In Glacier National Park, parts of the terrain look like another planet. Buildings are buried under several feet of snow with just their awnings exposed. The roads that have been cleared are flanked by six-foot-high berms. With how much is made about the way fires can affect our lives in late summer, we often forget how persistent snow can make our lives miserable in the early spring.
Plows have begun rumbling with a daunting task ahead of them: making our most iconic mountain thoroughfares, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, navigable. It’s a tricky process, especially when the weather has been playing cruel games with us for more than a month.
For about a week, it appeared spring had arrived in earnest. The sun came out, the snow began to melt and a few brave souls put on their shorts. But Mother Nature was just kidding, as she often does to Montanans, who don’t always get the joke. Winter returned with a vengeance and brought more snow, wind and frigid temperatures.
This week, spring is scheduled to arrive for a second time, but it is also forecast to bring with it rain to the valley floor, which could mean more snow in the mountains, which would mean that snowpack already well above average could increase.
It’s easy to wish for all this to melt away at once, which I do every April morning I see snow on the ground. But if the temperatures rise too fast, the warnings will follow: “It’s about to flood!” And then we have to prepare for that. Already, I’ve had colleagues have their crawlspaces flooded because of melting snow and roofs replaced because of ice dams.
Then again, if it doesn’t melt and the upper elevations remain cold, the long process of opening up all of Glacier Park will only take longer. That, in turn, can hurt local businesses surrounding the park that rely on its opening for much of their profits. When the park service announces the road is open to Logan Pass, it marks the unofficial start of summer.
The latest the Sun Road ever opened due to weather was July 13, 2011. And the only other time it opened after July 4, besides its grand opening in 1933, was on July 10, 1943, because of wartime reductions.
So, what can we wish for this year? Perhaps the best-case scenario is how the weather played out last year. Following a big winter with above-average snowpack, 2017 saw its own flood warnings and worries over when the Sun Road would open.
Instead, spring slowly eased into summer. And luckily, the water didn’t get too high and the Sun Road opened on June 28 before the big Fourth of July holiday. That, I suppose, is the best-case scenario this year.
What last year also showed us is that despite heavy moisture, nothing prevents a fire season when hot and dry weather arrives and doesn’t leave for weeks at a time. When parts of Glacier closed early last year and hazardous smoke drove tourists away from the region, the local economy suffered.
That said, the park attracted a record number of people last year, smashing its previous mark with more than 3.3 million visitors. This year, we’re likely to draw a similar number of tourists. For locals, we can only hope for little flooding and even less smoke and for this bountiful winter to begin winding down.
Please melt, snow. But not too fast.