Glacier Lake, Glacier Peak and the corpse of the Benson Glacier in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains in August, 2005. Photographed with a 4x5 camera.
The existence of a glacier in the Wallowa Mountains in what is now the Eagle Cap Wilderness was first brought to the world's attention by a party of mountain climbers in 1913. Returning from an exploration of Eagle Cap Mountain's eastern cirque where they had found a genuine glacier complete with blue ice, crevasses, and moraines, the climbers proposed naming their discovery for Frank W. Benson, an Oregon governor who had died a few years before.
If the climbers really intended to immortalize the name of their favorite politician, they should have chosen a more durable landmark. Already in poor health in 1913, the Benson Glacier did not last much longer than Governor Benson. There is some evidence that the merciful end came for the ailing glacier as early as 1933, less than a century after the end of the "Little Ice Age" which is believed to have given birth to the glacier in the first place. Some people claim that the glacier's death did not actually come until the 1940s following the hot, dry, dust-bowl years of the 1930s. Optimists who maintain that a remnant scrap of active glacial ice might still cling to life today are obviously operating with a liberal definition of what a glacier is and have probably never inspected this "glacier" late in September when all of the previous winter's snow has melted away, leaving nothing but bedrock and a dirty snowbank high on Glacier Peak.
Climatologists are not unanimous about the duration of the Little Ice Age. Some say it lasted for for than five hundred years, from 1300 to 1850. Others, citing evidence for a warming trend in the 1500s, restrict the term to the vigorous, world-wide glacial advance from 1600 to 1850. It is generally agreed that the cold ended in 1850 and that it might have been one of the more severe periods of glacier-producing weather since the fitful end of the last major ice age whose last big gasp came about 11,000 years ago.
Nez Perce Indians did not keep weather data, unfortunately, but elsewhere in the world the Little Ice Age is very much a part of the historical record. Glaciers advanced rapidly in the European Alps, over-running villages and townsthat had stood undisturbed since the dawn of history. Crop failures and famines imposed unprecedented hardships. When ice-covered Greenland, partly green at the time, was settled by Norsemen just prior to the Little Ice Age, the land supported thriving herds of sheep and cattle. But with climatic deterioration thereafter and advancing pack ice in the North Atlantic, communication with the mother country was lost. The last Vikings on Greenland had perished probably by the middle of the 1400s.
The Little Ice Age was just ending when the first wagon trains rolled into the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s. The settlers had no way of knowing that the "eternal snows" of the high mountains were not as eternal as they looked. Many of the glaciers that the pioneers could see on the region's mountainous skylines had not existed prior to the Little Ice Age and would waste away quickly with the return of warmer weather. Scores of small glaciers in the Cascades of Washington completely disappeared. The Sholes Glacier, an emaciated tongue of ice discovered on southern Oregon's Mt. McLoughlin in 1898, had disappeared entirely by 1936. Even the big glaciers of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood, some of which were pushing against their moraines when white men first saw them, were shrunken remnants of their former selves by the 1950s. The trend appears to have been accelerated in recent decades by man-caused climate change. When the last glacier in Glacier National Park melts away in about 2030, it will be big news and should qualify as a cover story in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.
In the less famous Wallowa Mountains, the Benson Glacier was not the only glacier whose passing was ignored by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Altogether, there were as many as six or more glaciers in the wake of the Little Ice Age, including small glaciers in shaded cirques on Sacajawea Peak, The Matterhorn, and Glacier Mountain. An old photograph suggests that their might have been a small glacier near aptly named Glacier Pass, and impressive and very fresh moraines today point to the recent existence of cirque glaciers above Elk and Pop Creeks.