Grapple was collecting on the hood of our pickup as we rolled into Wisdom, Montana, on our way to Jackson Hot Springs for a long weekend.
Capricious storm clouds pummeled the Bitterroot Mountain Range rising above the Big Hole Valley and skiffs of snow were haphazardly tossed across the landscape.
It was June 20.
The land of 10,000 haystacks — as the Big Hole is known, and home to Wisdom, frequently the nation’s cold spot — was not delivering a warm welcome.
I had to hole up in the pickup cab a few times just to warm up as my husband and I parked, leveled, hooked up and chocked the camper tires.
The night and its freezing temperatures came early.
Yet, 24 hours later we’d be basking in the hot springs’ restorative waters, drinks in hand, watching the sun set on a cloudless, blushing summer solstice … but not before walking miles across the historic Big Hole National Battlefield where between 60 to 90 Nez Perce men, women and children, and 31 military and volunteers were killed during a surprise attack by U.S. troops Aug. 10, 1877.
The battle was the biggest — and the bloodiest — in the Nez Perce War.
The site where it happened is both beautiful and haunting.
It’s divided into two areas. The Nez Perce Encampment is where between 750 and 800 non-treaty Nez Perce had stopped to rest during their attempted exodus to Canada as the military pursued them to force them onto reservation land in Washington state. Four chiefs died during the battle, the places where they fell noted. Women hid in the willows, submerging their children in the river to try to save them.
Crosswinds and more grapple pelted us and the trail booklet, interrupted by occasional spats of sun and breaks in the wind, as we walked the trail along the Big Hole River to the encampment. Hundreds of tepee poles commemorate the site.
By the time we started up the Siege Trail, the grapple had turned to rain. This trail illustrates how the Nez Perce warriors turned the tables and overwhelmed the 7th Infantry, forcing them back across the river. Soldiers used hand trowels to dig tiny trenches in the hillside to protect themselves from the Nez Perce bullets. Their entrenchments can still be seen.
Monuments commemorate losses on both sides. The Visitor Center vividly depicts the history of conflict between the U.S. government and American Indians during the Treaty Era and subsequent 1877 Flight of the Nez Perce.
The Big Hole Valley is rich in history, having also been explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806.
In 1910, the invention of the beaverslide for stacking hay revolutionized the daunting task. Beaverslides are still used today and haying season is a fine time to visit and see these huge contraptions in action.
The Big Hole Valley Historical Society has compiled a new book published by Stoneydale Press in Stevensville titled “Montana’s Big Hole Valley — Montana Pioneers of the Old West. Vol. 1” that tells the saga, both triumphant and tragic of the history of settlement.”
Vast cattle ranches, empty roads, winding rivers, the Pioneer and Bitterroot mountain ranges and a few small towns embody the Big Hole Valley — one of Montana’s grand, sweeping landscapes that will leave a lasting impression on you if you find the time to explore it.
Community Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.