Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thank You, Matt Montana!

No, his name isn’t really Matt Montana – although the "Matt" is correct.

All of the seasonal employees in Glacier wear name tags with their first names and their home states. So our Red Bus driver on our Going-to-the-Sun-Road tour was Matt from Montana. Chuck had asked him a question about the broasted chicken at a restaurant in West Glacier, and since Matt has not eaten at that restaurant, he recommended the broasted chicken at the Nite Owl/Back Room restaurant in Columbia Falls, MT.

This is two separate restaurants under one roof and with one ownership. The Nite Owl is open all day; the Back Room opens at 5:00 p.m. After five, you can order from both menus in both dining rooms. The main difference is that the décor in the Back Room is slightly more upscale than in the Nite Owl. We chose the Nite Owl.

We came for broasted chicken (on the Back Room menu), so we barely noticed what else they serve. We both ordered the half white with boiled red potatoes, baked beans, and cole slaw. The beans were southern style sweet and delicious; the slaw was shredded and creamy; the potatoes were potatoes (I didn’t eat mine). And with our meals came large pieces of Indian fry bread. I think fry bread is similar to the sopapillas we had in New Mexico except fry bread doesn’t puff and have a hollow interior. But they share a slightly sweet, slightly yeasty flavor that is perfect with either honey or the honey butter served at the Night Owl.

But let’s talk chicken. Broasting is frying in a pressure cooker. This seals in the natural juices and produces a grease-free crust that is almost brittle. Each of our orders included two large breast pieces and two wings. So much chicken that I anticipated having cold chicken for breakfast the next day. This was perfect chicken. The coating was lightly seasoned (the secret ingredients raise their heads again) and crunched loudly with every bite; the white meat was extra moist and juicy. There was so much food that we ended taking home one whole breast, plus a good third of another, which became a light supper the following night. (There went breakfast!)

As we were leaving, Chuck started talking with one of the servers over by the dessert refrigerator. It was then we learned about Ruthie, in her late 80’s, who still comes in to help make the desserts. Here she is pictured with a piece of her cherry cheese pie with an oatmeal nut crust. Guess what we took home for a late dessert that night?

The web describes this/these restaurants as “locals” places, and the crowd two days later at lunch was proof of that. Seated next to us was a table of six old-timers who gather regularly for lunch. Chuck referred to them as the “town council.” And they seemed to know everyone entering the restaurant.

Since the chicken isn’t available until 5:00 p.m., we needed to look elsewhere on the menu. Chuck ordered the chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, white pepper gravy, and green beans. The mashed potatoes and gravy were very good and the beans tasted as if they had never seen a freezer or a can. But his reaction to the steak was mixed.

He has an order of preference when it comes to chicken fried steak. His favorite is batter dipped and deep fat fried. Second is batter dipped and fried on a grill and third is breaded and deep fat fried. The breaded and grilled style is his least favorite and this was the style at the Nite Owl. The serving was huge, and the meat was tender and gristle free with a good beef flavor.

I opted for the three piece fried halibut platter with fries and slaw. You know that the fish has been frozen if they are uniform in size and shape. I don’t know if they came pre-battered or were battered in the kitchen, but the coating was a perfect example of British fish and chips style. The fish were served flaky, sweet, and moist. With the fish came very good hand-cut fries, and instead of my slaw, I received the green beans. I was about to catch our server and ask for a switch, but she was busy. So, I decided to just eat the beans. Am I glad I did. A little salt, a little pepper, a little butter, and I was in bean heaven.

So we had eaten dinner and lunch at the Nite Owl. What was left? Breakfast, of course. It was the day before we were to leave the Glacier area, and we had laundry to do and errands to run. What better way to start than with a wholesome breakfast. How wholesome was it? I’ll let you be the judge.

Both of us ordered one of the three breakfast specials. (The special not chosen was a half pound slice of bone-in ham with eggs, hash browns, and toast for $7.95.) Chuck’s was the sausage skillet ($7.95) with potatoes, two eggs, and sourdough toast. You’d expect that the potatoes would be the primary ingredient. You’d be wrong. We counted at least five different varieties of sausage along with ham mixed in with roasted potatoes and onions. This came topped with grated cheddar cheese and with two scrambled eggs on the side. Before ordering, Chuck asked our server if he was proverbially “biting off more than he could chew.” She told him that she thought my choice was even more filling.

And what was that? The grits casserole – two giant scoops of yellow grits mixed with a hefty portion of good breakfast sausage and green and red peppers and topped with melted bright yellow cheese.
Yes, the cheese was undoubtedly processed.

Having collected a number of southern ladies group cookbooks over the years, I have noticed that Velveeta often occurs as an ingredient. Why? Sometimes it is just perfect – that’s why. If you are looking for down home, rib-sticking comfort food, this was it. I normally don’t bother with the toast, but in this case I used it to wipe the serving bowl clean.

We left Glacier wishing we had found the Nite Owl earlier in our trip but grateful to Matt Montana for telling us about the 4.0 Addie spot.

Just a closing note. We frequently receive comments about the size of the meals we eat and why we don’t seem to be getting fat. (Or at least Chuck doesn’t.) After a breakfast like that at the Nite Owl, lunch is not an option. We didn’t eat again until about 7:00 that evening and then it was just a ham and Swiss sandwich.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fire and Ice

Nowhere else in the country is there a mountain lake larger than Lake McDonald.

For reference, a large mountain lake is typically around 100 acres. Yet Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald is 10 miles long and about a mile and a half wide.

One of the creeks and streams that empty into the Lake is Snyder Creek (above), which runs adjacent to Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Lake, which lies in a giant bowl, is surrounded by thickly forested, towering mountains. It was created ten thousand years ago during the last ice age. Massive glaciers with a height of more than 3000 feet slowly crept down from the mountains, pushing a massive amount of dirt, rock and other debris ahead of it (called a moraine) that often reached more than 200 feet high.

It also scoured a deep depression underneath its path. As the ice age ended and the glaciers began to rapidly retreat, a part of the glacier broke off. Trapped in the massive bowl that the glacier itself created, the glacier melted and, fed by additional inflows from other melting glaciers, created Lake McDonald.

In contrast to the lush forest lining the eastern shore of Lake McDonald are these reminders of the Robert fire of 2003. By mid-September of that year, there were 16 large fires in the region covering more than 310,000 acres. Of that total acreage, 145,000 were within Glacier National Park. And of that total, 39,000 acres were burned in the Robert fire. Even so, Glacier National Park estimates that only 10 percent of the entire Park burned.

In comparison, Glacier National Park averages 14 fires each summer and has averaged 5000 acres burned each year since 1988.

Built between 1913-1914 on the eastern shore of picturesque Lake McDonald is rustic, Swiss-chalet style Lake McDonald Lodge. The lobby is a large, open space three stories in height. Balconies surround the upper portions of the lobby on three sides.

On the east wall of the lobby an inglenook-type fireplace of enormous size has Indian designs scored and painted in the masonry above the opening. The lobby edges of the inglenook are surrounded with a log framing similar in design to that of the rest of the lobby.

Finally, a short distance from Lake McDonald is this section of McDonald Creek. Swelled by the spring thaw, the creek flows wildly into Lake McDonald.

I was told that the reason for the greenish color of the water is due to what one Red Bus driver called "glacier flour," rock dust so fine that it would not settle out of a container of water allowed to sit undisturbed for some time.

Another driver said the rock was called Grinnell argillite.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What’s a Nice Young Man . . .

from Virginia and South Carolina doing in Whitefish, Montana? Clay Nelson’s smokin’ up a storm and putting out some fantastic barbeque – that’s what.

Knowing that we were headed to Whitefish, I googled my favorite site, tripadvisor.com, and found that Piggyback Barbeque was the second highest rated restaurant (behind a very upscale place with wine-tasting dinners). Since it had been some time since we had eaten barbecue, off we went. Why? To quote Clay’s business card: “’cause it’s good!”

This is another of those small and very informal places that we love. Both inside and outside seating was at picnic style tables and along one wall was an upholstered bench (banquette is to fancy for a BBQ joint). You order at the counter and take a seat waiting for the counter person to walk through and yell “Chuck.”

The menu reveals Clay’s Southern roots. The appetizers include hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, and fried dill pickles; one of the salads is topped with blackened catfish; and the sandwich list includes a catfish Po’ Boy and a fried green tomato BLT along with pulled pork and brisket. The entrees are pulled pork, brisket, dry rub ribs, chicken, and various combos of these.

Chuck is still looking for the ultimate brisket, so he ordered the brisket platter with beans and buffalo chips. My choice was the pulled pork platter with slaw and beans. We shared an order of the hush puppies.

We received a generous basket of the hush puppies filled with chopped onion rather than the customary (to me) grated onion. While tasty, I thought they could have used more flour and less corn meal in the batter. These were a bit heavy and filling.

So did Chuck find the ultimate brisket? He’s still looking. The meat was tender, moist, with good smoke flavor. To me, an added benefit was the large number of chunks with the smoking bark. I love the intense flavor of the bark. Chuck less so. Chuck’s brisket standard is the thinly sliced brisket we had at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, MO, and all of the brisket we have had since has been either thickly sliced or in large chunks.

His buffalo chips were slices of potato about 3/8ths of an inch thick and fried until crisp outside and moist and steamy inside. And the beans could give any southern cook real competition. Both of our servings contained a liberal amount of smoked pork and were made with a dark sweetener like molasses or cane syrup. Delicious.

My pulled pork was the hit of the meal. We have not tasted such good pulled pork since our Pork-a-Rama in Memphis last fall. Again, the meat was served in large chunks, was tender and moist, and had a discernable smoke ring. Chuck was a happy camper. Our portions were so large that I ended up giving him a significant (or kind of significant) portion. With this I had the vinaigrette tossed slaw. Clay indicated on the menu that this was not a creamy slaw (my preference), but if you are having pulled pork you have to have slaw. I was pleasantly surprised. This was quite good with only a light vinegar flavor.

The Piggyback Barbecue offered three different sauce choices. One was a North Carolina style with red pepper flakes swimming in a sea of vinegar; another was a South Carolina mustard and vinegar sauce; the final, labeled Montana Sauce, being a tomato-based sweet sauce with the copious addition of red pepper flakes. It was the latter that we both chose to top our barbecue.

As we left, I told Clay that my pork was as good as most and better than some that I had eaten in Memphis. I think he was pleased with my evaluation. and I hope he would be pleased to know that I am awarding him 4.0 Addies. Would have been higher if the hush puppies had been lighter.

Before leaving Whitefish, we stopped briefly at "the busiest Amtrak stop between Seattle and Minneapolis." Train service began on October 4, 1904, but it wasn't until 1927 that The Great Northern Railway hired architect Thomas D'Arcy McMahon to devise a depot for Whitefish. With a timber-framed, Tudor revival exterior, the building matches the Swiss appearance that had proved popular at Glacier National Park’s chalets.

It was James J. Hill who restructured failing sections of the Great Northern and extended the railway cross country, into the Pacific Northwest. Hill placed his own nickname on the new line, and the “Empire Builder” was inaugurated on June 11, 1929, completing rail service from coast to coast.

But it was this vehicle permanently parked outside the depot that caught our attention. Called a "Bruck" and described as "tastefully furnished," this custom-designed bus-truck transported as many as 21 passengers and their baggage on the 15-mile journey between Whitefish and Kalispell from 1952-1972.

Of special interest to me is the fact that the Bruck replaced the Galloping Goose, a short-line, gas-electric train, that had provided service between these two cities from 1904 to 1950.

I had heard of the Goose, but never knew what its route was. Now I know.

Learn something new . . . .

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What If?

Yesterday's entry took us halfway up the Going-to-the-Sun Road where road repairs halted our trip to St. Mary at the eastern entrance; today will cover the return trip to West Glacier.

While you look at pictures from a portion of the road through the center of Glacier NP, I would like to pass along a story about how a cloudy day and budgetary matters changed the history--and possibly even the existence--of Glacier.

Marias Pass at the southern border of what is now Glacier NP was at the center of searches for hunting, trading, and railroad routes through the mountains in the 1800s.

The eastern prairies of Montana and Alberta were home to great herds of American bison, a primary food source for the Blackfeet Indians.

The Blackfeet people of the northern plains dominated "The Backbone of the World"
long before any European explorer confronted the area now known as the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfeet were aggressive and protected their east-slope buffalo hunting grounds from incursion by the western tribes of the Kalispell and Kootenai and tribes from the south such as the Crow, Sioux and Assiniboine. Fur traders traveling through Marias Pass were attacked to prevent the route from becoming known to all.

Lewis and Clark's famous expedition across the American West took them very near the area that is now Glacier in 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis took three men with him to find the headwaters of the Marias River on the east side of the Rockies, but the weather was overcast, and they had little idea of what lay around them. The clouds blocked their view of Marias Pass, which, had they found it, probably would have simplified their journey over the mountains.

When the Washington Territory was formed in 1853 and Isaac I. Stevens was appointed governor of this new territory, the first job assigned to him was to make a survey of possible railroad routes into the northwest, along the northern border of the country. James Doty led an expedition the following year and looked into a low pass through the mountains. Ordered back to Fort Benton, he was unable to complete the survey.

Plans to return and continue the survey the following year were cancelled by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, who felt enough money had been wasted on the long search for a pass through the mountains.

It wasn't until 1889 that an explorer for the Great Northern Railway named John F. Stevens finally figured out where the vital Marias Pass lay. Marias was important because it is the lowest mountain pass between Canada and Mexico, so its low altitude and easy grade made it perfect for trains to cross the Continental Divide.

The railroad line crossed the mountains in 1891. However, by this time, the last bison in the area had been killed, a smallpox epidemic had devastated the tribe, and starvation was rampant among the remaining Blackfeet.

James Willard Schultz, an American who had long traveled with them and had become a full member of one band, decided to help his friends. He wrote to George Bird Grinnell, the influential editor of Forest and Stream magazine. Through his magazine and his powerful government friends, Grinnell helped increase government aid to the Blackfeet.

Grinnell was introduced to the area by Schultz and he declared it, "The Crown of the Continent." Visiting many times between 1880 and 1900, he initiated the movement to declare the area a national park. Grinnell is celebrated today as the "Father of Glacier National Park."

Next year, the Glacier Park will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

By then, the road repairs should be completed. This pod, dangling over a cliff with a drop of hundreds of feet, seemed to be the perfect location from which to work on patching the reinforced wall.

Fortunately, the repairs will benefit visitors to one of the gems of the national park system--the Glacier portion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Friday, June 26, 2009


We were drawn to the Red Bus again.

This time it was to take the Crown of the Continent Tour, more commonly known as traveling the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Vehicles longer than 21 feet are not allowed to travel the 48.7 mile winding road.

So, we signed up for the trip on the 25-foot long Red Bus. 21', No; 25', OK. ???

However . . . , the road was closed near Big Bend, a point a little over half the length of the Road.

As of June 13, Big Drift, just east of Logan Pass (the Continental Divide), still had about 70 feet of snow still clogging the road, but it was still closed as of the 24th due to damage caused by avalanches.

We had reservations and were promised an "itinerary modification" in the event of weather conditions or construction work that closed the road. So, we began our trip (there were no refunds) knowing that we would not be able to reach Logan Pass, the highest point on the road.

Our modification took us past this river (first photo) and Goat Lick (above).

Mountain goats frequent this natural salt lick on a cliff above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and we were fortunate to see this group of seven mountain goats in the area below the road.

Although the time on the Going-to-the-Sun Road was less than originally anticipated, it was nonetheless still very dramatic.

The photos here were taken on the portion of the road west of the 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. I don't know if any of these mountains are named, but they evoke a "Wow" response when seeing them.

The road officially received its name, “The Going-to-the-Sun Road,” during the 1933 dedication at Logan Pass. The road borrowed its name from nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain.

Local legend, and a 1933 press release issued by the Department of the Interior, told the story of the deity, Sour Spirit, who came down from the sun to teach Blackfeet braves the rudiments of the hunt. On his way back to the sun, Sour Spirit had his image reproduced on the top of the mountain for inspiration to the Blackfeet.

The Sun Road project received $27.6 million in federal stimulus money to rebuild from Big Bend to Logan Pass. Remaining funds will be applied to the next phase of work in 2010 (Logan Pass east to Siyeh Bend).

Much of the west-facing side of the Rocky Mountains within the park, comprised of the Lewis and Livingston Ranges, features a vertical rock face known as the Garden Wall. The road was literally carved into this cliff. The result is a thrilling and hair-raising ride with unbelievable views of both mountains and valleys. The outer edge of the road drops off thousands of feet into the valley below.

Jagged mountains cut sharply through clouds, their peaks encircling the earth like majestic points of a crown fit for a king. It’s no wonder they call this place the “Crown of the Continent.”

This waterfall at Big Bend was quite striking.

With views shown here, we did not feel too bad about missing the other half of the Sun Road.

Still more to come tomorrow.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Glimpse of Britain

There is afternoon tea and there is Afternonn Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in Waterton, Alberta, Canada.

Described as: "Afternoon Tea is experienced in the relaxing atmosphere of the stylishly restored Prince of Wales Hotel Lobby, overlooking panoramic vistas where the Canadian Rockies and sparkling blue waters of Waterton Lakes collide. Blending the wild and sophisticated into one, Afternoon Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel is a unique Waterton Lakes National Park experience."

Take pleasure in Tea Forté™ teas with innovative porcelain teaware, a selection of homemade pastries, assorted finger sandwiches, scones, jam, and seasonal berries. Tea Forte's signature porcelain Café Cup, ceramic Tea Trays, and pyramid infusers help transform this Prince of Wales Hotel Afternoon Tea service into a ritual of rejuvenation."

The charge of $29.95 (CAN) per person put a different perspective on the "ritual of rejuvenation."

So, we decided to enjoy the "panoramic vista" from the "relaxing atmosphere" of the Hotel's beautiful lobby.

But time was short. So, what does one eat when dining with a Prince? We had our choice of either the main dining room or the lounge. Both have the same luncheon menu, but in the lounge we would be able to snatch a seat by a large window with a view overlooking the lake. That choice was easy, the lounge it would be. After reviewing the menu, we both decided on choices “from across the pond.” (Do you find that phase as annoying as I do?)

For Chuck it would be the Shepherd’s Pie with a cup of tomato soup as a starter. The soup was a winner. Composed of roasted tomatoes, red onions, basil, and tarragon, it had both a bright and a smoky flavor. Now I am normally not a big fan of tarragon – one of those seasonings where less is more – but the kitchen used this seasoning so that only a slight undertone of anise flavor was present. At some point in the cooking process, a generous dollop of butter was added to make this a rich and satisfying soup.

Traditionally, Shepherd’s Pie was made with lamb or mutton. Fortunately for Chuck, the hotel’s kitchen abandoned tradition and used extremely tender chunks of beef with carrots and peas. The beef, along with carrots and peas, were mixed with just enough beefy and peppery gravy to enrobe the filling. This was not one of those Shepherd’s Pies where, once you open the potato layer, you find little filling swimming in much gravy. The mashed potatoes, decoratively piped on the filling mixture, were real mashed potatoes – no instant here. His lunch also came with a side salad of crisp greens with tomatoes and red onion rings and dressed with light vinaigrette.

I chose the Fish and Chips – two generous pieces of halibut with a batter so light and so crisp as to be almost transparent in spots. And the batter retained the crispness until the last bite was eaten. The fish underneath this perfect batter was moist, flakey, and sweet and needed only a light spritz of lemon. Tartar sauce would have overwhelmed the sweet flavor of this halibut.

With the fish came a veritable mountain of fries that I suspect never saw a freezer. They were slightly thicker than shoestrings which meant they could be fried to a crisp finish without the interior becoming dry. When I looked at my plate, I was reminded of our favorite restaurant in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, where fish and chips comes with more fries that even Chuck can usually finish. My other side was an excellent shredded cole slaw with a light creamy dressing, and I suspect, some thinly shredded bell pepper.

Now I am normally suspicious of lodge food. I frequently describe the food at park lodges as being the essence of corporate food. But not the food at the Prince of Wales Hotel. This was definitely a 4.5 Addie meal and had the side benefit of a beautiful view.

Before boarding the Red Bus for the remainder of our travels, we had time to photograph the tourist destination town of Waterton below the Hotel.

The Prince of Wales Hotel is a subject that has many "good sides." This view from the town of Waterton shows the majesty of the Hotel as it appears to watch over the town.

We took a short trip up a hill in Waterton to Cameron Falls. The falls drop about 15 feet over a ledge of bedrock which has been thrust upwards at an angle. Because of this angle, when the water reaches the precipice, the stream starts sliding sideways. This causes part of the water to cascade to the left, while part of the water plunges downward, then cascades to the left. The result is a segmented waterfall which crosses over itself.

And yet, even with all the activity in the Falls, the water in the stream below the Falls is quite shallow.

As we retraced our route to the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, we passed many peaceful scenes like this one.

A relaxing couple of hours in Canada.