KINTLA LAKE, Mont. — With a can of bear spray on his hip and hearing aids in both ears, Lyle Ruterbories whistles and hums as he tends to this patch of wilderness along the Canadian border.
For 20 years, he has been the ambassador, manager, accountant, anthropologist, botanist, historian, traffic cop, landscaper, handyman and rules enforcer of Kintla Lake. He still hauls gravel, mends fences and wields a chain saw to clear fallen trees from the road to the most remote encampment a visitor can drive to in Glacier National Park.
But he doesn’t overdo it. He is, after all, 93 years old.
What’s it like, a visitor asks, to be the oldest ranger in Glacier?
“Not in Glacier. The whole park system. The oldest working ranger in the whole park system. That includes everything,” Ruterbories said.
He once heard about another ranger near his age in Washington, D.C.
“He was handing out pamphlets,” Ruterbories said, with a smile. “Sitting at a desk, handing out pamphlets. Not exactly what I’m doing here, pushing wheelbarrows with gravel in it.”
But Ruterbories’ story is about more than longevity. It is, in fact, two love stories: One between a man and a woman, which ended sadly and too soon; the other between that man and a beautiful stretch of wilderness, which may be coming to an end as well.
Ruterbories’ first career was as a manager at Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility back home in Colorado. But starting in 1962, he and his wife, Marge, spent every summer in Glacier. Eventually, they became the hosts at the popular Avalanche Lake campground along Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road.
In 1991, new North Fork District Ranger Scott Emmerich needed a host at the Kintla Lake campground, someone who didn’t need constant supervision in the isolated area east of the North Fork of the Flathead River.
Emmerich was familiar with Ruterbories from his time working in the Avalanche Lake area. Ruterbories’ age — he was then 71 — was not a worry. He could still hike 28 miles in a day.
At first, the two were not easily convinced to leave Avalanche Lake for the remoteness of Kintla, Ruterbories said. But just two years later, he turned down seven other job offers in Glacier to become Kintla’s seasonal ranger so he and his wife could stay there together.
For the next 12 summers, they lived in the little red ranger’s cabin on the lake’s shore, she as the campground hostess, and he as the ranger.
Then, in 2005, Marge Ruterbories died of a stroke. In his grief, Ruterbories slept through most of the days that followed and could muster little will to do anything else. A grief counselor told him he needed to get back into a routine, and part of that meant going back to Kintla.
That first day back was the worst day of his life, he said. Every step reminded him of Marge.
“The reason I come back here, she called this a paradise on earth. She really meant it. When I walk down through these trees, I still remember that,” he said.
And so his life began again.
To the kayakers and hikers who brave the white-knuckle drive along the narrow gravel road to reach Kintla Lake, Ruterbories is a star. They go there for the quiet that can be elusive in other Glacier campgrounds during the peak of summer, but often they come back because of Ruterbories.
It’s an unusual phenomenon in a campground where most people visit for a night or two before moving to some other part of the park.
“Initially, we came here on a kayaking day. Just a kayaking outing,” said Ingrid Forsmark, a resident of Whitefish, Mont., and Tok, Alaska, who has been coming to Kintla for the past three years. “I met Lyle, and he was so interesting to talk with, I thought, ooh, I’m going back there.”
Campers call to Ruterbories by name as he makes his rounds. Visitors who haven’t been to Kintla in a decade greet him like a long-lost uncle.
Pretty much anything can launch Ruterbories into a story. He can shift easily between observations on a family of loons, the origins of the nickname “Gray Eagle” given him to by a Blackfeet Indian cleanup crew and recollections about the time he found a 30,000-year-old fossilized jaw of a two-toed horse in a nearby stream.
A simple hello at a campsite can turn into a 45-minute discussion of past bear encounters, near misses with wildfires or the historical Indian migration routes in the area.
National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson confirmed Ruterbories is the oldest seasonal ranger the park service knows of. (The oldest full-time ranger is 92-year-old Betty Soskin, who works at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif.)
As Ruterbories has gotten older, park officials ask him to check in on the radio each evening. He doesn’t go out on emergency calls anymore and a bad knee has kept him from wandering the backcountry.
He has designed special tools to help him get the jobs done around the campground, like the wheeled cart he uses to haul logs.
“He’s pretty ingenious,” Emmerich said. “As he ages, he has to get smarter. He thinks it through, and he’s not going to hurt himself.”
But the bum knee is threatening to bring an end to Ruterbories’ ranger career. The cartilage was removed in 1969, and now the joint has worn through and is hitting a nerve. He walks with a pronounced limp.
An operation could fix it, but he’s worried about recovering from surgery at his age. If he doesn’t go through with it, retirement is likely.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. Everybody’s talking me into getting that knee fixed. If I get it fixed, I’ll be back,” Ruterbories said.
Emmerich said it will be up to Ruterbories on whether he returns in 2014.
“It’s his choice. He always said, ‘I’ll retire when you retire,’” said Emmerich, 56.
By the time this week’s U.S. government shutdown closed Glacier, Ruterbories had already left the park — perhaps for the year, perhaps for good. After the Labor Day weekend crowds departed, he went about his annual ritual of shutting down Kintla Lake.
He knew this time may be the last. But if he felt a pang of remorse at the prospect of leaving the paradise he and his wife made for themselves, he didn’t show it. His main concern is taking extra care in cleaning the little red cabin in case a new ranger is there next summer.
“I don’t like to leave a mess for anybody,” he said.