Death in a beautiful place

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  • A mountain goat looks over Lake Ellen Wilson in this file photo. A new book reveals that falling, not drowning, is the No.1 cause of death in Glacier. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

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  • A mountain goat looks over Lake Ellen Wilson in this file photo. A new book reveals that falling, not drowning, is the No.1 cause of death in Glacier. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

  • 1

A new book that examines death and survival in Glacier National Park has found that falling, not drowning, is the leading cause of death in the park.

C.W. Guthrie and Ann and Dan Fagre have compiled a thoroughly well-researched, comprehensive look at death and survival in Glacier.

Death comes in many different shapes and forms in the park.

There are stories of falling, drowning, exposure deaths, bear attacks and more, in addition to natural and cultural histories of the park and tips on how to survive while exploring the wilderness. The book exposes many facets of humanity in a variety of wildly different stories of victory and tragedy.

According to the authors, since 1913, 67 people have died by falls, 56 have drowned and 53 have had heart attacks. Grizzly bears have killed 10 people and 30 have died in car wrecks. More people have been killed by falling trees — four — than murder — three.

When Guthrie, the lead author, was contracted about two years ago by Farcountry Press to write the book, she immediately called Ann Fagre to request her help for research.

The authors had worked together before for Guthrie’s previous works about Glacier’s history, and Guthrie enlisted Dan Fagre as a third author.

“It sounded like a very fun project in that it combined the history of Glacier National Park with human stories and drama,” Dan Fagre noted. “We tried to make it read like a ripping good story.”

Ann Fagre was the research lead, scouring the park’s archives and library, the Montana death index, Flathead County coroner’s records, state historical societies, and ancestry.com for statistics and stories. She also utilized the Hungry Horse News and its predecessor the Columbian, as well as the Daily Inter Lake.

Dan Fagre added that since they’ve lived in the area for over 20 years, they have connections to the outdoor community and the park.

“That personal connection to the life of the park certainly helped us,” he said.

And the personal impact continues for the authors. The Fagres, in particular, who frequent the park for their work and recreation, experienced a subtle shift in their perceptions of the park.

“I have a more intimate knowledge about places in the park where deaths and survivals have happened, and I don’t look at places the same way,” Ann Fagre explained.

Dan Fagre agreed.

“You have a heightened sense of being more careful and being more aware,” he remarked. “Even if you’re experienced, things can happen to you.”

Guthrie lives near Missoula but visits the park often, and suggested, “It did (to me) what we were hoping the book would do. Making you more aware of the dangers.”

But the authors were quick to explain that it’s not a safety book, but a history and storytelling book designed to help people enjoy the park even more through greater awareness.

In conducting the research for the book, all the authors were surprised by the statistics they found.

Dan Fagre didn’t expect to see so many deaths from falling off Sun Road, especially compared to deaths from climbing — an intentional risk. Ann Fagre noted that the previously undocumented deaths she discovered actually changed the statistics — many deaths recorded as drownings were actually from falling and then rolling into the water, according to coroners’ reports.

Guthrie added, “Some of the initial word out was that the No. 1 cause of death in national parks was drowning. It became apparent that wasn’t the case in Glacier.”

The authors shared their favorite or most memorable stories as well. Dan Fagre recalled the death by avalanche of a geologist in 1913, a case which piqued his interest because of the extensive surveying activity that was already going on over 100 years ago.

Ann Fagre was captivated by the story of ranger Elmer Ness, who reached safety against all odds by crawling 5 miles in four days after a 300-foot fall and collision with a boulder left his hip splintered and pelvis fractured.

“I like his grit and how he lived by his wits,” she said.

Guthrie noted that she felt kinship with the courage and way of life in the stories of people from many decades ago.

“It was so representative of a tough life,” she explained.

The book also details many deaths and survivals from before the park was established. The authors used a list of burials in the park boundaries, historical accounts of explorers, and resources from Native American communities to try to tell a more complete story.

“These people’s stories are still part of the Glacier area,” Dan Fagre noted.

The book also chronicles survival — the tale of Frank Liebig at Sperry Glacier is one readers won’t forget.

Although the stories in the book “run the entire gamut,” he said, there’s still more to tell.

Now that they’ve done so much research and become familiarized with the area’s history, they have enough material for a second edition or follow-up, Ann Fagre remarked.

“We recognize that the stories continue,” Dan Fagre said.

In addition to stories, the book contains a complete glossary of each death in Glacier. It is available at the Montana House as well as other local bookstores and online at Amazon.com.

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