From August 3-7, Programs Coordinator Megan Van Loh participated in Climate Ride’s Climate Hike through Glacier National Park, hiking 43 miles through the park’s iconic – and threatened – environment. This reflection is based on her journal.
“If Glacier leaves you speechless, speak up.” This was said to us on our first night in camp by a passionate man who had over 30 years of experience working with initiatives involving the preservation of Glacier National Park’s 1 million acres, and the area surrounding it. The Crown of the Continent, which totals 10 million acres, represents the largest intact ecosystem in the country. This was where I embarked on a 5-day Climate Hike with 22 other people from around the country. I was looking forward to seeing the beauty of nature in the mountains, bearing witness to the effects of climate change on the glaciers, and challenging my body. While all those things did happen, it was the inspiration I gained from my fellow hikers that has given me renewed motivation to work on this issue.
The longest hike of the week was a 16-mile trek from Logan’s Pass along the Highline Trail through Swiftcurrent Pass onto Many Glacier. This day I started by wearing 4 layers, gloves, and a hood to block the cold wind blowing on us at the Continental Divide at 6,646 ft. After hiking along the Garden Wall through waterfalls, wildflowers, and epic mountain vistas, we finally emerged out of the shade of the mountain wall and into the sun, where we began to shed layers. We had to keep up a pace of at least 2 miles an hour in order to finish at a reasonable time.
The sustained work of putting one foot in front of the other started to feel like second nature, and conversations with the hikers became my focus. I learned of the many places around the country where people worked and lived, and what brought them on Climate Hike. From D.C. to Chicago, Dallas to Missoula, conversation flowed, and it was quickly clear to me that these were like-minded people who had a passion for the environment I could relate to. “I feel like I’m in a National Geographic documentary!” exclaimed a hiker. This sentiment is exactly how I felt the entire time. It was as if I had to constantly pinch myself to remind myself this was real life. By the end of the day, after seeing such diverse terrain that ended in clear lakes and waterfalls, with a moose sighting, I rested my tired feet and gained my energy back with a delicious dinner and music session by the fire.
Being used to the blue colored lakes of Minnesota, it was quite a change to see on our hike the next day the magnificent green, teal, and turquoise-colored lakes. We started our day with a bear sighting of a mother and two cubs playing in the water. We were able to see them from a ridge at a safe distance, which is the best way to view wildlife. I had always known the term, “Wild West,” but it was not until my time in Glacier that I truly understood what it meant. We as humans were guests in the animals’ home and had to respect it. “Leave No Trace” was in full force, and finding a durable surface on which to relieve ourselves was key. Some people in our group ended up picking up some pistachio shells we saw someone deliberately throw on the ground after eating them.
Entering such a wild, wonderful place, you have to be conscious of leaving it the way it was when you came. Glacier had 1 million visitors last year, and is expected to double that in attendance this year. You can imagine the impact humans have on the ecosystem if these practices are not taken seriously, and I wanted to make sure the bighorn sheep and bears we encountered, as well as the plants and rocks, were left undisturbed so the next generations can experience as beautiful a place as I was able to see.
Sadly, one part of the park I know will not remain untouched is the glaciers. Around 150 glaciers were present when the park was established in 1910, and now there are considered to be only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remaining due to climate change. Some of the park’s largest glaciers are predicted to completely vanish by 2030. Pushing my body up the mountain with the help of hiking poles on our third day, we passed Lower Grinnell Lake with the most brilliant turquoise color, and learned that this lake used to be a glacier. There was no evidence of that on this day, because its transition to a lake happened years ago.
We kept climbing upward and encountered Grinnell Glacier, one of the last remaining glaciers in the park. At first sight I was almost brought to tears by its beauty. We had hiked 6 miles almost completely upward to find cavernous rocks with the grandness of a cathedral as a backdrop to this enormous glacier, the majority of which has melted to form a lake.
The lake had large chunks of ice and snow floating in it, and we stopped to take in the sights for our lunch break. Some brave hikers on our trip jumped in the 42-degree water and we watched some bighorn sheep pass around us. I knew the view of this glacier on an afternoon of an early August day in 2016 would be much different than the view others may see even in the next 10-15 years. It was this moment on the trip that I knew I was a witness, and felt the responsibility that comes along with that. It struck me that no matter all the work we were doing to consciously “Leave No Trace” in the park while we were there, we as humans are leaving a trace on this planet by consuming its resources and emitting waste in an unsustainable way. After witnessing this sight, I felt an even deeper desire to share what I have seen with others who may not be able to see it before it’s gone, and work hard to make our world a more sustainable place.
On our last night in camp, sitting around the fire listening to the 22 hikers talk about their experiences and the gratitude they felt for the important work we all were doing, it was evident to me the cornerstone to success in preserving our common home is to work TOGETHER. The inspiration I felt from everyone who convened together in Glacier National Park, to bear witness to the changes, will be a long lasting feeling providing fuel for my future work. My notions going into the trip of being changed and motivated by the landscape still ring true, but it is the people who make the place, and I was honored to be counted among them.