Lake McDonald of Glacier National Park
Over ten thousand years ago, during the last ice age, massive glaciers slowly moved through the mountains of Montana. As they crept along, they pushed large amounts of dirt, rock, and debris ahead of it. Toward the end of the ice age, the glaciers quickly retreated, leaving behind smaller glaciers. The smaller glaciers became trapped in the massive depression that the larger glaciers created, then began to melt, ultimately creating what we now call Lake McDonald. It sits in a U-shaped valley carved by the glaciers, stretching across ten miles and roughly 150 meters deep, it is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. Surrounding the lake on the north, south, and east are mountains capped with snow for majority of the year. Lining the shores of Lake McDonald are colorful rocks, ranging from dark red to blue.
The lake receives a large majority of its water from upper McDonald Creek. This small creek receives its water entirely from snowmelt, meaning the water is clear, cold, and lacks nutrients. As a result of this, the water in Lake McDonald is also very clear, cold, and has little to no nutrients. Unfortunately for fishers, the quality of fish in this lake is poor. Many years ago, the lake was an extraordinary place for catching bull trout, but the introduction of non-native species caused their population to decrease. As of today, though, the lake has an array of fish, including small cutthroat, rainbow trout, a couple of large bull trout, and multiple different lake trout. In this valley where Lake McDonald lies, other wildlife can be seen, such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, elk, and deer. Along with these species are other forms of wildlife, like western red cedar and hemlock.
Before Lake McDonald became a tourist site, the Kootenai Indians would perform ceremonies at the foot of the lake. To this Indian tribe, the lake was a great place to dance and they believed it was just a place where people danced and performed. Therefore, this lake was named Lake McDonald, which to them meant “Sacred Dancing”. It is believed that the lake was named after a man by the name of Duncan McDonald who carved his name on a tree near the lake in 1878. Around the years 1913-1914, a lodge was built in the valley of Lake McDonald. To build this lodge, local materials such as stone and western red cedar were used. Since there was no railroad or roads nearby, the materials had to be transported by ferry in the summer or hauled across the frozen lake in the winter. Over the last 100 years, Lake McDonald has become a tourist attraction in which people can stay, fish, and learn about the history.
In 1910, Glacier National Park consisted of over 100 glaciers, but as of 2015, only a couple dozen remain. Unfortunately, due to the ever-changing climate, these glaciers are melting. Because temperatures are slowly getting warmer, more rain has fallen than snow, and as a result, more snow melts in the spring. As this trend in climate change continues, the loss of glaciers will result in water levels lowering, and Lake McDonald is no exception. As mentioned before, Lake McDonald consists of very cold water, but with the change in climate, the temperature of the water also gets warmer. Due to this, the number of fish and other aquatic species will be greatly reduced, which can greatly affect the aquatic food chain. All in all, the change in climate and the increase in temperature of the water will cause a decrease in diversity of aquatic wildlife in Lake McDonald.
It was toward the end of fall. The leaves had all fallen onto the wet ground, leaving the trees completely bare. The air was crisp, but not quite cold enough to bundle up in a warm winter coat. We were at the lodge getting ready to spend yet another day exploring the great outdoors. On that specific day, we decided to go to Glacier National Park and hike. I grabbed my jacket because, you know, it can get pretty chilly as you climb further upward in the mountains. I put some water in my bag, along with some sunglasses and my phone. My boyfriend waited for me in the car as I packed up my bag, making sure I grabbed everything he needed as well. I hopped in the car and we began our journey to GNP.
Still unsure of where we wanted to go, we discussed our options. I had never been out west before, let alone seen a mountain, so I would have been happy wherever we chose to go. As we entered the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center where we picked up a map and asked for some advice. The nice lady that worked there suggested that we hike on Stanton Mountain, which was located on the north side of Lake McDonald. She explained that there were incredible views of the lake from the top of the mountain, and we were sold. From there, we hopped back into the car and made our way to Stanton Mountain. I didn’t realize how long it would take us to drive there, but the views made the drive very much worth it.
After about 45 minutes, we finally turned onto a street named Going-to-the-Sun Road, which seemed very appropriate given the amount of time it had taken us to reach that road. As we started driving on this road, I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. The view was something I had never experienced before. In the background was a large mountain capped with snow, then right below was a massive lake. I told my boyfriend that he needed to stop and pull over so I could get the full experience, and of course, take a ton of pictures. We pulled off into a conveniently located parking lot, filled with five or six other cars, parked, and got out. One of the cars in the parking lot was a tour bus, which was full of tourists as well as a tour guide. Lucky for us, we would get a little bit of an education without having to pay.
The large group of tourists made their way to the lakeshore, so we followed, trying to be as nonchalant as possible, making sure that no one was suspicious of us. The tour guide began her talk about the history of Lake McDonald. I found it very fascinating when she explained how the lake was formed, as well as how much it has changed in the past 100 years. When we had heard enough from the tourist, we broke off and went on our own. We walked the shoreline, and I noticed the plethora of colorful pebbles just under the surface of the water. Apparently, they were there as a result of the glaciers breaking big rocks into fragments and the rivers washing them away into lake beds. Of course, being the tourist I am, I decided to pocket a couple of the rocks, so I had something to remember the lake by.
As we hiked on the outskirts of the lake, we noticed multiple different animals, some of which were a bit scary to see in person. I had never seen an elk in person, and let me tell ya, they are huge! Fortunately, we were far away from it, so we didn’t bother it at all. But the scariest animal that we saw, by far, was a black bear. Yet another huge animal. As a kid, I think we are told bears are cute and cuddly (hence the reason we have teddy bears), but boy oh boy they are neither cute nor cuddly when you are in the wild with one. This specific bear was walking away from us in the distance, and following it were three tiny little cubs. At this point, my fear had gone away, and I stood there wishing I could pet one. Don’t worry, I knew I couldn’t pet one, it was just a wish.
Trekking along the lake, we noticed a man sitting on a dock with a fishing line in the water, patiently waiting for his next bite. We approached the man to ask how long he had been there, and he told us he had been there just short of two hours and has had no luck so far. We talked to the man for another few minutes and in the middle of our discussion, a fish starts tugging at the line. In a rush, the man began to reel in the fish. With a bit of struggle, he pulls his pole back and finally, the fish emerges from the water at the tip of his line. I’m not much of a fisher and I don’t know my fish, so I asked what he caught. He explained that it was a rainbow trout and that this type of fish is typically only found in colder water, which makes sense because the water in Lake McDonald was very chilly when I felt it not too long before that. The man was generous enough to offer to cook it up for us, but we refused. He told us that he was staying at Lake McDonald lodge just up the street, which was built in 1913-1914, and he planned on making the fish for dinner. Apparently, he stayed there every fall for the past 50 years. We talked a bit more, then went on our way.
The further away we got from the car, the denser the forest became. Hundreds of western red cedar trees surrounded us, so we decided to make our way back. We turned around and as I looked to my right, I saw a tree that seemed to be quite old. Some of the branches on this tree looked as if they were dying, only the top of the tree had foliage on it, but I noticed something peculiar about the tree. As I walked closer to the tree, I realized that something was carved into it. It was hard to make out, but it was obviously someone’s name with the year 1878 below it. It was really amazing to see the history that comes along with Lake McDonald, as well as the beautiful scenery surrounding it.
After about an hour, we returned to where our car was parked. At this point, our car was the only one left in the lot. I looked at the time and we had been there for over 3 hours. Time really does fly when you’re having fun, that’s for sure! I asked my boyfriend if he still wanted to hike Stanton Mountain, but he said he was exhausted and wanted to go eat. Although I was a bit disappointed, I agreed with him. We got into the car and made our way back toward our lodge, but a couple minutes down the road I realized I never took a picture. I guess I was too busy soaking in the majestic scenery that surrounded the lake and the lake itself. I made him turn around so I could at least snap one photo. I got out of the car, put my phone up to take the picture, then put it back down without taking the picture. The phone’s camera did not do the view justice. The real view was 1,000 times better than the view that the picture was able to capture, so I figured I was better off just remembering the view in my head, rather than from a picture on my phone. With that, I went back into the car and we made our way back to the lodge. Really made our way back this time. Overall, this was an experience that I will never forget. Lake McDonald was so magnificent and rich in history. Hopefully one day I will be able to take my kids here before everything changes drastically in the next decade. Going to Lake McDonald made me realize how important it is to practice ways to reduce my footprint on the earth. Climate change is real and I want to try my best to save our earth before it is too late.