Glacier struggles to teach park values to 'selfie generation'

Kianna Gardner, Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.
·7 min read

Apr. 4—Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said it was 2016 when park staff witnessed a visitor strip down to his shorts, wade into the frigid waters of Iceberg Lake and make a rapid swim for the water body's largest floating ice mass.

The sequence of events was caught on camera, as was the end product of the visitor standing proudly on one of the lake's namesakes — frozen structures that melt more with each passing season at Glacier National Park. The feat was impressive, albeit somewhat foolish considering the temperature of the small lake, which sits at an elevation of 6,094 feet.

Mow said park officials didn't think much of it at the time, simply recognized it for what they believed it to be: a group of young hikers, wanting to push the limits for a photo that most likely was posted to various social media platforms.

But the event that was thought to be a rare occurrence became much less so in the years that followed.

Visitors have started lining up at the lake's primitive vault toilet, not to use it for its designated purpose, but to change into swimsuits. And all the while, a public feed on the popular social media platform Instagram was filled with photos of people swimming in the lake and perching on its precious icebergs, which the park's website notes have been waning in recent years in the face of climate change.

Then one day, park staff watched a young man grab a small tree near the lake, swim out to a large iceberg, and jam the felled vegetation into its ice in a conqueror-like fashion. That was a defining moment for Mow and others in which they realized, natural resources be damned, some may stop at nothing to get that perfect photo.

"To us, it seemed like he was trying to one-up what he had seen on social media," Mow reflected. "There is this attitude that you didn't really visit Iceberg Lake unless you swim out and take a picture on an iceberg. We attribute a lot of that feeling and need to what people see on social media. They want the same picture, in the same spot, but maybe doing something slightly cooler than the last person."

To park officials, what is occurring at Iceberg Lake is really a microcosm of what is happening throughout the park at Avalanche Lake, Logan Pass, Hidden Lake and other popular points in Glacier. Everywhere, it seems, younger generations are lining up to get that perfect Instagram-worthy photo. These visitors are travelers Mow has referred to as the "selfie generation" in recent seminars when describing challenges at the park.

During a recent public discussion in March, Mow pulled up a National Geographic photo showing a group of Montana State University students standing atop a rock at one of the park's many lakes, backs turned, shirts off and hands in the air. The photo, which graced the cover of one of the publication's famed magazines several years ago, accompanied an article with a headline that read "Can National Parks Unplug the Selfie Generation?"

WHAT MOW has pinned as being one of the most significant challenges with this generation of visitor is that their obsession with taking certain photos is often accompanied by a lack of savviness for navigating the backcountry and an unawareness of basic park principles.

For example, people have started bringing their dogs to the park and have left some of their trash at destination points such as Avalanche Lake. In some cases, people have chosen to forgo the park's toilets and use nature as their facility instead, leaving park rangers to pick up human waste that is often located not too far from popular hiking areas.

"These are simple leave-no-trace concepts that some of these folks just seem to not be aware of," Mow said. "For a lot of these people, it's their first time in a national park, and it shows in their behaviors."

Some of these visitors also seem to not understand basic safety protocols, including the importance of carrying bear spray and ensuring water bottles are full prior to setting out on long hikes.

MOW RECALLED one recent year in which park staff had to carry out severely dehydrated visitors four days in a row from the stretch of trail from Granite Park makes many hikers falsely believe the downhill stride is easy and that perhaps they can walk it without basic resources.

"What people don't know is that those 4 miles can be some of the hottest, driest miles you've ever walked depending on when you go in the season. We have found that people simply aren't bringing enough water," said Mow, adding that hikers are exposed to direct sunlight most of the time ever since a 2003 fire swept the area, leaving behind few trees for shade. "Issues like these are really health and safety ones that everyone should pay attention to."

Aside from failing to adhere to basic hiking and park principles, Mow also said there have been more situations in which people encroach on and take photos right next to various wildlife, including mountain goats.

In other parks, where large animals such as bison roam the landscape, these errors can lead to serious consequences for the visitor. For example, in a 2019 video that went viral, a 9-year-old girl is flung into the air by a massive bison in Yellowstone National Park — an incident park officials later said unfolded after a group of about 50 people lingered within 10 feet of the animal, causing it to charge.

TO TACKLE some of these issues — some of which have been emerging for several years now — Mow said the park is exploring different opportunities for educational outreach.

Earlier this year, the park posted a job opportunity titled "Where should we go from here? Glacier Influencer Partnership."

The posting sought to collaborate with social media "influencers." Specifically, it stated "we are planning to share content from influencers throughout 2022, focusing on leaving no trace, social media ethics, diversity, inclusion and climate change."

The idea, according to Mow, is to relay messages related to responsible travel through various "influencers" that boast large followings on social media platforms like Instagram.

Account holders will post about concepts, such as leaving no trace, and Glacier will then repost those items. In exchange, the influencer's content would be exposed to Glacier's nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram.

According to the job posting, the partnerships will be part of a campaign geared at examining the future of social media use in national parks. The partnerships will be funded through a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

This is one way the park is trying to "be creative" in how it reaches certain audiences, Mow explained. Instead of catering to every need of the generation — for example, building a changing room facility at Iceberg Lake— he said he hopes travelers can learn to have more realistic itineraries that don't solely focus on traveling to wherever the best Instagram photo opportunity lies.

"We are looking to balance these folks' expectations and needs. What sort of expectations do people have after looking at travel magazines and sifting through social media?" Mow said. "Instagram has really set some unrealistic expectations that these people might be alone at this pristine lake, like in the picture. The reality is that you're sharing it with a lot of other people and animals and sometimes it can also be difficult to get to some of these places. So how can we make sure that people respect all of this and that they go into their trip knowing everything they need to know?"

Mow said the park is also hoping to team up with different travel bureaus and organizations throughout the valley to help spread these messages.

Finally, he added that the recently implemented ticketed entry system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road should help alleviate some of the issues and may give park staff a better chance to study today's tourist population, their habits, and what sort of park experience they are seeking.

"It's certainly not a bad thing to have new audiences," Mow said. "The park has always adjusted to different tourists, but this is a learning curve for us and it's going to have to start with educating people."

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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Two park visitors take a selfie near Logan Pass. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

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A group takes a photo near Siyeh Pass in Glacier National Park on Aug. 26, 2020. (Photo taken by Philip Granrud)

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Hikers ascend a snow-covered section of the Hidden Lake Trail in Glacier National Park on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)