In the remote North Fork of the Flathead River, the century-old Polebridge Mercantile will offer respite from winter’s isolation and the escape from the pace of life on the grid

BY TRISTAN SCOTT | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LIDO VIZZUTTI
No matter the season, the trappings of civilization abate on the journey to Polebridge, the nagging fixtures of workaday refinement receding the further one travels north over this far-flung, off-the-grid landscape, its remote, rugged terrain stripping away the polished layers of urbanity like acetone.

Driving through the wild and scenic North Fork Flathead River corridor, the cell phone signal and chirping email notifications are the first to retreat, their attendant, tech-induced anxiety quieted and retooled with a streak of uncompromising individualism that runs deep through the valley and its scant population of year-round residents, who are handily outnumbered by the wildlife.

The pavement vanishes without protest, fading to rutted gravel, and the power lines along with their hypnotic refrain taper off 20 miles up the pockmarked stretch of Montana 486, known simply as the North Fork Road, the nearest town of Columbia Falls situated 35 miles to the south.

In winter, when the days are short and navigating the road is a snow-choked, knuckle-whitening endeavor, and even the dense concentration of grizzly bears falls into a biologically triggered winter slumber, the sense of isolation sharpens, and the rhythm of human survival is pared back to the barest elements – fire and light, warm food, the companionship of commonsense chores.

Polebridge Mercantile

Sunlight emerges momentarily from the storm clouds on Nov. 5, 2014, illuminating the Polebridge Mercantile and creating a strong contrast with the dark sky over Polebridge.

But at the Polebridge Mercantile, a lone outpost of civilization up the North Fork, a new pair of caretakers is re-animating this backwoods enclave during the winter months.

Falina Lintner, 23, and Henry King, 24, are well accustomed to the solace of Montana’s hinterlands, and for the first time in years they’ll live at and operate the “Merc” all winter, offering an array of baked and brewed goodies – huckleberry bear claws, cinnamon rolls, macaroons, microbrew, coffee, fresh-baked bread and pocket sandwiches – and keeping the shelves stocked with the practical essentials, like gauze and parachute cord, power steering fluid and Spam, making it a one-stop resupply shop.

They’ll also provide a venue for folks to scare up some chat when winter’s loneliness sets in, and are offering new and refurbished cabins for rent, complete with wood-burning stoves and gas ranges.

Lintner began baking in East Glacier at the age of 14, and possesses the requisite pluck to gut out harsh winters, dispatching the quotidian tasks of a remote lifestyle while basking in the warmth of the bakery’s oven.

“I have been coming up here since I was a little kid and I always remember thinking how cool it would be to work here some day,” she said. “And now here we are.”

“We both really love winter and enjoy the solitude. And we’ll get plenty of solitude,” King said.

Polebridge Mercantile

Falina Lintner, left, and Henry King, are the new winter caretakers of the Polebridge Mercantile.

In addition to baking and maintaining the Merc, their main charge will be tending the fire, the lifeblood of off-the-grid living and the heart of the Merc. If the flames flicker out, the pipes freeze and the frigid cold of winter extinguishes the lambent glow of livelihood in this unincorporated community.

And so, Lintner and King have been thinking about wood.

“We’ve got about 20 cords and probably need a few more,” Lintner said. “We have a calendar to keep track of how many consecutive days the fire is burning.”

The new caretakers have the mandatory mettle to maintain the Merc’s rustic integrity and subdue the cabin fever that creeps its way into the remote lifestyle.

They love the place and its people, in part because to get here, and especially to live here, you have to really want it.

“It kind of gets into your bones,” Lintner said. “You have to be comfortable spending time with yourself.”

About 70 people remain year-round, with a few hundred calling it home for the summer months. There are roughly 400 homes, and more keep cropping up.

Summer tourism has risen to a crescendo on the unpaved 60-mile stretch of the North Fork Road, and the romantic appeal and bucolic charm of frontier living is evident to the majority of visitors.

But few people call this isolated corner of Montana home, and those who do have learned to live with the earnestness of the North Fork’s seasons, all of which intensify here, where Canada and Glacier National Park’s rugged western edge adjoin.

Winter, in particular, is rife with cold comfort.

“The level of remoteness increases exponentially up here in the winter,” says Will Hammerquist, the newest owner of the Merc, which opened last May for its 100th year.

To celebrate the centennial and broaden the Merc’s horizons, Hammerquist set to work on a slate of projects, including hiring the winter caretakers, building a new educational “Transboundary” trail on land owned by the Merc, and reinstituting the Root Beer Classic, a storied dog sled race up the North Fork’s Hay Creek drainage, and offering a coveted purse to the winner – a bottle of root beer.

Hammerquist and several U.S. and Canadian environmental groups carved out the quarter-mile long transboundary trail so visitors can stroll through the scrub brush that remains from the 1988 Red Bench Fire and gaze up at the expansive views of the Livingston Range.

Interpretive signs pepper the path, providing information on the region’s history, geography and biology, as well as offering perspectives on the threats to the ecosystem along with environmental successes, including efforts to ban coal and other mining projects in the watershed.

The trail, located about 50 yards north of the Northern Lights Saloon, was conceived with help from Hammerquist, the National Parks Conservation Association, Headwaters Montana, the Sierra Club and several other organizations. It is free and open to the public.

Polebridge is a place steeped in a history older than the name “Polebridge,” and the Merc’s “General Mercantile Historic District” is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

William L. “Bill” Adair built the Merc in 1914, just four years after Glacier Park became a park. He fished, using only one fly (the Coachman), brewed beer and grew king-sized cabbages while his wife (and later, after she died, a second wife) ran the store and lived in their homestead cabin, which is now the Northern Lights Saloon, a cozy bar and restaurant that will not operate this winter.

He planted the only elm tree in the North Fork, which in the summer still shades patrons of the neighboring saloon, and his transplanted hop vines continue to creep up the saloon wall.

Polebridge Mercantile

Falina Lintner carries freshly baked cookies from the cooling rack to the display case in the Polebridge Mercantile.

The Merc’s interior bears the log walls that Adair hand-hewed with a broadax so he could adorn them with wallpaper, and the old glass-cylinder gas pump, which used a pump-and-gravity system to fuel vehicles, remains on the complex.

The Mercantile was originally known as Adair’s, while Polebridge was the store and post office a half-mile north, toward the Glacier National Park entrance.

That second store was owned and operated by another homesteader, Ben Hensen Sr., who opened his store in the 1920s because he thought Adair’s prices were exorbitant. When Hensen was awarded the post office contract, his wife May submitted the name Polebridge, which was accepted.

Tom Sluiter, 75, a retired college professor, lives in a cabin overlooking the snow-marbled peaks of Glacier Park. He built his first cabin in the North Fork in the 1970s, but it burned up in the Red Bench Fire of 1988. He and his wife rebuilt their home they live in today, but with each passing year the winters take a greater toll, and they are trying to sell it.

“It’s great up here,” Sluiter said. “Serene and quiet. We’ve seen wonderful things up here. But I’m getting older, and the chores are getting harder.”

Charged with youth and vigor, Lintner and King are eager to look after the Merc, excited to chew through a stack of paperbacks and enjoy the rhythm of their own uninterrupted thoughts.

“When you come up here in the winter, you take things slower. You’re not checking your email. You’re sitting by the fire reading a book or baking cookies,” Lintner said. “For us, it’s like a vacation.”