Protecting the North Fork

By Beacon Staff

I read about the North Fork long before I visited. This was back in the early 1990s, soon after I’d moved to Montana. Newspaper accounts painted a picture of a wild place filled with interloping Canadian wolves, grizzly bears and unwashed hippies occupying Polebridge.

It sounded amazing.

Still, it was more than a decade before I made it to the North Fork, visiting for the first time shortly after I returned to Montana following a two-state sojourn living away. It was just a drive-by, a Sunday afternoon loop with the family up to West Glacier, then back to the valley via Camas Bridge and the North Fork Road. I remember looking down at the water on that drive and thinking I needed to be there. I needed to be on that river.

I now know well the spot that inspired my reverie. It’s that long sweeping bend a quarter mile or so downstream from the Big Creek put in. When the fishing is on, we’ll pull minuscule cutthroat off the bank on river right like nobody’s business. We’ll get the occasional nice fish, too.

In the intervening years the stretch from Big Creek to Glacier Rim has become my go-to float. If friends are in the Flathead for a visit, or if we’ve got an afternoon free, we load up and go. The fishing is almost always good (as long as size doesn’t matter), the scenery qualifies as Earth Porn without the need for Photoshop, and the reach is filled with enough whitewater to keep things interesting, minus the panic-inducing big water of the Middle Fork.

It’s nice to hear that things are finally coming together to protect the North Fork once and for all. It seems about a decade ago when the latest proposal to muck up the watershed in pursuit of fossil fuels was announced, inducing panic among those who love this place.

The quest for energy up the North Fork has a long, inauspicious history. In 1892, coal fever spread through Columbia Falls, inspiring a near suicidal run up the river in a steamboat. That expedition made it as far as Fool Hen Rapids before the Oakes, as the steamer had been christened, began taking on water and sank. Fortunately, everyone got off the water alive, though the crew spent a couple of long, cold nights making their way out of the woods.

It pains me to say this, but since the last remaining hurdle for the North Fork Watershed Protection Act is in the U.S. Senate, I’m lamenting the early departure of Sen. Max Baucus from that august body. Max was never my favorite Montana pol, and those who know me well have been forced to endure as I went on ad nauseam about the horrors that transpired on a plane with Max on an ill-fated flight out of Missoula decades ago. That experience forever soured me on Montana’s longest-serving U.S. senator. But bad travel experiences aside, Max could get things done in the Senate when he was motivated, and he was a big fan of the North Fork. The bill’s success would now be assured if he hadn’t quit his day job.

Hopefully, Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh can still get this thing over the finish line. Once accomplished, I think our next move should be the North Fork Air Quality Protection Act, which would involve paving North Fork Road, but only as far as Camas Bridge. If there’s one downside to the Big Creek-Glacier Rim float it’s how clouds of dust hang over the river wherever it meanders near the road. That stretch of unpaved motorway is a nasty, wash-boarded, traffic-infested mess on summer weekends.

As far as the road from Camas north to Canada, it’s also nasty, washboarded and traffic infested, just less so as the vehicles peter out the farther north you go. I tend to think upriver from Camas it should remain a difficult drive. I’m convinced the culinary attributes of the huckleberry Danish at the Polebridge Mercantile are heightened in equal proportion to the challenges faced in reaching the bakery.

Pave the road all the way to Polebridge and I fear many pastry-obsessed foodies will be disappointed.

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