By Robert Lucke
If the snow cover in the Bear Paws and Missouri Breaks continues to lessen, this is a great time to do some exploring. Roads are frozen for at least half a day and on many days all day long and with vegetation gone, chances are that explorers can find many signs of old time civilizations in the back country that are all but lost for most of the rest of the year.
Several words of caution before you take off for a days looking. Storms can come up quickly in the mountains and in the Breaks and often people find themselves a good half day away from town so listen for weather reports and choose a good day to do your traveling.
A good way to start is to get to the library and find a map of the Cow Island Trail. That is the oldest road in these parts and is still in existence to this day. It heads south from Big Sandy, then skirts the south side of the Bear Paws, heading in an easterly direction at just the top of the breaks and eventually ends up at Cow Creek where it used to access Cow Island on the Missouri River.
This road is complete with old road houses and hotels still standing along with some of the most magnificent scenery that the south side of the Bear Paws provides. Mountain ranges like the Little Rockies, the Highwoods, Judiths and Snowys show up against January blue skies like huge monuments in the distance. Looking into the distance most anywhere on that old road is like looking right into a Charlie Russell painting.
Keep going into the breaks and soon you will be exploring such old landmarks as the Raglan Bench, Bullwhacker Coulee, The Cow Creek Breaks, Lone Tree Bench and Three Mile Ridge.
Most of that area is BLM land and to this day is doted with old cabins and ranches, most of which tell story after story about how folks used to live in that grand country.
An advantage to traveling in that part of North Central Montana is that roads leading north will take explorers into Havre, Lodge Pole, Chinook or Hays. Any way the traveler goes, the scenery is beautiful even in mid winter.
Closer to home, many areas of the Bear Paws are quite bare these days and provide lots of opportunities to visit old homes and ranches, most of which have been vacant for 70 years or more.
The mountains in the Clear Creek area, while not as wooded as western drainages are most impressive in that they are characterized by tall, steep walls and narrow valley floors. A walk to the top of one of them, gives an unbelievable panorama looking over jagged peaks and valleys as far as the eye can see.
Do remember, though, that most of the Clear Creek area of the Bear Paws along with more eastern mountains are privately owned. Find out who owns where you want to explore and ask permission before starting out.