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Year in Review

Our Favorite News Features of 2023

From incredible rescues to record-breaking feats to a Constitution at a crossroads, here are a few of our best stories

By Beacon Staff
Bison bolt out of a trailer near Babb, where the Blackfeet Tribe released a small herd into the wild on June 26, 2023, marking the first time the animals have roamed freely on the landscape in 150 years. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At the Beacon, whenever we look back at all the stories we covered over the previous year, we’re always surprised by what we’ve forgotten and can rediscover. There are features on teacher shortages; the return of free-roaming bison; and “one of the most bizarre and obscure chapters of modern warfare.” Here is some of our best work from 2023.

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The Greatest Good

As land managers grapple with unprecedented demand for new recreation uses on the Flathead National Forest, a growing segment of the public is raising conservation concerns while a perceived lack of transparency erodes their faith in the agency

Holland Lake and Holland Lake Lodge near Condon. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Hanging on the conference room wall inside the Flathead National Forest headquarters in Kalispell is a framed plaque inscribed with a quote from Gifford Pinchot, the first-ever chief of the U.S. Forest Service whose maxims promote the spirit of effective public land management and have served as a guiding star for generations of foresters in public office. Read more

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The Party Faithful

Former Governor Marc Racicot stepped out of retirement to warn Montanans about threats to democracy. Now, the Republican Party he once knew is cutting ties with him.

Marc Racicot, former governor of Montana, at his home in Missoula. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

From where former Governor Marc Racicot sits on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at his home outside of Missoula, the world of Montana politics looks more unrecognizable than he ever could have imagined. Read more

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Henry’s Story

A local boy and his family share their experience with a pediatric cancer diagnosis and the lessons in living that came with it

Henry Reichenberg on the back stoop of his home with his dog Percy in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There’s no simple way to explain what the last year-and-a-half has been like for the Reichenbergs. Over that time period, the Kalispell family of three — five if you count its two beloved canine members, Percy the pug and Smudge the German Shepherd mix — have been navigating the experience of a pediatric cancer diagnosis. Read more

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System in Neglect

As rising operating costs and chronic staffing shortages shutter mental health facilities locally and statewide, a decade of stagnant Medicaid reimbursement rates has forced state lawmakers to start crafting solutions

Illustration by Maddy Olson

A year-and-a-half ago when the five-bed crisis stabilization facility at the Western Montana Mental Health Center (WMMHC) closed in Kalispell due to a staffing shortage, officials with the organization were hopeful they could fill the positions and reopen quickly. Known as the Glacier House, the facility offered some of the only in-patient services in the Flathead Valley for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, including those describing suicidal ideations and requiring intensive behavioral health interventions. Read more

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To Pave or Not to Pave

Along the primitive and pot-holed North Fork Road, residents are split on how to address the wear and tear on an increasingly busy corridor bordering Glacier National Park

The North Fork Road. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bob Graham doesn’t know exactly how many miles he’s logged on the gravel North Fork Road but estimating “more than a half-million miles” over the course of his 30 years of owning property in the rural scenic community doesn’t seem hyperbolic. Read more

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A Constitution at a Crossroads

The Montana Legislature introduced a record number of constitutional amendments this session. Nearly all of them are failing to make it on the ballot.

The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

As the delegates of the Montana Constitutional Convention filled the well of the Montana House of Representatives on Monday, Nov. 29, 1971, joining State Supreme Court justices, elected officials and the leadership of the 1971 House and Senate, the University of Montana Concert Band played a medley of American overtures. Read more

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How Lincoln County’s ‘Big Lie’ Upended an Election Department

All three election officials in the northwest Montana county have resigned in frustration, joining the national ranks of beleaguered administrators quitting their jobs amid baseless claims of voter fraud from county leaders and their constituents

Illustration by Dwayne Harris | Flathead Beacon

On the morning of June 8, 2022, all eyes were on the Lincoln County Elections Department as the primary race for Montana’s western congressional district hung in the balance. Read more

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Stranded Glacier National Park Hiker Shares Story of Survival and Hope

After slipping off a snow-covered trail in Glacier National Park and losing both shoes, 19-year-old Matthew Read hunkered down in a tree shelter for three nights and awaited his rescue. When help finally came, he was overcome with relief.

Thermal image from the Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter’s infrared camera of hiker Matthew Read’s rescue off of the Huckleberry Lookout Trail in Glacier National Park on May 15, 2023. Image courtesy Two Bear Air

When a Glacier National Park ranger called Barbara Read on Sunday, May 7, to explain that a car belonging to her 19-year-old son, Matthew, had been found at the Huckleberry Lookout Trailhead with no trace of its owner, she panicked. Read more

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‘To a Clean and Healthful Environment’

When voters ratified Montana’s constitution in 1972, they enshrined a citizen’s right to a clean and healthful environment into the future. The youth-led climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana is predicated on this right and its interpretation through Montana’s courts.

Kayakers paddle Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the 1962 travelogue “Travels with Charley,” John Steinbeck writes about crossing America in a camper truck accompanied by his standard poodle. When he reached Montana for the first time, he declared his love for the state. Read more

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‘One of the Most Bizarre and Obscure Chapters of Modern Warfare’

Historians estimate that Japan launched about 9,300 balloons at the height of World War II, each carrying about 800 pounds of bombs. About 300 were sighted or found in North America, with 32 balloon bombs turning up in Montana, including one in Kalispell.

Historic image of a balloon with a payload of explosives. Courtesy Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

On a cold early winter day in December 1944, Oscar and Owen Hill, father and son, were cutting wood in the Truman Creek area about 17 miles southwest of Kalispell when they discovered what at first appeared to be a cream-colored parachute. The object, later determined to be a balloon, featured Japanese writing and a rising-sun symbol. Read more

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Blackfeet Bring Bison Home to Chief Mountain

Tribal members hailed the return of wild free-roaming buffalo to Indigenous land as an expression of sovereignty and the beginning of a cultural and ecological renaissance

The Blackfeet Nation releases a herd of bison into the wild near Babb in view of Chief Mountain on June 26, 2023, marking the first time bison have freely roamed the landscape in 150 years. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A brazen bison calf was the first to clamber off the livestock trailer and into the shadow of Chief Mountain, where for a few wobbly moments it stood alone, blinking uncertainly at a sprawling ancestral homeland that hasn’t supported a herd of wild buffalo for 150 years. An instant later, in a thunderclap of hooves, the russet-coated calf was joined by two dozen of its shaggier, surer-footed compatriots, their dark humps heaving against the square, sacred massif that dominates the horizon of their new home on the range. Read more

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In the Flathead Valley, the Homeless Crisis is at a Crossroads

The violent death of 60-year-old Scott Bryan forced a reckoning in the northwest Montana community, where the loss of critical mental health resources has intensified the plight of unsheltered individuals

Memorial service for Scott Evans Bryan at the Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell on July 10, 2023. Bryan was homeless when he was beaten to death behind a Kalispell gas station on June 25, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When Kalispell Police Department (KPD) officers found Scott Bryan in the parking lot of a Conoco gas station in the middle of the night on June 25, he was lying face down, he was covered in blood and his nasal cavity was crushed. The frail, 60-year-old homeless man who was battling cancer and a variety of other health conditions had, allegedly, just been beaten into unconsciousness by a Kalispell teenager. He was pronounced dead at the hospital less than an hour later. Read more

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Swimming Into the Unknown

Laura Chenier became the first known person to swim the widest width of Flathead Lake, a 16-mile feat that took more than 10 hours

Laura Chenier swims in Yellow Bay on Flathead Lake on Aug. 7, 2023. Chenier made the first known swim of the widest section of the lake, swimming from Elmo to Yellow Bay. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Somewhere off the shore of Wild Horse Island, Laura Chenier fell into a rhythm. Suspended horizontally on the surface of Flathead Lake, Chenier moved through the water with a slow freestyle kick, tilting her head to the side every third stroke of her arms to take a breath of smoky air. Read more

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To Defund or Defend?

Amid congressional efforts to defund Glacier National Park’s vehicle reservation system, park administrators and stakeholders defend it as an adaptive tool that has evolved based on public feedback

Traffic flows through West Glacier on Aug. 8, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Dave Roemer to travel back in time, he has only to step out of his office at 3 p.m. and walk a block to West Glacier. From that vantage, he can glimpse the gridlock that subsumed Glacier National Park’s management team prior to his appointment as superintendent. Read more

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‘Who’s Going to Teach My Kid?’

Stagnant salaries, high housing costs and a souring public opinion around education have made it difficult for school districts to recruit and retain teachers. This fall, the Flathead Valley’s public schools are feeling the effects.

Science teacher Aaric Bryan instructs a class at Somers Middle School on Sept. 6, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After Lakeside Elementary School found itself without a single special education teacher ahead of the 2023-24 school year, the school’s principal, Steffanie Broyles, moved her office into one of the special education classrooms. That way, students could come to Broyles for extra support as substitute teachers oversaw the classrooms once staffed by certified special education professionals. District administrators hoped it would be a temporary solution that would buy more time to find qualified teachers without letting students down. Read more

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The New Guard of Glacier Mountaineering

For more than 40 years, the Glacier Mountaineering Society has helped its members explore the farthest reaches of Glacier National Park while promoting an ethic of stewardship and safety. Now, following the recent deaths of some of its most dedicated members, the next generation of climbers is taking up the mantle.

Keegan Siebenaler of the Glacier Mountaineering Society climbs Reynolds Mountain in Glacier National Park on Aug. 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Piloting his car up the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Keegan Siebenaler, 23, riffs on housing policy initiatives, clean energy and politics with the same rhythmic fluidity that he employs while rapping along with the Kendrick Lamar track bumping through his Bluetooth, but he quiets as the summit pinnacle of Mount Reynolds swings into view. Read more

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Paving Paradise

How the automobile arrived in Glacier National Park and changed one of America’s most beloved preserves forever

National Park Service personnel and guests watch a rotary plow remove snow along Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1964. Courtesy Glacier National Park

On the morning of May 2, 1911, Frank Whalen, Frank D. Stoop and T.J. Koenig drove from their home in Kalispell to Glacier National Park. Today, that seemingly simple feat takes about 45 minutes — depending on traffic, of course — but in 1911, it took wheelman Whalen an excruciating nine hours to cover the 40 or so miles between the county seat and the west entrance. While U.S. Highway 2 between these two points is now four lanes in some spots, back then the road to Glacier wasn’t much wider than a goat trail. In fact, the “road” didn’t even extend all the way to West Glacier (known simply as Belton back then); once the trio reached Lake Five near Coram, they had to drive alongside the Great Northern Railway tracks to traverse the final few miles to the park. Read more

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Ten Years of Two Bear

Serving the Flathead Valley and beyond since 2014, Two Bear Air’s world-class search-and-rescue service and its suite of high-tech equipment has transformed the region into the last best place to get lost and found

Scott Seager, Robert Cherot and Wil Milam of Two Bear Air Rescue perform training drills over the Flathead River near Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two Bear Air first launched almost a decade ago after an experienced pilot named Jim Bob Pierce and a group of SAR technicians pitched the idea of a rescue helicopter to Whitefish philanthropist Mike Goguen. Read more

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In Search of the Flathead Lake Monster

Sixty-eight years ago, a big fish purportedly caught in the waters of Flathead Lake wowed crowds, sparked a lawsuit that ended up at the Montana Supreme Court and fueled the legend of the elusive Flathead Lake Monster

The mystery of what creatures might lurk in Flathead Lake has persisted for decades. Photo by Butch Larcombe

It was about 9 p.m. on a Friday night when the 160-pound-test nylon line on Leslie Griffith’s large fishing reel began to sing the opening stanza in what would become a colorful, controversial chapter in the lore of Flathead Lake. In the days that followed that evening in late May 1955, Griffith would unspool a fish story reminiscent of a Hemingway novel. Read more

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The Wild Women of the Wild Mile

As the Bigfork Whitewater Festival rises in popularity among whitewater kayakers, a new generation of female paddlers are proving themselves on the Wild Mile, empowering each other and promoting a whitewater community in Northwest Montana

Professional whitewater kayaker Cheyenne Rogers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At age 12, Darby McAdams headed out to the Frenchtown Pond outside of Missoula with her dad and a 16-foot fiberglass kayak that her grandfather made in the 1970s. Her dad, Shaun McAdams, had spent much of his adult life floating rivers in a kayak, and he hoped to pass the sport down to his daughter. He set out to teach Darby how to roll a kayak – a technique used by boaters to flip themselves right-side up when they tip over while running rivers. Read more

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