Leave the Driving to Someone Else

By Beacon Staff

At Lake McDonald Lodge, the doors to the skinny 12-passenger white Sprinter bus swung open and a family boarded – teenage son, dad, and mom who clomped up three steps in a leg cast. On its first day in operation, Glacier Park’s new shuttles clearly lured more than hikers lugging water-hose ready day packs and walking sticks.

While inauguration of the new Glacier National Park shuttle system hit a snag with Going-to-the-Sun Road not opening all 52 miles until evening on its first day, the park’s free, voluntary shuttles still drew 1,000 riders. Some preferred to let someone else drive the curves; others sought to reduce their own carbon footprints. By day’s end, some buses even bypassed stops because every seat was filled. The shuttles proved so popular that the park service is already looking at ways to increase the fleet.

“Some call the shuttles the biggest change since the Sun Road was built,” said Gary Danczyk, project manager for mitigation on the Sun Road. “But it’s timely, since the tourism industry is becoming more environmentally conscious.”

Not only does the mass transit alleviate traffic congestion and reduce emissions dirtying Glacier’s air quality, but the 22 mpg Sprinters can run on biodiesel, as can the larger Optimas replacing temporary east side buses borrowed from Yellowstone National Park.

“You think of all the gas hogs going up and down the mountains, and it’s time for this,” driver Nancy Speer said.

Many riders embarked from the easy-to-navigate Apgar Transit Center parking lot – walking through the center to the covered log bench-rimmed waiting area where the first bus left at 7:15 a.m. On its tail, another quickly trailed.

Some riders skipped a departing shuttle just to peruse the new 4,200-square-foot building with its touch-screen visitor information kiosks and gorgeously photographed park region displays outside. With motion sensor lights, low flow toilets, native plants from the site, bicycle racks, and night sky lights, the park service hopes the center gains a Gold Level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Designed to be unstaffed, the center’s interpretive displays yield a depth of information comparable to the park’s Web site. But just in case a warm body is needed, enthusiastic knowledgeable uniformed volunteers roamed outside to answer questions. Debby Mensch, who oversees the 27 volunteers, noted, “Over half previously worked for the park.”

Other riders boarded at one of the 16 shuttle stops. Topped with arty mountain cutouts and melding shuttle information with wildlife facts, the shuttle stops are more than a place to wait for a bus. Each sign features different wildlife with prints captured below in cement – the grizzly bear at The Loop or bald eagle at Fish Creek.

With 29 drivers hired for the east side and 63 for the west, the park’s newest employees work under Flathead County’s Eagle Transit, rather than the National Park Service. They are mostly behind-the-wheel professionals experienced in school bus and truck driving. With bus driving in her blood, Courtney Fisher drives the 30-minute shuttle loop through Apgar-Fish Creek. Her father Phil owned a Flathead school bus business for 40 years. Like many other park employees, she’s here for the summer while looking for a teaching job.

While drivers may identify Heaven’s Peak, they are not interpretive guides with encyclopedic park-wide knowledge, but they are eager. “I got to work this morning and said, ‘Cool!’” said driver Scott Zahler, who reported the Sprinters handled like cars. On the west side, he makes two Logan Pass trips per shift-dodging visitors who hug centerlines. Two hours up, two hours down, repeat.

On a late afternoon bus leaving Logan Pass, a family foursome recently immigrated to Kalispell from Indiana hopped the big-windowed shuttles for their first Glacier introduction. Two Highline Trail hikers from Pennsylvania also rode down to their Sprague Creek campsite with plans to catch the bus to Lake McDonald Lodge for dinner.

At Avalanche, the shuttle added a New York couple. They rode earlier to Logan Pass to touch snow before dropping back down the west side to walk Trail of the Cedars. Now, they were headed toward their too-large-for-the-Sun Road RV at Fish Creek. “I’d rather let them do the driving,” said the smiling New Yorker who assumed the park shuttles had been running for years, not one day.

For hikers, the shuttle eliminated the race for coveted parking spots amid the opening day skier, sightseer, and hiker mayhem at Logan Pass. On the return to Apgar, instead of squishing into a hot car baked in the sun, they climbed onto an air-conditioned rig. With comfortable seats and a smooth ride, some even cat-napped – no fighting the sleep-inducing Lake McDonald curves behind a wheel.

“We have plenty of rough edges,” notes Danczyk. On board GPS computers, for instance, won’t even be integrated until next season. “Our big challenge is piling this on all of the road work in a year where the emergency work challenges are particularly daunting.”

Daunting, perhaps, but it’s a dazzling start.