On a damp, gray Friday afternoon, the second day of our camping trip to the Yaak Valley, my girlfriend Renie and I sought some painless diversion. The fishing had been slow, and the light drizzle doused our enthusiasm for an ambitious hike. We decided on an easy walk to Vinal Lake, just a short drive north of the valley's namesake "town."
We strolled a quiet mile along a trail of matted pine straw before arriving at a modest pond sitting in a shallow trough against a low, forested ridge. On a far bank, a neglected boat lay upside down in the brush. Closer to us, a loon silently cruised the dark, cold water. We watched it dive, then reappear unpredictably as far as 50 yards away. After each plunge, we would try to guess where it would surface next. Minutes passed, and a light rain began to fall. Renie and I huddled under our umbrella with our shoulders pressed together, scanning the water and anticipating the loon's next emergence. Tiny ripples from countless raindrops expanded in delicate circles across the lake. And the hush—not a silence, but a steady whisper of weather—carried my thoughts away.
Such are the pleasures of the Yaak, a place so splendid in its isolation, the dimples of rain on an otherwise ordinary pond leave a deep impression.
Hidden in the far northwestern corner of Montana, the Yaak Valley arcs through heavily timbered mountains between the Purcell Range in Canada and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness near Libby. Leaving from Missoula, we spent six leisurely hours on the road, cruising past Noxon before heading north through the gorgeous Bull River Valley on Montana Highway 56.
Lured by the promise of giants, we stopped along the way at the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area for an enchanted picnic among towering old-growth trees, some that have stood there for centuries and measure more than 8 feet in diameter. While any pebble plucked absentmindedly from the nearby creek bed would be vastly more ancient, something about the living cathedral at Ross Creek alters the perception of time. A day, a season, a year ...what do they matter in the life of such titans?
After shoring up our supplies at Stein's IGA in Troy, we turned right onto Highway 508, following the Yaak River north through a 7-mile canyon to Yaak Falls, a formidable cascade adjacent a forest service campground. The pocket water of the canyon has a reputation for good rainbow trout fishing, but it's a rugged walk down to the water. Above the falls, the river flattens out, meandering through willows and grassy meadows. Undercut banks supposedly hold monster brookies, and a tenuous population of rare Columbia River redband trout mingles with the usual mix of cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout.
Our first full day in the valley had been a sunny exemplar of late July, and we wet our lines above town amid the shallow riffles of the Yaak River's main fork. We'd hoped the small water would serve up easy action on attractors, but had no luck. Wading wet, we covered about a half-mile of water without a strike before giving up. We hadn't come to work hard—for fish or otherwise—so instead of slicing into our store of summer sausage and bagels, we headed into town for cheeseburgers and local color at the notorious Dirty Shame Saloon. The Dirty Shame and the Yaak Tavern—which adjoins the camper-friendly Yaak Mercantile—pretty much constitute the whole settlement, or at least its visible public life.
We found Dirty Shame owner Gloria Belcher working alone that afternoon, her hands full as she whipped up tasty fare for five customers hungry for a late lunch. (The excellent mango salsa suggested culinary ambition that seemed surprisingly out of place, though not at all unwelcome). Taking time for cheerful chitchat, Belcher recounted her efforts to fix up the joint after years of benign neglect. The recently completed remodel uncovered dozens of bullet holes in the walls, she said, pointing at the spot where she'd hung a decoration to conceal the hole where a round had pierced the door leading out to the deck. The most recent target of a trigger-happy drunk was a recalcitrant eight ball on the pool table, but that happened before she took over the place, she told us.
Although the fishing never picked up during our three days on the river, I finally landed a healthy 16-inch rainbow on a Stimulator, coaxing him from his hiding spot behind a boulder just a few steps upriver from our campsite. It was the last evening of our trip, and I was finally able to provide Renie with the fresh fish dinner I'd promised. But after landing my prize, I had an unexpected change of heart and released it. I don't really know what came over me, whether I did it out of respect for this elder statesman of the river, or because I'd left my manhood at home with my power tools. I just know I shouldn't have mentioned it, because whatever softened my heart toward that fish had not inspired Renie.
No, she wanted meat, and the ribeyes from a previous night were long gone. Chastened, I set out again with my pole and came back with a pathetic 8-inch dink, which I served unpersuasively alongside pasta flavored with antiseptic powder from a foil packet.
Luckily for me, Renie got over it. All it took was a little good-natured ribbing, a rustle of wind, the burble of the river flowing past our campsite, and the twinkle of a million stars above our campfire.
"I really needed to get away," she said.
"Is this far enough?" I asked.
She didn't really need to answer. The treetops nodded in the breeze.
On the way
Picnic at Ross Creek Cedars, four miles west of Highway 56, just south of Bull Lake. Huge old growth cedars, some as much as 500 years old and more than 8 feet in diameter, tower over a garden of ferns and wild ginger. The one-mile interpretive trail makes for a lovely postprandial stroll.
Try the Forest Service campgrounds at Whitetail and Pete Creek. Both offer private, shady sites, but Whitetail's riverside setting makes it the most desirable. Longtime campground host Joe White keeps everybody honest, which we appreciated when some Washington bikers tried to muscle in on our choice river-bank site.
Highway 508 follows the Yaak Valley over the Purcell Mountains to Lake Koocanusa, one of the most remote, lightly traveled stretches of pavement in the Lower 48. An ideal route for cyclists looking to escape traffic, it's also a relaxing, scenic drive. Lingering snow typically keeps the route impassable until June.
If bad weather drenches your camp, just roll into town and order a cozy meal at the Dirty Shame Saloon or Yaak Tavern. You can't miss 'em as they're pretty much the only two buildings there. If Mother Nature throws a really violent tantrum, rent a rustic cabin at the Dirty Shame or hope for a vacancy at the well-appointed Yaak River Lodge, just a short way down the road.