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A Better Grasp of Our Valley

For a lengthy time (at least a couple of years), I’ve been writing about and sharing images about our small area in Northwest Montana. It occurred to me that my descriptions and pictures aren’t the clearest way to get a grasp of where our valley and town is, nor much about it. In other words, even with pictures, it isn’t easy to visualize Clark Fork Valley.

I’ve mentioned that our town is small and that there are only about 1,000 people in the entire valley. I’ve mentioned that our valley is less than 5 miles wide and 10 miles long. I’ve mentioned that when we go to Ronan or to visit our daughter in Mission (actually, the full name of that town is Saint Ignatius Mission) that we pass by the National Bison Range. I’ve even shared pictures of the area in and around the Bison Range. However, none of that paints a very accurate picture in the mind’s eye. Frankly, I haven’t been doing it justice.

This morning, I responded to a comment to explain why we sometimes go several days during fire season when the smoke is so dense that it is hard to see across the road. I mentioned that the main reason was that the air humidity drops very low and that since we are surrounded by mountains, the winds blow well over the valley, trapping the dry air and smoke in the valley.

Again, while that is accurate, it doesn’t paint a clear picture of just how small our valley is. Then it occurred to me that there is a way that would probably be a lot clearer and might help people to visualize a lot of the things I’ve been sharing, by using Google satellite images. 

Where we are on the map

This is a map of Montana and the arrow is pointing to where we are on that map. This is primarily to get an idea of what part of the state we live in as well as how far away both Idaho and Canada are. I'll mention again that our little valley is considered to be the 'banana belt' of the entire state since our weather tends to be milder than in the rest of Montana. That is mostly due to the size of our valley, how it is situated and oriented, and because of the mountains on either side.

How are town came about

This sign describes how our town came to be. Many thousands of years ago, an absolutely enormous glacial lake in this part of the state covered most of the land. This was called Glacial Lake Missoula. I've written about this lake before, mostly in conjunction with the National Bison Range because some of the higher elevations in the Range were actually islands at the time in the lake.

The staggering amount of water in the lake was held back by a gigantic ice dam. Where our town sits now was covered with glaciers and the valley didn't exist, at least not as a valley.

When that ice dam broke, the waters of Lake Missoula were released and they flowed down what is now Clark Fork River, which flows by our town, shaping the land through part of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. I've also shared pictures of the river since it is where I primarily go fishing. It was the flow of all those cubic miles of water, along with the action of the glaciers, that formed Clark Fork Valley.

The sediments that were left on the valley floor were quite fertile and the Native Americans found the valley to be superb for keeping their horses in the wintertime. That fact eventually gave rise to the actual name of our town; Wild Horse Plains. Maps list our town as simply "Plains", but that isn't the full name of the town.

In the mid-1800s, settlers moved into the valley and the town was established.  It grew considerably when the railroad came through, much as happened in countless other towns in the US. This is how our town got its start.

High satellite angle of the area

This is what it looks like from the satellite from high altitude. The circle in the image is where our valley is located. The square is the approximate location of the National Bison Range. The arrow points to the general location where my daughter lives. The image is labeled in regard to towns I've referred to, the major highways in the area, and Flathead Lake is visible. 

Of note; I've mentioned that I'm about 70 miles from the nearest Walmart or population center. This is shown in this image, at the south end of Flathead Lake; Polson. At the north end of the lake is Kalispell, which also has a Walmart and which is also a population center, but it is a little farther away. The distances I usually mention refer to how far away the town is by road. As can be seen on the map, in order to drive there, a direct route doesn't exist. By air, Polson is probably only 40 miles away.

This image also shows the location of Missoula, the largest city in Montana, which is just slightly farther by road than is Polson. Missoula actually has two Walmarts, and at one time my wife worked at one of them and commuted from here to there every day. However, the traffic in Missoula is horrendous, so we much prefer going to Polson. Missoula is in the lower right of this image.

The mountains shown on the far right are the Mission Mountains, one mountain chain of the Rocky Mountains.

A little closer up

This is a little closer in and it gives a much better representation of how the mountains surround our little valley. The mountains look greenish because of evergreen trees while the valley looks tan. Note that not all of the valley is flat bottomlands. There are a lot of hills in the valley and some of them are 300-400 feet higher than the river, or even more.

Much closer view

This image clearly shows Wild Horse Plains, close enough that some of the buildings can be seen. Clark Fork River is plainly visible (no pun intended) as is Highway 200, which is the main highway through town. What isn't clear is that the railroad tracks follow the highway, just to the left of the highway and between the road and the river. 

When I say that we live in a small valley, I mean it. There are no traffic lights in town, either. A reasonably healthy person on a leisurely stroll can walk from one side of town to the other in about 10 minutes. Back before walking became more of a challenge for me, I would have been able to walk from one side of the valley to the other in about 20 minutes. Where I actually live is almost dead center in this image, yet I'm on the edge of the city limits.

We have one store in town, which was actually established when the town was established, though, at that time, it was a general store. We have two hardware stores, two gas stations, one restaurant, and eight churches. The county fairgrounds are located just on the other side of the river from the town (to the left), though this is not the county seat.

I'm hoping that this will bring clarity and insights into the descriptions and the pictures I share of this area. 

What do you think?

7 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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    • I sure won’t disagree. Even when we were at -15 degrees, we weren’t close to the coldest temperatures in the state. Our weather also tends to be quite changeable, like many places. Our low-temperature yesterday was -6, but 7 hours later, it was 28 above. In the summer, it isn’t uncommon to have temperatures in the high 90s in the heat of the day, and for the temperature to drop into the high 60s at night. A 30-40 degree temperature daily swing isn’t unusual at all.

  1. Fascinating. It looks beautiful where you are. I had a friend who emigrated to Great Falls MT from the UK about 25 years ago. She invited me over to stay, but I could never afford the air fare, and now we have sadly lost touch. I wonder if she is still there.

    • The area around Great Falls is much more spacious than it is here. It is a nice place, though, and it has its own beauty. We don’t often travel that far east in Montana, but it is a great change of pace when we do. Of all the “cities” in Montana, Great Falls is probably my favorite, after Polson.

    • I was hopeful that it might shed some light on that. In all, our entire valley is smaller than many of the cities in the US; Philidelphia, Chicago, New York, Denver, Salt Lake, Seattle, and certainly Los Angeles.

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