A village that has adapted to withstand the test of time amid the wild and wonderful
Story & photography by Kay Bjork
After turning onto Highway 83 from Highway 35, you won’t find a stoplight or even a stop sign for 91 miles, but you will have to slow down when you pass through the unincorporated village of Swan Lake, lined with lake homes and a handful of businesses, many of which are shuttered and vacant much of the year.
Don’t be fooled by the village’s apparent sleepiness. Look a little closer and you’ll find a community with a rich logging history that has evolved into the vibrant centerpiece of this breathtaking recreation and vacation destination, led by a committed core of residents who wouldn’t dream of calling anywhere else home.
But before becoming a recreation haven, the village’s namesake lake was valued for a different reason. At the turn of the 20th century, it provided a way to transport logs in an area still unconnected by roads to Bigfork and the Flathead Valley. You can thank glaciers for carving out the 10 miles that formed the glistening water body surrounded by verdant forests and the majestic Mission and Swan mountains. Nobody seems to know for sure where the lake got its name, but it might be aptly named for the trumpeter swans that used to populate the lake or for Emmett Swan, one of the first settlers.
For thousands of years, indigenous people were drawn to the lush Swan Valley for its abundance of wildlife and for seasonal hunting and gathering, but because of long winters with deep snow, there was little settlement here. Among the first settlers to take on this wild and woolly place were trappers. Frank Linderman, who became a Montana writer, politician and friend of the Native Americans, came here in 1885 to become a trapper after “determining that the Swan Valley of Montana Territory was the most unspoiled wilderness I could discover.”
Then, in the 1900s, an expansive timber sale was launched to harvest logs to make ties for building the Great Northern Railroad. It was the largest single timber sale ever completed by the Flathead National Forest, with a volume of nearly 90 million board feet harvested from 1914-1919.
Almost overnight, a bustling village was established at the head of Swan Lake with a warehouse, dock, store, office, barn, blacksmith shop, cookhouse, recreation center, school and bunkhouses to meet the needs of a logging operation that employed hundreds of men in the new community. Cattle were fattened and processed at a slaughterhouse onsite; steak (and sometimes pie) was served at breakfast.
The timber sale required unique logging methods because of the remote location in an area only accessed by a trail established on the east shore by Native Americans and by water on a steamboat. A barge transported people and equipment from the foot of Swan Lake to the logging camp at the head of the lake. It was the first time that railroad logging was used in the area to haul logs from the woods. A Shay locomotive and miles of tracks were barged across Flathead Lake and then barged again up Swan Lake, where tracks were laid in cutting areas. Then the logs were hauled to the lake, where they were boomed and towed down the lake and river and across Flathead Lake to the mill in Somers. Logging operations were shut down in the fall to wait for ice to form, and then a road was maintained to allow travel along the almost 10 miles of lake.
Families came with the loggers, and with them sprouted a sense of community and exuberance reflected in an abundance of activities: fishing, swimming, baseball, dances, theater, song groups, poker, cribbage and huckleberry picking. “There was something about the air of freedom of mind and souls at Swan Lake,” wrote Martha Craney Wiberg, daughter of the logging superintendent James E. Craney, in a history memory book compiled to tell the story of the logging sale. A version of this carefree lifestyle and spirit endures today in both the people who remained here and through newcomers looking for a simple, high-quality life.
The end of the logging sale marked the end of an era, and the exodus of many loggers, but some of the families remained, a few of them carrying on the logging tradition. Others worked a variety of jobs, including for the Forest Service building trails, as lookouts and fighting fires. Trapping continued, and during the Great Depression, a muskrat farm was established in the bog at the head of the lake.
The close-knit community remained insulated and isolated for years with only a rough, un-surfaced road that wound through the steep hillside above the lake. Even before logging, the steamboat known as the Amberlea was used seasonally to transport goods and early settlers, and a shopping trip Kalispell often spanned three days. A power line wasn’t installed until the 1940s, and a state highway was finally built in 1959.
Pat Fenby Luckow, one of the only remaining descendants of Swan Lake’s early settlers, says her family did a variety of jobs. They sold eggs, milk and produce and delivered mail, while her grandparents established a grocery store and her father owned a mill. For the kids, life was carefree: riding horses or bicycling to the Mission Lookout, swimming, picnicking and attending dances.
“When you think about it, we lived a privileged life,” Luckow said.
When she had to live in Kalispell during the week to attend high school, she felt “like a fish out of water.” Luckow was happy to return to Swan Lake, where she has remained her entire life. Her husband “Swede” hauled logs and lumber, and her family stayed close by. Son Kyle has his own logging company and lives just south of Swan Lake, and daughter Tracy lives up the road.
“It’s a great life,” Luckow said.
Swan Lake became coveted as a vacation spot. Cabin resorts such as Deer Lick, Bosworth’s, Elkhorn, Patterson’s, Birch Glen and Larsen’s filled the lakefront areas to accommodate vacationers who flocked there, increasing the summertime population and activity and providing seasonal jobs. By the 1990s, the resorts became private, most of them selling individual cabins, often to people who had a family tradition of vacationing there.
As other communities in the region grew in the 1990s and 2000s, Swan Lake’s population and activity dwindled as residents aged, resorts shuttered, the school closed and the post office shut down. According to the 2016 U.S. Census, there are 208 housing units in the Swan Lake Census Designated Place, which covers 7.61 square miles. The American Community Survey estimates there are 154 people.
New homes have been built over the years, but growth has been minimal in an area surrounded by public lands and hugged by the lake. Swan Lake could be considered remote, situated in a “dead zone” without cell phone or cable coverage and plenty of power outages and snow, according to locals.
Swan Lake could have been a lot different today if a proposed ski resort with a hotel, casino and a lift to the top of Six Mile Peak (which would have been the longest lift in the country) had transpired. Residents say the plan was squashed by the defeat of a gambling initiative in 1983.
Today, longtime residents note that most of the old-timers are gone, and they don’t know all of their neighbors anymore with the turnover of lake cabins and other local properties and acreages. As a place where people come to play, rather than to work, it is dominated by tourism and summer residency. Lake properties have been increasing in value over the years, with an abundance of custom homes. The median age is estimated at 56.6 years compared to Montana’s median age of 39.8 years. Even some of the residents, many who are retired, leave in the winter now.
Businesses are redefining themselves to meet a changing demographic and culture. Kathleen Moon, who is starting her 18th season as owner, chef and a host of other duties at the Laughing Horse Lodge, started out with a more traditional diner open year-round. As the area changed, she realized she needed to change, too. She found her own niche with gourmet dining, featuring global menus that implement organic, natural, hormone-free, known-sourced and locally sourced food whenever possible. Her summertime “Tantalizing Tuesdays” wine-tasting dinners sell out before the snow has even melted.
Moon also offers lodging, kayak rentals, cooking classes and catering. Occasionally she brings in talented musicians during dinner hours or for special events. Located in the former Alpine Chalet, the log building has retained its old charm with the addition of Moon’s creative and eclectic touches, along with her two old golden retrievers, Josey and Cooper, and a talking African grey parrot.
At the south end of town is the Swan Bar & Grill, established in 1990 and owned by Dani Carlson and Jim and Joyce Sedivy. It caters to locals with a pool table, outside deck, horseshoe pit and comfort food, including burgers, fried chicken and a Friday night fish-and-chips special that feels like a weekly block party with a large community turnout. Along with O’Connell’s Qwick stop, it’s one of the only businesses to remain open year-round, serving hunters, ice fishermen, snowmobilers, snowshoers and skiers who take advantage of off-season recreational opportunities and catch travelers along Highway 83.
The only industry in town is Morley Canoes, which is the longest continuously owned business in Swan Lake, under the guidance of Greg and Anne Morley since 1972, when Greg began building handcrafted boats that became known for their beauty and craftsmanship. Greg’s son Steve joined him in the business in 2004. The focus remains on quality, not quantity, with a boat often taking a month to complete. Because of the popularity of the boats, the wait list might be one or two years.
At the south end of the village lies an iconic log store built in 1929 by the Toycen family, who operated it for years, selling groceries and operating the post office. The store served as a sort of clubhouse for locals, who gathered around a potbelly stove to share a cup of coffee during long winters. Several other owners followed until Joe and Jocelyn Watmuff purchased it in 2002.
Over the years, the Watmuffs have made additions and adjustments to the business because of the area’s increasingly seasonal nature. The store no longer houses the post office or has gas pumps, and it’s only open during the summer season. The owners expanded summer offerings with the addition of tent sites, yurts, cabins, boat rentals, an espresso and snack bar, and Montana-made gifts and souvenir items, while still carrying a variety of groceries and sundries.
The Swan Chapel hosts a coffee hour on Saturdays, giving community members the opportunity to get together to catch up, tell stories, reminiscence, and talk politics and weather in the tradition of the old-fashioned coffee klatch. The church was established at the old site of the Red Barn Bar in 1973 and was later expanded through faith and community support. An effort led by Pastor Chuck Cushman is working toward establishing a school at the church with the hope that it will revitalize and add stability to the community. It would be a case of life coming full circle, with school being held in a portion of the church that was originally a section of the logging warehouse where the first Swan Lake School was held.
The Swan Lake Chamber and Community Clubhouse also serves as a gathering place with a tiny library. The facility was established in the early 1940s through efforts organized by the Women’s Club, which eventually included men and became the Swan Lake Community Club. Carla Kahn joined the club when she was 18 years old and later served as club president for nearly 50 years. The clubhouse hosts a variety of activities, including bridge games, poker and the annual Fireman’s Ball. The facility is also rented for special events. The chamber and club hold a potluck every month from May to October, with both year-round and seasonal residents and businesspeople participating.
The spirit of volunteerism in the community shines with nearly a dozen volunteers each in the Swan Mission Search and Rescue and Swan Lake Fire Department, credited with saving lives and being on call for their neighbors.
Local organizations and residents join together for the annual Huckleberry Festival, which has endured and thrived since it began in 1981. As Swan Lake’s event of the year, it raises funds for the maintenance and operation of the Swan Community Center, and helps supplement county funding for the Swan Mission Search and Rescue and Swan Lake Fire Department. Hundreds of people flock to this old-fashioned event held at the Forest Service day-use area on the shores of Swan Lake each summer on the second Saturday of August. Short and sweet, the event kicks off at 8 a.m. with a pancake breakfast, and other activities begin at 9 a.m. at the day-use area with more than 50 arts and crafts and food vendors, a huckleberry-baking contest and a baked good sale.
Kathleen Moon of the Laughing Horse hosts a beer and wine garden while also serving traditional street tacos and huckleberry and Flathead peach pie. Thanks to the generosity of local and Bigfork businesses, there is a silent auction and a lively raffle of goods and services throughout the afternoon. Music by the Ashley Creek Ramblers often inspires festivalgoers, both young and old, to dance. A variety of food trucks and children’s games are staged at the picnic and swimming area, all to the backdrop of the lake, where some festivalgoers arrive by boat or take a dip or go for a paddle.
The reopening of a convenience store located at the north end of the village has added youth and vitality to the village with the vision and energy of new owners Preston and Hannah O’Connell. In recent years, the store and gas station (built in 1939 by Don Bielenburg) saw a lot of turnover with intermittent closures of the gas pumps and store. When they purchased the store in 2017, and renamed it O’Connell’s Qwick Stop, the O’Connells weren’t naïve about the difficultly of operating year-round in a seasonal area, so they added snow plowing to their services along with homemade pizza and Montana gift and second-hand sections. It didn’t take long before they became known for their friendly and neighborly manner — and Hannah’s homemade pizza.
Their business is a work in progress, as they listen to what the community wants and needs. So far this approach led to the addition of a courier service and plans for a “Just in Case” sale so that people can stock up to reduce trips to town. Preston says they both had good jobs in the Ronan area, but they came here for the lifestyle. By running their own business, they can spend more time with their 2-year-old son Jackson, who has the run of the place (along with their cat Mickey Mouse.) Preston is an avid outdoorsman, now living with the great outdoors right at their doorstep.
“Everything we want is here,” Preston says.
Hannah agrees: “We didn’t come here to get rich; we are rich in lifestyle.”
Don Bielenburg still lives nearby and stops at the store daily, where he greets Jackson with a high-five. At 93 years old, he is the oldest resident in Swan Lake, and until recently Jackson was the youngest, forming a bridge between what has happened and what is to come in the little town of Swan Lake.