The North Fork Road, of West Glacier National Park, runs away from the outside edge of Lake McDonald and its outlet creeks and streams, for 40 miles through forest succession and recovering wilderness unhurriedly toward Canada. In terms of services, there is almost nothing there—a handful of water spigots, a few pit toilets—not even in the only town (if it can be called a town) along the road, Polebridge, MT. The road is only accessible by private vehicle, with a Ranger Station (typically unmanned) near the northwestern rim of the Park. The National Parks Service calls it “one of the most uncrowded sections of Glacier.”
I’ve gone approximately a marathon’s length up North Fork Road, several times, and never on foot. While Google Maps will tell you the trip takes an hour from Fish Creek Campground—my family’s traditional haunt at Glacier National Park, for its privacy and easy access to Apgar Village—the reality of driving North Fork Road is much different. It’s bumpy, it’s primitive, it’s unpaved the whole length. Driving it takes hours.
The National Parks Service is explicit about this, though perhaps also a little poetic: “As you drive and negotiate your vehicle along the dusty, bumpy, and slow-going North Fork road, imagine the challenges faced by early settlers. Isolation, short growing seasons, wild country, and harsh weather tested those brave enough to live in this remote and demanding location.” NPS is also explicit about its draw today: “…what were perceived as difficulties then, now lure visitors away from modern comforts.” Permit-only, primitive campsites dot the North Fork section of the Park, and day hikes enter places like Bowman and Kintla Lakes, even the preserved site of an early homesteader.
Our family went looking for different experiences: back in the late 90’s, a ranger told us that North Fork was one of the Park’s best spots to see a Grizzly Bear. Nowadays, the area is home to one of the park’s newly reintroduced grey wolf packs.
Our first trip down the North Fork Road—I must have been 11 or 12 years old—was in our family’s old Land Cruiser: a hulking beast of an SUV, that hadn’t seen much action on the streets of Spokane, WA, where I grew up. In my memory, anyway, Glacier National Park was one of the first places this car, or our family, had seen any off-roading of any kind. The going was slower than molasses. There were potholes everywhere, fallen trees, and culverts and drains from a development project from 1945. The road took massive turnings, threading hillsides, and fording creeks.
The North Fork Road itself was first constructed in 1901, a rough wagon byway built by the Butte Oil Company, to its oil well at Kintla Lake. A 1933 project proposal hoped to extend the road to Canada—to the Canadian sister-park, Waterton Lakes. The project was unfinished by the 1950’s, then abandoned, leaving the North Fork region relatively the same as it is today.
As my dad drove us slowly down the road, we noted little things—like woodpeckers, white-tailed deer in the meadows, huckleberry bushes—and big things, like stretching green meadows and sturdy suspension bridges over the area’s many streams. We listened to folk music, but Mum kept adjusting down the volume, our voices getting quieter as we mirrored the growing quiet of the surrounds. My brother, David, used his eagle-eyes to hunt wildlife. My sister and I fidgeted and peered out. I’m not certain, but I think I already needed glasses (and wouldn’t get them for maybe another year) and so wasn’t much help.
David spotted a pair of Grizzly Bears ahead of us, to the left of us, and our little family buzzed excitedly. Dad slowed the car to a crawl: he didn’t want to disturb the bears. If you’ve not seen a Grizzly Bear in-person, you might be unprepared for just how huge they are: standing height is a little taller than the average man; but female bears weigh 300-400 lbs, with the males almost 600 lbs on-average. They’re big. About 1,500 grizzlies are left within the Continental US, 800 of which range throughout Montana. These two were snacking on huckleberries.
We stayed for a long time, almost an hour. The bears seemed quite unperturbed by our presence, only bothering to get up to access a different huckleberry bush. There was a kind of striking, lumbering beauty about them: their formidable claws were sometimes visible, and their muscles and jaws looked imminently powerful. Inside the relative safety of the car, we whispered—and looked at each other with the kind of wide-eyed gratitude you possess, when you’re seeing something you’ll probably never see again.
It was a memorable trip for us, one that hasn’t been repeated since. We saw a total of 7 grizzlies on the North Ford Road that day. 2 Black bears. Dozens of white-tailed deer. We even spotted a moose, standing at the edge of one of the smaller lakes.
Nowadays, the area is still recovering from a series of devastating forest fires (as late as 2003) that sent the North Fork into a period of massive growth, decay, and regrowth. To hear a ranger tell it, this is simply part of the life cycle. Fires are good for the soil, for the regrowth of the region.Wildflowers are now abundant there. Other life will continue to return and bloom there—and perhaps we’ll see more, on some future drive.