Marc Ankenbauer’s aqueous obsession has lured him into the frigid waters of exactly 158 lakes in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks.
He’s belly-flopped and backstroked, and now he’s poised to break a record.
There are 168 named lakes in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and, having dived into all but 10, this summer Ankenbauer will become the first person known to bathe in them all.
It is an impressive, if obscure feat, but Ankenbauer’s hydromania is about more than mere bragging rights.
He’s plunging for a purpose.
Since beginning his project 12 years ago, Ankenbauer, 36, who survived a brief bout with cancer as a teenager, has been raising money for the charity Camp Mak-A-Dream, an organization that provides cost-free Montana wilderness experiences for children and young adults with cancer.
“I was lucky to catch my cancer early, but it was jarring enough for me to realize that life is meant to be lived proactively,” he said. “I’ve been eating it with a big spoon ever since.”
Camp Mak-A-Dream’s mission struck a chord with Ankenbauer, who since 2001 has spent his summers working as a backcountry ranger in Glacier Park, and is passionate about outdoor experiences and exploring western Montana’s vast open spaces.
“I thrive on wilderness and outdoor experiences, and I wanted to extend those experiences to someone else. It came down to wanting this project to mean something, to be worth something,” Ankenbauer said. “You do something like this for long enough and after a while you don’t want it to be just for you. In life, you have very few chances to do something that is notable enough that people pay attention, and when I realized that this was going to be kind of a big deal subculturally, I thought maybe I could raise money.”
He launched a website, glacierexplorer.com, and created an online donation program, setting an arbitrary goal of raising $5,000. Last week, a donation from a family friend in Cincinnati pushed Ankenbauer past his goal.
He expects to tick the final 10 lakes off his list this summer, and he’s confident he can raise more money.
“The fact that I have already raised $5,000 is phenomenal, and to know that I am surpassing that is a pretty spectacular feeling,” he said.
The project also has given Ankenbauer incentive to explore Waterton-Glacier’s 1.2 million acres, and to set out for lakes that most people have never visited. It also entails long, arduous, off-trail hikes, as well as bushwhacking through dense thickets of alder.
“One of the reasons this has taken so long is that it is challenging to access some of these remote spots,” he said. “I bet I have averaged about 20 lakes a year, but last summer I only got seven, and the summer before that I only jumped in 12. But they were a tough, burly 12.”
Ankenbauer estimates that half of the lakes require off-trail travel, and their remoteness has offered numerous opportunities to observe wildlife.
After jumping into Snyder Lake, a grizzly bear began lumbering toward Ankenbauer and a companion, and once, after hiking 10 miles to Aurice Lake, a spooked sow grizzly and her cubs forced Ankenbauer to abort the jump and turn around.
“I’ve jumped into two different lakes that had moose in them at the time,” Ankenbauer said.
All but one of Ankenbauer’s remaining lakes are located in remote and off-the-grid areas, and he’s saving the easiest one for last. He’ll conclude the project with Fishercap, a lake that is about a five-minute walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier area.
“I decided to save that for the absolute end so my mom can come and watch,” he said. “So many people have been so incredibly supportive of this project that I owe it to them, especially my family and my wife. I could not have done this without her support and understanding.”
Many of the park’s glacier-fed lakes are a crystalline blue, but others, like Johns Lake, are as stagnant as pond scum.
“There are some really rough, rank bodies of water that are named,” he said. “I basically had to lower myself into Johns Lake and hope that I didn’t get too many leeches on me. It’s not all fame and fortune.”
Green Lake had so little water that Ankenbauer’s swim trunks didn’t get completely wet, even after he lay down in it.
When the project is finished, Ankenbauer isn’t worried about his life lacking adventure. He’ll continue working for the park, and may return to Antarctica, where he worked this winter as a camp host for scientists and researchers at McMurdo Station. He’ll also spend more time with his wife, who Ankenbauer is living with in Missoula while she completes her nursing degree. The couple will return to East Glacier this summer.
“I’ve been given one of the greatest luxuries in the world. I get to live in one of the greatest places on Earth,” he said. “I’m not out to conquer some unattainable goal. I’m more like the average, everyday guy adventurer. At times, it has been epically difficult and mentally tedious. I’ve thrashed around in alder thickets for so long that I just had to start laughing. But it has breathed a lot of adventure into my life. It’s a celebration of life.”