By Elaine Shea
As a New England transplant to Montana in the early 70s and a devoted beachcomber, I confess there’s something missing in my life—there’s no ocean here, only mountains. But in trekking north to satisfy my thirst, I learned that beach glass is not only found winding along salty coastlines, but in deep lakes such as Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana. Here, in the pristine fresh water, plenty of chunky frosted glass pieces are ripe for the picking, practically in my backyard (70 short miles away). Flathead Lake is big sky blue and 28 miles long, providing multiple coastal beaches to explore. It is also the largest natural freshwater lake by surface area west of the Mississippi River.
I didn’t know there was even a shred of beach glass in Montana. Serendipitous was the day I spied glass designs embedded in artsy sculptures at the weekly Polson Farmers’ Market. I smugly assumed they weren’t made of authentic glass, but after asking a friendly artist, I learned that the smooth frosted glass was local. Okay, topple me over with a feather—my whole world changed that very moment. I no longer needed to travel by air to Boston’s North Shore or Lake Michigan to chase sea glass.
The very thought was so exciting that I immediately started searching for treasure. I casually strolled a beach near the market, finding a few small pieces, but I sensed I needed to visit a more secluded cove where glass tumbled in the waves in secret. I later found the cove by instinct and told my husband to pull over. It felt right. I said I planned to scale the rocks and climb down to inspect the shoreline. Of course, I came prepared, with a sun hat, sturdy rubber sandals, mints, and cell phone in my pockets, as well as a mesh storage bag around my neck. I figured my thinking might be all wet, but wouldn’t know until I tried.
Polson is a friendly, sleepy summer town located by the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The reservation, nestled in the valley of the Mission Mountains, is not only beautiful, but also rich in cultural history and tradition. I planned weekly trips to Polson to find lake glass, swim in chilly glacial water, and grab a bite at the Cove where I liked to order a yummy special: the Flathead Mermaid. All nixies aside, I’d long heard myths and historical sightings of an eel-shaped “Flathead Lake Monster” named Flossie, but figured it was nothing more than a whopping fish tale.
The lake water was pretty high in spring so getting wet was unavoidable. The shrunken sandy shoreline limited my access to glass, but as summer grew closer, I gained back land and found many more pieces of luminescent glass, pottery shards, fine china, tiles, old brick shards, driftwood, and hag and heart rocks. I also found worn bathing trunks, tank tops, a flip-flop to fit Andre the Giant, cash, an apple tree, a toy sailboat, and a plethora of party supplies, including libations for a crowd. Admittedly, my searches required lots of energy, so every now and then I slouched my body onto a big boulder and lazily gazed at the water and the stunning lake horizon.
Returning to public beach areas near the farmers’ market resulted in a surprise lesson learned. That part of the lake suddenly opened wide, allowing me to walk where everything previously had been underwater. With shy seagulls beside me, I sorted through bottlenecks, stoppers, vintage glass bottles, medallions, marbles, colorful slag glass, and beach glass. What a difference it makes to search in various areas of the same lake. The glass here tended to be larger, rougher, and not as fine as the cove glass, but their colors were just as varied and intense.
Interestingly enough, I learned that freshwater lakes have seaweed too. It’s important to scrape and search under wispy seaweed piles and other gritty organic bits and bobs that collect on shore. They often contain pretty glass nuggets and pebbles, feathers, marbles, and items you’d otherwise miss. You may detect acrid decaying matter in the mix, so hold your nose before traveling on.
I find no difference in size, grandeur, frosty features, and/or watercolor shades between ocean glass and lake glass. Beachcombers can capture treasures in all bodies of water, including deep rivers, streams, inlets, islands, spits, brooks, and bays. Of course, not every lake or beach offers pretty glass. The beach traveler’s task is hunting for prime locations. Topography tosses us some clues: long flat beaches may not turn up much glass, but secluded inlets, coves, and old landfills are natural repositories. Most of my lake treasures are found on shore, although when waves are wild, I’ve jumped in lickety-split to capture some exciting pieces like chunky depression and bonfire glass, as well as frosty bottle bottoms. These water travelers are certainly as beautiful as any glass I collected in Washington State; Oregon; Swampscott and Marblehead, Massachusetts; Connecticut; Kauai; or Lake Michigan near Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.
Sadly, I haven’t yet learned how to beachcomb during Montana’s snowy season and most likely never will. My trekking for lake glass and weekly swimming works well March through October, and I was lucky this year to extend my sauntering for glass into December. My seven-year-old granddaughter has even decided to follow beach glass paths wherever they lead. Whether you live close to a lake or ocean, or travel for vacation to your favorite spot, enjoy the discovery and cherish these sacred gifts. The colors and shapes are medicine to our eyes. Their bounty is never predictable, and we should never take it for granted. The beauty of lake glass beckons to us in vivid dreamscapes to return time and time again. I just don’t want to encounter Flossie—ever!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2023 issue.