There was a time when I thought Gardiner, Montana, would be one of the worst possible places in America to live, a weathered and worn-looking 1880s town at 5,259 feet above sea level, with just more than 850 hardy residents, reminiscent, for me, of where McCabe & Mrs. Miller was filmed, side-streets pot-holed and sporadically filled with muddy water.
The Chamber of Commerce likes to tell you Gardiner has survived a rough-and-tumble existence of gold rushes, the railroad and even a number of destructive fires. A tough little frontier town, it fed and sheltered miners and, of course, I regret missing being born in the wrong century.
During the past 35 years, in and out of Gardiner, I have learned to love it — the unique geographical location, the clean air, the feeling of belonging and the opportunity to wear my Coleman parka. Living in a log cabin at Canyon Ferry Lake, on the Missouri River near Helena, for 13 months, I had reasonably quick access to Gardiner. I celebrated my 43rd birthday at the Town Café. Instead of cake, a hamburger patty with a single candle sticking out of the center of it served to celebrate my continued aging.
Gardiner is glued to the north boundary of Yellowstone National Park — the entrance marked by the Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 24, 1903. Since Yellowstone’s campgrounds are invariably full when I’m there — or closed for the season — I park my Class B motorhome on a hillside site in Rocky Mountain Campground, overlooking the rushing, musical Yellowstone River. Here is a site that provides my lead dog, Butte, and me an unfading widescreen panorama. Nearby mountains like Electric Peak, Sheep Mountain and Monitor Peak all rise to more than 10,000 feet. Inside the park, just five miles south, is one of Yellowstone’s most interesting wonders, Mammoth Hot Springs. To the north, the drive on Highway 89 to Livingston takes you some 52 miles, through Paradise Valley, one of the most pristine drives in America. Besides dramatic Rocky Mountain scenery, wildlife and birds can be seen all along the Yellowstone River as it meanders along the highway. Famed fly-fisherman and author, Joe Brooks — with the world open to him — chose to spend eternity on a hillside here.
Spring at the Yellowstone-Gardiner parameters is a lush event, when expanses of flowers — especially those on the roadside — burst into bloom. In summer I have enjoyed sitting with my feet in a hot pool in the Gardner (yes, Gardner) River, just below the campground at Mammoth. But it is fall and winter that grab me and hold tight. During Septembers, I have leaned on the old-fashioned iron fence that separates the park from Gardiner, and stared pronghorn in the face. I have wallowed in snow a foot or more deep, in full view of Gardiner, with frost on my beard and eyebrows, crawling with camera and telephoto lens toward a band of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep who, in the dead of winter, call this basin their vacation location. Likely there will be an elk or two browsing nearby — maybe a whole herd of them — a mule deer or two, on occasion the more reclusive moose and bison — who seem to be the least disturbed by snow and colder cold.
You can drive about 40 miles east to Lamar Valley. This road to Cooke City is the only road open in Yellowstone in the winter, and you stand a good chance of seeing wolves. Grizzly and black bears are, of course, in hibernation then.
However, during the warm months of the year, friendly bar patrons have told me of the occasional grizzly — finding poor pickings at the Mammoth campground — extending its foraging range to include the main streets into downtown Gardiner.
Yes, Yellowstone at Gardiner in winter is one of the prime wildlife photography hotspots in America. My friend, Bill Browning, an outdoor writer-photographer stationed at Helena, introduced me to this wildlife photography paradise at Gardiner back in the early 1970s. He made me vow not tell anyone about it until he retired or after his death. In the meantime, lots of professional photographers have discovered Gardiner on their own, and you’ve probably seen thousands of wildlife photos in magazines, newspapers and on television shot right here at Gardiner. But a vow is a vow; Bill had gray hair then, so I’m sure I’ve honored it.
Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, (406) 848-7971, www.gardinerchamber.com.