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Adventures Of The Boondocking Photographer: Northwest Montana

I recently became an empty nester and was looking for a change in my life that would maximize my time left on this great planet. So I sold my house, bought a Ford F-350, an Arctic Fox 990 truck camper, and hit the road. This is the story of my adventures with travel, photography, and RV tips designed around living the boondocker lifestyle.

Northwest Montana

The focus of this boondocking adventure is Northwest Montana. My original goal was to boondock on the west side of Glacier National Park at Bowman Lake.

After entering Montana from the south and crossing the state to Glacier National Park I was subjected to three inspections for Zebra Mussels on my two kayaks. I accessed Glacier National Park by driving north out of Columbia Falls and entering the park near Polebridge.

A Glacier National Park ranger informed me that even though I had endured three inspections for Zebra Mussel in the preceding two days, that I needed to have my kayaks inspected at Apgar Ranger Station on the southern tip of Glacier National Park. Apgar Ranger Station was roughly 40 miles away over a very rough, gravel road so I decided to forgo Glacier National Park and head for National Forest lakes.

Boondockers must be light on their feet and be ready to adapt to changing rules and restrictions. After a bit of grumbling it turned out that not boondocking in Glacier National Park worked out great. I avoided a crowded campground, camping fees, and forest fire smoke.

I headed north out of Polebridge on the North Fork Road and took a left on the Red Meadow Creek Road to Upper Whitefish Lake. After boondocking at Upper Whitefish Lake campground for three days I headed south to Whitefish, stopped at Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell for a pizza, and ventured further south into the Swan Valley to Holland Lake Campground.

Holland Lake Campground was full in the middle of August so I drove a few miles further south down the Swan Valley to Lindbergh Lake Campground. Lindbergh Lake Campground offered free boondocking, which Holland Lake Campground did not and plenty of reservation-free sites near Lindbergh lake ready for a boondocker.

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Travel Tips

Upper Whitefish Lake Campground

Upper Whitefish Lake Campground is 14 miles north of Whitefish, Montana on Red Meadow Road or NF-115. This campground offers 13 sites of varying size. Some of the sites are right on the lake. I was lucky enough to get a site right on the lake and had a huge parking area. My site was secluded and I could not have been happier with the campground.

The Upper Whitefish Lake Campground is located in the Stillwater State Forest and is subjected to different rules than a National Forest campground. Be sure to read the large, information board at the campground entrance. A boondocker must have a State Land Recreational Use License to camp here. The license is required when you buy a Montana Fishing License, which you will want to have because all of the lakes mentioned in this article offer excellent fishing.

A boondocker can camp up to 14 days without moving for free at Upper Whitefish Lake Campground. A great bargain considering the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, offers scenic views, and non-motorized boating.

Surrounding Upper Whitefish Lake Campground are several hiking trails, lakes, and streams to explore. I would highly recommend basing out of Upper Whitefish Lake Campground for days of mountain recreation.

For more information about Upper Whitefish Lake Campground check out: https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/recreation-area-campground/upper-whitefish-lake-campground.html

Lindbergh Lake Campground

Lindbergh Lake Campground is located north of Seeley Lake, Montana on Highway 83. Turn west or left on road #74 for three miles and then take a right turn on #74c. The campground is clearly marked with plenty of signs.

This campground offers free camping, lake access, pit toilets, and 11 sites. There is not water available.

Lindbergh Lake is large and does have motorized boats and houses on the shore opposite of the campground. Even with a fair amount of human activity, I would recommend using Lindbergh Lake Campground as a base for Swan Valley recreation.

For more information about Lindbergh Lake Campground check out: https://www.recreation.gov/recreationalAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&facilityId=239314

Holland Lake

Holland Lake offers two campgrounds, both require a fee and reservations are recommended. There is also a dump station and fresh water.

Holland Lake allows motorized boats, but the views offset the noise. The lake sits right against the Swan Mountain range. At the head of Holland Lake is a series of waterfalls requiring a short hike to view.

Holland Lake area is worth spending a day or two at hiking or boating the lake, but for camping I would recommend Lindbergh Lake Campground. This campground is only 10 miles away, is free, and offers secluded sites.

For more information about Holland Lake check out: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/holland-lake-campground/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=75370

Crystal Lake

From Lindbergh Lake it is a short, eight-mile drive to the trailhead for Crystal Lake. The road to Crystal Lake is a couple miles before entering Lindbergh Lake Campground and a spur to the west of #79c is clearly marked with a readable sign.

Crystal Lake is a moderately easy hike of five miles round trip. The views at Crystal Lake are wonderful and so is the trout fishing. Be sure to spend a day exploring the Crystal Lake area.

For more information about Crystal Lake check out: https://missoulian.com/lifestyles/recreation/crystal-lake-routes-into-mission-mountains-wilderness/article_a1efc960-fbe5-11e3-aba0-001a4bcf887a.html

Lost Lakes

Lost Lakes is a couple of lakes that are close together, both beautiful and both filled with hungry trout.

To get to Lost Lakes Trailhead take Highway 83 north of Condon, Montana for a couple miles and there will be a sign to the right or west on Cold Creek Road. Follow this road for eight miles and you will be at the trailhead.

The hike to Lower Lost Lake is 3.6 miles round trip with moderate up hill climbs. The hike to Upper Lost Lake is not far, but the trail has not been maintained in years and is overgrown by brush. The views at Upper Lost Lake are beautiful, but the trail is tough.

Lost Lakes area is worth spending a day exploring and fishing. Be sure to pack a lunch.

For more information about Lost Lakes check out: https://www.trails.com/us/mt/missoula/lower-cold-lake

Photography Tips

A boondocker will at some point find an interesting squirrel, chipmunk, or forest critter to photograph. However, these forest critters are often fast and difficult to photograph. Here are some tips on how to capture great, forest critter photos.

First of all you will need to have your camera handy at all times. Most of the time forest critters show themselves for a limited time. By the time you get your camera or make the move to get your camera the forest critter is long gone.

To solve the shy, forest critter situation you will need to have your camera at your finger tips at all times. Depending on your location, having a DSLR handy may or may not be an option. However, a small, pocket camera with a zoom lens is easy to have on your person and at the ready at all times.

Be sure you are familiar with your camera’s functions, the battery is charged, and your memory card has room. Seems simple, but keeping your camera gear ready at all times takes discipline.

Knowing how to use your camera’s functions is essential for taking fast photos of forest creatures. You will need to get your camera on fast, use the zoom efficiently, and have your camera set on a general setting that will work in most fast, high pressure situations.

A good setting for quick shots is A, AP or aperture priority mode depending on your camera make. I would recommend setting your aperture priority to 13 as a good starting point. Be ready to change your aperture to a low setting if the light is low.

Set your shutter speed at 1/125 as a good starting point. You will want the speed set at a point you can easily shoot off hand and get clear shots. Fast, forest critters are not good subjects for tripods. If you get much slower than 1/125 it will be hard to hand shoot forest critters clearly.

If you start to lose your light towards evening or a cloud passes overhead be ready to change the aperture quickly to a low setting like 3 or less if your camera will allow.

Be sure you know how to use your zoom quickly and efficiently. Forest critters move a lot and you will have to adjust on the fly.

The last tip for shooting forest critters is to shoot a lot. It is really hard to get forest critters in the right position and you will not be able to get them to pose, so click often and sort out the bad shots later during editing. Consider deleting the obviously bad shots in your camera to reduce editing time.

In summary to successfully shoot forest critters have your camera handy at all times, know how to use your camera, and click a lot. Catching a perfect shot of forest critters will be a keepsake that will have you smiling for years to come. Bonus tip, food bribes can help bring your subjects back often and con them into sitting still.

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RV Tips

On my Arctic Fox 990 is a Fantastic Fan above the bed over the cab. I like the Fantastic Fan and it has a tinted cover to keep the sun out when not in use. However, when the Fantastic Fan is in use, the cover must be screwed up, which lets in bright sunlight and is susceptible to wind damage.

To solve these problems I installed a Maxx Air II plastic cover over the Fantastic Fan. Honestly, I don’t know why the Arctic Fox did not come standard with a fan cover, but at least options are available to solve the problems presented by not having a cover.

The Maxx Air II is the highest, rated fan cover in the business and offered excellent reviews. I do not represent Maxx Air II or make any compensation for recommending the fan cover.

The Maxx Air II comes in several different colors such as black and white. I chose white to match my truck camper, but a black, fan cover would block out more light.

The Maxx Air II installation is pretty simple. It is not necessary to drill into the camper roof, instead holes are drilled into the side of the Fantastic Fan. Just make sure you measure the holes for the brackets you will screw onto your Fantastic Fan very carefully, because there is not much room for error. Since you are drilling into the Fantastic Fan and the Maxx Air II covers the mounting brackets, Dicor sealant will not be necessary.

The fan cover has pins on one side to allow the Maxx Air II to open and allow access to the Fantastic Fan. The pins are easy to remove and fasten the fan cover down securely.

With the Maxx Air II in place it is my understanding that the Fantastic Fan cover can remain open during travel to allow for ventilation on the road.

My Maxx Air II is white and provides ample sun blockage if the Fantastic Fan cover is in the open position. The white color also allows for natural sunlight to get through the cover to provide additional lighting in the over the cab area of my truck camper.

Before installing the Maxx Air II I was very concerned that the Fantastic Fan cover would become damaged by winds in the open position. The Maxx Air II does a great job protecting the fan cover during windy conditions.

After taking the Maxx Air II from Colorado to Montana and back, enduring several days of very windy conditions, I would recommend the Maxx Air II as a nice addition to my Arctic Fox 990. Easy installation and a price around $60 are also features that make the Maxx Air II attractive.

Conclusion

For your next boondocking adventure be sure to include Northwest Montana as a possible destination. There is a lot of public land, which leads to free camping and hassle free exploring. Toss in a bunch of lakes, great mountain scenery, and hiking trails galore.

Please remember to boondock without a trace!

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