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.