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From Havre to Fort Belknap

Havre probably isn't anyone's idea of a vacation spot, but it has its moments. There are some interesting historic sites, including the nearby Bear Paw Battlefield, the site of the last major battle of the Indian Wars. For both cultural and natural history, the best place to start is the H. Earl Clack Museum, 1753 U.S. 2 in the Holiday Village Shopping Center (tel. 406/265-4000). The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday noon to 5pm from mid-May until Labor Day. Admission is free. Southeast of Havre lies the home of 2,000 Chippewa and Cree Indians on this rather small plot of land at the Western Front of the Bear Paw Mountains. The Rocky Boy Powwow is held near Box Elder the first weekend of every August. Call tel. 406/395-4478 for more information.

Start your driving tour of the region just south of Havre on U.S. 87, coming up from Great Falls. Drive north to Havre until you reach the junction with U.S. 2. Take U.S. 2 east until it converges with Montana's version of Route 66, a state highway running south through the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Take 66 through the reservation to the intersection of U.S. 191. Turn left (northeast) and drive about 57 miles until the road joins U.S. 2 again.

Fort Belknap Reservation

Established in 1888, the Fort Belknap Reservation is home to the Gros Ventre and Assinniboine tribes. It was named for William W. Belknap, who was secretary of war under Pres. Ulysses S. Grant. The Gros Ventre call themselves the A'ani, or White Clay People. They had lived in North Dakota's Red River Valley from A.D. 1100 to 1400, gradually being pushed west by competition from other tribes. After coming to the Missouri River country in about 1730, they split into two tribes, and the southern branch became known as the Arapaho.

The Assinniboine split from the Yanktonai Sioux in the early 1600s, supposedly over a squabble. (Two of the first ladies of the tribe fought about a local delicacy, a buffalo heart.) They call themselves the Nakota, the Generous Ones. There is also a branch of the tribe at the Fort Peck Reservation to the east.

There is a small museum and visitor center at the intersection of Mont. 66 and U.S. 2 (tel. 406/353-2205 or 353-8473; www.fortbelknap-nsn.gov). From here you can arrange a tour of the tribe's herd of more than 800 buffalo and learn a little bit about the tribe's culture (about $50; summer only; reservations recommended).

Nearby Snake Butte was often used as a site of vision quests, where individuals sought supernatural powers or medicine. These powers came with a price. It was said few who had them lived long lives. The Army Corps of Engineers quarried Snake Butte for stone to build the dam at Fort Peck in the 1930s.

If you head south from here to Hays, then turn to the east, you'll come to St. Paul's Mission, a solid stone structure established by Jesuit missionaries in 1886. Next to it is a tiny chapel built in 1931 that is dedicated to Our Lady of the Little Rockies. A local devotee has carved a statue practically identical to the supposedly miraculous one at Einsiedeln in Switzerland. To get here, take Mont. 66 south from U.S. 2 at Fort Belknap for about 40 miles to the sign for Hays. Turn left (east). Once you get to Hays, follow the road south after it turns to gravel. The mission is on the left (east) side of the street about a quarter-mile after the road turns south.

Up the road is Mission Canyon, a steep, narrow, cool gash in the otherwise open landscape. Just after entering the canyon, you'll see a natural stone arch. The very brave can climb nearly to the top, and there are several ledges where you can pose for the photographer.

From Glasgow to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation & The C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge

People moving through the northeast extremes of Montana can find themselves a little disoriented by the sheer vastness of the horizons that stretch unbroken all the way to the Dakotas. Although this is mostly wheat country, it's not totally flat. In fact, it is sharply rolling and canyon-scored country, but it's open to the eye in all directions.

In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson rode an immigrant train through here and later wrote: "What livelihood can repay a human creature for a life spent in this huge sameness? He is cut off from books, from news, from company, from all that can relieve existence but the prosecution of his affairs. A sky full of stars is the most varied spectacle he can hope. He may walk 5 miles and see nothing; ten, and it is as though he had not moved; twenty, and he is still in the midst of the same great level, and has approached no nearer to the object within view, the flat horizon which keeps pace with his advance."

There is a story, usually attributed to an area just over the border in western North Dakota, but in the same sort of landscape, of a lone Indian who watched patiently as a recently arrived farmer plowed into the virgin earth, turning the soil with its deep and tangled roots to begin the civilization of the already vanishing native prairie. After some time, the Indian came over to the farmer, pointed to the plowed earth, and said, "Wrong side up."

The story is probably another in the long chain of myths on which the West is built in the American imagination. But there are two contrasting sentiments made tangible here that illustrate the conflicting impulses of America: progress and preservation.

The first and easiest to spot is the Fort Peck Dam and Lake. Construction of the dam began in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, as a way to put men to work and to provide inexpensive water to the growing agricultural area.

The dam is the largest hydraulically earth-filled dam in the world, nearly 5 miles across, backing up a lake that is 134 miles long with 1,600 miles of shoreline -- more shoreline, it is said, than the entire coast of California. The dam is one of the many Corps of Engineers projects that have turned the cantankerous Missouri River that Lewis and Clark navigated into a tame and regulated lake from the Mississippi River to the Rockies.

Seven thousand men and women went to work on the dam in 1933, and at the peak of employment nearly 11,000 were employed here. Locally, the attitude toward the dam was ambivalent, as the residents were losing their homes to the slowly rising water. On the other hand, they could appreciate the need for jobs, for irrigation water, for electric power, even for a large recreational lake. The story of the dam is told at the Fort Peck Powerhouse Museum (tel. 406/526-3493). The powerhouse looms over the landscape like a chunky Art Deco skyscraper that somehow got lost on its way to Des Moines. Admission is free; it is open daily 9am to 5pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend, and by reservation in winter. Tours of the plant are offered at 9 and 11am, and 1 and 3pm. The powerhouse is located on Mont. 24 at Fort Peck Dam. Tours start at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum, on Yellowstone Road (tel. 406/526-3493; www.fortpeckpaleo.com), which houses a fine collection of dinosaur fossils and displays on the area's history in an impressive new facility that opened in 2005. The big attraction is a frightening, fleshed-out replica of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found, unearthed nearby in 1997, but there are also dioramas populated by taxidermy, live fish in aquariums, a look at terrifying aquatic dinosaurs, and the region's human history. It's open year-round Monday to Friday, 9:30am to 5pm May to September, and varied hours in the off season.

Special Events -- Fort Peck Lake, backed up by the dam, is the best spot in Montana for walleye fishing. An annual competition, the Governor's Cup, takes place there each spring. Contact the Glasgow Area Chamber of Commerce (tel. 406/228-2222; www.glasgowmt.net) for the schedule and details.

Seeing the Sights -- The tiny town of Fort Peck is Montana's only planned community, the result of its heyday as the housing base for the workers at the dam in the 1930s. It started out as a trading post in 1867, then grew with the dam, then faded when construction was finished. It is testimony to the remoteness of this region that in 1934, months after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had begun construction of this $100-million project (big money during the Depression), a New York supplier asked the New York army headquarters how to address some equipment it was sending out to Montana. The army solemnly replied that there was no such place as Fort Peck -- it had been abandoned in the 1880s.

The Fort Peck Theatre (tel. 406/526-9943; www.fortpecktheatre.org) is a large former cinema built in the 1930s for the workers. The surprisingly beautiful theater seats 900 people, and its season runs approximately from the last week of June to the last week of August.

Surrounding the many miles of shoreline at Fort Peck Lake is the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, named for the famous Western wildlife cowboy artist Charles Russell. Born in 1864 in St. Louis, Russell was a working Montana cowboy at the age of 16 and drew much of his artistic inspiration from those years. He greatly admired the region's American Indians, and deplored the plowing of the grasslands. Russell knew that destroying the native grass would destroy the habitat for the animals, the bison would be lost, the Indian conquered. Russell didn't like seeing the West civilized, and he had little use for "settlers."

Turnoffs and campsites are located all along the perimeter of the refuge, as are boat ramps for anglers. Flat Creek, Rock Creek, and Nelson Creek boat ramps are easy to reach, located just off Mont. 24, which skirts the eastern side of the lake. There are 15 campgrounds scattered along the lake margin. The camping varies from rugged to semicivilized. Only two campgrounds -- the West End Campground and Downstream Campground -- have flush toilets and showers; both are located near the dam. Contact the Corps of Engineers (tel. 406/526-3411) for information.

The Fort Peck Indian Reservation is home to the Assinniboine and the Sioux. The Sioux, who had been on the reservation by themselves, were joined by the Assinniboine nation after smallpox killed more than half of the tribe farther west along the Missouri River and again threatened the tribe after it resettled near Fort Belknap. The escape from the deadly disease brought them to Fort Peck. Now the reservation is home to many non-Indians, with American Indians possessing less than half of the actual reservation.

This has been an extremely important area for the study of dinosaurs. The world's first Tyrannosaurus rex remains were discovered in 1902, just south of where the lake is in Garfield County. The Garfield County Museum (tel. 406/557-2517 or 406/557-2226) in Jordan has replicas of the T. rex skull there, along with a duckbill dinosaur and triceratops. It is open June to September daily from 1 to 5pm. Jordan is located at the intersection of Mont. 59 and Mont. 200 in the plains south of Fort Peck Lake. From Miles City, drive north on Mont. 59 for 83 miles. From Glendive, take Mont. 200 west 111 miles. From Fort Peck Dam, take Mont. 24 south 59 miles to Mont. 200, then take Mont. 200 west 36 miles.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.