A 1910s Glacier ranger endures the park’s grueling winter in the name of discovery.
BY MICHAEL OBER
We would not have known what happened to Glacier National Park ranger Norton Pearl in 1913 during his grueling snowshoe trips patrolling the park if not for a diary. We would not have known of the hundreds of miles he trudged through unforgiving conditions, the moments of relief he found in the distant but promising light of a cabin; nor would we know the circumstances of a fellow ranger’s ghastly death.
But records of these events, among others, are contained in a journal discovered in a barn by Pearl’s granddaughter, the tales supplemented with black and white films from a Kodak vest camera. With a gnarled pencil stub, Pearl had written an everyday account of his patrols during his two years there, including two grinding cross-country snowshoe trips across the snow-encased northern tier of the park in January and February of 1913.
At that time, Glacier National Park was just three years old, an unknown smudge on the maps of northwest Montana with most of its iconic peaks yet unnamed by white men. Only the most rudimentary of road, trail and bridge access existed, and all were drifted in and impassable in winter. What served as pathways through its impenetrable forests were mostly game trails.
In those first years, the park mostly encompassed tortured terrain peopled with an odd collection of trappers, settlers, former miners, homesteaders and Great Northern Railway construction crews starting to build the park’s first trails, roads, hotels and chalets. Into this mix dropped the park’s first official ranger staff who were deployed to the far-flung corners and drainages as the first imprint of federal authority. They built what passed as crude ranger stations, little more than a log cabins, barns and woodsheds. It all worked surprisingly well, this strange stew of private and federal inhabitants. They all seemed to know each other despite the huge distances of separation, as noted frequently in Pearl’s diaries. He often “bunked in” or “overnighted” with numerous settlers on his lengthy patrols throughout the park. The homesteaders were a hardscrabble bunch, barely making subsistence livings against poor odds. Their scattered farmsteads in and around the park made for timely stopping-off places for overland travelers like Pearl and other field rangers.
Pearl’s first winter patrol assignment was straightforward enough: to conduct a lengthy circumnavigation of the northern tier of the park bumping between patrol cabins and ranger stations along the way and connecting with the rangers assigned there. But the first of two circuitous trips that winter would not go entirely as planned.
The ranger gig was rigorous; many chief rangers required field rangers to submit a minimum of 300 miles of patrol logs each month. They were charged with recording wildlife observations and poaching violations, maintaining a string of small patrol cabins, watching for timber depredation and cattle trespass, suppressing wildfires, and establishing amiable relations with private inholders within the park’s boundaries. It was equal amounts demanding and lonely, and Pearl was a good fit.
He was 34 when he accepted a ranger position in Glacier in 1912, and a specimen of uncommon fitness, a man of no half measures who demanded no less of others. Pearl was built for speed and endurance. Writing about winter travel, he said: “Carry as little as possible, as every pound retards speed … I provide myself with a medium weight jersey sweater to put on between over and undershirts when making camp and for sleeping. If one is to make one-night camps a blanket or tent is mere excess baggage. The three most important things are grub, matches and an axe. For provisions, sugar, flour, bacon and coffee will get a man anywhere.”
For hand protection Pearl wore wool gloves encased in canvas mittens. On his feet he wore the traditional “rubbers,” high-top lace-up leather boots with rubber bottoms, and one pair of wool socks. His entries centered on cryptic notes about fighting the relentless winds common to the east side of Glacier Park. “It’s drill, drill and push. Drill, drill.” When asking the residents in the adjacent Blackfeet Reservation about winter patrols, Pearl recorded, “Every native in the country has many stories to tell of the blizzards a man can’t live in & how when & where men didn’t live in em.”
Various fellow rangers accompanied Pearl during his two 1913 winter trips: Horace Brewster, Bill Cavanaugh, Bill Burns, Joe Prince, James Galen, Cy Bellah and his personal friend Dick Kirby. Pearl was not above boasting of his trail endurance. Leaving with ranger Cy Bellah for Babb on Jan. 28, he wrote, “We made it in two hours & bucked some wind. Cy is lame from the last two days. I am sure in some condition for hiking. I could have come down 50% faster but even at the gait I took Cy could not keep up at times.”
Another time, Jan. 7, his diary records, “I could have made it three times as fast time alone. Some day maybe I’ll run on to someone who can hold me even on wind mountains, & thick brushy woods. In brushy woods no one I have ever found has been anywhere or coming down mts, especially.” That same day, Pearl set forth from his Two Medicine Ranger Station accompanied by fellow ranger Joe Prince and Glacier Park Superintendent James Galen. Their route took them up and over a low ridge, parallel to the park boundary and then on to the Blackfeet Reservation with Galen on his Cooks Inlet snowshoes and Pearl and Prince on their Bearpaws taking turns breaking trail.
There were frequent stops to take the snowshoes off where the relentless wind had scoured the snow from scree fields, ridgelines and other open terrain. “It howled!, oh how it howled!” Pearl wrote, complaining of being peppered with stones and pebbles. Prince kept falling behind. Though he was the oldest of the trio, his stamina was well known as he had lived and traveled these parts for 14 years before signing on as a park ranger when Glacier was carved out of the region in 1910. Eventually, with Prince trailing somewhere behind them, Galen and Pearl struck the drifted-in road leading to the St. Mary Ranger Station, counted the telegraph poles alongside to gauge their pace and distance and arrived after dark at 9 p.m. They had traveled 14 miles. “Wow! But we were hungry & had a good feed & pipe & now waiting for Prince,” Pearl wrote.
When Pearl and Galen backtracked the next morning, they found Prince propped against his rucksack, “frozen and cold in the snow.” Prince had removed his hat and leather mittens, propped his snowshoes in the snow to one side and had laid his sheep skin shoes to the other side as if preparing to swap footgear. His boots were still on. Next to him was his ash-filled pipe and an unopened can of sardines. His eyes were frozen open in a blank stare at the all-white ridge above Divide Creek. “He cashed in last night,” Pearl wrote simply.
With little else to do, Galen and Pearl snowshoed back to St. Mary and secured some boards from a Great Northern road crew and an oilskin gunny sack, which they used to fashion a crude sled before trudging the 6 miles back to retrieve “Poor Ole Prince.” Back at St. Mary, they transported him by wagon to Browning, Montana, where he was buried. The inquest there concluded that he died of exposure. He was 57.
Pearl and Galen might be forgiven for forging ahead and leaving Prince out alone on the ridgeline overlooking the St. Mary Valley. They both speculated that he would “siwash it” by constructing a quick shelter in a wooded thicket, building a fire and making a bed of boughs to weather the night. Every ranger of the day carried a small axe, waterproof metal match box and grub. Still, it must have haunted Pearl, though his diary entry the day following the death revealed little in the way of grief or guilt. No doubt, Pearl did some hard thinking about Prince’s death, but his feelings about the affair were either suppressed or wholly dismissed. Prince is never mentioned again in Pearl’s diary after Jan. 9.
Three weeks later, Pearl was on the trail again, leaving St. Mary and continuing his cross-park patrol assignment, this time by himself and bent on making it to Waterton Lakes National Park, a Canadian park bordering Glacier, and finding shelter with legendary Canadian ranger Kootenai Brown. There he hoped to receive guidance on a route over the Continental Divide and a return to Glacier, aiming to continue south along its western boundary.
In Pearl’s day, his navigation depended on a compass, barometer, a monocular, pedometer, and thermometer—plus a keen sense of dead reckoning. While snowshoeing through Waterton on Feb. 8 and in search of Brown’s ranger station, Pearl spotted the faint light of his cabin in a valley as darkness fell. He lined up his bearing with the light of a star and plunged into a tree line of “quakin’ asp.” An hour later, he emerged adjacent to the cabin. “Yes & I hit it within 25 yards,” he wrote.
Alone, with no map and in Canadian lands he had never seen before, Pearl set forth from Brown’s cabin the following day to navigate his way east to west across Waterton, crossing the Continental Divide at Akamina Pass or South Pass (his journal never makes it clear). He wrote,“You are taken out of yourself even tho you have been crunch crunching the whiteness for hours until your physical self is an automatic machine, grinding and grinding the human distances to chaff. You are living in the mental.” He finally stopped at a trapper’s cabin on Kishenehn Creek just south of the international boundary after 22 miles in another 40-below-zero day. “It’s a welcome place you find at 7:30 with beans & booyaw & man made bread to make your tummy glad.”
Pearl “paced off” another 25 miles the next day when the temperature rose to -25 degrees. To avoid tedium, he often counted his pedometer strides measured with time to calculate distance. When he reached the North Fork of the Flathead River, he “halloowed” to a small cabin across the river and was greeted by a shout from rancher Matt Brill who launched a crude raft and fetched him to the west shore. “Big venison steaks with onions brot up in pockets to keep em from freezing. Spuds with capital letter, beans butter. Some place when you’re planning on 8 mi more after an all day walk & you really have 12 stareing you in the face.” Thanking Brill, he pushed off in the early morning darkness for another 14 miles the following day. He stopped for shelter and food at Polebridge and Logging ranger stations and at Adair’s homestead on the final leg of his January trip back to Park Headquarters in Belton (West Glacier) for a tally of another 59 miles.
The following month, he was at it again. On its face, Pearl’s February 1913 winter trip around Glacier seemed routine enough but with a different twist than the month before. On Feb. 8, word had come to Park Headquarters that legendary Waterton Lake ranger, Albert “Death on the Trail” Reynolds, fell ill and had to be taken to nearby Pincher Creek, Alberta, where he died of gall stone inflammation. Park officials feared that settlers would possibly plunder his ranger cabins and make off with his belongings and government gear, and that a local timber company would try to reclaim the buildings. Years before, the timber company had allowed Reynolds to occupy them as his ranger station while disputed lumber claims within the boundaries of the new park could be adjudicated.
Accordingly, Pearl was directed, in view of Reynold’s untimely death, to conduct a grueling detour to his ranger station on Waterton Lake to inventory and secure the contents of his ranger cabins. This time, Pearl was accompanied by Dick Kirby, an old childhood friend from Michigan and a traveler up to Pearl’s rigorous pace. They embarked from Pearl’s Two Medicine Ranger Station on Feb. 19 and found shelter in various snowshoe cabins, abandoned miner’s shacks and ranger stations along the way, arriving at Reynold’s ranger station on Feb. 26, logging nearly 60 miles.
For three days, they feasted on Reynold’s food cache “of spuds and frozen deer hanging in the woodshed” while they rummaged through the contents of his cabin and outbuildings for his family members, with a sharp eye to recovering his prized barometer at the special request of his sister.
Then, in one monster day on March 1, Pearl and Kirby rose at 4 a.m. and “started sometime before six & tied more than 3 miles on behind before daylight.” Pearl recorded the morning temperature at 30 below zero “filled with ice crystals.” They snowshoed over broken avalanche debris and downed trees for 40 miles, crossing the Continental Divide at Brown’s Pass, and made good time by jogging with their snowshoes the length of Bowman Lake, reaching the foot in the dark, still 6 miles from the nearest ranch alongside the North Fork of the Flathead River. “That’s some crooked trail & in some scattered dead timber,” Pearl wrote. “We followed it by feeling with our feet & sometimes lost it & made a polouser (coffee can with a candle poked through a hole for a lantern) … & twas fine from there on.” They arrived well after dark at Bill Cavanaugh’s Polebridge Ranger Station having stopped only once for Hershey bars in 18 hours. “Had a good feed from Bill’s Grub Stake & then pulled in for a fine snooze.” The next two days were spent visiting North Fork homesteaders at Adair’s home and store and staying with ranger Horace Brewster at Logging Ranger Station, resting up for the final push on to Belton (West Glacier). In a brief call to civility, Pearl and Kirby were invited to the all night “Winter Ball” at Hansen’s Homestead and caught a ride on a horse-drawn sledge hauling a clutch of neighbors to the ball where Pearl “… tried with difficulty to dance the reel all night in my clunky boots.”
Pearl and Kirby completed the final leg of the march by snowshoeing south on the North Fork Road once again and on to park headquarters, arriving on March 5. There, they caught the “No 1” eastbound Great Northern train to Midvale (East Glacier) and Pearl’s home base at Two Medicine Ranger Station. They had been gone 15 days, traversed the Continental Divide, and traveled nearly 200 miles. Recalling the events of the past two months, Pearl wrote, “…having made a complete trip around Glacier National Park…twice,[by his calculations, including extra side trips”] …” it makes between 500 and 600 miles that I covered.” Pearl was an exemplary ranger with a hopeful future, as acknowledged by his peers and superintendents. But there would be no future in Glacier for Pearl, nor would he replicate his 1913 winter journeys again. He left his job rather abruptly on Dec. 16, 1913, tidbits from his diary the only clues as to why.
Excerpts from his writing hint at poor investments, first with a corrupt timber harvesting company and next with shares purchased in an emerging private camping company, “Camp Fires,” promising a partnership as a guide. There were also compelling thoughts about returning to his home state of Michigan to assist his ailing father, who died in 1914. He was dogged by letters from home urging him to send money back to his family members. Pearl fell into a funk, restless and brooding. He wrote often about only working for “day wages” and saw no way out of his financial distress. He had little success finding acreage where he dreamed of building a small dude ranch for park tourists. He spent his final months in Glacier supervising a private contract crew constructing a bridge over Cut Bank Creek, a task he found unfulfilling. Closing out his ranger station, he made a diary entry that told of his despondency: “I am not satisfied here nor contented either. It’s good by little cabin good bye.”
He never returned to Glacier. Norton Pearl died at 82 in 1960.
Four generations deep in Montana’s history and culture, Michael Ober is a recently retired professor emeritus from Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. During his 40-year career as Director of Library Services, he also taught English and Montana history. He also worked for 44 years as a seasonal ranger and wildland firefighter in Glacier National Park, and his freelance and professional writing has appeared in numerous regional and national publications.