As Andy Aldeen strides across his Montana land, a can of bear spray stuffed in his back shorts pocket, you’d never guess the Midwestern-born hay farmer had spent 25 years working in finance in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Now, his three-generation family is rooted here in the Swan Valley, haying and running three VRBO units for visitors craving clean mountain air far from cities.
A homesteader cabin
That’s what brings my husband, dog and me here. With COVID-19 numbers rising, we hesitated to plan ahead. Then, we got lucky and snagged a last-minute reservation for a socially distant getaway at what was described as a pioneer homesteader cabin. So here we were, briskly touring Aldeen’s land with his black lab, Sis, acting as hostess and leading our dog Rudy through bushes and brambles.
The cabin has been thoroughly redone since a Norwegian fur trapper built it in the early 1900s. He surely didn’t have a hot water shower, a full kitchen and such a comfortable bed. Aldeen decorates in what he calls “Victorian explorer” style, which means a fun mix of cheery and unpredictable items, including a red-and-white-checked table cloth on the kitchen table downstairs, a cow-spotted plant stand and a sequined rainbow pillow on a daybed in the cabin’s attic library. Aldeen has scoured used bookstores all through the valley, furnishing his VRBO units with thousands of books of all genres.
Best of all was the big front porch strung with Christmas lights. You can sit on an easy chair with a view of hay bales sitting in front of the Mission Mountains. In the morning, you may hear migrating sandhill cranes purring as they hunt for critters or see deer bounding by. Down the road, the ranch’s horses congregate under their favorite shade tree.
With two bedrooms and a small, cozy living room, the homesteader cabin is the mid-range option among Aldeen’s VRBO units. The Lazy Bean is a 2,000-square-foot cabin that sleeps up to eight and has the most extensive library. Then, there’s a more primitive, 300-square-foot cabin with twin bunk beds.
The Seeley-Swan Valley
The cabins sit in the Seeley-Swan Valley in northwestern Montana, on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and just off of Highway 83. This is known as one of Montana’s most scenic roads and is a popular route to Glacier National Park. But it’s also a destination in itself for people seeking outdoor adventures.
Seeley and Swan are actually two back-to-back valleys. We were in Swan, the northern of the two, near the tiny town of Condon. The Mission Range of the Rocky Mountains towers to the west, the Swan Range to the east. This is an unusually wet part of Montana, with significantly higher rainfall than most of the state, which accounts for the greenness and abundance of water. Rivers, lakes, ponds and bogs left by long-ago receding glaciers cover about 16% of the Swan Basin — compare that to only 1% wetland habitat for the rest of the state. This is the part of the state to visit if you want to get in the water or if you like scenic hikes with dazzling lake views. With average July and August highs in the mid-80s, the lakes and rivers get lots of summertime use.
“Be Bear Aware”
One of the things I hadn’t realized until I got to Montana was how many bears call it home. “Greatest concentration in the Lower 48,” Aldeen told me proudly while I shook in my hiking boots.
As we set out one morning for the Glacier Lake Trailhead, our route took us on a long stretch of gravel road. When we finally arrived at the parking lot, I was relieved to see other cars. Wilderness is great, but sometimes I gravitate toward safety in numbers. Still, there’s no guarantee that the presence of humans equals the absence of bears. Bears are big, and they go where they want.
Signs at just about every trailhead exhort visitors to “Be Bear Aware.” As we followed the Glacier Lake Trail, I took the information to heart. Bear spray on front backpack strap, check. Talking or singing before turning blind corners, yep. The mountains were gorgeous, and the trail was lined with huckleberries ripe for the picking. I relaxed and enjoyed it, as long as I didn’t think too much about who else loves huckleberries.
Bears swim, too. But at least it’s easier to see them coming over open water. This part of Montana is an absolute dream if you like to kayak, paddleboard or swim. Highway 83 has signs for lakes every couple of miles. If you favor motors on your watercraft, a big lake like Seeley will give you lots of space to explore. But if you prefer human-powered vessels, you can also find a quiet lake without motor traffic.
The most touristy lake we visited was Holland Lake. This 400-acre glacial lake is popular for good reason, with its well-used campground, Swan Mountain views and easy access to the Holland Falls trailhead. You can rent a canoe, kayak or SUP from the Holland Lake Lodge. My favorite thing about Holland Lake was the cordoned off swimming area. Some of the lakes we visited were nice for paddling but mucky for swimming. Not Holland. You don’t have to worry about putting your feet on the bottom and having them disappear under questionable slime.
Van Lake is too small to be of much interest for those with fast boats. A leisurely paddle around the perimeter took less than hour, including stops for wildlife viewing. From my SUP, I saw a bald eagle dive down and nab a fish off the line of somebody fishing from a rowboat. Watching bald eagles swoop, fish and fly above your SUP, and loons swimming alongside you, is a dream come true for any wildlife-enthusiast.
The most remote lake we visited was Clearwater. It’s about a 0.7 mile walk from the road. The trail is mostly flat and would be easy an easy trip, if not for dragging an inflatable SUP. But it was worth it, as it was the only time I’ve ever been the only watercraft on a lake, accompanied only by electric blue damselflies.
September average high temperatures for Seeley-Swan are in the 70s. There’s still time to get your Montana lake fix before the temperatures dip down and the snow begins falling, although that is another trip full of nature’s beauty. So if you get the chance to escape to a remote Montana cabin, grab your bear spray and go.
Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat