One of the most popular outdoor escapes in Kalispell is only minutes from downtown and perched in the skyline like a front-row seat to the Flathead Valley. Lone Pine State Park, with 271 acres of wooded forest west of town, draws over 70,000 visitors a year.
Eugene Brownfield obviously can’t remember the countless names of all the people he’s met gazing from the scenic overlook or hiking the nearby trails, but “Brownie” himself is someone affectionately known by many.
Brownie has been Lone Pine’s devoted steward the last 13 years, serving as the volunteer host who lives at the park with his wife Suzy. Since moving into a makeshift log cabin trailer at the entrance of Lone Pine, Brownie has worked tirelessly over the years to help cultivate the state park into what it is today. Whether it’s pulling weeds or picking up garbage, or helping build an archery range at the site, Brownie’s footprints and fingerprints are everywhere.
“To our visitors, he is basically the face of Lone Pine,” said Amy Grout, the park’s manager. “I’ve been managing the park for five years and I couldn’t have done it without him. He has been so important here.”
Brownie’s efforts have earned him statewide honors through the years. This spring he was named the Volunteer of the Year for Region 1.
But last winter an accident left Brownie, 69, severely injured. He can barely walk the trails anymore. When he realized he could not maintain his vigilant work ethic, he decided to step aside in the best interest of the park.
“I just can’t do the job anymore, otherwise I’d stick around,” he said.
This is Brownie’s final week working and living atop Kalispell’s prized park. As Grout and other park staff described it, it’s truly an end of an era.
“It’s a very, very important role that he’s played in the whole development of the park,” Grout said. “Our visitation has tripled since he started there. He’s seen a lot of changes in the park.”
Brownie and Suzy have lived in the Flathead Valley on and off for over 40 years. Brownie spent a stretch of time traveling the country driving semi trucks. In 2000 the couple moved back to Kalispell and Suzy saw an opening at Lone Pine. The state was looking for a caretaker, particularly during the summer months when the visitor center was open. Brownie applied, and soon after they were settling into their “small” but “comfortable” log cabin.
Lone Pine was a much different place during those years. The site essentially shut down during winter, and the visitor center was about half the size. Residents would frequently drive up the winding road and, instead of enjoying the scenic views, dump garbage.
But after Brownie showed up, that all began to change. He saw the potential for what could be a patch of heaven for outdoor enthusiasts.
“I’ve been all over this country driving semis, and there’s not many places where you can come to this close to town and have the view that you have,” he said.
Using his game hauler, Brownie began lugging out unwanted trash, like a discarded refrigerator. He picked and sprayed weeds littered throughout. He maintained the 7.5-mile trail system. After hearing about a sale at a local archery store, he helped convince the parks department to develop an archery range on site.
Little by little, Lone Pine began transforming.
At the same time, park attendance began increasing. Brownie is quick to pass credit to others, although he admitted, “I think it makes people feel more safe knowing there’s somebody there.”
“Brownie has probably the biggest heart of anybody I know,” Grout said. “He’s willing to do anything and everything in his power to help.”
These days Brownie frequently finds residents pulling weeds or cleaning up trash. Visitors, young and old, arrive all week. During the school year, the visitor center, now open year-round, is frequently packed with students.
“I’m going to miss it,” Brownie said.
Brownie is reluctant to retire, but he has good memories to last him awhile. For example, years ago a young woman who had just moved to Kalispell from a big city began visiting Lone Pine. She was very reserved and wouldn’t even look Brownie in the eye. She continued frequenting the park for exercise, and gradually Brownie’s affable nature wore down her big-city hesitations.
She began saying hello every time she’d see him. One day she showed up at Brownie and Suzy’s door. She wanted to introduce her first-born child.
She now has three kids and frequently brings them up to explore Lone Pine.
“I’m going to miss the people most of all,” he said.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.