The trailheads are empty, parking lots are quiet and gates are closed. During any other May, Glacier National Park would be abuzz as employees prepare for the busy tourist season that is just a few weeks a way. But this is unlike any other year.
Glacier Park has been closed for over a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, and at this point it appears it will remain closed until at least the end of May with a staged opening sometime after that. But when it does finally open, all signs point to it being a summer unlike any other in the park’s history. Evidence of that came last week when the Glacier Park Boat Co. announced that it would not open this year. People with reservations for boat rides this summer will be able to transfer their reservation to next summer at a 10% discount or get a full refund.
This is the first time since World War II that boat tours will not be offered in the park, said Glacier Park Boat Co. owner Scott Burch.
Burch said he made the decision not to open for a number of reasons. One was that practicing social distancing on a small boat — with just one way on and one way off and a limited number of seats — would be nearly impossible. Rules regarding employee housing in the park meant there wouldn’t be enough room for all of his regular employees in the dorms. And even simple tasks like buying a ticket or helping a passenger board a boat would be complicated. There was also the question of whether or not people would want to ride a boat.
“Even if the park opens up this summer, no one really knows what the situation will look like,” he said. “We’re in survival mode, but we’re also trying to be socially responsible… I don’t want anyone in the Glacier Park Boat Co. to be exposed to the coronavirus.”
While the historic boats will not be taking passengers, they will likely be on the water at some point this year, said Operations Manager Tyrel Johnson. That’s because if there’s a forest fire there is simply no way to protect the boat inside the onshore boathouse.
“We can protect a boat in the water, but we can’t protect it in the boathouse,” Johnson said.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of lodges inside the park as well as the popular Red Bus tours, is also trying to figure out what the 2020 season will look like. Marc Ducharme, general manager for Glacier National Parks Lodges, said if Xanterra does open, it will be a delayed start. The earliest any of its services would begin in the park is June 15. The company previously planned to have the lodges open in May and early June.
At this point, it’s unclear when Glacier Park will open anyway. Superintendent Jeff Mow said reopening the park would be a joint decision with state, tribal and local officials.
Presently, about 160 people are working in the park, completing essential duties like gillnetting invasive lake trout and taking care of carcasses and other attractants in public places (areas with services and buildings). Officials want to make sure that bears waking up from their winter slumber to a human-less Glacier Park don’t get too used to it.
Mow said that the park would likely be offering fewer services this year than in past years. Because of rules surrounding social distancing, the park and concessioners will not be able to house as many employees as they normally would, and some campgrounds will probably not open at all.
Work is also continuing to clear the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Mow said it’s considered an essential task for a number of reasons, mostly because park officials don’t want heavy-tracked equipment to be running directly on bare pavement for fear that it will damage it. But there’s also an economic reason.
“It’s important for us to do what we can for the economic recovery, and everyone I’ve talked to wants the Sun Road open,” he said. “If there is one thing that says ‘Glacier National Park is open,’ it’s having the Sun Road open.”