POLEBRIDGE – The knuckles whiten, the undercarriage rattles and the trappings of civilization recede.
This is the route to Polebridge, and it’s the only way.
You will encounter yards more bear, moose, elk and mountain sheep along this wash-boarded, hole-pocked, dust-choked river corridor than you will baristas, bartenders or bandwidth, and a windfall tree or avalanche will require at least a two-hour delay, unless you’re packing a chain saw and shovel in your arsenal of tools.
And you’d best have tools.
A winter of discontent serves no function here on this far-flung, off-the-grid landscape, but determination, doggedness, self-reliance and elbow grease are requisite. So is resilience. It’s a season of low body temperature, slow breathing, torpid heart rate; a time when watts and foot-candles are as scarce as the year-round residents, when the quotidian rhythm of human survival is reduced to the barest of elements – fire and light, warm food, goodwill and good company.
Cellphones don’t work here, and a generation that believes itself enabled will be startled to find that, once the lights dim and the batteries die and the Northern Lights fluoresce across a kaleidoscopically starred midnight mantle, it is indeed disabled. This is not the place for 21st century living.
But this is what matters. And even though the primitive lifestyle is as endangered as the wild species it embraces, this is one of the last places to find it.
Yet find it they have. The annual crescendo of tourism in the summer months has risen to a fever pitch on this unpaved 60-mile stretch of Montana 486, known simply as the North Fork Road, and the romantic appeal of frontier living is lost on no one, though some complain that a little blacktop wouldn’t compromise the bucolic charm.
But few people call this tiny outpost home, and those who do have learned to live with the oscillation of the North Fork’s seasons, all of which intensify in this isolated corner of Montana, where Canada and Glacier National Park’s rugged western edge adjoin, the limestone Livingston Range cast in sharp contrast against the bright blue sky.
Winter, in particular, is rife with cold comfort.
At the Polebridge Mercantile, the lone outpost of civilization along the North Fork Flathead River, the caretakers are scouring the interior of the bakery, purging the century-old building of a summer’s worth of wear. Cookies on the counter, pancakes off the griddle, wool steel in the palm. It’s a final, frenetic round of pre-slumber preparations, a biologically induced, hyperphagic gorging before tucking in the covers on this cozy enclave, applying a primitive poultice to induce healing rest, and buttoning it up for the long winter ahead.
The building, like its owners and caretakers, needs a period of dormancy in order to recharge.
For eight months, owners Flannery Coats and Stuart Reiswig and their small staff have baked and boarded, bartered and bickered, and then baked some more. They have answered the identical questions of a thousand visitors who will never forget this place, but who will never understand it as intimately as they do, they who stoke the fire, chop the wood, check the pipes, mind the septic.
Huckleberry bear claws, macaroons, microbrew, coffee, fresh-baked bread and pocket sandwiches are the standard fare, but chain saw oil, parachute cord, power steering fluid, Spam and other utilitarian devices populate the shelves at the Merc. The relics of a bygone era adorn its tall, straight walls and a collection of antiques and curios hang from its rough-hewn rafters – the mounted heads of critters, rust-mottled kerosene lamps, logging boots, an archaic cheese slicer.
But this is no quaint general store. It’s not the most-photographed barn, but rather a living piece of history. Its bakery is a paradise of pies and pastries, its rows of merchandise and incommodious upstairs living space an inventory of elemental existence.
And owners Coats and Reiswig (they call themselves “caretakers”) have the right stuff – the pluck and the mettle and the mitochondria – to maintain its rustic integrity. They love the place and its people, in part because to get here, and especially to live here, you have to really want it.
The only way to town is on a rough and rutted road that tracks along the wild and scenic North Fork Flathead River. It serves as a rite of passage, but also acts as a sort of governor, allowing only the hardiest travelers in, and christening only the most dedicated as residents. About 80 people remain year-round, with about 300 calling it home for the summer months. There are about 400 homes, and more keep getting built.
At the Merc it’s been the busiest year yet, and Coats, ending her fourth season as caretaker, is ready for a break. That means the Merc is taking a rare winter off, too, and by the time this article appears in print the bright red building’s pipes will have been drained and the woodstove (the Merc’s lifeblood) gone cold.
And the young caretakers, at least until January or so, will have hit the road for some much-needed rejuvenation.
But first, they must scrub.
“The cleaning is kind of symbolic of the rest that this place needs to take after the summer,” Coats said. “This place is getting loved to death a little bit. The traffic is excessive in the summer. It’s almost bumper-to-bumper some days. Which is great as a small business owner, and it’s great that so many people are experiencing this place, but there needs to be a time for rest – for the animals and for the people, and for this building, which is 100 years old. Our equipment needs to stop mixing for a little while, the generator needs to not run 24 hours a day, and everybody needs some time to breathe, slow down, stoke their fires, and then come back in April with a fresh head on their shoulders and excited to do it again.”
This cyclic rhythm is what keeps Polebridge and the North Fork alive – the place, the people, the river, the critters. Like the bears, there are elements of life here that possess a need – a physical and psychic need – to hibernate so they can be restored.
“Anybody who does something too much needs some restoration,” Coats said. “And this is a seven-day-a-week gig for everybody here. If you live here, you are Polebridge.”
Over at the North Fork Hostel and Inn, a stone’s throw from the Polebridge Mercantile, Oliver Meister understands the benefits of rest.
The German-born transplant discovered the hostel a decade ago by happenstance and never really went home. Now he owns the place, and this summer was the busiest and most trying yet.
“I think I’ve never been so exhausted at the end of a summer,” he said.
That’s not surprising considering Meister’s workload. Besides accommodating guests at the hostel all year, he embarked on a roofing project in September, tearing off the 33-year-old, leaky aluminum sheeting and replacing it with brand new pine-green aluminum. He also worked half-time at the Polebridge entrance station to Glacier National Park.
“It feels good to have had a productive summer, but I need a break,” he said, preparing to set out for a ski up to Cyclone Lookout with a late-season guest.
He says he doesn’t mind that the Merc is closing for a couple of months, that it’s good to let the place breathe and the people rest.
“I enjoy it when they’re open but I appreciate what they’re doing because there’s less hustle and bustle,” he said. “You last longer. You don’t burn out.”
Meister grew up on the southern edge of Germany’s Black Forest and is no stranger to the mountains and wilderness. But he’s never encountered anything quite like the North Fork.
“I’m glad I grew up where I did. It’s beautiful there. But we don’t have anything as wild as this. When I first came here I thought, ‘wow.’ It’s well worth it for me to stay. I hope it never goes away.”
No one wants it to go away, but there are competing ideologies about how best to preserve it, and the most divisive issue concerns the North Fork Road.
To pave, or not to pave. That is the Civil War of the North Fork.
As the rural mail carrier in this sparsely populated river corridor, Karin Craver already has one of the toughest jobs. It takes her 12 hours to fill the mailboxes of 100 people, and frequently makes the 156-mile, twice-weekly round-trip while her pet wolf rides shotgun.
But driving 36,000 miles of griddled dirt annually doesn’t make the work any easier, and Craver says she spends $4,000 on vehicle repairs every year.
“I say pave it. I’ve been up here 18 years and I just don’t believe that it will change that much if you pave it. Yeah, maybe we’ll get a few more visitors each year, but more people are coming up here each year anyway.”
The debate about the road was waged decades ago and continues to be a major point of contention among landowners, and Craver’s part of a minority of paving proponents.
She’s not going to move away because of the road.
“This is home. This is where my heart is. I love my job and I wouldn’t give it up in a heartbeat.”
Just down the road from the Merc and 50 yards past the entrance to Glacier National Park, Polebridge District Ranger Scott Emmerich is sitting down to review a report about a recent fatality on Bowman Lake.
“You think you’ve got a sleepy little hollow but things do happen,” he said.
The things happen mostly at the peak of summer’s busy season, when the lion’s share of this corner of the park’s 35,000 annual visitors pass through the gates, heading to Bowman or Kintla lakes or embarking on backpacking trips. By the park’s estimates, that’s between 11,000 and 14,000 cars rolling through the entrance station every year, cars whose drivers navigated the rocky road and negotiated wheel-sucking, muffler rattling potholes – sometimes with aplomb, more often with chagrin – just to experience this rugged, untamed, seldom-visited pocket of wilderness.
“It’s beautiful once you get here,” Emmerich said. “Breathtaking. But the journey is part of the reward. In a lot of ways, we’re blessed with the condition of the road.”
Part of what protects Bowman and Kintla, he says, is the windy, bumpy, dusty, jarring road. Pave it, and the place is transformed.
This time of year, Emmerich is the only full-time staffer manning the most remote corner of the park, down from a seasonal summer staff of 14. There’s also Regi Altop, who works part time, and Mya, Emmerich’s beloved 6-year-old golden retriever.
Emmerich has been district ranger at Polebridge for 22 years, and every winter his role changes from that of manager to that of maintenance man and all-around factotum.
“I’m the snow-plower, the toilet cleaner, the maintenance man. And it’s fun,” he said.
Chain saws need sharpening, the generator requires maintenance and administrative meetings have to be attended in West Glacier. His wife and 17-year-old daughter live in Columbia Falls, and he goes home to them twice a week. Sometimes they visit his rustic four-room cabin and enjoy a cross-country ski to Bowman Lake, but most days he’s alone with Mya.
But most often he’s alone, patrolling a wide expanse of the park that stretches from Camas Creek to the Canada border to the Continental Divide.
“I think that’s the secret to my longevity. I’m good at being a loner,” he said. “I have no problem with solitude. I enjoy it.”
Emergencies are infrequent, which is good, because he and Altop are the only two emergency medical technicians in the North Fork. They assist Border Patrol and Homeland Security, have snowmobiles as a last resort (they are prohibited in the park) and there’s a landing pad for an ALERT helicopter in the event a hiker breaks his leg or is caught in an avalanche.
Emmerich runs a generator about eight hours a day because he has to work on the computer, but the Wisconsin native only recently acquired a television, six years ago, when the Green Bay Packers turned into a powerhouse.
But mostly he prefers working off the grid. Indeed, he believes that’s what makes this place so special.
“I’m pretty defensive of this area,” he said. “We have the double mandate – to protect and preserve and to provide for the visitor experience. But we want to protect the rustic integrity of the valley. People who move here need to accept it on its terms. You don’t change it to make it easier. As a society, we have the expectation of instant gratification. But that’s not the North Fork. If you want Disney World, go somewhere else.”
Back at the Merc, Coats and her small crew of workers – those brave and happy few who have stuck out the season until its bitter, glorious end – have stopped scrubbing and are taking a break
Happily noshing sandwiches and sipping coffee, they enjoy one another’s company in the waning evening light. In the coming days they’ll all disperse for the winter, and the dynamic smell of dough and flour has been replaced with an aseptic calm.
The wood burning stove still flickers and casts a lambent glow on the reading nook, but the shelves have been cleared of their battered paperbacks and reference books, the tins of spam and coils of cord packed away, the cooler emptied and swamped. Whatever food remains will be used for pizza toppings.
When the stove finally goes cold and the bed of ash settles, it will be time to go.
“We’ve all been taking care of each other for eight months, taking care of our customers and the community,” Coats said. “When you live here, you take care of each other, and you take care of this place. We’re all lucky to be here. And now, it’s time to take care of ourselves.”