The North Fork of the Flathead River in B.C. and Montana has been called "the grizzliest place in the interior of North America."An historic agreement signed in February 2010 by British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer makes a major step toward keeping it wild forever. The agreement permanently bans mining and oil and gas drilling in the transboundary watershed, which includes more than 300,000 acres on the east side of the river in Glacier National Park.
Dr. John Weaver of the Wildlife Conservation Society has written that, "A unique community of carnivore species resides in the transboundary Flathead region that appears unmatched in North America for its variety, completeness, use of valley bottomlands, and density of species that are rare elsewhere."
In addition to dense populations of grizzly bears and cougars, this is the first place in the western United States that wolves naturally migrated south from Canada after nearly 50 years absence. As you might expect, all those carnivores are fueled by healthy populations of whitetail and mule deer, as well as elk and moose, and these in turn thrive on a broad diversity of plant communities across this wide-bottomed, low elevation valley.
In fact, the plant and animal diversity of the North Fork Valley (1 million acres in size) has been given a significant boost over the last 20 years by a critical force of nature - wildfire. Rather than being the destructive force we see in more settled landscapes, wildfire is absolutely essential in the Rockies to recycle nutrients, open up dense forests, and rejuvenate grasslands, often in a mosaic pattern of burned and unburned areas that maximizes habitat diversity. An added benefit of these fires is that they've opened up vistas of the North Fork of the Flathead River and the mountains of Glacier National Park that no ones seen in a century due to the dense forest, while regenerating a rich forest understory.
Because the North Fork in Glacier National Park is such a wild and special place, it's vital that we keep it that way by making our impact as low as possible, whether we're hiking, camping, fishing, or canoeing.
A bi-national coalition of conservation groups is proposing the inclusion of 1/3 of the Canadian Flathead as the Flathead National Park Reserve to add the final missing piece of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. This would square the Peace Park boundaries to the north with Waterton and to the west with Glacier. In addition, the coalition seeks to establish a Wildlife Management Area that would allow traditional uses outside the national park while establishing fish and wildlife conservation as the highest priority. This proposed WMA would include much of the Flathead, Wigwam and Elk Valleys in BC. (See map at left.)
IN BRITISH COLUMBIA
The Flathead Valley in Canada is the only large unsettled valley in southern Canada, and is generally accessible over mountain passes only in non-winter months. If you venture into this wild valley, you are advised (by those with personal experience) to bring at least two spare tires and emergency supplies in case you are stranded. Several primitive campgrounds are located in the Flathead. Below are directions into the valley from Fernie.
Note: Although the following description is written with car travel in mind, this would also be a superb trip to take on a mountain bike for those of intermediate to upper cycling ability. You'd save on gas, it would be quieter, and you'd see/hear more wildlife.
While most visitors reach the North Fork by the more direct (and dustier) Route 486 out of Columbia Falls (Outside North Fork Road), the far better, but more primitive route, is the Inside North Fork Road (Glacier route 7) beginning in Glacier NP near Apgar, and traveling 27 miles north to Polebridge. This narrow, dirt road traverses some of the wildest habitat on the west side of the park, affording good opportunities to see a variety of wildlife, hike little-used trails, view Glacier's mountains to the east, and observe first-hand the dramatic rebirth of habitat after fires.
Along the way north, you'll reach the Camas Creek Trailhead at about 8 miles offering level hiking through the expansive Christianson Meadows lined with aspens and willows, and offering opportunities to see deer, moose, great grey owls, occasionally wolves, and spectacular views of Glacier's peaks.
Back on the road and traveling north toward Polebridge you'll cross several areas of forest that have burned since 1988 with colorful names like Moose, Robert-Wedge, Anaconda, Howling, and Redbench. Take a moment to stroll through parts of these burns and you'll notice an abundance of new growth not seen in unburned areas.
At about mile 20 and 23 respectively, you'll arrive at the small, uncrowded Logging Creek and Quartz Creek Campgrounds, allowing you to spend the night in wild country and get an early start on the next day's adventures. One mile north of Quartz Creek stop at Winona Lake and watch (quietly and respectfully please) for eagles, osprey, and loons, and 2 miles past Winona Lake, if you look carefully to the right you'll see a small trailhead to Hidden Meadow (1.2 mi. one way) and its small lakes. This is an excellent place to see waterfowl, deer, elk, moose, and occasionally a tundra swan, wolf, or bear.
An additional 2 miles on the Inside road brings you to a "Y" junction. You can continue straight (right) and reach Bowman Lake in 6 miles, or Kintla Lake in 15 miles. Both are spectacular fjord-like lakes of 8-9 miles with crystal clear water and scenic trails. Go left at the junction and you'll reach Polebridge and its historic Mercantile and bakery in 1 mile. From there, you can pick up the wider, faster, dustier Outside North Fork Road back to its junction with Glacier's Camas Rd., or continue for another 20 miles into Columbia Falls.
Fourth of July through September is the best time to visit, and the road may not be open outside of these months. Check at the Apgar Ranger Station before heading out. Wildflowers are usually at their peak in July; fall colors are best in late September (Aspen, birch, willow, dogwood & larch); and bears (black & grizzly) may be feeding on berries along the road in August. Remember to never approach any park wildlife closely. It causes them stress, robs them of vital feeding time, and isn't good for safety - yours or theirs.
The west side of Glacier is a designated Primitive Area and so you shouldn't expect to see big lodges, fancy restaurants, numerous gas stations, full service campgrounds, or lots of phones - or good phone reception. The historic Polebridge Mercantile does have a wonderful bakery with excellent sandwiches, cinnamon roles, cookies and brownies, and a small restaurant next door ( ) serving great dinners nightly.
And in keeping with that management philosophy, the Inside North Fork Road is gravel, narrow, winding, and steep in a couple of places. A realistic speed, both for safety and to see wildlife, is 20-25 MPH. While four wheel or all wheel drive vehicles aren't necessary, you should not be on this road with large campers, motor homes, or vehicles with low clearance.
To the North Fork in Montana: From Glacier Park International Airport, take a left (north) and travel Highway 2 north and east approximately 35 miles through Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Coram to West Glacier. In West Glacier take a left under the railroad tracks and follow the signs toward Apgar Village for about 2 miles. When you reach a "T" intersection, go left on the Camas Road for approximately 1 mile and take a right on the road to Fish Creek Campground. In about three quarters of a mile, where the road forms a "Y" at the campground entrance, go left and you're on the Inside North Fork Road.
To the Canadian Flathead in British Columbia: (These directions will take you toward Akamina Kishenina Provincial Park near the U.S. border.) From Fernie, travel about 15 kilometres west on Highway 3 to Morrisey Road. Turn south and cross the Morrisey bridge over the Elk River and across the railroad tracks. Follow main road to the right, about 2-3kms. At the 1st Y, stay right and cross Morissey Creek. Follow this until you get to another Y and stay to the left. At the third Y, stay left, which will take you behind Mt. Broadwood, (the big moutain you can see from Highway 3 across from the tunnel. Pass by a small lake and outfitters cabin on the right and continue up Lodgepole FSR Road to Harvey Pass. After the first tricky right-hander at the Y, the route looks like the main road for the rest of the way. Don't take any of the left options as you go up and over the pass. Turn right when you hit the main Flathead FSR Road. Right after making this turn, look to the left to see the historic Fernie Rod and Gun Club sign from the 1970s opposing the proposed Cabin Creek open-pit coal mine (photo at left). At the next big Y, bear left toward Akamina Kishenina Provincial Park. Cross the Flathead River Bridge and stay on the main road until it ends.