…most of the the ingredients seem to be there

Montana history is an easy thing to get stuck into, largely because it is easy to digest in scope.  Only a state since 1889, only subject to written history since the early 19th century, and to this day not the subject of extensive research, save perhaps with respect to wildlife.  Our local library provides a relatively large body of primary and close secondary sources.


Mary Rinehart authored a promotional booklet for the railroad which serviced (and largely created) Glacier National Park. In the pre-automobile days tourists experienced Glacier on horseback, which meant that the railroad built most of the trails which still exist today, many before Glacier became a park in 1910.  The trail on the east side of Swiftcurrent Pass, shown above, is probably no wider or dustier today than it was a century ago.

Years ago I was at the top of the third left hairpin, watching a family ascend the biggest switchback up toward the many tight turns which break the cliffs below the big rightward traverse.  A Griz was headed down, and took a shortcut down one of the scree chutes.  It found itself stuck between the family, downhill 50 yards away, and a pair of couples uphill and slightly closer.  It went downhill, fast, and that was one of the few times when running (as the kids and eventually parents did) away from a bear is the right thing to do.


Some parts of Glacier look very much the same.  Some places, like Sun Point, do not. When tourists mostly took boats along St Mary Lake the chalet was a popular stop over, before hoping on a horse to go over either Logan, Gunsight, or Peigan Pass.  This chalet was dismantled and then bulldozed into the lake in 1948.  I’m generally not a fan of infrastructure in the parks, but I’d swap the current complex at Rising Sun, which is lacking in all forms of elegance and built on prime bear and elk range, for an elegant and boldly located chalet on the rocks of what is now an underused picnic area.


Robert Gildart wrote a great book compiling anecdotes about (and entitled) Montana’s Early-Day Rangers.  There are many telling anecdotes about wildlife, documenting the abundance of big fish in places like Glacier (pictures below from Rinehart) and the Bob, where salmon runs existed before dams and non-natives supplanted them.  Ranger patrols in the Bob during the teens and twenties went weeks without seeing either deer nor elk, something difficult to fathom today, though those same rangers seemed to feed themselves off grouse with no difficulty or compunction.  The Sun River Game preserve, still closed to hunting, dates from this period (created in 1913). It may not be still strictly necessary to keep elk, deer, and mountain goat populations healthy (winter range is a more acute shortage), but the heart of the Bob being off limits to hunting is a nice reminder that conservation begins with preservation.


I wrote about the famous capture of Joe Cosley here, including photos of the patrol book entries written by Joe Heimes, who captured him.  Gildart caught up with Heimes at age 80, retired in Lakeside, Montana and “…still strong enough to harvest a cord of wood in a day.”  Gildart quotes Heimes:

I was preparing for John J. Wes to bring in my spring supplies… and I had to blow a beaver dam which was backing snow melt up over the old wagon road.  Wes would come in through Cardston and Mountain View with a Canadian Mounted Police escort in an old wagon and each year the trail flooded for miles.  I had to blow that dam away twice a year.  Well, at any rate, that’s when I saw tracks down there in the snow and the sand, and I could see where someone had been looking around for beaver.  My dog and I followed a long way and finally we came to a trap laying over a pole.  Inside, there was a hind quarter of beaver, and a muskrat was stuck between his blankets along with several traps.  When I saw that we went back to the ranger station at Belly River where I called Tom Whitcraft, the ranger then at Waterton Ranger Station.  He wasn’t there but the Canadians said they’d tell him he was urgently needed and precisely where I could be found.  Then, mighty quick, we hiked the three miles back to the poacher’s camp and hid behind a tree. 

We waited almost ten full hours before he showed up and I caught him.  But at the time I wasn’t sure who I’d caught.  I’d never even seen a picture of him before.  But I’d heard a description, so when he gave me a fake name I said “Well, you sure look more like Joe Cosley to me.”  Glaring back, he said, “Well, I’m Joe Cosley all right, but you ain’t taking me in.”  And then he added, “Ain’t no ranger takin’ me in.” 

You know, I might have let him go if he hadn’t said that.  I didn’t want to go to headquarters anyway.  I had a dog team and it meant I might be gone a week.  It was too much work.  And back in those days poaching wasn’t a real serious thing.  Generally, we’d just take the furs, unload their gun and let them go.  As it was, I spent three long days with the man, not to mention what happened after the trial…

As I detailed five years ago, Heimes drug and tackled Cosley back to the Belly River Ranger Station, and with help snowshoed him over Gable Pass to Babb, took a car to East Glacier, and then a train to Belton (now West Glacier) for him to stand trial.  Cosley was fined $25 for having a firearm in the park, and $100 for having traps, and a suspended jail sentence.  His trial was set for 10am, and he was presumably on his way hiking up the McDonald Valley by mid afternoon, or earlier.  The next day Heimes and another ranger took the train to East Glacier, a car to the Belly River in Canada, and horses (Gildart quotes him as saying they walked) to the Belly Ranger Station.  Early the next morning they went to collect Cosley’s fur stash and found it gone.  As quoted by Geldert Heimes was in no particular rush to get back, as he assumed Cosley wouldn’t make good time.  Perhaps his seeming rush, he traveled 157 miles that day, to get back to the station was because of his dogs, but I have my doubts.

According to Geldert Heimes claimed “We couldn’t have missed Cosley by more than a few hours.  Maybe only minutes.”  My guess remains that it was more like 8 hours, and Cosley’s marathon hike is a fitting capstone to his Legend.

Gildart also has useful thing to relate about the fundamentals of wilderness living, such as how to hike big miles (be fit, wake up early, don’t stop) and survive in a blizzard without a tent or sleeping bag (dig into a tree well formed by a snag, cut down said tree to feed an all night fire).  Rangers a century ago routinely logged 30+ mile days on trails, both out of expediency in work, and not infrequently just for fun.  A number of examples he quotes surely involved a good deal of running.  To whit: “Total miles for 4 days, 101.  Miles without trails, 13.  Miles with pack, 71.  In addition, I spent 3 hours fighting fire.”

Gildart also has useful lessons to relate about wilderness food.  My title quotation was high praise from a hard-boiled and utilitarian Idaho ranger, and Gildart quotes another ranger on the most important subject of all:

I remember that one of the first things I was taught about preparing meals for woodsmen was to make the coffee strong; as one celebrated fire cook put it, the most important thing was to not lose your nerve when you put the coffee in.  There were all sorts of descriptive remarks relating to weak coffee… [one man] swore that he could have seen a fish swimming in seven feet of it.

Advice which remains true to this day.


3 responses to “…most of the the ingredients seem to be there”

  1. Quite the characters!

    I like the story about Cosley (who was originally employed by the Park Service) where he left Polebridge one morning, made it all the way to Waterton (at least 35 miles) to get to a dance hall, danced the night away and then headed back to Polebridge as he was scheduled to work. My guess is that the trail system back then probably left a little to be desired as well :)

  2. That’s my uncle Bert (Gildart)! I live down the road from him and love to hear his stories/recollections, and he has a shit ton… If you’re ever back in Kalispell again and want to grab a beer with him, let me know.

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