Friday 12 July 2019

Glaciers and the Red Bus in Montana, USA

In 2009 I took my first-ever trip to the USA, courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism and Virgin Australia. My resulting newspaper article about a visit to Glacier National Park never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

Everything about Montana is big, from the towering Rocky Mountains in its west to the sprawling plains of the east.

And up the top of its “big” list are the glaciers and peaks of Glacier National Park, a spectacular spread of craggy mountains, glacial lakes and huge chunks of ancient ice nestled between them.

“It’s incredible to first timers,” says our driver and tour guide Jana Grindheim. “People don’t know about Glacier, it’s not as famous as Yellowstone. But it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen, and they’re just amazed at the mountains.”

As we progress into the park past the waters of Lake McDonald I begin to see what Jana means, via glimpses of enormous sharp-edged peaks to the northeast. The evocatively-named Going-to-the-Sun Road may be flat and spacious now, but soon it’ll be transporting us upward, past rugged mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Though its namesake glaciers are shrinking as the climate changes, those that remain are diverse and magnificent, especially within the Many Glacier Valley in the park’s east.

However, the mountain scenery alone is sensational enough to prompt a visit, and we’ll be getting a full dose of it as we traverse the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar to St Mary.

The road is a story in itself, an epic construction project completed in 1933.

It borrows its name from a mountain along its route, named from a Native American Blackfeet legend about a deity who came from the sun and taught them how to hunt, then returned home after leaving his image on the slopes.

We’ll be hugging the narrow road in a vehicle that’s a tourist attraction in its own right, one of the park’s fleet of Red Buses. These bright red open-topped vehicles, resembling an extended car with a fold-back roof, each hold 17 people and have been used for tours of the park since the mid-1930s.

With its sleek lines and a radiator grille that looks like it was swiped from an art deco limousine, our Red Bus is a very stylish way to explore Glacier. On top of all that, Glacier is the only national park to still be operating these classic vehicles, as other parks retired their fleets decades ago (take that, Yellowstone).

The Red Bus drivers are a special breed are known as “jammers”, a name inherited from the days when the gears of the vehicles would grind and jam as they hauled their passengers up the slopes.

Our jammer for the day, Jana, is fond of her daily grind. “I get to drive on the beautiful red buses that everybody loves,” she says, “And I get to see Glacier National Park, the most beautiful place in the world, every day.”

Sounds like a recipe for job satisfaction to me. And as we pass beyond Avalanche Creek and its picturesque boardwalk through the cedars, the landscape opens up, we begin to climb, and I see what she loves about the place.

For it is grand - there’s no other word for it. Beyond the cedar forest the mountain slopes stretch high above us, bare and craggy as they reach sharply defined peaks, tinged purple in the midday heat.

The most startling formation is the Garden Wall, a long narrow ridge of sharp, rocky projections streaked with horizontal bands of colour. It’s so narrow that in places it would be possible to sit astride it, with legs dangling along each slope.

There are also signs of how powerful Dame Nature can be when she rubs her hands and gets down to work. Pausing the bus, Jana points out a massive trail of damage down the slope above us, where dozens of trees lie fallen.

This was the work of a mighty avalanche that plummeted through some time during winter, blocking the road; because it’s closed during the icy months, no-one saw it happen.

To the west is the beautiful Heavens Peak, at 2739 metres one of the higher mountains in the park, with a dusting of snow despite the Indian Summer warmth.

We’re reminded again of the park’s lofty snow and ice as we pass the Weeping Wall, a section of rock constantly flowing with run-off from the glaciers above.

Finally, having passed a profusion of impressive peaks and peered down into distant tree-lined valleys, trying to not think too hard about the tiny stone wall stopping errant vehicles from plunging to their doom, we arrive at Logan Pass.

It’s the highest point on the road and a natural spot for a break, with its visitor centre and sign marking the location of the Continental Divide, which runs right through the park. A geographical curiosity, this line divides North America into two sections from which all water flows downhill toward either the Pacific or the Atlantic, depending on which side it falls.

Logan Pass is also a rest stop along the park’s numerous hiking trails. While the rest of our group troops off to have a look at the neighbourhood, I linger by the bus to ask Jana about hiking. Being Australian, however, I’d be a little nervous about the idea of encountering bears along the way. Has she ever seen any?

“Oh yeah,” she says casually. “In the Many Glacier Valley, just over these mountains, there are a lot of grizzly bears. By the Many Glacier Hotel you can see them, not ten feet away.”

I’d rather be viewing them from a bit further away than three metres, but Jana is reassuring. “I’ve never had any dangerous situations with bears. Usually when you see them they don’t care about you, unless you scare them.”

Making a mental note not to scare any bears, I return to the topic of hiking. Does she have a favourite walk?

“I have several,” she nods. “There’s one, Gunsight Path, which is a 20 mile hike with a backpack. It’s incredible. You hike up past lakes, snowfields, waterfalls, and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. It looks like an infinity pool, dropping off the edge of the earth.

"You also have an option to continue to a glacier. The other one you can do from here is the Floral Park hike, and you walk across Sperry Glacier on the way. There are rivers and crevasses and it’s amazing.”

It’s almost an anticlimax to get back into our old Red Bus and drive east for the descent to St Mary, sighting the Jackson Glacier as we go.

But I do get a small adrenaline rush when we briefly leave the bus to walk through the trees to look at the tiny Wild Goose Island in the middle of St Mary Lake.

We might see a bear, I imagine. But we don’t, not even a small one.

As we head out of Glacier, I discover that Jana is on her way out as well.

“My husband and I fell in love with the park the first time we came here but now we’re joining the Peace Corps, and we’ve got one last hurrah with the mountains.”

Will she miss being a jammer?

“Yeah,” she says firmly. “Best job in the park. Best job in the world.”

For details of the Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, click here.

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