Beth Dunagan’s “Welcome to Sperry Chalet” reminds us of the joys and quieting awe that Glacier National Park brings us year round. Sharing her personal experiences with Sperry Chalet from 1954 to 2007, it is a heart-warming story of deep and binding love — long term family and friend relationships, connected to a unique hotel home for visitors and family together, in the calming quiet and natural beauty of Glacier’s remote backcountry.
The story starts with the author, at the tender age of 9, beginning a life of work, play, and discovery that centered around the Sperry Chalet. A little girl out climbing mountain peaks and rappelling down cliff faces with her cousins, befriending mountain goats, and collecting bugs with visiting naturalists. A child’s innate curiosity on steroids. With such an early and front row exposure to the Park’s majestic wonders, it is no surprise that an early career decision was born.
“I went to Sperry when I was 9,” Dunagan says. “When I was 10, all the naturalists had come up, and they were doing programs. They’d come up, bring a group, spend the night, take people through Glacier and then leave. When I was 10, I knew what I wanted to do in life.”
While many of Dunagan’s female classmates went to Whitman Secretarial College in Spokane after high school, that was not the path for Dunagan. After starting her family, Dunagan finished college at age 26 in 1971, and successfully pursued a career that would eventually realize her childhood Glacier dream. The experience of 10 childhood years living at Sperry was the key to winning over her job interviewer, and resulted in a 24-year career at the Park doing everything from starting campfire programs at Avalanche Campground to supervising the Park’s library.
“After work at 4:30 p.m. I’d drive back to Whitefish, pick up my daughters, drive back up to Avalanche and feed them a picnic lunch in the car,” she said. “We’d get the wood and build a fire. I’d make coffee and walk around the whole campground and invite everyone to a campfire program. After my childhood experiences at Sperry, it was a natural thing for me to do, and I loved it.”
Of course, all these experiences are built on the Luding family foundation.
“A lot of the people here came from homesteader stock, just passed down a couple of generations,” Dunnagan said. “My cousins and I, we all learned growing up picking berries and helping with the horses. We were active outdoors.”
It is here that Kay Luding, the author’s aunt, grew up in Martin City, got married to Ross Luding and proceeded to raise a family until Hungry Horse Dam was completed July 18, 1953. The Luding family took a leap of faith and unknowingly embarked on a lifetime calling, running Sperry and Granite Park Chalets in Glacier. And what a journey of family memories it was.
Uncle Ross hiked up to Sperry daily, picked up food orders, hiked back out, bought food and supplies in town, got them to the outfitters, and helped to pack the horse supply trains and then repeated the process for Granite Park Chalet. Aunt Kay, cousins Lanny and Barb, the author and a few hired help cooked the food, washed the dishes, got rid of the trash, cleaned the rooms, washed the sheets, repaired leaky roofs and performed a myriad of general maintenance tasks at Sperry. Most importantly, the family staff took great pride in taking care of the guests like they were family.
But the “other duties as assigned” challenges were clearly secondary to the collective wonder of their physical surroundings and the endearing stories that came with the menagerie of visitors that were welcomed to the Sperry Chalet home.
“We had older women who came up in maxi skirts,” Dunnagan said. “We also had a few of the hippie types and they’d walk up with their rubber thongs. We would just look at them, and say ‘you made it up the trail, congratulations.’”
“We’d get some people who would just get off the train at Belton (West Glacier now) and take the bus up to Lake McDonald and spend the night, and then they would hike in,” she said. “We had a lot of blister problems from people who didn’t have the proper foot gear. We rescued a lot of people because they didn’t have the proper clothes. And if the weather was inclement, we’d have to thaw them out or dry them up. If it was really cold, we’d heat up old rod irons on the stove and wrap them and send them up to bed to warm their toes at night. We took care of them however they needed.”
The book “Welcome to Sperry Chalet” is available at the Whitefish Community Library.