Magazine article Sunset

Your Best Summer on Flathead Lake

Magazine article Sunset

Your Best Summer on Flathead Lake

Article excerpt

Gloriously huge, invitingly clear, Montana's Flathead is irresistible to boaters, campers, and swimmers

Photographs by Glenn Oakley

Summer is the sweetest of all seasons on Montana's Flathead Lake. It is, yes, a beautiful lake year-round: Mysterious in winter, when its 22 islands are shrouded in fog and you half expect to see the legendary Flathead Lake Monster rise from the cold, deep waters. Chilly, lovely, and aloof in spring. And in fall, as the larches yellow and the willows redden, its colors are rich, poignant. But summers on Flathead are as delicious, intense, and lingering as the Lambert cherries raised in the orchards along its eastern shore.

Flathead is a vast lake-28 miles long and up to 15 miles wide-the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, as just about every Montana schoolchild learns. Its eastern shore is forested, dotted with those cherry orchards, and shadowed by the craggy Mission Mountains; the western shore is drier, more open, and bordered by the rolling Salish Mountains.

Even today, it is easy to imagine explorer David Thompson's astonishment when he stood on a "Bare Knowl" on March 1, 1812, and became the first European to document this broad blue-green lake. Over the next 200 years, the area was settled by homesteaders, the U.S. government created the 1.3 million-acre Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, and vacationers built lakefront domiciles ranging from simple log cabins to starter castles. But none of the changes seems to have diminished the lake's magnificence.

Created by a glacier that scooped out its bed 12,000 years ago, the lake is fed by the Flathead River's three branches to the north and drained by the dam-controlled Flathead River to the south. Despite development around it, Flathead Lake is amazingly clean. "Even though humans have been involved with the lake for 150 years, our records indicate that water clarity has been about the same," says Jack Stanford, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana, which has monitored the lake since 1977.

The outdoor activities-fishing, boating, hiking, swimming-found on and around Flathead are wonderful, but perhaps expected. More surprising is that the lake offers so many civilized pleasures. The two main towns nearby both have their charms. Polson, on the south end, has a great lakeside park and golf course and a pleasingly oldfashioned downtown. On the northeast shore, Bigfork has grown up around its flower-decked Electric Avenue boardwalk, which features art galleries, a theater, and excellent restaurants.

As for places to stay, one of the most venerable, Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge, is a dude ranch with rustic architecture. Attractions include horseback rides and an elegant lakeside dining room.

Bing Crosby was one of the guests during Averill's opening season, in 1945. That's fitting, because another surprise about Flathead is its showbusiness side. Theater in summer is big here-that's when the 28-year-old Port Poison Players has a three-month season of comedies and musicals. But the grand dame of Flathead summer theater is the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Now in its 44th season, the company started as a 35-day stint for 15 actors and blossomed into a company performing five musicals a summer. Don and Jude Thomson bought the company in 1971; Jude says, "It has owned us ever since."

Theater. Fishing. Swimming. Flathead offers more activities than you could possibly pursue in a single visit. But invariably your attention will return to the lake itself: big, blue, beautiful, a lake that "Colonel" Almon White-who developed the town of Polson in the 1890s-called "a dimple on the cheek of nature."


Getting away

There is regular airline service to Missoula and Kalispell from Seattle, Denver, and Salt Lake City. In summer, daytime temperatures are in the 70s or 80s, but keep warm clothing handy: nights dip down into the 50s and 60s. …

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