Not very far from where I live is the world-famous Glacier National Park.And also not very far away is the… world-famous Glacier National Park?
A mere five-hour drive separates two large national parks with identical names from one another; one in British Columbia, Canada; the other in Montana in the United States. I can only imagine how confusing this must be for tourists travelling through the Rocky Mountain corridor. Not only are their names, proximity, and mountain scenery similar, the reasons behind the establishment of the two Glacier Parks are nearly identical.
British Columbia’s Glacier National Park is sandwiched between Mount Revelstoke and Yoho national parks along the Trans Canada Highway corridor. Source: Parks Canada, http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/glacier/visit/~/media/pn-np/bc/glacier/cartes-maps/carte_PNG-GNP_map2400.ashx.
Founded in 1886, BC’s Glacier Park is one of the oldest national parks in the world and covers an area of 1 349 km². Despite its proximity to other famed mountain parks such as Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and the US Glacier Park, this Glacier Park actually lies in the Selkirk Mountains, not the Rockies. The reasons for the park’s founding were almost explicitly commercial, tied to the nascent Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which had been built through Rogers Pass in 1884 and opened the next year. The CPR immediately realised the potential for destination tourism in the remote wilderness and began constructing lodges and hotels to attract tourists to the pass (building these often ornate lodges and hotels in destination locations was a key marketing strategy for the CPR and other lines in order to attract passengers to the new railway by giving them a place to stay en route; the chain of CPR-owned hotels eventually became what is now the international luxury hotel operator Fairmont Hotels and Resorts). Lobbying for national park status for the mountains and glaciers surrounding Rogers Pass was a way to further market the area as a pristine wilderness location. While national park system has long since shifted primary focus to conservation rather than recreation, backcountry recreational pursuits are still a major part of Glacier Park’s image today (both parks, actually).
Likewise, Montana’s Glacier Park was also established after lobbying by a railroad company; in this case, the Great Northern Railway. The railway was constructed in 1891 across the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains through Marias Pass, around the same time that the anthropologist/naturalist George Bird Grinnell was in the middle of his lobbying campaign to have the area protected (it was Grinnell, who bestowed upon the region the nickname ‘Crown of the Continent’). As with the CPR, the Great Northern saw the tourist potential in such a spectacular place, and after some amount of lobbying, in 1897 the US government designated the area north of the railroad as a forest reserve. This wasn’t enough for Grinnell and other proponents of protecting the area, as a forest reserve designation still allowed mining, nor was it enough for the railway, who wanted the ability to market Glacier as a full-on national park. After more lobbying, national park status came in 1910 with the new park totalling 4 101 km² in area. The Great Northern proceeded to build its own series of tourist hotels and chalets throughout the new park to build Glacier as a destination resort. Today, many of those hotels are National Historic Landmarks. Unlike the BC park, Montana’s park is not bisected by the railway or by a major highway, which both skirt the southern boundary here. Instead, the park is crossed by the infamously snowy, switchbacked Going-to-the-Sun Road, a road so treacherous in places that roadside protective barriers are impossible to install because they simply get obliterated by avalanches.
Many Glacier Hotel, one of the historic hotels and chalets constructed by the Great Northern Railway in Glacier National Park, Montana. Source: H. Teng, Glacier National Park, MT. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
As for the relative legitimacy of each park’s name, both certainly have their fair share of glaciers, although ice covers much more of the land in the Canadian version than the US version. 50 percent of BC’s Glacier Park is above treeline, and the southeast corner of the park is dominated by icefields in addition to the many mountaintop glaciers. Contrast this with Montana’s Glacier Park, which has 25 individual active glaciers all in a state of ablation. Over the past 150 years, dozens of glaciers have disappeared, and due to increased temperatures in the region, the glacier are receding to the point where at current rates they may all disappear within a decade (the US Geological Survey is a bit more optimistic; one USGS scenario based upon increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere pinned the date of disappearance around 2030, while another saw the glaciers sticking around until approximately 2277). While glaciers in the BC park are retreating in most places, it’s not to the extent of its Montana counterpart. The irony of potentially having no glaciers left in a place called Glacier National Park should not be lost on anyone.
In addition to the many mountaintop glaciers, BC’s Glacier National Park features large icefields, such as the Illecillewaet Névé featured in the above video.
The most famous area of BC’s Glacier Park is Rogers Pass (elevation 1 330 metres), first explored by Europeans in April 1881 and confirmed the next year after the American surveyor A. B. Rogers was hired by the CPR to find a mountain pass through the Selkirks in order to ensure that the line would not have to use the Big Bend of the Columbia instead, shaving hundreds of kilometres off the railway. The narrow valley connecting the Illecillewaet and Beaver rivers was a longtime bane of the CPR due to the frequent avalanches that plague the pass; 31 protective snowsheds totalling 6.5 km had to be contructed through the pass. Seven men were buried and two men died during construction of the track because of avalanches, and in 1910 62 track workers were killed in a single slide. All told, over 200 people died in the pass between 1885 and 1911 due to avalanches, prompting construction of the 8.1 km Connaught Tunnel that year in order to avoid the pass (the Connaught was later augmented in 1987 by the construction of the 14.7 km Mount Macdonald Tunnel, the longest rail tunnel in the Western Hemisphere). Car tourists, however, had to wait until 1962 before the Trans Canada Highway was built through the pass to see the splendour of the pass; the current highway employs five snowsheds and shock cannons in order to keep traffic through the pass safe.A large hotel, museum/interpretative centre and service station now sit atop the summit. The major issue now is traffic volume; this is the major artery connecting Vancouver and Kelowna with Calgary (this writer was once caught in a 28-kilometre long traffic jam here). Mostly two lanes through the park, the busy road is host to a multitude of often-fatal car accidents each year, and an eventual goal of the British Columbia government is to have the entire length of the Trans Canada upgraded to four lanes.
Looking down on the Trans Canada Highway going through Rogers Pass. Glacier Park Lodge can be seen on the right side of the photo along the highway. Source: J. Eischmann, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glacier_np_canada.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
The duplication of place names doesn’t just end at the parks, for Rogers Pass has a counterpart in Montana as well. About 150 km south of Glacier Park, Montana as the crow flies is, you guessed it, Rogers Pass. Even crazier is that this pass, too, was named for A.B. Rogers in 1887, as his next major surveying gig was for the Great Northern as they attempted to find a pass through the Rockies (ultimately, Marias Pass was chosen over Rogers mark-II for the railway). Sitting on top of the Continental Divide, this Rogers Pass is a fair bit higher in elevation than the BC version (1 710 m), but not nearly as star-crossed when it comes to things like avalanche deaths. Instead, this Rogers Pass beats you down with extreme winter cold: the coldest temperature ever recorded in the US outside of Alaska was taken here in January 1954 (-56.5°C, or -69.7°F). As the main route between the major Montana cities of and Missoula and Great Falls, used by Montana Highway 200, the pass is also experiencing its own traffic woes: this year saw the use of the two-lane road as a path for 207 massive ‘megaloads’, trucks carrying oversized oil refinery equipment up to the northern Alberta oil sands and to a refinery in the state’s largest city of Billings. The slow-moving convoys are so large that they take up both lanes and require temporary road closures and pilot cars in order to proceed. After months of local opposition to the megaloads both from an environmental standpoint and from worries over such an oversize-load corridor becoming a permanent institution, a federal district court issued an injunction against the megaloads last week.
And so goes the saga of the two Glacier National Parks and the two Rogers Passes. Despite large amounts of human incursion, all four remain stunning examples of nature in the North American cordillera, and are must-sees for anyone travelling through the area.
Byron, E. (2011). Environmental groups sue over megaloads. Helena Independent Record, 2 April 2011. Available at http://helenair.com/news/environmental-groups-sue-over-megaloads/article_9bd010a6-5cee-11e0-8673-001cc4c002e0.html. Accessed 25 July 2011.
Canadian Railway Hall of Fame (2006). The Mount Macdonald Tunnel (2003). Available at http://www.railfame.ca/sec_ind/technology/en_2003_MountMacdonaldTunnel.asp. Accessed 25 July 2011.
Hall, M.H.P. and D.B. Fagre (2003). Modeled Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850–2100. 53(2), 131-140. Available at http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/files/norock/products/GCC/Bioscience_Hall_03.pdf. Accessed 25 July 2011.
Morris, M. (2002). Glaciers, lichens and the history of the Earth. Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology. Available at http://www.cmiae.org/Resources/glaciers-lichens.php. Accessed 25 July 2011.
National Park Service (2002). Many Glacier Hotel Historic Structure Report. Available at http://wayback.archive.org/web/jsp/Interstitial.jsp?seconds=5&date;=1146385009000&url;=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nps.gov%2Fglac%2Fpdf%2Fmghiststr.pdf⌖=http%3A%2F%2Fweb.archive.org%2Fweb%2F20060430081649%2Fhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.nps.gov%2Fglac%2Fpdf%2Fmghiststr.pdf. Accessed 25 July 2011.
National Park Service (2011). Glacier National Park. Available at http://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm. Accessed 25 July 2011.
New West (2011). Judge Rules Against Montana Dept. of Transportation, Haulting Megaload Shipments. 20 July 2011. Available at http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/judge_rules_against_montana_dept_of_transportation_haulting_megaload_shipme/C618/L618/. Accessed 25 July 2011.
Parks Canada (2011). Glacier National Park of Canada. 21 July 2011. Available at http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/glacier/index.aspx. Accessed 25 July 2011.
Parks Canada (2011). Rogers Pass National Historic Site of Canada. 8 July 2011. Available at http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/bc/rogers/index.aspx. Accessed 25 July 2011.