WHITEFISH – The story of how Kristy Renee “Sparky” Olson discovered Whitefish could have been born of an old love letter, its worn, champagne-colored pages chronicling the intrigue of a chance encounter, an instant bond, a dash of caprice and the eternal romance between person and perfect other.
The story of how she stayed here, embraced by a community of friends teeming with kindness, all of them drawn instantly and forcefully to her charisma and compassion – traits that endured and grew stronger as she battled breast cancer for more than a decade – has an even more mythic provenance.
And the story of how she passed, surrounded by a small clutch of loved ones, swaddled in the dulcet guitar notes and mellow-throated crooning of her favorite local musician as she inspired her final, accepting breaths, that story is still being written.
The day that Sparky, 38, died at a friend’s home, on Sept. 28, there wasn’t a corner of Whitefish that was untouched by the sudden void. Few of her friends knew the extent of the toll cancer had taken – she hadn’t wanted to reveal how aggressively the disease had accelerated, hadn’t wanted to believe that, after fighting so long, it could possibly be time to concede. And so, to ward off the shock and temper the pain of their sudden loss, the Whitefish community continued to tell the story of Sparky, her strength and bright smile reanimated in the jokes and anecdotes, the tears and the laughter, the music and the prayer.
There were boisterous meals at her favorite Whitefish restaurant, Wasabi Sushi Bar, and somber, tear-drenched vigils among friends. “Sparky” bumper stickers began appearing around town and Montana Coffee Traders introduced a namesake hazelnut soy latte, “The Sparky,” advertising the decadent treat in bright colors on a sidewalk sandwich board.
Boxes of photographs and their accordant narratives emerged, chronicling an arc from Shepherd, the Billings suburb where Sparky attended high school, to Whitefish, the place that unapologetically stole her heart when she visited on a whim in 2001.
On that visit, which began as an impulsive camping trip to Glacier National Park with her friend, Heather Mah, Sparky began what would evolve into a lifelong romance with Whitefish and the Flathead Valley, a nurturing community that buoyed her through difficult periods of treatment and recovery, and which she, in turn, nurtured.
As Mah remembers, the trip led them from East Glacier to Frida’s West Glacier Bar, where they met a charming band of locals who joined their riverside camp and, in the morning, took the friends kayaking. Sparky and Mah, who were en route to Spokane, Wash., to help Sparky settle into her digs at Spokane Falls Community College, reluctantly declined an invitation to Whitefish for another day of fun.
But as they drove in silence and approached the intersection of Montana Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 93, where a left hand turn leads south to Spokane and a right hand turn into the heart of Whitefish, a tacit understanding emerged and veered them north.
“We didn’t say anything. We just exchanged glances and she turned right into Whitefish,” Mah said. “We started making plans to move here right away.”
Inquiries at a few of the resort town’s watering holes helped them find the locals from the previous evening, and an enduring love of the community was born.
“We hadn’t even been in Whitefish for 24 hours and it seemed like all of our plans for the future had just melted away. Everything changed on that trip,” Mah said.
After Sparky graduated with honors from Spokane Falls Community College, where she obtained a degree in web design, she made an immediate beeline for Whitefish and quickly found work and made a glut friends.
Sparky and Whitefish were perfectly suited for one another, but despite the ease with which she acclimated to her new home, much of her time here would be characterized by her long battle against cancer. After her initial diagnosis, Sparky beat the disease and was in remission for five years before it returned, spreading to her lymph nodes.
Still, she flooded the hearts of friends and family with joy and energy, never yielding to the cancer and doggedly seizing every day.
In her obituary, which Sparky composed herself, she wrote about the richness of her life’s adventures, including travels to places like Ecuador, competing in three triathlons, participating in the Park-2-Park Montana, a multiday bicycle ride from Glacier to Yellowstone National Park, kayaking and rock climbing, attending a First Descents Cancer Camp and touring the country in her RV when the Whitefish winters became too draining on her energy reserves.
“I always had someone patting me on the back saying ‘good job’ and ‘you can do it no matter what!’” she wrote. “I have accomplished and beaten many great things in my life, but like all things, they must one day end. It was my time to move on.”
Sparky spent her final days living with a friend in Whitefish, accompanied by another loyal companion, “Wonder Dog Jake.”
Numerous friends describe her as “feisty,” which helps explain the affectionate nickname, including her friend Niki Glynos-Wolford, who welcomed Sparky into her home and family those last days, as she grew increasingly weak. Still, Sparky held out hope that it was merely a rough patch and that, with the same grit she’d always displayed, she would ride it out.
“We had the most amazing eight days. We laughed, we cried, we made plans for the future. She wanted to go to Italy when she turned 40. We were still living every single day and she was never alone,” Glynos-Wolford said.
On the final day of her life, several friends paid Sparky a visit, as did her favorite local musician, Brent Jameson, arriving just as her breathing pattern began to slow.
“At that point I knew she was taking her last breaths. We handed Brent a guitar and the whole house filled with beautiful music,” Glynos-Wolford said. “It was a beautiful experience. It was beautiful but sad. The life was gone but she was free of pain and she was comfortable. She expressed deeply the love of everyone who had come into her life. She felt so blessed in this world.”
On Oct. 19 at Grouse Mountain Lodge, the story of Sparky will continue to blossom when her community of friends and family members gathers to celebrate a life defined by stubborn, unyielding joy.
Sparky didn’t want a funeral, but she did want a party. Friends and family have asked that people arrive between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., at which time there will be an opportunity to share stories. Jameson and the Sordid Seeds, her favorite local act, will tak the stage at 10 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, Sparky’s last wish was to have her own bench and garden at WAG Dog Park in Whitefish. Donations can be made to: Kristy “Sparky” Olson, First Interstate Bank, 306 Spokane Ave., Whitefish, Mt 59937, (406) 863-8888.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.