Big Sky Country- A view from Ireland

Montana is famous for its big skies, big mountains and big

Gerry Mullins also finds a big welcome.

Abroad Magazine

(Many thanks to the staff of the Montana World Trade Center for making this article possible and passing it along.- Russ)

Montana is pretty much what its name implies;
it’s a mountainous area. But the state nickname, Big
Sky Country, is equally apt as a huge blue roof hangs
over this beautiful place that is 3 times the size of
Ireland, but with a population of just 879,000.

Here, where the US Rocky Mountains find their
northernmost limits, wedged between Washington
State, and North Dakota, and sharing about 400
miles of border with Canada, Montana epitomises
the wild frontier of the American West. Lewis and
Clark passed through here in 1805 on their 8,000-
mile search for an all-water passage to the Pacific.
Real cowboys and Indians, or at least cavalry and
Indians fought here, most notably at Little Bighorn,
when in 1876, General Custer and more then 200
of his men, died in a battle against a band of 2,000
Cheyenne and Lakota warriors.

With a population density of six per square mile,
Montana is to a large extent empty – of people that
is. Instead, the state that is equal to the size of
Germany is abundant with wildlife; it is patrolled by
bears, mountain lions, wolves and moose.
North America’s Continental Divide is high in
Montana’s mountains. This is where, in a relatively
small area, America’s three great rivers begin. The
Columbia flows east and enters the Pacific Ocean
near Portland, Oregon. The Nelson flows northeast
across Canada to Hudson Bay and the Atlantic. The
mighty Mississippi, which divides the USA both
politically and geographically, enters the Gulf of
Mexico down south at New Orleans.


I landed in the small regional airport at Kalispell in
northwest Montana, and drove the twenty minutes
into the town of Whitefish. I stayed at the Grouse
Mountain Lodge, just outside town where the
facilities include a fine restaurant, and an outdoor
hottub that overlooks the hotel pool and golf course.
Inside, there is a large log fire, and the walls are
adorned by stuffed moose and bear heads to remind
residents of the dangers that were experienced by the
first tourists in these parts. Only the large and loud
TVs in the bar disturbed the ambiance, and when I
thought of the person who installed them I couldn’t help thinking of one more mammal’s head that
should be on the wall.


Whitefish is an ideal base for exploring the best of
Montana. One of the state’s best ski resorts, Big
Mountain, is twenty minutes drive from the centre
of town. It isn’t among America’s highest ski peaks,
but with 3,000 acres and a tiny population, it
provides joyful if not thrilling slopes.
During the summer, Big Mountain is a mountainbikers
paradise. It takes those in shape about an hour
to cycle from the base to the top, but the ski lifts will
take bike and bikers for about €10 a day.


For just under ¤50 per
half day, one can hire
kayaks and an instructor
who gives a tour of
Whitefish Lake. It was
from a kayak, looking up
at Big Mountain, that my
instructor, Mike
Fitzgerald, told me the
history of the area, and
indeed his own personal
history in the area. He showed us the car park where
he, his wife and two kids lived in a truck when they
first moved to the area. Like many others in the
town, they had moved to Montana for quality of life
reasons, even if it meant relative poverty in the
initial stages. His wife, Rhonda, now owns and runs
a delightful B&B in the town called the Garden Wall
Inn, where each suite is furnished with antiques.

Glacier National Park

About forty minutes drive from Whitefish, Glacier
National Park begins. It is about 50 miles long when
it crosses the Canadian border and becomes
Waterton Lakes National Park. A road cuts the park
in half, but it is the only one. More importantly, it is
closed due to snow for several months of the year.
So, Glacier, more than any other National Park, is a
favourite among backcountry enthusiasts. There are two
thousand lakes, a thousand miles of rivers, thick
forests, soaring peaks, wolves, bears, mountain lions,
bighorn sheep and much more. There just aren’t many

Here, we saw a black bear wandering near the road
as we were driving. Soon after a ranger arrived and
seemed to point a gun at the bear, but eventually just
scared it away with lights and sirens.

This is what they call ‘hazing’ the bear. In an effort
to keep our two species at a safe distance from each
other, rangers have had to teach bears to be more
scared of humans, and vice versa. The practise has
largely been successful, with the number of attacks
decreasing sharply.

However, rangers still
despair that humans are
the slower learners, and
still behave in ways that are
dangerous to themselves
and ultimately to the
bears. I don’t know what
the big deal was – I was
only taking a photograph!


The Irish left their mark in Montana, although that
mark is now the most toxic stretch of water in the
US. Gold, and later silver, was discovered in Butte in
the 1860s, and an Irish entrepreneur named Marcus
Daly developed what was to become one of the
world’s biggest copper mine. He also built the town
of Anaconda and a huge smelter there.
Miners from around the world poured in, swelling the
population of the town from 250 in 1870, to 22,000 in
1885. Many were Irish and to this day the town has the
best St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the Rockies. In the
1980s the mines finally closed and the ‘richest hill on
earth’ is now a mile long hole filling with toxic water.

Travel Details
US Airways: From €700
from Dublin to
Philadelphia (service starts
again on May 9th, 2004).
Delta flies from Philly to
Salt Lake City, and from
there it’s a short hop to
Missoula. For further
information, call US
Airways on 1890 925065 or

More information on
Montana, available from

Little Bighorn National
Monument is an hour’s
drive east of Billings.
Admission approx €9.

Grouse Mountain Lodge,
Whitefish, Montana. Tel.
001-877-8621505. Rooms
start at $125.

The Garden Wall Inn,
Whitefish, Montana. Tel.

An exhibition of Montana
art is touring Ireland and
will show at The Hunt
Museum, Limerick, from
November 4th – 25th.

Featuring nine painters, the
show presents an overview of
contemporary trends in the
art of the American West.
Gerry Mullins flew US
Airways from Dublin to
Philadelphia, and on to San
Francisco. He flew Delta to
Kalispell, via Salt Lake City.

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