In a race against winter they’re determined not to lose, 10 workers are camped in Glacier National Park’s backcountry, rushing to stabilize the burned-out shell of Sperry Chalet before it is buried beneath the snow.
The work is privately funded through donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s Sperry Action Fund, created the day after a wildfire overran the 103-year-old chalet on Aug. 31.
The National Park Service asked the nonprofit conservancy to raise $106,200 for a structural assessment of the chalet’s remaining stone walls, the creation of a stabilization plan, purchase of the needed building materials and transportation to the site, and the stabilization work.
As of Sunday night, the Sperry Action Fund had collected $107,900 in donations.
More donations eventually will be needed, once the Park Service works through a public process to determine the backcountry dormitory’s future. Superintendent Jeff Mow expects those discussions to begin this winter.
First, though, what remains of the original stone structure must be protected from the impending weather.
“Workers are banging nails as we speak,” said Kevin Warrington, who owns and operates Belton Chalets Inc. with Kathie Aasheim. “They are racing against winter.”
Belton operates both of Glacier’s backcountry chalets – Sperry and Granite Park.
Warrington said Sperry’s kitchen building and water system survived the Sprague fire in good shape.
But the iconic two-story Sperry Chalet – the dormitory where backcountry visitors stayed – was gutted by the fire.
“I had a chance to inspect it,” he said. “I could recognize a few door hinges, a few doorknobs, but the rest of it was obliterated.”
“We had firefighters up there, and they were able to save four of the five structures in the Sperry complex,” said Mow, Glacier’s superintendent for the past four years. “But the Sperry Chalet burned.”
Mow said the structural analysis conducted by DCI + BCE Engineers (which also consulted on repairs to the chalet after it was damaged by an avalanche in 2011) found the remaining stone structure to be sound.
The walls, Mow said, are 2 feet thick and retained their structural integrity despite the intensity of the fire.
“That known, our goal was before winter sets in to provide stabilization of those walls,” he said. “That gives us the opportunity to think about what does the Sperry Chalet for the next 100 years look like. There will be a lot of discussion about that piece over the winter.”
Stabilization materials and workers arrived at the chalet on Thursday, again financed by the Glacier Conservancy.
“The stabilization would not have been possible without the conservancy stepping up to the plate and helping hire the structural engineers, purchase the stabilization materials and underwrite the expenses related to the labor,” Mow said. “If we had to go through the government contracting process, and rehire our summer employees, we could not have gotten the work done before winter.”
Added Doug Mitchell, executive director of the conservancy, “To be able to respond quickly is one of the tools the nonprofit partners can provide to our national parks. The conservancy had the resources to allow us to respond quickly.”
As the Sperry Chalet’s future is determined, the conservancy has pledged to continue raising money for the necessary work.
“We’ll keep going, piece by piece,” said Nikki Eisinger, the nonprofit group’s development director.
On Sunday, the Glacier Conservancy wrapped up a weeklong fundraising campaign for its 2018 programs and projects in the park, called “Give Back to Glacier.”
All donations up to $50,000 were matched by the Thomas O. Brown Foundation. The conservancy’s goal for the week was $150,000.
The fundraising week took on added significance because of the unexpected costs associated with the Sperry Chalet fire, said Mitchell, who just completed his 10th week at the conservancy.
“This week’s campaign will help us fund the other 50 projects we need to fund for Glacier Park,” he said.
Those initiatives include the reconstruction of the last mile of the Hidden Lake trail, bus transportation for schoolchildren to visit Glacier Park in the off season, trail maintenance and construction, work to prevent the invasion of mussels in Glacier’s pristine waters, and trail clearing and reconstruction necessitated by the Sprague fire.
An estimated 1,200 trees are down and lying across the six-mile trail from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge to Sperry Chalet. Many other trails within the fire’s perimeter have a like number of downed trees, or more.
“The fire did occur in some of the more popular areas of the park,” Mow said. “How do we make them accessible again? That has to come first before we can even get to the longer-term effort of determining how we can bring back the Sperry experience.”
Next summer, Mitchell said, there will obviously be a “hiatus” at Sperry. “But we’ve had hiatuses before,” he said. “We just have to be a little patient and see what the next steps will bring.”
“Sperry Chalet, and Granite Park too, are all about the people,” Mitchell said. “This is not a five-star hotel. The passion that people have expressed all across the country after the fire comes from the shared experience with other people.”
Warrington’s family – the Ludings – have operated the two backcountry chalets since 1954, when the Great Northern Railway sold them to Glacier National Park for $1.
“My grandparents, Kay and Ross Luding, answered a newspaper ad in the Hungry Horse News,” he said. “The park didn’t quite know what to do with the chalets, and they needed a concessionaire. My grandfather had been working on the Hungry Horse Dam and was unemployed. Kay saw the ad and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
The summer of 1954, the Ludings took their children to the park, ran the chalets “and after the summer was over realized they didn’t lose anything,” Warrington said. “That made it worth doing again and again. It became a legacy almost by accident.”
“This was a very eventful year for Sperry Chalet,” Warrington said. “We saw that fire spark and had to evacuate our guests and suffered through so many weeks of uncertainty. Then the chalet burned, of course.”
But throughout all those weeks and the months since, Warrington said the community has surrounded his family and employees and guests with their love and support.
“Sperry couldn’t be here without the rest of Glacier Park,” he said.
Sperry Chalet isn’t going to change, Aasheim said. “We don’t want it to change.”
“We try to become better stewards all the time,” she said. “I always want us to be the shining light in the park system.”
It’s difficult to explain, Aasheim said. “I am privileged and honored to be part of an organization that serves people.”
Sperry “is not my chalet,” Warrington said. “But it’s my chalet to share. That’s one of the big motivators.”
“There is hope,” he said. “There is hope for the old girl.”