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Sunday, March 19, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In dead of winter, lone woman walks the halls of Montana hotel

Great Falls Tribune

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. - Tracey Wiese pushes open the heavy wooden door, the words "No Trespassing" painted above her head. She pulls a yellow flashlight from her jacket and trains the beam into the darkness.

Here is a room the hotel guests never see, immense silver boilers squatting in the darkness to Wiese's left. Then a maintenance room, complete with blackened tools, grimy coffee maker and Budweiser calendar.

Wiese shines her flashlight into a labyrinth of hallways and employee rooms as a brown, ankle-height creature flees. It's the hotel's resident pine marten.

Ahead, somewhere in the dark, the occasional beep of a smoke alarm sounds as life slowly drains from its batteries.

"It's a little eerie in here," Wiese says.

She winds her way through the depths of the old hotel, emerging in the dim light in the first recognizable room, Heidi's, a cafe.

Welcome to the Many Glacier Hotel in February, a frigid, boarded-up place where the pine marten seems to be the only guest.

At this time of the year, it's easy to see why Stephen King called Many Glacier the inspiration for his book-turned-horror-flick "The Shining."

Wiese is the hotel "winter keeper," the person who, in King's book, loses his mind and whose family falls victim to unfriendly ghosts.

"Absolutely without fail, everyone mentions `The Shining,' " she says.

Wiese has been here since October. Her husband is the only other person within miles. Her job: to walk through most of the immense building and ski around it each day. She inspects it inside and out for broken parts, unexpected visitors, weather damage and the like.

Inevitably, after a big snowstorm, she spends hours shoveling and sweeping snow from rooms on the historic hotel's lake side, where the west wind blows hard and snow seeps through tiny cracks.

"I've shoveled out every one of those rooms on the windward side," she says.

The job as winter keeper has had its creepy moments. During those first two weeks, she carried a radio in her pocket so she could call her husband, park ranger Bruce Carter, if she needed help.

She hasn't needed it. Still, she recalls being jumpy as she walked alone through the hotel.

Flashlight pointing the way, Wiese walks into the grand Many Glacier lobby, where packets of mice poison and plastic buckets - carefully placed to catch any snowmelt leaking from the ceiling - dot the floor.

Near what would be the hotel's front door is a stuffed bighorn ram. Legend has it that the ram clambered onto a huge snowdrift and fell through a skylight into the hotel lobby.

Dennis Baker, head of engineering for Glacier Park Inc., the company that owns the hotel, laughs at that story.

Still, in heavy snow years, such a thing would be possible.

"Normally when we arrive there in the spring, on the mountain side, the snow is up to the top of the roofs," Baker says. "That's the last place for it to melt, too."

Baker, who each year hires the Many Glacier winter keeper, says Wiese was an ideal candidate for the job. A seasonal park ranger during the summer, she's used to living in isolated areas.

Wiese and her husband live in a cabin that's the only building in the area that's winterized. It's just across a bridge from the hotel.

Although Wiese usually walks alone through the hotel on her daily rounds, she and Carter have been spending their days mostly together this winter. They ski to various sites to dig avalanche pits and check for potential avalanche danger, then call park headquarters to report their findings.

They sometimes ski around the outside of the hotel together or check on the nearby Swiftcurrent Motor Inn together.

Baker says winter keepers are an important component in keeping maintenance costs down on the hotel. About eight years ago, a portion of the hotel's roof above the lobby blew off in high winds.

The winter keeper reported the damage and workers came in via snowmobile to repair the damage, to the tune of about $80,000, Baker says.

"It would have been worse if we hadn't known about it right away," he says.

Wiese usually enjoys checking the vast, empty building. She checks daily on the one room that's warmed through the winter, the room where computers are kept. But otherwise, she doesn't look into each room unless a big storm has hit.

Wiese has skied twice out of the Many Glacier area this winter, to see a chiropractor, drop a few items in the mail, eat a much-craved salad and get her hair cut. Carter also has skied out twice, at different times than Wiese, so that someone always has been on hand to watch the hotel.

Otherwise, they've lived in the cabin near the hotel since October. They stocked it early on with groceries from a couple of trips to Lethbridge, a 90-minute drive away in Canada.

A few friends have skied in to see them, once in early February and once for New Year's Eve (carrying champagne). Otherwise, the only people the couple have seen have been workers putting new heaters in hotel guest rooms, a father and son who camped nearby, and biologists watching the resident bighorn-sheep population.

"It's been wonderfully isolated and quiet," Wiese says. "Sometimes I stop and look around at all this beauty and I wonder why there aren't people here to see this. Where is everyone?"

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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