A grand start to spring in northwest Montana

TROY—On the first day of spring, and just four days after St. Patrick’s Day, I found myself in what had to be the greenest spot in all of Montana.

I was at the Ross Creek Cedars, a 100-acre grove of western red cedars that reach for the sky a little south of Troy off Highway 56. Some of these monster trees are said to be nearly 1,000 years old and to rise to a height of 200 feet.

Even more amazing than their size, though, was the verdant, water-logged landscape from which they arise. It was more like being in the northwest corner of the United States, up on the Olympic Peninsula, than in a corner of a state that is mostly so arid.

Troy occupies a spot in the western part of Montana that Medicine Lake occupies in the eastern part. There’s water up in the northeast corner, too, but most of it is in prairie potholes left over by the glaciers.

At the Ross Creek Cedars, most everything is pulsingly alive, green and growing, and even the dead, fallen trees are obviously in the process of supporting and creating new life. There are leaves, needles, fronds, lichen, moss and algae everywhere you look, green and dripping with moisture.

I was with my daughter Hayley and we didn’t think we’d be able to visit the cedars, which neither of us had ever seen before. I had to be in Troy on Friday night, to give a presentation on “The Life and Times of Jimmie Rodgers, The Father of Country Music,” so I thought I’d finally get a chance to see the cedars I’d been hearing about for years.

When I called the Forest Service office in Troy, I was told the gate to the cedars would be closed, that we’d have to snowshoe or ski in three miles if we wanted to see the trees. But the snow was as scarce over there as it has been in Billings this year, so when Hayley saw the turnoff for the cedars she figured it wouldn’t hurt to see how far we could get.

And there was the gate, wide open. We ventured in and the narrow paved road was perfectly dry until about the last half mile, when we hit some deep, packed ice and slushy snow maybe nine inches deep. We held our breaths on a few sharp corners, but we were rewarded by having the entire preserve to ourselves.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

And it wasn’t just green up in northwestern Montana. Here’s a birch tree near the Kootenai Falls.

I had read that the cedars usually get 400 to 500 visitors a day in the summer, still nothing compared to the crowds that swarm to see the West Coast sequoias and redwoods. But to be the only people at the Ross Creek Cedars on a magnificent first day of spring? Damn, we love this state.

I’ll spare you any further attempts to describe that ancient grove, hoping the accompanying photos will give you some idea of its beauty. It’s 500 miles from Billings (and 650 miles from Medicine Lake), but it’s worth the drive.

And it’s not as if the Ross Creek Cedars are the only things to see up there. On Saturday, the second day of spring, we woke up in Libby to find the warm weather and mostly clear skies had given way to a steady rain and low, thick clouds, with patches of fog creeping up the hillsides in every direction.

It was raining so hard for a while that we thought we’d have to abandon our plans to take in the Kootenai Falls, about midway between Libby and Troy, just off Highway 2. By the time we’d had breakfast, however, the rain was down to a very light drizzle, and then stopped altogether by the time we reached the falls.

The Kootenai Falls are not steep, vertical falls, but rather a series of cataracts flowing over innumerable rock ledges for half a mile or more of the Kootenai River, emerald-green and roaring at this time of year. All along the short trail leading to the falls were warning signs that began, “This river is very dangerous and over a dozen lives have tragically been lost at this location.”

We thought maybe they were exaggerating for the sake of dumb tourists, but the main overlook consists of a tilted sheet of granite that slopes down to an abrupt edge far above the river below. It was frightening enough after the recent rain. With just a sheen of ice or a bit of snow—yikes!

The forest leading to the falls was nearly as wet and verdant as the area around the Ross Creek Cedars, and some of the ponderosa pines near the falls were impressively tall. A bit downstream of the main falls there is a swinging bridge over the river, high above the river, but well-planked and solidly fenced.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A cedar wears a thick coat of moss.

We felt so fortunate to have reached the cedars, thanks to this very dry winter, and then to have seen the falls despite the heavy rains. It was a fine trip, though much too short. So little time, so much Montana…

And I don’t see any reason not to add this: The presentation on Jimmie Rodgers is sponsored by the Montana Humanities Speakers Bureau. In Troy I talked about Jimmie Rodgers and played some of his songs for a fine bunch of people at the Northwest Music Hot Club Coffee House. If you visit the cedars or the falls, put the Hot Club on your list, too.

And if you’re reading this in or near Missoula or Butte, take note: my brother John will be joining me for another presentation on Jimmie Rodgers at the Missoula Public Library at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, then Wednesday at noon at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives in uptown Butte.

In the spirit of those signs at the Kootenai Falls, we should warn you that the presentation does involve some yodeling.

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