The Seattle Times

Low-graphic news index | Mobile site

Sunday, April 29, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

See the glaciers while they last

By Stephen P. Nash
The New York Times

The hikes and the huckleberries drew me to Glacier National Park, but most of all I wanted to see 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 in the Montana park. Its skein of well-maintained trails traverses every section of its million-plus acres 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 mountain route 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. These are glacier excursions that require ice ax, ropes or crampons: the well-sequestered Pumpelly Glacier, for example, at 8,420 feet, and its close neighbor, 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. A couple of miles into the hike last summer, as the trail opened into a valley, the Sexton Glacier came into view: a massive, ragged smear of snow-laden ice, perched just under the saw-toothed granite skyline.

As the trail continued, the bottom edge of Sexton became visible — a violent crumble, broken loose by gravity and temperature. Glaciers are forceful, slow-flowing rivers of ice. With binoculars, I could see Sexton's thickness and true magnitude.

As I pushed ahead, a graying volunteer ranger approached me at a nimble gait. He was a veteran of decades here, it turned out. We craned our necks up at the still-formidable Sexton, and he said that it had once looked far larger to him. I read later that it has, in fact, lost at least 30 percent of its surface area since the mid-1960s. The most recent report has Sexton at 68 acres.

I moved on, ascending the switchbacks that pull the Siyeh trail up toward the 8,000-foot pass. I was well above tree line by now, and only a few peaks away from the Canadian border. Not far off, out on the moraines, a quartet of mountain goats appeared, munching and then settling.

A good idea. I was tired, too.

The Siyeh Pass Trail can either be an extended loop or a somewhat shorter out and back of about 11 miles — the option I chose. As I headed back down into the valley it wasn't much of a stretch to think of the looming Sexton as alive. The pressure of the glaciers' weight causes the ice to flow forward over the landscape; colder temperatures allow for a buildup of ice, which speeds up the flow. Heat — a warmer day, season or era — is the competing force, and the glaciers ebb. That movement is a defining feature, part of what makes glaciers distinct from your more prosaic all-year patches of snow and ice. (There are several measures of what size qualifies as a glacier. One generally accepted rule of thumb is that they are a minimum of 25 acres in size.)

Climate change

Earlier, 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.

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.

Vintage buses and lodges

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 1930s. 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 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 supercheap motel with a mostly youthful clientele who like the clean, spare single rooms for $30 a night.

My favorite 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).

When my wonderful claw-foot tub leaked onto the occupants of the room below, the two repair-crew guys who showed up grinned and shrugged after some futile work: That's kind of the way this place is, they said. The only other available room was infested with bats, and smelled like it, I was told. It was a great stay, just the same.

Boat and foot to a glacier

The Many Glacier Hotel is also the start of one of the park's most popular hikes, to Grinnell Glacier. The 8- or 10-mile 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 — a trim 45-foot boat, built locally and hauled up here somehow 50 years ago — for a quick trip over Swiftcurrent Lake. Then came a short walk to another boat, the even older Morning Eagle, across Lake Josephine to the trailhead. The boat 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 quarter-mile 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 byproduct 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 windblown 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.

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

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

Low-graphic news index
E-mail us
Search archive
RSS feeds
Graphic-enabled home page
Mobile site

Copyright © 2010 The Seattle Times Company