Loren Kreck: A life in full

Posted on 22 April 2000

A conservationist who stood up for what is right

By Ben Long

It is a cold December morning, but not yet snowy.

The forest trail winds around towering larch and spruce. The eldest among us is Loren Kreck, who hikes with ice skates over one shoulder and a hockey stick over the other. From a distance, he looks like a shepherd with a crook. We arrive at our destination and — to our joy — find Finger Lake encased under a film of fresh ice. Gingerly, I step over the shallows and whack the ice with a hatchet. After several chops, I hit liquid water. “What do you think?” I ask. “Do you think the ice is safe?” Kreck peers at the ice thickness and rubs the stubble on his chin.

“Why, that's thick enough to drive a pickup truck on,” he says with a wry pause. “Someone else's pickup truck.”

 

loren kreck on thompson seton

Which is good enough for me. After all, this man knows about venturing on thin ice. The first thing you notice about Kreck is that you might not notice him at all. He is of slight build. His hair is gray-to-white, but still thick. His wardrobe is more serviceable than fashionable. In crowds, he is apt to sit back rather than seek attention. But once you've met him, once you have seen him rub his chin, nod slightly and recount one of his ten thousand personal anecdotes, you'll be glad to have met him. Once you've learned a bit about his life, I'll bet you'll be glad he is a Montanan.

Kreck was born in Los Angeles. California was a different world in the early 1940s. His mother was a character who would do things like pack a live snake in his lunch box. As a teen, Kreck had a penchant for hot-rods, speeding his Ford roadster around L.A. During World War II, Kreck's intelligence, quick reflexes and modest stature earned him a job as a fighter pilot. He served in the Pacific, flying Corsairs off aircraft carriers. In his photo album is a black-and-white print of his carrier after being battered by a horrible storm. Waves bent the deck of the ship, until it looked like a hood of a sedan that had struck a tree. When the storm cleared, the commander ordered the pilots to fly. The pilots couldn't imagine flying with the deck so terribly damaged. So the fliers showed up for duty wearing only their underwear. If they were to crash, they protested, there was no sense wasting perfectly good flight suits.

The military was not an easy place for a non-conformist. Loren, along with the rest of the world, was relieved when World War II ended. He returned to California and studied dentistry. For fun, he skated on the refrigerated ice rinks in L.A. Once, he noticed a young woman wearing speed skates. Her long, aggressive blades stood out among dainty white figure skates. Her name was Mary. Kreck asked her to skate and later asked her to marry him. She did. Los Angeles was changing. The city was booming and the air in the desert basin was going foul with pollution. One day, Kreck read a travel magazine published by Ford that described a place with forested mountains, clean air and water. The place was the Flathead Valley.

In 1951, Mary and Loren moved to Columbia Falls. They bought property overlooking the river and the Swan Range. They adopted two boys. At the clinic, Loren straightened teeth and Mary straightened the books. The Krecks found a home. And neither they, nor Montana, would be quite the same. For nearly half a century, the name Loren Kreck has been synonymous with Flathead Valley conservation. “When we came to the Flathead in 1951, I came to play,” Kreck said. “I hadn't thought much about conservation.” But he saw similar forces that had changed Los Angeles squeezing the Flathead Valley. He saw his prized elk-hunting spot devastated by excessive logging. A pulp mill was proposed on the banks of the Flathead River. “After a few things like that, you become sensitized that there is a need for action.”

Kreck was an early member of the Montana Wilderness Association, joining the fights to pass the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and other legislation. He lobbied for creation of the Great Bear Wilderness, Jewel Basin Hiking Area and federal protection for the three forks of the Flathead River. In 1964, the Flathead River flooded and nearly washed their home downstream. The house emerged intact, but the Krecks soon found themselves awash in a different flood. A flood of controversy.

In the late 1960s, Kreck and his son Mike were hunting mule deer on Tea Kettle Mountain, the barren hump just outside Columbia Falls. Mike shot a young buck there. On field dressing the deer Kreck noticed the deer's teeth were black and chalky. Kreck believed he knew the cause: fluoride poisoning. In small doses, fluoride protects teeth against cavities. But in larger doses, it is poisonous.

The Columbia Falls aluminum plant, then run by the Anaconda Company, was discharging tons of fluoride in the air daily. The plants in Kreck’s yard, the hay in the neighbor's field, trees in a down-wind Christmas tree farm wilted under the pollution. Pollutants kept Tea Kettle Mountain denuded. University of Montana botanist Clancy Gordon documented the damage being done to Ponderosa pine and other trees. The Krecks had watched the air go bad back in L.A. and didn't want the same thing happening in the Flathead. His protests to Anaconda went unanswered.

In 1970, with the work of attorneys Dale McGarvey and Frank Morrison, the Krecks filed a class-action lawsuit against the Anaconda Company to clean up the air in Columbia Falls. Anaconda was pumping 10,000 pounds of fluoride skyward each day, McGarvey recalled. Damage was seen in Glacier Park. “Scientifically, the proof was there,” McGarvey said. “Hitting them with a class-action suit was like hitting them with a green 2-by-4. It got their attention.”

“They weren't fighting the plant,” says longtime friend Dr. Dave Downey of Kalispell. “They were fighting the pollution.” In a small, economically hungry town like Columbia Falls, the distinction was lost. Krecks' business dropped. Bumper stickers circulated Columbia Falls that read “To Heck with Kreck.”

“There was a hell of a furor initially,” said McGarvey, who blames Anaconda for spreading misinformation to its 960 workers. “Dr. Kreck took some brick-bats over that suit, and so did our firm.” But the evidence was so clear, Anaconda soon agreed to install pollution scrubbers. Over the next few years, the company modernized the plant's smokestacks. Fluoride emissions dropped from 10,000 pounds a day to 861 pounds, McGarvey said.

Ironically, the suit protected the aluminum plant's future. Today, Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. officials acknowledge that the investments to modernize the plant probably paid off when Anaconda sold the plant. The scrubbers are part of the reason the plant is running today. “As a result of Dr. Kreck's efforts, we got a lot of garbage out of the air,” McGarvey said.

Downey said Kreck could always be persuaded to leave office and housework behind to enjoy the outdoors. Part of what makes Kreck a joy in the field is his non-stop sense of humor, Downey said. “He often tells jokes on himself,” Downey said. Often, but not always. Downey recalls a trip to Belly River, in Canada. During the hike, Kreck loaded a plastic sack with old moose droppings. He sneaked the sack into a partner's pack. At the international border, Kreck convinced the customs agent to search his hiking partner's pack. The straight-faced customs agent played his roll perfectly. “Hey!” the agent said, extracting the baggie from the pack.

“What's this? Hashish?” Even though Downey was sometimes the butt of such jokes, he still considers Kreck one of his finest outdoor companions.

The good life and a good fight were never far apart. At a public hearing about a mine in Idaho, Kreck met whitewater kayaking pioneer Walt Blackadar. Blackadar had been featured in Sports Illustrated and on the American Sportsman television series. Blackadar recruited Kreck as a paddling companion, leading him down the Lochsa River in the 1960s in Idaho.

Kreck and other dentists often traveled to poor countries such as Mexico and Haiti to donate their time caring for people who could not afford dental care. Even in his seventies, Kreck takes part in major wilderness boating expeditions, including descending Canadian rivers among musk oxen, white wolves and caribou of the tundra.

“Loren has lived a very full life,” said Dr. Downey. “There is no doubt about that. You could fill a book with stories about him.”

Kreck remains active on environmental issues as well. When Columbia Falls planned a paved bicycle path near his home, he was alarmed when a row of stately Ponderosa pine trees were slated to be cut to make way from the trail. Wouldn't it be better, he suggested, if the trail went around the trees? Planners agreed, and the trees stand.

Kreck still loves to ice skate. He has an old friend he visits in Santa Barbara, Calif. When there, he plays hockey in a senior league started by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz. When in Montana, Kreck skates the Whitefish rink and hikes into backcountry lakes like Finger Lake. After we tested the ice on Finger Lake, we laced on our skates.

Kreck tossed a puck on the ice and gave it a slap. We chased it to the far end of the lake. The sounds of the sticks and blades on the ice filled the cold winter air, mixed with our laughs and shouts.

People say Americans have no heroes anymore. I have a hunch we have just forgotten where to look.

I don't look on television. I sure don't look among politicians. I look on the river. On the trails. On the ice.

 

Ben Long of Kalispell won the Chinook Literary Prize for his upcoming book, “Backtracking,” about the wildlife discoveries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

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