Story and Photos by Kay Bjork
There is no guarantee when “spring has sprung” in Montana with all the twists and turns of somersaulting weather, but it’s a great time to get out and experience the wonders of rebirth as the area throws off sheets of ice and blankets of snow, as if to say, “I’m up!”
Spring is a dynamic and magical time in the Flathead, perhaps felt more acutely by those who winter here, who weather scraps of daylight and sunshine in the dead of winter and the icy grip that turns into a punching fist with sub-zero temperatures and blustery snowstorms. The spring song varies in tempo, but the score always contains some of the same elements – the air fills with a cacophony of a bird chorus without a conductor. The trickle of creeks builds to a roar, sprigs of lime green grass sprout through mats of unraked leaves and dirty snow patches, and fields become carpeted in green – the song builds to a crescendo with the lift of lengthening days.
Spring is probably the most diverse season – from snowflakes to cherry blossoms – offering a variety of experiences as you venture out to enjoy some of the amazing places in our extended neighborhood before the flood of summer visitors arrive.
Wild Horse Island
Spring is a great time to visit this 2,160-acre state park. The green hillside becomes spattered with yellow arrowleaf balsamroot wildflowers and wildlife babies are born. Abundant wildlife, six wild horses, towering old-growth ponderosa pine and a large span of Palouse Prairie make this a beautiful and enchanting place to explore.
Access is by boat only with five designated boat landings around the island. The public is asked not to use docks at the 56 privately owned cabins scattered along the shoreline.
One of the most popular access points is from Big Arm State Park, which is a four-mile excursion to the southern portion of the island. Other boat launches closest to the island include Walstad Memorial State Park 10 miles north of Polson on U.S. Highway 93 at milepost 72 and the Elmo boat launch. Both are day-use only parks open year-round with seasonal boat launches.
It is easy to spend a full day exploring the largest island on Flathead Lake, which is covered by rolling hills and rises almost 1,000 feet from the shoreline. Four miles of trails on the south end of the island meander through an old homestead where you can find two old structures, an orchard and abandoned farm implements.
Wild Horse Island gets its name from the original band of wild horses that were left over from local tribes’ practice of hiding their horses on the island from enemy raiders, long before the arrival of European explorers. The Bureau of Land Management keeps this tradition through the “Adopt a Horse” program.
Old rams may exceed 300 lbs and ewes seldom exceed 150 lbs. They are the most sociable of Montana’s big game species and herds segregate according to age and sex.
At first glance you might not spot the abundant wildlife on this island, so plan to take a walk or sit quietly on a ridge or in the open flat. Head up one of the many draws or ridgelines in the convoluted topography of the island and you will likely discover herds of mule deer or Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
Visitors are prohibited from feeding or intentionally approaching within 100 feet of wildlife and pets are not allowed, to protect wildlife. It is a day-use only area and campfires are not allowed, but it’s a great place to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy while searching for and observing wildlife. Take a break on a knob for spectacular views of Flathead Lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Keep in mind the unpredictable and quickly changing weather on Flathead Lake. We have arrived in the morning to a lake that lay flat like a sheet of glass and left on an afternoon in waves so tall that the lake was ocean-like.
Visit the website for information and regulations before heading to the island. www.stateparks.mt.gov/wild-horse-island/