This weekend, the Flathead Beacon was named the best weekly newspaper in Montana during the Montana Newspaper Association’s annual awards banquet. The paper won 39 different awards, including 15 first-place plaques.
Two of my stories were among the winners. “Scorched Earth” was published in January 2012 and looked at the bizarre wildfires that ripped across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation last winter. It took first-place in spot news. “Four Decades at the Fair” was an August 2012 profile about Dave Calobeer, who’s worked at the Northwest Montana Fair since 1973. It took first-place in the short feature category.
Click here for a complete list of the Beacon’s achievements.
There is nothing better than getting a cover story, especially when you work in a great newsroom with some great competition. I was on a little streak in February and March with two big cover stories. One was about a controversial mining project in northwest Montana and the other was about the sequestration and how it could hurt tribal colleges.
So if you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at these recent stories. Thanks!
Ready and Waiting: CEO Glenn Dobbs said work could begin inside the Montanore Mine in 2013, but critics worry about the surrounding wilderness.
High Stakes for Blackfeet Higher Ed: The Blackfeet Community College has grown in the last decade, but could government budget cuts stop progress in its tracks?
Twice a week, Karin Craver starts up her road- and weather-beaten Mitsubishi Montero and dashes up the North Fork, delivering mail to the hearty folks who call that area home.
I wrote a story about Craver shortly before Christmas and it’s obvious that I did not dash to post it here. In fact, I haven’t posted much in the last few months, thanks in part to the holidays. But I hope to change that here in the new year. In fact, I’m currently updating my Flickr and the photography page on this very website, so please, keep an eye out for new photos and stories in the coming days.
For now, enjoy this story of one of America’s most unique postal routes.
Two trips, 400 miles of driving and dozens of phone calls and interviews resulted in my most recent cover story for the Flathead Beacon. This will most likely be the first of many stories about what is happening just over the divide. Check it out…
A Nation Divided by Justin Franz
BROWNING – Against a fire-red sky, Nathan DeRoche screamed into the summer evening air.
“It’s time to make our voice heard!” he yelled into a hastily set-up microphone. “We won’t stand for corruption!”
The alleged corruption DeRoche and about 30 other tribal members were protesting on Aug. 31 has fractured the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the nation it serves. Since June, five elected councilors on the nine-member board and more than two-dozen tribal employees have been suspended, expelled or fired.
The five councilors who remain on the board say the recent firings were necessary to preserve the dignity and structure of the reservation’s government. And federal agencies still recognize Chairman Willie Sharp Jr.’s administration.
Protests in Browning have become commonplace, with one resulting in two arrests last month. On Aug. 27, Sharp announced a state of emergency that is still in effect. In interviews both on and off the reservation, some people have said if the situation is not resolved violence could break out.
Others, like former chairman and now-suspended Councilor Bill Old Chief, worry about the long-term effects of the conflict. He said the Blackfeet – once called “the most powerful tribe of Indians on the continent” by author George Catlin in 1866 – will either emerge stronger or permanently scarred.
Having lived in either Maine or Montana my entire life, it takes a lot for natural landscapes to blow my mind because I’ve been surrounded by it forever. That being said, Glacier National Park here in northwest Montana always does a pretty good job of impressing me.
But I was speechless this summer when my girlfriend and I went to Glacier’s night sky program. Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, visitors are able to use massive telescopes to see things I didn’t even know you could see from earth. It was an awesome experience and one I highly recommend. In fact, I couldn’t stop talking about it when I got into work the next day and it resulted in this cover story… Check it out.
WEST GLACIER – As civil twilight became nautical twilight, and nautical twilight became astronomical twilight, 40 people formed a semi-circle around Dave Ingram in the parking lot of the Apgar Transit Center. With a green laser pointer, Ingram, a volunteer with the International Dark-Sky Association, pointed out all of the stars, planets and galaxies the crowd would see that evening.
In the next three hours there would be 75 to 100 identifiable objects in the sky above, along with 4,000 stars. Early in the evening, as the growing group of 40 arched their necks to the twilight sky, it was hard to believe. For some people it would be the first time they would ever see the Milky Way, including Trish Machuca of Las Vegas.
“We see lots of lights, but we never see the stars,” she said.
Nearly two-thirds of people in the continental United States cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. As cities grow, the number of places where someone can look up and see a true night sky is dwindling. It is especially true in the clear air of the West, where light pollution can affect a night sky nearly 200 miles away.
Here is one of my most recent stories in the Flathead Beacon. Check it out.
LAKE MCDONALD – In the 10 years since Nancy Hilderbrandt first sat behind the tiny window at the Lake McDonald Post Office, she has seen wandering bears, wayward Winnebagos and burning embers land on the roof.
Such are the challenges of working at a post office inside Glacier National Park. And while the worry at other rural offices might be how they will survive these desperate times for the United States Postal Service, one of the biggest concerns for Hilderbrandt is getting the squirrels out when she inadvertently leaves the door open. But the occasional inconvenience is trumped by the stunning views just outside that door.
“All of the tourists here are just in awe of this place and they say ‘you’re so lucky to be here,’ and I really am,” she said. “I can sit here and look at Mount Brown or Heavens Peak – I mean you don’t get a much better view than that.”
Even before Glacier became the country’s 10th national park, there was a post office at Lake McDonald, about 10 miles north of West Glacier. At one time it was located inside the Lake McDonald Lodge before moving to the General Store just down the street. In 1995 it was moved again to a former gas station built in 1962. Now the Lake McDonald office, which is a satellite store of West Glacier, is open five days a week, from June 1 to Sept. 30.
During the summer months, the small building (which is built in the same Swiss style as the nearby lodge) serves tourists and locals, many who have their own mailbox inside. Hilderbrandt said the boxes are the same ones that have served Lake McDonald since 1906, the year the post office boxes went from a two-number combination lock to a three. Some of the names connected to those boxes haven’t changed in decades.
“There are people who are 90 years old who come in here and remember their combination from when they were 3,” Hilderbrandt said.
One longstanding name is that of Mary Grace Galvin, whose family has been living along the shores of Lake McDonald every summer since 1936, a remote retreat from the “big city” of Kalispell. Galvin said she remembers when the Going-to-the-Sun Road was new and the hotels, lodges and chalets within the park were owned by the Great Northern Railway.
On most days, Galvin makes the short walk from her lakeside home to the post office to talk with Hilderbrandt and pick up the mail. Occasionally, they’ll reminisce about the past, including when Galvin would hang out at the Lake McDonald Post Office as a child because she had nothing else to do. Back then, Jimmy Bose was the postmaster and Galvin remembers being put to work sorting the mail on some afternoons.
“Being the nosey little girl that I am, I said ‘Jimmy, you look busy, can I help you?’” Galvin recalls.
The old stories are one of the perks of Hilderbrandt’s job. She first came to Montana in 1973 on a summer vacation from New York City. She was enticed by Glacier’s scenery.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going home. I’m not going back to New York City. I’ve found my heaven,’” she said. “I came out here on a trip to see the West and I just never returned.”
Since then she has worked on a U.S. Forest Service trail crew, as a teacher in Kalispell and as a railroader in Whitefish. But her job as a contractor for the post office is one of the most interesting items on her resume. Her day starts at 8:30 a.m. when she picks up the mail from West Glacier and brings it to Lake McDonald to open the office by 9 a.m. It’s a job she has to complete everyday the office is open, even if no one else is around.
In the summer of 2003, when most people at Lake McDonald had been evacuated because of the approaching Roberts Fire on the other side of the lake, Hilderbrandt stayed at her post, sorting mail and occasionally grabbing the garden hose to douse burning embers that were landing on the wood structure. During the fire, she only missed delivery on two days when the road was closed.
“All of the stores closed, the hotel closed, but the mail has to go through,” she said.
Fire seems to be one of a handful of hazards Hilderbrandt faces at her job. Since the post office is in grizzly country, she is sure to keep a can of bear spray under the desk and just last summer a tourist trying to turn his RV crashed through a corner of the building – the damaged roof remains nearly a year later. But even with those hazards, Hilderbrandt said she loves her job and the people she meets. During the offseason, she and her husband like to travel and when foreign visitors come in to send a post card home, she gets to pick their brain about where they’re from.
“You get to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the world,” she said.
There are few things I enjoy more (at least when it comes to work) than reporting in small towns. There’s just something about traveling to a small community and trying to come back with a compelling story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of those days when I think it worked.
Check out my newest cover story from last week’s Flathead Beacon…
TROY – It’s not often that a reporter from out of town walks into Tina Moore’s Preview Cafe and starts asking questions. But with all that has happened in Troy and its government over the last few months, no one seemed that surprised.
“Now be careful what you say Tina, you’ve got friends on both sides,” a patron yelled into the kitchen as he finished his hamburger.
“Well that’s why I’m being careful,” she said, laughing. “But I do have an opinion.”
These days, just about everyone in this town of 900, a few miles down U.S. Highway 2 from the Idaho border, has an opinion about the dispute between a few members of the city council and Mayor Donald Banning, who is facing a recall election this month. Because of the dispute, the full city council has not met since March and many residents are growing frustrated with what they think is a distraction from the town’s real issues.
“It’s just silly,” Moore said flatly. “People wish their elected officials would move on to Troy’s matters, not their personal matters… Keep reading here!