• June 19, 2024

Wild Horse Island Flathead Lake

Just the name, wild horse island flathead lake, evokes legend and intrigue. A short boat ride from Polson lands visitors on this stunningly beautiful and primitive 2,000-acre State Park, home to an untamed herd of horses, miles of mountainous shoreline bounded by a spectacularly clean lake and wildflower-filled meadows. The place reeks of natural beauty but is also steeped in history. Centuries-old Native American legend is woven with latter-day tales of speculative homesteaders, eccentric dreamers and ambitious developers.

In the early years of the 20th century, the government opened parcels on Wild Horse to homesteading. A real estate speculator from Minnesota, Colonel Almond White, snapped up many of them. His grand plans included lakesides villas, a summer camp for Scouts and Campfire Girls, a power plant on a creek, farmland, Arabian and Thoroughbred horse operations and hundreds of homesites. He even envisioned a celestial observatory on the island’s highest peak. Ultimately, only a few families made their mark on the island. A man named Herman Schnitzmeyer was one of them, claiming 160 acres on the island’s southeast side. He spent the winter of 1913-14 on the island, battling isolation and, by his own account, near starvation. A skilled photographer, he created a self-portrait shortly after his time on the island that hints at his harrowing experience.

The island earned its name because the Kootenai Indians would cross Flathead Lake to bring their herds of horses to Wild Horse, supposedly to protect them from warring tribes who were trying to steal them. Though details are sketchy, there appears to be some truth to this story, says Amy Grout, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) ranger who oversees Wild Horse and other agency-managed islands and parks on Flathead Lake. Grout points to talks with Kootenai historians and also her own observations, noting that herders were probably able to ferry their horses to and from the island across a stretch of water that was much shorter than the current distance between Wild Horse and Cromwell Island.

One of the few families to actually build a house on Wild Horse was the Edingtons. The couple built a lodge on the west end of the island in 1910 and entertained guests with horseback rides and boating. But in 1934, a powerful afternoon storm brought waves that washed over their dock and drowned Edington and his caretaker. The couple left the island soon thereafter and never returned. Lewis Penwell, a Helena attorney, politician and sheep rancher, bought the lodge and the remaining Edington property and operated it as a dude ranch for a while before hatching his plan to turn the island into a game refuge. He stocked the island with mule deer, turkeys and bighorn sheep.

Today, the park is open year-round but spring and fall are best for balancing comfortable temperatures with lower crowds. Winter is also possible, but chilly temps and the fact that Flathead Lake typically freezes over limit opportunities to explore the island. wild horse island flathead lake

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