With the bike stashed in a closed campground and my shoes swapped-out, I began to jog up the trail toward Avalanche Lake. My royal blue high socks were soaked from the ride up McDonald Creek and my cycling garb earned me puzzled looks from the visiting Chinese tourists. They were decked out in full rain gear, some toting umbrellas to protect their cameras as they clicked away at the landscape. I too had trouble running more than a hundred feet before stopping, wide-eyed, to snap another ten photos of the fantasy land around me. It had been ten years since I was last in Glacier National Park, but its captivating magic was just as potent.
I was eighteen when I pulled our maroon Ford Econoline van into East Glacier en route to Two Medicine Lake. The back was outfitted with plywood beds and milk crates for storage, our home on wheels. My friend John and I had just graduated high school in New York and driven 3,000 miles out west in search of… something else. With some trouble-making and adventure in the plains behind us, we were rocked when we first saw the Rockies in southern Montana. An abrupt jutting upward where land meets sky very near the observer. But while southern Montana was a step into an alternate landscape, Glacier was a nose-dive into an alternate dimension. Glimmering turquoise-blue lakes, steep-sided u-shaped valleys, fierce-looking alpine cirques. We soaked it up. What we also soaked up was the 30-racks of cheap beer that was a staple of the road trip. Instead of exploring the wild lands on foot, we ogled the ranges from camp where we played beer pong on Park Service picnic tables and laughed at the ground squirrels. An introductory tasting of what Glacier had to offer, superficial yet enticing. Since we left a decade back I had longed to return.
Along Avalanche Creek, the rain started and stopped in fits, sputtering through the canopy. The woods glowed a dull green. Luscious emerald-colored moss blanketed the forest floor, creeping up boulders and tree trunks. I could hear Avalanche Creek roaring up ahead, so I crept up to the edge of the slot canyon and peered down in. White water churned through polished bedrock, dancing downstream and engulfing the sounds of the forest. Moss hung on the canyon walls. I closed my eyes and breathed in the mist. Now I was absorbing.
The ranger at Apgar Village said there had been eight grizzly sightings up this trail in the last week. Upon hearing that, I thought I’d check it out. Jogging solo up the trail, though, I was hyper aware. Scanning the hill slopes above me and the valley below, maintaining my vigil. Behind one log I spied two twitching ears. I leaned in closer and greeted a snowshoe hare nibbling on some ferns. Unalarmed, he wiggled his nose at me and continued to munch before crawling off into a bush. Not much further ahead a fresh grizzly print deep in the mud pierced the trail, claws clearly delineated and filled with water. I was equal parts exhilarated and alarmed. I tried to channel the relaxation of the snowshoe hare. It didn’t work.
The clouds melted off the peaks, only to roll back over the summits and saddles again a few minutes later. A thin veil of mist hugged a mountain slope from top to bottom. Clouds do things here that mystify the mind and bewilder the senses. Countless waterfalls traversed broken gullies and soared down cliff faces hundreds of feet to the ground below. Threads of silky white against a reddish-purple canvas. The falls I vividly remembered from my last trip. Even in August, long after snowmelt, they had been multitudinous. Slithering out of hanging valleys and redirected by horizontal cliff bands as they accelerated earthward.
The Kooetnai Indians called Lake McDonald, Glacier’s largest lake, the Lake of Sacred Dancing Waters after the whitecaps that would sway across the lake’s surface. Watching the way the clouds, falls, and rivers maneuvered through the landscape, I noticed the same spontaneous art in motion, beautiful and simple in its fluidity. A sacred dance.
When I arrived at Avalanche Lake, moist and warm, I sat on a boulder at the lake’s edge. The still surface mirrored the cirque above, an amalgamation of snow, rock, tree, cloud and water in perpetual motion. Weaving together and pulling apart. Nothing was still. Vapor filled my lungs and moisture soaked into my skin. My senses were saturated.