As the biplane flies, the remote cluster of buildings that constitute the Schafer Meadows Ranger Station lies more than 15 miles from the nearest paved road.
Nestled in the Flathead National Forest’s Great Bear Wilderness, the isolated outpost is known for its small backcountry airstrip, as well as its legacy of purported hauntings and ghost sightings.
Tad Wehunt, a recreation staff officer at the Hungry Horse Ranger Station, said that among the ghost stories that have sprung up over the years in Schafer Meadows, one recurring apparition is the “ghost herd,” purportedly the spirits of horses lost by an old outfitter decades ago.
“When you’re leaving Schafer Meadows, you cross the river heading up toward Whitcomb Peak and there’s a flats, and a kind of lodgepole thicket there,” Wehunt said. “Every time they’d come by you’d hear bells in the distance, particularly on foggy mornings, of course. … There were a few wrecks that packers in the past have pinned on the ghost herds coming through, when there’s no other reason for the mules to spook.”
Winter comes early in the Middle Fork, and forest employees typically close up the Schafer Meadows station in mid-October, after which it lies dormant until the spring melt once again permits access the following May.
Al Koss, now retired from the Forest Service, for years worked as one of the two wilderness rangers based out of Spotted Bear.
Late one October in the mid-‘90s, Koss was alone in the backcountry, as the ranger station’s last inhabitant of the season. A lingering outfitter from a nearby camp had left the day before, and it was his job to close up shop, check on the outfitter camp and lead his mule and horse along the eight-hour hike back to Spotted Bear.
“The station is completely closed up. All the windows have boards on them, and everything looks like it’s shut up,” he said.
Koss awoke in the early morning to a blanket of fresh snow visible through the window of his bedroom, located in the second story of the building that houses the complex’s office and kitchen.
“Just before dawn, I heard this voice — ‘Hello? Hello?’” Koss remembers. “I looked out the window, there was nobody in the woods. I thought maybe it was some hunters coming through … I got up, got ready to go out to the airstrip where we keep the mule and horse, and there’s no footprints or anything.”
Koss said he’s familiar with much of the lore surrounding the historic backcountry structures that dot the 1.5 million-acre wilderness complex, and has heard multiple reports of the “Ghost of Schafer Meadows” from fellow foresters and other visitors to the site.
“People have had visions of ghosts in and around the cabins. ... Doors have slammed when there’s no wind, and windows have shut when there’s no reason for them to slam down,” he said. “It could be the ghost, seeing if everybody’s gone and he can have it back for the winter.”
Wilderness, rivers and trails manager Colter Pence of the Hungry Horse Ranger District said many of the ghost stories passed down through the years have originated in the rental cabins throughout the forest.
While she doesn’t put much stock in them, the logbooks at cabins like Ford and Schnaus typically include entries from those who report sights or sounds that are hard to reconcile with reality.
“There’s a tradition of just writing about your ghost experiences and reading other people’s past experiences,” Pence said. “Some of them are amazing — and most of them are friendly ghosts.”
Retired Flathead Forest archaeologist Tim Light said he remembers hearing of supposed hauntings at the Wurtz Homestead, which sits along the North Fork Road about 10 miles south of the Canadian Border. Many of the stories have related to the tragic fire of 1919, which destroyed the homesteader family’s house and was believed to have killed two young children, aged 2 and 4, who had been inside the cabin.
However, the circumstances of the fire remained shrouded in some mystery, as the children’s bones were never found, and the fire was believed to have been set intentionally.
A couple had expressed interest in adopting the two children just before the incident, fueling speculation that the children had been kidnapped.
Even deeper in the Bob Marshall Wilderness than Schafer Meadows, the Big Prairie Ranger Station is similarly situated as a wilderness outpost for forest employees, outfitters and other backcountry travelers. Located in the lower reaches of the Middle Fork, it too has been known to house seemingly unexplainable phenomena.
Wehunt said that a recurring story traces back to one winter in the early 1920s, when the Forest Service attempted to keep a herd of stock animals in the backcountry through the winter.
“This was back when Big Prairie was kind of its own district,” Wehunt said. “They toyed with the idea of leaving stock in there, instead of bringing them out.”
The Rous family was selected to stay the winter at the ranger station and care for the animals, making their seasonal home in what is now the tool shed. During the winter, their young daughter became sick, and Wehunt said her father was forced to snowshoe out of the backcountry to find help — a roughly week-long trek through the wilderness.
“By the time he got back, the daughter had died,” Wehunt said. “The mom was up all night pacing the upstairs while the kid wasn’t doing so good. Every now and then, when a trail crew is in there sharpening axes and doing things downstairs, they’ll swear they hear footsteps up above them. They’ll go upstairs, and of course, nothing is there.”
Wehunt said he heard similar reports about a half-dozen times during the decade he spent working in the Spotted Bear Ranger District, but noted that the story isn’t especially well-known. One of the only pieces of evidence remaining from the fateful winter is a modest grave marker in the complex, which simply reads “Rous Daughter.”
Koss said while he has never had any supernatural experiences in Big Prairie, he’s known occupants at the ranger station who have also reported hearing baby’s cries in the night.
While he said the tales are likely embellished over the years, he said he’s never been able to drag a rational explanation out of his own experience at Schafer. But that’s almost beside the point.
“They’re just great stories to talk about around the campfire, and they make life more enriched when you’re in the backcountry with your family and friends,” Koss said. “They’re just fun ways to wile the time away and make things a little more interesting.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossing the Middle Fork at Schafer Meadow in September 1963 with Ranger Dick Strong on patrol.