WEST GLACIER - Every summer, Sally Dowaliby's barefoot grandkids clatter across sun-warmed stones on the shore of Lake McDonald, and scramble up into the family boat.
It's the same boat - a 1936 Chris-Craft, with graceful wooden lines - that Dowaliby clambered into when she was a girl, the same Glacier National Park lake she grew up swimming in, and skipping stones across, and watching the moon rise over.
It's ringed by the same huckleberry patches, shadowed by the same snowy peaks, whipped by the same winds that still whiten the tops of dark waves into miniature mountain ranges.
It's also enjoyed by the same family - five generations now living in their own private paradise, enclosed by Glacier Park's very public paradise, surrounded by the vast and cluttered moat that is the rest of the world.
"This is probably as close to heaven as I'll ever get," she said. "There really is nothing else like it."
When Glacier National Park was established 100 years ago, its new boundaries trapped more than 13,000 private acres, staked by homesteaders before the park was a park. Among those were waterfront tracts owned by the Milo Apgar family, here at the foot of scenic Lake McDonald.
In 1908 - two years before Glacier became Glacier - Dowaliby's grandfather bought this parcel from the Apgars. James Gruber was an executive with the Great Northern Railway, which had just pioneered a track across these mountains, and he had been smitten during a 1904 hunting trip.
His property, and that lovely wooden boat, has worked its way through generations since, and now when Sally Dowaliby watches her grandkids splashing in the shallows she also sees the shadows of her own childhood here, and her mother's, too, as if time has stopped entirely in this enchanted place.
Her family - and the few others fortunate enough to still own private land here - are the human link to this park's past, the family heirs to tradition, heritage and some of Montana's most prized real estate. In many respects, their stories of life in Glacier do not differ much from the stories told a century ago, and offer a rare glimpse into Montana's pristine past.
Campfires, mountain hikes, bears in the pantry. Climbing trees, climbing peaks, young romances under the same wheeling constellations, year after year after year, in 2010 just as in 1910.
"These are our roots," Dowaliby said. "This park is who we are, and we're a part of it."
The bill establishing Glacier Park in 1910 was very clear on one point: "Nothing herein contained shall affect any valid existing claim, location or entry under the land rules of the United States, or the rights of any such claimant."
In other words, existing landowners were promised "full use and enjoyment" of their properties.
Those were important terms for the homesteaders who had put stakes here as early as 1891. The first had come for timber and furs, but later lands were sold and subdivided as recreational or commercial properties.
But almost immediately, park officials began the business of swapping or buying private holdings in an attempt to move these families out of Glacier.
Horace Chadbourne, asked back in the 1950s to contribute to a history of the Apgar townsite, recalled that early on "every new cabin that was built was regarded as an eyesore" by park management. Apgar was filling, he wrote, and it was difficult to access Lake McDonald without trespassing across private property.
"The Park Service people could visualize that in a few years every available foot along this shore would be occupied by small cabins cheek to jowl," Chadbourne wrote.
Wildfires in 1925 and 1926 discouraged some owners, but it was the big Half Moon fire of 1929 that turned the tide, sweeping across Apgar and turning summer homes to ash. The Park Service responded quickly - not with firefighters, but with $198,000 and a purchasing agent ordered to buy as many acres as possible.
"Many of the owners that had burned out were indeed happy to sell their now desolated locations at a better price than they had expected to get," Chadbourne recalled.
In fact, it created a localized speculative real estate bubble, as some landowners held out for better prices. In addition, the government's sudden injection of ready cash into the isolated community allowed some to sell out one homestead lot, only to buy another.
The effort did not go quite as planned, Chadbourne said, but it did clear the waterfront of 18 private properties, creating the public lakeshore access visitors enjoy today.
"My uncle almost sold this place," Dowaliby said, rattling across those shoreline stones. "Can you believe it? I mean, you'd never get a place like this back again."
Which is, after all, the whole point of the place.
Many families have homes on beautiful lakes, she said. The difference is, those lakefront lots are always up for sale, with ever-larger starter castles being built next door. Flathead Lake's shoreline, for instance, looks nothing like it did in 1930.
But Lake McDonald's is practically unchanged. The park's protections have frozen time here, perhaps even rolled it back a bit.
"And that," Dowaliby said, "is the real magic."
Lulu Wheeler, wife of Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, once said she "rarely left the lake during the entire summer."
It was, for her and other landowners, a refuge from the busy world beyond.
"Nothing else seems to matter excepting the things one is doing up there," she wrote in that history of Apgar. "The happenings of the world seem far away and of little consequence. One of the very young grandchildren felt this when he said, ‘Why mother, I did that yesterday,' and his mother said, ‘No Tommy, you did that last year.' All the intervening time and events had vanished from his mind."
It is a unique way of knowing Glacier, this temporal disconnect that blurs one generation into the next, a native way of thinking available only to those who have called this place home.
It is the rare family that can still trace its common roots to a particular patch of ground, and it's the rare grandchild who spends her summer vacations just as her grandmother did.
"We're fortunate people, is what we are," said Mary Grace Galvin, secretary of the park's landowners association. These inhabitants, past and present, are in Galvin's words "people who know their mental health would be better if they had a lake place to escape to."
Because young Tommy was right; here, at least, whether a thing happened yesterday or last year is of no concern whatsoever.
"I spend my summers at Lake McDonald, on the west side of the main range where I have a cabin."
So wrote Charlie Russell, in a 1915 letter to a friend. By then, the famed cowboy artist had spent nearly a decade of summers at his Bull Head Lodge, painting and sculpting and entertaining the neighbors with rope tricks and tall tales.
"It's about as wild a place as you can find these days," he wrote, "and that is what I like. ... If it's laying down you need, Lake McDonald is the best ground in the world and my lodge is open and the pipe lit for you and yours. You know that Lake country sings the cradle song to all who lay in her lap."
Like a Wild West Rip VanWinkle who heard that cradle song and never quite awoke from its lullaby, Russell laid his head in the lap of the lake and stayed for summers on end.
Russell and the other park inhabitants were long known as "inholders," but Mary Grace Galvin chafes at that label. She's just a landowner, she says, nothing more and nothing less.
To understand the distinction, you must first know that the park at one time had an official "land acquisition plan." Today, that document is known as "land protection plan."
Names matter here, even if time doesn't.
Following the 1929 fire purchases, tensions continued to varying degrees between private landowners and public land managers, with decades of general goodwill punctuated by occasional efforts to buy out the inholders.
In 1956, park planners declared that "commercial and residential uses of private land constitute some of the most intrusive and destructive activities within the park." But by 1981, the park was committed to "cooperate with inholders to promote environmentally compatible use of private lands."
Today, only a handful
of private parcels remain, 132 tracts scattered across about 400 acres, where modern inhabitants and park officials enjoy a sort of uneasy truce. Most of the landowners are here at Lake McDonald, although a few old homesteads still cling to the park's northwestern edge, a wilder fringe initially staked less for recreation or commerce than for grazing and farming.
"The park has been a good neighbor," said Bill Lundgren, whose family has long held commercial inholdings at Apgar. He grew up here, between the giant cedars and the rental cabins, working straight through everyone else's summer vacation to keep the family business going.
"We're all in this for the same reasons," he said. Park officials, commercial inholders, landowners - "everyone loves this place, and feels fortunate and privileged to be a caretaker. I can't put it into words, almost. It just becomes part of your identity, how you think and understand the world. We all try to be good neighbors to the landscape."
When landowner Mary Grace Galvin first became involved with the Glacier National Park Landowners Association, "we were alarmed over the park's attempts to acquire properties," she said. Today, "the association is just a way to stay in touch and build community."
It's an old community, she said, and each summer "is like a homecoming. The neighborhood hasn't changed all that much; all the same families are still here."
McPartland and Sherburne and Howe. Snyder, Geduhn and Comeau. Apgar and Kelly and John. Names, quite literally, etched onto the Glacier National Park map, borrowed from the families who lived here and applied to mountains and ridges and rivers, passes and townsites and lakes.
But the names that really matter to Dowaliby, as she motors clear waters in that old wooden boat, are the names that only she knows. There, she points, is The Lady of the Lake, her profile etched in limestone cliffs alongside The Indian and other ridgeline landmarks.
"My grandma named some of these peaks," she said, and her grandkids know all those names, even though they're not on any maps.
"It makes a special kind of togetherness," Galvin said, these secret names shared by so few, these sack lunches with green Kool-Aid up by the waterfalls. The cocktail parties, arrived at by boat, and the evening fires. Mrs. Wheeler's strudel. The stories of trappers and traders and neighbors, the old cabins still standing, life with the bark still on it.
It was, and is, the kind of place where the senator might be found playing cards with the road repairman, and no one would think a thing of it.
"All that mattered," Galvin said, "is that you were here."
Today, Galvin's mailing list is "growing like Topsy," as kids of kids of kids join the landowners association. Homesteads that were owned by just one person now are owned by whole handfuls of siblings.
Some want in, and some want out, and some homesteads are split or lost as brothers and sisters strain to negotiate ownership.
"It's a tragedy, it really is," Galvin said. "It's happening as we speak."
And the park, she said, is always there, a willing buyer waiting for a willing seller, so the number of private acres always marches inevitably downward. When she worries about the future of all this past, it helps her to know that many of the old cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And Dowaliby has added a new boat, a big pontoon affair she docks next to that wooden Chris Craft. It holds 16, which is exactly how many are in her family now, what with the eight grandkids. She's making room for generations, and when it comes time to decide ownership, "they'll just have to deal with it."
The hand-hewn log walls won't be lost, Galvin says, and neither will the memories.
Her aging dock, tucked into a tiny bay, is protected by a gravel point, and the water around it is still, and clear, with colorful rocks shining beneath like bright memories. Out on the lake, beyond the point, waves race by in a hurry, washing into other shores, eroding this wild world bit by bit.
Sally Dowaliby picks up a wave-worn stone, licks it to bring out its color, adds it to her collection, tastes the grit of ages on her tongue, and waits for her grandchildren, who will be here before dinnertime.
When they arrive at this endless summer, they'll be greeted by a small sign, hanging on the cabin wall:
"If you are lucky enough to live at the lake, then you are lucky enough."
Reporter Michael Jamison covers Glacier National Park and Flathead County for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Kurt Wilson is photography editor of the Missoulian. He can be reached at (406) 523-5244.