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Summer at the Lake: Flathead Lake

From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Three sisters throw their arms in the air as they jump off the end of a dock for a swim in the cool water of Flathead Lake, Montana.


Toasting marshmallows at dusk on a pebble beach along Flathead Lake’s western shore just south of Kalispell and Glacier National Park is a rite of passage for Montana children. The same loon calls can be heard from distant bays as when Blackfeet and Salish hunted these forests; the same dark shadows pool beneath glacially carved cliffs as when steamboats plied these waters with passengers and freight.

Nearly 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, Flathead is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Calm at daybreak and twilight, these crystal clear waters can churn up four-foot whitecaps at midday and are said to have a sturgeon-like monster dwelling in their 370-foot depths.

On March 1, 1812, British explorer David Thompson ascended a hill just west of Polson at the lake’s southern end and gave the oldest surviving European account of seeing a jaw-dropping “very extensive view of the lake and country far around.” He called it “a fine sheet of water” and “the haunt in all seasons of aquatic fowl.”

It’s still a major migratory resting spot for waterfowl and humans alike. Canada geese and swans bob in the water; ospreys and bald eagles dive-bomb for trout. Hand-painted signs advertise cherry stands and orchards where visitors can stop and pick the sweet Rainier, Lambert, and Queen Anne cherries that make Flathead’s microclimate famous.

But it’s the quiet coves of the timbered western shore near Rollins where time has stood still. Hundred-year-old cottonwoods shade shingled cottages sporting American flags. Children paddle canoes and jump off docks behind ramshackle cabins.

“You’ve got seclusion. Even though you might have neighbors, you feel you’re the only one here,” says Deon Tomsheck, who lives near Rollins year-round with her boyfriend, Curtis Van Voast, in a house with its own shoreline. The couple rents five cottages on the property to summer guests. “People feel at home here. They love letting their kids play the way they did when they were kids. Families come back here year after year.”


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