For folks who live in the sunny climates, it is a bit of a puzzle how we can stay and even enjoy the harsh, dark, snowy cold days of winter here in Ennis. Perhaps they picture us like the early settlers huddled inside against the elements. Other than enjoying a classic White Christmas, what is the attraction?
What is the winter like? Do we enjoy staying in Montana ALL winter??? Why, yes, we do!
Downhill skiing and snowboarding top the list for the energetic crowd heading for the bustle of the resorts at Big Sky and Bridger Bowl. Top of Lone Peak looking down is a hard-to-match rush. And who can argue with apres ski in the lodge?
Okay – you say common sense has replaced your days of “yard sales” and superman on the slopes. Then, like us, hit the forest trails with snowshoes or cross country skis. The bears are asleep and the winter is brisk, bright and filled with opportunities to be outside and enjoy the solitude of a world taking a break.
Or grab a sled and head for the hills
or sharpen your skates for a spin on the pond in historic Virginia City. You can even arrange a sled dog ride and imagine yourself in the Iditarod.
Finally, there is fishing. For the dedicated fishermen and women, fly-fishing the Madison River is slowed, but not halted, by the drop in temperature. This year the river stays open all year for the hardy. And ice fishing on Hebgen Lake is a long-standing tradition.
Of course, a great winter adventure isn’t over until you warm up. A dip in Norris Hot Springs or the hidden hot water in Potosi or Yellowstone Park for the adventurous. For the rest of us, a warm fire and a cup of hot cocoa (with a little schnaaps) caps off a perfectly spent winter day. And just remember to have the good sense to stay indoors when old man winter is blowing the snow sideways!
It was the week before Thanksgiving with daytime temperatures reaching the mid-40 degree mark. Looking ahead, bitter cold and snow were headed toward Ennis. Perfect weather for putting out Christmas lights! Decorating outdoors in Montana brings special challenges and the need to anticipate Mother Nature. It is possible to miss the opportunity to “shine your lights” if you don’t act before the ground freezes. Or, in our case, before the tape won’t stick to the tractor.
When our family settled down at El Western Cabins for good in 1997, we brought a long history of outdoor Christmas light experience with us. Kris’ family put out significantly bright displays on their lawn in Wisconsin to cheer up hospital patients whose windows looked toward the house. John’s family put up lights in Miami and sometimes took the opportunity (with a wayward brother-in-law) to make the displays slightly off-color to add some holiday cheer.
At the end of our first summer season, John suggested that the old tractor in the pasture would look really cool with lights on it. Wow! Great idea! All the folks on US Hwy 287 heading to Yellowstone to snowmobile or ice fish on Hebgen Lake would get some holiday spirit.
Then a few years later, he thought the main office could be made to look like a gingerbread house. Perfect!
Our love of lights is shared by the Ennis community. Cowboy boots with holly and cowboy hats with poinsettias decorate Main Street and the Ennis Lions Club lights the local park with displays that grow every year. So if you are in the neighborhood, drive on by and enjoy our Christmas light tradition!
Sometimes guests ask us if we ever get tired of looking at the view here. No, we don’t. The truth is, the view changes so often we find ourselves “ooooing” and “ahhhing” and drawing attention to the latest sunset or wildlife moment nearly every day. For us, it is one of the biggest perks of living in Montana…to be so connected to the here and now and nature.
But even for us, some days hit the mark as spectacular. Days that we stop anything we are doing, grab our cameras and join the guests in marveling at the show. July 15 was one of these days. Actually, it was just a few hours out of that day. We are still referring to it as “Rainbow Day”.
The Madison Valley is known for late afternoon thunderstorms and rainbows. It is not uncommon to see a rainbow and to be impressed with the beauty of its colors against the mountain backdrop or a black sky. But every so often the lighting and rain and atmosphere meld into a spectacular show. And on Rainbow Day, it was over the top.
It started with an early shower and low attitude misty rain that created an almost horizontal wash of rainbow colors painted on the mountains to the east. An unusual shape, this rainbow, with blue sky flowing into gray and color melting into rock.
About 2 hours and several passing showers later, the sky exploded with first one, then two, pure full-size arching rainbows in dazzling colors. Narrow bands of intense indigo, red, blue, green, yellow and violet curving so high that it couldn’t be captured in a single photo. Both ends of the rainbow anchored firmly on the valley floor bringing guest chatter about chasing for the pot of gold!
By now, several of us were gathered on the front lawn with cameras and conversations. The “double” show lasted for 30 minutes before yielding to the third act – sharp, crisp after-the-rain blue sky and sunshine as the sun begin to sink.
And then the finale. Sunset with fiery orange and purple mountains majesty…above the green lawns of El Western.
It is just not be possible for us to get tired of the view in Montana…unless we stop looking. Come and see for yourself!
Moose on the Loose!
Did you know that over 95% of travelers coming to Montana list “wildlife and open spaces” as a top reason for coming? It is right on the top of our list for living here, too. If you are a FB fan of El Western, you know by now that there are lots of critters roaming our property. Some are regulars like the bunnies, ground squirrels (gophers), White tail deer, beavers, muskrats and chipmunks. Others are more unpredictable and get us pretty excited when we see them – skunks, porcupines, badgers, river otters, bears and MOOSE!
In this last group, the most common in recent years is the moose. Rarely seen on our grounds before 2010, the moose are regular visitors to the property most often in the spring and fall. There is something loveable about these big ungainly creatures. My mother reported seeing a “really ugly horse” before getting closer and realizing it was a moose. Last year brought twin calves and Mama Moose for our excited guests to photograph. Although our daughter nearly walked into the backend of a moose, the housekeepers have discovered them behind the office and Tippet and I have inadvertently shared Bear Creek Meadow with them - unexpected contact - but mutually non-aggressive.
That is, until last week when Tippet decided not to let sleeping moose lie. Aware that a young moose was frequenting our property, Tippet and I were pre-checking the shrubby growth as we made our way to the far back corner of the meadow. Our habit is to walk to the edge of the creek and look for fish, then turn and head out the narrow neck to the corner. When I turned around to walk back, there was the moose…lying quietly on the edge of the cattails, camouflaged by the grasses and about 8 feet away! Tippet had not yet picked up the scent or sight and I ALMOST got us back around the corner when chaos erupted. Surprised by the sight of the moose, Tippet began barking…of course. The moose, who had no reason to think we would be a problem, decided she did not care for this insult and started to charge both of us. I quickly ducked behind a large clump of bushes and after the charge, Tippet stopped barking and I called her to me.
Just one problem remained…the moose was blocking the narrow path between us and the rest of the meadow and did not look happy. After a 2-3 minute stand-off, I realized I had my cell phone and could call John to the rescue!
“Hey!! I’m trapped out here on the meadow by a moose!”
“I SAID…Tippet and I have been cornered by the MOOSE!!!”
“What do you want ME to do?”
Whether it was my excited voice or hearing John, Tippet decided to take matters into her own paws. She charged the moose again, barking and running back into the corner, with the moose on her heels. I took off for the main meadow, still on the phone, and calling for Tippet who had made a fast circle and easily escaped the charge. By now, John was at the top of the bridge, having gallantly arrived on his cart in time to watch the show. The moose, for her part, appeared docile again and crossed the creek where she promptly laid down for another rest.
The attached video is the same moose a few days earlier. She was using the branches to scratch and help shed that winter coat!
Long ago and far away in Montana, it was possible to operate a business in the summer with the hard-working folks from right here in the Madison Valley. There were fewer businesses, fewer tourists and fewer jobs off the ranches, so finding enough help was not the challenge it is today. To keep El Western operating up to the standards you, our guests, have come to expect, requires creative hiring solutions.
One of the first things most folks pack when they get ready to come to Montana is a camera - wisely so! There are so many photo ops it is hard not to spend all your time snapping away. If you combine this urge with the chance to learn more about your camera and composing great photos, then we have a perfect opportunity for you. Ken Hall of Bearfeather Studios in Ennis is offering photography lessons at El Western this summer. On vacation, with no other cares and plenty of incredible subjects, is the perfect time to improve your inner shutterbug.
Seems I can’t always focus on my inside work when I am sitting by a window, looking out. I have a weakness for wildlife of all kinds, but especially birds. Flitting, feeding, fighting with all those shapes and sizes - they are a constant, but welcome, distraction. I come by it honestly. Growing up, I can remember my mother getting us to rush to the window with shouts of, “Come and look!! There’s a rose-breasted grosebeak!!” She even took to naming some of her favorites…like the surprisingly large pileated woodpecker she named “Big George”.
Observing nature is a favorite passtime here at El Western. The constant tide of weather changes and animal sightings is educational and entertaining (okay - so we're easily entertained!). Even Tippet, our golden retriever, gets involved. We taught her not to chase deer, as that is dangerous for the deer moving to the highway and for her. Instead, we call them her "friends". The deer have adapted to her non-aggression and will follow her activities - even watching when we throw balls in their direction and she retrieves them. Sometimes, it looks like they might be interested in playing themselves.
Peaceful, quiet, secluded, relaxing…words we think of to describe winter in Montana. And they are mostly appropriate for the humans. But for the critters awake in our winter world, life is active. Take a walk on Bear Creek Meadow and see the chips of wood and fresh cut branches left by those ever-busy beavers. Or encounter the very skittish Great Blue Herons on take-off or catch a family of swans or ducks swimming where the water still flows. Millie moose and her calf are here from time to time – the herd of deer are here all the time. The owls hoot us awake in the morning and again as they sent out on their evening hunt.
The Madison River has gorged! Gorging is caused when extremely cold temps freeze the water into ice that clumps together on the bottom of the river, forms bigger clumps and floats to the top causing the river to slow and more ice to form. Eventually, the river stops flowing as the ice jams it up. The river doesn't always gorge, but this year has been extreme - starting early and continuing for over a month with just a short break. You can look at other gorge photos in our FB album at
This is a great time to plan for your vacation to El Western next summer. Our availability is still good and we still have space on the 4th of July weekend. Look around the site and click on one of the "Book It Now" links or give us a call!