Way down there: Lake McDonald underwater forest

Posted on 10 August 2003


By David Reese

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.
Just a 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.
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.”

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