Article and Photos By J.B. Chandler
The headwaters of the Sun River hold more than Gibson Dam can carry. Watching an entire river’s worth of water exploding from two giant tubes is refreshing, but difficult, what with all the mist flying. This narrow canyon has always been a special place, long before the dam was built. An ancient crossroads with plenty of signage, let’s go where the old road takes us.
The Old North Trail runs north-south along the Rocky Mountain Front—a migration channel for elk, bison, and humans. It was also a common mountain pass for the mountain valley Indians, the Flathead, the Salish, and the Pend d’Oreilles. The Sun River flows to the east, into prime bison country. The hunting grounds was the homeland of the mighty Blackfeet Indians, so the invaders would track down some bison, then quickly retreat across the mountains before the Blackfeet found them and attacked. Joyous times for those who made it back to the safety of the Sun River gorge.
Today we can drive all the way up to the Gibson Dam on roads with nice road signs. Back in the day, hiking and riding horses, following the river, there were also signs, red and bright and for all to see. Red pictographs painted into the amphitheater like rocks were meant to be seen. Red on top of red on top of red; it’s like Native abstract art.Then there are the figures and hand slaps, higher than anybody could ever jump. Many tribes used this canyon, yet each tribe will have the same answer for who started these paintings: the mysterious Little People. Building the Gibson Dam, thankfully, didn’t destroy these works of art; in fact, it may have made them easier to access.
Built in the 1920s, the nearest railroad was 23 miles away, so constructing Gibson Dam was quite the ordeal. Trucking in steel and machinery from Choteau or Augusta can be tough on a gravel road, though those last few miles are paved. Just below Gibson Dam, a fork will either take you below the dam or above it. Don’t go to the top just yet, just after crossing the Sun River, park your car. Going down river, on the north side of the river, one will happen upon two areas of Indian pictographs. Signage will help explain its history. PLEASE LOOK BUT DON’T TOUCH! Vandalism has already taken most of these paintings from us, but what remains is beautiful.
Beyond sightseeing, activities can be found above and below the dam. Sun Canyon Lodge lies below the dam, offers a restaurant and many cabins to stay in during your excursion. Triple J Wilderness Ranch lies atop the dam, and you can start your hike or horse ride from there. To reach the most isolated ranch, you must take a boat ride across the reservoir. Come visit K Bar L Ranch and take a dip in the Medicine Springs, or go on a hike in the Bob Marshall.
No matter the reason, no matter how you do it, get away from plains and get into the mountains. Between hiking, fishing, and hunting, the Gibson Dam area is a Montana paradise.