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Tour gives bird’s-eye-view of valley

POLSON — Locals know Mission Valley offers a number of hidden gems that beckon to adventurous wayfarers from across the globe, but even the most experienced of explorers could be missing something unless they see the sprawling geographic diversity from above.

Sean Fragua has spent the past 11 years guiding intrepid souls along the Flathead River, but the owner of Flathead Raft Company says an aerial tour last week with Blue Goose Aviation opened his eyes to parts of the valley he had never noticed before.

“I thought I knew the valley until I did this,” Fragua said with an ear-to-ear grin. “It’s incredible.”

Brian Morton also spends his days at Ninepipes Lodge telling tourists where they can go to enjoy Mission Valley, but gained an eye-opening view from above.

“It was phenomenal,” Morton said. “It’s a great perspective of the wetlands, the islands, the glacier.”

Pilot and Blue Goose Aviation owner Joe Kuberka knows how enticing the Mission Mountains can be. The retired Air Force pilot and his wife Kathy were stationed in Great Falls in 1991 and after getting one taste of Montana’s wildness, the couple spent all of their vacation time searching for the perfect piece of property for retirement. They bought some land west of Polson that is settled next to tribal forest and waited 15 years until retirement to build.

The couple have learned a lot in the time since they completed their home, and Kuberka sounds like a native as he offers up tons of secret knowledge about the valley that comes after much exploration.

An hour-long tour begins with takeoff from Polson Airport in a Cessna 182 four-seater plane. Kuberka charges $230 for a one-hour trip and $345 for a 1.5-hour trip, regardless of how many passengers attend. Upon liftoff the plane gains elevation, with Kerr Dam moments away. The blue waters sparkle from above, held back by high concrete walls and gates that are closed in this dry season. The tour follows the Flathead River south until it meets up with the Jocko River, with a view of the Clark Fork River in the distance. 

Kuberka navigates the aircraft above the National Bison Range, pointing out the huge ripples that are easily visible from above, and explains that they are scars of what was once the largest lake ever known to have existed. Glacial Lake Missoula’s shoreline scars can be seen within five hundred feet of the tallest point of the Bison Range, showing that the valley was coated in water during the last ice age. 

Kuberka explains that deer, mule deer, elk, antelope and bison are staples of the Bison Range, and that sometimes bighorn sheep and bears can also be seen. 

“I traveled through here 15 years and never knew it was here,” Kuberka said. “But it’s great.” 

The tour heads west, over the town of St. Ignatius, where Kuberka recommends shopping in at the Mission General Store after stopping at the historic mission site to see the beautiful ceiling paintings. Kuberka recommends trying the delicious green onion cheese at the general store and exploring the Amish community, who helped build his house. 

At top altitude, the tour at last reaches the rugged peaks of the Mission Mountains near Mission Falls, and into view emerges a huge waterfall with cascades that create a ribbon of white flowing down the black stone. 

As the tour heads north the sharp peaks, still dotted with snow, are visible and the remnants of past glaciers that carved huge divots into the mountains can be seen as a tick-tack-toe board of blue. 

“I bet you didn’t know there was this much water up there,” Kuberka said. “Don’t you just want to explore those lakes?” 

On McDonald Peak there is a glacier, a remnant of a larger ice field from warmer days gone by. 

“Where else can you see a glacier in August?” Kuberka asks. 

Behind the Missions, there are the Swan Mountains, and the snow-capped peaks of Glacier National Park. 

Kuberka explains that somewhere in the folds lies the famous Bob Marshall Wilderness, complete with two airfields, and only foot and animal traffic allowed in. Kuberka said he and Kathy have spent weeks in the beautiful desolation, to see only a couple of other souls. 

As the journey continues northward, Flathead Lake fills the lower landscape and Kuberka points out the major islands, telling his passengers how deep the water is beneath the surface and the underlying geomorphic processes that caused the differences in depth. 

Here the tour can go two ways. The longer version flys over Bigfork and into the Swan Mountain Range, but today’s shorter journey heads over to Wildhorse Island, which gets a shining review from Kuberka. 

On very clear days Whitefish Lake, Whitefish Ski Resort and Blacktail Mountain Ski Resort can be deciphered. Lake Mary Ronan’s turquoise expanse is dwarfed by that of Flathead Lake, but Kuberka tells of great fishing days that can be spent there. 

The tour heads north and Kuberka recounts the story of how a Native American chief jumping to his death led to the name  “Chief Cliff,” and how others attempting to recreate in that same area have met with the same untimely fate. 

The shores of Rocky Point and Polson come into view as the plane loses altitude and drifts back down for landing. 

At the end of the journey, passengers have sponged up so much knowledge about the valley that they typically say they will have to stay longer or make another trip to soak in all that is offered. 

“A lot of people say that they wish they would have done this first,” Kuberka said. 

The tour ends with passengers receiving a brochure of local businesses and attractions, a guide map of sorts to get people headed out on the ground amongst the majestic valley they have just encountered from above. 

For more information about Blue Goose Aviation, call 719-393-5550. 

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