A Glacial Coming of Age: Glacier National Park 100th Anniversary

May 1, 2010
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National Park Glacier NP grizzly bear“It’s a grizzly!” exclaimed my wife, Janie. “And it’s coming right at us.”

Upon hearing our voices, the bear reared on its haunches and tried to find us. We grabbed cans of bear spray from our belts and began a slow retreat. Simultaneously, we noted the frosty appearance created by the backlight, the dished-in face, the immeasurable power so apparent in its brawny neck and hump-backed body. No question, this was a grizzly bear.

Suddenly, the 450- to 600-pound bruin responded in a most unseemly manner – it turned tail and bolted. Essentially, it was doing so because it had not been surprised at close range with cubs, and it was not “habituated.”

Habituation is a term that describes an animal’s familiarity with people, usually through feeding, and is a condition with which I am familiar. In 1967, Montana’s Glacier National Park recorded its first fatal mauling’s. In a single night the inconceivable happened: Two women were killed by two bears, one at Trout Lake, the other miles away at Granite Park Chalet.

I was one of the rangers discharged to find the body at Trout Lake, and then later, to kill the bear. Today, because Glacier is celebrating its 100th anniversary, significant landmarks are being reviewed.

National Park Glacier NP waterfall

The park is taking this time to reflect on its past as a coming of age. Everything that has made our 10th national park what it is now will be discussed and acted out with special talks, hikes and hotel hootenannies. And because of the overwhelming fascination the park’s visitors have with bears, management of the park’s 300-plus grizzly bears will undoubtedly top the list.

Certainly things have changed and I, too, mark this year as a coming of age. For me it is a retrospection because I worked in Glacier for 13 seasons, have written books about the park and have had to resolve in my own mind whether it is worth having wild grizzly bears roaming freely.

Though Janie and I now spend several weeks each year camped in Glacier, compassion was some years in the making. But there is balm in the park’s overwhelming beauty, and it has magical powers. It compels us back and though we sleep in the security of our hard-sided RV, we have no reservations about exploring any portion of this 1-million-acre park. But are we visitors (2 million of us) really safe? And should Glacier preserve the Great Bear?

At long last I believe I can answer those questions.

And now it is spring and the park is emerging from a deep sleep. The 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road has just opened and we want to be among the first to drive to Logan Pass, elevation 6,646 feet, for there is an awakening here that rivals any place in the world for absolute beauty. Our June visit is timely, for park crews have just cleared the famous road of its winter snows, meaning Logan Pass can now be accessed from both sides of the Continental Divide.

National Park Glacier NP glacier pool

Going-to-the-Sun is an experience, from either direction. Our approach is from the east and quickly the road takes visitors past the Mount Jackson overlook. Fifteen minutes later it cuts into the side of a cliff face followed by several famous mountain peaks such as Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Once, most of these peaks were given Anglo names, but that was soon changed (more coming of age) and, today, some names call to mind Native American use. Indians, for instance, used Sun Mountain as a site for their vision quests.

Though snow still covered much of the Logan Pass parking lot, we find a free spot and then begin a mile-long hike to Hidden Lake Overlook. The snow is firm and the soles of our boots dig in. Here and there long days of sunlight had melted wide swaths of ground so that it was free of snow, allowing dense mats of glacier lilies to rear their heads. Point your camera in almost any direction, click the shutter and you’ve probably created a memorable image.

The trail climbs and we soon find the huge print of a grizzly bear, and our antennae go up. We check our bear spray, and then we pull out our binoculars. Scanning the slopes, we pick up the image of a grizzly bear in the distance. It is churning sod to expose the bulbs of glacier lilies, a preferred spring food. It is, in fact, doing just what an un-habituated grizzly bear is supposed to do, not always the case in the past, and we turn to exchange thoughts.

Unfortunately, it took twin tragedies to put an end to the problems that had built up in the park over the years. Garbage, and huge amounts of it, had amassed, contributing to unnatural bear behavior. A lab analysis of the bear we killed revealed it was a 17- to 18-year-old sow, but most significantly, it revealed that the emaciated bruin had glass embedded in its molars. How did it get there?

Several weeks after the fatal mauling’s I returned to Trout Lake with the chief ranger and together loaded up 17 burlap sacks of tin cans, raw food and glass bottles – all the capacious Huey helicopter would hold. Literally, the campground at Trout Lake had become one huge garbage dump. Soon, this would change.

Returning our attention to the bear in the distance, we raise our binoculars for another look, but the bear is gone. Perhaps it had sensed our presence.

That night we returned to our camp at Many Glacier and remained there for several days, hanging out at and around our RV. We hiked to Iceberg Lake (appropriately named), and then, another day, we tried to make it to Grinnell Glacier, but there was too much snow, so we returned and made the mile-long hike to Fisher Cap Lake to look for moose. Often we see them there. 

Another night we had dinner at the nearby Many Glacier Hotel, and stayed around to enjoy the hootenanny, a performance in which the young hotel employees sing and perform skits related to the park. 

Yet another night after enjoying an outside cookout – and after making sure we’ve returned every single item to our RV, as required – we attended a naturalist program in the campground amphitheater. As always, the ranger-naturalist attempted to break the ice, asking visitors where they were from. Then he fielded questions, and invariably the first: “Where can we see bears? 

Many Glacier is one of the best places to see black bears and grizzly bears. From the parking lot near the Swiftcurrent Motel and immediately adjacent to the campground, you can see grizzlies feeding along the distant slopes of Mount Altyn. With a spotting scope, watch as they scoop away huge rocks trying to find a marmot. Bears are magnificent animals, and their power is stunning, something park interpreters mention constantly. Rangers also discuss appropriate bear country behavior, and that educational talk is another factor that has helped prevent unfortunate incidents. In fact, statisticians now say you are safer hiking the park’s back-country trails than you are driving to the park.

Several days later we again returned to Logan Pass and parked our dinghy. We wanted to hike the Highline Trail to the west side Loop and we could do so independently by relying on Glacier’s new shuttle system, which has free service back to Logan Pass.

A mile into the trail we encountered a small band of goats, which instantly panicked. We stepped aside and the goats scurried past us, then charged onto a steep-sided slope where cliffs provide them with escape terrain. We continued hiking and about three miles into the hike the trail ascends Haystack Butte, where we saw a “bachelor herd” of bighorn rams. In the summer, the males separate from the ewes and lambs and group together. Haystack is always a good place to see them, as well as the golden mantled ground squirrel and the hoary marmot, both not long out of hibernation that June day. 

Unfortunately, the one mammal we could not find was the pika. Scientists say these tiny members of the rabbit family are like the canary in the mine. They’re an indicator species and when climate change produces temperatures they cannot tolerate, these tenacious residents of the arctic-alpine zone will disappear. Scientific monitoring is another function of this World Heritage Park, and as such is responsible for evaluating a variety of conditions such as climate change.

Park scientist Dan Fagre says his computer models suggest all glaciers will be gone from this northwestern Montana park by 2020. It will, however, still be appropriate to call this 1-million-acre expanse Glacier National Park, for there will remain the glacier-carved valleys, the lateral and terminal moraines, the arêtes and all those beautiful high-alpine lakes called tarns.

About eight miles out from Logan Pass and three hours later, we can see Granite Park Chalet. Below me are more fields of glacier lilies and several small tarns where I once saw a sow and her two cubs splashing in the shallows. In years gone by a trail ran near the tiny lakes, but was permanently closed to better separate bears and people, the objective of today’s Bear Management Program.

Fifteen minutes later we hike onto the porch of this historic old chalet, and pause to enjoy the spectacle of Heaven’s Peak. Years ago on a fine spring day I climbed that mountain and when I approached the top I saw a magnificent bull elk, which bugled, a sound normally associated with the mating season. Maybe he was just plain happy to be where he was; and, yes, I believe animals have emotions.

Much has changed at Granite Park since 1967, and if you were here back then at dinnertime you would have seen employees throwing scraps of food over the balcony to an open dump ground below. The purpose, of course, was to attract grizzly bears so guests could see them, but once bears get the smell of food, there’s no stopping them. Unfortunately, a young lady was in the campground and she paid the ultimate price of back-country neglect. About 10 miles away, up and over Heaven’s Peak at Trout Lake, the other incident occurred.

The dual mauling’s created a national outcry demanding an evaluation of back-country conditions, and the implementation of a Bear Management Plan, previously lacking in substance. Today, it is working – doing its job of keeping people and bears separated. Campgrounds are immaculate and no one feeds bears anymore. Sure, there’s still a risk, but at least you know you are dealing now with wild bears and not ones that have become habituated to people, and that makes a tremendous difference. Sadly, that is not something people in the ’60s understood, but it is something you will know soon after you drive into Glacier, for signs and literature are everywhere.

National Park Glacier NP lake kayakers

But so is the balm of Glacier, and you will sense it immediately. You’ll sense it as magenta-colored rays of sun warm jagged peaks still encasing fields of snow; where herds of bighorn sheep stare back from fields of glacial-strewn rocks; where quiet streams of water suddenly become raging torrents and carve their way through ancient beds of layered limestone. You’ll sense it, too, when you launch a kayak in a serene Kintla Lake, smell the fragrant fields of wildflowers, or sit back and watch the lazy clouds drifting over the lofty chain of mountains forming the Continental Divide. There’s balm, too, when you see a wild grizzly bear splashing in a small tarn colored the bluest blue you may ever see.

For that reason, and because most bears now run when you encounter them, and because the grizzly bear is so symbolic of the wilderness of this incredible park, I would never want to see them eliminated. Understanding the remote odds of now encountering a problem bear, I explore uninhibited.

And now it is mid-afternoon and we still have four downhill miles to go to our destination, which is the west side Loop. Here, one of the new shuttle buses will take us back to our car at Logan Pass and as the driver navigates this sinuous road it will be impossible not to appreciate the fact that Glacier has overcome challenges created by changing times and now performs its mandate precisely. It has preserved a portion of our American heritage and 100 years from now will undoubtedly look, feel and smell just about the same as it does now.

Open your heart and mind to all of Glacier’s spectacles and you will find that this park is appropriate for the times – and that we modern-day RVers are the beneficiaries.

For More Information:

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK 406-888-7800, www.nps.gov/glac. 

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