90,000 Miles to Me

16,938 Miles • Glacier on Fire

So far, Montana isn’t what I expected. I had images in my mind from movies and TV of big mountains and densely wooded forests. Most of the state, however is low and flat. It has only been since I got as far west as the Missoula area and started heading up north toward Glacier National Park, that I’ve seen much in the way of mountains. So, TV doesn’t teach me everything?

A display at the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula. The gray and teal areas are at a higher elevation, but still sport only scattered mountains and forests.

On my way up north, I stopped for gas in a small town and saw this sign outside an office complex:

They’re coming

Up at the top of the state, bordering on and extending into Canada, lies Glacier National Park. It it supposed to be a jewel of the continent’s natural beauty. It is supposed to be a sight to behold. It is supposed to be less crowded than this.

I forgot that it isn’t just Yellowstone that gets crowded in the summer.

Oh well, at least some schools are starting up so it isn’t quite as bad as Yellowstone was. It is, however, hazy enough that the grand views look muted and fuzzy, like a slightly out of focus photograph. I can see just well enough to tell that the views would be spectacular if I could see them better.

A ranger confirmed that the haze is smoke from the wildfires a thousand miles away on the west coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. They haven’t had much wind here so the smoke just settled in the valley, spoiling my view. Pout. And trapping the heat.

One of the reasons I came here was for the Perseid meteor shower. Glacier National Park is an International Dark Sky Park–an area where there is little light pollution so it is actually possible to see the stars and Milky Way in all their glory. A perfect viewing spot for one of the big meteor showers of the year. Assuming I could see the sky.

My first night it did clear up enough by midnight to see some stars and a faint view of the Milky Way, and even a few meteors.

I got a tip from one of the rangers about an out of the way area of the park that usually isn’t patrolled, where I took a chance of stealth parking (and sleeping) so as not to have to repeat my Yellowstone all-nighter. Although I did stay up late to be awake in case of any patrols, I never saw anyone and got several hours of sleep before heading back to the populated areas early in the morning to do some sightseeing.

The brilliant turquoise color in the river is due to very fine sediment in the water. It is too fine for gravity to pull it down against the churning water, so it stays suspended in midstream and the light refracts off of it, giving it a turquoise glow.  

I stopped for a while and had fun playing with rock balancing in the stream. 

My second night there, Saturday, was more cloudy, though I did see several meteors as the shower reached its peak. One flash of bright white light looked like a completely spherical, symmetrical ball bursting above the clouds. I looked this up later but still am not sure if it was a meteor fireball something called ball lightening. I also saw a few regular lightening flashes and this was definitely different.

In the morning, however, I visited the ranger station for some info and found out that three of the lightening strikes had struck the forest and started fires in the night. The smoke got worse all day, making the sky much hazier as the smoke is coming from here now, too.

On Sunday night there was a star party at Apgar Pass parking lot. The local astronomy club brought out four telescopes, and the haze cleared enough for relatively decent views. We saw a globular cluster of stars called Messier 13, Saturn with its rings, the owl (or ET) constellation, the coat hanger constellation, the ring nebula, a comet, a satellite or the space station–we weren’t entirely sure which–and a couple others. I learned to identify the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair. Deneb is also part of Cygnus the Swan, sometimes called the Northern Cross.

Around midnight, on my way back to my secluded parking spot, I was passing one of the pullouts with a view of what, in the daytime, is a large wetland area called McGee Meadow, but in the darkness provided a brilliant view of one of the raging forest fires. I pulled off and positioned my van to sit comfortably and stare out into the blackness at the vermillion flames silhouetting and engulfing tall evergreens. I was shocked at how red the flames were and how black the trees in front of it. 

I couldn’t get a picture of it with my camera as there was not enough light, but tried to remember it exactly to paint it later. I really need a better camera.

My attempt at capturing my memory of the fire in watercolors.

Over the next few hours, the fire blew in the wind and moved a bit north. It felt strange to be so close that I could see the flames clearly and yet still feel completely safe, knowing there was a mile or two of wetlands between us.

On Monday morning I saw two big-bellied planes and a couple choppers flying low toward the fire, dropping thousands of gallons of water.

Even in the daylight I could see the red glow of the fire against the sky.

Fire has two sides. Obviously it can be destructive, but it can also be generative. The lodgepole pine tree only releases its seeds after fire burns the pitch of the cones. Opening the canopy lets sunlight reach the forest floor, inviting new growth. Huckleberries, a staple in the Glacier region, thrive in the ashy soil fire leaves behind. 

I’ve been to a number of museums and parks this year that have featured exhibits on how wildfires are a natural process that has existed throughout time to clear old growth and make way for new growth. Perhaps it is the sheer amount of these exhibits that I’ve seen (most people would only see one or two), but it is starting to feel a bit like they are getting defensive. And perhaps with good reason. Wildfires are absolutely a natural process, though the number and size of these fires has been picking up over the recent years, as is nicely presented in this NASA article.

Although some of these fires, like the one that drove me out of Glacier this year, were started by lightning, that was merely the trigger. The forests are so dry that the smallest trigger can set off fire after fire, giving us the wildfire season that is becoming more of a seasonal regularity rather than an occasional occurrence.

Okay, here’s my fair warning that where I’m about to go with this is my own speculation and I haven’t seen actual data on this. The increase in forest and wildfires is being blamed mostly on climate change, and while I completely believe those arguments, I personally suspect there is another factor that is not being considered (or published?). Nearly every large and medium sized river in the country has been dammed up for decades, redirecting the flow of water for our cities, farm irrigation, and electric generators, damaging the watersheds in those areas. That is fact. My speculation is that this dramatic change to the watersheds has been drying out the forests for decades so they are now prime for being ravaged by fires raging out of control, and we are seeing those effects.

End of speculation.

What I do know for a fact is that large parts of the Glacier National Park were closed down and people were canceling their vacations and leaving the park in droves. I had planned on staying here another week or two, but it was getting too smoky to breathe. I toughed it out for one more night out of a desperate clinging to my plans, but by Tuesday it was clear the fire would not be quickly contained–it was still growing–and the air quality had gotten too bad to stay any longer without a very good reason, and my stubbornness was no longer a good enough reason.

A view of the current fire from across the remnants of the Red Eagle Fire in 2007.

I gave up and left late in the day so didn’t get far that night. The nearest Walmart, in Kalispell, was like an RV city. Everyone was leaving. I spent the night there and then headed back toward Missoula to get far away enough from the worst of the smoke to regroup and make new plans.

Looking online at the fire situation in the western US, it was clear that my plans for the rest of the fall were shot; I had wanted to head west to northern Washington to visit friends and then travel down through Oregon and California, but all of that was either on fire or clogged with smoke. Without any idea of where to go or what to do next, I ended up spending the next couple weeks tooling around Missoula and southwest Montana feeling lost and out of sorts.

Which gave me plenty of time and enough depression-like feelings to wallow in–I mean, reflect on–another problem that I’ve been successfully avoiding until now. More on that next.