By DAVE REESE
The outlines of three kayaks glided across the black water of Flathead Lake under a rising moon.
Only the sounds of the paddles dipping into the calm night water could be heard, and the lights of Polson blinked in the distance. A ring of distant lights from residences dotted the shoreline, giving us the feeling we were paddling on top of a fish bowl ringed with Christmas lights. Our group of paddlers was on its way backfrom Bird Island just north of Finley Point, an excursion to discover the Flathead Lake marine trail.The marine trail winds around Flathead Lake, and features nine camping sites along the way, from Polson to Finley Point, north to Somers and back with several stops along the way. The camping sites have tables and grills and are reserved for nonmotorized campers, allwing canoeists and kayakers the opportunity to explore Flathead Lake's 120 miles of shoreline.
Each of the stops on the trail are three to 10 miles apart, the longest stretch being 11 miles between Bird Island and Big Arm.
Gerry Sawyer of Montna Fish, Wildlife and Parks began this project three years ago to provide a network of access points for wind- or people powered crafts. All of the public campgrounds on Flathead Lake have at least one campsite dedicated to nonmotorized uses. After 7 p.m.
It is modeled after a similar program in Washington state, where you can walk or kayak to many different campgrounds.
While Bird Island is not on the marine trail, it does offer public camping. It is one of the favorite stops for paddlers on Flathead Lake. The mile-long island has a few small beaches that allow for landings. The island is a favorite stop for Susan Conrad and Bob Danford, the owners of Silver Moon Kayak Company. Silver Moon is the Flathead's newest addition to the paddling scene, and from their home and shop in Lower Valley they offer sea-kayak sales, rentals and instruction.
The addition of the marine trail and the abundance of local paddling shops reflects the boom in sea kayaking in northwest Montana. With dozens of lakes and rivers, the Flathead Valley offers unlimited paddling opportunities, and companies like Silver Moon saw the boom coming.
"It's the No. 1 up and coming sport in all outdoor industries combined," says Conrad, a longtime local paddler who with Danford opened the company just over two years ago. "The growth in sea kayaking has just exploded in the Flathead Valley."
Conrad and Danford see the sport continuing to grow, for a few reasons. First, it is "gender neutral," meaning that women and men can do it together, Conrad says. Also, the sport can offer many levels of challenges: if you want to just cruise shorelines you can do that, or if you want to get out into the surf in the middle of Flathead Lake, that offers more experienced paddlers the chance for an adrenaline rush. "It's kind of a layered sport," Conrad says. Nearly 50 percent of sea kayakers are female, according to Conrad.
Just 10 years ago sea kayakers were few and far between. Now it's common to see the long, sleek boats on almost every third car, Conrad says.
Silver Moon has a small pond just a few hundred feet from their shop, so t hey can teach students on site or allow buyers to demo kayaks right there.
Other companies that offer sea kayak instruction are Whitefish Sea Kayaking and Glacier Sea Kayaking. The Sportsman and Ski Haus and Rocky Mountain Outfitter offer kayak sales.
But the owners of Silver Moon are tapping into the lessons and rental market. With American Canoe Association-certified instructors on staff, they can teach the skills needed for the most demanding level of kayaking, including Eskimo rolls and capsize recovery. "We love the sport and we love turning people on to it," Conrad says.
The difference in sea kayaking and whitewater kayaking can be compared to the difference in downhill and crosscountry skiing. "With sea kayaking it's like going anywhere you feel like breaking trail," Conrad says.
Last week conrad, Danford and instructor Linda Wysocki paddled to Bird Island for quick evening jaunt and a warm up for their full-moon trip last night. After a gourmet meal on a gravel beach, we slipped our 18-foot kayaks into the rolling sea of Flathead Lake and set out for Finley Point. Waves broke on rocky points, giving you the sense you really are on the ocean. But as Conrad says, "You don't need the ocean to sea kayak."