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Spring weather in Montana is difficult to predict. We could endure drought or flood, snow or wildfires - or all of them in the same season.

While we can only hope the most volatile weather of the year is behind us, today, the first official day of summer, we are already well into a season of financial volatility instead.

Given the rising prices of gas, food and many other necessities, many Montana families will be curtailing or even dropping their vacation plans. There may be fewer road trips out of state, and more families looking for ways to have free or fairly cheap fun without going too far from home.

Fortunately, we have the Missoula Early Head Start program's annual list of "Free (or Fairly Cheap)" events and activities to help us make sure that every last one of our summer days are filled to the brim with affordable fun. The 27-page newsletters packed with useful, family-friendly suggestions. Like this:

- Spend a Saturday afternoon at the historic Moon-Randolph Homestead - for free, of course.

- Cool off at one of Missoula's four splash decks, located at Bonner, Franklin, Southside Lions and Westside parks. They are open every day, and are - what else? - free for public use.

- If you're looking for a quieter way to cool off, drop by the Missoula Art Museum or the Missoula Public Library. July 1 might be an especially good day to check out the library - author Sneed Collard III will be visiting!

- If friends or family are visiting from out-of-town, be sure to take them to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Smokejumper Visitor Center to experience a one-of-kind Missoula treasure.

- If you're looking for free Independence Day events, consider driving out to Joe's Smoke Ring on Evaro Hill the Saturday before July 4 for a free fireworks display that'll knock your socks off. Then head to Arlee for the annual Arlee Powwow, where admission is free for all five days of dances, July 2 through July 6. And don't miss the celebration at Southgate Mall in Missoula on July 4 if you want to catch a free concert, fireworks and skydiving display.

To view a copy of "Free (or Fairly Cheap)" for yourself, visit the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth Web site at http://blog.missoulaforum.org. If you don't have Internet access, call Missoula Early Head Start's Mary-Glynn Cromwell at 251-9410, ext. 302.

The newsletter, of course, is free.

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