A Climate Pilgrimage to Glacier

A first-hand memory of a summer’s inspiring ‘Climate Hike’ with others in Glacier National Park.

YaleClimateConnections“What has led you here?” we ask our group of fellow climate hikers. Silence.

It is night three of our five-day, 44-mile “Climate Hike” through Glacier National Park in Montana, and 22 are gathered in a circle reflecting on the various motivations, life experiences, and learnings that have brought us to the park.For the next several minutes, the only sounds come from pens scratching, insects humming, and the fire crackling.

At a surface level, we are all in Glacier participating in Climate Ride’s charitable hiking event, Climate Hike. In order to  participate, each of us has fundraised a minimum of $2,800 to benefit environmental nonprofits. Many of us are also here to see this iconic place before climate change wipes away one of its defining features: the glaciers. Beyond that, the stories that emerged from the circle were as varied as each individual.

“I keep telling people that I’m here because of my friend Ben, but that’s not really why I’m here,” said Kaylor Garcia of Durham, North Carolina. She shared her experience in an environmental health class she had taken in graduate school, and her memories of how professors were passionate about advocating for the environment – she remembered their going to a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Working in children’s health, I think a lot about the importance of a healthy environment and access to the outdoors,” Garcia said.

Mark Reiser, a Wisconsinite who moved out to Wyoming and eventually Montana several years back, shared a story grounded in his curiosity about and love of the outdoors. Soon after settling in Laramie, Wyoming, Reiser discovered the trees along his favorite hiking trail were dying. He learned that mountain pine beetles were spreading north and surviving the winters more frequently because of climate change, imperiling the trees. He finished his story by saying, “It breaks my heart to watch the things I love die because of climate change.”

Marie-Ellen Ehounou, who now lives in Washington, D.C., told us about growing up in Ivory Coast. Because of the changing climate, she said, farmers no longer know when to plant their crops. She sees climate change as a social justice issue.

One story did unify us: that of our climate hike. For four and a half days, we hiked together, camped together, and took frigid plunges into lakes together, sharing many highs and lows along the way. We also learned the climate story of the park.

The first day’s hike had taken us up to Apgar Lookout, on Glacier’s western side, accompanied by misty rain and a chill wind. Along the way, we passed through part of the park that had burned in the Roberts Fire of 2003. That was a particularly bad fire year in which, according to a report at Climate Central, roughly 13 percent of the park’s one-million acres burned. As we witnessed swaths of dead, gray tree limbs and the fledgling lodgepole pines that were growing up in the aftermath, it was sobering to think that large wildfires across the northern Rockies are 10 times more common now than they were in 1970.

On the third day, we trekked six miles up to Grinnell Glacier. The hike was broken up by a constant patter of conversation, a sign the hikers were becoming more familiar, more comfortable, with each other.

We shared an incredible sighting of a mama grizzly and her two cubs playing in the shallows of Lake Josephine.

When we finally reached the iconic Grinnell Glacier, we were stunned. Nestled atop a glacial lake covered in icebergs was the glacier, now just a small fragment of its former glory.

“Can you even call that a glacier?” someone on our hike asked, and others said they thought it might recently have been reclassified as a snowfield. (Not so.) Nevertheless, Grinnell Glacier looked regal on its perch, a welcome respite from the dry, dusty trail we had surmounted. Led by 1% for the Planet CEO Kate Williams and her fearless teenage daughter, a few brave hikers took a polar plunge into Grinnell Lake in honor of the glacier’s life-giving waters.

After stopping at the falls for lunch, most of the group seized the opportunity for a refreshing shower beneath the cascading water.For our final day of hiking, most of the group set off on the Rockwell Falls hike. After the climate storytelling workshop from the night before, there was a deeper connection among the hikers chatting along the trail, sharing parts of their climate story with their neighbors. The storytelling workshop had created more introspection and inspiration among the group, with reflections on the true sources of motivation that led them to take on the fundraising and the physical challenges of the hike. Livia Budrys, who works in mental health, said that she was feeling excited and determined to explore the ties that connect health, well being, and the surrounding environment. By preserving the environment, she said, we heal and nurture ourselves.

On the return journey, I chatted with Ben Sander, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association, about his love for waterfalls and moose, and his delight in having seen both on this trip. Passing by a small pond, we stood silent in awe of another moose’s gangly beauty while taking a cooling walk through the shallows.

Farther on, one of our guides, Jeff Garretson, highlighted a spiraling split carved into one of the trees. He explained that it was the result of the earlier arrival of warm weather in the park.

With early springs, trees jump-start their production of sap. But with more freezing nights yet to follow, the sap can expand and split the bark: a visible scar created by our generally invisible greenhouse gas emissions.

Around the campfire that night, Alex Kendall of Chicago commented on how new perspectives have given him a concrete way to bring climate change home for people.

“I thought climate change was all about carbon, and who really cares about carbon when you’re driving to work, or using your toaster, or whatever? But learning about how climate change affects this one specific thing – trees – was really powerful.”

Climate Hike also provided participants with the experience and opportunity to develop their own climate stories; that process of finding one’s voice and feeling heard is empowering.By the end of the five-day hike, we had seen a great variety of Glacier’s unparalleled wilderness, and we left feeling connected to each other and the place in a deep way. As hikers, we shared feelings of hope, inspiration, and dedication during our last night in camp – the collective mood was incredibly uplifting. We were all going to be returning to different communities and work environments, from hospitals to energy companies to schools, but each hiker expressed a sense of empowerment and determination to continue our environmental stewardship however we could.

Finally, for many of us on the trip, being out in nature is almost a sacred experience, so hiking through Glacier National Park felt like a pilgrimage – to a place that is at once awe-inspiring and deeply threatened.Several hikers soon are expected to post their finished stories: High school senior Ani Williams’ post, for instance, is on Climate Generation’s online storytelling collection.

As the 22 climate hikers left Glacier and returned to their regular lives, all of us, regardless of our respective professions, seemed eager to create trails towards the sustainable future that our planet needs.

Katie Siegner is communications coordinator for Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, in Minneapolis.

Read the full article online here.

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