Halfway from Missoula to the Holland Lake Lodge, a piece of paradise framed by the Swan Range and Mission Mountains near Condon, it occurs to me that this will be the last time I'll be on a trip with my non-teenager. Natalie turns 13 this fall. It also occurs to me that she'll probably hate the entire weekend, since it involves two days spent almost entirely in the outdoors doing things like the "h" word—hiking.
Try as I have to get her to love being outside, Natalie—a cheerful redhead blessed with great balance and natural athletic ability—would really rather create anime on a computer than put a toe outside (and yes, I've done everything to lure her out, from camping with her to yanking the cord on electronics and consulting books about "nature deficit disorder," which only make me feel guiltier). Mention hiking and she visibly shrivels, as if I've just lobbed a giant spider into her lap.
Be that as it may, we're going to spend the weekend in a place where cell phone coverage is spotty, the cabins are rustic, and nothing virtual appears on the menu. Whatever happens, we'll be floating on it, touching it, tramping on it, basking in it, or (for something I've rarely experienced at a backwoods outpost) savoring how good it tastes.
"Having fun yet?" I ask Nat and my partner Don, as we drive through Seeley Lake to the lodge.
"Yep," says Don, who's easily pleased.
"What?" says Natalie, who's listening to her iPod and can't hear me.
A short time later, we turn down Holland Lake Road and behold, there's the lodge, a historic log structure built in 1947, with the requisite deer and elk mounts on either side of a stone fireplace, an impressive stuffed black bear in one corner, and a well-worn wood bar.
We check in at the log-cabin gift shop and make the short walk to Loon Loft, one of the lodge's six waterfront cabins. It's a small, comfortable, rough-hewn affair with a fire pit and picnic table and, just beyond, the lap, lap, lapping waters of Holland Lake, nestled in alpine greenery.
The day is perfect. The noon sun bobs off the lake like one of the old bouncing balls that cue the sing-alongs at the movies. Only instead of inviting song, it's inviting us to calm down, calm down, calm down. Who cares what's happening in the rest of the world, the bouncing light says: right now, all we have to do is nothing. Although eating would be nice.
"Should we have lunch and then take a hike?" I ask.
"Can I skip some rocks first?" Natalie says.
You bet she can.
Holland Lake Lodge and its crystal waters, two gems at the gateway of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, take their names from Ben Holland, one of the valley's first white settlers in the 1890s. The original lodge, since burned, was built circa 1924 for guests and travelers. There weren't many of them.
"It was a two-day stagecoach ride from Missoula when the first lodge was here," says owner Christian Wohlfeil, who's been running the place since he was 24. Wohlfeil purchased the lodge in March 2002 in partnership with his father, John Wohlfeil, who died just a month later, leaving Christian to manage the resort on his own.
But his success is evident. Today the lodge draws guests from around the globe, including visitors from Turkey, Spain and the Netherlands in August alone.
"The mountains, the trees, the water—the landscape here is so dramatic and the feelings it brings out are so peaceful," says Gabriele Leidecker, from Albany, Oregon, who's seated at the bar for lunch with Seeley Lake resident Michaela Probst. "You don't have to be in tune with nature to feel the peacefulness—the environment brings you there magically."
For our own midday meal, Don has a terrific pulled-pork sandwich, I have curry chicken, Natalie snarfs down a burger in record time, and Don and I steal most of her primo sweet potato fries. Then it's time for the easy 3.4-mile roundtrip stroll to Holland Falls—one of the most popular trails in the valley. There's a 50-foot waterfall at the end of it, so there's plenty of payoff for the kid, I'm thinking. But just in case, I buy two chocolate chip cookies and a bag of M&Ms at the bar. When in doubt, I've learned as a mom, bring goodies.
The trail (#416) starts near the lodge, on a gentle ramble east along the lakeshore through Douglas fir, larch, birch and ponderosa pine. The forest gives way to a well-worn path climbing higher and higher above the lake. Our Bichon, Luna, follows dutifully on a leash.
It's a warm Saturday, and we pass at least 30 people of all ages and fitness levels, including one woman who appears to be eight months pregnant. (Note: the narrow path is not good for strollers; we see one unhappy dad carrying the whole thing, kid and all).
After the 1-mile mark, the vistas expand. Off in the distance are the gorgeous Mission Mountains. Up close we see pretty inlets and scampering chipmunks. Meanwhile, the dog pants along, wondering where we're going and why.
"You're almost there," a red-faced woman tells Luna as she passes us heading down. And she's right: around a corner, up a short, steep scramble over boulders, and we're there. The water booms down with a cool, misty reward.
Natalie and I edge as close to the crashing spray as we can get—jagged rocks prevent access to all but one small spot—but the crowds have suddenly vanished, and it's just us, alone with the scenery.
"Wow," Natalie says. "I'm really glad we came here."
"And the best is yet to come," I tell her. I'm not even lying.
Back at Loon Loft we pull on bathing suits and hit the beach in front of our cabin. The lake is calm, blue bliss. The sounds of summer-cottage life waft in the air: far-off children's squeals, thrumming motorboats, lilting waves.
The lodge offers its guests free use of its canoes and skirtless kayaks—not the snazziest varieties, but serviceable. I grab two kayaks, put Natalie in one for her first time and climb in mine. We head for a little island off the shore, and eventually put our paddles down and simply drift. Canoeists stroke by us; a young guy in an inner tube holds a fishing rod in one hand and a beer in the other.
When Don rows up in our raft—the dog acting as lookout—I realize how glad I am that we brought it. After returning the kayaks, Natalie and I take a cool-off swim (yowza) and climb onto the sun-baked rubber while Don plays gondolier. If ever there was a cure for insomnia, this is it: I could be sleeping in seconds.
But first there's more eating to do.
Do we have the coffee-and-spice-crusted sirloin with rustic whipped potatoes, a handmade demi-glace, marion-berry-bacon compote and grilled asparagus? Or the pork tenderloin medallions glazed with southern mustard barbecue sauce (with baby red new potatoes stuffed with herbs and goat cheese); or the grilled portobello mushroom?
We opt for the sirloin (Don), a cabernet sautéed filet mignon (Natalie), and the pork (me), and decline a bottle of wine (although if we'd had an extra $110, the 2004 Justin Vineyards Isoceles might have been nice).
Then Natalie and I play hangman and wait for our coconut prawns and crab cake appetizers to arrive.
"There's a plane landing on the lake," Don says.
I don't believe him. I ask Natalie if there's an "A" in her word.
"The plane's coming right at us," Don says.
I look up, and right out the dining room window is a bush plane drifting to shore. It stops and six people disembark, right on the lawn.
"We love this place. We got married here," Tammy Andie explains. She's flown in from Missoula with her pilot husband, Jim, in a classic refurbished de Havilland Beaver. The couple likes to fly to the lodge for dinner with friends whenever they can.
The excitement over the plane's splashy landing helps stir up an appetite that, as it turns out, we all need. On top of the appetizer, salad and main course, there's dessert—profiteroles filled with huckleberry ice cream drizzled with killer chocolate sauce. It's enough to make me wish for a post-prandial recovery cot.
"I've never had food like this," says Natalie. "I love this place."
Strong praise indeed. By the time we leave the lodge she'll have conquered some milestones, including the amble to Holland Falls and a tougher, steeper, 4.4-mile hike the next day to Holland Creek, on which she never once complained. She also had her kayaking debut and gave me a word in hangman, "biochemical," that completely stumped me for the first time in all the years we've played. But the best is the after-dinner raft ride.
After night falls, we paddle into the lake and lay back to stare at the kind of sky we haven't seen in years. The stars are so thick they're incomprehensible.
We search for shooting stars until I see a tiny one, Don spots a long-tailed one, and Natalie says, "Oh, darn, I never see them." Which isn't true, I don't think, but then moms and daughters often remember life differently.
"Didn't you see one the last time we went camping?" I ask her, but when she turns her head to answer me, Don says "Oooh," and we know we've missed another one.
We're quiet again, peaceful but determined. Natalie and I don't stop scanning the skies. And then Natalie says, "I saw one!" And a few minutes later, "I saw another one!"
The moment enfolds us in the best possible place, together, excited, inspired.
Holland Lake lowdown
Accommodations and activities
Six waterfront cabins and nine lodge rooms for 46 guests. Call ahead for guided fishing trips, whitewater rafting, pack trips, horse rides and more.
Starting at $290, double occupancy; children under age 13, $55; no charge for kids under 2; $75 fee for dogs. Rates include canoe and kayak rentals and gourmet meals.
Guests of the lodge get the all-inclusive treatment to three meals a day from chef Amber Lukas, but day-trippers are welcome, too. Dinner entrées start at $23.
Highway 83 to Holland Lake Road, about 8 miles south of Condon.
Call 406-754-2282 or (toll free) 877-925-6343, or go to www.hollandlakelodge.com. The season runs May through about October