Just getting to Polebridge is an adventure. There are two ways to get there from West Glacier: the Outside North Fork Road, or the Inside North Fork Road. They roughly parallel one another, on either side of the North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms much of the western boundary of Glacier Park. Inside North Fork Road is all dirt/gravel and frequently closed. Outside North Fork Road, originating in Columbia Falls, is the "better" one; portions of it are even paved.
Save don't pave: I was to learn in Polebridge that most North Fork folks do not want the unpaved parts of their access road paved, and for good reasons. The North Fork Preservation Association (www.gravel.org) is a local activist group whose mission is to protect the natural resources that make the North Fork an unparalleled environment for wildlife and people. They believe full paving would hasten development, threaten wildlife and water quality, and encourage faster driving speeds.
Though it was our experience that some drivers in dusty trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles went rip-roaring down the road leaving us in their wake quickly rolling up our windows to avoid dust suffocation, others and timid tourists like us were taking it at a more sane speed, namely, snail’s pace. We accessed Outside North Fork Road from (paved) Camas Road inside Glacier Park. Both roads pass through large swatches of burned trees on either side of the Flathead.
Eventually we reach an open meadow scattered with a few cabins, most old, some falling apart. The Polebridge sign announces the general store, North Fork Hostel, Square Peg Ranch, cabins and camping. Slow Down people breathing is broad-tip felt penned on rough cracking boards nailed to a wooden pole on the side of the tree-lined washboardy gravel road.
Anticipation builds as we spy the large, red "Merc" building, localese for Polebridge Mercantile at the end of the road. Dogs, bicycles, and a car or two are parked in front of the old well preserved building. A somewhat tattered American flag is fluttering high on a thin pole to its right.
Polebridge is named for the bridge connecting this community to the Glacier Park side a bit further upriver. Bill Adair and his wife Jessie settled here in 1904. The unhewn log homestead cabin they built in 1912 now serves as Northern Lights Saloon and Café, open most evenings for dinner roughly at 4pm. They built the false-fronted Mercantile store in 1914, and it quickly became a social center and gathering place for other North Fork homesteading families. Though that population has dwindled, it’s still a social hub for the folks who make the North Fork their home, full-time or part-time.
Melanie (co-owner of Sundance RV Park) was right when she told us the baked creations at the Merc were to die for. Though I am blessed (or cursed) depending on point of view, with anosmia (no sense of smell), my husband Bob attests that the odors wafting around indoors were extremely hunger-inducing. Never mind smell, just looking at all the breads, buns, and trays of cookies was a visual delight.
A profusion of cinnamon buns and breakfast rolls, loaves laced with potato strings, onion, cheddar and parsley; guacamole-garlic-mozzarella bread, focaccia loaded with black olives, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, cheddar, jack and Parmesan, plump cookies of all sorts, a couple of generous prepared sandwiches ready for a late lunch… Need I say more? Everything looked like it just had come out of the oven; in fact, the long-haired sandled guy working the Merc was taking trays out of the oven as we watched. It was only with tremendous will power that we had him put our sack of goodies under the counter for us to pick up later, after our meal at Northern Lights.
In the last 12 years since Dan and Deb Kaufman from Idaho took over the Merc, it’s become famous statewide and beyond for bakery goods. But you can find a little bit of everything on its shelves, from grocery items to clothing to fishing licenses and souvenirs. It’s even a post office. And it’s one of the few places in Polebridge with a phone.
Polebridge has such a ‘60’s feel it’s uncanny. The "back to the earth" part of the ‘60s. Though it’s not a commune and the growing season is way too short for serious vegetable gardening, a bowl of small local apples on a sunny windowside table at the Merc has an index card stuck in it that says, "Free apples eat me!" A cabin down the road is named "Sweet Loretta’s". More cabins around the Merc can be rented, and the North Fork Hostel attracts all sorts of people, many international, in search of solitude and backcountry adventures. No electric poles mar the landscape; Polebridge is not on the power grid. Propane and kerosene are used for light, woodburning stoves for heat.
North Fork Valley lies between the Whitefish Range in Flathead National Forest to the west, and the Livingston Range in Glacier Park to the east. Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake are two popular destinations for camping, non-motorized boating, and hiking, both day hikes and backcountry. Polebridge is only 22 miles from the Canadian border (customs closed for crossing). The Flathead is a Wild and Scenic River for 42 miles from the border, and offers great fishing. Wildlife including grizzlies and black bears roam and thrive in the North Fork area.
Separate entry under Dining for Northern Lights Saloon and Café.
For more info, call (406) 888-5105 (the Merc), which stays open all year.