I will be the first to admit that things change. But, I was not prepared for the changes I would experience during our recent visit to Glacier National Park.
It had been 50 years, since I last visited. It was the summer of 1967, and I was traveling the western United States with my parents and brother, in a travel trailer and camper.
From my perspective, Glacier National Park was one of the most amazing places that we visited that summer. Our visit was filled with the Park’s beautiful, rugged peaks covered in snow, its majestic turquoise-colored lakes and streams, and its many glaciers, which we visited and hiked. As a young person, I found the Park memorable, unique, interesting, inspiring and spiritual. And, 50 years later, I was excited to see it again, and anxious to share the experience with Tim.
That was my perspective and attitude while I enthusiastically recalled my memories of the Park, as Tim and I rode in BAM toward our destination. I anticipated that visiting some of the sites, which I recalled from the summer of ‘67, would ignite even more magical memories from my childhood visit.
The Smoke and Haze
The smoke, first from the forest fires in British Columbia and then merged with numerous more throughout the Pacific Northwest (PNW) had haunted us since our visit to the Olympic Peninsula in early August. It seemed to have followed us on our journey and became amplified with the additional fires within Glacier National Park.
You could smell the smoke; it irritated your eyes, and visibility was materially impaired. My much- anticipated first view of the rugged snow-capped Glacier Park peaks was deferred by the smoke and the haze. And, I had a difficult time finding my bearings.
As Tim and I drove to visit the McDonald Lake Lodge on our first day, a place where we had camped in ’67, I struggled with my recall. The Lake was not as I remembered. The lake from my childhood had been a milky turquoise blue; this lake was crystal clear.
The “Going-to-the-Sun-Road” is perhaps one of the most popular places to explore in Glacier National Park. Today, no vehicle over 21 feet long or 10 feet in height is allowed to travel on this road, which traverses the width of the park, and climbs to 6,646-feet and the continental divide at Logan Pass.
That restrictive criteria definitely eliminated BAM from access to the road. However, in 1967, my Dad pulled our 16’ Travel Trailer behind our truck and camper over the “Going-to-the-Sun-Road.” I vividly recall the trip. Sitting, next to the truck’s passenger door, I can remember the thrill of looking out of the passenger window and not being able to see the road, only the edges of the steep cliffs that the road was built.
The Red Bus Tours
So, rather than drive this steep and narrow road, Tim and I signed up for one of the Red Bus Tours. We were excited to leave the driving to a pro. We wanted to relax and enjoy the scenery. Our driver, Debbie, had been at the park for 14 years, serving first as a hiking guide, and now as one of the Red Bus Tour drivers. Her Red Bus, # 87, was a 1937 model that had been beautifully refurbished in 1997.
Debbie asked Tim to join her in the front seat, and we were off to witness the views and the grandeur of Glacier National Park. Debbie was a very skilled driver and an excellent tour guide. She voiced her concern and apologies for the smoke that was impacting our views, but provided us with some wonderful history and background of the park.
As we continued our ascent on the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, Debbie shared with us that in 1850, the area, now comprising the national park, had 150 glaciers. Throughout this time, there had been slight climate shifts which had caused periods of glacier growth or melt-back. However, today, there were only 26 active glaciers within the Park.
50 years ago, when I visited Glacier National Park, there were approximately 100 active glaciers. But, the most alarming and often repeated statistic is that the glaciers at Montana’s Glacier National Park will completely disappear by the year 2030.
The beautiful glaciers and ice fields, some of which I had visited and recall gracing the rugged peaks in Glacier, will no longer exist. The Glacier National Park that I was experiencing was not the Park I had visited as a child. Even the milky turquoise color of the lakes had disappeared, as the glacier silt which produces the color had been reduced.
Sometime you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
Glacier National Park is truly one of the premier national parks in the United States. The geology is stunning, the scale of the mountains and lakes are magnificent, and it should forever be a national treasure.
But, things continue to change at the Park. We just learned that the Sprague Fire, which was the root cause of the smoke while we were in Glacier, has continued to rage. Since we left the Park, we have heard that another historic Glacier National Park icon, the Sperry Chalet, built in 1913, has been lost to this fire. And most recently, we have learned of the evacuation order issued for all residents and visitors and the road closures from the south end of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass. This is the section of the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, that we experienced on our tour.
I recognize and can accept that things change in a 50-year period. Obviously, I hardly resemble the person that I was in 1967. But, my heart hurts with the changes that have and are taking place at Glacier National Park.
And, whether the vanishing glaciers are a result of a natural climate change or of man-induced global warming, I am so glad that I was able to see this magnificent park when 100 glaciers covered those rugged, majestic, glacier-cut peaks.
Throughout our “Risk Blossoming Journey,” the lesson that we continue to recognize and have reinforced is “do it now.”
Appreciate life as it happens.
Moments will pass and you will wish
you had treasured them more.
Tim and I have agreed to intentionally slow down, and in essence, take more time to smell the flowers. So, rather than to dash from one place to the next, we plan to pause, be curious, and learn more about the places we pass-thru and visit.
On August 2nd, looking at the Pacific Ocean from Olympic National Park’s majestic Ruby Beach, we saw the first evidence of the smoke that would settle over us for the next 30 days. The Pacific Northwest had just experienced the rainiest winter in its recorded history. This summer, it had the longest period without rain in its recorded history. These events created the perfect conditions for fires, and there has been a lot of them.
I was optimistic as we departed for Glacier National Park. Both the visibility and the air seemed to be improving. As we came over the pass dropping into Flathead Lake, there was only a light haze above it.
Unfortunately, a lightening caused blaze had ignited a fire within Glacier National Park, the previous evening. It not only encased the park in smoke but it has also destroyed the 104-year old Sperry Chalet. A tragic loss.
Despite the limited visibility and more coughing than on clear days, I found Glacier to be a spiritual place. I want to come back and see it with clean air, snow on the peaks and waterfalls flowing. The Glaciers are disappearing, and I want to get back soon.
One of two highlights was the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Construction began on the road in 1921 and was completed in 1932. It is a narrow, snaking road with cliff walls on one side and sheer drop-offs on the other. The design for this historical road was created by an 18-year old, landscape architect, Thomas Chalmers Vint. His design won against all others, because his 50-mile route had, unbelievably, only one switchback to cross the park and get over the continental divide at Logan Pass. It is the only road listed as a registered historic place, landmark and engineering feat.
As Deborah and I stood waiting with the 16 other ticketed Red Bus riders, our driver, Debbie, drove up in her 1937 Red Bus. She parked the bus and came around to check registration and give instructions. After the rules were shared, Debbie said “I’m looking for someone who is tall, or has a back or knee problem to sit in the front passenger seat.” (The rest of the bus is bench seating, four across.)
I’m thinking, ‘I am 6’2”, have had two back surgeries and knee surgery in the last 15 months, well, that’s my seat’. Deborah quickly presented my case and secured my seat. Debbie, being the perfect host, secured Deborah’s window seat directly behind me. It was a delight to watch Deborah through the rear view mirror mounted on my side of the bus. Views of the mountains, valleys and the limited glaciers left were restricted but still majestic.
When Deborah and I left West Glacier, we headed east and decided, on the fly, to stop at the East Entrance where Amtrak serves another classic National Park Lodge. It turned out to be the least smoky area of Glacier and the very beautiful and spiritual Two Medicine Lake area provided the second highlight of our Glacier visit.
My lesson learned is that I waited too long for my first visit. I won’t repeat this mistake for my second visit.
After Glacier, we pack up BAM to travel halfway across the country to Nashwauk, Minnesota. There we will visit Deborah’s mother and brother and his family, before we leave for Iceland. So as BAM is pointed east, we are ready to enjoy the locales of Montana, North Dakota and Northern Minnesota. We are open to the opportunities that will present themselves, and have planned enough flexibility into our itinerary that will allow us some spontaneity, adventure, and exploration for this portion of our journey.
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Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s Highway to the Sky Paperback – May 15, 2006