By, Andrew Lahr – Centennial Volunteer @ Glacier National Park
Before coming to Glacier I had no clue what my daily responsibilities would be. From office work to leading guided park tours, in my mind I could be doing any number of things. To some this may have been somewhat stressful and bewildering, but as far as I was concerned I would clean toilets all year as long as I was living in Glacier. After attending orientation in Rocky Mountain National Park however these types of things were made somewhat clearer, but the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador job description remained vague, and rightly so. How could the individuals who proposed the position encompass the needs of 70 greatly differing park units into one job description? Still, to not have a clear image of what would be expected of me on the first day was somewhat perplexing. Rather than let this get the best of my excitement, I remained open minded and eager to get to work in any division or with any personnel I could.
Once I arrived at Glacier and met with my boss, my day to day slowly began to develop into a somewhat regular set of responsibilities and expectations. At first my schedule was quite sparse and on days when I was scheduled it was hard to get more than six hours of work. This made it even harder for me to achieve the expected forty hour work week, leaving me worried that I would be able to earn enough hours required for the Americorp education scholarship. Soon enough, as park visitation rose and more and more volunteer groups came to work, things changed. When I was once struggling to work a normal schedule, I was now busier than ever. Three days a week I was out in the field working ten hour days with Boy Scout, Girl Scout, conservation corps, and rotary club groups. One day depending on my group schedule was devoted to planning a preparation. The last day, Saturdays, became devoted to working the visitor center. Although I enjoy field work and facilitating groups in service opportunities, my visitor center shift soon became the highlight of my work week.
Worried at first that I would grow into the cynical local, learning to despise the naiveté of the visitor (dare I say tourist), I was surprised by my excitement for front desk interpretation. At the visitor center desk I am the second park employee (after fee station rangers) to speak with most visitors entering the park. I get to answer any burgeoning questions that visitors might have developed during their travels. For many this simply entails helping them find a camp site or providing them with weather information. For a surprising number of visitors however these questions are more an expression of their lack of preparation for enjoying such an expansive park. These encounters usually end up with me planning entire vacations. At this point I have most likely planned over five hundred sojourns throughout the park’s over one million acres of beautiful scenery. In a way this lets me live vicariously through hundreds of people with differing levels of ability, experience, and excitement for the outdoors.
Many visitors simply wish to drive the road, stay in a hotel, and see a glacier. For these guests, I guide them to the road, inform them of their many lodging options throughout the park, and sadly inform them that their chances of seeing a Glacier are quite limited. Along the road there is only one viewable glacier from the Jackson Glacier Overlook just past Siyeh Bend. You can also see Grinnell from the road into Many Glacier, but more often than not, the two and a half hour drive to the Many Glacier valley is too far. I’ve only recently discovered a third opportunity to see a glacier by car right along Rt. 2 before entering West Glacier, but stopping to see this glacier is a little harder said than done and the park does not like to condone distracted driving.
A majority of visitors come to day hike and car camp. This is probably the most fun type of encounter while working the visitor center desk. I am able to share my front country experiences and base suggestions while tailoring to the visitors desires. Many come with ideas of places they’d like to visit and I base my suggestion accordingly in compliance with park road and trail conditions (as well as my own opinions). Often visitors that fall into this category however can be somewhat green, naive about their own ability or the feasibility of them accomplishing what they wish to do. For example, many visitors wish to climb peaks or to glaciers. Luckily there are some peaks that are only a few hour hike without to much gain in elevation. However finding these trail heads and routes require buying books and guides. Hiking to glaciers is a much larger feat. The closest glacier to hike to, Grinnell, is easily a 12 mile round trip hike. For the experienced hiker this is a moderate hike with little elevation gain. However, for a family of four with the youngest being 6 (most families that come to the park) this is not a feasible hike. In these cases I simply inform the group that they will not be hiking to a glacier while they are here and direct them to their options of viewing glaciers from afar. This is also a great chance to inform visitors of the sad nature of our glaciers. With only 24 glaciers in the park, most are in high alpine cirques hidden from view and only accessible via back country trails.
Lastly, there are the experienced outdoorsmen just stopping by to learn any park news, check in with park rangers, and find the back country office. To be honest, these are my favorite. This is where I get to pull out all of my dream hikes and camping spots. Over the past three months I have spent quite a bit of my free time planning out trips that I will never take(at least not this summer) and searching for hidden lakes filled with fat fish to catch. Although I hope to one day take on the majority of these adventures, with the season as short as it is here in NW Montana it is unfeasible to think I will in one summer. When I get the chance, as I said before, I like to live vicariously through these people. I send them on my dream hikes, them promising that they will let me know how it goes when they get back (although this rarely happens). Fishermen are my favorite because I get to see their eyes bright up when I tell them my fishing stories and where they could have similar experiences (fishing in glacier is a whole different ball game). There are also those who are very experienced and have their plan set out and simply wish to find the backcountry office (many parks have their backcountry permitting in the visitor centers where as at Glacier its own separate building).
Of course with all of this comes the occasional inquisition of description of proper bear encounter procedure, silly questions, and bouts of frustration but I don’t think I will ever come to resent this responsibility. Although I did not fully understand what my job would encompass, I did know that I wanted to be there on the front lines, connecting people with their parks. I want to show the world how great our public lands (land that as tax paying Americans own) could be and how great we as individuals can be while outside exploring them. For this reason, I approach every visitor center encounter with the same enthusiasm, passion, and insight. As Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors it is our job to facilitate amazing experiences on public lands for everyone, and for that reason I love my job and the people I work with every day.