GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – On one of those smoky days when you need to use Braille to find the mountains, consider switching to sonar.
“Most people coming here are used to looking at the broad vistas and big pictures,” Glacier Park natural resources program manager Mark Biel said. “But when it’s smoky or socked in with storm clouds, you can notice things like the diversity of wildflowers, or the animals scurrying around, that you might have missed when you were looking for that big picture.”
On a recent, lung-scalding hike across the Highline Trail, smoke from the 17,000-acre Thompson fire had settled so thick that tourists couldn’t see across the Logan Pass parking lot at midday. The iconic arc of Lewis and Livingston range peaks wasn’t hazy – it was flat-out gone.
But the fumes couldn’t muffle the melody of critter noises coming from meadows along the trail. A line of hikers complaining about how they couldn’t see Bishop’s Cap 1,000 feet above them failed to hear the rustle of a grazing mountain goat just 30 feet away.
Despite its sleek new white winter coat contrasting with the deep green grass, only those who heard it rattling rocks noticed its presence.
A half-mile farther on, discerning listeners got a hint of one of Glacier’s toughest-to-see wild residents: the pika. Amid the whistles of the hoary marmots and the chitters of chipmunks was the faint “Beeeejjj” call of the big-eared little rodent.
Intent on winter comfort, the 5-ounce lagomorph was hauling mouthfuls of grass to a hay pile it would feed on all winter. Those hay piles can be more than 3 feet in diameter, hidden under large rocks.
“A lot of people hear that sound and don’t realize what it is,” Biel said. “When visibility is limited, the call gives you an opportunity to look for that animal.”
Smoky air tends to ground many of Glacier’s birds. That’s the time to watch for one of its ground-preferring species, the ptarmigan. Before they switch to their all-white winter feathers, these birds blend perfectly with the surrounding rubble.
The give-away is cooing burble, sort of like a pigeon from Mars. If the rocks seem to be moving and making UFO engine noises, you may have stumbled into a congregation of these high-altitude grouse relations.
Sound might be your best defense with some of Glacier’s more challenging megafauna.
On the way down the Loop Trail from Granite Park Chalet, the only warning for the presence of a large black bear was the persistent snuffling it made from deep inside a thicket of huckleberry bushes.
Obsessed with its hyperphagic pursuit of calories in preparation for hibernation, the bear paid no mind to hikers passing just 15 feet away, thumbs poised on pepper spray safety tabs.
August’s wildfire season has cramped many vacations, as smoke from thousands of square miles of burning forest has followed prevailing winds from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho into Montana’s mountains.
While the firefighters wait for a “season-ending event” like a sustained rain storm, Glacier Park visitors can’t see through clouds of mist any better than clouds of smoke.
With unsettled weather in the forecast for much of the Labor Day holiday weekend, it might be time to leave the binoculars and bring the hearing aids.