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Local Look Back: When Big Sky was ‘West Fork’

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By Linda Nell

As a child in the ’70s driving between our home in Bozeman and property in West Fork, it was a game to see who saw landmarks first. I see … the ‘M,’ or counting the Seven Sisters (the seven streams that feed the Gallatin River south of the Lava Lake trailhead), the stone lookalike of the Yellowstone Park Bear, or Lone Mountain.

The trailer would be towed up in the spring. Dad would turn off Highway 191, park, and take a walk down the dirt road entering West Fork to see that it hadn’t been washed out and was still passable. Remnants of that road are still visible along the side hill from the Spur Road bridge.

We trekked to West Fork many weekends. Days were spent clearing the land my parents envisioned retiring on, as a remote and wild haven. Long summer days allowed for adventures hiking and fishing in places my parents had romped growing up in the Gallatin Valley.

I’d wonder if they knew just where we were going. Stopping on a dirt road, finding what appeared to be a game trail, grabbing the fishing poles, catching hoppers along the way and hiking to Ulery’s Lake. We rarely saw anyone. I do recall one time there was a gentleman there fishing. Dad said, “That’s Chet Huntley. Let me go introduce you.”

Ousel Falls was a steep hike down from north of the river. In later years, Dad would tell anyone who would listen about how he shot his first elk in the Yellow Mules as a boy. He was born in 1922.

Times have changed and now West Fork is Big Sky. Although I pine for the time it was just “West Fork,” I count myself lucky when I make the curve on the road and say to myself, “I see Lone Mountain!”

Both sides of Linda (Vogel) Nell’s family have lived in the Gallatin Valley for generations. Her aunt and uncle attended Big Sky School District when it was a one-room schoolhouse in the Porcupine Creek area.

Linda grew up in Bozeman, where she attended high school and college, and has lived in Big Sky full time for the last three years on property her parents purchased from the Sappingtons in the 1960’s. She has worked in public schools for about 25 years and currently works at Ophir Elementary School.

The Outlaw Partners is a creative marketing, media and events company based in Big Sky, Montana.

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