GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — It’s been quite a summer for rangers here.
A rockfall accident ended the life of a 14-year-old Utah girl. A viral video showed a man hitting golf balls off the shoulder of Going-to-the-Sun Road during a construction delay. A backcountry search launched in July for Mark Sinclair, who has yet to be found.
But while these events made national news, it’s the additional everyday incidents that stretch limited resources on a regular basis.
For example, July 8 was a hot, sunny Monday. At 5 p.m., rangers responded to a report of a vehicle 40 feet down an embankment off the Going-to-the-Sun Road. At the same time, they responded to a call at Lake Josephine for a visitor who fell from a horse and suffered an open ankle fracture. Meanwhile, they responded to reports of an infant locked in a car, two missing parties, a bear struck by a car on Highway 2 outside the park, a DUI arrest in Many Glacier, and an abandoned dog at the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
“Rangers are holding a lot of hats. They’re universal problem solvers,” said Micah Alley, the ranger operations coordinator for the park. “They’re law enforcement, emergency medical service providers, search and rescue trained, wildland fire trained, and a lot of them do structure fire work, too.
“If you call 9-1-1 in the park, you will get a ranger.”
Rangers retrieve locked keys in vehicles. They help change flat tires. Stranded at a trailhead? They’ll get you back to your vehicle. They’ll ticket you for leaving food or campfires unattended. They’ll adjudicate disputes over parking spots. They’ll race into the wild country to search for lost hikers. They’ll recover drowning victims, which is one of the leading causes of death in the park. They’ll arrest protagonists in domestic violence encounters. They’ll haze bears. They’ll carry people out of the backcountry on litters. They’ll go in search of human-habituated grizzlies.
And even though the number of visitors dropped this year by about 3% from 2018, their calls for service increased by 25% this summer over last year. In the past decade, visitation to Glacier increased by more than 50% — from 1.8 million visitors in 2008 to 2.9 million in 2018.
Alley looks through the reports, and plucks out Aug. 5 for an example. It also was a Monday, when temperatures were hovering in the 90s and skies were clear and sunny.
“We had 77 minor law enforcement contacts that day. Someone was collecting pine cones. Someone was driving over the speed limit. We had one major law enforcement issue and arrest, which is significant and time consuming,” Alley reports. “No minor medical calls … but we had five the next day, one major medical, one search and rescue call.”
Statistics shared by Glacier National Park for one week in July shows they responded to about 100 calls for service each day, or 703 total in one week alone. And it’s not just checking out the situation that’s time consuming; most calls for service result in follow-up contacts and filing the paperwork.
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The Glacier National Park Conservancy, which is the private fundraising arm of the park, also notices a sobering trend confirmed by park staff: More park visitors seem unfamiliar with or unprepared for risks they will encounter in the park.
Glacier is called the land of fire and ice for its wildfires and frigid winters. It’s known as the Crown of the Continent due to its diversity of flora and fauna. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a range of wildlife that’s changed little since the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“Back in the day, Glacier was an experts’ park, a hikers’ park. It was not a national park on everyone’s radar,” said Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Conservancy. “Social media changed that. People are saying it looks beautiful, it’s easy to get to … and for some of them, this just isn’t a natural experience.
“It’s like if someone from a rural town with no parking meters went to San Francisco and tried to park downtown. There’s just different rules, and people are coming to Glacier with different levels of experience.”
With that in mind, last year the Conservancy gave the park $67,000 to fund the Preventative Search and Rescue Program, which tries to reduce accidents and injuries by helping visitors make better informed decisions. The money pays for volunteers and an extra ranger to be along the Loop and Highline trails, and was continued this year.
“So if you’re walking the Highline Trail, someone in uniform is one of the first people you see along the first part of the trail, saying, ‘Welcome. What’s your plan? Do you have enough water?’ and if they’re in flip-flops, maybe direct them to a different trail,” Mitchell said. “They went from having an event every day to not having another one there for the rest of the year. It’s remarkable what that kind of conversation can do.
“It can help people make a more informed decision, especially if they didn’t know it was an 11- or 12-mile hike. It improves the visitors’ experience and safety, and keeps the rangers where they need to be instead of hiking in to rescue people.”
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Anecdotally, Alley said they seem to be seeing a return on the investment. In 2018, Alley noted that had a 14-day stretch for being called to the Loop trail every day to aid hikers.
“The pattern was we would go up to help one person and find five needing help,” Alley said. “Or people hike by someone laying on a rock with their eyes closed, and when they get out they tell the ranger someone is hurt. But then we find the person was just resting.”
Once the Preventative Search and Rescue Program was in place, those calls for service subsided dramatically. The Conservancy funded the program with another $65,000 this year.
“We’re not turning people around, but just telling them so they know that if they’re planning a through hike, this is what they need to know,” Alley said. “We let them know they can hike out and back, or take a different trail. Some people are appreciative. Some say they will be fine and continue on, and that’s OK. You get to pick your own adventure.”
'How not to die'
Alley agrees with Mitchell that the experience level of the visitors, as well as the seasonal staff, may have changed.
“They’re not as prepared for what they’ll find here,” Alley said. “Every year we provide training for those groups — ‘Here’s how not to die or get arrested.’"
It’s learning how to drive on congested roads, where people are distracted by the scenery or are tired from a hike. Alley notes that one particular stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road is so narrow that it’s not uncommon for people to drive straddling the center line. They’re not accustomed to negotiating curves, trying to take them at 55 mph when the posted limit is 25 mph. Drivers aren’t sure how to share the road with bicyclists, pedestrians and wildlife.
“One sign that’s a little bit worrisome this year, and I’m not sure if it’s an anomaly, but we’re seeing more injury motor vehicle accidents. We see road fender benders all the time, but we’re seeing more high-speed, high-impact crashes where people are transported to the hospital,” Alley said. “We’re getting a lot more emergency medical service calls, both severe ones and minor ones.”
And then there’s the backcountry. Glacier isn’t for novices; Alley said it’s not “Backcountry 101.” One minor mistake or incident can become a life-threatening emergency.
“A lot of people just decide to go on an afternoon hike. They don’t have adequate clothing, footwear or water,” Alley said. “You get 5 to 7 miles in, and where it was 70 degrees at the trailhead, now it’s 90 degrees and you don’t have any water and you get overheated. Or it’s a sunny day and the weather changes, then people get in a pickle simply because they lack basic protection like dressing in layers.”
They get reports of lost hikers from family members who expected someone to return in six hours from what’s a 10-hour hike. They get calls from people who say a loved one is somewhere in the park, but didn’t tell anyone where they were going.
And they get people who rely on their cell phones for GPS directions, only to realize too late that much of the park is out of cell service range.
“The park is a great place to test your limits and grow your skills, but there is a good way to do that and a less good way,” Alley said. “Going with someone more experienced, to take you to the next level, is a good idea. But if you’re going by yourself it’s not such a good idea.”
And then there’s the wildlife. On a recent afternoon, a ranger hazed visitors away from a bighorn sheep at the Many Glacier Hotel, admonishing them to keep their distance while taking photographs. The next day, rangers warned visitors in the Logan Pass parking to not follow a mountain goat that was passing through.
“Fortunately, we haven’t had another Night of the Grizzlies” when two young women were attacked in separate incidents and killed on Aug. 13, 1967, in Glacier, Alley said. “We haven’t had any bear maulings, but we’ve had so many near misses and close encounters.”
So rangers also are educators, teaching visitors how not to surprise bears on trails and how to give them the right of way. They’re directing people to carry bear spray, and keep clean camps.
“Food storage. Food storage. Food storage,” Alley said. “The amount of time rangers spend managing people is certainly on the uptick. Encounters are not something that’s alarming to us but something we’re always wary of. When we get a report of a scary encounter we take that seriously.”