Life in the North Fork: Fortitude and blessings

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Lee Downes, 90, built a cabin along Cyclone Creek In the North Fork of the Flathead River in 1954 on a 192-acre placer mining claim he bought for $1,600. (Duncan Adams/Daily Inter Lake)

The tracks of wildlife meander indelibly through Lee Downes’ memories of a colorful life in the North Fork.

There was the black bear that decided the Cyclone Creek cabin’s woodshed was a snug place for a winter den.

There was the combative cow elk, protective of a newborn calf. The elk kicked and killed the family’s beagle and grievously injured its Australian shepherd/border collie.

There was the grizzly zealously guarding an elk carcass some hunters had abandoned on the family’s property.

There was a weasel in the woodpile. There was a cougar in the garage and it wasn’t a Mercury.

There was a hoary marmot dwelling happily amid a stack of two-by-fours.

There was the black bear with fur so pale it approached white.

There once were elk aplenty and bears galore and moose by the score.

One day, hiking along the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Downes family discovered a moose carcass a grizzly had partially buried. The dead ungulate’s legs stuck up straight in the air, like saplings with hooves and hide.

Another time, Downes heard a commotion outside. He saw barreling right past his window a grizzly in hot pursuit of a moose.

Downes, 90, smiles when he excavates memories of the North Fork from the days when this still wild country west of Glacier National Park was even wilder and life required ingenuity, backwoods know-how and fortitude.

A widower now for three years, Downes lives these days full time in Columbia Falls, the town where he was born and the place he and his wife returned to after her health failed. But he doesn’t seem inclined toward wistfulness — perhaps because he still owns the first place he bought in the North Fork and continues making memories there.

On Jan. 20, Downes and daughter Marilee Montano drove a snow-covered Coal Creek Road to reach the cabin the family has along Cyclone Creek.

They found lynx tracks in the snow.

Downes was in his mid-20s when he left the U.S. Army in 1953 after stints on the Russian border during the Cold War. He headed home to Montana with about $2,800 in mustering out pay.

That same year, with $1,600, he bought 192 acres along Cyclone Creek, purchasing an old placer mining claim. In 1954, he built a cabin there with timber he crafted into three-sided logs.

Some 30 years ago, Downes said, he was offered $1.5 million for the property. More recently, he was offered $2 million, he said.

“It’s not for sale,” Downes said. “My grandkids, they don’t have time to use it right now, but maybe someday they will.”

The Downes family typically occupied the cabin near Cyclone Creek seasonally, though Downes also spent time there in the winter when he had a contract job in the area with the Forest Service or he was logging.

In 1961, Downes married Marietta Louise Downes. She had lost her first husband, Neil Christenson, when he was killed in a hunting accident. Downes said Christenson was his best friend.

Downes did what he could to help Marietta in the years following Christenson’s death and eventually the two became a couple.

Marietta had two daughters and two sons from her first marriage. Downes moved in with the family in a house near Martin City. He and Marietta later had two daughters, Kerri and Marilee.

In the mid-1960s, the family purchased what they eventually came to call “the river place” or The Soaring Eagle Ranch. The 136 acres were west of the North Fork Road in the vicinity of the big sign that informs northbound motorists that the road ahead is bordered by private land for many miles.

In 1976, Downes built a cabin on the property. Marilee and Kerri helped peel the logs. A few years later, Marietta, Kerri and Marilee joined their father and the family lived full time at the ranch along the North Fork Road.

For Marilee, these were idyllic days.

“I loved being out in the woods — horn hunting, mushroom hunting, berry picking,” she said. “It was a blessing being raised up there.”

Both Downes and Marilee said Marietta thrived in the North Fork in spite of the relative hardships of living without power and running water in a setting where the nearest neighbors could be grizzly bears.

“She liked it better up there than in town,” Marilee said.

Columbia Falls resident Larry Wilson, 81, has owned land north of Polebridge since the early 1950s.

“Lee and Marietta were just a terrific couple,” Wilson said. “They were an ol’ time, raised in the country couple.”

Marietta cooked and canned and always offered visitors a meal, he said.

“She was a champion cook,” Wilson said.

“Lee preferred living and working in the woods better than anywhere else,” he said.

Interesting things happened in the North Fork.

Through the years, Downes hauled at least one corpse out to the main road in the bed of his pickup so the deceased could be retrieved and transported to town. One was the body of an old-timer in the North Fork. In addition, Marilee and Wilson insist that Downes once trucked out the body of a murder victim, but Downes said he has no such memory.

One day, Downes followed tracks of an elk and the bootprints of what he assumed to be hunters across the family property. Ultimately, he saw evidence that an elk had been shot, but nary a hunter in sight. He suddenly realized, too late, that a grizzly bear had claimed the carcass.

Downes said as soon as he made eye contact with the bear, the animal charged. At first, a thick stand of lodgepole pines thwarted the grizzly’s advance. But then the bear found an opening and quickly approached to within about 30 feet.

“I shot it in the neck,” he recalled. “It didn’t die right away. He stood up and was grabbing at the lodgepoles and then fell over dead.”

Downes said he first bought the land that became The Soaring Eagle Ranch because it hosted good quality timber.

He made a living through the years in various ways. He worked as a logger. He once did some trapping. And he also performed contract work for the U.S. Forest Service that included piling brush, clearing roads, remedying erosion, building fire lines, packing and more.

Downes owns a small John Deere 350 dozer and a flatbed truck to haul it on and he was sometimes summoned abruptly by the Forest Service to help battle wildfires.

“They’d come and get me in the middle of the night,” he said.

He said longtime Forest Service firefighter Bill Swope showed up one night and told Downes he and his dozer were needed.

“And I said, ‘When?’ and he said, ‘Right now,’” Downes recollected.

Wilson said Downes’ skillful operation of the John Deere 350 yielded results comparable to a larger Caterpillar D6.

Downes attended one year of high school and then took a few correspondence courses. Living in the North Fork required planning, stoicism and resourcefulness, he said.

“You’ve got to be able to get your own wood,” he said. “You have to be able to stand the cold. There was a lot of extra work to it.”

Downes turns 91 in June. He remains mentally sharp and comparatively spry. Hearing loss compels him to wear hearing aids and conversation can require high volume.

But what remains as clear as a hawk’s cry on a quiet, snowy day in the North Fork or Lee Downes’ piercing blue eyes is his love for the wild territory he embraced as home.

“I liked the wildlife. I had deer and elk and grizzly bears. I enjoyed the trapping, the fishing and the hunting. I feel very fortunate.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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