KALISPELL — Hikers heading to the Sperry Chalet area in Glacier National Park this summer won’t find the popular fresh-baked cookies and ice-cold lemonade at their destination, and chances are visitors will be camping rather than staying in a backcountry dormitory for at least the next two years.
They also probably won’t be able to reach the popular Sperry Glacier and Gunsight Pass areas until late summer or early fall, which is when crews are expected to finish clearing dead and downed trees along trails burned by the Sprague fire in 2017. The fire also torched the historic Sperry Chalet dormitory, leaving only its stone shell intact.
Kevin Warrington, the concessionaire for both the Sperry and Granite Park chalets, said even though the Sperry complex dining hall was only lightly scorched by the Sprague fire, he doesn’t see any feasible way to provide concessions there this season.
“To start with, the trail is so congested with downed trees it’s impossible to know when we’ll have access to the Sperry Chalet,” Warrington said on Friday. “The park also wants to use this season to work on the water system, and if they turn that off it would be hard to operate a commercial kitchen.”
Operations at Granite Park Chalet will continue as normal, Warrington added.
“We’re looking forward to a full and exciting season,” he said.
Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for Glacier National Park, said they’ll start clearing trees from the 6-mile trail to the Sperry Chalet complex as soon as the snow melts.
“Snyder and Sperry backcountry campgrounds are targeted for opening in August. Lincoln backcountry campground may open in September,” Alley wrote in an email. “Rehabilitation is needed at those campgrounds following the fire.”
She adds that trails may close intermittently across the 16,982 acres burned by the fire as crews remove hazards, and she encourages visitors to always check the trail status page on the Glacier National Park website before heading out.
More than 200 people gathered in Kalispell Wednesday night to learn more about the National Park Service's four initial concepts for restoration of the Sperry Chalet dormitory.
The standing-room-only crowd didn’t address the four concepts directly, but during a question-and-answer session, they asked about the summer’s recreational options in the area surrounding the burned chalet’s famed dormitory, whether a rebuild would accommodate more or fewer overnight guests, and whether the new or rebuilt structure would be handicap-accessible.
Jeff Mow, the Glacier National Park supervisor, said while people will be allowed in the area, probably by late summer, the Park Service won’t know more about the dormitory’s future until the fall. He expects that whatever option is selected, construction won’t begin until 2019 and will stretch into 2020.
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The Sperry Complex is the largest collection of Swiss Chalet-style buildings in the United States. The stone and timber dormitory, which could accommodate 50 overnight guests and was built in 1914, burned during an “ember storm” from the Sprague fire on Aug. 31, 2017. Only the dorm’s stone walls and chimneys remain standing.
Since the Park Service isn’t sure about the stability of the dormitory walls, it's not sure how it will proceed. One of the four concepts includes only stabilizing the burned walls and posting explanatory signs. Instead of rebuilding the dormitory, removable wall tents or yurts would house summer guests, which Mow said is similar to early accommodations.
If engineers deem the walls stable, the structure could be rebuilt in place to appear as similar as possible to the historic structure. If that’s not feasible, the stones could be part of an exterior veneer with new construction on the interior. Mow noted that could create a smaller interior structure, which would accommodate fewer overnight visitors.
“If we go to higher capacity, there are some dynamics in operational issues to be worked out. Do we not do the same sit-down group family meal, and go to buffet style? If we’re confined to working within the walls, it will be hard to increase capacity,” Mow said. “Other considerations are water and sewer — how do those change the dynamics?”
The fourth option involves stabilizing the historic walls, but building the dormitory in a nearby location to avoid avalanches.
All the proposals in the newly released scoping document include possibly upgrading the water supply system, which currently involves treating surface water from a nearby snowbank that’s gotten increasingly smaller over the years, leading to water shortages in the past few years.
Deidre Shaw, the park’s museum curator, tried to allay concerns about the making changes to the historic building. During a short presentation about the Sperry Chalet’s role and look in Glacier National Park, she noted that it’s evolved over time and will continue to do so.
“The chalets are not frozen in time,” she said. “Many changes were made … lots of work on the water system and sewer system, balconies were removed and put back on.”
Mow said they have some leeway with making the structure comply with current building codes, including the current waiver for installing a fire sprinkling system due to the lack of water at the site, and may be able to make the building handicap-accessible for people who might have a disability but can ride a horse into the backcountry.
The scoping document can be viewed online at parkplanning.nps.gov. The comment period for the scoping segment closes Monday, April 2.
An environmental assessment is expected to be completed by August, but a public review of the schematics of the alternatives is expected to be available in June. The formal public review of the environmental assessment is scheduled for sometime in September, with construction in 2019 and 2020.
Doug Mitchell is executive director of The Glacier National Park Conservancy, which has raised $200,000 so far to stabilize and rebuild or restore the dormitory. While no one knows yet whether the structure will retain its structural integrity, Mitchell said that whatever the outcome, “we are going to start building a new history.”
“It’s an exciting time,” Mitchell told those gathered Wednesday night. “You think that history happens to you, but in this room we are actually living history. You can be part of the conversation with the park and others about what the park will look like … 100 years from now, because Glacier National Park will still be here.
“The Sperry Chalet experiences will be here. What it looks like will start being planned by you who are here tonight.”