Tuesday, September 14th was the last time Deb and I visited Polebridge, Montana, yet we continue to talk about it fondly almost every day. The experience made that much of an impression on us.
Polebridge was one of the places I most wanted to share with her. We drove our Jeep up there on our first full day in Glacier, then twice more over the next week. She was smitten immediately, just as I’d been when I discovered it 43 years before.
The settlement can be reached directly only via the unpaved “outside” North Fork Road, a one-hour drive (at the posted limit of 35mph) north from Columbia Falls. It’s 14 miles past the Camas entrance to Glacier Park and 15 miles due south of the Canadian border. Situated on a compact wooded plain in the valley created by the North Fork of the Flathead River, Polebridge is nestled between the Whitefish Range to the west and the Livingston Range to the east.
Though those mountains are only a couple of miles away, with some summits rising 6,500 feet higher than Polebridge, the place has the distinct feeling of “elbow room.” It’s definitely a mountain town, but the mountains aren’t right on top of it.
Polebridge is, by any definition, isolated. In spite of that — and perhaps because of it — its very existence has been threatened more than once since Bill Adair built his cabin there in 1912 and established the W.L. Adair General Mercantile in 1914.
Montana’s first oil claim was filed in the 1890s at (of all places) Kintla Lake, 16 rough miles to the north. The resulting boom, slowed by a wildfire that destroyed most of its operations, ended 20 years after it began.
The most serious jeopardy came in the late 1940s with the proposed Glacier View Dam, which would’ve created a massive reservoir stretching from Camas Creek nearly to Canada, inundating Polebridge and destroying virgin North Fork wilderness. Facing opposition from the National Park Service and private-sector conservation groups, the dam was never built. The North Fork of the Flathead was designated a National River in 1976.
Today, the outpost comprises the Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the Northern Lights Saloon (Bill Adair’s original cabin), a hostel and an assortment of other buildings — a barn, an icehouse, cabins, sheds, shacks, shipping containers, assorted outhouses and so on. From May through October the population of Polebridge can be as high as 150, but during the harsh winter months it dwindles to only a handful of hardy souls.
No power runs to Polebridge. Electricity is supplied by diesel generators and solar panels. Tanks of hauled-in propane fuel the Bakery’s ovens. There’s one land line, a low-speed Internet connection for the Merc’s business and no Wi-Fi. Cell service is virtually nonexistent.
All trash generated by residents is trucked to town, on average once a week. Visitors are asked to pack out what they pack in.
And so life in Polebridge is simple. It favors people who arrive with what they need rather than those who come there expecting something. That quality is reflected in the folks who make it their home.
For people like Deb and me, as I said the first time I wrote about Polebridge, visiting is an intentional thing. It’s not on the way to anywhere else (except remote Bowman Lake, the even more out-of-the-way Kintla Lake, or Canada). The place is rarely “busy” by tourism standards, although occasionally it might be what’d you’d call “hoppin’.”
A modest gravel parking area, which doubles as the road back east across the North Fork into Glacier, has never been full when I’ve been there.
Visitors come for a beer at Northern Lights, for a couple of those incomparable huckleberry “bear claws” from the Bakery, for souvenirs from the Merc or just for a dose of The Polebridge Vibe. On clear days, the view of surrounding mountains makes it the ideal place to grab lunch, maybe throw back a few beverages, or whatever. Any other day, the fact that relatively few travelers make the effort to show up in Polebridge is sweet icing on a quirky backwoods cake.
Among many highlights of our time in Montana, Polebridge ranks near the top. If you’re ever in or around Glacier Park — provided you have time to make the trip, and as long as you know what to expect when you emerge from the forest and that big red Mercantile façade comes into view through your windshield — we highly recommend that you pay Polebridge a visit.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.