Glacier Trip: Waterton Lakes National Park in the Red Jammer

Note: This is the 6th in a series of entries in my Glacier National Park travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

September 11th. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and signed up for a Red Jammer bus tour to a nearby Canadian destination, Waterton Lakes National Park. This is a fleet of really cool vintage vehicles. Their history is tightly bound with Glacier’s.

The Red Bus we took to the Prince of Wales Hotel. Waterton Lakes (the actual bodies of water) are visible in the distance.

The Red Jammer is the signature of Glacier National Park, its icon. You see them all over the park. They were originally built in 1936 by the White Motor Company, a car manufacturer long since out of business. There’s a separate door for each row of bench seats reflecting its touring sedan design origins. Each has a canvas roof stretched across the top that can be removed on nice days.

Each bus originally had a wooden frame and an older form of manual transmission. Because of the steep inclines and low-power engines, the drivers had to downshift a lot, making a loud crunching sound. The drivers came to be known as “gearjammers,” or jammers for short.

Through a very complex chain of events, they were almost replaced permanently with ordinary vans, but were later gutted and renovated by Ford. They now have metal chassis, have modern engines converted to run on propane and have automatic transmissions. So the gearjamming days are long gone, but the drivers are still called jammers. I don’t really want to give the full history here, but it is worth checking out. If you don’t take a ride on a Red Jammer out here, you’re missing something special.

So we got on our bus and it departed. We met Jammer Joe, the chatty, elderly driver of the bus. He was full of stories about the park, the buses and himself.

We left Glacier, passed through Babb and headed north on the highways just east of park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so Jammer Joe pulled over and we took off canvas roof. Chief Mountain, an imposing mountain at the edge of the park, loomed in the distance.

Chief Mountain, sacred to the local Blackfeet nation.

A panorama I made standing through the open jammer roof. Chief Mountain is at the far right. Click to enlarge.

We crossed Canadian border into Alberta. For anyone living in southern California, the term “border crossing” refers to the one between San Diego and Tijuana. That is the busiest land border crossing in the world. If you haven’t been through it, imagine spending three or four hours stuck in your car, hardly moving and baking in the sun, staring at concrete blast walls and security cameras; a circus of vendors hawking cheap junk, snacks and beverages or washing your windshield; and a battalion of border guards with large dogs moving from car to car, searching for illegal immigrants and drugs. That’s about as wonderful as it gets, assuming you don’t then get sent to secondary on a whim for a very slow and pointless search of your car by the ingratiating and very disrespectful guards. Everyone seems bored and pissed off; there’s a sullenness to the whole thing reminiscent of prisoner processing. It’s nasty.

But this border crossing could not be more different. The jammer pulled right up to the gate separating Montana from Alberta and waved to the guard. There was no line of cars in either direction. It was cool and sunny, and there were rolling hills and forest all around. The guard was stern but friendly and processed our passports efficiently. We were on our way in under 10 minutes. I remember it being just like this when crossing into Canada as a kid on a trip to Ontario. It’s really stunning how different the two borders are.

Waterton Lake National Park, just north of Glacier. We entered from the southeastern corner.

After relaxing half hour drive, we arrived at Waterton Lakes National Park. This is the Canadian sister park to Glacier, the smaller of the two. They share a side, and together they constitute the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Once in the park, our destination was the Prince of Wales Hotel. This is a kind of mirror image of Many Glaciers Hotel. It’s the dominant hotel of the park, and was built in a similar Swiss chalet architectural style by the same company, the Great Northern Railway. There Heather and I had a traditional afternoon tea, in the lobby overlooking the lake, with a three-level tray of cucumber and salmon sandwiches, scones and pastries. Heather really loved it.

Prince of Wales Hotel.

Afterwards we went to the hotel gift shop, and Heather got dry tea and maple cookies. Then we returned to the bus and left the hotel. Jammer Joe gave us a little driving tour of the town near the Prince of Wales Hotel. Then we left the park and began heading back to the border.

It was mid-afternoon. On the way back, Jammer Joe took us through a public range for grazing buffaloes. It was very empty, a little eerie, quiet and beautiful. It was wind-whipped pale yellow grasses surrounded by dark brown mountains. Eventually we found the buffaloes drinking water.

Buffalo in the Canadian public range.

Afterwards we crossed back into the US. Once again, the crossing took just minutes. Shadows were lengthening, and Jammer Joe got us back a little later than expected. I doubt seeing the buffalos was part of the official tour, but I appreciated the detour, and it was no problem for us. Once we returned to Many Glacier Hotel, we hopped in the van and drove off. We took an unoccupied spot in the Many Glacier campground and set up camp.

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