by Benjamin Polley | photograph Ryan Creary
On the morning of August 17, 2008, Charles and Alex Harris paddle down the North Fork of the Flathead River near Moose City, Montana on a multi-day raft trip when gunshots sound near a cabin. The father and son sneak up to investigate. They hear someone rummaging around. The door is smashed open with the splitting maul leaning by the step. Peeking inside, they spy a middle-aged, white male rummaging through jackets. “Hey, what’s going on?” says Charles. Agitated, the suspected thief points a semi-automatic rifle at Charles who backs out of the cabin. The armed man is haggard with long strands of hair growing from his nose. Outside, the outlaw points the weapon at Alex before sprinting off through the yard toward the river where he crosses into Glacier National Park, before heading north to a zone on the borderlands cleared of trees known as the Swath. The incident sparks a multi-agency international search in this obscure stretch of land.
Anyone that’s ever backpacked alone, encountered a deranged individual in the backcountry, or even just battled sleep in a tent worrying about intruders, knows two fundamental truths about wildlands: One, we’re nearly defenseless out there. And two, that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing adventure. But we’d also be entirely naive to think that lone strangers—some with ill intent—aren’t out there. With skyrocketing homelessness and the lack of safety nets for those with mental health concerns, our wild places are the last refuge for those for whom even the fringes of society are too restrictive. What follows is the story of one such encounter.
Moose City, Montana abides on the northwestern edge of Glacier National Park. It doesn’t have a post office or a zip code. It is not even a town, let alone a city. Four log cabins that date to 1915, and an airstrip along the US-Canada border make up the entire infrastructure. Moose feels a bit like the frontier. The few stories you hear set here involve wildlife or weather.
The outpost is adjacent to a man-made boundary—the Swath—that separates the U.S. from Canada. It’s a 40-foot wide clearcut that’s the only blemish on the sea of green trees for miles. In the late 1800s, surveyors mapped the border. Later, the United States and Canadian Treaty of 1925 demanded that the line be continuously cleared of brush and trees from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Stone obelisks reminiscent of gravestones mark the way on high points every three miles. At 5,525 miles, it’s the world’s longest border. The American taxpayer pays half of a cent to the International Boundary Commission (IBC) for maintenance. Near Moose and Glacier National Park, NPS trail crews come up every four to six years to clear the new growth.
It just so happens that a few days after the initial manhunt for the armed North Fork suspect comes up empty, one of the National Park Service trail crews is assembling to clear a six-mile stretch of Swath on Glacier’s northwest edge near the Continental Divide. The clearing has been scheduled for months. As the team gathers to set out, Corey Shea, the NPS westside trails foreman and a Vietnam vet, calls a meeting in the West Glacier trail shop. The crew is Ryan Brooks, Brian Roland, Gus Seward, and Nick Hoffman—all in their 30s.
“It has come to our attention that around the area where you will be working,” says Shea, “that a man broke into several cabins and outbuildings—spending the night in one and taking clothing, food, a gun, and alcohol from others. The man attempted to break and enter into the long-closed Trail Creek Border Patrol Station. He is reportedly armed and dangerous, and off his meds.” At this last detail, the crew leans forward.
The briefing continues: The man shot the Border Patrol Station’s metal window cover, broke the window, and attempted to pry his way in. A crew of Customs and Border Patrol agents are now stationed in the old Customs trailer, half a mile from the trail crew camp, searching the area. “Flathead County Sheriff’s deputies, Glacier National Park and Forest Service Rangers, and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter searched for a week,” says Shea. “The man is still at large.”
The crew loads up their government rig, along with a personal truck with a canoe on top, and the convoy heads up the North Fork Road with gravel and dust trailing behind them. It’s an unusual hitch for a team accustomed to working within certain districts of the park maintaining some of the 750 miles of trail. They’ll bed down across the river along the Swath in a gypsy camp set off in the woods just out of sight from the road.
Portaging kitchen supplies, food, personal gear, and work tools, as well as gallons of fuel for the chainsaw and brushcutters, is normally a chore, but on this day it’s also unsettling work with the news of the fugitive. As they tie tarp ropes to trees for the kitchen area, dig a pit for the make-shift toilet, and set up personal tents, they glance over their shoulders. Grizzlies and mountain lions in the pristine forest are the typical threat. But more than those routine worries, the crew thinks somebody is watching them.
That night while the men sleep, the fugitive sneaks along the trees bordering the Swath just out of sight. Fifty yards away, where a social trail leads into their camp, he stabs a bowie knife into a tree and leaves it there as if in warning—or threat.
Encountering violent offenders in the backcountry is extremely rare, but violence in beautiful places makes news. Consider Big Sky, Montana in 1984, when Don Nichols, a self-proclaimed mountain man, grabbed trail runner Kari Swenson by the wrists and pummeled her in the face before kidnapping her to be his son Dan’s wife. The pair threatened Swenson with knives and guns and chained her to Dan through the night. When Alan Goldstein, Swenson’s friend and a member of the rescue party, stumbled upon the scene, Don killed him. In the commotion Dan accidentally shot Swenson in the chest and the pair left her for dead next to Goldstein’s body. The murderers fled. A captivating manhunt pursued them through the Montana wilderness. They were captured five months later and sent to prison.
The tragic event made national headlines because it was a gruesome anomaly. An impressive 78.8 million Americans camp each year, but less than point zero one percent are assaulted. You’re more at risk staying home. According to National Park Service data, we are more likely to be struck by lightning or die in an accident at home than be attacked in the backcountry. The risk of being killed by an airplane crashing into your house is one in 250,000; drowning in a tub is one in 666,667. But the odds that you’ll be murdered in a National Park are one in 20 million.
It’s difficult to get hard numbers for other land management agencies because most violent crime is handled by local sheriff departments. But the larger truth is that the agencies don’t catalog the numbers because there are too few to archive. When they do happen, such violent encounters typically occur near trailheads or roads. But just as with grizzly attacks, violence in the backcountry lends itself to storytelling. “Deliverance” cast rednecks as the villains. In “The Revenant” it was grizzly bears and humans. Violence in the woods is the stuff of campfire stories. There’s no telling how long humans have told such tales.
The morning after the fugitive plunged his bowie knife in a tree, the clearing crew fires up the power tools and heads out. They have one chainsaw to cut saplings and large trees leaning into the Swath, and three power brushers to clear saplings and undergrowth. They don’t follow the social trail, so the bowie knife warning goes unseen.
Mowing down everything within this 40-foot wide corridor on steep sidehill terrain has been called the worst work in the world by veteran trail members. On day one, the team clears a half-mile. Hardening to the task, by day three they’re several miles deep. They still can’t shake that feeling of being watched.
On Friday morning, day four, the crew awakes to an inversion settling into the valley with clouds hugging the forest floor. As they hike to Sage Creek, the sky is wet cement, the trees and brush soggy with condensation.
Gus, a shy, mixed martial artist, is looking east when the curtain of fog lifts. He spots movement, a shape through the haze coming up over the hill. “What is that?” He mumbles.
Brian pulls out his binoculars. “Everyone get down,” he whispers. The crew squats and swap glances through the binoculars as the shape clarifies into a man dipping behind a hill.
“I swear to god,” says Gus. “It looks like a person wearing a black trench coat with an assault rifle over his shoulder.”
“Holy shit! It’s that guy! It’s the convict!”
“Oh my god! He’s walking towards us.”
“What in the hell is he doing three miles into the border swath?”
As they whisper among themselves, the man appears again, walking west towards them. Nick hyperventilates as the fugitive switchbacks down a steep hill.
Tucking into the bank of the creek, the trail crew conceal themselves behind logs, rocks, and stumps. Unarmed, they stuff rocks in their pockets and ready their canisters of bear spray.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of every five adults (46.6 million people) lives with mental illness in this country. Other studies reveal that 57 percent of adults suffering with mental health issues are left untreated. This is especially true in rural areas where the services often don’t exist. To get a handle on this growing but untreated health care crisis, it’s best to talk to the folks at Veterans Affairs because they’re in touch with both mental health and homelessness on public lands. It’s tough for vets to find treatment. While nationally more than 1.7 million veterans received help in a Veterans Affairs Mental Health Specialty Program in 2018, in Montana, all Veterans Affairs offices or mental health care facilities are located in larger cities which are concentrated on the western side of the state.
Other factors for the lack of treatment include discrimination (based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation), self-medication with alcohol or other drugs, and the ease with which some mentally ill people can hide their symptoms as they battle internal conflicts. Slashing the funding for social workers (most recently by the GOP in 2018), doesn’t help.
But don’t discount stigma, says Joshua Hastings, the PTSD Programs Coordinator of the American Legion in Washington, DC. Especially with older veterans, asking for help is a sign of weakness. They were taught to “suck it up and move on,” he says, “when actually it’s a sign of strength to ask for help.”
About 20 percent of homeless people suffer from severe mental health conditions (and there are 40,056 veterans who are homeless on any given night in America; a national disgrace). Many of these people live in the rural west and would rather hide in or near the backcountry to avoid confrontation with the police. “Some of these veterans were trained to be on their own away from society,” says Hastings. “Now they’re tapping into their training and survival skills and not having to deal with the hustle and bustle of the city.”
As for the risk that the homeless mentally ill represent to society, according to the American Psychological Association only three to five percent of crimes committed are directly related to mental health. “When we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illness, they tend to be big headline-making crimes so they get stuck in people’s heads,” wrote lead researcher Jillian Peterson, Ph.D. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal, and not dangerous.”
Often the homeless dealing with mental illness are juggling contradictory thoughts: looking for solitude, but also longing for connection. Most are nonviolent and want help, but don’t know where to turn. They go to nature for the same reason recreationists do—therapy. The natural world can soothe.
Back on the border, with the trail crew prepared to deploy bear spray against a man with a long gun, the fugitive changes his course and cuts sharply north off the Swath, disappearing into the trees, and heading into Canada.
The guys rise from their squats and rub their quads. “We’re calling this in,” says Ryan. He is the oldest on the crew and some refer to him as ‘Happy Pants’ because of his gruffness. “Let’s put distance between us first. Then once we get to camp, Brian, Gus, and I will stay behind to keep an eye out.” He points at Nick, “You head across the river to the Border Patrol Station to report the sighting to the agents.”
“Let’s take all the tools,” says Brian, suspecting that Shea might pull them from this hitch. “Here we are carrying these orange Stihl power brushers like slow-moving targets for a man with a rifle. What the hell are we thinking? He could be paralleling us right now.”
They hustle back to camp, pausing briefly for Ryan to radio. “725 this is 451 on Local.” No answer. “725 this is 451 on Local.” No response. This far north, the radios are spotty. “No contact. 451 clear.”
As they move, a figure appears from the west walking up the Swath towards them. “Oh my god! It’s him,” Brian says. They reach for their bear spray when they realize it’s their boss, Shea. The four crew members talk over one another. “There’s a man with a gun over on the Swath…We saw the fugitive…We’re going to the river and calling this in.”
Shea, the war vet, is calm. “Oh, okay,” he says, nonchalantly. “I came to look at the work for next year so we can get the contract.” The four guys look at each other, bewildered at the dismissal of danger. Shea looks at Gus, “It’s your district, you want to join me?”
Gus mumbles inaudibly from behind his dark brown beard. The other three watch him walk off with Shea on point. Brian, Nick, and Ryan continue west toward camp and the river. When they get there, Nick crosses the river with his boots on and heads straight for the Border Patrol trailer. It’s 9:30 a.m.
Pounding on the door, Nick smells bacon. The agents are surprised to see a trail guy standing there with his eyes bugging out. Nick is agitated, his pants and boots wet. The border patrol agents are in sweatpants making breakfast. A movie is playing in the background. Nick wildly tells them about their fugitive sighting, but the agents seem somewhat skeptical. They reluctantly gear up, morphing from breakfast makers to border protectors; two on horseback and five men on foot—all heavily armed and heading for the Swath.
Meanwhile, Shea is marching Gus back toward the fugitive in his fast moving gait that’s earned him the nickname ‘Wind Walker.’ Shea leans forward, as if into a wind, floating over the rolling hills, with Gus trailing behind.
At the crest of Sage Hill, they nearly run into the outlaw hiding behind an obelisk. Gus sweats. Shea sizes up the gun, which at first glance appears to be an M-16. The trail crew wasn’t kidding. On closer inspection, Shea determines the fugitive actually carries a .22LR Ruger with a black synthetic stock and a scope. A 30 round banana clip hangs from the rifle. The man scratches his whiskered face.
“You guys have any food I could buy? I’m starving.” His voice is gruff yet high.
“No, sorry,” Shea replies coolly, pretending ignorance of the man’s fugitive status to keep the situation from escalating. “We’re assessing future work. Moose City might have food.”
The man squints. “What were those other guys carrying over their shoulders? They look like some kind of weapons.”
“They’re power brushers for cutting brush. They’re a work crew,” Shea responds, over his shoulder, walking away and pulling Gus to disengage. They continue east as the fugitive stands up eerily and heads west. Out of earshot, Shea pulls out his radio and calls the NPS Rangers 22 miles away in Polebridge. He reports the incident to Ranger Reggie Altop.
Back in the gypsy camp, Brian and Ryan hear the radio chatter with Polebridge. Relief settles in at the prospect of help.
The dispatcher mobilizes Glacier National Park Service Rangers, US Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers, and Flathead County Sheriffs. They are hours away. And Border Patrol is still slowly rolling out. Brian and Ryan gather pulaskis, the only weapons they have.
To the east, a football field length away, the fugitive switchbacks down the hill along the Swath towards the river. To the west, Nick is charging to the river with a cavalry of Border Patrol agents behind him. Seasoned in the backcountry, Nick rushes through the water. The agents waffle through, their confidence diminishing with each bumbling step through the fast current. Having forded the river, the two guys on horseback look like novices. The uphill bank is spring-fed and the moss is tearing away as the horses lose footing.
As the agents crest the first small bench, one of them spots a human figure in the woods. En masse, the agents draw their guns and yell, “Show your hands! Get on the ground! Get the fuck on the ground!” They point a shotgun toward the fugitive’s head. The agents apprehend the man, who mysteriously is now without his gun and has no choice but surrendering.
They force him to his knees and handcuff him. “What’s your name?” Silence. Border Patrol agent Jeff Peterman grills him. Patting him down he finds his wallet and identification. “He’s 44 years old.”
Nick is shocked to hear this weathered character, with his nose hair and lined face, is not even 45.
The agents surround the fugitive and read him his Miranda Rights. “With these rights in mind, do you wish to say anything on your behalf?” More silence.
The agents force him up and bring him into the crew’s camp to begin questioning. He looks famished, slightly devious, but defeated.
The questions bounce off him. Eventually, the agents make him sit cross-legged with his hands behind his back.
“Where’s your gun?” agent Peterman asks.
“What gun?” he asks.
“The one that these men say you have? Where is it?”
“Behind the log.”
This game goes on, the man apparently humoring himself, knowing full well he is no longer a free man.
The agents pull up his cuffed hands.
“It’s over by the tree.” He says with a half-pained smirk on his face.
“What tree?” says Peterman impatiently. Forests surround them.
“Did you cross into Canada?” Peterman asks.
“I thought I saw a sow with cubs and I was avoiding them.”
“Did you have permission to go to Canada?”
The other agents arrive with US Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Brad Treat’s German Shepherd, Chewy. The dog gets the scent of the fugitive to search the area for any signs. Soon after, one of the agents finds the rifle stashed behind a log close to the camp.
“We have reports that a man broke into several cabins near the border, stealing alcohol, blankets, food, and a gun. The description fits you,” says Peterman. “Also, at one of the cabins you were confronted by two men and you pointed a gun at them then crossed the river, fleeing towards Canada. Was that you?”
“I was looking for food,” the fugitive says.
“Did you shoot at the lock on the old Border Patrol station and attempt to enter?” asks Peterman.
Chewy sniffs out the bowie knife stuck in the tree. An hour later, the dog finds a fire pit not far from where the crew stashed their chainsaws. In it are the charbroiled remains of a squirrel the fugitive ate the night before.
Two hours later, the questioning winds down and the Flathead sheriff deputies take the fugitive into custody for burglary and theft. He faces federal charges for possessing a firearm inside Glacier National Park (illegal at the time), damaging government property, and illegally crossing the border. His motivations and origin remain unclear.
The trail crew finishes the last days of the hitch clearing the Swath.
“It was a strange feeling knowing that he was watching us the whole time,” says Brian.
We’ve all been brought up to think that we’re somehow at risk in the backcountry, but if we can avoid getting lost, freezing to death, or opening up an artery with a broadhead we’re far safer out in nature. In the film version of “The Revenant,” they had to add in a hatchet fight scene at the end to drive the tension. In reality, the drama ended in a courtroom. But the threat of violence is entwined in our nature myth—two threads of the same story. The fear dates back to colonization. And even the most weathered among us feel it.
“I worry more about rockfalls than a lunatic with a weapon,” says the outdoor author and naturalist Craig Childs. “That said, I was backpacking with my mom when I was a teenager and we both thought we heard rough-sounding men outside our tent. That night we spent half-awake in fear. I’ve been in bear country, and this fear was wholly different. Men with ill intent and no one to hear you shout is its own category. Nothing ever happened, but I remember the chill in my blood that night.”
The fugitive on the Swath turned out to have untreated mental illness, which is why we do not identify him in this story. He was not a veteran, but his survival skills were somewhat honed. Moose City has gone back to being the desolate, quiet frontier along the borderlands that it’s been for a century. The North Fork River continues to flow south unimpeded by the border, with aspen leaves quaking in the breeze along the banks.
Around some future campfire, stories of the fugitive, the Swath, and the borderland, will diverge and braid like the river.