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.)

Days 64 & 65: Wildfires

Wyoming was smoky.  Montana is smoky.

Last night, Gma’s almost-full moon glowed orange-red as it reflected fires burning in and around Glacier National Park.  Half the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, and all the sites on the west side of the park are inaccessible due to fire-suppression efforts.

Folks (locals and experts alike) are talking about this being a new “August normal.”

All of it is pretty new to me.  Back home, farmers burned fencerows, and the fires sometimes got out of control due to shifting winds, but I had no knowledge of forests catching on fire.  In retrospect, the Smokey the Bear fire prevention campaigns were kind of lost on me.  Forest fires didn’t hit close to home, figuratively or literally.  And I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone willfully starting a fire – or even being negligent enough to start one inadvertently.

When I moved to Portland, my understanding started to shift.  I saw evidence of previous burns on forested hikes and even heard of some hikers’ near-escape from a fire that shifted with the direction of the wind.  When a teenager threw a firecracker into the woods and sparked a giant fire in the Columbia Gorge last summer, Portland filled with smoke (Washington-area fires contributed as well, as smoke wafted into the valley from the north).  Finally Smokey’s message resonated with me.  The reality hung heavy in the air, bringing warnings of unsafe air quality and cancelling outdoor plans.  I can remember a period of time when my head ached from the haze in the air.  It was inescapable, permeating homes and businesses and just hanging heavy in the sky.

This summer, wildfires (megafires) are all over the news.  And I’m personally seeing them, hearing about them, smelling them, and experiencing them more directly and differently than ever before.

I listened to a program the other day in which various fire experts were interviewed, and this is how I would sum up what I learned:

  1. Many wildfires occur naturally, sparked by lightning.
  2. When humans suppress these fires, they disrupt natural cycles.*
  3. Fires are bigger today than ever before in known-history.
  4. More Americans than ever before live in areas prone to fires.*
  5. Humans cause fires too.  And climate change exacerbates them.

I starred the information that was new to me.  I was especially interested in the bit about our “encroaching” on natural wild areas.  We desire to live in beautiful, wooded places (and there are so many of us).  These areas are obviously at greater risk of wildfire, and we’re naturally more concerned with wildfires that threaten homes and other structures, so areas in the WUI (“wooey” – or wildland urban interface – where wild spaces meet human development) are of particular concern, in a way that is relatively new and modern.

It all comes full circle for me.  Wildfires weren’t a reality (or personal concern) for me before I moved to a more “wooey” place.  There are forests in Illinois, of course, but it’s alllllll the trees of Portland and the surrounding areas that called me move there – and the wild places that called me on my journey.  So, naturally, the realities of such places resonate with me in new ways when I occupy them daily.  And I’m newly fascinated by wildfire research, sparked by an employee of the Forest Service I met hiking up Mt. Shasta.  I don’t even know how we started talking about it, but he said “People are so opposed to deforestation, and they’re not giving thought to the effects that has on fire danger.”  Hmmm.  Fodder for thought indeed.

Day 63: Sleeping in the Street with Bikers

Today was shitty.  But tonight was unexpectedly lovely.

A friend in Wyoming told me he’s nervous about my hiking alone in Big Sky Country because of the grizzly bears…but I can’t just manifest hiking companions (though I’m definitely on the lookout!), and hiking is what I DO out here.  Still, he’s gotten in my head, and I’m feeling more nervous about grizzly bears than I did about rattlesnakes… So, the last few days have been mostly driving days (blech).  I’m heading to Glacier National Park, and I WILL find fellow-hikers there (update since initial writing: THREE hiking companions found and SCHEDULED!)!

On top of that, some people are just mean, and that messed up my day.

So I decided to cut my road time short and look for a spot in the national forest by afternoon…but when the only spot I found in my first 7 miles of searching had what looked to be a coyote jaw in it, alongside a bunch of mangled fur, I thought I better take my chances finding another spot up the way (cuz…grizzly bears!?).  Then, of course, I realized I was nearly out of gas…so I hurried to find the closest gas station and wound up in the tiny town of Ovando, Montana.  Google Ovando, and you’ll find it had a population of 71 people at the time of the 2000 Census.  I’m afraid the count-takers may have missed the place in 2010…and I almost missed it myself, but I needed gas, so I followed the signs and found myself at Blackfoot Commercial Company.

When I asked the gal at the check-out (Christine) for camping recommendations, she pointed me in the direction of the owner, Fred, and he said “How about that spot of grass over there?”  I laughed…but he was completely serious, so I “set up” camp in what was essentially the town square.  Nearby my “site” I saw some folks Fred told me were cycling the Great Divide Trail and introduced myself.  They invited me for drinks up the way at Trixi’s, the local “watering hole,” and I turned them down to go to bed early and read like a hermit…then reneged on that and walked with them up the way to the very country, very Montana, very small town spot.

The bartender didn’t have much use for us travelers, very evidently favoring the locals…but I felt very privileged to get to be in the company of fellow wanderers – Harry from England, Adam from Canada, Gloria and Craig/Greg from Spain and New Zealand respectively, by way of Australia.  I’m a talker, but when I find myself in the company of strangers from all walks of life and corners of the world, I ask lots of questions and soak up their knowledge and experience and cultural variety.  That’s what I did at Trixi’s – over a bottle of Big Sky Brewing’s Summer Honey, against a backdrop of mounted big game heads and locals wearing cowboy hats and sticking close to their own.

Then I slept restfully in the town square with bicyclists from all over the globe.


Days 61 & 62: Montana

Jim and I stayed up late into the night my last evening in Jackson planning the next leg of my journey.  Well, I planned; he chatted.  (Ha!)  Finally I said “You’re not very good at this planning stuff are you?”  (That was indirect for “Talk less; map more!”)  Of course, he was a good sport in the face of my razzing.

“Get ‘er done” was the theme of my Monday morning: groceries (check), laundry (check), fresh sheets (check), oil change and car wash (check, check), caffeine for the drive (check)…so I hit the road fresh and ready to go, grateful for my extended time in Jackson and with Jim.

I was eagerly apprehensive to head to Montana.  The grizzlies run wild here (unlike in Idaho and Wyoming, outside of Yellowstone), and the spaces are vast and scantily-peopled.  They’re wild in a way I haven’t really experienced alone on my journey.  And Canada will be even wilder, I expect… I’m a long ways from California; that’s for sure!

I drove through Yellowstone one more time on my way out of Wyoming (it’s the most direct route) and came into the state curious about the cloudy skies.  Was it smoke or ominous weather brewing?  Something told me to pull into a campground instead of venturing into the national forest at dusk…and I was right to listen to that voice because the rain started just as I popped up my tent – and my first night in Montana marked my first night camping in a thunderstorm.  It was scary for a bit…but the storm passed in less than an hour and I slept cold but soundly to the tapping of raindrops on my “roof.”  I can’t help but think rain is a very good thing up here right now, what with all the fires.  Thunder and lightning not so much, of course…

I wanted to catch-up on writing, so I made it as far as Bozeman this morning and settled in at a coffee shop.  I complimented a woman’s shirt (it reminded me of something my mom would wear), and before I knew it, Marj was sitting at my table and we were talking about all the things – travel and family, her rocky marriage and my journey – then next thing I knew we were planning to meet for dinner.  She treated me to BBQ at a local place – Copper (one of Montana’s nicknames is “Treasure State” because of its rich mineral deposits and extensive mining history) – and we spent the evening soaking in each other’s company, both knowing we’d probably never see one another again.  She actually thanked me for helping her make sense of some things…and we agreed we were meant to connect in that coffee shop.

Came “home” from dinner to the most beautiful sunset behind the mountains above my campsite.  It got me thinking about the enormity of the Universe and the tininess of me.  That same sun has risen and set over those mountains day after day after day for more time than I can even begin to fathom.  Regardless of me, regardless of you, regardless of any of us, it is constant.  It’s at once the same and different every day, and tonight, it really struck me.

These are the experiences that come from slowing down.