Montana – Out West with Patrick McMillan
The bison lay bleeding in the river, head rolling from side to side. There was nothing the herd could do but keep moving, increasing their safety by staying together. As they reconstituted on the opposite side of the river, a lone wolf stood close by, alert and ready. Our gaze followed as the herd turned away from the river and upwards, towards the higher ground. There, a grizzly bear appeared and disappeared over the ridge.
This dramatic scene unfolded before us in the Lamar Valley. A park ranger explained that the wolf was familiar, a black male traveling alone, not associated with a pack. The wolf had injured the bison that lay in the river. As he waited for the bison to die, he continued to harass the herd. The bear was also alert and ready, hoping to snare a stray bison calf.
If we’d been passing through the Lamar Valley on our own, we certainly would have enjoyed watching the spectacular herd of bison in the distance. But traveling with an experienced guide, we were learning more about life and death in Yellowstone National Park. This narrative turned sightseeing into a fascinating and suspenseful adventure.
My husband Eddie and I were with a group traveling with the ETV Endowment, “Meet Me in Montana, Out West with Patrick McMillian”!
As we continued to watch the bison, wolf, and bear, we were learning. Bison are good swimmers but vulnerable when crossing a river. It stands to reason that the wolf would eventually come back to satisfy his hunger after fatally wounding the bison, natural survival. But there’s no guarantee. The bear would likely take first advantage of the bison. Wolves and grizzly bears are top predators of bison at Yellowstone, but the bear tends to be ahead. Both wolves and bears take advantage of weak and injured bison. Other hungry scavengers compete for the food source, such as coyotes, mountain lions, and even birds, especially ravens.
Long time fans of the Emmy award-winning television program Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, we were excited about this adventure. Patrick explained natural history and science as we traversed this incredible landscape of mountains, forests, plains, prairies, highlands, and valleys. Using the same gentle and confident tone as on TV, he explained prairies that appear as they did before settlement and cattle ranching. He shared his experiences of working with partners at the national level to save endangered flora and fauna. One particularly touching story concerns his efforts with fellow naturalists to reintroduce the endangered prairie dog to certain areas.
Many ranchers prefer eradication in spite of proof that prairie dogs and cattle coexist successfully. See the full documentary The ‘Prairie Dog Wars’ with Patrick McMillan here.
We also learned more about Patrick along the way. His soothing tone belies a passionate fighter’s spirit for conservation. How lucky we were to travel with such an experienced naturalist, author, educator, and practiced storyteller!
As we traveled to the east side of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, we observed majestic mountain ranges through the open tops of Red Jammer buses, Red Bus Tours, the coolest way to go! Drivers shuttled us from Lake McDonald via Logan’s Pass on “Going to the Sun Road” , stopping at bear sightings along the way.
Pepper spray burned our noses as we disembarked from our pontoon at Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier, known as the “Switzerland of North America“. We learned that someone had just sprayed a bear at the entrance of the wooded path. A few steps in, we were surprised to see a grizzly bear cub still there, about 35 feet from the trail. Not knowing if it was the best course of action, we resisted our natural urge to flee and stood still. With a clear view of the bear, I took a few pictures alternately with my camera (on silent) and iPhone. As soon as Patrick came forward from the back of the line, he quickly and quietly alerted us to keep moving.
Safely away from the bear, Patrick explained that in spite of his calm appearance, seeing the cub made him very concerned for our safety. He noted,
“The fact that we were so close was not in our best interest and not something I would have encouraged, because that’s the kind of thing that gets people hurt. It wasn’t the little bear cub that I was worried about but the mother who’d been pepper sprayed just before we got off the boat.”
As we returned back across the lake, we saw the cub’s mother grubbing around on the opposite shore and were relieved to see that she was safe too. There were a few kayaks and a canoe on the lake and just on the other side of a wooded area, we could see people walking on the trail, approximately 100 feet from the bear. They likely had no idea that they were so close to a mother bear with a cub! Later we learned that Patrick had quietly circulated to key people to alert others of the danger in the area.
The dramatic scene on Swiftcurrent Lake was complimented by a moose enjoying a cool drink.
We continued to enjoy the awe-inspiring view of the lake and mountain peaks as we lunched in the historic Ptarmigan dining room at Many Glacier Hotel. Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914-15, the hotel, with its towering lobby is almost as awe inspiring as the vista from the window. Reluctantly, we departed the breathtaking landscape of Glacier National Park, with more incredible scenes to come.
At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana, we freshened up on our history before taking in scenery along the trail at Giant Springs State Park. Crystal clear water flows at a rate of 156 million gallons per day from the Madison Aquifer, creating one of the largest freshwater springs in the country. As we lunched, a ranger explained how members of the the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, might have perished there if not for the assistance of Native American, Sacagawea, who provided valuable clues that helped them navigate through her native Shoshone lands.
Today, Giant Springs State Park is the most visited State Park in Montana.
Visitors enjoy over 20 miles of single track trails, great for biking and hiking, and miles of paved trail for casual biking, walking, and birding.
We continued to experience the Lewis and Clark journey on a two hour boat ride from Helena, Montana. On the Missouri River, we traveled through the towering gray limestone cliffs, Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. In his journal, Meriwether Lewis documented “the most remarkable cliffs we have yet seen” and said of the 1,200-foot high cliffs, they seemed to close like gates. Lewis also noted the abundant wildlife, big-horned sheep, deer, eagles, and more that visitors might still see today. Later we continued to follow the Missouri River to the headwaters at Three Forks and the Madison River Valley before turning north. Spotting bison, elk, eagles, black bear, and prong horn along the way, we could only imagine the awe that Lewis and Clark must have felt when they saw thousands of bison and other creatures along the route.
Entering Yellowstone National Park via Mammoth Hot Springs, we gazed at the mysterious wonder of landscape.
Underground minerals and limestone rock combine to create multilevel travertine terraces of giant blue green cauldrons, spilling over with steaming hot water.
Finally, we entered the Lamar Valley along Dunraven Pass and came upon the scene described at the beginning of this story. The predator-prey saga, bison, wolf, grizzly, circle of life in Yellowstone, and our raison d’être for the trip.
The primeval scene continued after we left the area. Patrick had foretold the next events but called the park ranger to confirm. The big male grizzly did not succeed in nabbing a bison calf for dinner but dragged the bison from the water and ate all he wanted. After that, the wolf ate all he wanted and after that, the scavengers ate all they wanted, until nothing was left.
We visited hot springs, bubbling mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers with familiar and alluring names like Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pots, Artist’s Point, and Brink of the Falls. These fascinating geothermal features and waterfalls at Yellowstone rival any natural wonder of the world, otherworldly, difficult to describe. Boardwalks and random seating offer visitors the opportunity to observe closely.
Our journey with the ETV Endowment and Patrick McMillan came to a dramatic close at Grand Teton National Park. With views of the Cathedral Group and a walk at String Lake, our moods became nostalgic. We’d been fortunate to glimpse these magnificent places in Western Montana through the lens of a famed naturalist.
You had to pinch yourself often to make sure it was real!
How we got there
Our group gathered at Glacier Park International Airport. Instead of flying, Eddie and I drove from South Carolina to the terminus of the trip at Jackson Hole Airport, sightseeing along the way. From there, we rented a car and drove to Kalispell, Montana, in time to join the group at the airport.
From Kalispell, our bus transported us to Whitefish, Montana, only 27 miles from Glacier National Park, where our adventure began.
Hosts from the ETV Endowment
The ETV Endowment provides extensive travel opportunities to fascinating destinations around the world. Participants enjoy learning from experienced guides and travel with like-minded people interested in supporting important and entertaining television and radio programs.
Dr. Patrick McMillan is the Hilliard Professor of Environmental Sustainability, Director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, Director of the Clemson Experimental Forest, and Director of the Bob Campbell Geology Museum. He is the Emmy Award-winning host, co-creator, and writer of the nature program Expeditions with Patrick McMillan aired on PBS affiliates across the nation. Dr. McMillan has worked as a professional naturalist/biologist throughout the southeastern United States and Neotropics for the past 22 years, providing numerous lectures and scientific publications. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards. Currently, his interests are centered on engaging the general public and youth in conservation issues and science.
Coby Hennesy, CPA, CFRE is Executive Director of the ETV Endowment and serves on the boards of several civic organizations and charitable organizations. She is Executive Producer of Man and Moment: Steve Flaherty – A Voice Returned and the NPR series Song Travels with Michael Feinstein. Coby accompanied our group to Montana, providing logistical support and special treats to eat along the way.
The ETV Endowment arranged accommodations with budget, comfort, local history, and town center walking distance in mind. One of our favorites was the rustic and historic Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier Park. One of many Great Northern Railway hotels in or around Glacier National Park, the structure was built over one hundred years ago. Its massive lobby and bar area is flanked by some of the world’s largest Douglas Fir logs, hence the name “Big Tree Lodge”. Visitors glimpse the social life of wealthy and powerful guests of earlier periods from pictures located throughout the hotel. There are also renderings of local Native Americans of the period. Guests today enjoy the rustic feel of the historic hotel with the comfort of a few updated amenities.
Find Out More
The Prairie Dog Wars with Patrick McMillan
Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, fascinating adventures throughout North and South America.
Glacier Park Boat Company, Red Bus Tour, and Sun Tours.
American Prairie Reserve, a conservation group dedicated to work that creates a protected area in central Montana.
“Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains ” National Geographic Magazine, by Hannah Nordhaus, January 16, 2020
Yellowstone Bear Management Program Restrictions in certain areas reduce human and bear interactions, providing safety and protective measures for both.
Train travel is another way to see the great Northwest. Whitefish, Montana is the busiest stop for Empire Builder, Amtrak’s most popular long-distance passenger train. The historic depot is a history buff’s dream. Traveling daily from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, passengers view magnificent scenes. In certain sections, Trails & Rails – Heritage Appreciation Onboard provides guides during spring and summer, a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak.
Note About Photography
In an earlier post, I wrote about purchasing a Sony a7III for an incredible expedition to Jordan. Since then, I’ve had questions about how the photography is going. Some ask why go to all the trouble to learn to use a professional camera when our iPhones take great images. I photographed the bear cub using both the iPhone and the Sony and after editing in Adobe Lightroom Classic, got a clear image from the Sony. The thrill was like getting a clear image of the moon for the first time. I use my iPhone 11 pro max every day for great images but the Sony is invaluable for taking the best images.