State’s longest, highest span connects communities

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  • Koocanusa Bridge across Lake Koocanusa in Rexford on Sept. 26. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Koocanusa Bridge across Lake Koocanusa in Rexford on Sept. 26. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Koocanusa Bridge across Lake Koocanusa in Rexford on Sept. 26. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Koocanusa Bridge across Lake Koocanusa in Rexford on Sept. 26. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

The Koocanusa Bridge has been referred to as a “bridge that really doesn’t go anywhere” by some, but it hardly seems an apt description for Montana’s longest and highest bridge.

In fact, it may be considered a slap in the collective faces of those who live on the west side of the truss span, built in 1971 as part of the U.S. Army Corp’s Libby Dam project.

The bridge crosses Lake Koocanusa about 7 miles south of the village of Rexford, in the northwest corner of the state. It has a length of 2,437 feet and, depending on the depth of Lake Koocanusa, is about 270 feet from the top to water level. It is the longest bridge maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

As for not going anywhere — Yaak, Montana is definitely somewhere, particularly for the 250 or so people that the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau said live there.

It’s about 41 miles from the bridge to Yaak. From the bridge to West Kootenai, which had a population of 365 in the 2010 census, it’s a dozen miles.

The bridge meant a great deal to the nearly 200 West Kootenai residents that were evacuated in September 2017 after the Caribou Fire ravaged nearly 20,000 acres.

Travel on the west side of the bridge isn’t fast because most of it is done on winding Forest Service roads. But for those seeking recreation or solitude on the west side, it’s a great shortcut into the heart of the fabled Yaak instead of making the long trip south to Libby and back north again.

The difference in the drive is nearly 50 miles. The time it takes to get to Yaak from Rexford, via the bridge, isn’t much different, but it’s all in the eyes of the beholder — a choice between a ride down the Koocanusa Scenic Byway, also known as Highway 37, or the heavily wooded Forest Service roads.

For timber harvesters, the bridge is a key way in and out of the Kootenai National Forest.

“The bridge has been very important to logging companies that bring timber out of there,” Kootenai National Forest spokesman Willie Sykes. “It also has a lot of recreational value, too.”

The bridge itself provides great views of the lake and surrounding mountains. It also has elevated sidewalks that provide safe passage to those walking or biking across it.

According to waymarking.com, the bridge is made of six truss spans that sit on five piers in the lake, with footings in bedrock on either end.

The bridge is a design of Morrison-Maierle, Inc. In 1972 the bridge was given a Most Beautiful Bridge award by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

Finding an exact building cost remains elusive, but the Forest Service notes that when the entire steel truss was painted in 1982, it cost $3 million. About $700,000 was for an overcoat that covered the original lead paint. In 1997, a new concrete deck was installed on the bridge.

Road bikers and hikers take special delight in the structure.

The bridge is part of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, a 1,200-mile route that connects Montana’s Continental Divide with Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

For bikers who utilize the bridge, the Tour de Koocanusa ride, held annually in August, is a 83-mile clockwise loop from outside Rexford to the foot of the reservoir in Libby.

Climbers favor the Stone Hill climbing area, which is just off Highway 37, a short distance south of the bridge. Stone Hill is both a sport and traditional climbing area. The majority of Stone Hill’s 500-plus climbs are challenging, rating 5.10 or higher, but there are also a large number of easy and moderate climbs for those seeking an introduction to the sport.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com

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