Paving North Fork Road

The loop through West Glacier and down the North Fork would become hands down the most popular Sunday drive in the Flathead

By Rob Breeding

Last month, the Columbia Falls City Council added its voice to the chorus calling to pave the North Fork Road up to Camas.

Columbia Falls’ interest in paving the road reflects the needs of the town. Paving the road all the way to Camas Road could turn that route into a new west entrance (or exit) for Glacier National Park. The bulk of that traffic may ultimately use the main drag in town, Nucleus Avenue, to reach North Fork Road, eventually crossing Camas Bridge into the park.

With the right signing on U.S. Highway 2, that might be the case. Once the tourists are on Nucleus, it will only take a slight nudge to get them to stop for a refreshing red beer at the Columbia Bar. I’ve been so enticed a time or two.

That’s the theory at least, and if Glacier Park gets serious about staffing the gate on Camas Road, it just might be a mini boom for C-Falls. Anything that’s good for downtown, short of gentrification, is OK in my book.

My interest in paving North Fork Road, unlike Columbia Falls officials, is all about the North Fork River. Big Creek to Glacier Rim is my favorite float, offering a nice mix of not-too-difficult whitewater, great fishing for tiny cutthroat trout as well as the occasional big bull, and stunning natural beauty around every bend.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to spend a summer day anywhere on the planet.

North Fork pavement ends just a bit north of Glacier Rim, however, and that’s where the Flathead’s most epic washboard begins. A shuttle is a slow, bone-jarring, dusty ride that takes a bit of luster off the day.

More importantly, on busy summer days, that washboard-generating vehicle traffic also churns the road into fine dust. The road and river are never far apart in that canyon, despite there being reaches where it’s easy to imagine otherwise. All that dust has to settle somewhere, and a lot of it, fouled with vehicle fluids, ends up in the river. Dust is ever present, and in places where the road hugs the riverbank, thick, gray clouds of the stuff hang over the water like Tiananmen Square smog. The North Fork isn’t Beijing, however, and you shouldn’t need a dust mask to float it.

Those who argue that paving will change the character of the North Fork have a point. I remember reading about the river valley when I first moved to Montana in the early ’90s, and it seemed like an exotic foreign land filled with wolves and bears and remarkably few humans.

That character is still there, though it has changed in the last 25 years. That’s why I’m still against paving the road north of Camas Bridge (though portions are paved already). I also acknowledge that pavement creep is a very real possibility. Once the blacktop reaches Camas, the impulse to go farther will be harder to resist.

But taking appropriate steps to deal with the actual, dust-shrouded lower North Fork of today — rather than clinging to that mist-shrouded, 25-year-old version in my memory bank — does not prevent us from opposing changes that don’t make sense, which for me includes paving the road all the way to, say, Polebridge. That part of the North Fork is best left to bears, wolves and hippies, as well as adventurous types who don’t mind putting some washboard between them and civilization.

Finish the road to Camas, and the loop through West Glacier and down the North Fork will become hands down the most popular Sunday drive in the Flathead. It will also make North Fork floats a practical reality for guide shops in West Glacier.

The lower North Fork, for better or worse, is crowded. Easier access won’t transform a place we’re already loving to death.

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