Ever wonder what Polebridge, Montana was like in the late 60s? Steve O’Malley lived and worked there from 1967-68. These are his memories & experiences. It’s quite a lovely story, full of amazing anecdotes. I hope you enjoy!
I was born in Long Beach California January 4, 1949. There was a very rare snow storm in Southern California the day I was born. Maybe that was a sign that I was destined to be a Northerner. When I was two, we moved just North of LA to the Mojave desert. I practically lived outdoors. My family was real big into camping. Just about every weekend, we would camp in the Angeles Mountains, and on long weekends we would go to the High Sierra’s. Our regular camp was at the foot of the Tioga Pass.
Basically it was the East side highway into Yosemite, but without the crowds. The stars, the sound of the wind in the trees, running streams and just the feeling of absolute tranquility were wonderful. When I was a sophomore I got hooked up with an offshoot of the YMCA called “The Y Hikers” We would take short three and four day back pack hikes to places like Mount Whitney, Kearsarge Pass, Mammoth Lakes area. Finally in 1966 we took the big one. A two week back pack trip partially encompassing the John Muir trail.
Even though it was August, we’d have to break a thin layer of ice on the high lakes to get water to cook with. I never thought I’d say it, but some of those dehydrated meals weren’t that bad. We climbed a few peaks, leaving the date and our names in whatever we could find. Looking back now, I am sure they flew many miles away in the 150 mph winds that those peaks are famous for. We went through Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We had started on the desert side of the Sierra’s and two weeks later we were near the San Joaquin Valley side. For a time I thought that all I wanted to be was a mountain man.
How I Ended Up in Polebridge
Back to reality. I still had my senior year of high school to complete. Having met most of my requirements, one of the classes I took was General Business. The teacher and I hit it off real well. He knew of my love of the outdoors and ability to cope with solitude.
He told me that just a couple of years earlier, maybe through a magazine, he got an opportunity at some land at a place called Polebridge Montana. He had purchased 20 acres for I believe $100.00 per acre. He asked me if I might be interested in coming to Polebridge for the Summer to clear trees, dig holes to build outhouses, and create roads to make camp sites.
He needed an additional person so I asked my neighbor friend. He’d never been away from home that much, but he was game to give it a try. He would later get home sick and didn’t stay at Polebridge for the entire summer.
The day after graduation we were on the road in my 1963 Corvair headed for Montana. We went through Las Vegas then up US Hwy 93 through the empty lands of Nevada. The further North, the more beautiful the country became.
When we started into the mountains of Idaho and Montana, I knew this was the place I wanted to be.
I remember outside Salmon Idaho, pulling off and seeing actual Salmon in the river. Spectacular. Flathead Lake was so blue and beautiful.
The first thing I remember about Kalispell was what seemed to be a roundabout. I would later use that roundabout hundreds of times, as cruising the main drag was the thing to do, whenever we went into town. It was on to Columbia Falls to get on the North Fork road. I had been told by my teacher to let some of the air out of my tires when I reached Columbia Falls.
He said with the tires being softer, this might reduce the chance of a rock damaging a tire. With that concern and about four to five inches of ground clearance on the Corvair, I’m thinking there is a chance things might not turn out so well. It ended up that I never had a single flat or bottomed out the whole time I was there. My teachers place was about three miles south of the Polebridge Store (as it was called at that time).
We were off on the North Fork Road. I recall a large aluminum factory on the north end of Columbia Falls, but after that it was pristine lands, forest and the river. Whenever there was an opening, such as a meadow I could see the mountains and peaks of Glacier National Park. Spectacular could not begin to describe what I was seeing.
Arriving in Polebridge
It was the mid June 1967 when we reached our destination. I couldn’t believe that at 10:30 at night the sun was just starting to go down!
I’ll call my teacher as I knew him “Mr. Pittman” He and his wife Linda had a small cabin and there was also a cinder block shower house he had built. The shower and the cabin got their water from a natural spring on a hill above the property. There was good pressure from simply being gravity fed. Hot water, the fridge. stove and lights were all propane operated, as there was no electricity to that area.
The Pittman’s had their new baby “Matt” with them. My friend and neighbor was “David”. Our accommodations were a good sized canvas tent set back further in the woods away from the main cabin and shower house. We used sleeping bags on cots. It was all the comforts of home, as far as I was concerned. Once we were learned of what was expected of us we started our daily jobs. We got paid with room and board. We got paid maybe $100.00 a month, which at that time would go a long ways.
The Polebridge Store was about three miles up the North Fork road. I went to the store sometimes in the evening and quite often on the weekends. I got to know the store owners very well. Cal and Dottie Oien. Through them and the Pittman’s I met a lot of the locals. I was amazed how everyone welcomed me with open arms. I wasn’t sure what they might think of a California kid.
One of the people I befriended early on was an older Indian man. I would see him at the store, but I never knew for sure where he lived. He was a hunting guide in the Fall. One day when Mr. Pittman and all of us were together he had us stand on paper and he traced the outline of our feet. A few weeks later he showed up and gave us each a pair of handmade moccasins. They were made from moose hide. I wore them for years until they literally disintegrated. It felt like a high honor was bestowed upon us with the gift of those moccasins.
I met numerous residents. I was invited to many of their homes. Seemed as though they all had bear rugs or bear skins and many other mounts on their walls. They all had tall tales about bear encounters. I could only assume they were all true. One piece of advice I was given if being chased by a bear was to try and get up a tree. But it had to be the perfect tree. Too big and the bear could climb it. Too small and the bear could break it or shake it down. I am thinking. Oh sure. I’d be scared out of my wits, running and I would have the presence of mind to look for the perfect tree? Luckily I never had to try out that theory.
One of the locals had a plane and he asked me if I’d like to fly along the river and he practically guaranteed we’d see bear. This was my first time ever in a plane. Along the river’s banks we did see bear. He banked the plane so I was leaning looking out the side of the window. The bear were reaching in the air as if to try and get the plane. We continued to fly up towards Kintla Lake passing over a large herd of elk. We flew a long ways up Kintla lake. This is heaven on earth.
Being June the river was running very fast and high. Mr Pittman let us use his river raft and float the North Fork. We got caught in a log jam and I had to get out on the logs to push the boat back into the current. It was just David and I and neither one of us had ever done anything like this. We were young and dumb. Lucky we didn’t drown.
We also made many trips into Kalispell the meet other young people and to cruise. Back to that roundabout. I’d listen to KOFI on the radio, because in the evening they had more of a current music format. We could also pick up a station out of Canada. CJOC.
We were good kids, but also liked to have a little fun. During this era there was nothing between Kalispell and Columbia Falls except for a bar. You could only get beer at a bar at that time in Montana. It was called off sale, when you got it to go. I was only 18 and the legal age was 21.
The local kids told me to go the this bar and order my beer. I had never drank Rainer, but I found it became my favorite. I said what I wanted, and they checked my ID. He said to get out of here I wasn’t old enough. What it really meant was drive around back. he’d take your money and give you your beer. It helps to get to know local kids.
David had led a pretty sheltered life and hadn’t drank much. On one of these runs he drank too much and got sick as a dog. To make matters worse, I ran over a skunk along the North Fork road. Remember that ground clearance problem. It was super strong and sickening.
We went to the Polebridge Store the next day to try to come out with something to get rid of the smell and clean the mess made in my car. Lloyd Sondreson was there and we told him that David got sick from hitting the skunk. He said “like hell. He’s not skunk sick. He’s drunk sick”. His words always stayed with me. It took weeks, if not months, before that skunk smell finally was gone.
On another trip we returned to find our tent in shambles and bear prints on the floor. For the next few days we slept in the block shower house only to find out Mr. Pittman staged the whole thing. It looked real to us.
On another trip to town we encountered a major forest fire. It was burning on both sides of the road. I think it was called the Coal Creek fire. The end of summer was nearing. Did more in that few months then many do in their life. Hiking, moose encounters, nightly bon fires, enjoying the millions of stars without any light pollution and simply having nature become part of my soul.
I never took any long hikes in Glacier. I walked a little ways around Bowman Lake, but not very far. As I recall the view was obstructed by the forest. It was spectacular just to admire the view from the shore line.
One of my favorite hikes was to the Cyclone fire lookout. There was a small lake along the trail. It was so calm and quiet. You could hear sounds from far away. I heard what sounded like splashing in the distance. I came upon the lake, and on the far shore were moose. They were not aware I was there and they just stayed and enjoyed the water.
I enjoyed watching them for a long time, then continued on my hike to the lookout. When I got to the fire lookout I met the couple working there. They were school teachers, and this was their summer job. I thought to myself “How do I get a job like that?”
They took me to the top of the lookout and explained the topography maps, and what they looked for, especially if there had been any recent lightning in the area. Their provisions were brought to them via pack horses. On the return hike I came upon an open eadow, and I sat on the ground for a good long time just enjoying the peace and solitude.
It was heaven on earth.
I had never been to Canada so one time David and I jumped into the Corvair and headed up the North Fork road to the Canadian border, just so we could say we’d been in Canada. What we did not expect was to come upon a large moose in the middle of the road. I honked the horn but it would not get out of the road. It kept on going up the road and like an idiot, I kept honking.
The moose stopped, turned around and charged towards the car. I threw it in reverse and starting backing up as fast as I could. Luckily the moose finally stopped, turned around and headed back up the road. I stayed back, did not honk the horn, and finally after what seemed like a mile or so, there was a stream that crossed the road, and the moose headed into the woods.
We made to the border, turned around and headed back. I could now say I’d been to Canada and flown in a plane.
The Community Center
Along the North Fork road there was a community center, where the local’s would go for fun gatherings. They had a spruce up party, and I ran the large orbital sander, to redo the wood floors. It was work but also a lot of fun.
One of the regular events they offered were square dances. I never in my life as an 18 year old thought I would square dance. In my mind this was the kind of thing only old people did. Turns out it was easy to learn and great fun. I couldn’t wait for the next dance to come around. I was never a religious person, but every other Sunday a Lutheran Minister would come up from the valley and give a sermon. He was really interesting to listen to. Maybe it just seemed appropriate since simply being in the North Fork was like heaven.
Fly Fishing the North Fork River
David and I also like to fish in the North Fork River. I would go right out into the middle of the current in shorts and a T-shirt. You didn’t worry about waders and all kind of fancy gear back then. The water was freezing cold, but you sort of got used to it.
We were about finished one time. We were reeling in our lines and David appeared to get snagged on a log. He kept on reeling, expecting his line to snap at any moment. It still didn’t, and after what seemed like a very long time, our log was in site in the crystal clear water. It was a huge fish on the line. It never did put up a fight.
Turns out it was what we were told was a Dolly Varden. I now know that it was actually what they call a Bull Trout. We took it back to our camp and laid it next to a tape measure. It was 30 inches, which was good because we later found out, that anything under 26 inches had to be returned. We ate the fish that night, and for a few nights after. It was some of the best fish I ever tasted.
Because of clearing Mr. Pittman’s land for camp sites, there was never a shortage of firewood. Nearly every evening we would have a large bon fire, sitting around enjoying conversations, looking at more stars then I ever knew existed, and on occasion we were treated to the Northern Lights.
Always Thinking About Glacier
All of these experiences are all why after 45 years there is not a day goes by that I don’t think about, Glacier, Polebridge and the North Fork. It’s like they say about Harley Davidsons. If you have to ask, then you just don’t understand.