Glacier National Park / by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

“While standing upon that peak overlooking the terrain above the rim wall, we got

the thrill of thrills, for there lay the glacier, shriveled and shrunken from its former size,

almost senile, with its back against the mountain walls to the east of it, putting up its last

fight for life. It was still what seemed to be a lusty giant, but it was dying, dying, dying,

every score of years as it receded, it was spewing at its mouth the accumulations buried

within its bosom for centuries.”  Albert Sperry wrote these thoughts down in his

notebook when he first laid eyes on Sperry Glacier—named for his uncle, Lyman

Sperry—in 1894.  With such dramatic imagery one would expect the glacier to be little

more than a sliver of ice desperately clinging to the mountains of Montana.  In reality,

what Sperry described was a 3,237,485 square foot glacier that wrapped around three

mountain peaks.  In 2009, Sperry Glacier was a mere 874,229 square meters; less than

two-thirds of the size witnessed by Albert Sperry when he bemoaned the glacier’s “dying,

dying, dying” condition over a century ago.

        Sperry Glacier is not facing a unique problem.  Glaciers shrinking from increased

temperature and decreased precipitation have been widely reported across the globe.  In

Glacier National Park, however, the problem is compounding.  The rise in

average temperature per year is two degrees Fahrenheit: twice that of the global average.  In the

years between 2000 and 2008, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization found that the

western Montana climate experienced on average eight days more of ninety plus degree

weather a year and eight days less of zero or minus zero degree weather.  These raised

temperatures increase the rate at which glaciers melt in the summer months, and decrease

the amount of snowfall that covers and replenishes the glaciers, effectively destroying the

icy giants that shaped the Rocky Mountains themselves. Only twenty-five of the one

hundred and fifty glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in 1910 remain.

The Saturday of July 23 rd , Alexis and I spent our first day in Glacier driving the

fifty miles of the Going to the Sun Road. We settled on this activity mainly due to a lack

of parking; though we entered the Park a little after 10:00am, two of the three Visitor’s

Center’s parking lots in the Park were full. The last Visitor Center was at the other end

of Going to the Sun Road. The road was designed to be an experience in itself and

travels laterally across the Park roughly following the path of the sun: hence the name.

The road skirted around glacier formed and fed lakes and through a variety of forests as it

climbed and wound its way up and down the sides of the Rocky Mountains that make up

Glacier National Park. At times when we drove on the sides of mountains a steep rock

face would rise to one side of the road while on the other the ground perilously dropped

down thousands of feet into the valleys below. Water from melting snow and ice either

trickled down in gentle streams that stained the rocks dark or roared down in the form of

waterfalls that occasionally splashed onto our car as we drove underneath.

Snow and ice were still very present at the upper elevations of the Going to the

Sun Road, which opens in late June or early July due to snow that persists throughout the

spring months. Patches of snow and ice pepper the upper reaches of the Rocky

Mountains throughout the Park year-round, and occasionally condense into glaciers that

rest in alcoves or slopes that are shaded from the sun’s heat for most of the day. High

elevation lakes, colored with the brilliant blue hues of glacial melt water, are dotted with

small icebergs. Should you choose to cool off from a long hike up the mountain by going

for a swim, Alexis and I found that pieces of your hair will freeze solid for a minute or

two once you get out to dry off and warm up. The sensation of the water is literally

breathtaking, and it took us almost half an hour of hiking to lower, warmer elevations in

order to completely recover from the experience.

Much of our time in Glacier was spent hiking trails up and down the Rocky

Mountains. We sat in awe among colorful fields of wildflowers that poured down the

slopes of the mountains in a sea of green dotted with shades of yellow, white, purple, and

red. Small Columbian ground squirrels fearlessly rushed to shake our hands as we ate

lunch on mountain peaks, hoping to snag a tasty bite to snack on. In the evening elk,

bighorn sheep, and mountain goats came out to graze on the hillsides, completely

indifferent of their human spectators who stopped their cars in the middle of the road in

order to snap a picture. On one hike to Iceberg Lake, Alexis and I passed within five feet

of an adolescent grizzly bear that sat off the path contentedly munching on pine nuts,

barely even acknowledging our presence.

These experiences—while unique in the sense that no one experiences the exact

same thing—are shared by every person who witnesses and participates in the beauty of

Glacier National Park.

The loss of Glacier’s glaciers doesn’t just mean we lose something beautiful to

look at. During the summer months, glacier melt provides the water that fills the rivers

and streams that nourish the land below their lofty peaks. The amount of fish in the park

is dwindling due to the retreat of the glaciers and their life-giving waters. This disrupts

entire food systems, and particularly threatens one of the largest and healthiest grizzly

bear populations in in the lower forty-eight states as one of their key sources of protein

slowly but surely disappears.

National Parks are places of great natural sanctuary that protect unique

wildernesses that our nation has set aside with the intention for them to be unaltered by

man. In each Park we visit Alexis and I get a beautiful and unique look at the different

courses life takes on our planet, but a harrowing and disappointing reality check that our

goal to protect these great wildernesses is not being met. Many of our Parks stand on the

verge of great change—change brought about by the actions of humans. The problems

our Parks face will soon be our problems as well—if they cannot be considered our

problems already—but that is not to say there aren’t solutions.

National Parks across America, and indeed across the globe, are setting examples

of conservation and making headway in the fields of restoration. However, it will take

effort on the individual and the global scale to affect lasting change and ensure the

preservation of these precious natural resources.