By Robert Lucke
Kate Richardson and Jason Wilmot have a job that most folks just dream about. They spent last winter all alone in the Many Glacier Valley being caretakers of the Many Glacier Hotel and valley.
It all started when Park Ranger Richardson and her volunteer-in-park fiance heard there would be an opening last winter for that isolated job.
They stayed in the caretaker's cabin, one of the last of the original Swift Current Chalets.
"The chalet has been added onto, and it was just a great place to stay," Richardson said. "It has a wood stove and is really cozy and homey. There is a kitchen, two bedrooms, a living room with a fireplace, and a bathroom with a claw-footed tub and picture window. I could take a bath looking at the valley sheep herd."
Since Glacier Park authorities do not allow snowmobiles anywhere in the park, the mode of transportation for the winter was skiing, although with the fierce winds in the valley, at times the highway was blown off enough for mountain biking.
Even with all the isolation of the area, there were plenty of conveniences for the couple.
"The chalet has running water and electric heat along with the wood stove and there is a telephone so we could keep in touch with people all the time we were there," Richardson added. "And there is e-mail. And you know the power was out many times with the wind, but others somewhere would be out too so we never had to wait long for it to be back on again."
The Park Service controls Many Glacier and yet Glacier Park Inc. runs the hotels so they have many conflicts.
"Like the road into the hotel from Babb," Richardson said. "The Park Service wants it shut as long as possible, and GPI wants to open so they can work at the hotel. It is a constant battle."
The couple were completely isolated for only two months due to the mild Many Glacier winter. Normally, winter caretakers are isolated for up to four months.
"GPI got in here on Feb. 26 because the park had plowed the road," Richardson said. "That was the earliest ever and with a low snow year, it wasn't a big deal when they plowed us out."
So how in the world do you plan for four months without a trip to the supermarket?
"That was easy," Richardson said. "We made a list of 14 meals and then just multiplied them for four months. We really did quite well except that things like pizza which both of us like. Well, it seemed like we were eating all of the pizza too soon, so I started keeping a list of what we had eaten and when. But we had plenty of food. Too much, really."
D-Day for isolation was Dec. 22. Before that, GPI had been working on the hotel, but on the 22nd everything was shut down and left. All except for the couple and a lot of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions and wolverines kept the couple busy with sightings.
And then there was the job. Jason had to check the hotel each day, making sure that the computer room was kept warm. And he had to check each and every one of the hundreds of rooms once a week.
The enemy was both wind and snow.
"In a typical year big drifts inside the building have to be dug out daily. The breezeway between the hotel and the annex really drifts badly and the lake front rooms by the dining room are bad for drifting. We saw pictures of just tons of snow in the building, but we had just a little to dig out," Richardson said.
Richardson's part of the job was to ski every day, track wildlife and document all that and just to be a visible presence in the valley so someone coming in bent on doing something illegal would know that there are people there. They were there to help other visitors in the valley should they need it along with frequent measuring of avalanche data.
"But most of all, our job was to record what happens up here in the winter," Richardson continued.
In this mild winter, family members walked in to spend Christmas. Other than that, there was one photographer, a couple from Whitefish who camped for a night, and two people who walked in, but were not seen. That's all for the two months.
So could there ever be a downside spending the winter in this paradise?
"The only downside I could think of is that we had no fresh fruit and vegetables," Richardson said with a laugh. "And there was a huge upside. We were able to experience things that are so far away from our society today. The Many Glacier Valley is incredible in the winter. Life was simple. You against nature and whatever Mother Nature sent our way we just had to deal with it."
It was a place where you really get to know your companion, Richardson related.
She figured that she would either really love Jason or hate him before the end of their sojourn.
She was right. They got engaged before they left the valley this spring!