June 2016 – With the wonders and spectacular beauty of the east side of Glacier National Park still vivid in our minds, we took our RV south and west around the bottom of Glacier and out onto the back roads of northwestern Montana. On our way, we passed an RV park sporting a fantastic mock-up of a Volkswagen Beetle towing a small trailer. What fun!
In an earlier life, we were both avid recreational racing cyclists, riding well over 200 training miles a week. To make it through our long training rides and races, we relied a lot on products made by Hammer Nutrition, a company that is based out of Whitefish, Montana.
So we had to stop by and pay them a quick visit as we went through Whitefish!
They were more than cordial when we knocked on the door, and they gave us an impromptu tour of their facility. We’d expected to see enormous vats and cauldrons with steam rising out of them, but the products are actually made elsewhere by subcontractors. However, this is where the order fulfillment happens.
With our shelves restocked with Hammer goodies, we continued on Montana’s back roads, passing some beautiful scenery on the way.
We stopped to watch some horses in a pasture and saw that one had a little bird riding on its back. The horse didn’t seem to mind. It was busy eating grass!
We dropped south along the shores of Lake Koocanusa, and we enjoyed several lovely stops to catch a view.
The lake gets its name from the first three letters of the word “Kootenai,” the word “Canada” and the word “USA,” all concatenated together, because it spans both countries and is located in the region of the Kootenai tribe.
There are quite a few National Forest campgrounds along the banks of Lake Koocanusa, and lots of families were enjoying boating and playing in the water.
The daisies were out in force everywhere too, soaking up the sun.
Lake Koocanusa is formed by the Libby Dam which blocks the flow of the Kootenai River just east of Libby, Montana. Like all the big western dams, this dam is quite an engineering marvel.
We took a wonderful tour and were amazed by the high stakes game the US Army Corps of Engineers has to play to satisfy the widely varying needs of everyone that is affected by the dam.
From communities that need electricity, to farmers wanting water for irrigation, to the fish and ecological system that are disrupted by an unnatural obstruction in their way, to fishermen, swimmers, boaters and campers looking for some good old fashioned summertime fun, the Libby Dam supports many uses of the lake and river.
I’ve written quite a bit about public land management on this blog, as public lands are an integral part of our lifestyle. Too often, we’ve seen the government’s land management agencies reducing public access, threatening to transform these precious places until they become “public” in name only.
Former campgrounds and dispersed camping areas have been blocked off with “Road Closed” signs. Behind these blockades weeds grow tall, graffiti grows wild and structures deteriorate.
Other former campgrounds sport brand new “Day Use Only” signs, but they go unused because no one is going to drive a long distance to a remote place just to have a picnic.
Worst of all, 40% of America’s public lands that were given to 11 western states at statehood have been sold off. For more info click here.
However, on the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa at Libby Dam, the US Army Corps of Engineers is getting it right, and it is a total thrill to see a public area so well taken care of. In addition to managing the dam, they have also built a wonderful recreation area on the banks of the river that offers a little something for everyone. We dabbled our toes in the water at a large boat dock that has swim ladders.
They even offer free “borrow and return” life preservers for boaters who get to the lake and realize they don’t have enough to go around.
The kids’ playground and its massive series of jungle gyms, slides, chutes and climbing bars near the dam are truly heaven on earth for the three-to-twelve set. I have never seen a jungle gym or playground that is so big and so inviting, even for the over 50 crowd (I confess, I really loved swinging on the big swingset!).
Out on the Kootenai River below the dam, fly fishermen zip downstream carried by a very fast moving current. The oars on these cool fishing boats are just for steering purposes!
Hiking trails from Libby Dam’s recreation area took us past pretty lake views, and we found wildflowers blooming on the trails.
We rode our bikes on some of the back roads in the area, and along with discovering beautiful scenery we also bumped into a woman “long rider” who has been traveling cross-country on horseback for 12 years and 28,000 miles (blog post here).
With all this quiet beauty surrounding us in every direction, we were blown away when we learned that due to decades of vermiculite mining as well as carelessness on the part of the mine owner, W. R. Grace, the area around Libby, Montana, is now a Superfund Site.
We discovered this when we camped with a group of out-of-towners who had grown up in Libby while the dam was being built in the 1970’s. They had returned to celebrate their 38th Libby High School reunion. While they were in the area, besides hanging out with old friends and reminiscing, they were all getting tested for Mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Although this vermiculte mine had been active since 1919, when W. R. Grace bought it in 1963, they began distributing excess asbestos related material around town by for use in playgrounds, gardens, roads, school yards and even the high school track (which was known as being especially springy and fast!).
In the end, W. R. Grace was fined $250 million to contribute to the cleanup of the area. The EPA has removed the asbestos from 2,100 properties, including all the public areas, and has a few hundred more private properties to take care of. The cleanup has cost $540 million to date with at least $64 million more in anticipated expenditures.
Recently, asbestos has turned up during controlled burns in the Kootenai National Forest around the former mine site. The EPA is has shifted its Superfund focus in Libby and has increased the size of the area they are concerned about.
Unfortunately, the latency period for Mesothelioma cancer symptoms to surface is 20 to 50 years. Several hundred residents of Libby and nearby Troy have died already, and another few thousand are suffering illnesses related to asbestos exposure. As our newfound friends waited nervously for their cancer test results, one of them told us he had already tested positive last year.
It was very shocking to look around at the stunning beauty of this part of Montana and hear this sad tale.
Reading about Superfund Sites while living far away from them, I’d always imagined them to be forelorn, desolate communities that had a post-nuclear explosion look about them. I had no idea that one of the most pristine natural areas that America is fortunate enough to embrace, a beautiful place that is so remote in spots that you can’t get cell phone service for many miles, is a Superfund Site.
We were charmed by Libby and the warmth of the people we met, both camping and around town.
There’s a sweet little campground right in the middle of town (smaller rigs only), called Fireman’s Memorial Park Campground, and there’s a fun microbrew pub, Cabinet Mountain Brewing, that refers to itself as “Libby’s Living Room.” They serve a fantastic coffee porter and have live music many nights.
We stopped in Libby because we got a flat tire on our truck while taking photos at the Libby Dam (blog post here). That turned out to be a wonderful stroke of good fortune, because otherwise we might have kept going and missed this really pretty part of Montana. Instead we stayed in the area for two weeks!
For RV travelers heading to Libby, Montana, there are some travel planning links below:
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More info about Libby Montana:
- Libby Montana Tourist Website
- Libby Dam and Recreation Area – US Army Corps of Engineers
- Fireman Memorial Park & Campground
- Cabinet Mountain Brewing Co.
- EPA Superfund Site Info About Libby Montana
- Locations of Whitefish, Lake Koocanusa, Libby Dam and Libby Montana
- Location of the former W. R. Grace Vermiculite Mine in Libby Montana
Other blog posts from this neck of the woods:
- “Going to the Sun” from Glacier National Park’s East Side – Breathtaking! 08/21/16
- Glacier National Park’s Quieter Side – Saint Mary 08/17/16
- Waterton Lakes Nat’l Park – Starry Skies, the Milky Way & Wildflowers 08/09/16
- Waterton Shoreline Cruise – A Classy Tour of Waterton-Glacier NP 08/05/16
- Waterton Lakes National Park – Rocky Mountain High! 07/28/16
- Glacier National Park in Montana – Mirrors at Lake McDonald 05/29/16
- Glacier National Park, MT – Mountain Goats and Lake Views 08/27/07
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