Tuesday, January 16, 2007


You can take a look at St. Mary right this minute (if it’s daylight and the camera is working) by going to the Glacier Park webcam system: http://www.nps.gov/archive/glac/webcams/smcam.htm I started watching it regularly last summer when there was a forest fire almost directly in front of the camera. In the past few years there have been repeated fires in this area, partly because of beetle-killed trees and partly because of fuel buildup under the trees.

The Blackfeet Tribe, whose forest abutts the Park, sends in clearing crews, especially along the highways where careless people throw out cigarettes and trucks strike sparks. These hardy folks cut low limbs, gather dead wood, and generally clear things out in much the same way that forest fires do if they occur in natural rhythms instead of being suppressed for long periods of time. The Tribe has a special interest in the forest fires because that timber is a major part of the tribal assets. Since last summer’s fire started inside Glacier Park where it was allowed to burn instead of being immediately suppressed, it eventually consumed a large proportion of tribal forest. There will probably be a lawsuit. An added twist is that some people suspect the fire was started by Boy Scouts. A lawsuit pitting the Blackfeet Tribe against the Boy Scouts of America ought to be pretty interesting!

St. Mary as a community exists because it is where the road called “Going to the Sun” branches off from Highway 89. Most of the roads inside Glacier Park end at campgrounds, but this one continues clear across to the west side where it reunites with Highway 2 through the much lower Marias Pass. It is the drive that made the Park famous but since it is so precarious an engineering feat, it constantly caves off the mountains. It may not exist in another decade. Certainly, it was not built for modern huge RV’s and it would be foolish to drive such a vehicle through that road. The largest are forbidden.

“Going to the Sun” is closed in winter and so is St. Mary. Of the three towns that interface Glacier Park with Blackfeet Reservation, this is the most purely a “tourist town.” There’s a small store, a gas station that closes in winter, a summer hamburger joint that serves buffalo burgers alongside ice cream, and so on.

St. Mary was called by the Blackfeet “the Inside Lakes” but at one point along the lake it is possible to see in the skyline a profile of a woman with a cowl -- that’s all the encouragement needed by those eager to Christianize and respectabilize the wild peaks. No huge railroad hotel exists in St. Mary which is split by the highway rather than train tracks. On the Park side is a lodge built and run by the Catholic family of Hugh Black. On the reservation side is a campground, motel and restaurant run by the Methodist Lester Johnson family. Both families have been there a very long time and are quite different in style. The Blacks have produced at least one priest and have been major land-owners and capitalists. The Johnsons began in a run-down building at roadside and lived in a tent in back during the first seasons. Their children married into the tribe and have become educators and business folks across the reservation.

Other businesses tucked in around these two major players. A beer garden, a KOA campground, various small cafes and shops come and go from one year to the next. Not far to the north was once the summer art school run by Winold Reiss. Close by in the Korean War years was a recreation site for Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Blackfeet Crafts Association ran a small shop, subsidiary to the major shop in the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, in a little old log cabin until they moved across the highway to a newer portable building. In the early Fifties, Bob Scriver and his then-wife Jeanette ran a little curio shop with a mounted horse out front, rigged to a pivot so it would “buck.”

As the population of the reservation grew and global warming made winter travel more possible, more people began to live year-round in small allotment homesteads. More than the other two tourist towns, St. Mary “rocks” in the summer but belongs to the elk, bears and cougars all winter. Still, the road along the lake to Canada is plowed and one sees 4-wheel-drive tracks taking off on dirt roads. There is no church or school in St. Mary.

The Thad Scrivers and their close white community of shopkeepers joined together to buy Mrs. Jim Stone’s allotment, which was just above the highway some miles north along the lake. They scattered cabins through the aspen groves of the hillside so they could socialize there in the summer as they did in Browning during the winter. This assortment of very different cabins -- ranging from the stone cottage of Jack Holterman to the screen-porched abode farthest back to the Aubert two-story cabin built along a slant, including the cabins of both Bob Scriver and Thad Scriver, are operated as rentals in the summer.

Many of the happiest hours of my life were spent in that little cabin with its lean-to bedroom and massive fireplace. Flying squirrels zoomed across between tall trees and clover scented the meadow out front. Once we found in a light snow the pug marks of a pair of cougars, circling the cabin and then exploring the roof. In the early Sixties the bears were still pigging out on garbage and no threat to us. Later, things changed and now one must keep up one’s guard against bears and some humans.

Once I stayed at the cabin alone and was pestered by mice running across my arms in the night, so I went back to Browning and fetched the cat. As soon as it was dark, there was a lot of rustling and scrambling -- then the cat began to scream in rage and pain. Lights revealed that the “mice” were shrews and they had buried their little fangs in the toes and nose of the poor cat! We slept with the lights on for the rest of the night. Sometimes the small carnivores are more of a threat than the big ones.


fragmente said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this as well. I too have had the happiest days of my life spent in St. Mary growing up. I want the same for my Children, to enjoy the most beautiful place on Earth along with the Blackfeet People.

Tina - Calgary, AB.

Margy said...

Hey! Living in the tent had its advantages. You could hear the chatter of the birds. You could hear Dad, very clearly when he yelled: "Time to pack water." Thanks for the mention of my family. They are fine people. Margy Johnson