Flathead Lake on My Mind

by Steve Smith

Somebody recently asked me if I think the publication of acclaimed author Jon Krakauer’s book “Missoula” dealing with cops, courts, jocks, rape and rapists would diminish interest in my newly published and less controversial book, “Flathead Lake on My Mind.”

I replied that I don’t think so. People who wish to buy apples will buy apples; those wishing to
buy oranges will buy oranges. The books are vastly different and there are plenty of customers
for both.

Krakauer wrote about violence and vile violations of young women and their rights – serious and somber stuff about passions, brute force, sex and self-control run amuck. As Tina Turner once asked in a song, what’s love got to do with it?

If and when people finish my book, I trust they’ll know they have read a love story – a love story about a magnificent Montana lake that I equate with heaven itself. There’s an obvious clue as to what my book is about in the first line of the first chapter: “I love Big Blue.” The second line of the first chapter offers another clue: “Few ifs, ands or buts about that: “I love Flathead Lake.”

flatheadlakecover_grandeMy longtime friend Wayne Schile, who published this hard-back book filled with words and photographs, doesn’t fondly refer to Flathead Lake as Big Blue, as I do. Still, his love for the big beautiful lake of our lives is every bit as fervent as mine. Wayne dreamed for years about producing a Flathead Lake book; it was my good fortune that he recruited me to provide some words. Then, the two of us set out to find some other writers to provide even more words.

Lee Enterprises, whose Missoulian newspaper employed me as a reporter, feature writer, columnist and desk editor for twenty-some years, along with Montana Magazine, joined forces with the rest of us and lent significant help to the project. The result of everybody’s efforts may be “The Book” about Flathead Lake, according to reviewer Doug Mitchell in comments for Montana Magazine. Mitchell called
“Flathead Lake on My Mind” a “perfect companion for a summertime visitor to this truly special place.”

Mitchell wrote that books with titles such as “Flathead Lake on My Mind” can be “boring,” crammed as they are with facts and dates and statistics” and amounting to little more than travelogues. The Flathead Lake book, he went on, is “more of a personal memoir” and, as such, is anything but boring. I was relieved to read his opinion, because the sixty-plus years I’ve spent round the lake have been anything but boring.

I set out to portray, in some fashion, the incredible beauty and fascinating allure of Big Blue; one way to do that, it seemed, was to link the lake with various notable events – some of them tragic – that I remember – events as well as the memorable people involved in them. People! They are the crux of the matter, the key ingredient when it comes to banishing boredom from a book.

That in mind, I wrote about a charismatic, up-and-coming musician, Terry Robinson, who was an original member of the popular Mission Mountain wood Band. Terry was forty when he and nine other people died in a horrific airplane crash on the south outskirts of the Flathead Lake town of Lakeside. The crash was in July 1987 and here is an excerpt from my book: “As he approached the chaotic crash site minutes later, Bruce Young (Terry’s closest saw what he described as a ‘surrealistic scene’ that looked like a bomb had been dropped. Flathead County sheriff’s officers had begun to arrive; they would be followed by ambulances and volunteer firefighters. Bruce had a video camera in his Jeep and, at the request of authorities, began filming the ghastly scene for investigators.

He was in shock, given the ten badly charred bodies and personal effects strewn about. Also, he knew
Terry was dead, as well as other people he thought of as friends …

I wrote about a man named Dan Knight and his wife, Patty, who, with friends, were setting out from Flathead’s Yellow Bay to fish one day when all on board saw something in the water that they would never forget. Knight told former Missoulian outdoor writer and columnist Daryl Gadbow about it: “I’m not exaggerating. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. That was the biggest fresh-water fish I’ve ever seen. It was twenty-five to thirty feet long. Its fin as about two feet out of the water and it was cutting the water like a shark. Everybody was screaming and yelling, ‘What the hell is that?’ And I said, ‘That’s a sturgeon! That’s the Flathead Lake Monster!’”

I wrote about Big Fork on Flathead’s northeast shore: “Nowadays, Big Fork is spelled as one word – Bigfork. The late Nathaniel Blumberg, a longtime dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, contended that the U.S. Postal Service, at some point and for some dumb bureaucratic reason, changed Big Fork to Bigfork. He disliked the one-word spelling and steadfastly stuck with the two-word spelling…. Now that Nathaniel is gone … I’ve taken up his cause: Big Fork trumps Bigfork! After all, if you’re going to go with Bigfork, why not Bigsandy, Montana, or Bigtimber, Montana, or Bigbelt Mountains or Bigsky Country?”

About Flathead cherries: “No summertime visit to Flathead Lake is complete without buying …a bag of cherries at a grocery store, roadside stand or supermarket …. After you get your cherries and wash them in cold water, try eating just one. It can’t be done unless you have indomitable will power. One cherry
leads to two to four to eight to sixteen to thirty-two to sixty-four to a right good belly ache to noticeable
regularity of one’s digestive system. Indeed, Flathead cherries are a moving experience in more ways than one.”

About a multi-million-dollar mansion situated on a small island off the lake’s west shore: “The … Shelter
Island layout … is splendidly splendid and, I imagine, is owned by the Sheik of Arabi, the Queen of England, the Vatican, Warren Buffet or perhaps a conglomerate of all four.”

About the late Les Averill, founder of the Flathead Lake Lodge: “Averill said that nowhere in his travels …around the world had he seen such beauty. ‘I had never seen an area with as much to offer as the Flathead. I was determined to make a living in this valley, where I could hunt and fish like my father taught me, where the air was clean and fresh, where I was surrounded by beauty, and where the people were good.’ ”

From a chapter titled “What Flathead Lake Means to Me,” quoting a letter from Jan Irwin, who lives on Finley Point with her husband, Steve: “Often (a) Psalm comes to mind when I look to the east and gaze
at the moon coming up over the Mission Mountains – its light spilling westward across Skidoo Bay and right into our dining room window. How very blessed we are to live here.”

A final note: Professor Emeritous David Alt, retired from the University of Montana geology faculty, graciously contributed his magazine article about the geologic history of Flathead Lake to “Flathead Lake on My Mind.” Sadly, he died on April 26 in Missoula. Condolences to his family.

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