Story and photography by Jaix Chaix

Few places can stir nostalgia, beckon adventure and inspire lifelong memories. For some, a familiar-looking boathouse prompts casual reminiscing, or unleashes the sudden urge to hit the water.

Indeed, a boathouse can seem like an old friend: always waiting around, always wanting to have a good time. And perhaps much like a true friend, they want you to go someplace else as soon as you get there, and are always there when you return.

So it should be of little wonder how hundreds of boathouses along the Flathead Valley’s many lakeshores are at once places of utility and icons of lifelong memories.

Looking around, or spending time on the water (as you should), one notices how a particular lake or area along the shore seems to have a particular boathouse style, or a certain nuance. But for the most part, boathouses seem unique in their own right, sometimes matching a guesthouse or main house, and sometimes standing along the shore in stark contrast.

Nowadays, there’s a unique mix of boathouses, both young and old. For example, there are more than a few modern-day behemoths: boathouses of grand size (and social statement) that are so large they give airport hangars envy. Some are outfitted with in-floor heating, “smart technologies,” and gadgetry galore. And some boathouses double as guesthouses (for a few friends, the in-laws, or many more). The configuration of “boats below” and “guests above” seems to be common.

Meanwhile, plenty of boathouses are barely large enough to cover a rowboat. Hardly fanciful, these more humble boathouses seem to be little more than haphazard clapboards put up against a frame of hand-cut timber long ago, perhaps on some summer day only our grandfathers or great-grandfathers could precisely recall (along with the very weather as well). Boathouses like these are of humble stock. And much like their land-loving cousins (garages barely big enough to fit a Model-T), boathouses of this vintage barely seem bigger than a rowboat and a pair of oars (revealing their original purpose).

And in between the big and small, young and old, there are boathouses with unique personalities that inspire curiosity and keep life in the Flathead interesting. And sometimes, boathouses lead a secret, double life, providing much needed “doghouse” accommodations at times of matrimonial strife, or nights of one-too-many, “honey-I’m-sorry” debauchery.

Some boathouses boast a Swiss Alps aesthetic. Others seem fashionably mid-century modern (although more by lack of updating than intent) or just plain contemporary. Yet many have finishes and appeal far too idiosyncratic to even dare identify. That is, unless you know the precise term for a 1960s, wood-framed boathouse adorned with a broken oar, rusty fishing lures, and random “Gone Fishing” signs from the 1970s (“shabby-chic” just doesn’t seem to fit). And some seem re-jiggered and re-configured, as more than a few “kayak bunkers” can be found around the lakes of Flathead, Foys, Echo, and Whitefish.

Indeed, boathouses are unique in their own right. But they all seem to be kindred places. And at quieter times, whether amid the morning fog at sunrise or a long evening as the sun sets, boathouses become magical places. For many, boathouses are places of departure, where memories return.