A Walk in the Wild

By Beacon Staff

I have friends who like nothing better than to seek out the steepest mountains surrounding the Flathead Valley and to walk straight up to their tops. (I should mention, these are my younger friends.) Having spent perhaps too much time exercising vicariously with a regimen of “Survivor” (and, OK, “Baywatch”), I find that I’m more suited to the rigors of what we call the Wild Mile (aka Swan River) Nature Trail.

Granted, the Wild part really refers to the waters raging below, but the Mile part is authentic. Anyway, since arriving in Bigfork several years ago, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours hiking the gentle trail, observing the colorful flora (especially the purple whatchamacallits) and the fauna (mostly birds and deer, although I understand the trail used to have a resident grizzly).

So it was with a good deal of enthusiasm that I met with Anne Morley on the Nature Trail to learn more about the trail and about her work as a trail guide. Anne, representing the Montana Native Plants Society, along with Neal Brown of the Audubon Society, leads a nature walk along the trail every Tuesday morning during May and June. She granted me a special pre-season tour so I could write this article.

Anne is trained as a botanist; that’s someone who studies plants. She started her training at UCLA, but finished up at the University of Montana, in large part because she liked the plants here better. Her career, however, took a slight detour as she, along with her husband Greg Morley, built a business of turning cedar strips into hand-made canoes.

The story of the trail, as Anne tells it, actually began almost exactly a century ago, when a crew of penitent Montanans paid their debts to society by moving rock and dirt to form a county road that became the primary route between Bigfork and the Swan Valley.

Some years later, in the 1950s, Highway 209 was completed in its current location, leaving the roadbed on the north side of the river relatively unmaintained. Erosion, potholes, and the steep terrain took their toll, resulting in several car accidents and one death. Finally, in 1995, Flathead County abandoned the road and gave it back to the original owners: Pacific Power Company and Art and Maude Whitney.

The Whitneys had a house on the west end of the trail and they thought the old roadbed was too good a resource to waste. So they started the trail project with their donation of a 99-year lease of their land to the Bigfork Development Company (now the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork). Of course, this was still a road to nowhere as the power company owned the east end of it and was initially more commercial than civic minded. However, eventually it saw the light and granted Bigfork Development a 30-year easement on its property.

It’s early in the year and there aren’t a lot of flowers out as I walk the trail with Anne. Hoping to photograph Anne with a colorful plant, we scour the trail for the first signs of color. And when we find them, Anne gingerly climbs to an appropriate composition, thinking not of the danger to herself, but more to the damage she might do to the environment. “I’m always watching for the plants,” she says. “Step on them now, and they won’t blossom this year.”

Anne likes the north wall along the trail. Rocky and exposed to the southern sun, it absorbs a lot of heat. This warmth causes the plants to bloom early. “It’s a big advantage for the nature walks,” she says. “People can come here to learn about the plants and take that knowledge with them to other places where the same flora bloom later in the year.”

The free nature walks begin May 7 and continue every Tuesday through May and June. They begin at 10 a.m., rain or shine, in front of the Showthyme restaurant on Electric Avenue and last about two hours. I’m planning to go on one of the walks this summer. Maybe I’ll learn what those purple whatchamacallits are really called.

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