Flathead Magic: Celebrating 50 Years of Wild and Scenic Rivers

What a view. What a place. From the deck at Sally and Rich Thompson’s house, on a slope just above the village of West Glacier, views stretch across to Apgar Mountain, the Belton Hills, Snyder Ridge and the basin where Lake Mcdonald is.

You can’t actually see the Middle Fork of the Flathead River—that beautiful ribbon winding its way from the Crown of the Continent along the edge of Glacier National Park towards Flathead Lake. But, in the mornings, Sally says you can see a light layer of mist that gathers above it.

Sally and Rich know this river, the Flathead, intimately. Rich was born here in West Glacier in 1948 and spent his entire childhood relishing in the Middle Fork. Sally got hooked a while later, as a young adult enthralled in the gonzo early days of river rafting on the Flathead, and she went on to run a business and raise her family here.

Two people stand at a deck in front of a forest and mountainside

Photo: Sally and Rich Thompson on their deck in West Glacier, with Apgar Mountain behind them.

Today, they’re retired with a deep passion for advocating on behalf of the Flathead River—and for sharing its stories.

Their home, decorated with a slew of archives about the river—old photos, VHS tapes, a gorgeous oil painting of the upper reaches of the Middle Fork and an historic and giant map of the drainage—really celebrates this place. The Thompsons are an example of people connected to the world around them. And what a place!

Meet the Middle Fork of the Flathead

The Middle Fork is one of three tributaries that form the Flathead River. Its source is high in the glacial streams of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which is attached to Glacier National Park.

This is a river that moves people because of its wildness. Since it was officially protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act 42 years ago, it's become one of the hallmarks in the US for a clean, clear and untamed river.

And that's worth celebrating.

Celebrating Wild and Scenic Rivers

Throughout the summer of 2018, community members in Glacier Country of northwest Montana came together to highlight the importance of this river, and to mark 50 years since the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act came into being.

"If we can help show every guest who comes here how valuable this river is, how important clean rivers are, we all win in the long run."

A partnership between the non-profit American Rivers, Pursuit's West Glacier Village and Backslope Brewery in Columbia Falls honored and celebrated the river. Regular pint nights brought the community together to connect with the river. Each pint night featured a different beer, and a portion of sales from every pint purchased went towards American Rivers.

A woman holds a fishing rod and smiles in excitment.

Photo: American Rivers' Kascie Herron feels energized by the Flathead and the community that supports it.

"It's a really exciting partnership," says Kascie Herron, Conservation Advocate for American Rivers. "One I hope we can continue in the future."

For Pursuit, which owns and operates a number of properties in the area including the new West Glacier RV Park and Cabins and the legendary Freda's Bar in West Glacier, it was about helping connect guests with this special place.

"We see thousands of people every day coming to Glacier," says Pursuit's Danny McIntosh. "If we can help show every guest who comes here how valuable this river is, how important clean rivers are, we all win in the long run."

The fact that the Flathead is protected has a huge impact in the beer that's brewed at Backslope Brewing in nearby Columbia Falls.

"Water is one of the vital ingredients to making beer and we have an amazing water source right here with the Flathead—and we don't even have to treat the water," says Backslope's Carla Fisher, who owns and operates the brewery with her husband Darin. "Having that clean, clear water resource is important not just for recreation and for local businesses, but also for what we're putting in our bodies. We're strongly in support of protecting our rivers."

Wild and Protected now and forever

It's because of this designation that the Middle Fork of the Flathead River looks so similar to how it did during Rich Thompson's youth. He'd take his bike down to the iconic "Old Belton Bridge" in West Glacier for some fishing with his buddies. With his dad, he'd hike up the drainages. As a teenager, they'd descend the Middle Fork on rubber rafts.

Four people ride a red raft on a river rushing between rocky banks.

Photo: Thousands of travelers go whitewater rafting on the Flathead River every summer.

"It's wild, and it's been a wild river for a long time," he says. "It really does look very much like it was in my growing-up years."

See the beauty of this river and the impact it has on the local community in the short film above from Pursuit, Flathead Magic.

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