Whatever accessories are on your checklist for travel through the Yaak River Country, be sure to include a book by the valley’s most famous former resident: author Rick Bass. The most obvious is The Book of Yaak, but our favorite is Winter: Notes from Montana, about spending a long winter amid the mist, curling woodstove smoke, and eclectic folks in the state’s most mystery-enshrouded corner.
Bass eloquently explains the Yaak’s appeal, which stems not just from its literal and figurative distance from anywhere, but also from what its thick forests and foggy mountaintops leave to the imagination. Though it’s true that Lincoln County is sparsely populated the 56 on its license plates reflects that at one time Lincoln was the least populated among the state’s 56 counties it also doesn’t feature the wide open spaces and distant snowcapped mountains for which the state is most famous. Secrets are easier to keep in the Yaak. Along the Yaak River Road, narrow two-track driveways disappear into the shadows, leaving passersby and even delivery folks to guess what lurks amid the darkness of thick lodgepole, white pine, western larch (also called tamarack), and Douglas fir stands. In some cases FedEx drivers are simply instructed to leave packages on the orange X.
Aside from the lights powered by a grumpy diesel generator at the Yaak’s once-notorious Dirty Shame Saloon, electricity didn’t arrive here until 1963. And many families here still live off the grid, without electricity or plumbing. The river starts in British Columbia as the Yahk, exchanges the h for a second a as it crosses into the United States, and begins an alternately swift and meandering 45-mile southward journey toward a meeting with the brawny Kootenai River below US 2. The Yaak’s serpentine path suggests anything but its name, which is Kootenai for arrow. At its midpoint, the river passes through the valley’s largest community, Yaak, where some of the valley’s 500 or so aging hippies, loggers, and Forest Service employees emerge from the woods and unwind at the Yaak Mercantile.
Where once the forest was abuzz with the whine of chain saws and the thunder of logging trucks, now a conservation ethic has begun to take root, championed by the likes of Bass and others who are trying to preserve the last vestiges of America’s vanishing old-growth forests. Remnants of clear-cuts and old logging roads are still obvious in country that’s 90 percent forested, but today such towns as
Troy, Eureka, and Libby are increasingly orienting themselves toward outdoor recreation and catering to visitors who come to hike a remote mountain trail, hunt a trophy bull elk, or perhaps photograph an elusive wolf slipping in and out of the shadows.
The Yaak River Country route traverses a gravel mountain pass, traces either shore of the caterpillar-shaped Lake Koocanusa, and includes a piece of the relatively populous US 2, the country’s northernmost coast-to-coast highway.