WEST GLACIER — Down a tiny trail that threads its way through patches of colorful wildflowers, there’s a piece of Glacier National Park history that few ever see.
To get there, you have to veer off the popular routes that take tourists to overcrowded trailheads.
In fact, you have to be a little bit brave or a whole lot naïve to turn off on the narrow gravel path called the Inner North Fork Road that was first built back in a time when prospectors from a company named Butte Oil had hoped to strike it rich on lands that would soon become a national park.
That road is probably what brought the young Bohemian named Rudolph Matejka to the backwoods of northwest Montana back in the early 1900s.
He and, maybe, his two brothers helped build the narrow road where it still remains a challenge for two cars heading in opposite directions to pass when they meet.
While his two brothers liked the looks of the lower elevations for a place to settle, there was something that drew Rudolph to this site, where neighbors were scarce and the meadows plentiful. Back nearly a mile off that old oil company road, the 23-year-old from Nebraska built a cabin and barn around 1908.
He lived there off and on with his mother until he died, reportedly of an accidental gunshot wound in 1921.
By that the time, his homestead was one of many in-holdings in Glacier National Park. For years after that, his extended family used the cabin as a place to find solitude and maybe fill their freezers back home with wild meat. They added on and put some paneling over the blue-painted logs inside the structure to make it a little bit more comfortable.
Over time, they lost interest and the structure began to crumble. No one knows for sure just what happened to the barn, but it’s long gone. This second-oldest of the homesteader cabins inside the park might have been lost, too, without the intervention of a group of volunteers.
Members of the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates took the historic building under their wing in 2011, with a restoration that is just one of many projects that members of the volunteer association have stepped forward to help with since its establishment in 1989.
Not only have they spent thousands of hours of painting, rebuilding and restoring historic buildings, important bridges and overlooks, association volunteers also give countless more hours of time staffing the Nature Center at Apgar, helping visitors load onto buses and shuttles, and doing what they can to keep tourists at a safe distance from mountain goats and other critters at Logan Pass.
At the Matejka cabin, they offered funding to pay for the materials needed to keep the it from crashing down. Beyond that, they gave more than 400 hours of their time to put on a new roof, paint both the inside and out and help the restoration experts finish stabilizing the building for future generations to come see.
On a recent morning, the associate’s president Cheryl Klein took a stroll down that narrow pathway after she finished wiping the dust off the interpretive sign that offers travelers of this lonely road a reason to get out of their car and go for a walk.
The trail takes visitors through an old burn that not long ago dropped dozens of dead trees a year across the route.
“One year, there were 70 trees that had fallen across the trail,” Klein said. “We did all this work in bits and pieces as we could get back here. We finished it up last year.”
That work focused on restoring the cabin back to something that Rudolph might recognize.
They tore down the addition, took out the paneling and replaced all the chinking that had been lost. They helped reduce the door size down to the four-foot-tall opening that was there originally. And after restoration experts replaced the logs that were rotting, they painted the inside of them blue to match what was already on the wall.
“We were surprised to find that blue paint in the first place,” Klein said, as she stares in the window. “We learned later that it was indicative of his Eastern European heritage where blue was a popular color back then.”
Just then, the sound of a pair of sandhill cranes cut through the silence.
“Right there,” she said. “See them? In all this time that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen sandhills here before.”
Klein stopped and looked around with smile.
“Just imagine what it must have been like back then,” she said. “It must have been his little Eden. And all of this could have been lost so easily. I’m really proud of this project.”
Glacier Park’s project superintendent Jack Polzin has no doubt that the cabin was saved by intervention spearheaded by the volunteer association.
“Our funding has been shrinking in the last few years, which makes it challenging to get to some of these projects,” Polzin said. “The Matejka Cabin is one of the very few buildings that we have left that were here before the park was established.”
Among its many projects, the volunteer association has also funded a backcountry ranger intern since 1996.
Those efforts have been recognized by the National Park Service. In a couple of weeks, Klein will travel to Washington, D.C., to receive the Director’s Wes Henry Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Award. The associates are the first non-government organization to be presented with the award.
“The GNPVA play a vital role in helping Glacier manage wilderness attributes,” said Glacier’s Kyle Johnson in the nomination for the award. “As budgets continue to shrink, we rely on volunteers more each year to augment our workforce and fill the roles of educator and instructor. We have an amazing group of volunteers who give so freely of their time and money to make Glacier a better place and to pay it forward to the next generation.”