APGAR VILLAGE — In a normal year, the crowds at Glacier National Park would start to thin right after the Labor Day weekend.
But this year is anything but normal.
After record numbers of people flocked to the national park this summer, a stubborn lightning-caused fire that destroyed a historic backcountry chalet last week and closed the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Sunday had visitors at Apgar Village on Tuesday asking where they could find clean air.
The smoke that poured off the mountainside from the Sprague fire at times made it nearly impossible to see clearly for more than a couple hundred feet, much less the vaunted views of the surrounding mountains. The visitors who did stop didn’t stay long near Lake McDonald beach, covered with ash and charred pine needles.
“We would normally slow down this time of year, but it wouldn’t happen this suddenly,” said Emily Rutt of Glacier Outfitters. “Yesterday was the first day this season that we saw hardly any people come through the door.”
Rutt and Alex Caliban of Georgia were still waiting Tuesday, as the few tourists who did stop to take a look around didn’t have much interest in paddling on the smoke-shrouded lake.
“These certainly aren’t prime conditions for paddling,” Caliban said. “We’ve had a few good sports who decided to give a try over the past few days, but not many. This whole summer has been kind of crazy.”
The 13,300-acre fire burning 9 miles northeast of West Glacier has limited visitors’ access to the pristine waters of the Lake McDonald. Instead of crystal-clear waters lined with brightly colored pebbles, the Apgar beaches were piled a couple inches deep with embers, ash and pine needles.
“It was kind of eerie coming into work this morning,” Rutt said. “Every horizontal surface was covered in white ash with little black specks. Sometimes it feels like a bad dream.”
On a side street, Benny Batchelder of New Hampshire was busy wiping down the Red Bus that he’s been driving all summer on Sun Road. It wasn’t the first time that he’s wiped ash from the famous tour buses' shiny fenders and spotless glass. He was doing the same job in 2003 when the Robert fire burned more than 57,000 acres and forced the evacuation of the Lake McDonald Valley and West Glacier.
“Right now, we’re just trying to deal with it the best we can,” Batchelder said. “It’s a naturally caused fire in a fire-dependent ecosystem. It’s out of our control.”
The tour company is offering an alternate trip they call “Mountain Majesty” that takes visitors to East Glacier for dinner and a tour of the Two Medicine Valley.
Over at Eddie’s Café and Mercantile, Mikani Stormont was busy sweeping up ash off the ramp leading to the storefront next to the empty outdoor seating section of the restaurant.
“It’s been crazy slow since the weekend,” Stormont said. “Most people that I’ve talked with are a little disappointed that they can’t see the mountains and they want to know where they can go where it’s clear of smoke.”
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There’s really no good answer to that question.
Come nightfall, Stormont said there’s been a different kind of attraction to see from the lake’s edge as the fire becomes visible and an orange glow lights up the heavy cloud of smoke.
“Two nights ago, we had 30- to 40-mph winds blowing,” he said. “You could see the flames and this huge cloud of smoke that was all glowing red. It’s like terrifying and kind of cool at the same time.”
The traffic into the park’s backcountry permit office has also slowed dramatically over the past few days.
Considering the record crowds that came to the park earlier this summer, Glacier National Park’s Julie Nelson had expected the office to remain busy through the fall.
“I think if it hadn’t been for the smoke, we’d still be pretty busy,” she said. “We had eight or nine people call to cancel their permits. No one is anxious to get outside with this kind of smoke.”
It could be worse.
Kenneth Brooks and Roberta Sherer of Rockport, Texas, know that for a fact.
Their hometown was hit head-on by the recent catastrophic hurricane, Harvey. Their home survived with some minor damage.
“It makes me feel like we’re either going to burn up or we’re going to drown,” Sherer said. “I knew we were due for a big hurricane. It had been 80 years since we had one.”
The pair, with their very friendly dog, Molly, was setting up camp in a nearly empty Apgar Campground on Tuesday afternoon.
“Our house in Rockport was considered to have minor damage because it was under $100,000,” Brooks said. “We had a tree fall in between our house and the neighbor’s and there’s some other damage, but we have a wonderful contractor and I’m sure he’s doing a good job.”
They plan to stay put until the middle of September to allow their medications and a new phone to catch up with them.
Neither was too concerned about smoke filtering through the surrounding forest.
“It’s just smoke,” Brooks said. “This is easy compared to what our neighbors back home are dealing with. They don’t have any water or sewer or electricity or gasoline. There are some places that they can’t even get to yet. This is easy compared to that.”