Shamrock Tour® - Helena, Montana
My reward for hiking up the hill to Helena, Montana's timber-framed fire tower is a glorious view over the city in the warm light of late afternoon, encompassing the dome of the capitol, Last Chance Gulch, the twin spires of St. Helena Cathedral, and the minaret of the Civic Center.
That last distinctive landmark was constructed in 1921 as the temple of the Algeria Shrine in a style known as Moorish revival - a nod to the magnificent architecture that arose in North Africa and southern Spain under Islamic rule. The Algeria Shriners are still very active, but not in their original home. The city acquired their exotic temple after it was damaged in a 1935 earthquake. Though once housing municipal offices, it's now used principally as an entertainment venue.
The objective of my hike, the fire tower, dates from 1876, and is known as "The Guardian of the Gulch." It was built in response to a series of fires that destroyed large parts of the mining settlement in the 1870s, and the fire spotters situated there have proven its worth numerous times since by alerting citizens to small blazes that could have grown into major fires otherwise.
Sadly, the fire tower was no use in averting the forest fires now burning elsewhere in Montana: in particular, a huge out-of-control conflagration near Seeley Lake in the Swan Valley, 100 miles to the northwest. With little wind to clear the air, a brown haze has settled in the valley around Helena, smudging the outlines of the surrounding mountain ranges in dreamy beige hues. It presents a less than ideal situation for a photographer (unless, of course, the fires' haze is the focus), and the air quality, equally challenging for anyone else around, leaves a sharp tang in the mouth. A local reporter on my TV at the Colonial Hotel tells me I should stay inside if I have pre-existing breathing issues. On the plus side, though, the airborne particles help produce some amazing sunsets, streaking the sky with vivid purples and oranges, and graphite clouds fringed in red.
Motorcycle & Gear
2007 Triumph Tiger 1050
Helmet: Nolan N102
Jacket: Olympia Bushwacker
Pants: Olympia Airglide 2
Boots: BMW Allaround
Gloves: Held Sprint
Pass of Least Resistance
Triumph Canada has kindly loaned me a 2007 Tiger for this tour. The new version is more street oriented than earlier models, with 17-inch cast alloy wheels and full street tires. I'm also appreciating the removable hard luggage as I load them and lock them in place before firing up the Tiger and pulling out onto Missoula's Reserve Street. I'm looking for Montana 200, which will take me east toward Helena.
As I spin along, the glades of evergreens seem to be interspersed with misty lakes. The illusion is actually haze from the forest fires. My route intermittently follows the Blackfoot River, a name that strikes me as curious: the Blackfoot are Plains Indians, yet I'm still west of the Continental Divide.
Once I pass the turnoff for the Swan Valley, I realize the seriousness of the Seeley Lake blaze. Highway 83 is completely closed off and a fire camp has been set up at the intersection. The firefighters' brightly colored tents are scattered across a field, and two helicopters are standing by. Though all seems peaceful and orderly at the camp, I'm sure the situation is wildly different at the fire site.
Another oddity noted, the climb to the Great Divide is quite shallow. Hwy 200 sweeps along the side of a long, broad valley, and Rogers Pass itself is at a mere 5,610 feet. Within 150 miles in either direction, the Divide soars close to 10,000 feet.
Though the pass itself is less than dramatic, the change in vegetation certainly isn't. I've left the pine forests behind and emerge on a vast beige plain that seems to lack cultivation or even much in the way of scrub vegetation. At Simms, I turn west on Montana 21, which takes me 21 miles to Augusta across more fawn plateau. In the smoke haze, I'm unable to pick out any geographical features except for the "stream" (irrigation ditch) running alongside the road. Spitting in the desert is supposed to cause a flower to grow, and for a 100 feet or so on either side, the stream is flanked with thick grass, shrubs and shade trees.