Ranger Doug Follett reflects on 50 Years at Glacier National Park.
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
Watch a short video featuring segments of this interview paired with images of Doug Follett and Glacier National Park.
Doug Follett is the kind of guy people like to be around. He’s charming. Witty. Funny. Kind. He knows history, loves nature, and writes poetry. His storytelling carries all the excitement of an old Western movie and the warmth of a flickering bonfire. In Glacier National Park—a place notorious for moody weather—Follett is a constant beam of sunshine.
At 84 years old, “Ranger Doug” is one of the oldest and longest-serving employees in the National Park Service: This year marks his 50th anniversary as a seasonal interpretive ranger at Glacier. His career began in the summer of 1942, when he fought blister rust pine infections in the park by removing gooseberry bushes; in 1961, he spent the first of many summers as a seasonal ranger, returning each fall to Columbia Falls High School where he taught history for 35 years.
But his experiences in Glacier began long before he was of working age. In 1927, when Follett was just an infant, his father took a job with the Great Northern Railroad and relocated his family from Fernie, British Columbia, to Whitefish, Montana. Throughout his childhood, Follett immersed himself in the mountains surrounding his home—but it was the people, not the landscapes, that left the biggest impression. Blackfeet Indian culture was alive and strong, and Follett developed an intense respect and fascination for the tribe’s history and way of life. Often, he yearned to be one of them—a passion that fueled his teachings at Columbia Falls High School and on ranger-led tours in the park.
In recent years, Follett has become somewhat of a celebrity, gracing the front page of local papers and leading Whitefish’s 2010 winter parade as Grand Marshal. He and his wife, parents of four daughters, live at the edge of a lake in Whitefish. Last September, National Parks’ Associate Editor Amy Leinbach Marquis spent a morning with him in Glacier, as he shared some of his fondest memories from a lifetime dedicated to a national park.
Q: Your connection to Glacier goes back years before you ever started your first job here. Talk about that.
A: When I was a year old [in 1927], we moved to East Glacier where my dad was strapping automobiles onto railroad flatcars to send over Marias Pass, because there was no highway at that time. While he was earning money to put milk in my bottle, my mother and I hob-nobbed with the high society in the big East Glacier hotel, now the Glacier Park Lodge, where just peeking in the door cost more money than we made all summer. Visitors would come up and say, “How long are you staying?” And my mother would respond, “We are here for the entire season”—and then make sure they didn’t follow us out behind the Indian tipis to that little cabin we really lived in.
When we weren’t doing that, we were down at the Indian powwows at night, where the tipis were pitched and the bonfires blazed, and the Indians whose shadows flickered across those tipis had not long before been on the warpath—the Blackfeet were the last of the plains tribes to be subjugated by the Army. The powwows were held to initiate the important people who came to stay at the Glacier Park Lodge. My mother often spoke about the Indian who got up there with an interpreter and gave a long, interesting speech about the history of the Blackfeet. When it was over and the interpreter left, the Indian said, “I want to thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind attention this evening. As a Harvard graduate, I did want you to know that I speak English.” Isn’t that neat?
Incidentally, the Glacier Park Lodge is where I learned to walk. My mother said she would aim me down the long hallway, and I’d take off with momentum. When she heard the crash she would come down and pick me up, turn me, and aim me the other way. She also said that in that hotel, the old timers—the frontier people—were still around. We would all go down to the depot and meet the trains, with the Indians in white buckskin from head to toe and their headdresses dragging on the platform. While we were waiting, they would carry me up and down the platform, moccasins and all, gently bouncing me up and down, until the train whistled. Then they would come back, lay me in the buggy, and go meet the train. Just imagine what it was like for those tourists from the East to get off a train in Glacier Park to see these Blackfeet Indians.
One time two ladies from back East came over and said to my mother, “Little girl, you should not let those people handle your child.” And my mother said, “Why?” And they said, “Because they might steal him.” And my mother said, “If you look around, you will see that they have plenty of their own kids—and they’re all better looking than mine.”
She denied having said the last part. But we had no concern about the Indians—we lived with them. They were on the fringe of our lives and we were on the fringe of theirs, and the Indians and the old frontier people like us were just fading into the past. I’ve always thought how unique it was to have been born into a world where I got to see all of those people. Some of my cousins were the last of the real, old-time trappers who went off into the mountains for days at a time, on snowshoes. It was the end of an era, but I got to tag along, and I feel pretty fortunate for that.
Q: What’s changed since then?
A: Interpretation hasn’t really changed, and that’s a good thing. I’m a believer in people-to-people, and not people-to-machines, if that’s at all possible. Dealing with the public hasn’t changed. There are more of them, even in relation to 1961, which was no frontier.
But there have been other changes. I made 100 trips to Sperry Glacier—one of the largest glaciers—in a 20- to 25-year period starting in 1961. The glacier was 300 feet thick and 300 acres large, roughly speaking, and we went out there with ropes and ice axes like a sherpa expedition heading for Everest, and risked our lives to peek into the crevasse, which may be gone now.
Then one spring I noticed six inches of red rock at the end of that Glacier snowfield. And I said to myself, “Next year that will be covered up, because Old Mother Nature knows that if she doesn’t put more snow on top, we won’t have glaciers, and our sign at the entrance says we’re a glacier park.”
And I literally expected it to be covered up the next year. But instead of six inches of red rock, there were six feet. And I said, “That will be covered up.” Then there were 16 feet the next year. I said, “That will be covered up.” Then 60 feet, then 160, then a quarter-mile and a half-mile, and suddenly you had to walk over all this rock just to get to the glacier.
I was in denial of what was happening for 20 years. Al Gore wasn’t there to say, “Look dummy, the glacier’s not coming back for a while. Climate change really is happening.” I know a lot of us men are slow learners—but isn’t that something? To be so certain that the world we had always known was going to stay that way, and that the glacier was coming back? I walked with that glacier hand-in-hand for half a mile as it melted back, yet I was in denial every day.
So what do I tell people today? We are in a world that is in constant change. What was yesterday is not today and will not be tomorrow. When I was walking on Sperry Glacier for 20 years, it was melting the whole time, but it was just getting thinner, and I couldn’t tell until it got so thin that the edges came in. It’s always been happening, and we are the first generation to be able to see major geological climate changes and not be able to deny it.
Of course, we do get people who argue with us and tell us this is nothing big. I don’t deny that global warming and climate change have come and gone over the ages. But it’s the extreme rapid acceleration that we’re concerned with now.
Q: You’ve become quite well known for your poems. What inspired you to start writing?
A: The Great Spirit came to me a few years ago, as he often does to us part-time Presbyterians. And he said, “Douglas”—he always calls me Douglas—“a question has arisen concerning your immortality. So get your act together, you bald-headed little guy.” And I thought to myself, “Gosh—what do I want to leave behind? What things have I done?” I’ve hiked the Garden Wall a hundred times. I’ve done Sperry Glacier a hundred times. I’ve been to Avalanche Lake 500 times.
So, I started writing poems. (I’m too lazy to write stories. I haven’t even gotten last year’s Christmas cards done yet.) I thought, “What do I take for granted on my hike on the Garden Wall?” And I recalled a hike I took on a September day. In the summertime, the mountain goats are ragged and dirty and look like they got out of the barber chair before the job was done. But in September when the air has cooled off, the goats are in full coat, with six or eight inches of beautiful white fur, waiting for the winter to start. So on this day I glanced up the hill, and here was a family of goats in their new white coats, standing against 40 feet of red and orange mountain ash bushes. And I thought, wow. The image imprinted itself on my mind like a photograph. A bunch of years have passed, but it’s still there. And I thought, if that impressed me, what would it do to the people who aren’t used to it?
Walk with me, see the goats, on the mountainside in their new, white coats, standing bright against the sky, looking down on you and I.
I also think of the time I had a party of people out on the Garden Wall, and there were two golden eagles in the sky, way up there at a thousand feet. They plunged past us, down into the valley, then flew up, grabbed onto each other, and tumbled through the sky together.
Walk with me where eagles fly, and tumble wildly through the sky, giving truth to ancient words that sometimes love is for the birds.
And then we have the marmots that stand out there and whistle and warn each other about predators. They are the sentries of the mountains, and their high-pierced, screaming whistles vibrate across the hills. It’s those golden eagles they’re looking for, because they are deadly. And so my group came around the corner, and there was a marmot on a rock, and nothing but his eyeballs were moving because he didn’t want those eagles to see him. All of a sudden, a golden eagle swooped in, looking for a marmot, four feet off the ground, and he flew in our faces and blew our hats off. Seven-foot wingspan at 100 miles an hour and I’ll tell you, he literally blew our hats off.
Walk with me where the sentries whistle, warns the world of a deadly missile. Not on two legs nor on four, but from the sky with a sudden roar, that takes a life in a single breath, and is gone again on wings of death.
A couple years ago I was standing with a group of visitors on the boardwalk, and we saw this big grizzly coming down the mountainside about a mile away. He lay in the creek for about ten minutes, cooling off, and then he came right at us on the boardwalk. So I started pushing people back, and this man wanted to take pictures, and I said, “There’s a grizzly coming!” And a woman said, “He’s not coming, he’s right behind you!” And I turned around, and there he was, a great, big grizzly bear, acting like we were not in the world, but still getting closer. Finally he looked off to the side, made a big circle around us, got back on the trail, and went to where he was going in the first place. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience to walk with a grizzly bear.
Come with me where grizzlies roam and see the places they call home. Alpine meadows, flower filled, hanging valleys, glacier chilled. Lords of everything they see—the world around, and you and me.
Not everything is so dramatic and exciting as goats and eagles and grizzlies; some of it is subtle. You can stand right out here in front of the visitor center in October, and the golden leaves will rush up the street chattering like a bunch of busy little people. I haven’t learned the language yet. But every year it’s the same—they rush up the street chattering, and then pretty soon they rush back down the street chattering.
Walk with me when North Winds blow, and whisper of the coming snow. Tossing golden leaves on high as summer bids a sad goodbye. These and other things you’ll see, if you will come and walk with me.
I’ve shared these poems for the last two years as an evening visitor program, and I’ve gotten a surprising response. Of course that’s why I stay on the job—it keeps me alive. You’ve got to get emotionally high for this stuff.
A young woman came to the visitor center one fall, and she was quiet. She had been over on the Indian reservation and took a horseback trip with an Indian at one of those ranches, and she was just so sad that she was leaving. So I started to recite these poems for her, and she started crying, and I thought, “Wow, maybe that’s the greatest compliment I could ever receive.”
Q: What have you learned from interacting with so many park visitors over the years?
A: I have come to feel, from watching visitors over the last 50 years, that the American people feel that their National Park System is the basis for a kind of religion. And that the national parks are the cathedrals where they come to worship. And the people in the big hats are the high priests who have been given the responsibility to protect these sacred land trusts.
That is one of the big things that I’ve come to contemplate in just the last year or so. And I think, wait a minute, these are people from all over the world who have no contact with each other. They come by the hundreds of thousands. And yet I see the same intensity, the same fervor, the same awareness of the national parks and their value. Quite obviously, the “National Parks Idea” is a cause people can believe in.
I’ve always been impressed by the dedication and the professionalism of the managers, the superintendents, and all the people in the parks I have been associated with. As a seasonal, I’m not really part of that—I’m kind of a citizen observer working on the edges, so I can be critical. But I feel good about what I have seen from the park people, especially when it comes to protection, preservation, and wise use. This park is in good hands.