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 a patch of wilderness along the Canadian border.
For 20 years, he has been the ambassador, manager, accountant, anthropologist, botanist, historian, traffic officer, 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.
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.
His first career was as a manager at Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility back home in Colorado. 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.
Just two years later, Ruterbories turned down seven other job offers in Glacier to become Kintla’s seasonal ranger so he and his wife could stay there together.
Marge Ruterbories died of a stroke in 2005. 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.
“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.
As he has gotten older, park officials have asked 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, such as 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 his 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.
“Everybody’s talking me into getting that knee fixed. If I get it fixed, I’ll be back,” he 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.