Understanding the Sperry fire

I must confess, now with some guilt, that I was excited when I heard about the Sprague Fire.  Anyone who has hiked the trail from Crystal Ford up to Sperry, the Snyder Ridge trail, or especially been anywhere off trail in that neighborhood will understand how profoundly old that forest is.  Or rather, was.  Fire causes renewal and by any just sense that forest was due its turn.

The chalet complex itself is at the upper edge of the forest, close to where subalpine turns to alpine, at around 6500′.  As the map below shows the builders, JJ Hill’s Great Northern Rail Company, had a good eye for aesthetics and the spectacular, at the rightful expense of practicality.  Water isn’t especially easy to come by on a rock slab at that altitude, avalanches are an issue (as seen by the placement of the snow patch), but under all but the worst conditions fire would not have been an issue.  As you can see, there just aren’t that many trees up there.

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 8.13.48 AM

Back in the day Glacier had nine chalets in total.  Sperry and Granite Park persist (only the main visitor bunkhouse, the largest and southernmost building at Sperry, has thus far burnt), Gunsight was fast given up due to repeated issues with avalanches, fires, and marauding bears, and the rest became front country or close to it, fell out of favor, and were either destroyed or converted (the present Two Med store).  The demise of the Sun Point Chalet, bulldozed into St. Mary Lake, seems today a particular deed of ignomy, especially given Sun Points recent use as the worlds most scenic gravel pit.


All evidence suggests that everything possible was done to keep the building from burning.  Fire is an inevitability in the wilderness, a healthy and appropriate one.  I hope, and imagine, that it will be rebuilt in much the same form.  It’s a unique place, the sort parks ought to have more of, and I think the NPS finally recognizes as much.

3 responses to “Understanding the Sperry fire”

  1. For those that don’t know, Sperry is a little different than most “chalet/lodges” as you can’t drive to it. It was a minimum of a 6 mile hike in (all up). Folks who stayed there might not have been full on adventurers, but certainly more adventurous than 95+% of Glacier’s visitors. I really (really) wanted to get a room there for my wife and I, so we could do the Gunsight -> Lake McDonald route- 20-ish miles is a little out of reach for my wife in a day, but 13-ish would have been doable. Unfortunately I was never able to secure a room (even getting on the site early) and now might not ever.

    I’m not going to critique the fire fighters (they simply do and go where told- I know I fought fires for several years), but when it was first discovered it was less than one acre. There was no concern at the time for the chalet; this was publicly stated. They did close the trails leading to Sperry from Lake McDonald as a precaution and evacuated the chalet (leading them east out). The fire lingered for several days growing very slowly. I can only speculate, but I believe that a decision was made at a high level that this was a fire that was not a threat, probably overdue, let nature do it’s thing and to simply keep an eye on it. I don’t think anyone really thought that the structures were in danger, but they were obviously mistaken.

    I realize there is no sense in crying over spilled milk and I’ll still get my Gunsight trip someday (wife if we make it an overnighter). I would however love to be a fly on the wall when they do a final debrief on the Sperry fire; my guess is they conclude they should have done things differently, but then again, maybe not???

    1. Mike – Dave and I got to stay in the Chalet a few years ago when his parents came to stay and generously booked a room for us all! We feel very lucky now, though I have a strong suspicion it will be rebuilt… there is so much Monday-morning quarterbacking going on online about the loss, it is so refreshing that you are able to state your opinions without essentially calling the fire-managers A-holes or idiots! A lot of people seem incapable of that!

      As for the Gunsight-Lake McDonald route, while I know backpacking requires you to bring a lot more weight (especially if you’re making it easy on your wife!), Lake Ellen Wilson is a campsite second to none, and perfectly positioned if you do the route East to West (which I believe involves less elevation gain overall, though maybe you’d want to minimizing the downhill part…)…

      We have walked past Ellen Wilson, but staying there is on the absolute top of my Glacier List at the moment! We got a reservation for it via lottery last summer, but then ended up changing the itinerary due to us re-evaluating out Little Bear carrying abilities, and what was available at the time… we put in an advance reservation request essentially saying we were willing to take any 1 night, Saturday or Sunday, that was available between late-July and early-September :) It got the job done!

      Anyway – just saying that while you obviously give up a lot of ease, comfort, and camaraderie by not staying at the Chalet, Ellen Wilson is such an amazing place it might make up for it!

  2. Thanks M, I’ll definitely put that on our to do list! Looks like Ellen Wilson is almost exactly half way too, which would make it even more doable for a two day trip :)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s