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Flathead River access in Evergreen a beloved sanctuary

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | August 2, 2021 12:00 AM

The afternoon haze did little to keep local recreationists away from the riverbanks at the Old Steel Bridge fishing access site one recent Friday afternoon.

A gaggle of preteens leaped off the bridge to a chorus of cheers from their peers, while fishing guides packed up after a day's excursion and a couple in folding chairs watched it all transpire from their perch on the shoreline. The site has long been a popular spot for Evergreen locals to enjoy the river. It's just a few minutes from the community center and a well-utilized pullout point for river floaters and anglers who take the two-hour journey from the Pressentine fishing access site along the Flathead River.

Outfitter A.J. Coulter frequents the Old Steel Bridge pullout on his half-day guided fishing trips.

"The trout fishing below here starts to wane quite a bit because of water temps," Coulter said.

Over the past few decades, he's noticed an exponential increase in use along the stretch of river, mostly of the commercial variety, but public use is up too, given the Flathead Valley's growing population.

"It's right here," guide Josh Berreth noted. "You don't have to drive very far."

LOCALS LORI and Randy Holgate stop by Old Steel Bridge to take in the evening or enjoy a Dairy Queen Blizzard.

"I want to see what the river's doing, how high, how fast," she said. "It was pretty busy today."

The couple still remembers when the namesake bridge spanned the river. Back in its heyday, the Old Steel Bridge replaced river ferries, providing access for local farmers and ranchers into the main hub of Kalispell. The 600-foot steel truss bridge was constructed in 1894 and served the local community until 2008 — three years after the rusted structure was deemed a hazard.

A modern bridge with a $9 million price tag was constructed after the old bridge was removed, but the name remains.

Proximity and local nostalgia is part of the allure of the Old Steel Bridge site, but not the whole story.

"You'll see a bald eagle, an osprey," fishing guide Cameron Houston said of the river leading up to Evergreen. "It does kind of braid between some islands and feels relatively undeveloped, even though you're floating essentially from the airport to Evergreen. … It feels a little wilder than it really is, which is nice."

On that recent Friday, evening river traffic was slim. A handful of fishing boats and kayakers dispersed along the river. Sun filtered through tree stands, where roots dangled off the edge in spots where erosion has taken its toll. Small birds darted out of holes on the riverbanks, performing aerial acrobatics in pursuit of their dinners. The winding ribbon of water carried its passengers, perhaps disappointingly, back to civilization as they floated closer to town. But for a few hours, they had enjoyed the sights and sounds of a much wilder place, mere minutes from the heart of Evergreen.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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Outfitter A.J. Coulter loads up his boat at the Old Steel Bridge fishing access site in Evergreen on Friday, July 16, 2021. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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Lori and Randy Holgate take in the evening along the banks of the Flathead River at the Old Steel Bridge fishing access site in Evergreen on Friday, July 16, 2021. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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A kayaker paddles along the Flathead River en route to the Old Steel Bridge fishing access site in Evergreen on Friday, July 16, 2021. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)