Glacier Park's Scorched Sperry Chalet Was A Haven For The Hungry Hiker

Sep 9, 2017

Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is known for its rugged, wild nature. But even in the farthest reaches of the backcountry, weary hikers and horseback riders could always count on a soft cot and hot meal at one of the park's oldest lodges, the Sperry Chalet.

Sadly, the National Historic Landmark burned in a wildfire on Aug. 31. The Sprague Fire was ignited by lightning on Aug. 10 and grew explosively through Glacier's extremely hot and dry lodgepole and tamarack forest. As of Friday it was estimated to be burning more than 13,000 acres with no expected timeline for containment.

The Sperry Chalet was one of a handful lodges built in the early 1900s by the Great Northern Railway. The Swiss-themed complexes were spaced about a day's horseback ride apart. Before the Sperry Chalet burned, it and the Granite Park Chalet were the only two left standing.

Sperry's two-story dormitory is considered a complete loss, but the nearby kitchen and dining room may be salvageable. That potential silver lining has social media buzzing with memories of the roasts, pies, fresh coffee and crispy bacon served daily by the chalet's dedicated kitchen staff.

Dinner service at the remote haven was a communal affair. The dining room, with its walls lined with locally quarried stone and topped with rafters of lodgepole pine (later replaced with dimensional lumber), was a bastion of civility. Fresh linen draped the tables. Guests sipped coffee from blue willow china and skewered roast turkey, chicken and ham with real silver.

"You create a camaraderie," says photographer Bret Bouda about the coffee hour that followed most meals. "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."

Leftovers from dinner were refashioned into sandwiches for the next day's bagged lunches or used as stock in soup. Those bagged lunches sometimes proved lifesavers for hikers exploring the isolated backcountry of Glacier park.

Caeli Quinn remembers an early date with her now-husband hiking the Floral Park Traverse, a challenging 18-mile off-trail jaunt over ridgetops and glaciers that swings near the Sperry Chalet. They realized they forgot their lunches in the car about halfway through the hike and raced to chalet.

"When I got to the Sperry Chalet, they had their famous homemade pie," Quinn says. "I savored every morsel of food. It was a wonderful refuge!"

A remarkable aspect of this secluded kitchen is that everything had to be packed in on horseback or by mule.

"To keep those stoves going, wood and or coal had to be brought in almost daily," says historian Ray Djuff, who has authored books on Glacier's historic chalets. Ice coated in sawdust was also regularly carted in on mule pack trains, which until recently still made the trek a few times a week to restock the kitchen and pack out trash. In modern days, the kitchen relied on a propane-powered refrigerator and stove.

Djuff says occasionally guests were treated to a rare delicacy: ice cream.

"Seasonal interpretive ranger Doug Follett would, on occasion, hike up to Sperry with a couple of tubs of ice cream in his backpack," Djuff says. "He was so fit and had hiked the route so often (more than 200 times) that he could make [the seven miles] from Lake McDonald Lodge to Sperry before the ice cream would melt."

Djuff himself can't pick a single memory from the chalet. Instead, his nights there blend into one fond feeling of friendship. "You're amongst a rare group of people," he says, "people who are dedicated and love the outdoors, who are willing to hike that distance."

But creating a quality food and dining experience in the middle of the wilderness came with some challenges. Beth Anne Austein spent the summer of 1988 at the Chalet baking pies, muffins, rolls and many loaves of fresh bread.

"The first couple of days, the bread came out with big holes in it and tasted like beer," she remembers. She eventually got the hang of it and developed the forearm muscles to prove it, sometimes kneading up to 18 loaves at a time by hand — there was no electricity at the chalet.

"They and my hands tended to be numb every morning for weeks," she says.

Austein's bread required some special considerations. The chalet's kitchen sits at 6,500 feet above sea level, and that can wreak havoc on traditional baking recipes.

"What you're reminded of is baking is not just cooking. Baking is science," says historian Ray Djuff. "What you're trying to do is create a chemical reaction between the ingredients. And what you've got with elevation is a lower air pressure, so it changes that chemical reaction. So you have to change the recipe accordingly."

Bread at the Sperry Chalet needed a little extra flour, a touch less sugar, and it was baked hotter and shorter than bread at sea level. Cakes took an extra egg or two. And the pies? Those were loaded up with fruit, and they were famously delicious.

"I personally would get the cherry pie," says Elsie Taylor. Taylor is now in her seventies, but she remembers summers past when she'd hike the seven-mile trail that rises 3,000 feet to the Sperry Chalet just for a slice. "The pie was important," she says.

Sperry Chalet has been managed by the Luding family since 1954. Kevin Warrington, grandson of the original Ludings, wrote on the chalet's website: "We are thankful for the bravery of the firefighters that worked to save this cherished building ... On behalf of the Luding family, the Sperry crew, and the entire Belton Chalets, Inc., staff, we are grateful for the privilege of caring for Sperry Chalet and serving the visitors of Glacier National Park."

The future of the Sperry Chalet — whether it will be rebuilt or the kitchen reopened — won't be decided until the fire that engulfed it is out. Firefighters are still stationed around the kitchen and outhouse to defend them. The Glacier National Park Conservancy, the official non-profit fundraising partner of Glacier National Park, is gauging support for the chalet.

Nicky Ouellet is a reporter for Montana Public Radio based in northwest Montana. You can read and listen to her original story here.

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