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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Remembering Sperry Chalet: 'There's Just A Spirit In That Building'

Glacier National Park's Sperry Chalet as seen on July 21, 2017.
Courtesy Bret Bouda
Glacier National Park's Sperry Chalet as seen on July 21, 2017.

Thursday night, strong winds fanned the Sprague Fire burning in Glacier National Park and nearly doubled its size. The flames engulfed and destroyed the main rock and timber dormitory of the Sperry Chalet, which for more than a hundred years offered a haven of amenities to hikers in Glacier’s rugged backcountry.

Today, the internet is flooded with personal stories that together weave a history of the lost National Historic Landmark.

Elsie Taylor remembers summers long past when she hiked to Sperry Chalet every week for a slice of cherry pie.

"The pie was important, it would get you up the trail," Taylor says.

Up the trail was the only way to the chalet, there are no roads in that part of the Park. Sometimes Taylor would hike in the long way and hand her car keys off to strangers hiking the opposite direction, knowing they’d use her vehicle to shuttle themselves back to Lake McDonald, where she would eventually end up.

"Well you could trust the people that were on the Sperry Trail," she says.

But Taylor’s best memory of trekking up to Sperry Chalet happened just a few years ago, after her hips could no longer handle the trip:

"I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn't get up to Sperry any more and it was very important to me. And my daughter saw this fancy wheelchair kind of rickshaw arrangement, and the whole family, everyone I was related to came. It would take two people. It was like a rickshaw, and they hauled me all the way up to Sperry, which I thought was a wonderful thing. I got to see it one last time and say my goodbyes to it.

Lately her grandkids have taken to sending her pictures of their own trips. She says it takes her right back to some of her fondest memories.

The Sperry Chalet was one of a handful lodges built in the early 1900s by the Great Northern Railway. The Swiss-themed complexes offered a soft bed and dining room, usually spaced a day’s horseback ride apart. Before Thursday night, the Sperry and Granite Park Chalets were the only two left standing. Sperry was unusual in that its dining room served communal hot dinners and breakfasts, complete with fresh baked goods.

"Oh my gosh; pies, cookies, muffins, bread, uhh, rolls ..."

This is Beth Anne Austein, one of the producers here at MTPR. She spent a season at Sperry Chalet working as a baker at elevation with no electricity.

"Yeah, the first couple of days the bread came out with big holes in it and tasted like beer," Austein says.

She eventually got the hang of it and spent the summer scrambling up the nearby peaks, and swimming in Lake Ellen Wilson. She says she became smitten with the Chalet, much like the people who trekked there year after year.

"It’s kind of a contagious feeling you’ve maybe noticed about Glacier generally. People are just enthralled to be there for the most part, and especially the people who would hike, and ride horseback up to the chalets. Up at Sperry Chalet you were away from cars, away from roads; back at that time away from cell phones, away from electricity, away from gadgets, and there was magic in that," Austein says.

She still remembers tiny details: the original cash register from the chalet’s first season in 1914, a necklace made of dried mountain goat poop hanging nearby.

But for people who hadn’t gotten around to visiting the chalet, all that remains now are photographs.

Just last month, Bret Bouda packed his photography gear up 3,000 vertical feet over 7 miles to capture Sperry Chalet during the peak of this year’s beargrass superbloom.

"This year around the Sperry it was mind boggling," Bouda says.

Bouda’s been snapping Glacier’s chalets for years. He published a book featuring Sperry and Granite Park for their centennial in 2014. But this picture of Sperry Chalet surrounded by beargrass, against the backdrop of towering cliffs and cropped between trees downed in an avalanche a few years ago, is something special, he says.

"Sometimes you just feel, gosh, it was meant to be, just because there are so many very special friends and people who are heartbroken because of it, just as I'm heartbroken. But you know what, we have a great, great memory with this picture, we can just try to ease that pain with these pictures."

Bouda remembers rushing through hikes to make it back to the chalet in time for dinner, where guests, strangers from all over the world, all sat together.

"You create a camaraderie. It's just a very unique situation. And there’s no such thing in the whole park at all. In the lodges, you go to a restaurant, it’s a restaurant. Over there, it's just one group and you just feel it. There's just a spirit in that building. It's amazing."

Though the Sperry Chalet dormitory is lost entirely, the dining hall is repairable, and three other outbuildings are fine, says Peri Suenram, a public information officer on the Sprague Fire.

"We had a hose and pump and sprinkler system in the Sperry Chalet complex there, and had the buildings wrapped appropriately, and still yet, the fire just reacted very intensely."

A team of firefighters worked overnight to protect the structures, and will do the same tonight.

"The outlook for Saturday remains the same. We are sort of in this weather pattern of  hot days, and not a lot of relative humidity recovery during the evenings, and pretty breezy winds," Suenram says.

Fire crews are also keeping an eye on the Mount Brown lookout, which has been wrapped in fire protective material. But the fire is only a hundred yards away from the wooden lookout, and Suenram says this fire has proven difficult to contain.

"When you're dealing with this steep, rugged terrain, and a lot of dead and down, and then you add on top of that the extremely hot weather and the low relative humidity, it's really hard to catch these fires."

Smoke from the Sprague Fire has forced a temporary closure of the Avalanche Lake Trail and the Lake McDonald Lodge is closed for the season. Outfitters are still guiding boat tours and horseback rides, and Going-to-the-Sun Road remains open in its entirely from West Glacier to St. Mary.

Glacier National Park is waiting to learn more about the extent of damage to the main Sperry Chalet building and any fire damage to other structures before evaluating its next steps about the future of Sperry Chalet.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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