LAKE MCDONALD, Mont. — In the 10 years since Nancy Hildebrandt first sat behind the tiny window at the Lake McDonald Post Office, she has seen wandering bears, wayward Winnebagos and burning embers land on the roof.
Such are the challenges of working at a post office inside Glacier National Park. And while the worry at other rural offices might be how they will survive these desperate times for the United States Postal Service, one of the biggest concerns for Hildebrandt is getting the squirrels out when she inadvertently leaves the door open. But the occasional inconvenience is trumped by the stunning views just outside that door.
"All of the tourists here are just in awe of this place and they say 'you're so lucky to be here,' and I really am," she said. "I can sit here and look at Mount Brown or Heavens Peak — I mean you don't get a much better view than that."
Even before Glacier became the country's 10th national park, there was a post office at Lake McDonald, about 10 miles north of West Glacier. At one time it was located inside the Lake McDonald Lodge before moving to the General Store just down the street. In 1995 it was moved again to a former gas station built in 1962. Now the Lake McDonald office, which is a satellite store of West Glacier, is open five days a week, from June 1 to Sept. 30.
During the summer months, the small building (which is built in the same Swiss style as the nearby lodge) serves tourists and locals, many who have their own mailbox inside. Hildebrandt said the boxes are the same ones that have served Lake McDonald since 1906, the year the post office boxes went from a two-number combination lock to a three. Some of the names connected to those boxes haven't changed in decades.
"There are people who are 90 years old who come in here and remember their combination from when they were 3," Hildebrandt said.
One longstanding name is that of Mary Grace Galvin, whose family has been living along the shores of Lake McDonald every summer since 1936, a remote retreat from the "big city" of Kalispell. Galvin said she remembers when the Going-to-the-Sun Road was new and the hotels, lodges and chalets within the park were owned by the Great Northern Railway.
On most days, Galvin makes the short walk from her lakeside home to the post office to talk with Hildebrandt and pick up the mail. Occasionally, they'll reminisce about the past, including when Galvin would hang out at the Lake McDonald Post Office as a child because she had nothing else to do. Back then, Jimmy Bose was the postmaster and Galvin remembers being put to work sorting the mail on some afternoons.
"Being the nosey little girl that I am, I said 'Jimmy, you look busy, can I help you?'" Galvin recalls.
The old stories are one of the perks of Hildebrandt's job. She first came to Montana in 1973 on a summer vacation from New York City. She was enticed by Glacier's scenery.
"I thought to myself, 'I'm not going home. I'm not going back to New York City. I've found my heaven,'" she said. "I came out here on a trip to see the West and I just never returned."
Since then she has worked on a U.S. Forest Service trail crew, as a teacher in Kalispell and as a railroader in Whitefish. But her job as a contractor for the post office is one of the most interesting items on her resume. Her day starts at 8:30 a.m. when she picks up the mail from West Glacier and brings it to Lake McDonald to open the office by 9 a.m. It's a job she has to complete every day the office is open, even if no one else is around.
In the summer of 2003, when most people at Lake McDonald had been evacuated because of the approaching Roberts Fire on the other side of the lake, Hildebrandt stayed at her post, sorting mail and occasionally grabbing the garden hose to douse burning embers that were landing on the wood structure. During the fire, she only missed delivery on two days when the road was closed.
"All of the stores closed, the hotel closed, but the mail has to go through," she said.
Fire seems to be one of a handful of hazards Hildebrandt faces at her job. Since the post office is in grizzly country, she is sure to keep a can of bear spray under the desk and just last summer a tourist trying to turn his RV crashed through a corner of the building — the damaged roof remains nearly a year later. But even with those hazards, Hildebrandt said she loves her job and the people she meets. During the offseason, she and her husband like to travel and when foreign visitors come in to send a post card home, she gets to pick their brain about where they're from.
"You get to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the world," she said.
Information from: Flathead Beacon, http://www.flatheadbeacon.com