Posted by: greatfallsgirl | May 21, 2011

Coulees and Chinooks

The first time I left Montana, I followed an Air Force spouse to North Carolina.  What a different world that was.  As soon as something strange like biscuits and gravy or grits was discussed, I’d break out coulees and chinooks (LOL).

To start, outside of Montana, I have only run into one other person who knew what a coulee was, and he was a geologist from Saskatchewan (not too far away).  Our family had a ranch on Shonkin Creek outside of Fort Benton, and there were more than a few coulees on the place.  Of course, there is Sand Coulee too.  Charles M. Russell had a painting or two showing cowboys chasing cattle down into coulees.  (Hint to my non-Montana friends that don’t know what coulees are:  a deep ravine or gulch, usually dry, that has been formed by running water.)

Ahhhh chinooks….after high school I worked at the Sambo’s Restaurant downtown (well, I actually worked at both Sambo’s, part time at the 10th Avenue South store also).  I often worked the counter section, so I easily could look up 3rd Street North at the Great Falls National Bank Building’s clock, which also flashed the current temperature (I am not sure this is even the same building, it looks like it is a Wells Fargo bank now and not the same building).  One night starting about 3:00 a.m. I watched the temperature rise from the -20°F range to mid 30’s°F before I got off in the morning.  It was almost a game with myself that night, guessing how much the temperature had risen since the last time I looked. (I had happy memories working at Sambo’s downtown…my most famous customer I waited on was Mike Mansfield, who came in for breakfast early one morning by himself…oh, and George Takei, Mr. Sulu from Star Trek).

The greatest temperature change over a 24 hour period because of a chinook took place in Chouteau County at Loma in 1972.   Not very far from our family’s ranch.  The temperature rose from -56°F to 49°F.  But aren’t we used to extremes in Montana?  I saw more than a few.

It is sad sometimes to see so many changes to downtown Great Falls.  My grandfather used to run his ranch the last couple years he had it from an office in the Great Falls National Bank Building.  He owned the Surprise Creek Ranch in Judith Basin County before selling it to the Hutterites for a colony.  Some things don’t change though…there will always be coulees and chinooks and our chance to confound others elsewhere.



  1. Great post! I never even HEARD of the word “coulee” until I moved to Great Falls back in 2002 – now I love them! Same with “breaks!”

    Thanks for sharing the story — but hold on – GEORGE TAKEI?! What was he doing in Great Falls, and when did it happen? (ST:TOS fanboy!)

  2. Thanks David! George Takei came in with three other guys for breakfast, it was either a Saturday or Sunday morning because our back dining room was open which only happened on weekends (I think that area is now a “lounge”). He was in town for some type of Star Trek mini-convention or get together, I think it was held at the Civic Center. It was 1978 or 1979 I’d say. He was SO NICE, he took my hand and shook it lightly, mainly just holding, and he signed an autograph for me. One other bizzare night I worked, I think it was a Sunday graveyard shift because it was pretty dead, except for the bands “Head East” and members of the “Guess Who” were in opposite ends of the restaurant that night, flinging good natured insults back and forth at each other…LOL. They had both been in town for events, same time period as stated above.

  3. Oh yes…”breaks”! I had an appaloosa horse when I was a teen, brothers of one of my schoolmates in Chouteau County had roped four wild horses on their land north of Geraldine, on the “breaks” (all four were appaloosas). I bought one of them, a beautiful young mare that was white with black spots all over. I am convinced that she was a descendent of horses that escaped from the Nez Perce Indian tribe that was captured just north of there near the Bear Paws. She was an awesome horse.

  4. I just had a friend from college (Montana Tech) just tell me on Facebook he missed “The smell of Ponderosa pine and sagebrush and real “blue” skys.” I agree! I don’t think he really got to appreciate chinooks though…I don’t think they get out as far as Billings (where he’s from), and they definitely didn’t affect Butte!

  5. I am from Havre, and I live in Charleston, SC. I know what a coulee is, I have ridden my horse over quite a few, and I know what a chinook is. I even know well a town named Chinook . The Carolinas are a long way from my childhood stomping grounds, Havre, (and yes I know the correct pronunciation for this town. I was born there.) Chinook, and Zurich.


  6. You more than likely served my dad and his friends coffee…they went to the DT Sambo’s almost every morning in the late 70s, early 80s.

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