What Smoke?

By Beacon Staff

You’d assume selling Western Montana in August, with fires consuming thousands of acres, would be as arduous as hawking space heaters. Some campgrounds and trails are closed. Sporadic delays greet visitors to Glacier National Park. Smoke blankets the region’s valleys and some days the air tastes like burnt marshmallows.

Apparently, Montana tourists are an altogether hardy and indifferent bunch. On the phone last week with Racene Friede, the executive director at the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, I’d expected her to tell me that (obviously) many visitors have stayed home. Who wants to come to the Flathead when you can barely see the mountains?

Instead, she said her agency has received “very, very few calls about fires. They (tourists) just want to find out what’s open.”

Yes, we’re that cool. Tourism hasn’t dropped off at all. Visitors are still arriving in droves. This, despite the fact that the top four fires in the West are charring Montana’s woods. This, despite the fact that every day I grumble about the smoke.

Promotional offices, on the other hand, are beset with optimism. Such is their reason for existence. A Glacier Country press release sent last month declared, “It’s Vacation-as-Usual in Glacier National Park.” Those of us who have visited the park know that’s a lofty proclamation. The Skyland Fire has torched a good 20,000 acres near the southern end of Glacier. And the Flathead Valley has been so socked in with so much smoke that the Flathead City-County Health Department recommended that the elderly, small children and those with lung problems avoid exercising outside.

But Friede said those recommendations are aimed at just a small number of potential visitors. And Glacier Country, when not plugging the park, is also pitching indoor activities as part of the Western Montana experience. When a fire closed the Rock Creek area to travel, for example, the agency boasted that “visitors are also turning their attention to Missoula’s great indoors.” The Missoula Museum of Art and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Visitor Center were just two noted attractions.

Strong-lunged tourists are still flocking to the Flathead’s great outdoors. This tally includes my aunt and uncle, who are not only visiting the park but cutting through the Western Montana smoke on a motorcycle. The views are a little smoggy, but they’re happy. They came from Denver and are likely accustomed to low visibility.

Maybe I should stop complaining. Maybe I should stop making fun of tourists. While I use the smoky air as an excuse to park my bicycle, a family from New Jersey is likely slogging up a nearby switchback somewhere raving about the fresh air.

“Unfortunately, to some extent fires are more common,” Friede said.

Promotional offices are charged with painting a pretty face on the state when its burning mug is splashed on the front pages of every one of its daily newspapers. No small chore. But Friede makes it sound as though it’s been easy so far, which is good news for those who rely on tourism, the state’s second largest industry. She did stress that locals should do their part when a tourist asks about other entertainment options when an area is closed. “We need to be good guides,” she said. There’s always the House of Mystery!

And, at the very least, people like me need to stop complaining.

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