Old North Trail

Tourists on the south section of the Old North Trail hike along a valley, with Ear Mountain in the distance.

On Teton Canyon Road there stands a sign marking an intersection with the Old North Trail, a path of historical significance for Métis people, the Blackfoot Nation and other early travelers. The sign, which was worded by deceased Choteau resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author A.B. Guthrie Jr., ends with an engraving in big capital letters: “HISTORY RUNS INTO MYSTERY HERE.”

Indeed, the origins of the Old North Trail are lost in time and nature. Prairie grasses, shrubs and our own modern roads now cover portions of what used to be well-worn footpaths and wagon ruts.

The trail runs north to south, from Canada’s Yukon Territory to snake along the Rocky Mountains all the way to Mexico. Some anthropologists surmise that it was created at least 15,000 years ago, during the greatest migration in human history. Ancient tribes in Siberia are said to have traversed the Bering Strait land bridge into what is now Alaska, and then have dispersed, becoming forbearers of the first Native Americans. Two studies, both published just last month in Nature: International Journal of Science, confirm genetic connections between ancient human remains on both sides of the land bridge to living Siberians, Inuits, Aleuts and Na-Dené language speakers from Alaska and Canada all the way to Southwest America. In travelling from Canada to the Southwest, these people very well may have created the Old North Trail.

As for the local sections of the Old North Trail that are still visible, many of them are now on private property, and may only be accessed with permission. This is where Choteau’s Old Trail Museum can help.

The museum offers two tours of the trail each year. The north tour takes parties to see teepee rings, vision quest sites, an eagle trap and Antelope Butte cairns. The south tour leads adventurers to Big Bear’s cabin (the home of a prominent local Métis historical figure), a Métis cemetery, a buffalo drive, buffalo drive cairns and another eagle trap.

Approximately 40 people representing Montana, Minnesota and Washington state attended the south tour on July 20. Old Trail Museum board member Dave Shea led the group, telling tales of local history and identifying flora and fauna along the way.

The first stop was the aforementioned sign on Teton Canyon Road, just beyond that, after a short walk up a private drive, sits a large gneiss-granite boulder with the words “Old North Trail” engraved into it. There are 23 of these boulders in Teton County, each engraved and placed along the Old North Trail to mark the path. The boulders were harvested from the Dutton area. “The thing is, there aren’t any gneiss-granite formations within 500 miles of here. So how did these get here?” asked Shea. One of the tourists answered correctly on the first try, something Shea said he rarely sees. The most likely explanation is that these boulders were carried when glaciers made huge carvings into the land, causing mountains to shift and move.

Beyond the next marker, through a patch of chokecherries and wolf willow, is Big Bear’s cabin, which today is reduced to a few sun-bleached logs arranged in an “L” shape. Albert Parenteau, nicknamed “Big Bear” for his towering physical size, was a Métis settler who came to Teton County from Canada when Mounties were driving out anyone with native blood.

“The story goes that Big Bear battled with the Mounties, but in the fight, he accidentally shot and killed his own wife. He never had a wife or children when he lived here,” said Shea.

Around 1870, Métis refugees from Canada, North Dakota and Minnesota eventually found their way to Teton Canyon and made a village for themselves there. At its peak, the village had close to 40 buildings and over 100 residents. Then, in the 1920s, the village disappeared just as quickly as it had been formed.

Marguerite Larance died in 1890 and was the first person buried in the Teton Canyon Métis cemetery. An aspen planted to mark her headstone just died a couple years ago, Shea said. Big Bear, who died in 1928, is also buried there. At his headstone are the few scraps that remain of his saddle, protected from the elements in a wood and plastic case. Most of the other people buried in the cemetery during the village’s 50-year span are infants and children — a sign of just how hard life was in the backcountry.

From the cemetery, the tour group continued on to a prairie just west of Pine Butte. Several dimples of marshy grass freckle the land there, another leftover from ancient glaciers. These spots will usually hold moisture all year long, Shea explained, even when the rest of the prairie is baked to a dry crisp in the summer. Because of this, the dimples make a perfect habitat for false cricket frogs, so named because of their small size and their call, which sounds more like a chirp than a croak. The frogs were out in full force on July 20, allowing several members of the tour group to catch them with their hands.

After visiting the frogs, the group followed a line of cairns on the crest of a “T” shaped ridge. The cairns have grown orange lichen on them in their years of sitting peacefully undisturbed. At the left corner of the “T,” the land forms a bowl. Rather than driving bison off a traditional cliff jump, Shea explained, area Blackfoot hunters would chase a herd into this bowl, and attack while the bison were crowded together. “One can only imagine how much blood would cover this one spot,” he said.

As the group continued walking along the ridge, they looked eastward, towards Pine Butte, and had the pleasure of spotting a few young moose bulls grazing in the distant valley below. At the highest part of the ridge was a small pit, its edges lined with white rocks. This was an eagle trap. A Blackfoot hunter would dig the hole deep enough to sit or lie down in, and cover himself with brush. On top of the brush, he’d place a piece of raw meat for bait.

“This was a very big honor, to be the eagle hunter, because it meant you were the one to harvest all the feathers for various headdresses and religious ceremonies,” said Shea.

The hunter would wait until an eagle (usually a young golden eagle, as they were more easily fooled) landed on the brush to get the meat. He then would quickly grab the bird’s legs, pull it down through the brush, and kneel on it to break its neck. If a lesser bird, such as a magpie or crow, landed on the pile, he would poke a stick through the brush to scare it away, waiting for his big catch.

“Some may say, ‘You could sit out here for days and never see an eagle,’ but you’d be surprised. Especially in October, when they’re migrating, this is a popular spot. There have been over 400 eagles seen here in one day, and over 100 in an hour,” said Shea.

On their walk back down to their vehicles, the tourists were able to see the skeletal remains of a coyote pup, and a few teepee rings. As the participants drove back towards town on Bellview Road, they carried with them newfound knowledge about the wild history of Teton County held in the mountains and trails they were leaving behind.