The Rocky Mountain Front is a unique landscape. To the Blackfeet, the region was known as Miistakis, or “The Backbone of the World”. Early European-American trappers and later, settlers called the mountains the “Sawtooths”. This is where the Big Sky of the prairie is torn by jagged peaks and miles-long reefs. No gentle foothills exist here, prairie meets the highlands abruptly.
This is where two very different realms meet, where the prairie nestles all the way up to the toes of the mountains and the mountains in return create the wildest temperature swings on planet Earth as they send warm Chinooks down onto the prairies in the frigid winter months. Nearby Rogers Pass holds the continental-U.S. low temperature record of -69.7 F. Windchills below -30 are fairly common. But these cold snaps often end with Chinooks. These warm winds can melt feet of snow per day. The translation of the Blackfeet word into English for this wind phenomenon is “Snow-eater”.
One of the defining characteristics of The Front are the eastward facing limestone cliffs that rise up out of the prairie. Known to westward settlers as “reefs”, these geologic wonders were viewed by wagon teams much as sailors viewed ocean reefs… to be avoided and traveled around. The geologically ironic fact is that these “reefs” are made of Madison limestone: they are made of the remains of ancient coral reefs that were once at the bottom of a shallow sea millions of years ago.
Those westward settlers weren’t the first beings inconvenienced by the rugged topography of this land. The Old North Trail, an ancient footpath still intact in places here, traces the eastern edge of the mountains, running north and south, the easiest route of travel for indigenous peoples following the seasons and the migratory herds of game animals.
The wildlife here must also migrate according to the season, according to terrain. Here, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl fly northward in the late winter and early spring northward along the eastern slopes of the Rockies, lake-hopping northward, with an extended stay here at Freezeout Lake. The nearby Sun River Game Preserve hosts the nation’s second largest migratory elk herd. The herd travels to and fro from edge of prairie into the mountains, maximizing their ability to survive, by exploiting the various food sources that come into season at different stages of the year at differing altitudes.
Bears are masters of this game. While both black bear and grizzly live here in high numbers, The Front is the last place in the world where grizzlies still live and thrive on the prairie. These bruins come out of the still-snowy mountains in the spring, down onto the prairie in search of wildlife and livestock that didn’t survive the harsh winter, returning to the mountains for cooler days and more vegetation in the summer, and then gorging on berries in the fleeting autumn, before skipping the winter months altogether while in hibernation.
One could say that this area differs from most in the United States. Most other places in our land, humankind has bent the natural world to its own uses. Here on The Front, humans and their activities are bent to the will of nature. This land remains untamed because of the Front itself and is as wild as any you can find in the continental United States.
Come and join us on our little piece of The Front, at the Old Trail Museum in Choteau, Montana. Several aspects of life on The Front are exhibited here, from the Metís and their settlement in the canyon of the south fork of the Teton River, having fled persecution in Canada in the 1880s, to the world-renowned Egg Mountain dinosaur dig and its ramifications in the field of paleontology, to the distinct structural geology of the Rocky Mountain Front, to the rare weather patterns the Front creates in the region, to famous authors and artists whose worldviews were uniquely shaped by this landscape and its seasons. Come and join us in celebrating this extraordinary stretch of Earth, a land of intertwining histories, where the inhabitants are made rugged by this rugged land.