Fleecer Station is a Forest Service cabin that is used as headquarters for local Forest Service crews part of the year, and available as a rental the rest of the year. I spent last Saturday night there with two of our dogs (Jamie and Isaac), and this post contains some information about the trip and a few of my favorite photos from a night under the stars.

About Fleecer Station

Fleecer Station is located at an elevation of ~6100 feet near Fleecer Mountain in the Deerlodge National Forest, about 20 miles southwest of Butte, Montana. It was built in 1924 to provide a summer home for Forest Service work crews, and it's been used for that purpose every year since.

The Forest Service makes Fleecer Station available for rental to the general public from October 20 to April 15 each year. From what I've found online, it used to be available for rental in the summer as well, but in recent years they apparently have work crews living there all summer long.

It's a comfortable and well-equipped place to stay, with a full kitchen, hot and cold running water, and forced-air heat from an oil furnace in the basement. There are two bedrooms, with a total of five simple bunks. You have to bring your own bedding, but the kitchen has lots of dishes and utensils as well as a microwave and electric stove, and there's a full bathroom as well.

It also has pretty good cell service. Three bars on my AT&T phone, and I had no problem tethering my laptop to the phone for data service to post photos online.

For more information about Fleecer Station, check out the USDA Forest Service page, or the Recreation.gov page where you can book rentals of this and many other cabins around Montana and Wyoming.

Planning our stay

After our spectacular night at McGuire Lookout last fall, I did some research and made a list of cabins to check out this year around Montana. Fleecer Station is the closest one to our home in Butte, and over the winter I was watching dates as they became available. I wanted to book it on a new moon (for star photography), and preferably on a Saturday night so that I wouldn't have to take time off from work. Saturday, March 13 met those requirements, and I booked it in January when that date became available.

The weather this time of year is unpredictable, but as the day grew closer I was pleased to see the forecast for clear skies. As it turned out, the weather was perfect for star photos – there wasn't a cloud in the sky all night long.

Fleecer cabin is in the Big Hole River watershed, and this tweet three days before we left reminded me of the importance of taking all the usual precautions for trips to bear territory. We took all the precautions, and nothing happened, which is what you always want.

Another consideration was who from our family/pack would be going. Now that we have four dogs, it's a hassle to travel with all of them, so I was planning to just take Jamie, the oldest and mellowest. But as the day grew closer, I decided to take Isaac the puppy as well. Jamie's well behaved off leash, and Isaac is too, at least for now while he's so small and stays close to the pack. So us three guys had a boys' night out, and Megan stayed home with the girls, Alice and Nancy. I assume they watched chick flicks and drank wine.

As an experienced road tripper (Jamie has seen more of North America than most humans ever do), Jamie knew what was up when I started packing the truck. He lay here by the back gate for two hours after I packed a few things in the back, to make sure he didn't miss out on an adventure.

Getting there

Isaac saying goodbye to Nancy as we pulled away.
Heading up Forest Service road 447 toward Fleecer Mountain after exiting I-15 at the Wise River water treatment plant. This was the easy part.

Getting to Fleecer Station is pretty straightforward until the last mile. You're driving on a dirt road called Fleecer Mountain Road, and you get to a fork in the road, and both forks are also called Fleecer Mountain Road. You want to take the left fork there, then go downhill a short distance and you'll come to a sign saying that the road is closed.

You're on the right path if you see this sign.

I unlocked the gate using the code the ranger station gave me, then closed it behind us. At this point you just need to go a mile or so to the end of the road, but that turned out to be a pretty interesting drive because I had failed to pay attention to this key paragraph on the Recreation.gov page when I booked our reservation (emphasis added):

"The cabin can generally be accessed by vehicle; however, during the fall and winter, alternative resources may be required to reach the cabin, depending on weather conditions. Usually by January, alternative methods such as ski, snowshoe, ATV or snowmobile are needed to reach the cabin. Guests are responsible for their own travel arrangements and safety, and must bring several of their own amenities."

Blissfully unaware of the possibility that the cabin wasn't accessible by a 4WD vehicle, I was surprised when we got to a point where the snow was getting deeper and it was clear nobody had driven here since the last big snowfall a couple of weeks ago. And then as we headed uphill, I started spinning out in places, despite having four wheel drive and good snow tires. I had to back up and try again many times, and it was slow bumpy going. The snow had drifted in the open areas, so it was just a few inches deep in some spots and a foot or more in others.

Eventually I got into the trees where the snow hadn't drifted as much, and managed to get up enough speed to have momentum to break a trail all the way up to Fleecer Station.

We made it!

Samoyeds in the snow

As the ancient dog breed of Siberia, Samoyeds have been playing in the snow for thousands of generations, and their excited reaction to snow is one of the joys of being with them. Jamie and Isaac were happy to find themselves off-leash in the snow.

A night under the stars

I had a few different ideas for star photos I wanted to take, so after we were settled in I got to work on setting up for those. The first task was to chop some firewood and build a fire that I could light after dark, because I wanted a photo of a campfire under the stars.

Jamie and Isaac amused themselves while I set up the fire.
Jamie has always been a big fan of laying around in the snow. Here he's supervising the wood chopping.

After the fire pit was set up, we went inside and ate dinner, then waited for it to get good and dark.

Hanging out in the living room, waiting for darkness to fall.

After it was dark, I went outside, set up the tripod, lit the fire, and waited for the fire to get big enough for a good photo. I tried to get the dogs to come out and sit by the fire, but they seemed to just want to sleep so I let them off the hook.

When I was ready to take some photos, I got lucky: a bit of northern lights luminescence had appeared in the sky to the northwest. As I learned the next day online, the northern lights were visible over much of Montana Saturday night. (For example, check out these photos from Martinsdale, Glasgow, and Glacier taken that same night.)

My favorite shot of the campfire under the stars, with a bit of northern lights glow, and a shooting star, too! It was well worth a bit of shivering to get this shot.
Another photo from a different angle with a different lens. By this time the northern lights had faded.

Next I set up for a time-lapse video. Whereas those campfire videos are facing west by northwest, for the time lapse I set up a camera facing directly north, so that the stars would rotate around the North Star. I left that running for four hours between 10PM and 2PM, and went to bed to get a few hours sleep.

The encoded final video from my time-lapse photos. Didn't get a single cloud in the sky for four hours!

We got up at 4AM, because the Milky Way was going to be visible from our area between 3AM and 5AM that morning. It was much colder than the evening before, with a bit of a breeze, so I didn't do as much experimenting as I had originally intended to, but I got this one shot I liked.

The Milky Way over Fleecer Station at 4:20AM.

After all that, we went back to bed!

Waking up with Isaac after the sun came up.

How much did I enjoy this experience? So much that I booked another night there this spring as soon as I finished unpacking when we got home!

Jamie and Isaac watching me pack the truck to leave in the morning. We'll be back!
Our return to Fleecer Station with all four dogs, a month later on April 15.