“Land of Shining Mountains”
Ennis, Montana, and the Beautiful Madison Valley
Not just another friendly village in Southwest Montana surrounded by grass-fed Herefords and Black Angus beef, Ennis (pop. 1,000) was crowned a Top 20 Western Town by Cowboy Magazine in 2009, and deservedly so. It’s likely you’ve seen Ennis without realizing it.
Back when the big guy was kicking and chopping his way to action-hero fame, Steven Seagal, with nearly 40 films to his name, filmed “The Patriot” (1998) here and down south on his stunning 18,000-acre Sun Ranch, which he sold off in ‘98. The plot is relatively straightforward: Patriotic country doctor saves the world from a deadly virus by discovering a cure and beating up evil paramilitary militiamen in the process. Nothing wrong with that.
“Taking Chance” (2009), on the other hand, is the emotional story of a real-life patriot; two of them for that matter. It stars Kevin Bacon who plays a stateside military officer during the Iraq war escorting the remains of 19-year-old Marine, Chance Phelps, home to Dubois, Wyoming. “Taking Chance” was also shot at Ennis in part, and at historic Virginia City twelve miles west over the pass.
Factually based, this movie hit me like a blow to the stomach. I don’t think I’m the only vet to get a little choked up and teary-eyed watching the casket’s solemn procession on its way to burial, and feeling the underlying subtext of dignity, sacrifice and loss that permeates the narrative. If you’re one of those people who watch this film with calm indifference, wallowing in self-righteous indignation believing the Chance Phelps of America have it coming for putting on the uniform in the first place, then please, do us a favor - pack your bags.
On a cheerier note, the real stars of Madison Valley, idolized by some with a single-minded pathology hard for the rest of us to comprehend, don’t hire agents, throw temper tantrums on set, or jet home to Sun Valley for the weekend. The real stars around here are slippery and slimy, avoid inquisitive stalkers at all cost, and hide in the dark, cold recesses of the underworld where few humans dare tread. Contrarian by nature, life for them is a constant uphill slog against the world’s frigid current, a tireless navigation of mysterious bends and turns along the winding way.
Patient and undemanding, and somewhat naive, these denizens of the deep, like many of us, are opportunists on the prowl for a cheap handout, rising to the occasion at dawn and dusk to scarf down the twitching remains of a drowning deer fly going down for its third time in some nondescript eddy along the cut banks of the world-famous Madison River. With a flick of the tail and a snap of the jaws, these multihued, incredibly gullible, freckled celebrities with the bedroom eyes flinch and twitch at the artificial deception played on them by those sneaky miscreants - Mickey Finn, the Muddler Minnow, and heaven forbid, the Humpy.
Instead of savoring the delectable crunch of bug entrails, our startled friend, who never harmed a human soul in its life, chomps down on a mouthful of rabbit fur, chenille, and bird feathers, artfully wrapped around a razor-sharp barb now plunged with excruciating pain into the upper lip of this member of a lower order who, displaying a singular purpose, fights for its life against all odds, against the two-legged giant with the silly grin holding a long stick up high against the blue sky of autumn, yanking and reeling and tugging. Oh, the vegetarian horror!
That’s right, I’m talking trout, big fat ones, rainbows and brownies, at times 30 inches long or more, in numbers so dense the Madison is routinely named the “number one” fly-fishing river in North America. Not sure if that includes the wilds of Canada and Alaska, but that’s still an impressive accolade. Anglers escaping their domestic chores and in dire need of a riffle-induced zen-buzz descend on the Madison April through October lathered in bug dope, and don’t leave disappointed. Fly fishing is big business around here. Ennis and the Madison Valley boast an impressive number of fly fishing lodges, tackle shops, outfitters and river guides that cater to the whim and need of every man in neoprene chest waders out to hook a lip.
In celebration of the sport of line-wetting, the town holds its annual fly fishing festival over Labor Day weekend where you’ll find fishy antique displays, you can partake in skill-development seminars for the casting-challenged, and compete in fly-casting competitions. There’s also lip-smacking BBQ and live music, and they might even raffle off a boat or some gear this year, maybe.
Who knows, you might be rubbing elbows with the likes of celebrity anglers such as the legendary Boo Boys of Sweetgrass Rods, Jim Klug, Bob Jacklin, Craig Mathews, Kelly Galloup, and Mike Lawson, not that I’ve ever heard of these people. But then, I can’t stand the taste of fish and the only thing about fishing I find appealing is being outdoors. What I do applaud are their considerable conservation efforts at preserving Montana’s wild rivers and healthy streams. Kudos for that, and kudos to all fly fishermen who practice responsible catch-and-release ethics. Contact Richard Lessner at the Madison River Foundation for additional festival details.
If casting and reeling doesn’t float your dory, the scenery will. Beginning at Madison Junction in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison makes its way past large herds of bison wading the river, and even larger herds of tourists taking their pictures. After leaving the park, the 130-mile-long waterway pours through Hebgen Lake, then Earthquake Lake, and on down through the most beautiful stretch of the Madison Valley to Ennis, 70 miles from the park. From there it’s on to Three Forks thirty miles west of Bozeman where it ceases to be the Madison, eventually merging under a different name into the lumbering Missouri.
The Madison Valley is basically long, open, sparsely populated and relatively flat. As it occupies a northwest corner of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and is surrounded by three mountain ranges - the Madison, Gravelly and Tobacco Root Mountains - wildlife is abundant, and the mountain scenery top-notch, especially that stretch midway between Ennis and Earthquake Lake, in my opinion.
All this wonderful habitat is home to vast herds of elk and mule deer, eagles and hawks, moose and wolves, mountain goats, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, and teeming waterfowl populations that cling to the river proper. And those that hunt them. And a few cattle, because much of the valley continues to be ranch country, cowboy country that has yet to be sliced and diced into 5-acre lots like so much of this great state, the fourth largest in the Union.
It’s because of places like the Madison Valley that folks in these parts can honestly call Montana “The Last Best Place” in America, behind Alaska. But that’s another story. As for winter, well ... you couldn’t pay me enough to put up with this kind of cold. It takes a special breed; warm-weather wimps like me need not apply.
Ennis wasn’t always productive ranch country. Before the European white man’s claim, the natural bounty was harvested by Bannock, Flathead and Shoshone Indians who called this place “The Land of Shining Mountains,” and got the heck out of here after the leaves dropped, the winds got to whipping, and snow came in low and sideways. Come spring, though, the Native Americans would return to wade through tall grass and vast herds of wild protein on the hoof, and the good nomadic life.
The discovery of gold at Alder Gulch in 1863 just over the pass fundamentally transformed the landscape and gave rise to such iconic, albeit lawless, boom towns as Virginia City and neighboring Nevada City twelve miles to the west. Along with 10,000-plus miners who poured in overnight touched by the fever came the need to feed them and their livestock, provide lumber for housing and other whatnots essential to the time and, I don’t know, fresh trout maybe? The void was filled by homesteaders William Ennis and Myron Jeffers, and other ranchers, farmers and businessmen who catered to the burgeoning madness over the hill and planted the seeds that gave birth to today’s wonderful town of Ennis, and what remains of idyllic Jeffers across the river. As expected, Ennis is continuously being rediscovered by tourists on their way up the 287 to Yellowstone National Park, and others looking for a piece of quiet sanity, and a good real estate investment. Got money? Want a ranch? This might be that little slice of paradise you’re looking for.
Should you visit Ennis, which is also known for its art, particularly fine sculptures by Jim Dolan, David Lemon and Gary Adams, and others, be sure to take the scenic drive 12 short miles down Highway 287-West over the pass to Virginia City and Nevada City, which at one time served as the terminus of the Bloody Bozeman Trail. Virginia and Nevada cities will absolutely impress with their authenticity; hundreds of old Western buildings and cabins and liveries preserved to perfection, or left to crumble. Lots of pretty wood to photograph.
I recently wrote a piece on Virginia and Nevada cities for Canada Free Press, including photos, which you might find interesting. I personally can’t get enough of the stuff; the American Wild, Wild West, raw unencumbered liberty unknown to modern society. How things have changed. Not sure what that has to do with trout, though I suspect our slimy friends hooked in the throat and reeled out of the Madison River against their will can relate. To visit Virginia and Nevada cities, just grab your mouse, slide your cursor over these four letters and click here.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.