Lake McDonald's underwater forest

Scuba diving Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

By David Reese

MONTANA LIVING — Cars whiz past Lake McDonald on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, while at Apgar, tourists mill about the gravel beach with disposable cameras and capture the Kodak moment of the spectacular Rocky Mountains.

Underneath the water, however, a different picture of Glacier National Park emerges.

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Just 100 yards from the beach, old wood stoves sit under 50 feet of water in the grey mud. One stove is filled with relics from days gone by, perhaps from the original construction of the Going to the Sun highway in 1932, when locals say workers simply dumped their used tools in the lake. Not far away, a “shovel garden” of discarded tools pokes up out of the soft, muddy lake bottom.

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Several discarded car engines — evidence perhaps of Going to the Sun Road’s construction days — lie in state just off the shore from Apgar, some with heavy chains tied to them for mooring blocks.

For Dr. Scott Stine, a paleoclimatologist from California State University/Hayward, the clues to the past go much farther than these discarded relics.

His research takes him back 200 years, to a time when the water level of Lake McDonald dropped low enough to allow a forest of trees to grow near Sprague Creek, farther up the lake from Apgar.

It was here that a group of local scuba divers explored an underwater forest with Stine three weeks ago. 

Stepping into the water where Sprague Creek enters Lake McDonald, tall mountains towering around you, you get the feeling you are diving in a very special place. We descend slowly into the water, the sounds of the nearby highway disappearing.

At a depth of about 50 feet we swim in small groups north. A deep ravine suddenly appears below us, perhaps the old bed of Sprague Creek; farther past this ravine in the greenish blue water we see the underwater monuments slowly emerge. Like something out of Atlantis, the tall trees stand before us and reach toward the sunlight. A school of kokanee salmon pushes out ahead of us, and a pair of sucker fish drifts along the tree tops.

One diver sits casually on a tree branch, roughly 70 feet under water. 
For Stine these trees reveal clues into a drought that gripped much of the west roughly 200 years ago.

Stine is studying global climate change in Glacier National Park and the northern Rocky Mountains this summer. He came upon the underwater forest last year, when a park ranger told him about the group of rooted trees under water near Sprague Creek.

The following day, Stine went to investigate from the shoreline, at the same time that Steve and Renee Golleher, co-owners of Bighorn Divers in Kalispell, were coming out of the water. That chance encounter led to a friendship with the Gollehers, whom he then asked to take toothpick-sized samples of the trees. Stine then had those samples radiocarbon dated.

“It became so intriguing to me I vowed I’d come back to Glacier Park, learn to dive and dive with them (the Gollehers), so I could see these things myself,” Stine said.

Stine has also studied submerged, rooted trees in lakes in California. Those trees date back to midieval times. Stine’s goal is to put climate change in a geographic context, to find out how winter storms track throughout the west.
Although Glacier National Park is far north of the areas Stine has studied in California, what he’s finding here could help him in his quest to determine what weather the world experienced between 950 AD and 1250 AD. “If I could figure out what was going on here in the middle ages, I could map the midieval storm track,” Stine said.

The evidence that Stine said he is finding around Glacier Park reflects a “substantial and persistent” drought, 100 to 200 years ago.
He’s found the same evidence of rooted trees in the Many Lakes area, as well as in McGee Meadows of Glacier National Park. They all date to roughly the same time period as the Sprague Creek underwater forest.

Two severe droughts gripped the West around 1130 AD and 1150 AD, interspersed by wet periods. Stine wonders if that scenario is setting up to happen again. Placed in a historical context, the last 150 years have been abnormally wet, Stine said. “California has built an urban and agriculture society based on the assumption that things are going to be as wet tomorrow as they are today,” Stine said. 

Through his research, Stine is finding that dry spells can last much longer than the eight years, for instance, that Montana has experienced drought conditions.
For this group of scuba divers exploring northwest Montana’s underwater world, there is much to be revealed of the recent and historic past. After taking a break from Glacier National Park and diving McGregor Lake last week, the Wednesday night dives continued this week with exploration of a recently discovered sunken tour boat in Lake McDonald.
While that won’t reveal much about climate change, it will give a small group of people some valuable insight to our past. Stine, meanwhile, will continue to study in Glacier Park this summer before heading back to teach at California State University, Hayward.

Stine is passionate, if not scientific, in his quest for knowledge about climate change. While climate change and the greenhouse effect on global warming have only in recent years fell into political favor, the subject has been tossed around in scientific circles for over two decades, he said.  
“Al Gore doesn’t say anything in that movie (An Inconvenient Truth) that we (scientists) haven’t known for 20 years,” Stine said. “People are interested in this because people are concerned.”



A swarm of bubbles moves across the surface of Lake McDonald as if emanating from some unseen creature below, and a light rain pecks at the surface of the steely-gray water.

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Renee Golleher suits up for winter scuba diving in Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. (David Reese photos/Montana Living)

 In the mountains around Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, snowstorms shroud the peaks. But that doesn't stop a group of hard-core scuba divers from donning elaborate gas-filled diving suits and entering the 36-degree water for a Sunday-afternoon dive. Even Ted Golleher, 13, and Kenny Yarus, 14, get in on the action. While their friends were probably playing ice hockey or skiing, these teenagers strap on their oxygen tanks, dry suits and protective gear that cover almost every inch of their bodies and enter the frigid water.
The equipment leaves only their cheeks exposed. The fact that the water is close to freezing doesn't deter this group.

Robert Hanson, for one, was on his 21st dive in Lake McDonald since New Year's Day when he slipped into the water last year, and despite his numerous dives in the roadside lake in Glacier Park, he always finds something interesting to look at in the crystal-clear water. One of his favorite underwater haunts is a big underwater forest near the north end of the lake, where thick, 80-foot tall cedars jut toward the sky. Debris from construction of Going to the Sun Road in the 1930s litters the lake floor. Shovels, rakes, engine blocks, pots and pans can be found, along with what comes naturally - schools of lake trout and kokanee salmon.

"This is one of the best freshwater dives in the nation," says Steve Golleher, owner of Big Horn Divers in Kalispell. He and his wife, Renee, their son Ted, and Yarus brave the icy waters for a 20-minute dip to see the submerged "rake garden" near Apgar. In colder weather, fish move up out of deeper water into shallower water, allowing them to be seen more easily.

Golleher remembers one trip to Flathead Lake where Renee was completely engulfed by a mammoth school of perch.
Last year, for the first time in 15 years of diving Lake McDonald they saw huge schools of kokanee salmon - a fish thought nearly wiped out from this lake, which once attracted hundreds of bald eagles to feed on the spawners. In dives last November and December, Steve Golleher said, he saw "tens of thousands" of spawning kokanee.

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The cold water poses problems for most diving gear; oxygen regulators can freeze up, or "free flow" and not shut off, and the tiniest hole in a dry suit can make diving uncomfortable. To combat the cold water, divers fill their suits with argon gas, a heavy, inert gas that helps insulate their bodies. Because of the potential danger, divers won't go deeper than 50 or 60 feet in these conditions. A long dive lasts only 30 minutes.

Even in summer, though, some level of cold-water diving gear is needed. On Flathead Lake, the water temperature is 45 degrees by the time you hit 100 feet down. Steve Golleher has been winter diving for 13 years in Montana, not letting the cold get in the way of his hobby.

While warm-water divers boast about the quality of their pursuit, Golleher says northwest Montana has some of the best diving in the world and you don't have to worry about saltwater corroding your gear.

"If you're a diving fanatic, it's either get on an airplane or dive these lakes," he says.

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