Destinations / GO
UNLESS YOU ARRIVE by helicop- ter, as one VIP did during our stay at the American Prairie Reserve, Kestrel Camp in the high plains of Montana is a
long way from any where.
It’s an hour from the nearest town (Malta,
population 1,950) and accessed by dirt roads.
These, when it rains, become slick with bentonite, a substance that causes slow-moving
cars on level surfaces to slide right off the
road. During a six-month winter, blizzards
are a fact of life; the wind drove some early
frontier people mad. Although snow, hail and
downpours can happen anytime, summer
and fall are when the prairie comes alive with
wildlife, when the green grasses ripple in
the breeze, when sunflowers bob their heads
along the roadsides and meadowlarks sing on
barbed wire fences. It’s when the big skies of
Montana are at their most expansive.
Those of us from away think Montana and
visualize mountains, trout streams, high-end
ski areas or the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. But in the
north-central section of the state, through
which the Missouri River flows for more than
700 miles, it’s open country, sparsely settled,
with nary a Wi-Fi cafe in sight. It’s a land of
farms and ranches, combines and grain silos.
It’s also a land of natural grassland prairie,
tens of thousands of acres of which have never
been tilled. Sixteen years ago, a group of conservation visionaries conceived of a project
to protect this ecosystem, one of the last such
in the world, while creating a wildlife reserve
roughly the size of Connecticut. Thus was
born the American Prairie Reserve.
I’d been invited with one of my daughters
to join a 10-person mother-daughter trip
organized by a photographer friend from
Virginia. We’d already spent three days
canoeing through the spectacular scenery of
the Missouri Breaks on the trail of the Lewis
and Clark expedition, so we knew that when
those explorers first came through the area
in 1805 they encountered vast herds of bison
and not one human being. As settlers moved
in, bison were virtually exterminated; other
large species — grizzlies, mountain lions,
elk — were displaced to the mountains. APR’s
founders devised an audacious plan to protect
the land and restore its wildlife.
The dream can be envisioned on a map
as a 3.2-million-acre oval through which
the Missouri River runs from west to east.
Privately held land, as much as 500,000 acres,
would be combined with a patchwork of protected public lands (the Charles M. Russell
National Wildlife Refuge, state of Montana
and Federal Bureau of Land Management
lands) to create the largest preserve in the
continental United States. Bison herds would
be reestablished, pronghorn antelope and
prairie dogs protected and fences removed.
Ultimately, other large ungulates and carni-
vores could follow.
We arrived, fittingly enough, by boat,
landing our canoes near the confluence of
the Judith and Missouri rivers. There we met
our hosts, Terence Ruane, the reserve’s facilities supervisor, and philanthropy manager
Gavin Clark, and were taken (in ridiculously
comfortable Sprinter vans laden with snacks
and drinks) to tour the APR’s newest acquisition, the fantastically scenic 50,000-acre PN
Ranch, which anchors the westernmost portion of the Prairie Reserve.
The next 48 hours were spent driving the
lands, viewing wildlife, visiting an ancient buffalo jump and a restored one-room schoolhouse,
and reveling in the five-star accommodations at
the APR’s Kestrel Camp. The five yurts (plus a
double yurt housing the dining and recreation
facility) are invisible from the road, though
they sit on a vast treeless plain with expansive
views over the prairie. Understated exteriors
belie their roomy, beautifully furnished interiors. These feature high-thread-count sheets,
a plethora of bath products and freebies like
water bottles, hats and guidebooks, a killer view
and an oculus framing the night sky. There
the quiet is its own weight. The night sky is as
exhilarating as you’d expect so far from light