The Best Of The Big Sky

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If you ever want to get your heart pounding, take a helicopter ride over the rugged peaks in Glacier National Park. When I did last summer, it started out calmly enough. After lifting off near the park’s west entrance, we gently bobbed up over the silvery middle fork of the Flathead River and dense forests, steadily gaining altitude as the pilot pointed out occasional landmarks. I was comfortably admiring the view, when I looked down and suddenly realized that the valley had squeezed into a jagged, vertiginous gorge far below us and we were now five thousand feet from the lowest ground. We continued to climb, hovering over rockier and rockier peaks where there were no hikers or trails, no signs of animals or even vegetation. There was only snow and ancient granite formations as we bounced over the summits above the tree line, out of the sight of the dark green valley where we started.

Everything was epic, cold, and primeval against the crystal blue sky, and I truly felt like a witness to the beginning of time. It’s one thing to see the Rocky Mountains from a distant jet overhead, but another to see them up close and personal from the window of a shaky helicopter, when their massive presence is as terrifying as it is beautiful. As we crossed eastward over the Continental Divide, an unexpected gust of wind hit us, and for a brief moment I thought the helicopter might come apart like a homemade kite. None of the other three passengers appeared to share my concern, and when the pilot announced the Jackson mountain peak on our left, he did so in such an uninterested monotone that I was reassured everything was all right. Even so, I’m ashamed to say that I felt relief along with my disappointment when he turned the craft around and began our descent from the peaks, over the emerald expanse of Lake McDonald, and out toward Montana’s glorious Flathead Valley to the south.

I have been lucky enough to spend parts of the last twenty-five summers in northwestern Montana. My family has a summer home about an hour north of Missoula and two hours south of the Flathead Valley. Situated west of the Continental Divide and thus protected from the dry winds of the plains, the valley enjoys relatively temperate summers. At its center is Flathead Lake, the West’s largest freshwater lake, with sailboats, windsurfers, and canoes punctuating its surface.

A smattering of small towns and the city of Kalispell are distributed in the valley. Farther north and east the region holds one of the largest continuous wilderness areas in the United States, with Glacier National Park and the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness comprising more than three million acres of protected public land, a space roughly the size of Connecticut. At the lake’s south end the Flathead Indian Reservation and National Bison Range preserve still further miles of natural resources. This territory has more than its share of national treasures.

It’s apparently a fluke that this region is part of Montana at all. The historian John Willard believes surveyors made a mistake when they were cutting up the American Northwest in 1864. The Continental Divide was supposed to be the boundary between Montana and Idaho. But the explorers, who were heading north, were confused by a knot of mountain ranges 140 miles south of Flathead at what’s now called Lost Trail Pass. They followed the western Bitterroot range up north, instead of the central Anacondas that are part of the Divide. By the time the surveyors realized their mistake the borders were already in place. As a result, Willard concludes, “Idaho was shortchanged quite a chunk of gorgeous real estate.”

Last August my mom and I took a three-day trip back up through the Flathead area. Our first stop was the town of Whitefish. Thanks to a thriving tourism business and an expanding population of wealthy retirees, the handful of streets are lined with art galleries, real estate offices, and boutiques; the place even boasts its own shiny microbrewery.

Cater-corner from the brewery is the recently restored Whitefish Depot, a formidable building that looks like an overgrown Tyrolean chalet. It houses the town’s chamber of commerce, Amtrak offices, and the one-room Stumptown Historical Society Museum. With its modest collection of photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia, the museum almost feels like a large family scrapbook; while it doesn’t have the polished presentation of a larger institution, it does feature such intimate relics as dog-eared snapshots, vintage cafeteria menus, and scribbled personal memoirs that are both touching and informative. One writer reminisced about her job as a telephone switchboard operator in the 1930s. “We felt an awful responsibility toward our little corner of the world,” she recalled. “We really helped keep it running, one girl at a time all by herself at the board.” It’s appropriate that the historical museum is in the depot, for the railroad was responsible for the area’s development.

Before the 1850s the Flathead Valley was occupied almost exclusively by Indians who belonged to the Pend d’Oreille (or Kalispel), Kutenai, and Flathead tribes. The derivation of the name Flathead is disputed. Some say the tribe got that name because it came from the low, flat area at the head of the lake. Others say it was because the chiefs strapped boards onto their children’s foreheads to press them long and flat, like Coneheads. When we were kids, we heartily embraced the latter theory, even though it terrified us; the very words Flathead Indians sent chills down our spines. In fact, by all accounts the Flatheads were an unusually friendly and cooperative people.