Last Sunday was a pretty surreal day revolving around fire, both past and present, as I watched the Howe Ridge fire blow up from the Sperry trail (burned last year). Topped it off with a rescue and evacuation. It was one hell of a way to kick off Glacier National Park’s fire season. This is a very long story, but guys, it was a very long day.
Sunday. August 12. 2018.
On my last pack to Sperry, I ripped part of the heel off my boot tripping over a stray piece of baling twine in the dark, so I’m in a spare pair that are too big for me. We catch the mules before dawn at my bosses’ house outside The Park. Then we drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road along the southern shore of Lake McDonald to get to the corral and Sperry trailhead.
As soon as we pull the trailer in, the wranglers at the corral came up to us and ask, “Did you see the fire?”
While the corral has no view of the lake, the wrangler’s bunkhouse across the road sits right on the shore. They watched a fire sprout up directly across from them last night. The corral manager, Jessica, tells us that the fire was caused by a lightning strike and that Park Service had called this morning with an update saying the goal was total suppression, the fire was small, no big deal. It’s burning an area of new growth; this same ridge was part of the 2003 fire season.
Mike, from the chalet, drops off the gear to send up. We load up our stock as usual, and I’m much more confident with lifting the 100-pound propane tanks than I was the last pack. We sneak our pack string out ahead of the trail riders that were still having horses assigned to them and stirrups adjusted.
The Sperry trail is steep. In the first section, it’s wide but instead of true switchbacks, which reduce the grade, I would describe it more as a serpentine. In only about 10 minutes- that’s what, a half mile?- we start to see the affects of last year’s Sprague Creek fire. The green and gray of the cedar forest gives way to blackened logs and brown needles. The forest floor, normally covered in ferns and such, turns to ash and rock and purple fireweed. After a bit of climbing the trail, we could look over our shoulder and see the small plume of smoke across the lake of this fresh Howe ridge fire.
We splash through Crystal Ford and there is some relief in the grade and the trail flattens a bit. Here there is some greenery mixed in to the burned areas. Fires don’t always cut a clear swath of devastation. They often leave a mosaic pattern, with some areas un-touched and some areas burning hotter and more intense.
Eventually though, the real switchbacks begin, and we are back in the scorched earth. The trail still carries the faint smell of a recent campfire. That combined with all the smoke blowing in from other fires in western states, and this new plume of smoke across the lake, means by this point in the ride my nose is accustomed to the smell of fire. But a new, sharper smell reaches me. I look down the hillside several switchbacks below to the group of hikers we had last passed and I realize that one of them is smoking a cigarette.
The chalet is made of the same stone as the mountain, so it blends in well to the ledge it sits on However, the orange plastic fencing indicating a construction zone stands out well from afar. A half mile or less from the chalet, we cross another creek. Here, you wouldn’t even know there was a fire. Just a beautiful alpine scene. Approaching the chalet, many trees are untouched by fire so it’s strange to see the skeleton of the burned chalet building. The construction workers, in their neon shirts and dirty jeans, look out of place amongst the day hikers. Everybody gravitates towards the dining hall though. They serve Lemonade!
It’s a quick process to unload the fresh supplies and load up the stuff to go down, which has already been weighed and organized. Mike is already there, he must have hiked ahead of us after dropping off the loads. Our pack strings will have to wait at the chalet however, until the trail riders arrive. If we head down the trail too soon, we’ll run into them headfirst and there is no room to pass.
So I have time to enjoy my cookie and a cup of coffee in the dining hall. The chalet staff have curtained off one end of the kitchen building for their own bunks while the construction crew has set up wall tents for themselves. It’s gotta be tough working a job site where all your tools and materials have to be carried in by hoof or helicopter- and as Cooper, my co-worker today, says “hay is cheaper than jet fuel”.
Soon we see the riders go by towards the hitching rail. There’s an elderly guy who looks precariously perched as his horse lurches up the final hill. But when I take my final swig of coffee, he stumbles into the dining hall and seems as jolly as can be.
On our way down it’s quite breezy. This doesn’t bode well for the fire across the lake. We can’t see it well though until we cross Crystal Ford and get on those steep serpentines. Then, in the elbows of the curves, we can see the fire has grown. What was plain white is now dark and thick smoke. We hear a constant stream of planes and helicopters.
We get back and unload our stock and get ready to head out. I tell the corral manager, “I bet that ride will be slow coming down.” Riding down hill is much more uncomfortable than riding uphill. And that old guy already looked sore.
We get the mules home and as we’re putting hay bales out for them, my boss bursts out and says “Come with me, grab your saddle bags, there’s an emergency at Lake”. I think of the fire across from the bunkhouse. Then I think of the old guy riding down the Sperry trail. It’s him, I know it.
I hop in the truck and get the full scoop: the ride was halfway down the Sperry trail when the old guy became too exhausted to continue. He can neither ride nor walk and needs to be evacuated. We normally involve the Park Service in this sort of situation, as they can draw on equipment and resources that we cannot. Today however, they’re preoccupied with the Howe ridge fire. We investigate the option of using a litter. For various reasons, it’s not an option. He’s either coming out on his own two feet or on the back of a horse.
We get another update when we arrive. Jessica has ridden out already to help. Radio contact is spotty so we aren’t sure if she has reached them yet. Left behind at the corral, a wrangler has assembled a backpack full of snacks and water and other useful stuff for us to take with. I can’t help but eye the M&M’s. It’s been hours already since that cookie at the chalet. The wrangler has two horses ready for us and hands me a radio, so we mount up and dig in our heels. At first the horses are a bit confused. We never go faster than a slow walk on our trail rides. Then they perk up their ears and run. With every group of hikers we pass, we slow and let the horses have a bit of a breather. It’s steep and they quickly get wet with sweat.
“You saw this guy, right? How big is he?” Erik, my boss, asks.
“Probably 5’11, 175, but he’s wobbly. And he was wearing cowboy boots, so if he has to walk down this, it won’t go so well for him…”.
It won’t go well for us, either, I realize. We are both in cowboy boots. And mine don’t fit right.
As we near Crystal Ford, we get radio contact with the wrangler on the ride. The Jessica reached them and passed off her horse. She stayed back with the old guy and they are hiking slowly down the trail. Walk a minute, rest a minute, walk a minute, rest a minute. At his current pace, he won’t make it off the trail before dark. But the wrangler has other clients on the ride to think of, so it was agreed she should proceed with the horses and get the others home. Just past the ford, we run into her. We’ve come 2.6 miles. We dismount, give her our horses, who are glad to be pointed in the downhill direction now, and trade out for Matt, a horse who is short but sturdy.
Matt needs a moment to settle down. He’s just seen his friends keep going down the trail while he is stuck to the tree I tied him to. No fair! He whinnies. While he accepts his fate, we go over our plan. We’re going to heave the guy back onto a horse- Matt, to be exact. One person will lead Matt, and the other two will each take a side and hold the guy on the horse and keep him from slumping off. We’ll put our backpack over the saddle horn to give the guy something to lean on.
Poor Matt willingly walks with us up the trail. We are his herd for now, he has decided. I quickly regret giving up my horse as my feet slip around in the boots I’m wearing. But I know that I’ll need to be on the ground with both hands free for the rest of this rescue. After a mile, maybe a little less, we find them: The old guy (I’ll call him “Larry”, which isn’t really his name, but I think he was a little embarrassed by his predicament); the corral manager, Jessica; and surprise, Mike from the chalet! Larry has somehow obtained a pair of mismatched hiking poles. I look to Mike, who has been hiking this whole time, but they aren’t his. He explains that another hiker passed them on the trail and kindly lent to Larry.
Although Larry is exhausted and moving at a snail’s pace, he is in surprisingly good spirits. We give him some M&M’s and water and he regales us with the story of his first trip to Sperry chalet decades ago. There was a lightning strike and a fire that night too, he recalls, and they all hiked out with the devil at their heels. He seems to have come to terms with the fact that, if he wants to get off this mountain, there is going to be some discomfort. So he lets us wrestle him up onto Matt and we proceed with our plan very quickly. This is because now that Matt is pointed downhill and realizes we are going home, he gets very excited to go. So we go. It’s a challenge to keep Matt at a pace we can keep up with and isn’t too jolting. Erik takes hold of Matt in the front and Jessica and I take hold of Larry on each side. Mike hikes behind us carrying the extra gear and the borrowed hiking sticks.
We reach the creek. “Are your boots waterproof?” Erik asks us. “We’ll find out” is our reply. Matt doesn’t stop for a drink in the creek. He doesn’t miss a beat in his speed-walk and we splash through so fast, our feet don’t have a chance to get wet. But then comes the awful down hill serpentines. I can feel a blister forming. I try to stay cheerful, as hard as that is right now with my feet burning, arms aching, and throat screaming for water, and I ask Larry if he’s seen the smoke yet of the Howe Ridge fire. Keep an eye out, I tell him, might catch a glimpse. He pushes his helmet out of his eyes and sits up a little straighter.
Sure enough, we catch more glimpses of the fire. It’s grown. The smoke billows dark and ominous like a nuclear test site and the lake reflects orange. We are no longer hearing any helicopters or planes. I wonder if they’ve given up on total suppression. I wonder about the cabins and structures on that shore of the lake.
As Matt swings his body around the bends in the trail. We keep a tight hold so Larry doesn’t slide right off. “How did you get to Lake McDonald today?” I ask him, “Drove by yourself? How far away do you live though? Just outside the Park? Ok.”
I radio the wranglers to let them know we are making good time. Meanwhile, they’ve gotten the other rides in for the day and gotten all the horses unsaddled and hay bales fed. I think I feel a blister reach it’s bursting point. Yay. Finally, Jessica whispers “barn in sight” which is what we say to each other on the radio when a ride is returning. I can see the roof of the barn through the trees. Two wranglers meet us at the gate and Mike is hot on our heels with the hiking sticks. We all manhandle Larry off the horse and over to a picnic table. A wrangler leads Matt away to be unsaddled. We make Larry eat some more M&M’s and drink some more water. After a rest, in which we all exchange contact information, he assures us that he’ll be able to drive.
I run down to the lodge to return the hiking sticks. I have to wait in line while people check in at the front desk. Then, before we drive out of the park, I run down to the shore, feet protesting, and snap a couple pictures of the fire. It’s grown alright. It’s scary looking.
Back at my bosses’ house, the whole family is there wanting details of our rescue mission. Then Jessica calls, she wants to talk about the fire. “Its getting scary”, she says, “what do I tell the wranglers? They’re starting to pack their bags. Everyone is afraid.”
“Park Service has no evacuation order in effect yet” is the official word.
My tummy rumbles as I drive away and I’m planning getting myself some beer and ice cream. But my phone lights up and I see it’s Erik. “Just when we thought our day was over…” he says. This can only mean one thing.
“Can you hitch up a trailer and meet me in there?” is his answer.
Good thing I hadn’t cracked open a beer yet. I drive back in to Lake McDonald with a truck and trailer. It’s growing dark and there’s a constant stream of headlights coming out of the park in the opposite lane. I’m the only vehicle in my lane.
I think of those folks checking into the lodge as I was trying to return the hiking poles. Did they even unpack their bags? I think of the owner of the hiking poles, was there time or thought to reclaim them? I think of the wranglers, who at this moment are haltering horses and deciding what will fit in the trucks.
By the time I get to the head of the lake, it is dark. There’s an opening in the trees at a roadside pullout and I can’t help but slow and look in awe across the lake at the fire. The whole mountain side is alive with flame, reaching all the way to the shore of the lake. It looks like a volcano erupted. The cabins on that side of the lake are toast.
When I pull in at the corral, the wranglers have horses and flash lights in hand. I’m amazed the horses trust me enough to load up into a metal box on wheels in this darkness. Surely, they must feel the adrenaline pumping off the wranglers and smell the smoke and fear in the air. The wranglers interrupt each other and sentences come out in a disorganized jumble.
“The propane tanks from those cabins were exploding! We could hear them like bombs!”
“We saw a family racing across the lake in a motorboat and the children were clutching possessions. Everyone was crying!”
“It really blew up! We were watching it and all of Mount Stanton just went right up!”
“Our two-hour trail ride might be on fire now you guys! What about the bridges we cross?”
“No more Trout Lake rides this year you guys. The Trout Lake trail is like, definitely, 100% currently in flames. For sure on fire.”
“You can feel the heat from across the lake!”
“What if we weren’t fast enough? Would we just have opened the gates and let the horses run?”
“This is history in the making you guys!”
“Do you think the bunkhouse will burn down tonight?”
“I’m not even sure whose muck boots I’m wearing right now”
“Did it happen this quickly last year?”
Well no, in fact. Last year I would call the corral manager and ask “are they talking about evacuating yet?” and she would say things like “Nah, there’s just a lot of firefighters hanging around petting the horses”. That seemed to go on for a while before the evacuation occurred. This year, tonight, we’re evacuating in a matter of hours.
There are 39 horses to get out. I’ll have to go back in for another load. I see my fuel gauge dropping towards empty. Can I make another run? What if the flames come barreling down our side of the lake, and I don’t have the fuel to out run them and I have to abandon ship and jump in the lake? As I make the turn into to my boss’s house to unload the horses, he is pulling out after unloading his. He rolls down the window. “I need diesel first!”
“Me too!” I say.
This time, going back in, the other lane is empty too. The lodge and campgrounds have been evacuated. It’s a weird feeling, going towards a place that everyone else is running from.
We get the last horses loaded up. The wranglers are in tears as they hand me their favorites and I tie them in the trailer. Then they race off to the bunkhouse to salvage what they can and hop in their own vehicles. It’s now 11:30 pm. Time to get out of here for good. They don’t know where they will sleep tonight. We just trust that between our Apgar corral, West Glacier corral, and various campers, that there will be enough beds and couches to go around.
It’s past midnight when the final horses have been unloaded, extra hay fed, and the water troughs topped off. I make mental notes of which horses to check on in the morning that came off the trailer excessively sweaty or scraped up. I think of the horses Erik and I rode up the Sperry trail, and poor Matt who packed the old man out. They’ve had a long day too.
When I finally lay down on my bed, I have no idea what time to set my alarm clock for because I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Even though I’ve been up since 4 am to pack, I can’t fall asleep. I’m thinking about the wranglers who are now refugees. The cabins across the lake on fire. Propane tanks exploding. The staff and construction workers up at the chalet. Larry: Did he make it home okay? What if we hadn’t gotten him off the trail before dark? Will our bunkhouse and barn survive the night?
Fortunately, the bunkhouse and barn still stand. All our Lake McDonald wranglers have a place at the other corrals. On Tuesday the Park rangers let us back in, under escort, to salvage whatever there was left to salvage. People’s laptops. Paperwork from the ticket booth. Saddle pads. The contents of the vet cabinet.
It’s smoky here and obviously there are some area closures, but the Park is open and we have plenty of horses to ride.
And, I got my boots back from the repair shop. So I’m ready to handle the next crisis.