There’s a country duet called “Meet Me in Montana” that’s about returning to your roots, after realizing that no place else quite measures up.
Dan Seals and Marie Osmond recorded the Paul Davis tune, and it became a number-one hit in the mid-’80s. Today, it could really be the theme song for Boston Whaler owners Bill and Kristy Whitsitt, who’ve done just what the lyrics suggest. After living elsewhere for many years, they’ve chosen to retire “underneath that big Montana Sky,” with Flathead Lake out their back door and a 210 Dauntless at their beck and call.
“Our kids live all over,” Kristy says. “We wanted to retire somewhere they’d want to come and visit us. Northwestern Montana is great in any season. We really do play all winter long. And it’s the sweetest thing to finally be back home.
Some people might not believe Kristy about the weather; after all, how could a spot just miles from a place named Glacier National Park have a reasonable winter? But, in fact, it’s possible. The Whitsitts live in Bigfork, a small unincorporated community at the northern tip of Flathead Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States.
The lake and the Continental Divide work together to help keep the winter months in Bigfork much milder than, say, the flatter eastern part of the state, or Montana’s frigid neighbor, North Dakota.
The Flathead Valley does get plenty of snow, which is great for the Whitsitts, who love to snowshoe and ski. “We even took a class on how to track animals,” Kristy says. “This community is very active in the winter. If you’re bored, it’s your fault!”
Naturally, in the summer months, they can be found on their Dauntless enjoying all that the big lake has to offer. “We wanted a boat built for rougher conditions,” says Bill, a longtime admirer of the Whaler brand. The Whittsitts’ 40 years living in Washington, D.C., weren’t as amenable to boat ownership, but their move to Montana made it possible.
“This lake has a reputation for getting some heavy chop,” Bill continues. “Storms can come up quickly, and you can get some pretty interesting conditions.” Geography is to blame for that, but the Whitsitts knew a Whaler could handle whatever Flathead threw at them. They were also tied to having a boat that had a shallow enough draft for beaching and going up the Flathead River. “It was that combo of functionality and durability that sold us,” Bill adds.
Their first Whaler was a 170 Montauk, which they bought after Kristy saw a Boston Whaler commercial on TV. Kristy grew up on a ranch in central Montana and hadn’t spent much time around boats. “When I first learned that we were going to be on the water,” she explains, “safety was my biggest concern. For us alone and for when we have our precious cargo onboard.”
She’s referring to their four grandchildren, whom they love to pull around the lake on a tube. The television commercial in question featured the iconic image of a Boston Whaler being cut in half with a chainsaw, and the two halves remained floating. “I turned to Bill and said, ‘Honey, that’s our boat; it’s unsinkable,’” Kristy recalls.
The 170 Montauk proved a good experiment for the Whitsitts. It was great for pulling the kids on the tube, swimming off the boat, beaching it, and anchoring in shallow water. But wanderlust took over, and Bill and Kristy realized they wanted a little more range out on Flathead and a little more room for the growing grandkids. The Dauntless fit the bill.
“We can go anywhere with no issue at all, and it gives us the functionality of a bigger boat, plus a ski pylon,” Bill says. “For fishing, it has the livewell and rod holders.” And the 200-hp Mercury® FourStroke Verado® sweetens the pot. “It’s a wonderful, quiet, powerful, responsive machine,” he adds.
The Whitsitts bought both of their Whalers from Gull Boats & RV in nearby Missoula. “It was an extremely good process,” Kristy says. “They couldn’t have been nicer.” Selling the 170 Montauk was a cinch, too. They had many folks clamoring to get their hands on the pristine-condition freshwater Whaler, and they quickly passed it along to some lucky buyers in Seattle.
On Flathead, the Whitsitts enjoy fishing for whitefish and lake trout—they can get pretty big—and also northern pike along the shores and marshes. But their favorite boating pastime is bald eagle watching, which is a big hit with visitors. Bill and Kristy love to head to Wild Horse Island, a large, protected day-use area.
The Salish and Kootenai nations used the island to pasture horses and keep them safe for centuries. Thearea currently has five wild horses, but it’s also teeming with bighorn sheep, mule deer and birds—including bald eagles.
Serving as a vivid reminder of the region’s storied history, pictographs and petroglyphs from thousands of years ago decorate cliffs on Flathead’s western shore in a spot aptly named Painted Rocks. Both Wild Horse Island and Painted Rocks can only be accessed by boat.
In addition to heading to these off-the-beaten-path places, the Whitsitts also like to spend time at the restaurants in Bigfork. “Everything is mom-and-pop establishments that you wouldn’t fin anywhere else,” Kristy says of the eateries, boutiques and galleries.
The village has only about 2,000 residents year-round, but in the summer months, it swells with visitors. Bill and Kristy favor the holidays, when the area becomes a Christmas village of sorts with decorations, lights and other fanfare. The community is accessible from Bigfork Harbor, which is about a 10-minute boat ride from Eagle Bend Yacht Harbor, where Bill and Kristy keep their Whaler.
All in all, the Flathead Valley has been a great place for the couple to retire. But when Bill starts rattling off the list of things he’s still involved in—including running a statewide foundation and serving as a visiting professor—Kristy chimes in: “At the end of the day, what it boils down to is that he’s seriously flunking retirement.” She flashes Bill a big grin.
On the other hand, one could argue that he’s doing it just right—living on the Flathead River and spending quality time with his sweetheart in any season. When they compare their marriage to a Whaler boat, saying “it’s unsinkable,” the whole romantic scenario rivals that aforementioned duet: There’s no place they would rather be than in each other’s arms, underneath that big Montana sky.