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Storytellers Paradise -- Crown of the Continent

Local Artist, Musician, or Craftsperson
Meat's not meat 'till it's in the pan. Painting by Charlie Russell, 1915 – courtesy of

This country breeds story like a flooded June meadow breeds mosquitoes. The first Crown of the Continent story I remember was in the form of a Charles M. Russell print in my father’s office. A dismounted hunter stood scratching his head on an icy mountain ledge, considering a bighorn he had shot, but which dangled over a precipice beyond his reach. Title: Meat’s Not Meat ‘til It’s In the Pan. Decades later, I would hike the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park and immediately recognize Charlie’s setting for that painting.

For 20 years, my wife, Karen Nichols, and I have been blessed to help capture stories of the Crown of the Continent in newspapers, books and magazines, and just around a campfire. Sometimes we have been short of cash, other times short of time, but never for an instant short of good material.

The whole world is a stage, Shakespeare said, but little of it is as dramatic as the Crown of the Continent. This stage attracts its own colorful characters and triggers its own plots. It is the setting for bear stories, pioneer journals, fishing lies, sensational headlines and high-falutin’ literature. It’s a land that gives characters like Kootenai Brown, Belly River Joe Cosley, and the Cattle Queen of Montana, real people that fiction cannot improve. Drop a couple million urban tourists in a land of avalanches, waterfalls and grizzly bears and the damnedest things happen.

The oldest stories here are the Creation stories of the Kootenai and the Blackfeet – as old as Creation themselves: stories of Coyote and Old Man, honed by careful retelling over thousands of winters. Modern Native and First Nation storytellers have enriched the local cannon – D’Arcy McNichol, James Welch, Thomas King. No modern scribe has ever matched the native poetry of place. For example the Ktanaxa name for the Wigwam River translates to the pitch-perfect “Water Above, As Clear As It Sounds.”

The Crown of the Continent is the source of the river in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, the sky in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky. Dorothy Johnson, of Whitefish, was part of the New York City literati, but made her money penning westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (who was John Wayne, not Jimmy Stewart.) It’s no coincidence that the Crown of the Continent is also the home of one of the iconic characters in American literature, Robert Jordan, who leaves Missoula to fight the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway needed someone idealistic, who knew horses and rifles, and could handle the Pyrenees.

The Crown of the Continent was also the fictional destination in that 1,000-page masterpiece of a cattle-drive Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s protagonist, Gus, artfully summed up the Crown of the Continent as “a good place to end up bear shit.”

On the Canadian side of the line, we’ve Andy Russell, who was no relation to the painter Charlie, but could also capture vivid adventure above the timberline. Andy’s foothills neighbor, musician Ian Tyson, was a folk darling of the 1960s, but he wrote decades’ worth of better songs about the region’s “four strong winds” as a cowboy singer of Alberta, each one honed with an exquisite eye for detail, character, and place.

The Crown of the Continent has been home to the nature writers, wildlife and landscape photographers, sculptors and wood carvers, and generation after generation of University of Montana MFAs. Two of its newspapers – the Hungry Horse News and the Great Falls Tribune – have won Pulitzer Prizes, which must be some kind of record for backwoods journalism. The stories just keep flowing, now in blogs, webposts and emails that “go viral” all over the world.

In the Crown of the Continent, story is one natural resource that seems in ample supply, which grows richer the more we use it.

Ben Long is the author of "Great Montana Bear Stories" and "Backtracking: By Foot, Canoe, and Subaru Along the Lewis and Clark Trail." He is a frequent writer for Montana Outdoors, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle Magazine, and other publications. He lives in Kalispell with his wife Karen and son Aidan.