Oldies at Large – Freecamping on the Montana Prairie

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 7.50.48 amWe were told that freecamping in Canada and the US was a no-no… this is true. However resting is fine even if the rest stops are few and far between. It is a fine line between resting and camping when you are living out of a car.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 7.51.27 amThe few rest stops that there are to be found in the rolling prairie plains are cared for by the locals and in our experience the people are friendly and generous. The Freecamp culture is lacking though and although there are numerous RV’ers on the road, predominantly people chose to settle into what are usually basically set up and costly RV campgrounds where they can plug in to electricity. We have chosen a mix of freecamp stops and National or Provincial Reserves or Forestry Campgrounds.

The problem is a lack of public land where freecamps can be established and attitude associated with the freecamping experience. The small towns unfortunately suffer for this outlook because it can be overly expensive and not particularly pleasant to continually stay in RV campgrounds. This is obvious to Aussies who enjoy our freecamping system at home and those who enjoy exploring country towns, spreading our often thin finances throughout the townships where we are welcome. Fortunately in Aus. there are many country townships which welcome freecampers and their custom, this lifestyle is after all a demographic on their own historically.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 7.43.41 amWe crossed into the US at Chief Mountain border-crossing down from Calgary… and we got lost which is easy as the road signs for Aussies are difficult to understand. It isn’t even as if there are many roads to get lost on… but we managed it. Signs like ‘Exit 188’ don’t help much when you have no idea where you are, but it was fun. They don’t use directional signs like the name to a city or town often, but more the number of the highway… confusing!

Once over the border we were in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, the preserve of the Blackfeet and Cree Nations. Browning is the major town within the confines of the Reserve and the Casino, which seems to be present in every Indian reservation, doesn’t seem to be much of a benefit for the community. Actually I would suggest that it is more of a disadvantage and tapping into the tourist industry would be perhaps a better option to prosper with.

I am told that the Reservations are often funded by their Casino’s as they enjoy sovereignty… which means a lack of support from the Government. I wonder if the Aboriginal Communities in Aus. who call for sovereignty realise that it means no financial support. ie dole or social benefits. Sovereignty comes with responsibility and accountability inherent in such a state and it doesn’t seem to benefit the American Indian much, but then they don’t have our all encompassing social support structure either.

The locals did have the ‘Museum of the Plains Indian,’ which is an excellent display of Indian culture and the local Trading Post store was an ideal development for the tourist and locals alike. However it wasn’t fully up and running as it was the beginning of the season.

The towns people however suffered from a lack of respect for the environment in general, rubbish littering the streets and an inordinate number of car wrecks everywhere. It was not inviting to stay, nor encouraging to dally, which is a shame as culturally I am sure they have a lot to offer.

It is worth mentioning that the problem seemed to be the community, not a complete lack of resources nor a lack of opportunity to develop local jobs. The problem, I would hazard, was community attitude. Like all communities there appeared to be the good the bad and the ugly. What was apparent clearly was the disinterested and the careless.

I should add that casino’s abound everywhere and are not confined to Indian reservations. They are attached to fast food joints, or sitting like pimples on the back end of towns and settlements. It is the strangest of things to have within what should be a healthy social environment.

The Montana prairie is simply amazing though… unbelievable to Aussie eyes. The rolling grass plains are reminiscent of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ scenes but it took us a day to realize that the road speed signs are in miles and our car is set to kilometres… that was fun and it was no wonder the yanks were getting pissy with us.

We also thought that bears would not be a problem, until a local pointed out that they are. It seems that black bears once roamed the prairie freely before the enterprises of man forced him into the forests on the edge of the ranges. He still roams the prairies and generally causes havoc along with the industrious little goffer, who we find endlessly entertaining but who the locals view as Aussies view rabbits. The difference being you can’t get a descent meal out of a goffer and their holes/burrows are a real hazard for cattle and horses.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 7.44.18 amThe beaver is another curiosity and the dams he builds endlessly is a problem often for the farmers. They either pull them down or open them up as often as they are built, and the little guy ignores the farmers entirely and builds them again. It is illegal to dam a waterway but the beaver leaves it to Beaver to sort that out.

We spent our first night on the Montana prairie camped up a little place called Dupuyer. At night you can hear all manner of noises but this is certainly not the noisy, quiet of the Aussie bush. The coyote or prairie wolf call at night and at times you might hear the grumble and racket of a bear trying to break into the bear-proof public bins. Aside from this, all is unusually quiet to my ears and the stars look strange in their arrangement.

The prairie winds can be relentless we are told but despite the rolling nature of the land. The grass rolls on endlessly into an horizon, occasionally broken only by glimpses of the mountains in the distant. You should not be deceived into thinking that all is apparent. It would be easy to hide in the rolling gullies of the prairie as I am sure the Indians knew, and which the settlers discovered.

The area was once also buffalo range and the hunting grounds of the ‘Blackfeet’ Indian nation. They were fierce and willing fighters who jealously guarded their territory. They were also dependent on the vast herds of buffalo. These enormous herds were wiped out in time when the settlers to the prairies arrived.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 6.49.12 amThere are Indians who claim the ‘whites’ found the spot where they buffalo emerged from the hole in the ground, as told originally in their legends. The white man are said to have hazed the herds back into this hole, plugging it and changing the nature of their land forever. The prairies remain vacant of bison and buffalo and you can’t help think that it would have been a magnificent sight once upon a time.

Interesting notes:

  • I asked for a rest room… the girl said they were planning on developing one. It was The Man who made the comment that there was a washroom in the corner and asked if that would do?
  • No-one has teacups and Starbucks is taking over the world!
  • Fast food industry is taking over the world… and their food is over-sweet, over-salted and fatty. We are over it. Soooo missing a healthy pub lunch but the local roadside diners are helping.
  • Still haven’t seen a butcher.
  • Still haven’t found an auto-teller. Wondering here how the people get money.
  • You can discover more about Freecamping in Aus. at Freecamp Australia’s Facebook page

Jan is an Australian author and writer. You can find our more about her publications at her official web site. Be sure to check out the reader discounts there.

Jan an Naum

Rockies FP smallRead the full travelogue of Jans adventures in the e-book ‘The Rockies and the Greater NW USA’ now available at Amazon for just $US1.99




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