many years ago trying to put out the fire in Mann Gulch. He said it was very intense to be in the area that was the final resting place of this person's grandfather. 

First to board!

As we continued to float, my neck ached from all the cranking to look up the cliff faces. With the stories from the Captain fading in and out, my mind wandered to the time of Lewis & Clark and how these cliff faces affected the explorers (by this time Clark had taken another team on foot to find and make nice with Indians, so all accounts of the GOM are from Lewis's journals). From a few of the articles I've read, he wrote these were the highest cliffs they'd come across. I can only wonder what they would have thought of the Grand Canyon! 

We reached a point where the boat had to turn around due to the depth of the water and as the boat turned the boat ever so slowly, the captain told the heroic tales of the smoke jumpers, pointing to ridges and cliffs directly above us to pinpoint where the dead jumpers were later found. 

The last story as we turned our gaze back towards the direction we had just come, was how Lewis named this area the The Gates of the Mountains. As the Captain turned the boat around he pointed to where the space between the walls of the canyon were the most narrow at that very vantage point, but as we moved towards the center, the gate looked like it was widening purely due to perspective. It was a great way to visually understand how the name came about.

"Gate" in the middle partially closed.

"Gate" is wide open.
For the rest of the tour, the Captain said he would answer any questions but would remain mostly quiet so that we could take in what we were seeing and hopefully he would discover something new, as he claimed, usually was the case. We floated upstream on the other side of the canyon so we could see that side up close. The rock formations were interesting and very old. 

Indian petroglyphs.

Rhino Rock (Can you see the rhinoceros face?)

Dirt Girl back on land.
When we returned, Dad tipped the Captain and thanked him for the tour. I think it exceeded his expectations (and he got to use his new camera a lot, although I had to tell him what button to push at least 5 times)! As we stood around taking pictures of the boat, a man, probably in his 40s, came up to Dad and thanked him for his military service (his Korean War Vet hat was the giveaway). I'm not sure if this is a regular occurrence for him but this was the first of a few times to come when he'd get some appreciation from a stranger. The man was a 4th generation Marine. I could tell he was in a hurry to get back to his family when Dad began to tell a story, but he lingered respectfully. I've heard many stories from Dad about his time in the military but none with a bend towards "doing his duty" or "honoring his country". From my observation, his service was a job to him and a chance to travel to distant places. After Dad finished, the stranger shook his hand and thanked him again. It was a proud moment of witness. Then I made him clean his hands when we got back to the car! 

We were one of the last people to leave the marina. It was early afternoon and we had to make a choice about where to go next but the weather made it for us. The forecast for that region, starting that night, was predicting snow and rain for the next several days. I didn't want to wait it out, nor drive in potentially hazardous conditions, in a car that could probably handle it but I wasn't interested in testing the theory. Plus, if there's one thing Dad doesn't like to do, it's driving in anything but dry, sunny conditions. So, in order to stay out of the weather's path, we had to make our way east and south to Dad's next prerequisite stop: Cody, Wyoming to visit The Bill Cody Museum. Dad is a huge, huge, huge reader of Western novels. He loves anything to do with the Wild West and its tales of cowboys and outlaws who wandered the frontier. I often wonder had Dad's station in life been different, would he have traveled more or ended up putting down roots in the Gates of the Mountains somewhere? After many days in the high country, he was probably wondering the same thing. 


  1. Some (?) years ago I purchased at an arts & crafts show a wooden "vase" that had been turned on a lath leaving part of it with its original rough surface part of the outer appearance. It is made of a section of an original fence post on the Judge Nicholas Hilger ranch. Today I was revisiting the artist's business card, the info that had accompanied the vase, and photo of the Hilger family ca. their early years there that I had copied from the internet. And as usual another Sherlock google search has brought up awesome info, including your post and trip with your dad. What a joy!!!
    a great virtual trip for me to experience . Soon to be 77 and pandemic paranoid my in person travels are not to be. My many thanks for your great blog and photos!!! Sandy tplsokc@att.net

    1. Thank you Sandy! I hope my words were a good replacement for in-person travels.

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