Seth Orme Photography

Flathead Lake Circumnavigation | Day 1

East Bay glowing in the mid-day light.

Day 1 | Grinde Bay to Bare-Belly Island | 18 miles

The gentle sound of water moving over rock brought my attention away from the dark silhouette of the Mission Mountains. Between those dark sentinels lay a vast body of water, the largest patch of fresh water west of the Mississippi River. Below, a nameless canoe sat quietly in the morning light - anticipating. It was time to get going. The all too familiar barrage of self-directed questions came to the forefront: 


“Are you sure you can do this? 

Is this my hurrah? What if you sink? 

What about the winds?…the waves?

Shouldn’t you have bought a sea kayak?”


The questions continued; I used to try and find an answer to them all.  But at this point in life’s journey I was familiar with the body’s deep seated desire to protect itself from pain, suffering or even death. The trick was to never take it personally. Without real risk and without uncertain outcomes genuine adventures could not be had. 

With a firm grip on the canoe’s gunwale, right foot in the center of the boat, I push off from shore. My left foot trails above the water, draining water. Silently drifting deeper into Polson Bay the questions and the noise in my head evaporate. An attempt to canoe around the Flathead Lake was on it’s way. 

The wood paddle slips gently through the water, leaving behind a smile. Grinde Bay fades as each stroke carries me south into the protection of Maries Cove.

Looking at a map - the west-side of the lake is pockmarked with coves and bays; the east-side appears smooth in comparison, with only a handful of large bays pressed deeply into the shoreline. This information paired with what I could learn about the winds in the area. The prevailing summer winds appear to come out of the south-west; but with the Mission Mountains nearby and the lake’s sheer mass, wind would likely come from every angle. The choice to paddle counter-clockwise was the best option. Starting from Grinde Bay in the south-west region of Flathead Lake, the prevailing winds should be an aide along the exposed eastern shoreline. The coves along western shoreline would provide the needed protection from strong south winds that build across the lake, hopefully. It all sounded right in theory. 

Polson nestled beneath the Mission Mountains

The early start had worked to my advantage. Glass-like water made for relaxing miles. The town of Polson was in full view approaching the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge. The bridge gave off the gentle roar of the small community’s morning commute. Gliding east around the southern shoreline, The Narrows became more exposed in the distance. Polson Bay is essentially its own lake separated from the main body of Flathead Lake. A narrow shoot of exposed islands and steep cliff faces connects the two. There were warnings of this tight bottleneck - big waves, strong winds. 

Continuing east, a fresh breeze blew from The Narrows pressing on the canoe’s port side. To accommodate for the wind, I took advantage of the canoe’s secondary stability kneeling down with my right hip against the right gunwale. Nestled low in the boat with more of the hull exposed on the windward side, the boat turned into a wind deflector. The added benefit of being closer to the waterline made for pleasant, efficient paddle strokes. Rounding Bird Point the tables turned and the gentle push of a tailwind solicited a big smile. A canoe and its cargo disappeared into the heart of East Bay.

The Narrows beckon.

Staring at the clouds, you couldn’t help but relish in the solitude, quietly celebrate the feeling, of being a small fish in a big pond. Around me the shallow waters glowed a bright seafoam green. A glance back at the world before continuing north toward Finley Point. It was only day one and already my world was distilled down to the stroke of the paddle - simple as could be.

Camp came into view. Glancing at my watch to see what time it was, the Casio read 1:00PM. Fifteen miles drifted by easier than expected. Resting along the smooth pebbled shores of Finley Point State Park, a lone canoeist eagerly shoveled raisins into his mouth. Focusing in on The Narrows, the water was calm, in fact, it was perfect. Three more miles to the north lay Bird Island - a pristine, heavily forested, 30-acre island. The decision came easily enough. Raisins were packed and the canoe paddled north toward a new home.

Camp on night one.

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