Saturday, July 11, 2015

Backpacking in Glacier National Park... for science!

This two night backpacking trip was no ordinary trip.  The binoculars I carried weighed over a pound, and we stopped at each lake for an entire hour to make observations.  Why where we carrying more and hiking less?  We were doing citizen science!
Packing in binoculars.
This was my second time volunteering for Glacier National Park’s Citizen Science Program doing common loon surveys, and my first time doing a mountain goat survey.  Citizen science is where data collection for research projects is outsourced to the public.  While my background is in scientific research, I was participating on my days off as a volunteer because I wanted to learn more about birds and wildlife, and get more involved in the community.
A beautiful place to survey for an hour.
A few weeks ago, I attended a training to learn how to conduct the surveys at the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center.  I learned that research on common loons is important because they are like the canary in the coal mine.  Loons need undisturbed and isolated lakes to thrive, and are sensitive to human disturbances and pollution.
Morning stillness.
As a citizen scientists in Glacier, you choose your survey site from the 45 monitored priority lakes in the park.  I signed up to survey backcountry lakes in the Belly River region in the far northwestern corner of the Park that no one had visited this year.  Our route took us along the start of the Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200 mile trail from Montana to Washington.
What a gorgeous trail!
Engaging in loon and mountain goat surveys felt fulfilling because I was contributing to something greater than myself.  I also gained a depth of appreciation for Glacier’s natural history.
Immersed in the richness of Glacier.
Through the narrow focus of my borrowed binoculars, I scanned lakes for loons.  Watching and waiting, my mind stilled.  Peace, ah!
Any loons here?
As I traced the ridges and slopes with my binoculars looking for mountain goats, I realized I’d never seen mountains or studied rock formation with quite this intensity. 

Also, I could think about the mountain goats apart from my annoyance at them for following me on my trip a few weeks ago.  Where do mountain goats like to hang out? What are they doing?  What are they eating?  Why?
Can you see any mountain goats up there?
In camp, we met a few backpackers setting out to thru hike the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Instead of feeling jealous of them and longing to keep following the trail to somewhere else, I felt happy with my choice to spend this time in northwestern Montana, even if I only have time for weekend trips.  I want to know how this place changes over time, and I want to see it with depth.
Side trip past Mokowanis Lake to Pyramid Falls.
When we got back to the Research Learning Center, I heard about what was seen on other surveys around the Park, and it made me think about the people that came before and monitored this same lake before and after me.  I felt like I’m part of something bigger than myself. 

While I didn’t “achieve” as many miles on this trip as I might have if I wasn’t doing surveys, taking time to volunteer as a citizen scientist helped me connect to this region more deeply. 

For more information and to get involved

Check out Citizen Science at Glacier National Park

Learn more about the Loon Project in Glacier

For our two-night backpacking trip we started at the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead and did an out-and-back past Cosley Lake and Glenns Lake, to Mokowanis Lake (details here).  Note that permits are required for backpacking in Glacier National Park, and we did meet a backcountry ranger who checked our permits.


  1. What a fun thing to do. I wish they had that program here.

    1. I was so glad to find the citizen science program in Glacier, and I'm wondering if this type of project will become more common. I've also been hearing about more online programs that can be done anywhere, like those through or ProjectBudBurst. Would be interesting to look into those types of things more at some point.

  2. You are "achieving" life! That's exciting and rewarding.

  3. Great photos! Fantastic overview of citizen science. Thanks.

  4. Coming to terms with goats . . . LOL

    1. This is a work in progress.

      But it's not just me that has trouble with habituated mountain goats around here. One of my friends went backpacking this week and she said goats paced outside her tent all night long, and needless to say she got no sleep.