Days 69-72: Glaciers & Grizzlies

I didn’t meet anyone and spend considerable amounts of time with them at Glacier National Park (though my wandering Californian neighbors at camp were quite friendly and interesting), so my looking back on my time feels a little more…journalistic perhaps – investigative rather than emotional (Rory Gilmore-esque).  And – I’ve gotta say – I love the learning I’m getting to do out here, particularly the interest I’ve taken in topics I’d never known would appeal to me – glaciation and grizzly bears, for instance.  (I knew I was coming out here to learn about myself; I had no idea how much other knowledge I’d gain!)  Here’s some of what I learned and observed in my time at Glacier.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road runs east and west through the park.  Completed in 1933, the so called “Transmountain Highway” took two decades to plan and construct.  The challenges of building a road across the Continental Divide, through two sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains, made the project an engineering feat, the finished product a marvel of the early 20th Century.  It also enabled ordinary people to visit the park, while previously only the moneyed could afford the train ride and chalet stays required to reach its backcountry spaces.

(Unfortunately, only 17 of the 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road were open during my visit.  The western side of the park was closed due to wildfires.)

The park got its name not from the current glaciers that dot its landscape (as I had thought, since people have said “Soon enough the namesake glaciers will all be melted…”) but from the glaciation that centuries ago created the geological variations that make the landscape extraordinary.  Glaciers are bodies of snow and ice big and heavy enough to move under their own weight and change the shape of the earth beneath them.  After the most recent glacial period – the Little Ice Age, which ended in 1850 – temperatures began rising and glaciers began to retreat.  When the park opened in 1910, it contained 150 glaciers.  Today, only 25 remain, and they are quickly retreating into icefields, large deposits of snow not massive enough to impact geography.  Experts predict that if temperatures continue to rise at current rates, the remaining glaciers will disappear within a decade.

The concern with the disappearance of the glaciers isn’t just the loss of the feature – from Glacier or from anywhere else on the planet – but the impact on the ecology of the surrounding areas.  In brief, 1. glaciers provide a source of water for streams and rivers.  They also help regulate the temperature of these waterways, and their disappearance may impact species who live in and rely on such.  And this isn’t just a concern for wildlife; glaciers also provide a source of drinking and irrigation water for human populations nearby.  Additionally, 2. glacial melt is causing the treeline to rise on mountains, changing not only the landscape but the ecosystem for animals living in higher elevations.  3. Warmer temperatures contributing to the glacial melt can be of benefit to invasive insect populations that threaten forest lands.  Also, 4. earlier snowpack melting can increase fire risk, with fires further impacting the landscape and contributing to higher temps.  (Most of this I learned in the park, from reading signs; I also referenced this USGS article.)

Three times during my visit I encountered trails closed because of “bear activity.”  When I met a ranger en route to one of the trails, I asked her how they determine a trail needs to be closed.  In this case, a sow (a mama bear) had killed some sort of wildlife nearby – a mountain goat or bighorn sheep –  and left the carcass to return to with her cubs.  Bears are typically only aggressive toward humans when they 1. are startled or taken by surprise, 2. feel protective of their cubs, or 3. sense a threat to their food source.  Officials closed this trail to prevent people from walking near the carcass, potentially prompting the bear to attack to defend her food supply.

I set out on a hike my last day in the park and met four wide-eyed fellow hikers within the first quarter mile, exiting the trail because they’d spotted a mama bear and her cubs.  They were certain they were grizzlies and advised me to turn around as well.  I decided to go ahead cautiously (and loudly) and learned from some less frantic hikers along the way that the bears were black not grizzly.  They’d decided to forgo their hike as well, but generally black bears are less dangerous than grizzlies, so I forged ahead, making lots of noise.  It wasn’t until I heard of another spotting in a 2-mile stretch that my stomach got uneasy and I turned around.  On my return, I did meet a couple of park rangers heading out with stun guns, so there was certainly a heightened awareness and diligence all around.

Grizzlies have long been and continue to be a topic for public discussion and debate.  At one point, they were hunted to near extinction.  In years since, conservation efforts have resulted in population re-growth, though various states have differing perspectives on and approaches to the bears.  The precipitating factor seems to be human encroachment on bear territory: are bears threats to people and/or livestock and how should they be approached accordingly?

It reminds me of an interaction I had early on in my journey.  I was hiking through a boggy grassland area and a couple ahead of me turned to ask “Did you walk through all those snakes?”  Not that I saw…but this is their habitat, you know; we are just visitors here.  Like snakes, I prefer to keep the bears at a distance…but the wild is their home.  Similarly, a discussion came about in my neighborhood back in Portland: what are we going to do about all these coyotes in the area?  I greatly appreciated the perspective of the most reasonable of many contributors: we’re going to leave them alone.  They were here first.  Perhaps we should consider them when we build our homes in their environment.  Really, who do we think we are? 

We’re an interesting lot, humans.  I’m more and more convinced every day there are way too many of us and we have much too great an impact on the planet we inhabit.  (By the way, I know that climate change isn’t entirely human-caused.  There are also long-time trends at work here.  We are a tiny speck on the timeline of earth’s history.  Still, it’s undeniable we are impacting the condition of the planet and the air with our presence and technologies, as well as our ceaseless extracting of resources from the land.  This is what concerns me.)


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