Glaciers in the Bitterroot at Ravalli County Museum

Posted December 3, 2020

This article originally appeared in the Bitterroot Star.  Written by Michael Howell.

A new exhibit, “Ice Ace Floods – Glacial Lake Missoula,” will be opening soon at the Ravalli County Museum, focused on the impacts of glaciers and of Glacial Lake Missoula on the Bitterroot valley. 

Museum Director Tamar Stanley said that glaciers and the flooding events centered around Glacial Lake Missoula have made the area an international travel destination.

“People come from all over the world to see glaciers now,” said Stanley, “and this exhibit is telling the backstory of one of the largest glaciers ever, certainly on the North American continent.” 

The exhibit is chockful of information about glaciers, how they formed and how far the glacier fields extended in North America in the Pre-Cambrian Ice Ages. It covers the period of Glacial Lake Missoula, which filled the Bitterroot valley up to 6,000 feet deep repeatedly as the ice dam which created it broke repeatedly. It is estimated that the lake filled and then drained catastrophically over 40 times. The lake drained in about three days, creating the largest series of flash floods in the history of the earth and leaving a trail from here down through Idaho, Washington and Oregon to the coast. The trail following this ancient floodway has been monumentalized as a National Historic Trail.

Stanley said that the Bitterroot Valley is the hub of three different National Historic Trails, it is on the Ice Age Floods National Historic Trial, the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) National Historic Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. She said the museum had already done exhibits on the Nez Perce Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail.

“This is the prequel to those two,” said Stanley. She said the exhibit tells the whole story of the formation of the glaciers during Pre-Cambrian times. There were no humans occupying the area at the time but the exhibit includes displays about the animals that roamed the area at the time including Saber Tooth Tigers and Wooly Mammoths and even the predecessor of the modern horse. All of which went extinct. 

Stanley said that while the filling and draining of Glacial Lake Missoula left dramatic marks across the landscape in the Scablands of Washington, signs of it are also visible here in the Bitterroot if you look closely enough. 

“The evidence is there,” said Stanley. “You just have to look for the clues.” She said that George Furniss, a geologist at the Bitterroot College, and people at the Ice Age Institute were very helpful in helping the museum highlight the local evidence.

The exhibit is being funded by the James Nieman Foundation and the Montana History Foundation. The actual production of the exhibit is a joint effort between the Paradise Center and the Natural History Center in Missoula and the Ravalli County Museum. 

Stanley said the whole idea was to present the story of the Ice Age and floods from the Bitterroot perspective.

“It’s right here for everyone to see and it’s right here in our backyard,” she said.  

Not only that, you can see some very interesting evidence right in the front yard of the museum. It’s a giant “erratic”, a stone that was scraped off the mountain top in one place and carried along only to be dropped somewhere else when the glacier subsided. 

This particular erratic was not dropped here on the lawn. It was dropped up on the mountainside as the glacier covering this area retreated. The rock was found by a man who knew a lot about rocks because he had been digging up rocks all his life, “Bus” Donaldson, now deceased. The rock was sledded down and ice-rafted to the River Ranch south of Hamilton. Stanly said that Ron Bell, whose family owned the River Ranch, can remember playing on the rock as a child about 60 or 70 years ago.

Several informative signs have been erected around the large stone introducing and explaining the exhibit. The exhibit inside is planned to include kid’s activities such as a chance to draw their own geological pictures using a light table and a microscope that they can use to examine geologic specimens that will be provided.

The staff is also still culling through the museum’s extensive collections to find things appropriate to display in the exhibit. They have some nice geologic specimens that will be on display. They have core samples and examples of different moraine rocks and the interpretation of the three main types of rocks that are found in the Bitterroot.

“Just yesterday we found three very old maps showing the Bitterroot in three stages of inundation by the glacial lake,” said Stanley. 

The Glacier Exhibit is set to open pre-Christmas and, according to Stanley, it will stay open for a while. 

“We want the schools to all have a chance to get in there,” said Stanley. She said that Assistant Director Nancy Ann Bevins was planning to create a virtual tour of the exhibit that can be used in the schools as well. Bevins is currently creating virtual tours of every exhibit in the museum. 

“The virtual tours are more interactive than the old style photograph and description,” said Stanley. “They have a person showing the artifacts and talking about them and explaining their significance.” 

This will be the last full museum exhibit that Stanley will be installing, although she does have a few more already planned for the director that may follow. She plans on retiring after 12 years as the museum’s director at the end of the year. 

Stanley, who has been in charge of planning and installation of many complex exhibits over the years and knows the immense amount of work involved, has sketched out two more future exhibits to give them something they could choose to do while they got their own plans together, or not, said Stanley.

She is excited about the idea of a Faces of Montana exhibit all about local famous and infamous people with images, artifacts and a narrative about each one. 

Stanley said, “You can’t be static. One of the things I’ve taken great pride in over the years is that we have not been static.” 

“You’ve got to stay current and stay relevant and stay fun,” she said. “That’s something. People don’t think of museums as being fun.” She said kids know it’s got to be fun but it can be fun for adults, too. She said some folks are really going to enjoy some of the Ernst Peterson photos that they have pulled out from when he toted his large camera and tripod out into the wilds of the Bitterroot and took photos of things such as limestone walls and other geological phenomena.

Stanley doesn’t plan on leaving town and she is looking forward to enjoying a fine retirement here.