I know, what's new about that?
In our case, it was the specifics of how glaciers are formed. The kids and I were studying subalpine, alpine & tundra biomes for school. First, I gave them my standard preface to all scientific explanations: "I don't know exactly - we'll have to learn more about it together." (Sometimes I do know, but I want to encourage a spirit of inquisitiveness & their enthusiasm for finding their own answers. Other times, I hesitate in order to avoid giving them erroneous or incomplete information. And, perhaps most often, I really don't know.) But, this time I went a little further because the answer seemed snow-crystal clear.
Drawing on my extensive knowledge of such things (based on a lifetime spent as a sea-level Texan), I surmised that glaciers are made of ice & that the ice had once been snow. Basically, the snowflakes continue to pile up until their cumulative weight, plus a process of melting and refreezing, makes them fuse together. This occurs over such long periods of time that the effect produces a permanent, slow-moving, gigantic ice cube.
With a great guffaw, Chris stopped me cold. He informed us that not only was my explanation incorrect, it was woefully simplistic. The girls turned expectantly for his mind-bogglingly complex, extremely technical truth-telling. Suddenly, a paramount work request demanded his immediate attention. But, he assured them, he'd set us straight later. For now, they'd simply have to make due with the cold shoulder. In the weeks that followed, Dad's sense of urgency to break the ice-lock & provide us with a definitive answer had all of the expediency of glacial drift.
But, all of that was soon forgotten -- when we finally arrived at Glacier National Park & got distracted by the purple mountains' majesty we'd always sung so much about. We started at the Apgar Visitor Center where M&K had a lengthy chat with ranger volunteers, riddling them with questions about 1) What were they personally doing to stop the spread of pine beetles? 2) Was the Junior Rangers program really just a front for George Bush's Iraq "additional troops" draft strategy? and 3) In which campgrounds could they guarantee that we'd be able to hang out with grizzlies after hours?
That done, we took a hike (just as those nice folks suggested). We had the stony shores of Lake McDonald all to ourselves and we skipped worn-smooth river rocks atop its fantastically clear, true-blue turquoise waters.
We then began the 52 mile drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road, stopping every few feet (ok, that's an exaggeration - make that, every few yards) for the next even-more-amazing turnout view, thunderous waterfall or gorge-ous hike.
By midday, we tramped to the Trail of the Cedars boardwalk and continued on to Avalanche Lake, where four waterfalls tumble into its spectacular basin. It was both our favorite & our most depressing hike in all of Glacier. Near the trailhead, the towering cedars and hemlocks are imposing & impressive, plus there are wonderful views of Avalanche Creek which keeps mossy-green, gurgling company all the way. But, as the rangers warned, the trees start to sicken. Eventually, the woods are permeated with sunlight that glares down upon blackened & splintered stands of whitebark pines and the fallen remains of several other species. A variety of factors have contributed to their demise, but the most significant is man-made global warming which has irreparably damaged ecosystems along the entire chain of the Rockies. At once, we felt how lucky we were to see GNP while much of its beauty was still intact, but we were also overwhelmed with sadness at the realization of what is to come & how very devastating it will be - not only for scenic or selfishly human concerns, but for the many animals, especially the black bears & grizzlies, Clark's nutcrackers, blue grouses and red squirrels, that depend on the gnarly whitebark's annual nut crop to make it through the winters. Surprisingly, as we climbed to the lake, the foliage seemed to recover and actually became tropical-looking, ferny & lush. We gladly took the visual and mental respite it permitted (if we didn't think too hard about why elephant ear-type plants were growing 4,000 feet up) & enjoyed allowing the view, instead of the elevation gains, take our breath away. We camped that night in a campground reduced to waist or shoulder-high shrubs with a view across Saint Mary Lake of wildfire-scorched forest.
Glacier National Park's land was originally home to the Blackfeet Nation, the Kootenai and the Bitterroot Salish who called this sacred place "the backbone of the world." There are numerous magnificent waterfalls, such as Bird Woman Falls and Running Eagle "trick" Falls, and we learned their mystical legends. When the Going-to-the-Sun highway officially ends, you leave the park's boundary and travel a more pastoral, but equally beautiful & much less crowded, road through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to reenter in the Many Glacier section further north. As its name suggests, it is the area with the highest concentration of glaciers. (Although, again, the effects of climate change are drastic. In 1850, GNP had an estimated 150 glaciers. A Sierra Club article reported the number had dropped to 35 by 2008. The park website's teacher education pages now list that total at 27.)
On a dawn hike to Lake Josephine, we paused for a while at Swiftcurrent Lake, relishing the early hour, the gently lapping water and the tranquilly empty trails. Our serenity was broken by a quick succession of snapping branches and rustling leaves in the surrounding trees. Then, a shrill scream, hand claps, howls: "Get! Go! Outta here! Help!"
While the woman producing the panicked, piercing yelps ran toward us, we quickly deduced what had happened, leapt right past her & headed straight for the main trail where she'd been as fast as we could go. Without making a sound, we eagerly scanned the thick undergrowth. Nothing!
By the time she came to rewarn us and offer protection - having successfully freed her bear-repellent spray can from its handy Velcro pouch ten minutes or so later - the mother bear and her cubs were gone. The lady and her husband proceeded to tell us all of the grisly Ursus horribilis stories they could think of on such short notice (just barely 15 of them, but with plenty of admonitions and bear clauses swiped in for us to bear in mind) until there was absolutely no chance that any self-respecting mama bear would still be stateside - which explains the need for Canada's adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park and the two parks' joint designation as an International Peace Park & World Heritage Site. Just when I thought Katrianna couldn't bear it any longer, our hero happily moved on when some other hikers tried to slip past her. Stepping into their stride, she started anew on her close-call tale of terror - bearing witness, she was!
We lingered, Mikaela hoping the return of quiet & calm would lull the cubs back for some of those much-publicized hugs. A ranger appeared to confirm that there had been a bear sighting and imparted sage, safety-first, 'Be Bear Aware' advice... until his wife and two young daughters came rushing up, smiling, as anxious to grin & bear it as we were. He gave a stern look around. Instantly & silently, we all fanned out to increase our search party chances. But no luck. Besides some fresh berry-filled scat, our efforts did not bear fruit. One fine day, we vow to return with bear bells [not] on.
On our final twilight evening, we stopped along the Sunny Road at the Jackson Glacier overlook. The peaks glowed in pinks & oranges. The canyons' deep green trees melded into distant valley-to-valley carpeting. The glinting river dawdled & then disappeared into the vanishing point of this ever-changing landscape painting. It was difficult to leave such an exquisite and transcendent place. So, Chris enjoined us to take one last photo. He directed, "A little more to the left. No, more to the right. You've gone too far! Katrianna, turn around and stop reading that sign for a second - " Mikaela went to nudge her over, but then she too stood mesmerized by the information plaque.
"Hey, Daaaaad, come see this!"
What is a Glacier?
A glacier forms when more snow falls each winter than melts the next summer. The accumulation of snow above presses down on the layers below, and compacts them into ice. Depending on the amount of ice, the angle of the mountainside, and the pull of gravity, the ice may start to move downhill. Once this mass of snow and ice begins to move, it is called a glacier.
Snap! (or is that a cold Snap? I was too busy getting my cramp-ons to tell.) Chris broke out in a cold sweat, a sure indication that the long winner of our family's discontent - made glorious summer by this Going-to-the Sun Road - was finally beginning to thaw.