In Episode 8 of our streaming TV series Stomping Grounds, the Boat Trader crew heads to Big Sky Country, out to the untamed wilderness of Montana to explore boating culture in one of the last unspoiled, natural areas in America. Montana’s shining mountains, high wide open spaces and crystal clear waters make it one of the country’s favorite boating regions. From exploring Flathead Lake, to fishing the mountain rivers and white water rafting in Glacier National Park, host Ryan McVinney delves into the traditions, history and culture of Montana.
Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48 states, offering 185 miles of shoreline and over 200 square miles of water. Driving on the roads around the town of Bigfork and Flathead Lake, a person can sense the immensity of the wide open spaces of Montana, making it clear why Anthony Bourdain once said people here must learn to “bend to the land” and become hunters and anglers more as a necessity than as a hobby.
Above: A view of Flathead Lake from a lake front cabin in the woods on the eastern shore of the lake. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.
Bigfork Montana – Pontoon Boat Tour
Heading into the center of town, one feels taken back to an earlier Western way of life, and an unadulterated, ruggedly independent vibe fills the air. This is where the crew met Lance, a local free spirit, deemed the “unofficial” mayor of Bigfork who was eager to show viewers his stomping grounds. Lance runs a 21-foot 210 Sunsation Premier pontoon boat with a 40 horsepower outboard engine that he uses to take visitors on tours and cruises around the lake. His day-to-day on the water is the exact type of laid-back lake lifestyle that pontoon boats are designed for.
Above: Local resident Lance Nadeau on his 21-foot 210 Sunsation Premier pontoon boat in Flathead Lake at Bigfork Montana. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.
Flathead Biological Station
From Bigfork, the team decides to head South along the Eastern shore of the lake, to explore further. Passing the many cherry trees that flourish on the hills above the water here, we stumbled upon one of the country’s oldest biological field stations, the Flathead Biological Station. Researchers here study the local watershed and ecology to understand both natural and human-induced effects. Associate Director Tom Bansak welcomed McVinney and the Boat Trader gang and was happy to explain the organization’s work, shedding light on the waterways, fisheries and ecosystems.
Wild Horse Island
One of the highlights of Flathead Lake is Wild Horse Island, an unspoiled island on the Southern side of the lake where horses still roam free and boaters can pull up to explore the serene, natural landscape. This makes it a top destination in the area for tourists, visitors and locals alike.
Above: Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake in Montana. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.
Chaparral Bowrider Adventure To Wild Horse
An excursion to this island onboard a Chaparral bowrider runabout boat reveals some of the nature, hiking trails and scenic views from the island. Arriving in Polson on the southern side of the Lake, the crew found a packed marina with 86 seasonal slips run by the Flathead Boat Company. Departing from Polson they headed North through Polson Bay and around Kings Point passing by Bull Island through The Narrows, then turned West towards Wild Horse.
Above: Producer Caroline Keith and cinematographer Felipe Marrou with Boat Trader’s Stomping Grounds canoe onboard a Chaparral SSI bowrider runabout boat on the way to Wild Horse Island. Photo by Boat Trader.
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes: Early Canoe Designs
Next stop was to the St. Ignatius tribal longhouse to learn about the history of the Salish and the Kootenai tribes in this region, what their relationship with the lake and the waterways was like and what kind of boats they used. Elders here tell us of early canoe designs and how the people lived a symbiotic way of life with the water and the natural surroundings.
Sturgeon-Nosed Canoe (or Kootenay Canoe)
The sturgeon-nosed canoe, also known as the Kootenay Canoe, is a unique canoe design used by native tribes in Montana and the Pacific Northwest. Characterized by its sharp ends and reversed slope at the bow and stern, these boats are typically between 10-14 ft in length and made of birch, spruce, fir or white pine bark. The hulls were sewn together using cedar roots and sealed with pine resin. Capable of carrying up to 6 people and supplies, it was suitable for navigating through various water conditions such as marshes, rivers and lakes.
Above: A Sturgeon-Nosed Canoe from the Kootenay tribe. Photo via the St. Ignatius Longhouse.
We also learn about dugout canoes – boats created by carving out the inside of a felled tree trunk. They are the oldest known type of boat, with examples dating back over 8,000 years. Indigenous peoples of the Americas, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, commonly used these vessels. Typically between 20-40 feet in length, they could reach up to 60 feet long. Made from solid cedar or spruce logs, the canoe’s width was expanded beyond the original diameter by steaming and spreading the sides, resulting in thin hull walls.
StanCraft Wooden Boats
From the St. Ignatius Longhouse, we turn North towards the northwestern side of the Lake, where we meet up with long-time Flathead Lake resident Bruce Young, son of Stanley C. Young who founded StanCraft Wooden Boat Company on Flathead Lake, back in 1933, constructing early wooden runabout boats.
Glacier National Park – White Water Rafting Trip
Above: White water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Montana. Photo by Ryan McVinney for Boat Trader.
Finally we visit Glacier National Park, one of the crown jewels of the national park system, to experience some of the best white water rafting areas in the world. With over 1,500 miles of glacier-fed streams, bounded by the North and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, spring time here arrives with a rush of water raging down the mountains creating white water rapids that recreational boaters come from around the world to conquer. The streams here are also corridors for spawning fish, eagles, ducks, otters, beavers and numerous other species.
McVinney and crew get to hop aboard a white water raft and embark on an adventure down the Middle Fork River on class 2 rapids with Glacier Raft Company. The gang learns about the rafts and how their self-bailing designs keep them afloat in raging rapids where they fill and drain with water constantly.
Above: Ryan McVinney on a white water raft trip in Montana during filming of Boat Trader’s Stomping Grounds 8. Photo by Boat Trader.
Going To The Sun Road
Relatively few miles of road exist in Glacier National Park, thus preserving its unspoiled natural beauty. But “Going-To-The- Sun Road” offers a solitary route through the rugged landscape with spectacular vistas at every turn, making it truly a photographer’s paradise. This is the final region the crew explores before departing the area.
Sunsets in this place are where time slows down, and as the light fades over the soaring mountains, one can plainly see why Teddy Roosevelt fought so hard to protect places like these.