By Martin Kidston
It is early September and the rain has fallen fast and hard, leaving North Fork Road slick with puddles the color of potato soup. While the passing deluge has deterred would-be campers from leaving the warmth of the Polebridge Mercantile, the weekend forecast is good enough to venture on.
Fifteen miles up the rugged narrow road, Lyle Ruterbories emerges from the Kintla Lake Ranger Station, a post he’s called home for more than two decades. The small frontcountry campground – the most remote in Glacier National Park that is accessible by vehicle – is relatively empty less a handful of hearty campers ready to embrace overnight temperatures dipping toward the freezing mark.
Those who have crossed paths with Ruterbories before at Kintla Lake know two things about him. One, he runs a tight ship, which is understandable given his connection to this removed patch of earth. The log structures designating each campsite – he built them to protect the campground’s vegetation. The floor in the ranger station – he refinished it himself.
This says nothing of the trails he built to Kintla Creek, the weeds he pulls each day, the way he goes about collecting campground fees or hauling food and fuel to the ranger station. At 95 years old, he still lies on his back under his old Volkswagen van on a sheet of cardboard, trying to get it running again.
He says the problem sits in the solenoid. It is a simple fix for a former sheet-metal worker and World War II veteran born on a Nebraska farm during the Great Depression. And that’s the second thing about Ruterbories; he has stories to tell.
“I came here in 1989 and earned by badge in 1992,” he said, reflecting on his career as the seasonal Kintla Lake ranger. “We brought the kids up here in ’62 or ’63. There was nothing up here but picnic tables. There wasn’t even fire rings, and it wasn’t much of a camping area.”
Ruterbories is dressed for the chill that falls over Kintla Lake in his green ranger jacket, his hands tucked into knitted gloves. This same weekend last year, the weather topped 80 degrees. Snow has now taken to the highest peaks. It is revealed when the storm retreats, hinting of the season to come.
But the changing seasons is nothing new for Ruterbories, who knows this place as well as anyone and is rarely surrounded by anything less than a crowd of campers hungry for stories. He and his late wife, Marge, discovered Kintla Lake in the early 1960s. They grew fond of the scenic retreat and became the site’s volunteer campground hosts in the 1980s.
When Ruterbories earned his ranger badge, Marge stayed on as the campground host. Now in the absence of his wife (they were married for 65 years), he still runs the place like a home, and like any good home it comes with stories, including the brown bear he sprayed two summers ago.
“He picked the wrong tent there in site 10,” Ruterbories said. “They had a baby and a little dog in the tent. Well, this bear came up and the dog starting yapping and the baby starting crying before the bear circled the tent and left. I was down getting my breakfast one morning, and that son-of-a-gun was back licking our canoe. I grabbed the spray can and got him square in the face.”
Ruterbories recounts the episode with a chuckle, saying it isn’t the only bear story attached to Kintla Lake. Some time back in the 1940s, he said, a grizzly broke into the ranger station. It climbed a snow drift to the roof to find its way in. It left through the back window.
“A bear never goes back out the way he came in,” Ruterbories said. “That’s why the bars are there on the windows now.”
Much of Kintla Lake’s history is found at the far end of the water, a place not visible from the campground where Ruterbories spends his time. It is accessible by trail – a six mile hike along the bending northern shore. It also is accessible by canoe, or some other self-propelled form of travel, as Kintla Lake is strictly non-motorized, which lends it a tranquil reputation in an otherwise noisy world.
The water here is deep and turquoise blue. When the sun is high, the light filters down to depths rarely seen at other Montana lakes. Two miles east, just off Kintla’s southern shore, a boat lies submerged on the rocks in roughly 50 feet of water. On the right day, it reveals itself when viewed at just the right angle.
A group of friends and I passed over the wreckage the summer before. We were taking a needed break from rowing when we saw it – a fluke that would be hard to repeat without the guidance of GPS. Ruterbories, who is aware of the wreckage, said little is known about the craft, though there are stories of speculation.
“It’s laying on the edge of that ledge that goes down,” he said, placing his hand a steep angle. “They’ve never determined what that is. They thought it was an ancient craft of some kind, but there’s green paint on the ribs, so you know darned well it wasn’t ancient.”
Kintla Lake allegedly takes its name from the Kootenai word for “sack.” When viewed as a collection of hills, crags and canyons, it is easy to see why. The light grows deeper, the terrain steeper the further one travels up the lake, where mountain slopes dive into the water and continue down to mysterious depths.
Kintla terminates at what resembles a small bowl between several prominent peaks, the fiercest among them being Kinnerly Peak, which rises like the Matterhorn less than a mile to the east. Rocks break away and clutter the shore, some as black and sharp as daggers.
It is here where backcountry campers embark on an overland journey across Boulder Pass, some heading north to Upper Waterton Lake. It is also here where the oil once seeped from the ground, giving rise to the first oil well ever drilled in Montana – a perplexing fact given the remote and rugged location.
Like the boat, old drilling equipment can be seen on a sunny day resting on the lake bottom in 20 feet of water. It is oddly out of place given the terrain’s otherwise natural surroundings. Hidden onshore within the trees sits another piece of equipment that resembles a giant radiator. At a guess, the rusting hulk of metal must weigh several tons, begging questions of how it got there given the absence of a road.
Ruterbories has an answer.
“That’s what we call a precipitator,” he said. “It was supposed to boil the water out of the oil mixture. The first oil well in Montana was drilled right there in the middle of that camp.”
Butte Oil Co. filed its oil claims in the early 1890s, though it didn’t act until 1901 when it began building a wagon road to Kintla Lake. Ruterbories said the drilling equipment arrived by train from Pennsylvania – over Marias Pass to the the Belton Station, now home to the Belton Chalet in West Glacier.
He believes the well was drilled around that time at the distant end of Kintla to a depth of 1,500 feet. But for every gallon of oil produced, the well also produced three gallons of water. The oil-water mix was too heavy for a team of horses, and the distance from Kintla to the Belton station was too great – more than 40 bone-jarring miles.
“It takes four days to get down to Belton when you start hauling with four head of horses,” Ruterbories said. “You don’t want to be hauling water as well. So they got the idea to boil that water out right there at Kintla. They found this big precipitator back in Pennsylvania and brought it out.”
Ruterbories places the date in mid-March, 1906, when workers with the Butte Oil Co. placed the precipitator on sleds and drug it across a still-frozen Kintla Lake. It was the easiest way to travel and the haul included all kinds of drilling equipment, including pumps and pipes.
It was a good plan, but like all good plans, things can go wrong.
“Any old farm boy knows you take care of the animals first,” Ruterbories said. “It was just about getting dark and they’d slid this precipitator off before unhooking the horses and feeding them. They left the rest of equipment on the ice and went and fed themselves. Right about midnight, the ice went out and they lost everything, except this piece of junk, which is why it’s still there on the shore.”
The gear left on the ice now sits submerged, serving as fodder for Ruterbories’ stories. Given his age, he’s often asked when he plans to retire. He leaves every winter to visit family in Denver, but as long as he is able, he plans to return each spring for another season.
“After so long, you become part of a place,” he said. “I’ll keep doing it so long as I’m able.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org