Dragons on the water, disco sequins on stage, and beauty all around signal summer on Flathead Lake.
For decades, locals have reported sightings of a mysterious creature that emerges from the deep of Flathead Lake. They say it resembles a giant eel, 20 to 40 feet long, dark in color. Biologists suggest maybe it’s an exceptionally large sturgeon, perhaps made bigger by the eyes of beholders — who, unfortunately, have yet to capture a photograph of the Flathead Lake Monster.
Lately, the monster has been joined by a much more colorful and well-documented school of creatures. These long, thin dragons with snarling faces and curling tails appear during July and August near the north end of Flathead Lake, skimming across the surface at remarkable speed, propelled by the paddles of 20 humans and urged on by the booming beat of a drum.
PRACTICE MAKES BETTER
Flathead DragonFlies Open House
June 3, Foys Lake public boat launch area
Your chance to try dragon boating! Certified coaches from the Flathead DragonFlies dragon boat team will provide basic paddling instruction and then you can practice what you learned in the dragon boat. Cost is $5 and includes lunch (hamburger or hot dog, chips & a drink). For more info call 406-579-6654 or email the team.
These are the Flathead Dragonflies, a local club team of paddlers preparing for the upcoming Montana Dragon Boat Festival. Scheduled for the weekend of September 9–10, 2017, the festival attracts more than 2,000 participants and thousands of spectators from across the U.S. and Canada; in just a few years it has become one of Montana’s most anticipated events. This year the competition promises to be even livelier with the addition of an inaugural elite division — festival organizers have invited the top dragon boat teams in the country to compete for the title of Rocky Mountain Dragon Boat Champion. The colorful festival is based in the quaint community of Lakeside, on the northwestern shore of Flathead Lake.
The Dragonflies’ summer practice sessions are a fun and colorful spectacle to watch for a spell. (The team practices on Tuesday and Thursday evenings out of Somers, at the north tip of Flathead Lake, just south of Kalispell on Highway 93.) As competition dates get closer, look to see the Flies’ boat and maybe some others on the water more often, adding yet more color to one of the most vibrant places in the Rocky Mountains. You can follow the Flies on Facebook or drop them an email.
So whenever friends visit from out of state I make sure that their itineraries include a circuit around Flathead Lake. Even by car, the 97-mile trip can easily fill a day, with nary a dull moment.
I prefer to start the day on the west side of the lake, for reasons that will become vividly plain around sunset. From Kalispell, Highway 93 runs south straight to the town of Somers. The road then wraps around the northwest corner of the lake to my first favorite stop: the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery.
This state-run facility, which recently celebrated its centennial, offers a chance to get intimate with millions of young native game fish — including kokanee salmon, westslope cutthroat and rare arctic grayling — while also learning about the history of Flathead Lake’s fishery.
Next stop is the small town of Lakeside, home of the Tamarack Brewing Company Alehouse and Grill — a great place for a hearty early lunch and (for your passengers, at least) samples of fine microbrews.
Just a few minutes south, West Shore State Park is a beautiful place for an easy hike through a wooded area along the rocky shoreline, and for great views of the Mission and Swan mountains across the lake.
Wherever you decide to stop along the way, you’ll eventually reach Polson, Flathead Lake’s largest shoreside town. With its quaint downtown of old brick buildings and its lakeside parks, Polson is a fine place to grab a snack and stretch your legs before looping back northward along Highway 35 — better known locally as the East Side Highway.
With its higher peaks and generally steeper shoreline, the east side of Flathead Lake offers an even more dramatic experience of this singular landscape. The highway rolls and twists past scenic overlook after scenic overlook, with plenty of places to pause and gawk along the way.
The lake is hardly the only attraction here in summertime. After all, to many people outside this region Flathead isn’t a lake but a cherry. All along the highway — and especially on the east side of the lake — you’ll find roadside stands where you can buy freshly picked cherries starting in mid- to late-July and into August.
You’ll certainly want to pause in Woods Bay for a visit to Flathead Lake Brewery, whose 369’ Stout and Painted Rock Porter have both won World Beer Cup awards.
A little farther north you’ll come to the lakeside cultural oasis of Bigfork. Take time to stroll along pedestrian-friendly Electric Avenue, home to art galleries, fine restaurants, the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center and other attractions. Make sure to visit the tasting room at Whistling Andy Distillery, whose deliciously summery Cucumber Gin won a silver medal at the 2016 Micro Liquor Spirit Awards.
If you’re in the mood for entertainment, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse is renowned for its fine professional productions, which this year posts “Mama Mia!,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Just up the road to the north of Kalispell resides the Alpine Theatre Project of Whitefish, known for its professional productions. Alpine’s summer 2017 lineup includes “Life — The Broadway Experience,” “Liberty — the American Experience” and “The Pursuit of Happiness — The Global Experience.”
By the time you finish your tour of Bigfork, the light should be getting long across the lake. Stick around. After all, you’re only a short drive away from home base in Kalispell; and there are few more remarkable moments than sunset across Flathead Lake. And there’s no better vantage than Wayfarers State Park, on the south edge of Bigfork.
You won’t want to forget your camera. But even if you do, you won’t forget the views at the end of this extraordinary day.