Photos by Aven Whittington
An American railroad tycoon’s lifelong dream became the destination-of-a-lifetime for more than eighty area Boy Scouts and their leaders this summer.
Jackson’s Troop 1 scouts headed by rail to Chicago. Sightseeing in the Windy City, they continued westward along the Great Northern rail line built by Louis Hill. The aptly named “Empire Builder” opened the grandeur of the West at the turn of the 20th century and was intentionally designed to ferry tourists to the line’s end destination in Glacier Park, Montana.
“We got to watch a huge chunk of the country unfold,” said trip organizer Jay Cooke. “From the Delta, to urban St. Louis and Chicago, the Western mountains, we watched the landscape morph. The train ride was almost as much of the experience as hiking in Glacier.”
Established in 1910, Glacier National Park was difficult to reach. The advent of the “Empire Builder,” along with Hill’s massive marketing effort urging people to “See America First” brought people to the West.
A string of mountain ridge chalets and lakeside lodges accessible only by foot and horse made access to the park difficult.
The establishment of the Going-to-the-Sun road in 1932 by cutting a 16-mile swath of treacherous road through the park, ascending some 3500 feet, opened vistas of more than a million acres of unspoiled wilderness and brought tourism to its zenith. In 1910, there were 150 glaciers for visitors to see. On this trip...twenty five.
Figuring out how to take best advantage of the park took a year of planning.
“We knew we had to have an advance party to get everything ready and start the trip off right,” said Clark Monroe, a Scout leader with twenty years of operations experience with the Mississippi National Guard. Clark, along with his wife Misti, flew ahead. And in the way only a Southerner, especially a Mississippian can experience, the magnolia connection delivered. Clark’s fraternity brother at Ole Miss just happened to own the only car rental and general store across the road from the rail station in Glacier. Serendipity at its best.
The scene at the station was managed chaos at its finest. Scouts tossed dozens of packs, supplies and provisions into vehicles in record time.
“You can’t exactly stop and call for a taxi,” said Monroe. “For the next week, they and my son Wake (13) had to push harder than anything they’d ever experienced.”
“Freestyle” is the word that can best describe the approach to their departure from the station. Older scouts, 16 and up, headed for the western edge of Glacier near Lake McDonnell for a more ‘off-trail’ experience. Scouts aged 10 to 15, headed to the eastern border of the park to more easily access trailheads. Some fathers and sons opted for biking and fly-fishing separate from the troop. Others took kayaks across Lake McDonnell where famed painter Charles Russell produced most of his work. A support team of moms and sisters camped in the comfortable clime of a small motel between the two outposts near hiking and horseback riding trails and the promise of huckleberry pancakes.
According to Aven Whittington, Christmas morning anticipation almost paled in comparison to sunrise the next day.
“My son Charlie (10), was the youngest. Watching him handle himself during a hail storm on Highline trail, one of the toughest in the Park, made me so proud! It was a hairy situation and he had a good attitude the entire time.” Aven continued,
“We hiked more than 35 miles, swam in waterfalls, polar bear dove into lakes with icebergs from the glaciers. We saw unbelievable wildlife, a moose chased down a trail! We watched a grizzly try to eat his way into a car like a can of Spam!” said Aven. “We will have that trip for the rest of our lives.”
Native Canadian Nils Mungan had a chance to show his three sons what he’d experienced his whole life.
“For us to be in the midst of the majesty of God’s creation was just incredible.”
And for this veteran marathon runner the physical aspects just elevated the experience.
“We came down from Grinnell glacier getting slammed by lightening and hail. The only way across the lake at the base was a ferry. The vista was just surreal.”
But more surreal was the wildlife: marmots, sheep, goats, bison and, one evening, a close encounter with a grizzly bear.
“I was coming back with Forrest Hutchinson (12) from Ptarmigan Tunnel trail, a remote hike where bear are often spotted. We saw a grizzly cross the trail twenty feet in front of us. We froze. The bear was completely (thankfully) uninterested. We stayed until we were sure he was gone. Needless to say, we don’t have a picture of the bear.”
On the morning of our departure, fires near our easternmost campsite closed the town of St. Mary. This generation will never experience the park the same way this crew did. It was a lifetime experience that will fuel a lifetime of campfire stories.