Headwaters

A Far cabin in the dark woods

On hitch in a remote corner of Glacier National Park, a nostalgic trail dog reflects on the ranger era of Kishenehn station.

  • Kishenehn Cabin, Glacier National Park
    The Kishenehn Cabin, 1932

 BENJAMIN ALVA POLLEY

I n the autumn of 2002, the wind trembled the lemon-colored aspen leaves, causing them to release from the trees like confetti. This fall was different for me from past years because the Glacier National Park trails foreman sent four of us workers into a remote, rarely occupied ranger station for a four-day hitch to clear some primitive trails. The Kishenehn Ranger Station is in the far northwestern corner of the park, 5 miles west of Kintla Lake as the crow flies, and about 14 miles upstream of Polebridge. It sits in a forested valley creased by the North Fork of the Flathead River. This part of the park evokes a sense of the frontier because there are no paved roads or commercial electric services, and only a passel of year-round residents.

From a nondescript trailhead on Kintla Road, we hiked 5 miles into the Kishenehn compound, where steel grates cover the windows and doors of the bark-covered log cabin, preventing wildlife and people from illegally entering. Elk, deer, and moose antlers are attached to the wooden beams above the porch that fan out like rays of sun.

Early that first afternoon, we set out to clear the trail that follows the river. In the muddy sandbar near Spruce Creek, I saw my first set of wolf tracks, imprinted next to a grizzly track. My senses went on uber-alert. I wanted to see a wild wolf. I couldn’t help but remember what Jim Williams wrote in The Path of the Puma: “The North Fork is one big predator party.” He once told me, “The North Fork is a different kind of wild, in my mind. It’s dark woods.”

As the day’s last light filtered through the trees, my co-workers sat on the porch, sipping on beers and talking about world travels, while I leaned deeper into this place. I thumbed through the pages of the lime-green logbook, learning about Kishenehn’s history and the colorful characters who have passed through.

Rangers began staying here year-round in 1910, the same year Glacier Park was established. A slew of stations, including this cabin, were strategically built along the park’s boundaries, each a day’s walk apart. The rangers assigned to Kishenehn were usually self-sufficient, self-reliant, and solitary people who could handle isolation.

“The North Fork is a different kind of wild, in my mind. It’s dark woods.”

Movement was the main chore at Kishenehn. Rangers traveled the district’s looping network of trails, which extended from the cabin, 5 miles north to the Canadian border, then east along the boundary to Boulder Pass, south past Kintla Lake, to Ford Creek, and, finally, back to Kishenehn station. To maintain a presence in their region, rangers were required to patrol 10 miles per day or 300 miles per month, traveling by foot or horseback in summer, and by snowshoe in winter. If they couldn’t keep the pace, they were considered unsuited for the job. In this remote place, nobody knew if they fell behind, so integrity was vital.

Rangers cleared trails of downfall, observed wildlife, and shot and trapped coyote “vermin” as part of the predator control program. They also patrolled Glacier’s border, trying to prevent locals from fishing, hunting, logging, mining, poaching, and trapping. The national park’s land management philosophies were new to the North Fork, where settlers began homesteading in the 1890s. Further complicating the situation, some private land claims established before the park’s creation became grandfathered inholdings, meaning these owners could log trees and, for a time, even hunt on their properties within the park.

Other ranger duties included maintaining equipment around the station, fixing the horse pasture fence and corral, mending saddles, and feeding the horses. Twice a week, the ranger would also go across the river to a community called Trail Creek to retrieve mail and catch up on local gossip.

Many rangers enjoyed the isolation and the physical labor, but one ranger had a harder time than most. Tragedy struck during the winter of 1926. William B. McAfee, a young Trail Creek homesteader, was hired as the Kishenehn ranger only to be laid off mid-season due to lack of funds—but the park service demanded he stay at the station through the winter and continue patrolling. He was also nursing a devastating heartbreak. He wrote to a friend, “The lonesomeness is almost maddening.” On February 7, he stepped outside the ranger station and shot himself in the head with his service revolver. This was the sole tragedy in the three decades of Kishenehn rangers.

One of the cabin’s nearest neighbors, Matt Brill, owned a homestead called Kintla Guest Ranch, located southwest of the cabin and across the river. Most rangers had good neighbor relations, but Andy Fleutsch became adversaries with Matt, whose horses and mules frequently trespassed at Kishenehn. Between 1931 and 1934, Andy grew so annoyed at the constant wrangling of Matt’s livestock that he often removed their horseshoes when he caught them. Andy would spitefully tell any visitors inquiring about Kintla Guest Ranch that the road was “impassable,” and the food “terrible.” When Andy was transferred from Kishenehn, rumors spread that Matt had called in a favor with an influential friend in the park service.

Andy’s replacement, Glen Miller, a Kishenehn ranger from spring to fall of 1935, brought his wife, Mary Ellen, up to Kishenehn. Her experience was calm and peaceful. Community relations improved, so much so that the Brills helped the Millers celebrate their first anniversary with cake and a bouquet.

In the 1930s, more and more rangers stationed at Kishenehn were married, and some even had children. The dynamics and atmosphere of the ranger stations changed considerably. After the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, the park service restructured its administration by eliminating ranger districts and rearranging staff to help with visitor service by herding the visitors over the road. Rangers staffed Kishenehn during just the summer months.

Now rangers patrol Kishenehn only a few days each year, and the cabin mostly stands empty. Logbook entries from recent years detail occasional visits from trail crews and wildlife biologists. As the evening grew dark, I carefully closed the tattered book and laid down for a sound night’s sleep, knowing how lucky I was to be in one of the wildest places in the park. The last morning of our hitch, I stepped outside the cabin and walked back toward the trailhead feeling a sense of wild like no other place I have ever been.

 

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