An Old Friend Enters a New Century

"The first hundred years are the hardest." (Wilson Mizner)

Pat and I first visited Glacier National Park in the mid-1990s. It was a short trip, just a few days. It was also our first visit to Montana. The weather was terrible — cold, rainy, windy, and very foggy, with heavy snow blowing sideways at Logan Pass. With the ceiling at no more than 200 feet (60M) most of that trip, we never saw the mountain vistas for which the park is famous. More than one of our planned hikes had to be canceled or re-routed because of heavy snow or bear activity resulting in closed trails. We drove the famous Going To The Sun Road from west to east, and then drove back to the west side via the US Rt. 89 and US Rt. 2 route along the park's eastern and southern borders. In the rain. To escape the wind and rain we took a boat ride on Lake McDonald and delighted at the stories and commentary of Ranger Doug Follett, himself something of a park legend. Pat and I were the only passengers on the 57-foot DeSmet (built in 1930 and still running the lake today) that blustery September evening. With the fog-lowered visibility we saw little beyond the interior of the boat and the lake immediately outside. We walked a number of trails, also in the rain and fog; we saw little that wasn't immediately beneath our boots. The soaring spectacle that is Glacier remained hidden.

Wild Goose Island, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

One of the nicer days during our first trip to Glacier National Park. This photo of Wild Goose Island in St. Mary Lake was made near noon on a September day. We still wonder why we ever returned to the park.

And yet, as we left the park for the airport and the flights home to Ohio, we were making plans to return. What's been said about Glacier Fever is true: once it gets into your blood you can't shake it, and there's no known cure. Since that first trip we've returned to the park at least twice annually, and occasionally three times a year. All this travel was getting expensive, so in 2003 we moved to Polson, Montana, and now live just 80 miles (129KM) from the west entrance to Glacier. Pat and I have slightly different opinions about this, but for me, Glacier was the reason for the move. People have done crazier things.

Suffice it to say we love being in the park. If you've looked at the Glacier galleries on this Web site or read some of my articles, you already know that. We spend as much time as we can in the park, although we don't go as often during the heavy traffic of "tourist season". With it's vast area and over 700 miles of trails to explore, endless varieties of scenery, wildlife, and weather, we'll never tire of the place. The photo at the top of this page is one of my earliest "keepers" in a series of photos of Lake McDonald. It was not taken during that soggy first visit.

On May 11 1910, U.S. President William Howard Taft signed documents creating Glacier National Park, a million acres of mountain paradise along Montana's border with British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. In typical fashion this wasn't well received locally; the plan to create the park had to overcome the public and political "NO!" faction, just as it would today. The usual concerns and scare tactics were voiced by the usual minority and by the press — loss of mining and logging jobs, loss of hunting and fishing access, being overrun by tourists, etc. In typical fashion these fears were short-sighted, just as they would be today. Thanks largely to the efforts of several brave and forward-looking U.S. and Montana senators and congressmen, the bill designating the park was passed and landed on Taft's desk. Glacier has since become a leading economic driver in the region and the state. According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the National Resources Defense Council, Glacier supports more than 4,000 jobs in Montana, and brings nearly $1 billion annually to the region in tourism business. You can find much more about the park's history and formation on the Web.

The Second Hundred Years Aren't Any Easier

A year-long celebration of Glacier's centennial kicked off the morning of May 11, 2010. As with everything these days, a giant "party" was planned. There'd be speeches, walking tours of various facilities in the park, exhibits, etc., beginning in West Glacier at 10:30 AM, continuing all day and concluding with a fancy dinner in the evening at Lake McDonald Lodge. Anyone attending could take home a pile of free commemorative chotchkies that would lay around and be in the way forever.

The park faces many challenges as it enters its second century. In 1911 the park saw 4,000 visitors. Today it is the 11th most visited U.S. national park, with over 2,000,000 visitors a year, remarkable when you consider most of the park's traffic occurs between May and September.

Climate change is happening, whether or not we can agree on the cause, and is reshaping the park's ecology. Wildlife unable to adapt to a changing environment will disappear from the park. The tree line is rising higher along with the temperature, changing habitats animals use for food and cover. Less snow is accumulating; reduced snowpack means reduced streamflows in spring and summer, which, coupled with hotter, drier summers often means extended fire seasons. I'm no longer a young person, but it's certain the park's remaining glaciers will be gone in my lifetime.

Budget and funding cuts have, and will continue, to affect the park. Maintenance of Glacier's historic lodges, chalets, and other structures, upkeep of its campgrounds, development and continuation of interpretive programs, and on-going reconstruction of Going To The Sun Road are enormously expensive. Federal money (that is, our tax dollars) for the parks, long ridiculously inadequate, is seeing further reductions.

The list of issues with which Glacier will struggle goes on and on. While some of those challenges can be reduced or eliminated, for others it is simply too late. Time and again, as a society, we have demonstrated we are unwilling to make the necessary changes that could reduce the combined impacts of climate change, economic priorities, and politics-as-usual. Given that, there's little to do but watch, try not to make things worse, and hope Mother Nature's amazing resiliency sorts things out for us. As always, we'll see. The land will endure, and the park's beauty, in some form, very likely will persist.

A Private Celebration

Lake McDonald at sunrise on Glacier National Park's 100th anniversary, Montana, U.S.

Lake McDonald, moments before the sun cleared the mountains on the morning of the Glaicer's 100th anniversary.

Late on the evening of 10 May I decided I'd get up early and take a ride to the park. Like seeing Halley's comet or the blooming of a corpse flower, being in the park on its 100th anniversary was something one could do only once. I arrived at the park about 6:00 AM. It was a beautiful morning, with a seasonal temperature (near freezing), little breeze, and an interesting sky. I was alone, and it was wonderfully quiet. The sun was not yet above the mountains to the east, but there was sufficient light that I could set up in my usual location on the south shore of Lake McDonald. I then waited for the good light, and made some pre- and post-sunrise photos. After getting those pictures I drove up the Sun Road to explore the light on the Apgar Range on the lake's west side. After wrapping up my shooting I drove up along McDonald Creek. I stopped in several places looking for harlequin ducks, and found three pair at Sacred Dancing Cataract, down below McDonald Falls. I also saw a pair of dippers, far more common than the harlequins but fun to watch.

I dislike crowds, so I left before the day's official events got underway. When I drove out of the park about 9:45, the parking area where the party was to begin was filling up. Lots of cars, rangers directing traffic, groups of people walking around. I felt no urge to dive into the fray. Newspaper stories the next day said there were over 600 people, including dancing and blessings by tribal brass in full headdress and hides, and speeches by Chas Cartwright, the park Superintendent, MT Lt. Governor John Bohlinger (appearing at "events" being a primary function of that office, I think), and others. I'm sure it was all very nice.

I had a great time in my most beautiful place, and got my own commemorative photos.

Happy Birthday, Glacier. I wish you many more.

Lake McDonald and the Apgar range, on the morning of Glacier's 100th anniversary Montana, U.S.

Lake McDonald and the Apgar range, on the morning of Glacier's 100th anniversary.

For those wanting to see more:

May, 2010