What the.....?

It is a rare Seeley Lake Firby egg, Atelerix jasperii -- an endangered species (not related to the scarce baffling, babbling Furby). The only known habitat for the Firby is the Clearwater Valley and Lake McDonald area of Montana. Their eggs are found along the lakeshores each fall, just after the bears go into hibernation and just prior to lake freezeup. Their ecosystem relationship is still a mystery. Sometimes mistaken for the common larch ball or porcupine egg.

Seeley Lake Beach Ball

Seeley Lake Beach Balls are prickly balls that look like balls of small straw found along the shorelines of local lakes. They are sometimes called “bull trout burps,” “bull trout barf balls,” or in other parts of the country “cat fish fur balls.”

Beach balls are not produced by bull trout. They are made of larch needles. They may be perfectly round or oval and in a variety of sizes. Eight inches in diameter would be very large.

Beach balls are found all over the world. Scientists have reported finding balls made of fine vegetative strands on Egyptian beaches. Australians report finding beach balls twice the size of a large orange. They are most often found on the shores of lakes. An article in “Science Monthly” in 1948 described balls found at Little Borax Lake, California, made of common ditch grass and ranging from an inch to more than a foot in diameter.


When the first frigid winds of winter blow through the valley nestled beneath towering snow capped peaks, the tender green needles of the deciduous larch turn a brilliant yellow. Their fluorescence displayed in silent tribute to the fading warmth of a season passing. Then slowly - one by one - the needles fall to the ground or drift uncaring to the chilling waters of a high mountain lake.

As winter winds stir the waters into gray turbulence, the water bound needles join at their forks - rocking with the waves, gathering another needle and perhaps yet another until a knotted cluster gradually forms.

Then if nature commands a perfect performance, the awesome mystery continues and the clusters grow into a complex, symmetrical form.

This is one such mystery, a larch ball born to the majestic larch and the rolling waves of a scenic lake in the beautiful Seeley-Swan Valley of Montana.

In the past, before the white man came to claim the land, the Flathead Indians crossed the Seeley-Swan Valley to reach their hunting grounds in the South Fork of the Flathead

River Valley located in today's Bob Marshall Wilderness. If an Indian found one of these rare larch balls, the lucky finder could have the ability to place all of his wrong-doings, or

"sins", into the ball - cleansing him and allowing a new start in life. Still it was a risk to pick up a "sin ball" which had already had sins placed in it.

The Indian brave that picked it up would be given all the sins held within. 

Author - Addrien Marx

Great Balls of…Larch?
You can’t eat larch balls, and they’re hopeless for a game of baseball—they’re just a coffee table oddity. The round balls form after western larch (aka tamarack) trees, the only deciduous conifers in Montana, drop their yellow needles into the shallow water of lakes. The churning wave action molds the needles into a compact sphere that commonly grows to the size of a baseball. Longtime Seeley Lake Ranger District employee Kay McCoy has received reports of the balls in Holland Lake to the north, and in several lakes in Glacier Park. One larch ball that the painter retrieved from McDonald Lake graces the mantle of Charlie Russell’s Great Falls home. Seeley Lake, however, proudly claims the yellow orbs as their own. The phenomenon is not Seeley Lake’s only claim to fame. The town also boasts the nation’s largest western larch tree. Surviving countless forest fires and the hungry teeth of a chainsaw, this magnificent giant measures nearly twenty-three feet in circumference and towers 160 feet high. The venerable ancient lives surrounded by its descendants in the Jim Girard Memorial Grove three miles west of town. The community celebrates the advent of fall with its Tamarack Festival when the larch begin turning brilliant yellow, transforming the Clearwater Valley into a photographer’s paradise.

From Montana Sept/Oct 2005

Letter from Margaret MacDonald Courtesy of The History Museum, Great Falls Montana via Upper Swan Valley Historical Society at Condon

Margaret MacDonald visited her Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Dr. Robert Gordon in August and September 1905 at the Gordon Ranch, near Holland Lake. The Gordons bought the ranch that year from Ben and Charles Holland. Excerpts from Margaret's August 20, 1905 letter to her mother Mims (Williamena, Dr. Gordon's sister) in Scotland describe activities at the ranch, as well as some of the guests, including the Maupins and Shawhans from Mobile, Alabama. 

My dear Mims, 
The Shawhans have to leave us tomorrow much to their sorrow and ours. We have all had such a delightful time together. Think of coming all the way from Mobile to spend 10 days here! This morning we had service in our pergola, or as little Robert calls it, the Bowery, and we know for certain that this is the first time church has been held this side of Ovando. We had sent out word to the Hollands, so we had quite a congregation with Ben, Charlie, Mrs. Holland, the two children, our two girls, Gus, the big Swede who built our cabin, Jow, a fine looking Russian who can neither read nor write and cannot say one phrase without enriching it with a swear. He doesn't know the meaning of those swears, and doesn't know that they are wrong. When he came to this country he just happened to run across a rough set, and not knowing any English, he learned to speak as they did. Judge Maupin has a Mission Church a few miles from Mobile, preaches every Sunday and speaks at every prayer meeting, so he is well used to holding church. 

It was very impressive indeed. Aunt Isabelle and Mrs. Shawhan had our one hymn book and constituted the choir, sitting in the easy chair beside the preacher. Some of us sat in a hammock, on folding stools, and our folding cots, and I tell you we were more attentive than we ever were in our lives. Afterwards we took photos of the entire congregation and photos of our own crowd. 

How often we wish you were all here. This is the most ideal life, and certainly the most perfect holiday. We have the most tremendous appetites and seem to eat all the time, so we must be getting stout. I'm as brown as a berry and am considered the toughest and strongest of the crowd. At night we sit around the camp fire, sing or tell stories and occasionally we have comb band concerts. Mr. Bliss, the forest supervisor, was here the other day and our band performed for his benefit. He nearly had a fit watching us tramp round the table with our combs at our lips. 

One day was very cold. Snow fell on the mountains and rain fell down here, so we had to stay indoors. It was fun from morning to night. We played Bridge, Parchesi, and other games and talked - you would have thought our tounges [sic] would ache. The rain let up in the evening and gave us an opportunity to play croquet - you see we have everything out here even though it is so far away. This is a peaceful life. We go out riding through the woods, and we walk, we play games, eat and sleep. We dress as we please in clothes years out of style, knowing that nobody can surprise us, we bathe in the creek in water that is warmed by the sunshine. From the From the pine trees hand dark brown moss that grows on the trees in the South. The forest is full of flowers, and is carpeted with a little creeping plant with red berries - called killikinick [ sic] by the Indians - they make tobacco out of the leaves. Then there are sarvis berries out of which we have made delicious jelly and oregon grapes which are too bitter to use. There are many squirrels, ground squirrels and chipmunks, no snakes, except an occasional garter snake, perfectly harmless. Did I tell you that the lodge and the cabin still have the bark on, outside and in, and that adds greatly to the beauty of the place. The only drawback is that inside the bark are little insects called Borers, and they scratch and scratch away for hours at a time, so that in the mornings we waken up and find sawdust all over our rooms. With sulphur we hope to exterminate them. 

In the beginning of September Uncle Robert, Mr. Bliss and Ben Holland are to climb the Glacier - only one white man has ever ventured there - so we will probably be here until about the 15th. As far as we know tomorrow is our last opportunity to send out letters .... 

With much love from us all to you all. 
From you loving girl.

Hacksaw Ridge is a popular movie based on the true story of a conscientious objector.

On April 1, 1942, Desmond Doss joined the United States Army. Three and a half years later, he stood on the White House lawn, receiving the nation’s highest award for his bravery and courage under fire. He these was a young Seventh-day Adventist Christian who refused to carry a gun and had not killed a single enemy soldier. His only weapons were his Bible and his faith in God. President Harry S. Truman warmly held the hand of Corporal Desmond Thomas Doss, as his citation was read to those gathered at the White House on October 12, 1945. “I’m proud of you,” Truman said. “You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president.”

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Desmond was working at the Newport News Naval shipyard and could have requested a deferment. But he was willing to risk his life on the front lines in order to preserve freedom. He wanted to be an Army combat medic and assumed his classification as a conscientious objector would not require him to carry a weapon. When he was assigned to an infantry rifle company, his refusal to carry a gun caused his fellow soldiers to view him with distain. They ostracized and bullied him.

A similar story happened at Seeley Lake.

The smoke jumping program in this region got its start in 1941 at Seeley Lake.  But within a couple years their forces were depleted as practically all able-bodied men were called into WW II service.

When the war started, some men objected to war in any form and were classified as conscientious objectors.  Congress allowed members of the peace churches to perform alternate service and assigned them to "work of national importance" in work camps. Some were assigned to replenish the smokejumper ranks in Seeley Lake at Camp Paxson.

During an interview with camp director Roy Wenger he gave an insight of their service here: “William James was a philosopher/psychologist at the turn of the century, and one of the most famous things he wrote was an essay on "A Moral Equivalent for War." And it was read very widely and published very widely and before World War II, we were reading that, too. Now, William James really said that psychologically what we ought to organize, what we ought to develop as a society, is some kind of an equivalent for war. Now, he said this equivalent should be something that would challenge the bravery

of the person, something in which, he said, you ought to... you would be able to risk your life in a good cause, and something that would be physically challenging and something that would be intellectually challenging. And he thought about various ideas that might be developed since back in those days the thing that made war attractive to a lot of young me were these very challenges. It gave them a chance to travel, to get away from home, to discipline themselves, and to see what they really could do. Well, we thought that the smokejumper project fitted the description of William James about as good as anything we'd heard, that is, here is a project that is certainly constructive, it is we could save the country's forests, or part of, we could save some of them from destruction, and it would be... require physical strength, and it would require intelligent approaches to this whole job, not only of parachuting, but fire fighting.

We knew that people had looked upon us with some suspicion. You see, the biggest problem, really, for a person who objects to using war as a means of settling disputes, is that the ordinary person thinks he’s opposed to this war, and this war because of it’s circumstances. So in this case since Germany and Japan and Italy were the main Axis powers, people wondered if we were pro-German, pro-Italian, pro-Japanese, which really wasn’t the case at all. These men were opposed to war as a means of settling disputes, no matter who it would be. So that was one problem. There was also the problem that some people felt that maybe we were merely fearful... afraid to go into combat, for example. That wasn't the case and, of course, we could... we felt that volunteering for smokejumping was one move that might dispel that idea, which was true.”

These brave conscientious objectors served with distinction as smokejumpers until the soldiers returned from the war. The Forest Service dismissed all CPSers from the smokejumping in preference to veterans and moved the smoke jump center to Missoula. Very few of the COs were able to continue with the Forest Service in other areas.

We hope you enjoy these stories about our area. We will change them regularly, so be sure and stop back. If you have a request for a story, or a story you want to share, please contact us at slhistory@blackfoot.net.