Watching the sunset from the dock at Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana, is a visual delight in stereo. Whatever alpenglow plays across the mountains and skies reflects below, across the seven-mile breadth of 30-mile-long Flathead Lake. Twin sunsets … but everything here is twice as nice. Another day closes at this historic guest ranch and folks are making plans for tomorrow as they dangle their feet in the lake’s cool waters. It’s a good thing the summer days are long this far north.
There’s a lot to see and do. After a day of trail rides, mountain biking, fly-fishing, sporting clays, swimming, sailing, hiking, or a host of other possibilities, guests gather for a family-style dinner in the main lodge. On Friday evenings pretty much everyone shows up for Mouse Racing followed by a Barn Dance, during which multiple generations let loose to live music. Teenagers from all over the country (and world) line dance with an admirable lack of self-consciousness. Newcomers jump right in. There are no strangers here. This place is home, their home as far as they’re concerned, not just for their current one- or two-week stays, but for the duration of their lives, their parents’ lives, and, in some cases, their grandparents’ lives. What keeps families returning generation after generation goes beyond the classic fare of horseback riding and campfire tales; the Averill family’s secret sauce lies in the varietal blend of history, authenticity, location, and a back-breaking load of determination. Three lodge buildings and stand-alone log cabins, each with hand-hewn log furniture and homemade quilts, welcome visitors to enjoy a luxury rustic experience.
Les Averill was not prone to idling, except where motors were concerned. At 14 he started an engine repair business that evolved into a partnership and thriving boat-building business. Les attended high school classes in the mornings then hitchhiked 15 miles to work on the boats in the afternoons. In 1941, with the threat of war and a hope to serve, Les changed course and began flying lessons. He flew in the mornings, went to work from 8-6, then took lessons again in the evenings. By the time he was 21 he had his commercial pilot’s license. In 1942, he accepted a job with Pan Am only to give it up six months later to join the Army Air Forces and World War ll. By the time the war ended in 1945, Les had flown all over Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America.
Within a few months of his return to Montana, Les, bolstered by a vision and a business partner, bought an abandoned lodge in Bigfork. The 100-acre lakefront property, which consisted of two log lodges and four cabin shells, had originally opened as a summer camp in 1932. The 130-foot locally harvested logs of the main lodge tapered only four inches and were set with teams of horses. A massive stone hearth with an open shoulder-high fireplace was a focal point in the dining hall. Its location on the lakeshore and proximity to surrounding National Forest and multiple rivers made it a unique destination. Despite these obvious pluses, the business went through two owners and two closures by the time Les and Roy acquired it.
In May 1946, Flathead Lake Lodge opened as a Supper Club on the weekends and as a hunting and fishing lodge. They roasted hindquarters of beef on a spit in the dining hall while live bands played for their guests. Each partner married and the foursome’s ideas diverged on future plans for their business. Les and his wife Dolores dreamed of expanding into a guest ranch and outfitting service.
By late 1949, the Averills bought out their partners and began the transformation. Besides hard work, long hours, and creativity, the Averills experienced a few doses of good luck to keep them going in the early years. During one post-season lull, a couple arrived in a Cadillac with an abundance of good looks and even more cash. Les and Dolores kept the Lodge open for the pair for a week, then spent another two weeks with them in the Bob Marshall Wilderness only to discover they were entertaining the infamous Las Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel and his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. On the lighter side, Bing Crosby, General Matthew Ridgway, and President George Bush have all visited Flathead Lake Lodge. These Hollywood, military, and social connections became invaluable word of mouth marketing.
Les and Dolores’s four sons grew up mending fences, washing dishes, leading horse rides, and whatever else needed doing. They made lifelong friends with their guests’ children, who then grew up to return with their own children. Doug recalls a childhood defined by hard work and carefree living. “We used to run the herd of horses though the center of town every night to pasture them above Bigfork, then bring them back through the next morning.” At 16, the death of his mother prompted him to take over the task of reservations and marketing while his dad struggled to sustain three separate cattle ranches.
The brothers purchased Flathead Lake Lodge from their father in 1972. The Lodge grew in scope and influence, expanding to 2,000 acres bordering National Forest, 19 cabins, two main lodges, a conference center, horse complex, trapper’s cabin, and campsites. For years the Lodge ran a Rodeo Clinic, teaching skills to rodeo hopefuls drawn by PRCA World Champs Dean Oliver and the Camarillo brothers. Doug’s older brother, Darv, a six-time Montana Champion Calf Roper and Montana Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer, was integral in the effort. Doug was also inducted and awarded the Lifetime Cowboy Heritage Award for his continued support and promotion of pro rodeo. This is a guest ranch run by cowboys who’ve lived it, loved it, and shared it. Doug eventually bought out his brothers, who pursued other interests. Though Doug and his wife, Maureen, are still active owners, after 46 years of running the place, Doug handed the reins to their oldest son, Chase, who is the current CEO. History repeats itself.
Sitting in the main Lodge dining hall, guests pass plates, sharing their meal and stories of the day. The massive logs assembled 87 years earlier have become a respite for many. In 2018 the Lodge hosted three weddings of couples who’d grown up coming here. Sixty-two guests had come 32 years together, 29 families met at the ranch and moved to Bigfork. One guest celebrated 56 consecutive years of visiting the Lodge. At dinner one night, five families boasted a four-generation gathering. Stories and memories stack up like the log walls enveloping them. Year after year the guests return … and the Averills welcome them home.
For more information on this destination go to www.flatheadlakelodge.com.