Chasing Ghosts on the Forks of the Flathead

Author John Fraley travels back in time with new book, ‘Rangers, Trappers and Trailblazers’

As a young fisheries biologist, John Fraley spent a disproportionate amount of time traipsing through the depths of wilderness areas to study the last best strongholds of native westslope cutthroat, which are hardwired to persist in often harsh but pristine conditions.

Equipped with genetic adaptations they’ve adopted over the course of millennia, the cutts Fraley began studying in 1984 lived in Danaher Creek and Young’s Creek, the two main tributaries that form the South Fork Flathead River at its confluence, and which require a 24-mile hike over the Swan Range to access.

Through the years studying the tough strain of native fish, Fraley began hearing tales about another cast of stouthearted creatures that inhabited the forks of the Flathead, which eventually became the subjects of his new book, “Rangers, Trappers, and Trailblazers: Early Adventures in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.”

“I’ve long reveled in the isolation and pure wilderness of the magnificent upper South Fork of the Flathead drainage,” Fraley writes at the book’s beginning.

“I often walked by what was purportedly a trapper cabin built by Charlie Young, and wondered who he was. I searched for stories about the lives of the men for whom these drainages were named, and I learned much.”

Beginning in the late 19th century, Fraley writes that “an impressive group of old-time U.S. Forest Service rangers served throughout what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness. These rangers trekked hundreds of miles thorough what now would be considered crazy conditions of weather and treacherous terrain on rescue missions or to track down poachers.

He learned about men like Tough Henry Thol, the “ranger’s ranger” who “no one could outwalk or out-tough.” Thol patrolled an expansive chunk of country from Spotted Bear Ranger Station to Ovando during the winter months, covering the territory at an impressive pace, particularly given the unwieldy wooden snowshoes he donned for the epic treks.

In one unrivaled backcountry adventure, Thol and another ranger traversed more than 100 miles in deep snow and forty-below temperatures in an effort to track down an elusive band of beaver poachers.

For Fraley, whose intimate knowledge of the Bob Marshall and Glacier National Park is impressive indeed, the stories he researched through the years animated the drainages, mountainsides and historic cabins, and he seized on them for his most recent book, his third to date.

Seven of the old-timers who are featured in the book were on hand during a recent presentation at the Flathead Valley Community College, where Fraley has taught for more than three decades.

These seven pioneers make up a total of about 620 years of life experience, Fraley said.

Pat McVay related his story of finding a lost plane in the Bob Marshall. Helen Dollan described a drenching horse ride in the “Bob” near Big Prairie. John Schurr told a few stories about a winter spent in the remote area around Schafer Meadows in the Great Bear Wilderness. Glacier Park Ranger Clyde Fauley’s son, Carlyle, and his daughter-in-law, Rae Marie, were on hand to talk about the lost Paola Ranger Station. Larry Wilson and Lee Downes came down to talk about the North Fork stories and put some of its history in perspective.

The Museum at Central School will host the next presentation on the book on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. This will be a fundraiser for the museum and the author will be available early to sign books.

North Fork lore-masters Larry Wilson and Lee Downes as well as Middle Fork pioneer John Schurr will also be available to tell stories and ask questions. Wilson will play some cylinder records on an old, shot-up player from one of the North Fork stories. The presentation will go into detail on this love-triangle and shoot out, and cover the full story of the Nyack train crash disaster and haunting.

Another presentation will take place on Feb. 6 at FVCC’s Wilderness Speaker Series, featuring legendary ranger Dave Owen, who helped usher the iconic Big Prairie Ranger Station into modern management

Find the book online at Amazon.com, at local bookshops or attend one of Fraley’s upcoming presentations.

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