Adventure, Inspiration and Tragedy at Sperry Lodge, Glacier National Park
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Adventure, Inspiration and Tragedy at Sperry Lodge“All right, move off the trail quickly now,” our trail guide ordered. The ride up the mountain to this point had been cold, but uneventful. We were on horseback, Ann and I, with our guide in the lead. Fog had slowly descended in the last mile or so, limiting our view of the world around us to maybe fifty feet in all directions. I asked our guide, Frank, about the conditions on the trail ahead.
“Oh, this ain’t bad here, it’s up higher that it gets real scary.”
“So, do you ride this trail very often?” I asked, hoping for some reassurance.
“Yep, just about every day. But that don’t make it any easier.”
I decided not to talk to Frank anymore.
From out of the thick blanket of white, several men suddenly appeared on horseback, and then a string of heavily - laden mules followed by two more wranglers, apparently in a big hurry to get past us. We were late, and they had been waiting up here at the only place wide enough for horses to pass each other, for over an hour. A few perfunctory greetings were exchanged as they moved past and then they were gone, swallowed up into the fog as quickly as they had appeared. In another minute, it was easy to believe that we hadn’t actually seen them at all, such was the surreal quality of our surroundings. Back on the narrow and slippery trail again, we braced ourselves for the last and most dangerous section. From here on up to the lodge, our rain-soddened way would be paved with broken and tortured rock.
On a good day this was no beginner’s ride, and I was concerned for Ann, a novice rider who was bringing up the rear on an impatient and headstrong horse. As we climbed higher, the trail evolved into a series of rock stair steps, so that each movement of the horse sent the rider pitching and rolling. A solid rock wall inches away to the left and a sheer drop off to the right gave us no room to maneuver if our mounts should start to fall, and no room to dismount and walk up. To add to the fun, it had hailed early that morning, carpeting the trail with piles of fresh marble-sized hail stones. I remember thinking that they might as well have been ball bearings as far as our mounts were concerned. Each step the horse took up a stair resulted in a little slip or slide as his weight came down on the slippery ice balls.
We had originally decided to ride the steep six miles up to Sperry Lodge, a back- country Chalet run by the Park Service, in order to save our energy for some serious foot hiking in the Glacier Park high-country the next day. Now I wasn’t so sure that this had been a good idea. I hung on and tried not to think about the stories I had heard of people falling off their horses on this part of the trail and having to be air-lifted out. Pushing away thoughts of imminent death, I found myself actually enjoying the eerily beautiful foggy scenery. Glacier is beautiful in any light, and I think that a measure of suspense just heightened my enjoyment of it. The “Trail Gods” must also have been smiling on us that day, because we soon cleared the rock stairs and reached the chalet without any problems. As we were to discover shortly, not everyone was so lucky.
Sperry Lodge, Glacier National Park Our room in Sperry
We had come to Glacier National Park at the invitation of the Park Service, who provided us with lodging for two weeks in a rustic, but beautiful old log cabin on the shore of Lake MacDonald. In exchange, I would present a short slide lecture to the public about my art, and donate one of my Glacier paintings to the Park Service in the next twelve months. My only responsibilities as the artist-in-residence were to wander around the Park and paint, and so we came to Glacier equipped for anything and looking for adventure.
We learned about Sperry Lodge through a PBS program and accompanying book, Great Lodges of the National Parks: The Companion Book to the PBS Television Series. The moment I laid eyes on the mountain chalet, I knew we had to make the trek up the mountain to stay there. Sperry is one of only two rustic mountain chalets extant of the nine originally built by the Great Northern Railway between 1910 and 1917. The Sperry and Granite Park lodges survived, in part, because they were built of stone and timbers – stout enough to survive the crushing force of the winter snow pack. The buildings are not only beautifully maintained, but appear to be in nearly original condition.
Constructed in 1910, the accommodations at Sperry are antique. There is no electricity or heat in the dormitory building, and the wooden-paneled walls transmit every sound from room to room. This is not a place for light sleepers. The original iron-frame beds feature a saggy coil spring arrangement, which not only leads to an unnatural hammock-like sleeping posture, but squeaks and squeals at the slightest movement. We had the impression that we were being serenaded all night by a strangely demented orchestra of bagpipers. Ultimately, we decided to drag our mattress onto the floor, which made for a comfortable, but still cacophonous night.
Glacier Park View Photo John Hulsey
Life at Sperry Lodge is an experience unto itself. From the moment of arrival, one feels welcome. The staff is truly happy to see you, and they treat you like an old friend. The dining hall is the gathering place in the evening for meals and later, for conversation around the wood stove. Family-style meals are served there, and formal introductions all around, staff included, are the first order of business. All of the provisions for the Lodge are brought up by the same mule pack train that we passed on the trail. A camaraderie quickly develops among the guests that is not unlike the embrace of a warm family. I think this is because each guest has had to want to come to Sperry badly enough to endure the rigors of the long, steep ascent to get there. One can either ride horses up, as we did, or walk up, carrying everything but food on one’s back. Either way, only a relatively small number of guests can be accommodated at any time, so that alone puts one in a select group. The view of the mountains from Sperry is spectacular. One could sit on the porch, go nowhere else, and not feel deprived of a sublime mountain experience. Like many of the other guests, we came to day-hike on the high mountain trails which converge at the chalet. The rest of this day could be spent settling in, getting to know everyone and relaxing in the crisp mountain air.
Ann painting in back of the dining hall Mamma goat
By late afternoon the clouds and fog had dissipated enough around the chalet so that our rocky perch was bathed in welcome sunshine. We migrated to the back porch of the dining hall, which has a spectacular view all the way down the valley to Lake MacDonald. As we painted the view in our sketchbooks, we heard the unmistakable sound of helicopter rotors approaching from the lake below. I remarked that it seemed unlikely that a tour flight would be allowed to fly so low and approach the chalet at all. Sperry Lodge was about seclusion and I couldn’t imagine regular flights would be tolerated up here. As it drew near to our position, we realized that it was actually following the stream bed just below us, so this was no ordinary flight.
The pilot raced past, disappeared momentarily in the trees, pulled up suddenly and swung his tail around as he landed a half-mile directly down-trail from the chalet. I was struck by the speed and precision of this maneuver, and I remember thinking that something was definitely wrong, but, because we were sitting on the cliff-side of the dining hall, we hadn’t seen any of the activity on the mountain-side. It was only a few minutes before the sound of the helicopter rotors increased again to a reverberating roar and we were able to glimpse the speeding shape of the departing chopper as it seemed to fall rather than fly down the ravine toward Lake MacDonald. As a few of the staff began appearing on the porch, some of them in tears, the story began to unfold as word was passed among the curious guests assembled there.
A man had just collapsed on the trail below and died less than a mile from the chalet. We were stunned. He was a smoker, they said, and not in the best physical condition, as though that could help to explain the suddenness of the tragedy. He was found by his 22-year old son, who had doubled-back on the trail when his father didn’t appear. Perhaps he was trying to keep up with his fit young son so as not to lose face as he struggled up the long six miles to Sperry. The last mile is steep and rocky – a definite challenge to one’s aerobic system after a long day’s exertion. The son had run up to Sperry for help, but by then, it was too late. The emergency helicopter service was called and his father's body was airlifted down to the hospital in Kalispell. The helicopter returned a while later to transport the son down to their car for the long, sad trip to his father’s side.
While we all searched for logical reasons in an attempt to understand the cause of the tragedy, we knew that sometimes, people just suddenly die. It could happen to any of us here, at any moment. Ann and I had come up to Sperry Lodge to immerse ourselves in the grand spectacle and power of Nature – a long-awaited trip. Now we had graver things to think about, and the joy that we were feeling dissipated, to be replaced by a deeper awareness and appreciation of our time here. Every little detail and association seemed to take on new importance and significance, as if we ourselves had just narrowly escaped death.
Mother and kid at Sperry Lodge
Right on cue, a mountain goat appeared shepherding her two kids, who romped and skittered adroitly around the slippery rocks surrounding the chalet. These magnificent animals have become quite used to people and so allowed us to get close to them, but only so close. We admired how mother goat always kept herself between us and her kids as they sniffed round and posed for photographs. Our mood slowly lifted and we resolved to dedicate the rest of our trip to living fully in the moment, and to our good fortune at being here. What we couldn’t have known was that our new resolve was about to be sorely tested by yet another emergency.
Ann on Gunsight Pass Trail Gunsight Pass Overlook
Shortly after the helicopter left for the second time, the clouds and fog closed in, bringing a chill and slight drizzle to the mountain. Ann and I quickly returned to the dormitory building to put on warm clothes and rain gear and grab a flashlight in preparation for the short walk to and from the dining hall that evening. So it happened that we were only one of two couples standing outside the dining hall in the wet gloom when we heard a woman’s strident voice calling for help. She was running down the mountain toward us from the Gunsight Pass trail, which starts in the St. Mary Valley, about 13 miles to the east. A man had collapsed on the trail just in front of her and her husband, about a mile away. The hiker’s heart had stopped, but, incredibly, they were both doctors and were able to revive him again. He was, however, in very bad shape, incoherent and unable to walk. He, too, had been hiking with his son, only he had been keeping up for nearly 13 miles.
The resident ranger and a couple of the staff had already sprinted up the trail with an aluminum stretcher, and once again, the helicopter had been summoned. But now we were completely fogged in. We could barely see the treetops, maybe 60 feet overhead. There was a makeshift landing spot right outside the dining hall, so a few of us stood there and waved flashlights and dish towels in the vain hope that he could see us. We couldn’t see him at all, although we could clearly hear his rotors approaching. I remember thinking that this pilot is either insane or one of the most skilled chopper pilots alive to fly up here and land in this thick blanket of fog. He radioed into the lodge that he could not reach the chalet, but would have to land on a tiny island in the stream below. We heard him approach and then land just where he said. I was relieved to know that he actually made it safely.
The problem for the rescue team was, that after hauling the loaded stretcher down a mile of sloping trail to the chalet, they would now have the arduous task of getting down an additional half-mile of the worst part of the trail to the helicopter. This part of the trail is so steep it is essentially a set of narrow stairs built out of large rock boulders. Too narrow, we would discover, to accommodate both the rescue team and their stretcher.
It seemed like only moments before the struggling, huffing rescue team appeared from the trail above with the stretcher mashed between them. The stricken hiker was taller than the stretcher and thrashed about deliriously. Exhaustion and strain was written on everyone’s faces as they struggled to keep their footing on the slippery trail and control the pitching and yawing stretcher. I rushed in to take over for the doctor, the oldest of the group, who looked like he was about to collapse. We could not pause to rest. We had to get the man down to the helicopter as quickly as possible. We moved down the trail too rapidly for the conditions, and when the trail narrowed for the final stair-step descent to the stream bed, we had to alternate our steps, one leg up on the boulders lining the trail, the inside leg down on each step. In this fashion we jumped, hopped and slipped our way down, while the son tried to calm his convulsing father.
I have always attempted to stay in shape and have led a physically active life, but this was, by far, the hardest physical effort I have ever experienced. By the time we reached the stream, my entire left side felt like it was on fire from the effort to support and control the stretcher. I could only imagine how the others were faring, as I was very aware of the increasing weight of my load as their strength must have begun to fail. My grip was fading beyond my ability to force my hand to clench the rail of the stretcher, and I thought I would drop it at any moment, endangering the man and the rescue team. Time seemed to slow down, and I remember hearing the slow, rhythmic sound of the idling helicopter rotors as they whoop-whooped through the drizzle and fog. Ahead of us was the helicopter, barely perched on a small island of cobbles while the stream rushed and hissed on its way toward the edge of the waterfall precipice a few feet to our left.
Just as the last of my reserves were giving out and my muscles were screaming for relief we entered the stream and I realized that we were trying to carry our load across a bed of slime-covered round cobbles. As one, we started to collapse into the rushing water just yards from the waiting chopper, and I had visions of the poor man being washed over the falls as we struggled to keep our balance. Somehow, everyone found the strength to right themselves and safely reach the chopper. Like a combat scene from Vietnam we rushed the wounded towards the Medevac, ducking our heads as we moved in under the swirling blades. I watched in awe and exhaustion as the pilot gently, slowly, lifted his machine just above the treetops and then plummeted down the ravine towards the lake and the hospital in Kalispel.
Afterward, we climbed, mostly in silence, back up the rock stairs to the chalet. The stricken man’s son would have to stay the night. There was no way the helicopter could return in this weather. In shock and exhaustion himself, and sick with worry, he rambled on about his father’s collapse and the strange events of the day. We all felt great sympathy for him and realized that he also bore the weight of having to tell his mother what had happened to his father. It would be a long night for him ahead, but he would not be alone. The staff warmly welcomed him and made sure he would be as comfortable as possible. After the double emergencies that we had all, staff and guests alike, been through, I think that we felt a bond to each other, virtual strangers though we were.
Lake MacDonald Photo John Hulsey
At dinner that night, the staff made a special effort to acknowledge all those who took part in the rescue and to share the events of the day with the other guests, some of whom were unaware of exactly what had happened. We were further cheered later that night to hear that the ill hiker was recovering well, and that news made our efforts seem handsomely rewarded. This feeling of closeness, of camaraderie, was to persist throughout our stay, and made our visit to Sperry have a sweetness to it that we will always fondly remember. I will also always remember that outdoor experiences can have an element of risk to them, and even the best preparations cannot ensure perfect safety. Perhaps it is the acknowledgement and acceptance of unforeseen dangers that imbues these experiences with a poignancy that civilized everyday life lacks. None of us enters the woods thinking that this day will be our last, but the thrill of adventure thrives in the presence of this unspoken possibility. I do not believe that I will meet my end on a mountain somewhere, but if I do, I won’t complain.
These are some pages selected from John's watercolor sketchbook painted on location during his artist residency in Glacier. In situations where it is impractical to carry larger and heavier equipment and materials into the field, he uses his sketchbook as a tool to capture the light, colors and feel of the moment, so that he may refer to these sketches back in the studio when creating larger works. In this way, he can still retain the immediacy and freshness of the plein air work.
Two Views of Lake MacDonald and an unfinished sketch of the Lodge
From the Highline Trail
Painting gear at MacDonald Falls
A teeny 1 minute video of painting at MacDonald Falls
The completed sketch
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