It was 1980 when Larry Stewart hitchhiked out of a Wyoming oil patch and into Northwest Montana.
After deciding Eureka was the place to stop, he sold Christmas trees, built homes, got married and had a family.
But he wanted to build something else, more legacy-driven. The result was Abayance Bay Marina in Rexford. Nearly 40 years after his arrival, Stewart’s big dreams, risk-taking and wading through yards of red tape and bureaucracy led to Grammy-award winning artist Jewel performing at The Bowl earlier this summer at Lincoln County’s newest signature venue.
“We moved 400,000 yards of dirt to build this,” Stewart said. “My biggest battle was with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The U.S. Forest Service was going to pull the plug on the whole thing and I begged them not to and here we are.”
Abayance sits on Forest Service land and operates under a special-use permit with the Kootenai National Forest.
The facility is located off Montana 37 in Rexford and features a 202-slip marina, an outdoor concert venue and restaurant with Lake Koocanusa and the Canadian Rockies as backdrops.
The site has a bit of history, too.
According to Stewart, Alfie Luciano started a marina there decades ago. In a 2011 account in the Whitefish Pilot, Luciano was later implicated, along with Colombian drug lords, in a number of Flathead Valley real estate deals backed by drug money in the late 1980s.
But that was a long time ago and now Abayance Bay, opened two years ago, has become what Stewart described as a family friendly destination.
“I bet less than 1 percent of the Flathead knew we were here, but bringing Jewel here really gave us exposure in a way that we wouldn’t have had,” Stewart said.
The venue can seat about 2,000 people. It has hosted weddings and memorial services, and is available for just about any event a person could conceive, including Christmas parties.
Being a longtime home-builder, Stewart takes particular pride in the team that built The Bowl.
“My son, son-in-law, and guys who’ve worked with me over the years, we put our talents together to create something we believe is pretty unique,” Stewart said.
Railings and door handles were crafted from old logging chains. A spiral staircase flairs out as it descends making it easier for brides, with their large gowns and trains, to negotiate. A fireplace hearth was built from a large, shell-shaped piece of rock harvested locally — one of many charming touches.
There are also plans for New Year’s Eve that may include a fireworks show.
“We just finished installing a commercial kitchen so we can offer fine dining, too,” Stewart said.
The bar features a selection of beers, including locally brewed beers by H.A. Brewing Co. and Flathead Lake Brewing Co. They are also making their bar a high-end wine venue.
Sarah Helgert, a native of the West Kootenai area, runs Abayance Bay. She had been running equipment for a construction company that was doing landscaping work there.
“Since I knew everything that was going on outside, they asked me to go inside and help with the office work and I never left,” Helgert said.
Helgert stressed that Abayance is a place for families.
“We aren’t serving hard liquor here and we want it to be a place where families can come and enjoy themselves,” she said.
Abayance is hosting a kid’s Halloween costume contest for those under 18; the winner will receive a full-day pontoon boat rental.
The menu includes burgers, specialty sandwiches, soup and salad, and pizza featuring their chef’s homemade crust.
Thursdays are Italian nights, while Saturdays feature seafood.
Abayance Bay’S main attraction, however, is the lake created by the 90-mile-long reservoir.
Sailboats, power boats, pontoons and house boats all call the bay home.
Fishing is popular on Koocanusa, which features trophy-sized Kamloops rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, whitefish and westslope cutthroat trout. Anglers can try their luck after the New Year. Stewart said because of the lake’s great depth, it typically doesn’t freeze over until February.
Boaters also may enjoy water-skiing, cruising, swimming and camping on the lake that covers nearly 73 square miles.
“There are so many little inlets and bays where people can get out of the weather and enjoy fishing or camping,” Stewart said.
Boaters will find a shop at Abayance where they can get their oil changed, system checked and winterization service completed.
Boaters don’t even need to bring fuel since there are two 10,000-gallon tanks on site.
Long-term boat slips are also available because as Stewart said, “Everybody wants ’em.” There is also outside boat storage and rentals for Sea Doos, pontoon boats, kayaks, paddle boards, water skis and water tubes.
A convenience store provides ice, snacks, beverages and other staples.
Stewart said for those who think the drive is too far from the Flathead, he correctly asserted that the drive from Kalispell takes a little more than a hour.
For bigger events, such as the Jewel concert, the staff worked with Harlow’s Bus Services to provide shuttle service from the Flathead.
Stewart hopes Abayance Bay will help a community that has seen its main industry — timber harvesting — all but dry up.
“Our community is hurting and we hope we can bring more exposure to it so people can see everything there is to offer here,” he said.
Abayance, operating on off-season hours, is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
For more information about Abayance Bay go to abayancebay.com or call 406-297-0566.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org