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Icons of Glacier

Friday, 14 July 2023

Over the years, certain events have emerged as icons linked to a given National Park: Think bouncing on the back of a mule carrying you into the Grand Canyon. Or feeling the wind on your face (and roaring in your ears) as your airboat glides across the River of Grass that forms much of the Everglades. Or watching the water spew out of the ground, like clockwork, at Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

Glacier has an icon of its own: the fleet of Red Buses that have taken hundreds of thousands of visitors past peaks and glaciers, by lakes and waterfalls, for over 80 years.

In the early days of the National Parks, before private autos became ubiquitous, people needed public transportation to reach the wonders of their landscapes. In the late 1930s, the NPS bought a fleet of touring cars from the White Motor Company to shuttle visitors around seven parks - Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, and a fleet to take visitors from Cedar City UT to Zion, Grand Canyon's north rim, Bryce Canyon, and Cedar Breaks. Within a few years, people found that navigating the parks in their own auto worked much better, and most of the coaches were sold off. In Glacier, though, the difficulty of driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road ensured the continued popularity of the Red Bus tour.

My tour started at St. Mary's Lodge at 10:00. Three busses pulled up, and after quick negotiations with the drivers, they bumped me from the second bus to the first in line. Since the day promised warm temperatures, Frank (my new driver) started by getting help to unroll the canvas top of the bus. We'd go open air!

No simple bus ride here. The itinerary included multiple stops, letting the 17 passengers stretch their legs with short strolls to various viewpoints.

The views were both impressive and disappointing. Yesterday, according to Frank, the morning had been clear and rain came in the afternoon. Today, though, the smoke from the Canadian wildfires had moved in, cutting visibility and obscuring the distant peaks.

I could remember crystalline views interspersed with clouds from my prior visit in 2010, and rued missing a repeat.

The second stop gave us a view of a hazy Jackson Glacier. Said Frank, "In 1850, up to 150 glaciers graced this region. Now, the USGS says there are 25 glaciers left in the park. Officially, it has to spread over 25 acres or more, be at least 100' deep, and move to be a glacier. Anything else is just a snowfield."

(NOTE: I took this shot in 2010. Much better than the 2023 version.)

As we proceeded up the road, Frank continued his patter. "Do you notice the patterns of light and dark green on the slopes? The dark green is evergreen forests. The light patches are avalanche chutes. They may have had trees, but avalanches knocked them down, and now they're covered by low plants."

He told us about the terrain and the people who settled here. "There's something for everyone here. Hiking, paddling, fishing, bird-watching - they all attract people. One thing you DON'T want to do here is rock climbing." He chuckled, "I know it looks like a great place for it, but don't believe it. There were a couple of men here several years ago, very experienced rock climbers, and they saw awesome possibilities for great climbing. They knew better, but their passion for the sport overrode their common sense. See, places you always hear about - like Yosemite's Half Dome - are great climbing spots because they're granite, a good hard rock. The mountains here are limestone, a very soft rock. Well, they went out climbing, hammered in their spikes, but the spikes didn't hold. Both of them fell and died."

As he guided the auto up to the pass, he mentioned his backstory. "This is my first year doing this, and I love it. My wife and I came here last summer, and came away enamored of the area. When I saw the job posting for this season, I knew I had to apply. We live in New Jersey, where I work as an EMT part of the year. I tried to get my wife to join me, but she didn't want to leave the East Coast. So I'll see her again in September, when the park closes the road and idles the busses for another winter."

As we neared Logan Pass, we passed a few thin waterfalls cascading off the slopes and under the road - one even splashed us as he drove by.

At a few points traffic would pause for scenery or wildlife - and we would pop up in our open-air coach and shoot pictures before the bus could move again.

"This section of road can get more than 80' of snow a year," Frank informed us just shy of the top. "It takes ten weeks for the park to clear the road, even though the plows can move four thousand tons of snow an hour. You may have noticed the road doesn't have any guardrails. They tried them at one point, but avalanches would wipe them out every winter."

At the summit (6646' above sea level), he parked and gave us 20-30 minutes to look around the Visitor Center. After collecting my passport stamp, I wandered a few yards up the trail to Hidden Lake, remembering the eye-popping scene

from my prior trip. With little time, I quickly turned back. On the way back, a squirrel posed for a photo, hoping for a handout. (Not from me, definitely.)

As we started heading down to Lake McDonald, Frank picked up his patter. "The slope here is steep enough that the buses have to use a low gear. For many years, the buses had manual transmissions with unsynchronized gears, so drivers would have to double-clutch and then jam the tranny into gear. From that, the buses -and the drivers! - got nicknamed Red Jammers, a name still used today."

He mentioned that while the bodies are the original White auto bodies from the 1930s, the park has upgraded the engines, switched to automatic transmissions, converted to use propane or gas, and replaced the chassis.

Frank pulled over - as do all drivers - where he could, to let traffic bottling up behind him get by. While idling, he talked about the creation of Going-To-The-Sun Road. "When Stephen Mather first decided they needed a road linking the east and west sides of the park, he asked the Park Service's chief engineer George Goodwin to develop a plan. Goodwin envisioned a road that ended with fifteen switchbacks and an 8% grade to reach Logan Pass from the west. Mather hated the idea - derided it as looking like a road to a mining camp.

"About the same time, a low-level draftsman named Thomas Vint submitted a plan that eliminated the switchbacks, albeit at a greater cost. Mather loved it. A little problem - Vint had submitted the plan without notifying Goodwin, his boss's boss's boss. Not a smooth move! In the end, Goodwin resigned and Vint went on to a noted career in the NPS.

"Construction of Vint's vision began in 1924 and took eight years, with an official dedication in 1933. However, parts remained gravel until they paved the last stretch in 1958."

At Lake McDonald, Frank gave us over an hour to get lunch and stretch our legs. After visiting the pizza/salad buffet, I spent my time wandering through the lodge

and strolling the lakeshore. People milled about, enjoying the weather,

and the smoke didn't seem quite as bad as on the east side.

As we returned back to Logan Pass, Frank delved into the history of the National Parks. "The early years of parks saw very little management. Few parks had any tourist facilities. Stephen Mather, a businessman who made his fortune with 20 Mule Team Borax, was interested in conservation and had visited several parks, but railed against the conditions there. He wrote letters to the Secretary of the Interior, complaining about it. It so happened that the secretary was a former classmate from the University of California named... oh, what was his name... I know this..."

Should I help him out? Sure. "Franklin Lane."

"Yes! Franklin K. Lane." Frank chuckled, adding, "Someone just won a free snack. Yes, Lane wrote back to Mather, saying, 'If you don't like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself.' And he did, coming to D.C. to lobby for the creation of the NPS and becoming its first director.

"Glacier was one of the earliest parks, so Mather gave it a lot of attention. Over the years, the railroads had built facilities in the parks to help them bring tourists in. Mather decreed that many of those structures must be removed. He told Burlington Northern to get rid of a lumber mill they had built, but they kept putting him off. Eventually he settled matters himself. For his daughter's birthday party, he requisitioned a load of dynamite and made the lumber mill the centerpiece of a fireworks show!"

Coming down the east side of Logan Pass, we got caught in a traffic snarl caused by two mountain goats crossing the road.

They showed no fear, and took their time moving on. While we watched, he talked about the park staff. "I camp here in an RV, which I share with a couple of other drivers. One of them retired from a career as a commander in the Coast Guard; the other one is a professor at a small college a few hours east of here. The drivers are a very diverse group!"

Further down, Frank stopped for one more short walk to one of his favorite overlooks. The scene wowed us, and my legs appreciated the chance to stretch out.

From there, it was a few more minutes back to the cars, and the end of a delightful tour. But since the clock had not yet hit 5:00, I took the time to drive back up to Logan Pass, and check out a mile of the Highline Trail.

The trail enticed me.

The NPS had carved out a trail slightly above the road, running along the Grden Wall escarpment. I followed it a short distance through lush bushes and groundcover, stopping where it entered a cliffside stretch.

On my way back, I had a close encounter with a family of mountain goats, two adults and two kids. Seeing wildlife up close (and making sure not to disturb them) adds a whole new dimension to time in the wilderness.


For a sample of how the smoke debased the day's photography, here are a few more shots of my 2010 trip here.

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