In our quest for a place to settle down in the United States we were attracted to Last Chance Gulch – or Helena as it is now known, the capital of Montana – where prospectors took one last chance at mining for gold before moving west.
The other attraction to visit Helena was to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark by taking a boat trip (yes, I know, oxymoron like baggy tights, Congressional ethics or European Community) down the Missouri River. This longest river in the United States is worryingly known as Big Misery but behaved for us as we puttered downstream on the Sacagawea, an open-topped tour boat named for a Shoshone Indian guide who served as interpreter for Lewis and Clark. As we came across the L & C’s Trail again and again in this rugged and formidable part of the country, we never ceased to be amazed at the tenacity of the pair who trekked 8,000 miles through the wilderness for two years with no maps, no apps, no radio, no GPS and no spouse to blame for a wrong turn.
We witnessed the site of the August, 1949 Mann Gulch Fire which burned 3,000 acres in 10 minutes claiming the lives of 13 smoke jumpers – men who parachute into fight forest fires when there is no other means of access. Two of the only three who survived the fire sprinted for 60 seconds out of the canyon to safety with the fire chasing them – a feat never equaled to this day, even by professional athletes.
One year previously, a fire had torn through our destination picnic area, but when we disembarked we witnessed all the devastation that had happened just three days before when torrential rain had flooded down the gulch. To walk up the washed out path we were forced to leap a stream (with the grace of two arthritic elephants) that hadn’t flowed in 50 years. The forest reeked of burnt timber, refreshed by the recent downpour. The sight of fallen burnt out trees was disheartening. We sat on a boulder to eat our lunch and take stock of both the beauty and the destructive forces of nature.
Our captain and river guide had apprised us of all these facts as well as the record low temperature for the area of -70°F – that’s 102 degrees below freezing if you haven’t already worked it out. “It was just the once in January 1954,” Jimmy reminded me.
“That’s 54 years ago.”
“It normally doesn’t dip below 0°F.”
“That’s comforting.” That’s still 32° below freezing.
Wildfires, desperately cold winters, floods, no more gold. We won’t be living there.
FYI – My favorite oxymoron was nixed by him indoors. It involved a well-known computer company’s tech support.