For the last 70 years, the Averill family has welcomed guests from around the world, including celebrities and dignitaries, to the classic Montana dude ranch along the scenic shores of Flathead Lake
By Dillon TabishTucked along the eastern shoreline of the largest natural freshwater lake in the West, the Flathead Lake Lodge stands the test of time as a beloved local fixture and iconic dude ranch that harkens back to a bygone era.
This signature destination looks and feels the way it was 70 years ago, when Les Averill revived the deserted property near Bigfork and built his dream of an old-fashioned refuge for families in the genuine, humble spirit of Montana.
There are no television screens here, or other modern gadgets. The 2,000-acre property and 17 cabins are sheltered from the distractive power of technology. There is cell service in this mountainous nook, barely.
Instead, the rustic rock fireplace in the Main Lodge crackles with fresh flames. The mammoth hide of a grizzly bear that roamed these parts decades ago still hangs overhead, recalling the time Averill was dragged from his tent in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and nearly chewed up. Classic artwork and sculptures decorate the various rooms, which are perched in front of the lake’s breathtaking panorama.
“This place is frozen in time. It’s what people conjure in their mind as an idyllic log cabin getaway that’s simple, friendly and in a beautiful setting,” says Doug Averill, one of Les Averill’s sons, who has managed the lodge with his wife, Maureen, since 1973.
For Montana families, this may seem somewhat commonplace. But for families from the vast cityscapes around the world, the lodge is almost imaginary.
“We’re trying to expose families to the Western lifestyle – exploring, being independent and being away from television or Wi-Fi,” says Nikki Averill, the wife of Doug’s son, Laine, who helps manage the resort with the family.
Generations of families have ventured to Flathead Lake Lodge and created traditions and memories that are deeply rooted in this corner of Montana.
Last summer a group of 66 people from across the country celebrated a week-long vacation for the 33rd year in a row.
In October, the daughter of Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former governor of Utah and GOP presidential candidate, was married at the scenic property along the lake.
Other groups have four generations of visitors who have enjoyed riding horses, fly fishing, boating, hiking and other adventures that are quintessential and unique to this area. The lodge has a remarkable return rate of 60-70 percent of guests.
“Flathead Lake Lodge is for our family a magical place where lifetime friendships were formed and a love of Montana developed that has been everlasting,” one family, which has visited every year since 1981, wrote in the lodge’s guestbook.
The lodge frequently welcomes celebrities and dignitaries from foreign countries, a tradition that dates back to the early days when many of the first guests, such as Bing Crosby, frequented here and helped spread word of one of the most scenic spots in the West.
For guests who want to stay here, a minimum seven days is required at the all-inclusive lodge. That ensures the opportunity for the full immersive experience.
“We tell them they can do whatever they want to do. They have free rein,” Doug Averill says. “We want them to experience a wild experience.”
The lodge can hold up to 120 guests at a time. It has also become a frequent host of large events and tourist attractions, such as the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival, which annually brings world-renowned musicians for weeklong performances and workshops. This fall the inaugural Craft Beer Relay kicked off at the lodge’s property with over 1,000 participants. The Montana Dragon Boat Festival and Spartan Race have also taken place at the Averills’ property.
The story of how it all started is as legendary as the lodge itself.
Les Averill grew up in Somers but earned the opportunity to travel the world after being recruited by Pan American Airways. Averill tested in the top 1 percent and became the company’s youngest commercial captain at 20. Once World War II started, pilots across the country were recruited to fly missions, and Averill enlisted. But through these years, while traveling the world, he could never shake the images of Flathead Lake and its surrounding landscape.
In the 1940s, piloting was an illustrious job, yet Averill gave it up and steered himself back to where he grew up in Northwest Montana.
It was then, in 1945, when he and a friend who also flew in the war, Roy Whitford, discovered a deserted property with old log cabins along the northeast shore of Flathead Lake near Bigfork.
The property had been developed as a summer camp for boys in 1932, but it shut down and remained abandoned until 1945.
Averill, envisioning a hunting lodge and family getaway, took all the money he had earned and bought the property with Whitford for $5,000.
The first year nobody showed up. But then, as fate would have it, as the summer ended and the lodge seemed doomed for bankruptcy, a limousine pulled up. A man and woman were looking for a scenic escape in the mountains of Montana, and Averill’s lodge seemed like a perfect fit. Averill, one of the first outfitters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, took them hunting and fishing and accommodated the couple nicely.
As it turns out, the couple was Bugsy Siegel, an infamous mobster who helped spearhead development of the Las Vegas Strip, and his girlfriend Virginia Hill. They were on the run from the mob and appreciated Averill’s accommodations.
“They spent so much money, they got him through the next summer,” Doug Averill recalls.
The next summer, the lodge began to attract more visitors, including prominent names such as U.S. Gen. Matthew Ridgway.
Les Averill became the sole owner of the lodge and developed it into the world-class hideaway that it is today with his wife, Doloris.
Les and Doloris raised their four sons on the dude ranch, including Doug, who began running the lodge in the 1970s while Les remained actively involved in its day-to-day operations until his death in 2006.
Now Doug’s sons, Laine and Chase, have taken over leadership of the iconic site with their spouses, taking it into the future with a new generation of Averills.
“It’s fun to be back involved at a higher level now,” Chase says. “It was good to go out and get the experience and bring it all back here. It makes you appreciate what goes on here and what has been a tradition for over 70 years. People come back here year after year. It’s a special place.”
For more information about the Flathead Lake Lodge, visit flatheadlakelodge.com