Glacier Park's original winter explorer
Posted on 11 March 2011
Norton Pearl, the first man to snowshoe through Glacier National Park
By Becky Lomax
Howling winds and deep snows prevailed. For early park rangers like Joe Prince, Kootenay Brown, "Death-on-the-Trail" Reynolds, and Norton Pearl, winter patrols were grueling. Clad in woolen layers, on heavy skis or sinew snowshoes, these mountain men were the guards for newly-formed Glacier National Park and Waterton International Peace Park.
In the winter of 1913 in Glacier National Park, 35-year-old Norton Pearl, Two Medicine Park Ranger, trekked on snowshoes around the park's border twice.
His feat was relived last year by Glacier Park ranger Brad Blickhan.
On the 90th anniversary of Norton Pearl's adventures, Blickhan, 36, retraced Pearl's tracks. Reading about Pearl's feats wasn't enough. Instead, Blickhan wanted to live Pearl's frosty excursions first-hand. Volunteering for a winter patrol of unstaffed backcountry cabins, Blickhan studied Pearl's routes and used well-stocked patrol cabins to reduce the amount of provisions he was forced to carry.
That was unlike Norton Pearl, who for nearly two months snowshoed between private dwellings, cabins and backcountry ranger stations in conditions few could withstand.
While performing his ranger duties in 3-year-old Glacier Park, Pearl documented his journeys in personal diaries. Although his first trek fell short of completion with the death of Joe Prince, Pearl restarted 10 days later with backcountry ranger Cy Bellah.
Mere days after Pearl completed his first four-week expedition circumnavigating Glacier, the park superintendent sent him on a second winter excursion to catalog effects of ranger Albert Reynolds, whose two cabins were located near Goat Haunt and the Canadian boundary.
Blickhan was able to take advantage of newer, high-tech gear to help him on his way, but the trip was still a remarkable feat.
Glacier's development since 1913 enabled Blickhan to use trails, boundary swaths and roads unavailable in Pearl's day. Blickhan's 150-mile itinerary stretched from East Glacier through Waterton in Canada and back to West Glacier. Despite the difficulties, both men journeyed portions alone.
In his own diary, Ranger Reynolds described the winter patrol as one "which no man can make." Undaunted, Pearl and Blickhan tackled the expeditions as only men who love the wilderness can.
To celebrate his early park heroes, Blickhan packed along four cigars - one each for Joe Prince, "Death-on-the-Trail" Reynolds, Kootenay Brown, and Pearl. In Blickhan's words, "These men defined tough for modern rangers."
A Cigar for Joe Prince
"Snowshoeing was sure hell for the trail breaker," wrote Pearl about the January slog north from Two Medicine to St. Mary. "Did the wind blow. Get down & hang on."
Pearl and Glacier superintendent Dalen took a short cut suggested by old-time Cut Bank Ranger Joe Prince, a renowned mountain man. Prince eventually lagged far behind the faster two who plodded on into St. Mary.
Crediting Prince with wilderness savvy, they figured he would "siwash it," and bivouac in a wickiup or brush hut. After Prince did not arrive the next morning, Pearl discovered his frozen body. He wrote in his journal: "Poor Old Prince. He cashed in last night ... frozen and cold in the snow." At the park boundary, Prince simply sat down and froze to death, with an unopened can of sardines and sheep skin shoes beside him.
Later in February, Pearl along with Ranger Dick Kirby again set out for St. Mary. They strapped their rubber boots onto wooden skis with leather bindings, and carried small ruck sacks. With windswept slopes exposing too many rocks, the skis were useless, forcing the duo to carry them.
"Put them on once but hit so many rocks I gave it up," Pearl wrote. "They are some hellers to pack under such conditions."
With nearly two feet of snow, plummeting temperatures, strong headwinds and thick timber, their clothing froze solid. As Pearl described his frozen woolens: "They would all stand alone." Despite the weather, they made it to St. Mary.
In February, 90 years later and after only one day, Blickhan wrote in his journal: "I hope I survive this trip."
With visions of making ski turns down powdered slopes, he had opted for heavy mountaineering skis with plastic boots, sturdy bindings and skins for climbing. However, high winds turned the snowpack into miles of rock and brush obstacle courses. Exposed limestone slashed his climbing skins, prompting Blickhan to dub this kind of skiing "skiwacking."
From Two Medicine, Blickhan took the park's boundary swath north. This is a straight, 15-foot-wide path that demarcates national park lands and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. After staying in the Cut Bank Ranger Station built three years after Prince's death, Blickhan struggled under Divide Mountain, sinking in poor snow. Finally, near where Prince's froze, Blickhan sat down on his pack and pulled out his first cigar. He lit up for Joe Prince, the mountain man beaten by the mountains.
For Blickhan and Pearl, equipment choices hampered their travel. In St. Mary, Blickhan swapped his heavy gear for lightweight touring skis that he had previously stashed.
On their trip, Bellah and Pearl snowshoed northwest past Slide Lake and over Gable Pass to the Belly River Ranger Station. They found "a dirty dam place," according to Pearl's diary.
Apparently Ranger Joe Cosley never swept the station floor or washed the dishes. The duo split, Bellah returning to his cabin. With no Canadian map, Pearl ventured off alone over the border to Waterton to locate Kootenay Brown. "Better born lucky than rich," wrote Pearl on finally spotting Brown's cabin light in the dark after zigzagging his way through the unknown terrain.
"Thousands of pounds yes tons of snow hit me & my pack that day. Almost knocking me down at times," Pearl wrote. He grumbled about brush thickets spilling snow on his head. It "was a plenty to tax the patience & all the other qualities of a man."
For Pearl's trio, crossing the Canadian boundary and locating settler Jack West's cabin in -30 degrees became a feat in survival. Breaking Canadian cabin law, but frozen and tired, they entered, finding the home "colder than a barn." After Pearl fell in a creek retrieving water, he remarked, "Can't get it warm enuf to thaw clothes."
In subzero temperatures the next morning, the men headed west for Waterton lakes. Pearl required first aid for a blister the size "of a teacup" appearing on his heel. To help healing, he wrapped his foot in a gunny sack while visiting the 74-year-old Kootenay Brown, the small Canadian park's first Ranger In Charge. Brown's legendary status as a wild woodsman - a mixture of truth and tall tales - provided story fodder, captivating Pearl's crew.
For Blickhan, the second stage became easier. With lighter equipment on the boundary swath he traveled past Kennedy Creek farther inland than Pearl. After five days skiing alone, he discovered ski tracks leading toward Slide Lake cabin, a sign of better things to come. "Friends were bringing whiskey," he said. For the next two days, Blickhan enjoyed companionship with his wife Ellen and two friends.
That night, Pearl's brutal east slope winds pelted the cabin. According to Ellen, "Winds nearly blew the cabin roof off." In low visibility the next morning, the foursome climbed to Gable Pass, following Pearl's first route northwest. Windswept slopes forced them to carry their skis down the pass's west side to tree line. After locating the trail using GPS units they resumed skiing, but "it was ugly skiing," said Blickhan.
The Belly River Ranger Station, much more than the "barn" of Pearl's day, provided a warm haven as temperatures plunged. That evening the radio weather advisory forecasted "dangerously cold wind chills of -25 to -40." Blickhan might have had a better cabin to sleep in, but he was reliving Pearl's frigid weather.
After his companions left, Blickhan headed for snow-covered Chief Mountain Highway toward Waterton, alone again in zero degrees. Intending to bivouac overnight along the 28-mile stretch, he left before dawn to allow ample time.
An old snowmobile track provided a stable, firm ski surface. New-found speed and minimal headwind helped speed Blickhan into Waterton in eight hours with only a frozen camera. "I had it so much easier than Pearl did," he said. "I cruised, I got lucky."
Locating Brown's gravestone along the roadside outside Waterton Townsite, Blickhan sat down in spite of the cold to celebrate his second hero. Almost 90 years to the day after Brown regaled Pearl with mountain stories, Blickhan lit a cigar for Kootenay Brown.
Pearl, Bellah, and Kirby finally reached not only balmier temperatures, but their mission-the inventory of Reynolds' cabins. They ventured south along Waterton Lake toward Boundary Camp, Reynolds' first cabin near the Canadian border. "Death-on-the-Trail," as Reynolds preferred to be known, ascribed his own nickname, but no one really knew why. Perhaps it referred to his ability to snowshoe 20 miles in one day.
For three days, the trio fed well on Reynolds' provisions: frozen venison, sourdough, syrup, peas and corn. They inventoried Boundary Camp and Home Camp, Reynolds' hut six miles south, while the temperature climbed to 20 degrees.
In arctic conditions, -18 degrees under sunny skies, Blickhan traversed south down Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt, his summer patrol grounds. Skiing by otter slides, mountain lion tracks and a lynx path, Blickhan crossed the international boundary, passing Reynolds' Boundary Camp location.
It was time for the third cigar, to celebrate old "Death-on-the-Trail." Blickhan headed to the beach at Goat Haunt. Under the stars on Goat Haunt, Blickhan lit up for Reynolds, his ranger counterpart in the area almost a century earlier.
For Pearl's team, a formidable 6,255-foot pass named for Kootenay Brown awaited. Recent heavy snows, rising temperatures, and Kirby's "much physic from eating too much venison" made for slow-going. Under a "shifty looking morning," in one long 40 mile westward push, they snowshoed over Brown's Pass. Trees were split from climate microbursts and strewn about from avalanches. "It was some dangerous," wrote Pearl.
They pressed on long after dark. "That's some crooked trail ... We followed it by feeling with our feet and sometimes lost it & lit matches to see it," wrote Pearl. Bone weary after 18 hours, they reached Polebridge.
Following a brief rest, Pearl and his companions entered the North Fork social scene. Visits to homesteaders living in the valley culminated in the March 4 "inaugural ball" celebrating the Henson's new cabin. Despite "no shoes to wear to the party," Pearl joined about 60 locals for an all-night dance. He followed it the next day with a 20-mile hike south.
Whether exhausted from the all-night party or from snowshoeing over 300 miles in less than six weeks, Pearl's diary entries from this point south were sparse as he traveled south along Glacier's inside road. By March 9 he made it to his Two Medicine cabin.
"Got busy right away quick & put on some sour dough," wrote Pearl. "Never be without it again."
Unlike Pearl's hazardous pass crossing, Blickhan found conditions safer with ranger Steve Willis and a friend along for the 24 miles. . Wolverine tracks led the crew west over Brown's Pass, with no sight of the creature. Finding Bowman Lake frozen, the group sped over the snow-covered ice to complete their 12-hour ski at Bowman Ranger Station. "We had a perfect window for conditions," said Blickhan. To complaining ice, they slept soundly and skied easily out the animal-tracked road to Polebridge.
On Glacier's Inside North Fork Road for the final leg south, Ellen Blickhan rejoined her husband. Cedar-hemlock forests mark the 26-mile, three-day traverse through five drainages. What was once littered with settler families now belongs to resident wolves, their tracks pockmarking the snow from Logging Creek to Anaconda Creek. "Their howls were haunting," commented Blickhan, though he saw only one wolf near Sullivan Meadow.
Reaching Camas gate two weeks after he'd started, Blickhan plopped on his truck's tailgate. He pulled out the last of the four cigars. With a strike of the match, he lit it, this one in honor of Norton Pearl.
For a detailed account of Norton Pearl's adventures as a backcountry ranger in Glacier National Park, pick up a copy of Backcountry Ranger in Glacier National Park. Pearl's granddaughter Leslie Lee transcribed his diaries, which she recalled being "personal and maddeningly cryptic." Along with Pearl's diaries, copies of pertinent correspondence and detailed maps chart his adventures. Pearl's photographs document scenery, people and equipment of his day.