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Generation Scorched

Working for cheap in national parks has been a rite of youth. For this little band, it was a trial by fire.

Jess Mackie 30 Aug

Jess Mackie is an environmental journalist based in British Columbia. She is currently serving as the inaugural fellow at Hakai Magazine.

A summer ago, I flew from my home in Vancouver to northwestern Montana. I wanted to sample the nomadic way of life some of my friends were trying. Unlike me, they’d stepped off the path — school, career, family — that, with time, would offer stability and routine. They’d chosen to work minimum-wage jobs that placed them in nature at its most spectacular. For 10 days, I joined a group of seasonal workers in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The Parkies, they called themselves.

The Parkies did not actually live in the park, but 10 minutes down Highway 2, on the edge of a two-saloon town of 500 named Martin City. Compared with touristy offerings in the area — safari-themed glamping and a vegetarian-friendly taco shack called The Wandering Gringo — Martin City “feels more like Wild, Wild West-type shit,” as one Parkie told me.

The Parkies’ dormitory, called Sugar Hill, was a plain, one-story building that once housed a daycare. A playhouse made to look like a fire station still sat in the backyard. It was where some of the bolder Parkies would go to have sex.

Around 20 or so people lived at Sugar Hill in the summer of 2018, most of them in their early to mid-twenties. They hailed from all over the U.S. — Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts. Some had just graduated from college, while others were taking a break from it. They shared a restlessness, a yearning for an awakening that would show them who they want to be or what they want to do. Like John Muir, Edward Abbey and Christopher McCandless — the inspiration for many — they were searching for themselves in national parks.

“Here, everyone’s on a different level of self-discovery,” said Amanda McDonald, a 22-year-old, big-eyed Parkie from the other side of Montana. “I think that’s why, at Sugar Hill, we all got along so well, because we all had that underlying connection with each other.” The same desire to meet new people, to be unencumbered, to live selfishly or give too much of yourself — while exploring one of the wildest places left in the country.

By the time I arrived at Sugar Hill in August, the bonfire pit, once a gathering place for late-night parties, had been abandoned. It was hot and bone-dry and campfires were officially banned in the region. Grasses had turned the colour of straw and trees threatened to catch fire at any moment. Most days, smoke shrouded the mountains. I figured it came from some small, contained fire nearby, or perhaps from all those burning out of control further west, in California, Oregon and Washington. I didn’t much think about it.

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What drew tourists and Parkies to Glacier National Park was its natural beauty, the perfect setting to reflect, look inward, feel free. Photo of Lake McDonald by Mukerjee via Wikimedia.

Glacier, hard up against the Canadian border, encompasses more than one million acres of alpine forest. The Blackfeet, whose reservation lies on the eastern border of the park, revere it as the Backbone of the World. Several decades before its creation in 1910, back when bison numbered in the thousands, the park was their hunting ground. In the early 1900s, the Great Northern Railway commissioned the painter John Fery to capture Glacier’s natural grandeur as a way of enticing travellers westward. A century later, tourists are drawn to the park by the filtered allure of social media — glacial lakes burnished in turquoise hues, wildlife an arm’s length away, sinewy hikers at the edge of a precipice.

On the second morning of my stay, I woke before dawn to catch the first shuttle to the mountains. My plan was to hike the Gunsight Pass Trail with a few Parkies, one of whom was a 23-year-old named Sinclair Swift who worked at the Sinclair gas station on the outskirts of the park. The trail would take us 20 miles from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts through 50 miles of the park from west to east, to the Lake McDonald Lodge. It’d provide me with my first glimpse of the Crown of the Continent.

As we drove to the gates of the national park, we passed through West Glacier, a town devised to lure tourists to its eponymous gift shop, restaurant and mercantile. Outside of the ice cream parlour, a sign advertised the Glacier Sundae — huckleberry and vanilla ice cream, huck sauce, whipped cream — with a hard sell: “Get one before they MELT!!!”

In 1850, six decades before the creation of Glacier National Park, surveyors counted 150 glaciers in this part of the Rockies. In 1968, there were 83. Now, only 26 remain. Scientists project that by 2030, all the glaciers will have melted completely or to an extent that they can no longer be classified as glaciers — a minimum area of 0.1 square kilometres.

The year before my visit, in 2017, over three million people visited Glacier, a third of them in July alone. The summer of 2018, encouraged by the previous year’s record-breaking attendance, United Airlines added a daily, direct flight from Los Angeles. The surge of visitors makes it increasingly difficult to secure campgrounds and backcountry passes. Delays along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which has been undergoing reconstruction since 2007, are frequent. At Logan Pass, the highest point reached by the Sun Road, the parking lot fills by 8:30 a.m. That high up — 6,646 feet above sea level — snow covers the ground in patches. After two hours of traffic, tourists can be seen stumbling out of their parked cars as they head toward the visitor centre, their flip-flops slapping against the pavement.

The sun the day of our hike was unforgiving. Even thousands of feet up in the air, I never felt anything but hot. Melted water glistened on the surface of snowfields, making them slick to cross; Sinclair held my hand as I did so.

With straight brown hair and a wiry beard that ended at his Adam’s apple, Sinclair wore blue jeans and a white T-shirt nearly every day. He looked how I expected a Parkie to look: rugged and slightly unkempt, equal parts Tom Sawyer and Gold Rush prospector.

In the year before coming to Glacier, Sinclair moved from his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to a college town on the state’s coast. He planned to study physical therapy, but quickly discovered that the state had increased the requirements to enter the field. More time and money would have to be invested to get the degree, and he decided it wasn’t worth it.

For a while, he stayed in the small coastal city, taking a job at the school’s cafeteria. But he felt lonely in his position: a college-aged kid working at, but not attending, college. At home, he said, you’re only working to pay your bills. “You check off the boxes and you don’t really have the energy for anything else, because nothing is making you happy.”

When I asked him how he’d changed over the summer, he replied, “Just way happier.”

By the early afternoon, as we made our descent, we stumbled upon the remnants of the previous year’s wildfire. Magenta fireweed, a pioneer species that recovers shortly after a blaze, blanketed the ground. Conifers stood among them as black, skeletal remains.

The Sprague Fire, named after a nearby creek, burned 17,000 acres along the Gunsight Pass Trail after lightning ignited it on Aug. 10, 2017. By the end of the month, it had burned the historic Sperry Chalet down to its stone foundation. The re-opening is set for the summer of 2020.

I’d fallen behind Sinclair. By the time I caught up to him at the ruins of Sperry Chalet, he’d been lying shirtless in the sun for more than an hour. Here, in Glacier, “I almost literally need less sleep,” he told me later. The sentiment seemed true for many of the Parkies. They hung out late into the night, drinking or smoking or just talking on the couches in the common area, a Hayao Miyazaki movie playing in the background. In the morning, they’d rise early to hike or to cook a big breakfast, blasting songs from a Khalid album or from Disney’s Mulan.

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The Sugar Hill dorm in Martin City, Montana, is a ten-minute drive from Glacier National Park. Jordan Alexander, 25 last summer, journeyed from Mississippi for his first Parkie experience. Photos: Jess Mackie.

The comedown arrived with the lengthening shadows of late summer.

“There’s a shift,” Amanda recalled. You arrive in May excited to meet everyone and do all the hikes you’d dreamed of. “And then once you do all that, and you’ve done what you came here to do, it just settles back into what a job is: you’re just working to make money.”

We were outside as she told me this, around the picnic table behind the dorm. Mosquitoes buzzed around us as night fell. Kellan Zinkgraf, her 33-year-old boyfriend who she’d met at Sugar Hill, sat next to her, nodding in the dimming light. “So there was definitely a shift,” she continued. “There was such an excitement. It used to be like when people would walk in, people would be like ‘Wow, holy shit you’re here!’ And now people are like ‘Hey, did you see the kitchen? It’s fucking messy again.’” 

By mid-August, Julianna Donaher, 24, had been the dorm’s RA for three weeks. One of the first things she did in her new role was address the state of the kitchen. After months, it had become inundated with unwashed dishes. Dried bits of egg clung to burners. Spilled beer coated counters. She decided to take away the communal pots and pans. If some people couldn’t handle the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves, then no one should.

It’d been two years since Julianna graduated from college, in Chicago. She’d grown unhappy working ticket sales for the city’s symphony orchestra. “At a certain point, loans and rent and, you know, if you’re doing something you love, love, love, it’s okay to be poor,” she said. “But I couldn’t say that. Three loves would have been excessive.” When Pursuit — the company that operates many of the shops in West Glacier — called offering a position that she didn’t necessarily want, that she had applied for on a whim, she accepted. “‘Cool,’” she thought. “‘Moving to Montana.’”

“This is a weird period of time,” she said, as we sat on her bedroom floor. “It’s four months. You don’t get a chance to test the loyalty of people — not that you do that. Not that you get new friends and you’re like, ‘Let’s put them through the wringer.’ But there are certain situations where you’re like, ‘You’re a fair-weather friend. You flip-flop based on popularity. Interesting.’ It’s changed the dynamic a little bit.”

I asked if she could imagine working another seasonal job after the summer. She couldn’t. “I’m fascinated by the adults that have been doing this for a couple of seasons,” she said. “I’m just like, ‘What’s going on?’”

“But it does look like happiness,” she conceded. “Like I can absolutely believe that is their version of happiness.”

That summer in Glacier was Jordan Alexander’s first Parkie experience. A 25-year-old from Mississippi, he had an easy, relaxed demeanour that won him friends from many of the cliques that’d formed over the months. Until Aug. 11, I hadn’t once seen him perturbed.

It was nearly a year to the day that the Sprague Fire started, and the weather had started out clear. Jordan got off work early from his job at the gift shop. He’d planned to hike around Logan Pass, but by the time he left, clouds had rolled in. He wasn’t worried though; he’d never heard thunder in the park — hadn’t seen anything but dry weather in months — and didn’t see a reason to turn back.

Late that night, he reached the bottom of the mountain, pitched his tent and slept. When he arrived at Sugar Hill the next morning, “Everybody’s talking about a plume cloud.”

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The new normal? A plume of smoke from the growing Howe Ridge Fire last August provides the backdrop for tourists at Glacier Park’s Lake McDonald. Photo: NPS.

That day, at half-past 7 p.m., the National Weather Service in Missoula, Montana, tweeted a series of siren and thermometer emojis. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit, West Glacier had broken the record for the hottest day in its reported history. Around that time, lightning struck north of the Lake McDonald Lodge, along the Howe Ridge, sparking fire.

Over the next 24 hours, 20 acres of forest were swallowed by flames. At 8 p.m., park officials closed the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the lodge to Logan Pass. An hour later, the lodge itself was evacuated, as it had been the previous year when the Sprague Fire threatened its buildings. Three days later, the Howe Ridge Fire had spread over 2,500 acres. By the time it was officially out, on Sep. 28, it had consumed 14,522 acres from Rogers Lake to Lake McDonald.

On the evening after the Howe Ridge fire broke out, Jordan and a friend drove out to the park to take a better look. “We went to Lake McDonald Lodge, and they were evacuating everybody,” he said. “I explain it like the Titanic. You see all these people running around with suitcases.” And National Park Service workers were “directing everybody, they’re not letting anybody in.”

“It was insane,” he said. “The whole landscape, everywhere around, was just fire.”

Meanwhile, the Parkies gathered in Sugar Hill’s common area. Every few minutes, Julianna dialled the park’s emergency line for updates. The rest of us sat uneasily on couches while we waited for instruction. We soon learned of the lodge’s evacuation and the closure to the western part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, news Jordan would confirm later that night. The room shifted with the announcement. Without the Sun Road, Martin City and West Glacier were cut off from the rest of the park. What might that mean for their favourite hikes? For their pay cheques?

Some of the Parkies sighed loudly. They performed their annoyance, yet despite their best efforts, it was clear the wildfire unnerved them. It seemed in that moment that they were reckoning with their smallness, and the reality that they had been living in a fantasy. And that fantasy had just shattered.

“Forest-fire season is going two months longer and it’s burning earlier,” Kellan said. “It makes me sad because I grew up here in Montana and just to see what’s happening and realize this is going to be a continuous thing. It bums me out. And, fuck, where am I going to live in the summer now?” 

Since the mid-1980s, the area of land that burns annually across the American West has more than doubled. Warmer temperatures and drier conditions have lengthened fire season, and there is little scientific debate as to whether this trend is a consequence of climate change. Rising temperatures in the spring have prompted snow to melt earlier, resulting in drier soils and vegetation that amplify fuel aridity. And as long as there is fuel — dried-out or dead biomass — the amount of land on fire will continue to grow in the coming decades.

Apgar Village, where Jordan worked, sits at the edge of Lake McDonald. On a normal day, it offers a breathtaking view of the expansive lake, its waters reflecting the surrounding mountains. But as Howe Ridge burned, under the veil of smoke that lasted well into September, you could stand at the lake’s pebbled shore and fail to see it. “People were literally coming up and asking us for postcards of what Lake McDonald looked like,” Jordan said, when I spoke with him last fall. “It sucked showing them what they couldn’t see.” Two nights later, I asked Amanda if she’d be ready to leave Sugar Hill when her contract was up in September.

“I’m ready to leave today,” she said. 

‘Fear mixed with nonchalance.’ Watching Howe Ridge burn across Lake McDonald last summer. Photo: NPS.

Four days after lightning sparked the Howe Ridge Fire, I left. I’d contemplated leaving earlier, fearing that if I didn’t the airport would close and flames would engulf us. I see now that our emergency was just another step toward a wider social acclimation. Wildfires on this scale are now normal, and people have grown used to them. Flying home, across the western landscape, all I could see was smoke.

In the weeks that followed, I kept in touch with the Parkies. I learned it wasn’t long before people started to leave Sugar Hill. A few who had worked as housekeepers at Lake McDonald Lodge lost their jobs when guests and staff were evacuated. West Glacier didn’t have enough work for them and they didn’t want to transfer to East Glacier, on the other side of the park, as other workers did when the smoke became too overwhelming. Instead, they decided to move on. Many of the others quit, their minimum-wage jobs not enough to keep them around in such desolation.

Then September came and people began to leave as their contracts expired. A group of Parkies, including Julianna, ditched Glacier for Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, where the season lasts well into the fall. Kellan and Amanda were headed for California, where they hoped to find jobs trimming cannabis.

One by one, friends packed their belongings and drove away from Sugar Hill. The fire had brought them closer in the weeks that left them without a park to explore, the air quality too poor to be outside. By the last week of September, Sinclair had only a couple more days at the dorm and would soon leave behind his roommate, Jordan. They planned to meet up again and find seasonal jobs when the winter skiing season began at Big Sky Resort, southeast of Glacier.

After Sinclair left, Jordan lived at Sugar Hill by himself for nearly a week, alone among newly vacated rooms and the kitchen without its usual filth.

Rain poured down as the season ended, depriving the wildfire of its fuel. The air cleared and Jordan began hiking again. On his last day, Sep. 29, he hopped in the seat of a red jammer, one of the stretch buses operated by the park since the 1930s, and rode up to Logan Pass. There, on the Continental Divide, snow was falling. He looked out toward the peaks of the Lewis Range: Clements Mountain to the west, Reynolds to the south. Precambrian rock faced him in all directions, yielding only to the steady force of erosion.

The images of last summer linger in my mind. I had fled fire to arrive home to the worst fire season in B.C.’s history. Vancouver smelled like burned coals, and I kept telling friends in the U.S. that our city had worse air quality than Beijing.

This year, so far, the burning of B.C. and the great forested regions from the Rockies to the Pacific has been less ferocious. We have been granted a reprieve, but for how long? In our bones we know what has become the new normal.

What stays with me the most is that look of fear I’d seen on the faces of the Parkies I’d grown to know. Fear mixed with a kind of nonchalance that our generation has perfected. An attitude we have adopted to survive in the Anthropocene.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Environment

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