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Glacier National Park

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Memories of Water/The Wolf Pack

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I didn’t want to go without everybody, because I knew how wonderful it would be, out there on the water, and I also knew I would be filled with the worst kind of guilty longing if we weren’t all there together. When you are a part of a pack, like ours I mean, you operate in a pack mentality—one for all, all for one. So if we went, we would go together. I tried to explain this to my Dad, and he knew what I meant (he, of course, being of the pack mentality himself, and for the longest), so when the first place could only rent out two kayaks he went and found another spot that could rent out four—two doubles and two singles. That’s six, for all of us.

We have to go now, he tells us (we are in the Montana’s Artist Cooperative, admiring pottery and antler bangles, as one does) and so, we set our things down and go in a flurry of single-minded intent. KAYAKING. The rental place is housed in a yurt. I am so excited to go—this is the thing I’ve been wanting to do, the whole trip—I drag my kayak out first on the carts they provide and immediately run over the sign. Which the renter pointed out so we didn’t hit it. No matter. We are going.

Lake McDonald is familiar to me, but only a little, and I find myself trying to remember it like one strains to remember a dream. It was fifteen years ago that we were here, more than half of my life, and still—the impression is still there in my memory, so that the many-colored stones glimmering beyond the surface of the water and the mountains looming in the distance are like a kind of homecoming. Shoving off, the cold water baptizing our feet as we wade in, I am overwhelmed by a sense of peace, laced with an undercurrent of rippling joy.

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I don’t know why but I love the water, sometimes—most of the time I want the trees, and a trail, and a mountain view or two to satiate the hungry part of my soul. And other times it’s the Adam's ale—a yearning for the rumble of a deep river, the babble of a brook, the gentle lapping of a lake. In the water is renewal, a cleansing spirit, the source of life that the tall, memory-laden trees of the forest can’t quite inspire. Mountains are time, water is the motion—all of the dips and curves and valleys of the dramatic landscape before us were carved by the water.

We paddle out onto the lake, wide and still before us, drawing ever nearer to the crown of peaks that circled us in the distance. It is overcast today, and just as well—we have the flat expanse to ourselves, and the mountains too, moody and shrouded in blue. We are a trail of ducklings, winging our way across the lake after my parents, sharing a double. Closer to the shore the water shimmers in ombre-dipped shades of green, the bottom glinting clear and visible through the depths until the water finally tickled the very bottom roots of the trees jutting out from the land. The light is patchy, out here where we are, on the bottom—a flash of submerged log or brown bottom appears sometimes, in a shallow spot, but mostly the depths are hidden, a secret unto the lake.

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Now we scatter—my Mom paddles to the shore, to see if there’s a moose, while my Dad stretches out and takes a nap. My sister is off a little ways, farther out—Sam and Garrett are spinning in wide circles, arguing in spurts about who should paddle. It is peaceful, a rhythm to it, our pack out here. I know my place, when we’re together, I am anchored and set free to sail by the quiet assurance of my family. A gift, we are to each other. The world, a gift to us.

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Among the Wildflowers

What I really want to remember are the wildflowers. There’s such a small window of time, breathlessly short, to catch them—the alpine spring a frenetic blanket of color in that inhale’s worth of space, between the harsh cold of winter and the searing heat of summer. But we caught it, or at the very least, the tail end of it, and more than any of the peaks, or the trails, or the lakes, or the mountain goats, that’s what I want to fix forever in my mind’s eye—the gentle bobbing of Indian Paintbrush as we breeze by, the sturdy puff of bear grass, a field of Glacier Lilies drinking in the sun. We couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned at all, which we didn’t, not really. Our rafting trip was thwarted by a river with no water, the spirit sucked out of it by an early summer and field irrigation, so we had to gently let our dreams of living by the rhythms of water (at least for a few days) die. We were reluctant, to say the least, to entertain anything but fishing until last light as our modus operandi for this family vacation—but time, I have come to realize, is not always kind, and so we must make the most of what we set aside.

The day we drove into Glacier was hot and clear, the big sky state proving itself to us over and over again as we made our way North towards the border. Outside of Browning we tumbled over each other in our eagerness to get out of the car, the first sight of the jagged line that etched the Continental Divide into the sky an invigorating, to the point of fervor, sight for each of us—and pack mentality is tough to beat, especially when it comes to expounding on the virtues of elevation, something we were all quite moved to do.

My Dad said to me, before we left, I am a little scared to have you in Montana, because I’m afraid you may never leave. All the way up on the drive he picks out hollows to build in, places of almost desperate solitude, and I understand. But for me it’s the mountains I want to nestle into, not so much the wide open space, it’s the high alpine that sings the siren song of my heart. The high alpine and her flowers, that’s the thing—our first day was a dizzying array of the creamy white stalks of bear grass against a bed of green grass, the yellow dots of glacier lilly carpeting a meadow at the foot of an enormous, glacier-wrought peak. How appropriate, is what the setting seems to say.

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My Mom is particularly fond of a small purple flower, for whom we don’t know the name of. Every time we stop in a store she flips through the flower books to try and find what to call it, an elusive little watercolor smudge amid the tangle of chroma that race across every spare few feet left open to the sky. Indian Paintbrush captures me, the spiky bottle bloom a harkening back to the old cabin, and the Elkhorns, and this too—it comes in my favorite color, red, but apparently also fuschia-pink and an orangey yellow that I’ve never seen before. Every time I see one I squeeze it into my memory, in a desperate attempt to, as always, remember. And for as much exclaiming over this one, or that, for all the flowers we take pictures of, I know too we each spot ones we say nothing about—those are the ones we keep close to our hearts, a treasure for our own, something small and quiet to look at when no one else is around. You know those things, don’t you? When you see a hawk spiraling in the sky and don’t point it out, his show a private one, or when a particular tree calls only your name? You know those things.

A grizzly bear lumbers across a low meadow, near the road, the huge, tawny shoulders humped and menacing even from the relative safety of the car—his lumbering gait belying none of the strength in each paw. What could he be doing down this far, we wonder, a little chilled at the sight of him, as much as we are thrilled. Eating the tubers of wildflowers, the ranger tells us later, they love the roots.

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Can I capture them, these sweet things I love so much and work so hard to cultivate in my own surroundings? I think probably not. They are something better experienced than described (as are most things, I think, but it’s still worth trying). Because flowers are exuberance, a pure kind of natural joy, a riot of life and color and scent for the sake of it, and for what? To keep on keeping on, to keep the species alive. I wrote, in my journal, at the end our first day, full of our own laughter and light, our lives lit up by flowers---everything is beautiful and it is so good to be alive.

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