APGAR – A couple hundred people – including an Instagram star, a United States senator and three fake mountain goats – gathered on the shores of Lake McDonald on Thursday evening while a perfect day in Glacier National Park transformed into a different sort of beauty.
As a ceiling of storm-threatening clouds moved over the valley and the lake kicked into big-wave action, Jacob W. Frank readied his camera on the balcony of the Village Inn at Apgar.
Frank did not request that the crowd below on the rocky shoreline say “cheese,” but he did ask them to say “Happy birthday National Park Service” for the video side of the proceedings.
When the first birthday wish from the group was delivered with all the excitement of the most boring line in an extremely dull lecture, Frank gave them another chance.
This time, it was shouted with gusto.
Then, without prompting, the crowd broke into song, singing “Happy Birthday” to the Park Service, which turned 100 years old Thursday.
Frank, Glacier Park’s visual information specialist – it wasn’t long ago you’d have called him the park photographer – got the shot he was after.
Most everyone in the frame was some degree of social media savvy.
The so-called “InstaMeet,” for anyone interested in sharing photographs of Glacier on social media, was part of a fairly low-key celebration of the Aug. 25 centennial on the part of Glacier. Low-key, at least, until Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell decided to swing by the park earlier Thursday for a trip to the top of Going-to-the-Sun Road and a hike to the Hidden Lake overlook.
Up to then, Thursday’s acknowledgement of the actual NPS birthday in Glacier was going to be mostly limited to the InstaMeet on the west side of the park, and a ranger-led program on the history of the National Park Service at the St. Mary Visitor Center on the east side.
No sooner had Frank finished taking his photo than U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., moved down the shoreline to snap some of his own of the lake and the surrounding mountain peaks with his cellphone.
“My daughter Annie taught me how to Snapchat,” Daines said. “My children are my tech support team.”
Unlike some politicians who have staff members handle their social media accounts, Daines said he posts 90 percent of his items himself.
“It keeps my team nervous,” Daines said with a smile.
Among his recent posts: a photograph of him and wife Cindy in Yellowstone National Park a day before the Glacier Instameet; a picture from the Crow Indian Reservation, and a picture of the first golden trout Cindy had ever caught.
“I’ll come home to Montana and post pictures feeding the dogs, feeding the chickens,” he said. “I love letting other people see the way we live in Montana.”
Several more photographs made their way onto Daines’ Facebook page Thursday, including the senator standing with the three people dressed in mountain goat costumes for the InstaMeet/NPS centennial celebration.
The senator said he has more than 1,000 followers on Instagram, 8,000-plus on Twitter, nearly 9,000 on Facebook and no idea about Snapchat, because Snapchat doesn’t make those numbers known.
But he said a couple random pictures he’s posted on Snapchat received “millions” of views within 24 hours – one from a State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, the other with Annie on Father’s Day.
Daines was about to snap pictures of Lake McDonald when Chris Burkard stopped him.
Burkard, a California photographer, has a few more Instagram followers than does Daines – approximately 1.9 million more – and had a suggestion for the senator.
Soon, Daines was crouching on the beach next to Burkard, his cellphone in hand, to put waves and rocks at the forefront of his Lake McDonald images.
“I think every photographer wants to shoot work that will be around a lot longer than they will,” Burkard said.
It was Burkard’s third trip to Glacier, and first when it wasn’t winter.
His first post from this quick trip to the park, of two canoeists on Swiftcurrent Lake at Many Glacier at sunrise, was approaching 60,000 “likes” after one day. A seven-second Burkard video of a roiling Lake McDonald, when the sun broke through the clouds briefly and built a rainbow over the nearby mountains, had more than 85,000 “likes” in 16 hours.
“Hear that?” Burkard writes on the video posting, which also caught the voices of unseen people on the shoreline. “It’s the sound of people meeting for the first time, laughing, hanging out, taking photos & celebrating our National Parks 100th Birthday.”
Thursday was actually Glacier’s eighth InstaMeet since April. The first seven were scheduled for sunsets – three times previously at Lake McDonald, plus once each at Two Medicine, Logan Pass, Many Glacier and St. Mary Lake.
Social media is a relatively new, and powerful, way to promote places such national parks, and has created a new version of the “travel writer.” The writing is often limited to a sentence or two, and the primary medium is photography.
“We’re in a massive shift toward visual communication,” said John Tass-Parker, a former digital communications director for two prime ministers in his native Australia, who now heads up Instagram’s Global Politics and Government team in Washington, D.C. “Ninety-five million images are uploaded to Instagram every day.”
It was Tass-Parker who helped arrange for Burkard to spend the National Park Service birthday in Glacier, and who accompanied the photographer to Apgar. Facebook also had a representative at the Glacier InstaMeet, Myriah Jordan, a former White House staffer under President George W. Bush.
Among the hundreds of comments on Burkard’s Lake McDonald video were from people alerting friends that “We have to go here” and “Let’s go here instead.” Among the hundreds of comments on his Swiftcurrent Lake photograph was one that said, “Maybe we should go here instead of Yellowstone.”
Burkard, a 30-year-old California surfer, is known in Instagram circles for gravitating toward colder places on the planet for his travel adventures.
He’s been to Iceland more than 20 times.
Burkard said he spent half a dozen years at jobs where “my work was at the mercy of editors,” and loves the freedom that comes with a career centered on social media.
“I’ve found my own act,” he said. “Photographers are always storytelling and I like sharing my work, promoting travel and adventure and stewardship of the land.”
Burkard said he looks for “dramatic, engaging” landscapes and Glacier Park, where “huge peaks rise out of nowhere,” does the trick.
And if his photographs and video draw even more people to Glacier Park, which is barreling toward a third straight year of record visitation, Burkard believes that comes with a silver lining.
“It’s impossible to really care about a place,” he said, “without visiting it.”