For the 50+ Traveler

It was July 2015 when I took a couple of weeks of my new retirement to hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park. My wife and kids were unable to go, so I went by myself and had a great time.

Glacier is in the far northwest corner of Montana, and it shares a boundary with Canada. On the border is a Canadian national park, Waterton Lakes. Combined, they are called the International Peace Park.

Red buses at Glacier.
Mike Owens

During my short stay at Glacier, I noticed the old-fashioned buses traveling on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, the road that bisects Glacier’s one million acres. The bus drivers, I learned, give tours of the park. I listened in as a driver was talking to his guests at one of the many road turnouts in the park. I liked what he was saying and doing, and I asked how he got the job since he and I appeared to be roughly the same age.

He told me about the application process, and in the fall of that year, I went online and applied. Much to my surprise, I was hired.

I was going to leave my comfortable home in St. Louis and move to Montana for the summer. St. Louis summertime: 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. Glacier: 80-degree highs and 20 percent humidity. Hard choice.

The author and his bus.
Mike Owens

Getting To Know The Ropes

Driving one of the old buses takes a bit of training. First, I’d need a commercial driver’s license to haul paying passengers, and I would also need to learn about the park. The company that runs the buses as a concession to the park service, Xanterra, provides the training for both.

Operating an 8-foot, 1-inch wide bus on a road that is only 17 feet wide in some spots takes some specialized training. That’s part of the deal. The knowledge of the park comes from a 300-plus page book that contains the facts and figures and details of the park, which is bigger than Rhode Island.

My first tour was a bit shaky in June of 2016, but over time, you do get better and accumulate more information about the park. For example, there are about 1,200 bears in the park, including about 300 grizzly bears -- the most in any of the lower 48 states. The rest are black bears, which can be brown or even a blond color. In my first year, I met Penny, a black bear the color of a new penny who hung out near my dormitory.

Penny, a black bear in the park.
Mike Owens

I said dormitory. That’s part of the deal. For a small fee, Xanterra provides room and board for employees who want it. The food comes from a dining hall, and you live in a small dormitory room. Bus drivers are a special sort, with difficult schedules given lots of early mornings, so the housing managers put drivers together. That way we aren’t waking those who may have worked late and vice versa.

The Ins And Outs Of The Job (And The Realizations That Come With It)

The drivers are in charge of 17 passengers, and our job is to provide a quality tour of Glacier and to do it safely. There are 33 buses on the road. Originally, the National Park Service ordered 500 of the buses during the Great Depression from the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Can you say jobs program for a part of Ohio? Glacier received 35 buses and has been able to keep them running all these years.

The bus company eventually ceded ownership of the fleet to a charity in 1999 and the charity went to the Ford Motor Company to renovate all the buses. Ford completed the renovation, even adding a dual fuel system that burned gasoline or propane at the flick of a switch. Ford added a bigger engine, power steering, and bigger brakes, then turned the buses back over to the charity, which gave them to the U.S. Government. Today, each bus sports a government license plate.

Views from Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Mike Owens

Now, the buses are undergoing another round of renovations, with the engines getting the latest technology: electric motors to reduce fossil fuel consumption. This round of improvements is being paid for by Xanterra as part of its 2014 contract to operate the buses.

Reducing fossil fuel use by the buses is part of a plan to be more environmentally conscious. One of the reasons the park is seeing a huge increase in visitor numbers is that the namesake features are slowly disappearing. The park is called Glacier for a reason; more than two dozen glaciers sit high up in the mountains, mostly on northeast facing slopes.

When the area of northwest Montana was first surveyed by scientists in the mid-1800s, they counted more than 150 glaciers in the region. But thanks to rising global temperatures, caused in part by fossil fuel consumption, the earth is warming and the glaciers are melting. There are dramatic photos of how one of the biggest glaciers in the park has virtually disappeared since the turn of the 20th century. It’s called Grinnell Glacier and is located in the Many Glacier Valley.

Grinnell Glacier over the years.

Scientists tell us that the annual average temperature in the Glacier National Park region has gone up two degrees in the last 100 years. That may not sound like much, but at the elevation the park sits at and the latitude, those higher temperatures have had a dramatic impact on those piles of frozen ice.

There’s also been an impact on the flora and fauna in the park. Trees are growing above the normal tree line in some areas, thanks to slightly warmer temperatures. Animals are also affected.

A critter called the pika requires low temperatures all summer long. But, if it’s too warm, the pika hides out under rocks at higher elevations. That means the animals don’t harvest grass, which they need to survive through the winter. If pikas die off, there’s problems farther up the food chain, as weasels and wolverines and hawks and eagles may miss a pika meal. We are all truly dependent on each other.

While I came to Glacier initially to see the sights in 2015, I’ve since become an advocate for loving the region. I promote it to visitors and try to give them an overview of what the place is all about.

I remind visitors that this is their park -- that it was created so we can enjoy it today. There are 750 miles of hiking trails, huge lakes, beautiful waterfalls, and animals everywhere. But, we have a huge job, and that’s preserving it all for our kids and their kids. I tell older visitors on my bus tours that they’ve done a pretty good job of preserving the park: visiting, paying entry fees, and paying taxes.

Now, we need to be vigilant to make sure the Glacier we hand off to the next generations looks as good then as it does today.