DNA X #5
“Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner – the Crown of the Continent – “ 1901 George Bird Grinnell ‘Father’ of Glacier National Park
We packed up our fishing poles and aimed “G” northwest through the vast wheat fields and ranches of Montana. Our destination is Whitefish, one of the towns on the doorstep of Glacier National Park. Established in 1910, Glacier and Canada’s adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park became one International Peace Park in 1932 and a World Heritage Site in 1995. This 1.2 million acre park had been on our list for last year’s trip but time ran out since most of the hotels and lodges in the park had closed by mid-September. If you have read about our previous experiences with park lodging you know it’s not our first choice since they tend to be overcrowded or in a state of disrepair. Tossing aside common sense, we reserved a room in one of the elderly hotels. Our “value” room offered 2 twin beds and a bath. Jay was leery so we perused the hotel reviews. “…No elevators, paper thin walls, huge piles of dust under the bed, wind whistling through the door, mice in the walls and room eating our snacks, petrified hamburgers, creaky and creepy, House on Haunted Hill…” Spooks and infestations didn’t sound too appealing so we changed our reservation to a resort on Whitefish Lake. The brochure looked good, the reviews were acceptable and theoretically, there were no legions of 96-year-old dust bunnies. When we arrived the place was jammed with Canadian tourists and our room with a “partial lake view”- i.e. parking lot view, overlooked 6 industrial A.C. units blasting away 24/7 even though the temperature was in the 50’s. The dark, faux slate floor looked rustic but was as sticky as flypaper as were most of the floors in the hotel. We noticed a number of guests wandering around barefoot seemingly oblivious to or contributing to the floors’ patina, Yuk!
The next day we had good weather and figured this was our window to drive into the Park to experience the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. Chiseled out of solid granite in the early 1930’s, this engineering marvel snakes its’ way along the mountains steep periphery. This year the road only opened in mid July because of snow cover and extensive damage caused by the severe winter. The alpine section of the road is passable for about three months a year. If you travel on this spectacular but narrow 50-mile long ally there are a few things to keep in mind. There are vehicle restrictions on height, length and width, there are no gas stations in the park, it can snow at anytime throughout the year, and road repair is ongoing and will cause delays. Heavy tourist traffic adds to the excitement! Acrophobic types should wear blinders to avoid seeing the miniscule “guard-rails” that are supposed to keep you from sailing over the edge and into the mystic. Rock overhangs and jutting boulders intrude unannounced into the road.
We made the slow climb up, passing waterfalls and remnant glacier chunks that threatened to fall on passing vehicles. Traffic was slow and many gawking drivers weaved into our lane adding white to Jay’s knuckles. The road was one lane for several miles and rock slides left piles of rubble along the way. After two hours, we reached 6,646 feet at Logan Pass where there is a visitor center that had an overflowing parking lot we couldn’t get into. So we turned around to head back to Whitefish.
We did see mountain goats grazing along the wildflower carpeted slopes and many glaciers along the tops of the higher mountains, but they are disappearing fast. The U.S Geological Survey predicts that due to warmer and longer summers all the glaciers could be gone by 2020. Another survey this year may adjust that timeline. Loosing the glaciers will affect the plant and animal life in the park as well as the income from tourists. Other threats to the park include logging, road expansion, development, mining and the ever-snowballing deficit to adequately take care of things like roads, wildlife management, facilities and habitat restoration. Plan your trip soon.
Back in Whitefish we took a stroll around town and spoke with several shop owners who verified the Canadian invasion. With the border only 55 miles away, the Park and local ski resort offer a convenient get away for Alberta and British Columbia vacationers. The massive wealth derived from their tar sands mining has fueled an international controversy, the proposed $13 billion Keystone PipelineXL built by Trans-Canada. This pipeline will carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels 2000 miles over watersheds and sensitive lands from Alberta to Texas where it will be refined. Another faze of this project has already started to carry oil to the mid-west. We noticed several “No Pipeline” signs around but the resort atmosphere disguised any conflict. The President will give Canada the thumbs up or down by the end of the year. The safety of people and wildlife in seven states hangs in the balance.
On our last day here we found some off road trails and continued our search for the grizzly bear, unsuccessfully. The only one we found was stuffed and standing 8 feet tall in the hotel lobby. We drove up Big Mountain to see Whitefish Mountain Resort – a standard ski resort with a good view and since the 1950’s home to a rather robust statue of Jesus. The forest service owns the land and displaying religious icons is prohibited. When the recent battle to have it removed heated up, the locals discovered the whole area is under lease by big oil and not only Jesus could bite the dust. Many in the area have been working with oil companies to retire these leases and protect the land forever and in some cases the companies have cooperated. All battles aside, international cooperation has worked before to preserve this area for future generations so we all can enjoy the real treasure here – the immense natural beauty, wildlife, pristine forests, lakes, prairies and glacier crowned peaks. Take the drive to experience the Crown of the Continent!