Montana’s fading glaciers

An hour or so up ahead, at the higher elevations along the trail that leads over Siyeh Pass, huckleberries were ripening. Even a dawdling day hiker like me knows that huckleberries can quickly mean grizzlies in Glacier National Park. I indulged a nervous tic and patted around for the loud red aerosol can on my belt, whose label reads Counter Assault. It’s effective as a bear repellent, but even more reliable at making an urbanite feel faintly ridiculous.

I was in northwest Montana for the hikes and the huckleberries, but most of all to experience the namesake glaciers, which, I had recently learned, might be around for only another decade or so. Given that a century and a half ago there were 150 and now there are 25, the trip makes me an enlistee in the practice known by a somewhat prickly term: last-chance tourism.

For now, though, there are still glaciers to be seen. The park’s skein of well-maintained trails traverses every section of its million-plus hectares and can accommodate any level of ability, from backpackers to the sheets-and-coverlets crowd. Even visitors who prefer to commune with nature through a car window can be awed by the views of the Jackson and Blackfoot Glaciers from Going-to-the-Sun Road, the often car-choked highway that more or less bisects the park west to east.

And for those who want to get closer, some serious legwork over steep terrain can put you right next to both the Grinnell and Sperry Glaciers, respectively a day and an overnight’s hike away. There are other glaciers to be glimpsed in the distance during a hike, but they can’t be reached by trails. These are excursions that require ice ax, ropes or crampons: the well-sequestered Pumpelly Glacier, for example, at 2,566 metres, and its close neighbour, the Pumpkin Glacier.

Other glaciers are nearer a trail, but still display their remote and frigid glory at some distance, and in a way the craggy surroundings make them even more vivid. I chose the Siyeh Pass Trail because it affords a prolonged, spectacular view of the Sexton Glacier from below.

There are several measures of what qualifies as a glacier. One generally accepted rule of thumb is that they are a minimum of 10 hectares in size. The most recent report has Sexton at 68.

I moved on, ascending the switchbacks that pull the Siyeh trail up toward the 2,438-metre pass. I was well above tree line by now, and only a few peaks away from the Canadian border. The day before, I had spoken with Daniel Fagre, who coordinates climate change and glacial geology studies here for the U.S. Geological Survey. He is a 20-year veteran of research at the park. The retreat of the glaciers began around 1850, he said, as part of a slow, natural climatic variation, but the disappearing act has accelerated during the last hundred years. Until recently, his research projected that, as global warming hit its stride, the park’s glaciers would all be gone by the year 2030. Now he thinks it may be as soon as 2020.

Out size snows this past winter, which kept many park roads and trails closed well into July, could briefly forestall the meltdown, but the longer warming trend is inexorable, he said.

No reprieve? “No, I think we are continuing on that path,” he said.

The science is preliminary, but it’s clear that this loss will be more than aesthetic for the park’s ecosystem, he said. Those glacial reservoirs provide a steady supply of cool meltwater through hot summers and dry spells, helping to sustain a constellation of plants and animals, some rare big-horned sheep, elk and mountain goats among them.

Passing again under the glacier as daylight faded, the trail neared its end. Those prospective losses weighed heavily – nostalgia, of a sort, laced with dread.

More pleasantly, the park celebrates nostalgia of a different sort – from the Art Deco typography on the official signage to the fleet of low-slung, roll-top tour buses known as “red jammers,” which date from the ‘30s. These ply the roads between robber-baron-era hotels, offering full- and half-day tours to various sections of the park ($30 and up).

There’s a wealth of accommodations along the eastern and western boundaries of the park, especially in the towns of East Glacier Park and West Glacier. Despite their names, these towns, with populations of only a few hundred each, are more like distant cousins than identical twins. West Glacier, half an hour from the Kalispell airport, is generally newer, and sprawls.

East Glacier Park, two and a half hours north of the Great Falls, Montana, airport, is a charming, tumbleweedy throwback with a string of weathered eateries and motor-court lodgings that are only slightly post-World War II. There’s also the Backpacker’s Inn, a combination hostel and super-cheap motel with a mostly youthful clientele who like the clean, spare single rooms for $30 a night.

My favourite is the Many Glacier Hotel, a darkly comical but generally comfortable old wooden monstrosity with a Swiss theme (the bellhops wear lederhosen). Its broad verandas face a transfixing view of a horizon of pinnacles that surround Swiftcurrent Lake – one of 131 named lakes in the park (631 others are as yet unnamed; feel free to follow my example and name a few after your friends).

The Many Glacier Hotel is also the start of one of the park’s most popular hikes, to Grinnell Glacier. The 13- or 16-kilometre hike is strenuous, though less so than the Siyeh Pass Trail, and the payoff is that you can get within a stone’s toss of the glacier itself, the surface area of which is more than twice Sexton’s.

I embarked with a ranger-guided group on Chief Two Guns for a quick trip over Swiftcurrent Lake. Then a short walk to another boat, the even older Morning Eagle, across Lake Josephine to the trail head. The boats moved past a shifting panorama of jagged rock faces, slender waterfalls, and high above, the destination glacier. The trail is often crowded, but that scarcely registers in these surroundings. Hikers stop to catch a breath and find it taken again by the view out over the string of lakes, far below, fed by Grinnell’s meltwater. Connected by cascades, each lake is a deeper blue than the one above.

After three hours of steady ascent and a final half a kilometre of hard climbing, the trail ends at the foot of the glacier and an iceberg-studded, expanding lake. The lake does not appear on old maps, according to the ranger. It is a by-product of the fact that Grinnell’s surface is 40 percent smaller than a half-century ago.

Above the lake, the glacier is a wide, tilted skirt of ice whose hem you can almost touch, brilliant under the sun even when it’s dirty with wind-blown grit by the end of the season. It seems immense, too big to disappear, and nearly crowds everything else from consciousness. The ranger said that until a few seasons back you could walk out onto the lower edge of it, which is too thin now to bear human weight safely.

Seaweed-like stromatolite fossils embossed in the cracked rocks along the trail supply a Precambrian perspective of perhaps a couple of billion years. But it is the view out over this lake of meltwater that grabs the imagination far more urgently.

A question hangs up there with the remnant glacier, which may soon be converted to a few patches of ice: What comes next?

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