When Amtrak offered us a ride on the legendary Empire Builder we accepted without hesitation. The only thing we had to think about was where we would like to get off and stay a few days before riding back the other way.
Whitefish Montana, gateway to Glacier National Park, quickly emerged as the clear choice.
The town of Whitefish sprung up almost overnight as soon as the Great Northern Railway arrived in 1904. Things were built so fast that the stumps from the trees used for lumber were everywhere, giving the new community its original name of Stumptown. Fortunately for all future residents, the early leaders decided to go with Whitefish, after the nearby lake, when officially incorporating the city a year later.
Logging operations soon dominated the area, so stumps remained an integral part of the landscape for years to come. Now days tourists like us coming for the proximity to the national park, and skiers to The Whitefish Mountain Resort on nearby Big Mountain, are the main economic engine for the 6,400 citizens.
With only a couple days for our explorations, we took a pass on the skiing and opted for a visit to Glacier National Park. The train travels along the southern edge of the park and is a great way to see it in the winter, but we wanted to venture in a little deeper.
So we rented a car and drove through Hungry Horse to the western entrance to the park and the famous Going To The Sun Road. During the summer months the road traverses the park, climbing over Logan Pass, but once the snow flies only the first eleven miles are open.
While this seriously limited the amount of the park we could see, the upside was that there were no crowds. Other than a handful of hardy souls we saw strapping on cross country skis to head off into the back country, we were all alone.
We gingerly managed our way up the snowy road, skirting along Lake McDonald all the way to the iconic Lake McDonald Lodge. The hotel, designated as a National Historic Landmark, has been housing guests since 1914 when it was built as the Lewis Glacier Hotel.
However, it is only open in the summer, so we had the whole place to ourselves, at least the outside of it. We trudged through the snow examining the entire grounds and then down to the lakeshore, where we found a view that was well worth the trip… and slips, slides, and falls.
The panorama includes the whole lake and surrounding peaks, but our eyes, and cameras, were automatically drawn to the north end of the lake where Stanton Mountain, Mount Brown, and Gunsight Mountain loom over the water.
On the way out of the park we stopped at the Apgar Visitor Center and then got some great pictures from the boat ramp by the campground. Nearly ten miles of lake spread out before us from this vantage point.
Even without going all Grizzly Adams mountain man into the wilderness, slogging through knee deep snow can build up a powerful hunger.
Folks in Whitefish have been satisfying their hungers… and thirsts, at The Great Northern Bar for nearly one hundred years, and we certainly weren’t looking to break with tradition.
Named for the railroad responsible for its existence, The Great Northern has taken on the task of keeping local history alive.
The walls are covered with signs obtained from dozens of nearby businesses that have gone by the wayside through the years, as well as relics from the old GN Railway.
After checking out the menu, for some reason buffalo seemed like the right thing to order.
Yup, we were going plum Western. When we washed it down with Great Northern’s famous fried green beans and a Kokanee “Glacier Fresh” Beer, a new discovery for us that hails from the nearby neighbors to the north, British Columbia, we had some right-rib-sticking vittles.
As we began investigating Whitefish before our trip, we discovered a winter option that we knew we had to try… dog sledding!
Much less bone crunching than skiing, and possibly even more fun. Next stop Jeff Ulsamer’s Dog Sled Adventures just up the road a piece in Olney.
Poor little guy is pouting because he doesn’t get to go this time
When we pulled up over one hundred dogs were barking their brains out. To be exact, one hundred and twenty-four according to Jeff.
He explained that the barking was because the teams were being set up with the sleds, and the dogs that were not chosen to pull were pretty upset. They love their jobs! So we showered some of the unchosen with affection – they are incredibly friendly dogs – and readied ourselves for the run.
All warm and cozy and ready to dog sled!
We wedged our way into a comfy, warm sled and, without a word from our driver, we were on our way. Instantly all of the racket stopped. We slid through the forest with surprising speed, and an even more surprising lack of sound. Turns out that the cracking whips, yelling of “mush,” and constant barking of the teams are just movie make-believe. In fact, we’ve never seen so much tail wagging in our lives!
In real life the dogs respond to subtle signals from the driver. Most of these are made by shifting the sled, but a few are audible, including periodic “good dogs.” The team also works on feel, knowing when the sled picks up speed down a hill, or to pull harder on the way up one.
For over an hour we glided through Stillwater State Forest with goofy grins pasted on our faces. It was impossible not to smile watching those eight huskies pull us along.
Actually, we asked about the dogs and they are not necessarily pure bred huskies. They are mixed husky, German shepherd, greyhound, and other breeds that mostly come from a line of rescue dogs that Jeff has been refining since 1979.
Through the years more dogs have been rescued, and the ones that have the right mix of temperament and desire to pull are added into the bloodline. Some might not have any husky in them at all. In fact, perhaps Jeff’s most famous dog, Bowser (star of local parades, festivals, and fundraisers), is a Blue Tick Hound. Don’t tell him though, he thinks he’s just one of the guys and loves to pull a sled.
After the ride we warmed up by the fire with hot chocolate, fresh cookies, and some conversation with Jeff and the folks from the other sleds. Then it was time to say goodbye to the dogs and make way for the arriving next batch of riders. As we pulled away, the barking told us that the team selection was underway, and rumor had it that Bowser was going to get to pull this time.
In asking around as to what we shouldn’t miss in Whitefish one more place kept coming up, The Black Star Draught House at The Great Northern Brewing Company.
Long name, good beer made right on the premises, and the tallest building in town. How could we pass it up?
Not being craft beer experts, we ordered a sampler tray and let our bartender pick a selection of malt beverage offerings for our consideration.
She returned with six small brandy snifter style glasses filled with Wild Huckleberry Wheat, Going to the Sun IPA, Frog Hop Fresh Hopped Pale Ale, Big Fog ESB, Glacier Chaser Marzen Lager, and Snow Ghost Winter Lager.
Most of the names had something familiar about them, glaciers, the famous Going To The Sun Road, or huckleberries (which are everywhere ’round these parts), but Snow Ghost was a new one on us. We asked the barkeep and she explained how snow ghosts are a phenomenon unique to the ski area up on Big Mountain.
Fog and freezing temperatures are common and often leave trees encased in ice that can take on human-like forms. Tales of the eerie creatures were making us wish that we had taken a day for skiing after all, just to see them, but we were in luck.
The next morning, just after boarding the eastbound Empire Builder for another pass through Glacier National Park — this time from the warmth of the dome car, we met a family of skiers who were more than happy to share some photos with us. (Big photo thanks to Jeff and his amazing son – we always meet the coolest people on the train!).
And unlike most ghosts, these guys showed up on film just fine.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com