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Opinion: Slaking a thirst a growing challenge

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 20, 2024 2:00 AM

Last week I had a story on Glacier National Park’s glaciers breaking up — a little less than half of the named glaciers in the park have broken into pieces and I suspect it’s even worse now, since the study was based on images taken a few years ago, and last I checked, summers weren’t getting any cooler. Last year was the warmest on record for good old planet Earth.

Still, the reactions were what I would suspect on Fakebook. The tired old argument that the Earth has warmed before and this is just a cycle.

That’s true, the Earth has been warm before, but there’s a big old wildcard nowadays, right? Today there’s 8 billion people and counting on the good old Earth.

And a lot of those people rely on ice and snow from mountains for their drinking water and to fill their aquifers.

The Flathead Valley happens to be one of them.

But I like to set aside the big picture of aquifers and reservoirs and drill down to even smaller, but none too real impacts on my daily life. And that comes in the summer when hiking and camping in the backcountry.

Last summer we hiked up to Brown’s Pass in Glacier National Park and crossed a large swath of what should have been Bowman Creek. While the creekbed was at least 100 feet wide, there wasn’t a drop of water in it.

It was a miserable hot day and we slogged up the drainage hoping like heck we’d hit a spring on the way up as our water bottles slowly but surely were drained as we slaked our thirst.

Fortunately we hit a spring about two-thirds the way up. But the camp at Brown’s Pass was bone dry, the creekbed there looked like it hadn’t had water in it in months. You had to walk a quarter-mile or so outside of camp to a little trickle (imagine leaving your faucet on just barely) to fill water bottles.

Brown’s Pass itself had zero water and just to the east, Thunderbird Glacier was looking like a shell of itself.

The same problem exists at other Glacier Park camps, most notably Fifty Mountain. Fifty Mountain is one of the most popular camps in Glacier because of its expansive views of numerous peaks (thus the name).

But its water source is a snowfield that, every summer, gets a little smaller. In order to find water you have to hike farther and farther from camp, and I suspect in the not-too-distant future, there won’t be any water at all later in the season.

Fortunately the good folks at the Backcountry Permit Office in Glacier do a good job of warning people about water, or the lack thereof.

But in the Bob Marshall Wilderness not so much. I’ve done several trips in the Bob where little blue lines on the map turned out to be dry and we’ve had to hike miles to find running water. I’ve even resorted to sucking water out of mudpuddles in horse prints on an occasion or two. (Which plugs the water filter quickly).

So sure, it’s easy to dismiss disappearing glaciers and snowfields.

It’s a lot harder to live with it, however.