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Montana Miracle

It's nature's way -- but the return to life at Glacier National Park a year after the worst wildfire in three centuries still amazes. Where blazes raged, new growth flourishes.

August 15, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Glacier National Park, Mont. — Hiking along the Backbone of the World, as the Blackfeet Indians called this ridgeline, I found it hard to imagine these mountains awash in flames. Or the crisp, rain-scrubbed air choked with smoke and ash.

This year, the trail that hugs the spine of the Rocky Mountains unfurled across fields of yellow avalanche lilies. It traversed showy stalks of white bear grass. A small group of mountain goats munched on bunchgrasses, oblivious to approaching hikers.

Three woolly, white kids, knees tucked underneath them, refused to budge from the narrow, cliff-side trail. Their stubbornness forced the humans to scramble up the steep slope around them, raising the question: Which ones are the goats? The signs of last year's wildfires can be spotted, to be sure. Stands of lodgepole pines were lost to the biggest wildfire in three centuries; their blackened trunks stand silhouetted against the moody sky.

Yet as I found on a July trip to the national park, the ravages of the fire seem, well, remote. The fire burned about 12% of the 1-million acre park, which sprawls north to the Canadian border. The damage nearly always seemed distant, across a deep valley or on the other, less-frequented side of Lake McDonald. It was difficult to see the charred landscape from the park's main route, a narrow, twisting ribbon of blacktop with an unusual name: Going-to-the-Sun Road.

All this comes as a relief to park managers. They have come to see wildfires as a good -- and even necessary -- part of a healthy forest. But they recognize that even after the inferno has passed, the effects can remain unpleasant for the casual visitor who is eagerly anticipating a rich carpet of forest green.

This time, though, the fire's handiwork seemed tailor-made for tourists, said Fred Vanhorn, who supervises fire ecologists and park rangers. Those curious about the changes forged by fire can seek it out, or they can look at the impact from a distance: a mosaic of burned and unburned areas that appears as a palette of greens, browns, oranges, charcoal grays and black.

Those who want to ignore last year's devastation should have no trouble. Visitors are not "shocked out of their shoes," as Vanhorn puts it, by driving through miles of charred forest. "Most people aren't going to notice."

I wanted to take notice. I had written about the ecological consequences of last year's Southern California fires and was curious how this drama played out in America's most northern section of the Rockies, a place more often known for human interaction with another of nature's fascinating and ferocious forces: grizzly bears.

So my girlfriend, Nancy Baron, and I spent four days at Glacier National Park during the Fourth of July weekend. We drove the mountain roads, ate and drank at the historic lodges and spent as much time as possible romping around the woods. We took short trails on boardwalks through ancient cedar forests and longer trails to an overnight lodge that cannot be reached by vehicle.

Braced for crowds on this busy holiday, we were pleasantly surprised. The hotels in and around the park were full, but we never had to wait for a table as we dined at various restaurants.

Only once did we see a backed-up line of cars that resembled the kind of congested drive-by tourism that has become all too common in, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone national parks.

That may be because Glacier is far from just about everywhere -- or at least every urban center. Visitors do not casually pass through.

The park is their goal, a destination that involves a commitment of time behind the wheel or a flight to Glacier Park International Airport just outside Kalispell, about 25 miles away. (We chose the latter.) All this adds the special feeling of a land's end kind of place: People aren't here by chance.

They want to be here. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

A pristine place

The park, founded in 1910 and promoted in its early years by the Great Northern Railway, is surrounded by a wide buffer of open land: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service property to the south and west, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the east and Wateron-Glacier International Peace Park to the north.

These national parks, on both sides of the border, are designated as Biosphere Reserves and a World Heritage Site because of their surprisingly intact ecosystem, which includes healthy wildlife populations of predators like mountain lions, wolves and grizzly bears.

During my time here, I learned how the most experienced hikers have a healthy respect for the "griz," as they call this creature with the fierce Latin name ursus arctos horribilis. The experts wouldn't be caught dead on the trail without canisters of pepper "bear spray" strapped to their hips.

I balked at paying $40 for a canister but later wished I hadn't been so cheap, especially after I learned that 10 people have been killed and dozens more mauled by these bears in the park since the 1960s.

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