Road Camp on the Going-to-the-Sun Road is not a place most stop. Sheltered from avalanches, it’s a place where road crews park heavy equipment while plowing the highway.
But there’s a walkway off the road that leads to a “crowsnest” built of handhewn stone that breaks through the trees. The views below plummet downward hundreds of feet and in front of you is the expanse of Garden Wall and the Continental Divide. That’s was just one of the many touches Glacier National Park landscape architect Jack Gordon and his staff added to the Sun Road over the past 10 years as the highway underwent reconstruction from stem to stern.
Late last month, Gordon was still tending to the highway, overseeing selective tree thinning along the road so motorists could see Lake McDonald as they drove up the road.
It was one of his last duties. At the end of the month, Gordon will say good-bye to the road as he retires from the Park Service.
Gordon’s roots are in roads. His father worked for the federal Bureau of Public Roads and Gordon spent his youth in Costa Rica and Panama — he graduated from Panama Canal High School.
He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Northern Arizona University and worked in a co-op position with the National Park Service which led to a job with the Denver Service Center straight out of college.
One of his first jobs some 30 years ago in Glacier was to design the turnouts in the Lake McDonald section.
“I started on Lake McDonald and I’m ending on Lake McDonald,” he said in a recent interview.
He also designed the Polebridge bridge early in his career.
But rebuilding the Sun Road over the past 10 years has been the most rewarding.
He admits at times the project kept him up at night.
At Sunrift Gorge, for example, the original plan called for blocking off access to the gorge with a crowsnest that would have dead-ended with a view overlooking the chasm.
But Gordon wouldn’t have it.
“It woke me up one night ... what a horrible thing to do to an historic site,” he said.
So he designed stairs and a railing that made the area accessible and more aesthetically pleasing.
Gordon said a lot of decisions were made on the ground, particularly with accessibility in mind. The plans and specs might say one thing, “but you get out there and say, ‘what were we thinking?”
He’s particularly fond of the some the work near Jackson Glacier Overlook, and at Sun Point. At Jackson, another crowsnest that wasn’t there before now affords views from the road across the valley to one of the Park’s few remaining glaciers.
Sun Point was completely restored as well. Crews also took pains to make Big Bend a better stop. When a huge rockslide inundated the west side feature, rather than haul the gravel away, they extended the road out a ways to make it safe for people to pull off the side, while keeping it wide enough for traffic to flow.
It’s one of the most popular stops on the highway today.
Gordon credited fellow designers Gary Nolan and Bob Camel, contractor HK Construction and subcontractors for the success of the project as well.
Local masonry subcontractor Anderson Masonry also played a huge role.
“Anderson got to the point that they had so many years experience in the Park that we hardly had to watch them,” Gordon noted.
The last stretch of the road under reconstruction will have some final Gordon design touches. Several turnouts will have better lake access and there’s an entirely new turnout at about mile marker 5.5.
A new footbridge over Avalanche Creek was his design as well.
In addition to Sun Road work, Gordon has also volunteered for some local projects. He designed an outdoor classroom at the Columbia Falls Junior High and the roundabout at the Glacier Park International Airport.
In retirement, he hopes to do more fishing, hunting and hiking.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “Fixing that road ... but not changing the character of it.”