The Sick Line 

How wretched can you be when you're paddling the Flathead? Sometimes you've got to find out.

Anyone who's ever traded small talk at a put-in has heard the phrase, no such thing as a bad day on the river, but there was no way around it: I was having a bad day on the river, and coming off the worst night I've ever spent in a tent. It didn't amount to much in the well-stocked annals of adventure discomfort, no death or dismemberment, just a throat that wouldn't swallow, a flashing fever, vomitous heartburn and a saliva factory putting in overtime. When I wasn't on my knees puking into a bush, I was shivering fetally inside my sweaty bag, a coffee mug at the runoff corner of my mouth collecting drool. I felt like a rabid dog, not least because I harbored the fantasy that someone would put me out of my misery. Every time I tried to lie on my back the bile rose. If I could have fallen asleep that way I'd have drowned on dry land. At least I would have gotten some rest.

As it was I got none, and the next day I could barely keep from toppling out of my canoe. I was drifting half-conscious down the prettiest part of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and all I could do was keep mumbling to myself, over and over, keep it together. I don't know if I was talking out loud or not.

click to enlarge BRAD TYER

I was visiting Missoula for 10 days, and on the third day, friends Matt and Jori and I packed our boats and drove north to the Canadian border for this two-night float down to Polebridge, as we've done four of the past five years, in early July. It's about as close to an annual tradition as I have, and I look forward to it the way some people anticipate Christmas morning. The year before I'd had to cancel the trip just before I was scheduled to fly out of Austin when my dog ate the wrong kind of spider and went into something close to a coma, ruining the week for both of us.

He survived, deaf as a post but otherwise no worse for the wear, and a year later here I was back on the North Fork, twice as eager to renew my acquaintance with tradition, with Matt and Jori, with the river. And now I was the sick one, borderline incapacitated, and more than a little pissed about it. I'd felt the tickle in my throat on the drive up, and by the time we'd paddled a few hours Friday afternoon and set up camp, I was fully messed up. A diet of PBR, blackberry schnapps and Montana Jerky Co. dried bison probably hadn't bolstered my immunity, but if I was going to float the North Fork sick, so be it. It's not the line I would have chosen, but moving water is unforgiving of the late-changed mind. Once you're committed, you're going where it takes you.

Any trip on the North Fork begins when the pavement turns to washboard north of Columbia Falls. For years the battle has raged between people who would like to see that road paved—and I know more than a few axle struts that sympathize—and another contingent that prefers to leave well enough alone. The road is work, and it discourages crowds. And like many things that discourage crowds, the North Fork Road encourages individuals. Matt and Jori and me, for instance. We grimace when we hit that road, which, Jori rightly observes, gets longer every year, but we smile too, through rattling teeth, because we know where it's taking us. In September, Flathead County began spreading bentonite clay on the road as a dust-reduction measure, and some locals say it's provided a measure of relief from the washboarding, too. I hope I'll be forgiven for hoping not too much.

By the time you hit the North Fork Road out of Columbia Falls, there are only a few places you might be going: 35 miles to Polebridge, then into Glacier National Park via a little-used, west-side entrance there; home, if you're one of the 200 or so North Fork summer homers or the roughly 25 who live there year-round; or the Forest Service privy at the Canadian border, where the road dead-ends another 18 miles north of Polebridge at a border crossing that's been decommissioned since the mid-1990s.

We've always stopped at Polebrige Mercantile, to fill out forgotten provisions, to buy the famed baked-on-site pastries, and usually to hire a local to drive our shuttle. The shuttle service is informal, but it's never let us down.

This was my first visit to Polebridge since the Mercantile and its 22.5 acres of grounds, including the hostel cabins, were purchased in May 2009 by Flannery Coats and Stuart Reiswig, a 20-something couple from Missoula. The pastries were as warm and savory as ever. The next-door Northern Lights Saloon, under independent ownership, had let its liquor license lapse, so there was no beer at the bar that day. Coats says the saloon remains closed "for the season," though the Merc stocks plenty of beer and wine to go. It'll likely need it this summer, when Polebridge's annual July 4th parade coincides with Glacier's ongoing centennial celebration.

click to enlarge BRAD TYER
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