At 7,000 feet, it’s hard to say what burned more, my legs or my lungs. But my eyes and mind were rewarded with the vistas of majestic snow dusted peaks, big horn sheep, mountain goats and the turquois pools of glacier fed lakes. At the end of the 3.8 mile journey up the side of the mountain lies Grinnell, Salamander and Gem Glaciers. For most of the hike Salamander and Gem Glaciers can be seen and add to the drama of the peaks. However, Grinnell Glacier now rests in a bowl or hanging garden that can only be seen by hiking to the very end of the steep, rocky trail.
The first time I hiked to this amazing place was in 1981 when I was 10 years old. I sat on the glacier and shivered in my thin cotton t-shirt and jeans. At that time you could still hike out on the glacier and it was about 20% larger than what it is today. As the human population continues to expand, so does our impact on all aspects of the natural world; glaciers are part of that. Between 1966 and 2006, Grinnell Glacier has shrank 40% from what it was in the 1850’s when it was first discovered and measured by George Bird Grinnell. When G.B. Grinnell first recorded it, the glacier covered about 710 acres and now it covered only 220 acres. As I crested the hill to see my old friend, I could see the remarkable diminished difference in the size and shape of the glacier.
I had hiked this trail once again in 2004, but turned back after seeing a wolverine. I didn’t know it then, but seeing this amazing creature is something only a few people have ever had the privilege of seeing. Wolverines are elusive and well camouflaged against the rocks of the valley and do most of their hunting in the evening. I know now that the valley where Grinnell Glacier resides is one of the most important habitats for the remaining 500 or so wolverines that live in the lower 48 states.
Like many of the animals and fish that live in and around Glacier National Park, the wolverines are dependent on cold, snowy winters with a slow, gradual thawing in the spring. When things thaw too quickly, the water rushes away from the snow fields instead of slowly soaking into the ground to allow for the plants to be healthy and bloom when they should. It is a delicate balance in the land of the mighty glaciers and one that we can all do something to prevent when we take the time to reduce our personal carbon footprint.
Hiking down is harder on me as I get older, and is something I have to put my entire focus into. On this day I really wanted to catch the 4:15 pm boat that shaves off an additional 2 mile hike back to the Many Glacier Hotel. But as I rounded the corner of the red rocks at about mile 2 coming down from the glacier, I could see the boat arriving at the dock and knew I would have to hustle to even make the 5:15 pm boat.
Sitting on the hard wood benches of the Morning Eagle tour boat that was built in 1930-something feels wonderful after hiking 8 miles straight up and down. I sat among 35 other people, and I was proud to be one of only a few that had made the full hike. Then, as if the valley wanted to give me one last reward for my efforts, I spotted a black bear and her cubs playing on the slopes above the lake. I hope I will return to the valley again and again for the rest of my life. But I have to acknowledge that at our current rate of global climate change, the glacier will be gone in my lifetime and so then will the delicate balance of all the wildlife it supports. I hope we can change that and will work to do all I can.
Here are some ways you can reduce you’re carbon foot print that contributes to climate change:
Remember- it all adds up and does make a difference. The glaciers, wolverines, bears, fish, big horn sheep and moose all need us.
For more information about wolverines read: The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick
For more information about glaciers read: The Melting World, by Christopher White