The hike up to Sperry Chalet is a great day trip.
Starting from the Lake McDonald Lodge, the trail winds uphill for 6.5 miles and 3,300 feet in Glacier National Park, ascending along the valley between Gunsight and Edwards mountains with a view of the lake just over your shoulder.
For most of us, it’s a once-a-summer hike. For the crews rebuilding the chalet, it’s just the commute.
I’m trodding along the Sperry Chalet trail on an early morning behind a group of sleepy men in jeans and hoodies. Most of them have light day packs — lighter than mine, with all my camera gear inside — and the rest of their stuff is headed up to the chalet either by mule or helicopter.
When we stop for a quick breather a mile or so in, I make a quip about the group hiking without any weight on their backs. “You can carry my toolbelt up there and tell me how you feel,” one of the men says. He’s right, and I stop making jokes.
The group is part of the Great Falls team for Dick Anderson Construction, which was hired for restoration work on the chalet in 2018 after it burned down during the Sprague Fire of 2017. Following the fire, all that was left of the 105-year-old building was a stone shell.
Last summer crews completed the $4.08 million first phase of the rebuild work, which included getting a new temporary roof and super structure built before the snows started in the fall. This summer, they’re finishing up phase two, which completes the roof, all of the finish work and repairs the masonry, all at a price tag of $4.73 million.
All through the summer, similar teams rotate in and out, working on eight day shifts.
The group I’m hiking with is up for their first stint of the summer, while a Helena-based group will hike out shortly after lunch.
Anderson is finishing the majority of its rebuild this fall, and should be set to open its beds up to hikers in spring of 2020.
Site supervisor TJ Lashley was one of the first men from the construction company to see the chalet after the Sprague Fire had stabilized. He recalls seeing the “viking ship” shortly after the burn, referring to the nickname for the gutted chalet. He estimated that work was now about 75% complete on the chalet — and that was a couple of weeks ago.
“It had gone through the stabilization efforts that the Park Service put together in the months following after it burned down. The walls were in disrepair, but they did a great job bracing it up for the winter. The masons that put this thing together back in the day were just solid,” he tells me. “All we’ve got left to do is put the exterior doors and windows in, finalize the flooring and install the stairs, some exterior decks.”
Up at the chalet, the construction workers move back and forth. The Great Falls group have donned their hardhats, but the Helena group is still working, finishing up their eight-day stint while the newcomers look on, waiting to jump in. The dining hall, just a hundred feet or so down from the chalet, has become host to a meeting between supervisors, and outside a helicopter drops off materials roughly every 30 minutes.
Near the dining hall is the tent city. Boxy, white canvas tents are home to the construction crews with enough space to fit four or five cots and a wood stove to keep warm. Under and next to each cot is a collection of each person’s possessions — a variety of books, from fiction to books about running long-distance races, and several decks of cards.
Living and working up at the chalet site has its positives and negatives, Rafe Friede tells me. He’s part of the Helena group and is finishing up his day before heading home.
This is his fifth stint at the chalet this summer, and while he’s worked on big custom home jobs or in Yellowstone National Park, he says this has been something different.
“Never something this remote by any means,” he says. “It’s actually been a really fun job, but it definitely has its challenges. Everything is thrown on the shoulder or carried around, or brought up. When they set the logs last year it was all with a helicopter.”
Friede says that there’s no job site that competes in terms of the scenery, and adds that recent rains have refilled the waterfalls that flow down from Comeau Pass above.
The tent life isn’t too bad either, he says.
“We have it pretty nice. It’s kind of nice to come up here with no cell service. We have battery lights, we play a bunch of cards and everything at night but we’re working mostly 12-hour days,” he says.
For a couple hours I don my own hardhat and safety vest and explore whatever areas of the site the workers let me into. The inside of the chalet is still sparse, with open views through the northwest windows looking out to Lake McDonald. The windows on the other side reveal only scaffolding and steel-toed boots, and the building is filled with the low hum of the generator outside.
So far the weather has held up at the chalet. The snows that passed through the high country in August didn’t dust the work site, and the fire season was pleasantly uneventful.
Lashley says his crews are hoping to be out of the area by mid-October, leaving a patched-up chalet protected from the winter until spring comes.
Due to weather and location, Lashley says the project is quite different from anything he’s ever worked on before.
“We’re six miles away from any established road. The logistics of it are planned out, we’re trying to do nine months in the three month window that nature gives you in Glacier,” he says. “It’s one of the toughest places to work, as far as weather is concerned. On that same hand, you’ve got some of the most beautiful days you’ll ever have.”