Friends of John Frederick mourn the passing of a man equally persuasive with grizzly bears on his screened porch and politicians pestering his beloved Polebridge.
The longtime advocate of all wild things along the North Fork of the Flathead River died of bladder cancer on Nov. 15. He was 74.
“We were friends, notwithstanding our opinions on natural resource things,” frequent debating foe Larry Wilson said Frederick. The two North Fork neighbors were famous for arguing opposite sides at public meetings and then carpooling home together.
“He was a pragmatist,” said Wilson, who ran a post-and-pole mill in Columbia Falls and regularly clashed with Frederick over public lands management. “He was after things that could be achieved, not the sun and the moon and stars. And he was a really good judge of people. He kept that North Fork Preservation Association alive for 30 years.”
Frederick grew up in Ohio, and passed through Montana on the way to visit Alaska in 1977. Yukon plans got replaced by a notion of running a hostel near Polebridge, according to North Fork unofficial archivist Lois Walker.
“It was about the same time that Karen Feather bought the Polebridge Merc and changed its flavor,” Walker said. “She’d painted it red and put up the big lettering, trying to attract business. He wanted to start a business. John was one of those newcomer hippies with his ponytail and his Volkswagen squareback. To the old-timers, who owned hundreds or thousands of acres, these young people moving with ideas about environment and wildlife set up a cultural clash.”
The North Fork community spreads across 50 miles of backcountry. It numbers about 80 year-round residents, but greets thousands of summer visitors exploring Glacier Park’s northwest corner via the Polebridge entrance. Many of the long-timers date back before the park was designated in 1910, and that led to friction as newcomers arrived.
“There was Polebridge and Trail Creek and not much in between,” Walker said. “Larry was on the Trail Creek side — that’s where his family place was — and there wasn’t much understanding between them. But by the mid-'80s, I noticed Larry was coming by the hostel for breakfast. They ended up on the land-use planning initiative together.”
In 1979 Frederick opened the North Fork Hostel, occasionally known as the Square Peg Ranch, an hour north of the nearest town with paved roads. Keeping the North Fork Road unpaved was one of the issues that united residents who otherwise couldn’t agree on wilderness, logging, mining or recreation matters.
Lois’ husband Bill Walker first learned of John Frederick during a controversy over a Canadian mining firm’s plan to take coal from the pristine headwaters of the Flathead River north of Glacier Park. Frederick had bought a share of stock in the company, and used it to get into a stockholder’s meeting dressed as a protesting cowboy.
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“John was always the central character when it came to protecting the North Fork itself,” Walker said. “He was persistent, low-key and nonconfrontational, and one of the most effective conservationists in that part of the world.”
Frederick was also someone to whom, as Walker put it, things happened.
“He wasn’t a detailed-oriented guy,” Walker said. Once Frederick and Walker convoyed up the Bowman Lake Road into Glacier Park, with Frederick in the lead hauling his horse in a 1950s-era stock truck. Walker came around a corner to find a car part in the road. It was the generator from Frederick’s motor, still hot to the touch.
“Pretty soon, I find him too, dead in the middle of the road,” Walker said. “I towed him all the way back out, afraid on the downhills that he was going to run right up my tailpipe and on the uphills that my transmission would burn out. And his horse was like a dog in a car — it just loved to go for a ride.
"We finally got all the way down and I’m towing his stock truck with his horse standing in the back, having a great time, past the porch with a bunch of people sitting in front of the Polebridge Mercantile and John coming behind, looking kind of hapless.”
After discovering that wolf biologist David Mech had spent months at his place sleeping on a wickedly uncomfortable mattress, Frederick made a point of lying in every bed in his hostel at least once a year for quality control.
The flow of visitors rarely stopped. Oliver Meister came from Germany to stay a night in 1992 and remained the whole summer. He returned for several years, and eventually bought the place from Frederick in 2007.
Although out of the full-time hospitality business, Frederick stayed active with North Fork issues. He was a founding member of the Whitefish Range Partnership that worked for almost two years forging compromises among timber workers, wilderness advocates, snowmobilers and business owners on how to manage a major portion of the Flathead National Forest.
“We made a bet a few years ago about who was going to die first,” Wilson said. “Now I don’t know how he’s going to pay off. I’m afraid things will be a lot more emotional than when John was at the wheel. He’s the passing of a legend.”
“Even though John might have been the weird hippie when he first came there, his concerns overlapped with everybody in the valley,” Bill Walker added. “We all like to hunt or hike or float the river or go into the park and manage to do all that without disturbing the wildlife. And the guy who described it best just died this morning.”