11 May 2010


On this day in 1910, Glacier became the eighth member of the National Park System. The movement to set aside areas of wilderness and natural beauty is well-documented in Ken Burns' series The National Parks: America's Best Idea. It was a bold venture, initiated by President Ulysses S. Grant when he proposed Yellowstone, the nation's first national park. The concept started a global trend. Currently there are 58 U.S. National Parks, along with numerous national military parks, historic parks, lakeshores, monuments, recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, and nature preserves.

Glacier Park is unique -- together with Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park is the first of its kind in the world. Both sites are listed as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, and their union is a World Heritage Site.

Encompassing over 1 million acres, Glacier spans both sides of the continental divide. To the east of the Divide rainfall and glacial melt drain east and south into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, thence to the Gulf of Mexico -- or, at Triple Divide Peak, east and north into the Saskatchawan River to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. (Montana is the only state in which this tripartite drainage occurs.) To the west, rivers run into the Columbia River basin and on to the Pacific Ocean. Glacier's natural habitats range from prairie, to alpine forests and lakes, to tundra. It is home to over 1100 plant species, 260 species of birds, and 54 species of mammals. It's signature U-shaped valleys flanked by rugged granite mountains were carved by the glaciers of the most recent ice age.

The remnant, eponymous glaciers have been shrinking drastically in recent decades. In my boyhood they numbered in the dozens, and were easily visible from one of the world's most spectacular scenic drives, Going To The Sun Road. Now, due to global warming, the size and numbers of intact glaciers are dwindling.

In the summer of 1962 I was one of a group of teenagers who set out on a week-long, 50 mile hike through the back country of Glacier (one of many camping trips into the Park during my youth). We waded icy glacier-fed streams, paused at mountain passes to behold heart-stopping views seen by few others, and encountered a sampling of Glacier's wildlife -- mountain goats, grizzly bears, Canadian Lynx, and more. And, we traversed one of the smaller glaciers in the park, at a spot where one misstep would send the hiker sliding inexorably down a steep snow-and-ice slope into the frigid waters of the lake below.

Since those days I've traveled the continent, and enjoyed many other national parks. Glacier will always remain among my three favorites -- the centerpiece in the "Crown of the Continent" ecosystem. (Click on images to enlarge.)

No comments:

Post a Comment