The handshake is firm, the smile endearing, the greeting genuine. When Charlie Abell heard some travel writers were coming to his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, he insisted on showing them around Whitefish Lake in his boat. So bundle up against the autumn wind, grab yourself a beer from the hold, and enjoy the ride.
You start at City Beach, where there's a public swimming area and a hamburger stand. There used to be a good restaurant over there to the right, but it got torn down and replaced by some condos. And it's right there that you detect in the voice of the locals the slightest ... Tension? Worry? Curiosity?
The folks in Whitefish have always sort of been on their own. It was a railroad town when it got started in the 1890s. Then it was a timber town. But the railroad got automated, and the timber got wiped out by regulations and big corporations that didn't manage the forests right, and Whitefish was left sort of ... out there.
But few places, and especially places like Whitefish, stay "undiscovered." And when a place gets "discovered," the money comes in to gobble up the good land and drive the prices into the stars. Then somebody wants to develop million-dollar homes up at the ski hill or along the new golf courses.
So as Charlie Abell points out the homes of the rich and famous -- NFL players, TV folks, movie stars, stock market wizards -- you have to wonder what he's thinking. Sometimes you sense a simple admiration for the homes and their occupants; other times you sense he's wondering what people do with all that money.
Charlie's grandfather came to town in 1913 as a machinist with the Great Northern Railroad. He raised Charlie's dad in a house on the lakeshore. Charlie's mom and dad built a house there in the 1930s "on their honeymoon," from timber they cut on the property. Charlie grew up there and married, literally, the girl next door. Now they have another house on the lake, and Charlie is the "president/CEO/sweeper/paycheck deliverer" at the Whitefish Credit Union.
At one point, you come to a place on the lake where there are no houses, and you ask Charlie about it. "That's privately owned," he says. And who owns it? "We do." That, he says, is why it's in pristine natural condition; he hopes his kids will keep it that way. God knows they've had offers.
Charlie is something of a caretaker of the lake. Somebody asked about the rope swing, and Charlie said he'll keep taking it down as long as people keep putting it up. "Liability," he says. He tells another story about "some teenagers who like to cuss" starting a bonfire in the middle of wildfire season. Charlie, in what I suspect is an understatement, says he pulled up in his boat "and discussed it with them."
You look down into the water and you can see the bottom at about 30 feet. Charlie says it used to be a little clearer. He says you can still drink it, though. The county doctor used to pipe it right into his house. As for the fishing, it ain't what it used to be. But that's because the Fish and Game Department introduced some kind of shrimp to the lake, since in some Canadian lakes the kokanee salmon eat those shrimp and get real big. Problem was, Whitefish isn't a Canadian lake, and because of some subtle differences the result was "they destroyed a great fishery." The record for a lake trout in Whitefish Lake is 42 pounds, but Charlie says you won't get anything bigger than about 12 pounds anymore.
Of course, there are other things to do on the lake. You can take a twilight cruise or rent a canoe or sea kayak. The lake is seven miles long but has about 25 miles of shoreline, and generally the water is pretty calm. There's a rustic state park and plenty of little bays to explore. Or you can follow the Whitefish Canoe Trail. It starts at the head of the lake where Swift Krik and Lazy Krik come in -- Charlie insists that it's krik, not creek -- and you can paddle into the flat Whitefish River, get out at one of the town's parks, get something to eat, then finish the trip.
At the end of our trip, Charlie's wife is at the dock to meet us. We bid Charlie farewell and head into town for dinner. But his wife jumps into the boat with their dinner; they'll be dining on the lake this evening. There might be, somewhere, tension about the future of Whitefish and its lake, but you'd never know it at a time like this.
It seems that old Montana and new Montana are meeting up in Whitefish these days. My advice is to explore both. New Montana will greet you right off the plane and be somewhat tough to avoid, although plenty easy to enjoy. To visit old Montana, stop in the credit union in Whitefish sometime and say howdy to Charlie.