Through most of the long winter, the North Fork Flathead River drainage is a quiet snow-covered landscape of solitude for those who live there.
But for just one week, it is stirred to life.
The tiny townsite of Polebridge transforms as smoke begins to emerge from a collection of ice-box cabins, outbuildings and outhouses at the North Fork Hostel.
The centerpiece Polebridge Mercantile, with its iconic red-and-white facade, exudes warmth as the baking ovens are rekindled. Next door, the Northern Lights Saloon reopens to serve meals and drinks.
The spark for it all is a University of Montana geography field course. The class officially is titled Montana’s Mountains, but in its sixth year it has become more popularly known as the Polebridge Class.
It attracts about 22 students each year and is led by instructor Rick Graetz and Sarah Halvorson, who chairs the university’s geography department.
Graetz explained that the purpose of the multidimensional course is to immerse students in all aspects of the North Fork and bring the university to the community.
“The big thing is we want the students to interact with the environment up here. The whole thing now is outreach, getting out in the communities,” he said, referring to a priority of UM President Royce Engstrom. “We picked this place on purpose, just because a lot of people live off the grid up here. You have to work hard, you have to want to live up here. There are very few places like this in Montana.”
Off the grid, indeed.
Traveling up the North Fork in winter is like traveling back in time. Polebridge is only 35 miles north of Columbia Falls, but the drive on an icy, pothole-riddled road can take as long as an hour and a half.
Residents have to provide their own power and heat with generators, solar power and stoves. There is no phone service, except at “the Merc” and residents have to go out of their way to acquire satellite television or Internet access. There are no businesses open in the winter with the exception of the Merc, the hostel and the saloon during the weeklong class.
Oliver Meister, a dreadlocked German immigrant who has owned the hostel for six years, came to Polebridge purposely seeking a simple life.
“It gets a little bit solitary to say the least. If you don’t use your vocal cords, they get rusty, so you end up talking to yourself a lot,” Meister said with a laugh.
Meister skis a lot, does maintenance projects and he has Internet access that he uses with thrift.
“My solar power is limited so I try to limit myself as much as possible,” he said. “You pay attention to what you use. The hostel has always been like this. It’s an older kind of living.”
Meister goes to Kalispell about once a month, but “maybe more” in the winter because he prefers the iced road with less traffic to the choking dust and vehicles that come with summer.
The Polebridge class, he says, provides the hostel with a financial boost and he considers it a welcome respite from the lonely winter.
“I think for the whole community, it’s a big week,” he said.
Flannery Coats, who owns the Mercantile with her husband, Stuart Reiswig, has a similar view.
“It’s a great thing. It’s something we really look forward to,” she said. “It’s just nice to make the place come alive for just a week. For most of the students it’s the first time they’ve been in the North Fork and they kind of get it to themselves.”
The Polebridge class is worthwhile enough for Bob and Kathy Reiswig, the parents of Stuart Reiswig, to travel from Spearfish, S.D., to reopen the Northern Lights Saloon, a business they’ve owned since summer 2010.
“It gives us a reason to come up here and hang out a while,” said Bob Reiswig as he and Kathy worked on a lasagna dinner for the class on the first night of the week.
One of the big events of the week for North Fork residents is the Monday night lecture delivered by Graetz at the North Fork Community Hall about 10 miles north of Polebridge.
The hall’s big stoves are stoked and community members enthusiastically arrive with food and drinks. This year, Graetz delivered a talk on Yellowstone National Park.
“We bring the university to the community,” he said. “Instead of having vertical towers, we want to be horizontal in our thinking, getting out to the people who support the university.”
Graetz emphasizes that while the course is intense in its academic pursuits, the students are largely exposed to people who work and specialize in the resources they are studying.
“They are hearing from people who live and work on the ground every day,” he said.
The students got a chance, for instance, to quiz Scott Emmerich, Glacier National Park’s Polebridge District ranger, and go on a snowshoe expedition with him.
A North Fork resident for 23 years, Emmerich remarked that the students were highly inquisitive on a wide range of subjects.
Among other topics, they discussed the threat of coal mining in nearby Canada to the North Fork watershed, its fisheries and wildlife. They talked about the interactions of the Border Patrol and the park.
They even got into the long-running dispute over whether the North Fork Road should be paved. Some residents adamantly want it paved to reduce the dust and sediment pollution it produces while others vehemently oppose paving out of concern that it will open the door to development and undermine the rustic nature of the North Fork.
There are morning and evening lectures and discussions all week, covering Native American and settler histories in the North Fork, fire ecology, fisheries, geology, park management and the wide range of wildlife that still includes every predator known to have prowled the area since the park was established.
One day of the week is dedicated to going to the homes of North Fork residents.
“We go into people’s homes and talk about everything, about living off the grid,” Graetz said.
Sarah Halvorson says the students are required to select their own research topics that involve gathering data from the field rather than the Internet.
“Another important aspect of the learning is that students are forced to unplug for the week,” she said. There is no cell coverage, no email, no social networking. “They are so immersed during this week they are really forced to engage with our instructors, this environment and community members.”
People often wonder why the Polebridge class is part of the university’s geography program rather than a class in sociology or some other subject, says Will Klaczynski, Graetz’s research assistant.
“It’s a geography class because we cover everything. It covers all aspects of life on this landscape and living on this landscape,” he said.
That broad-brush approach appeals to students who are most often newcomers to the North Fork. Every year, some of the students in the class are from other countries.
“Everyone should do this … It totally beats sitting in a lecture hall,” said Nicholas Benson, a student from a Chicago suburb. “It just seems like it’s so far away.”
Rob Herrmann took the class two winters ago and instantly developed an affinity for Polebridge.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” he said. “I asked Stuart and Flannery if there were any employment opportunities.”
Herrmann and two fellow students were hired at the Merc the following summer, and Herrmann continued working there last summer. Still attending school in Missoula, he came up for this year’s class to help out with baking at the Merc.
“It’s more of an excuse just to get up here for a week,” he said. “It’s where I like to be.”
For more information on the course, contact the University of Montana Department of Geography at (406) 243-4302.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.