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Matt Dickerson: Glacier National Park Diaries 1 — Reflections on water

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Posted on June 15, 2017 |
By Matt Dickerson



gnp-refa - 1.jpg
Photos by Matthew Dickerson

Editor’s note: Matt Dickerson is an official artist in residence at Glacier National Park in Montana this month.

Like most visitors to Glacier National Park, I am awed by the majesty of the mountains: the splendor of towering peaks of bare stone, thrust upward by the collisions of continents, carved by glaciers, and still splotched with last winter’s snow. 

Written on Mead Chapel at Middlebury College are the words of an ancient Hebrew poet, translated into King James English: “The strength of the hills are his also.” As I’ve wandered about the park the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the strength of “hills.” A more modern English translation reads, “The mountain peaks belong to him.” I think also of a contemporary translation by an author who lives just an hour from the park, and can sit on his porch looking across Flathead Lake at these same peaks: “In the other hand (he) grasps the high mountains.” The strength of the hills. The might of the high mountains. The power of peaks. They indeed inspire awe.

The past week, however, a considerable volume of those mountains has been flowing past my feet. Montana was blessed with heavy snowfall this winter. The strong and lofty peaks are buried in snow. Despite the ongoing work of the plow crew, Glacier National Park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which climbs to about 6,500 feet as it crosses Logan Pass, might not open until the end of June. 

Down in West Glacier at only 3,000 feet above sea level, I would find this difficult to believe if I did not round every bend to see some new jagged peak towering over me, spilling snow down its sides like vanilla soft-serve off a cone in Vermont in August. Summer doesn’t officially begin for a few more days, but it already feels like it. The temperatures soared into the 80s before I arrived, and remained that way for a few days. It cooled off after a thunderstorm rumbled through, and I awoke to a 35-degree morning. By early afternoon, however, it was back up well above 70. 

So the big pack of snow atop the massive peaks is melting fast, and the rivers are raging torrents of silty green water — water full of the very stuff those mountains are made of, being inexorably carried off to the sea. Upper McDonald Creek not far from my cabin changed in two days from something tinted green but with several feet of visibility — a river with enough slack water and calm eddies that I might have thought of fishing it if it weren’t notorious for having very few fish — to a river that looked like a kale milkshake with the blender still running. Not only would I not think to wade it, I wouldn’t have entered it with a whitewater raft! The much larger and more famous Flathead River, whose North and Middle forks bound the west and south sides of the park, is an unfishable flood. 

Wendell Berry, in his beautiful essay “A Native Hill,” writes of the river by his Kentucky home: “All waters are one. This is a reach of the sea, flung like a net over the hill, and now drawn back to the sea. And as the sea is never raised in the earthly nets of fishermen, so the hill is never caught and pulled down by the watery net of the sea. But always a little of it is. Each of the gathering strands of the net carries back some of the hill melted in it. Sometimes, as now, it carries so little that the water flows clear; sometimes it carries a lot and is brown and heavy with it.”

The rivers flowing past me are far from clear. Their gathering strands are carrying a great deal of melted mountain. So I’m thinking not only about the strength of the hills, but the power of the rivers. As mighty as these mountains are, they will ultimately succumb to the power of water.

I love water, especially freshwater. I love rivers. I came to Glacier National Park to write about water. I stand at roadside pullouts and look down at the raging floods of melting snow. It is beautiful in a way — beautiful and powerful — yet I am not drawn to this water at all. 

So I have been spending a lot of time the past few days finding the park’s quieter waters — places I might not otherwise have taken as much time to discover if the major rivers had not been carrying so much mountain and melted snow. I’ve been hiking to small wooded ponds off the beaten paths, shallow and boggy on the edges, where ducks I’m trying to identify paddle and dive, and mosquitos buzz about when it’s not too windy. I’ve hiked along the river to beaver ponds on little tributary brooks that flow from marshy springs, much clearer and warmer than the main river — ponds where I expect to see a moose though I haven’t yet, and where I see Canada geese and yet more ducks I can’t name. I’ve visited higher elevation lakes, accessible only by hike or by long drives on narrow, winding, pot-holed dirt roads. 

On a quiet evening after a hot day, one small mountain lake even rewarded my two-mile hike with a dozen cutthroat trout stacked up in the small stream below the beaver dam at the outlet, as well as some wonderful photos and even underwater video of those fish. They were the only trout I caught, and the only place I fished, in my first five days. The lake also rewarded me with a visit from beavers who entertained me for almost as long as the trout. 

The greatest reward, though, has been the flat water itself, peaceful, quiet, and clear. Instead of the roar of melting mountains, warbler and thrushes sing from the thick shoreline brush. More than anything, I have delighted in the reflections of the majestic skylines. Sometimes the imperfect reflections are more beautiful than the mountains themselves. Like the rushing rivers, the flat water still holds the mountains, but they hold them in a different and less destructive way. 

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