Don’t make me sing, damn you. I push at the screen of my phone in a vain attempt to activate its music app and begin filling this high-elevation fir ridge with a tinny rendition of Cinderella’s Gypsy Road, something I believe the grizzly bear who’s recently crossed my path will take note of and decide, as I normally would, too, that nearly anyplace is preferable to front-row seats at this concert. From his track, he’s a youngish boar, a few years on his own now under his belt, the type of bear who might be feeling his oats enough to decide this two-legged intruder looks like easy calories. I poke increasingly hard at my phone, its songs locked behind the “cloud,” or temporarily “off-loaded,” or simply, with better judgment than I give a phone credit for, refusing to defile this beautiful place with a big-hair beat from the 80s.
“Oaky, buddy,” I say to the bear track, “you asked for it. It’s Poncho and Lefty, and it ain’t Willy Nelson signing it.”
If the grizzly doesn’t decide that in order to protect the integrity of great, country music he must kill me, I image he’s hastily putting distance between us.
I’m five miles into an eight-mile climb to a remote, alpine lake in Montana’s Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, arguably the most rugged piece of unbroken country south of Canada. On the surface, I’m hoping for a panoramic photo of this seldom-seen body of water at sunset, crimson sky reflected on the surface of a lake that may not, even in the middle of July, be entirely free from ice.
That’s the rationale for this punishing hike, but the truth of what brings me here is more complicated. Take the magnetism that wild places exert on me, sprinkle it with the overdue arrival of summer after a prolonged, cold spring, mix in some urgency to explore during the high country’s shortest season, give it a dollop of more urgency to do it while my legs still can, and throw in the uneasy recognition that already the days are not as long as they were a month ago, and you’ve got the bulwark of the recipe that draws me here.
I entreat the wilderness to pray for Lefty, too, and then my voice trails off. The whale-back ridge I’ve been climbing has ended at a curtain of ancient trees, scarred by lightning strikes and sculpted by winter wind, their bark home to varied mosses and lichens that have lived upon their trunks longer than we’ve been an independent nation. They guard a steep decent down a north-facing slope that takes me back in time, summer lost to deep shade and a pervasive chill from tenacious snow banks whose tops bear similar evidence of harsh weather. The effects of erosion are on full, miniature display here. Snow canyons cut by wind now deep with brown spruce needles run into broad moraines where last night’s rainwater spread out and froze in crystalline sheets. The lower side of one large drift is in the process of calving onto the sprouts of spring beauty flowers, flowers whose blooms have come and gone from most places nearly two months ago. A few feet uphill from the crack, a pillar-like formation remains, snow hardened by the tread of a wolf, his weight compacting it enough to see evidence of his footfall remain longer than the undisturbed flakes around it. I imagine him gliding through here one night long after the grizzly has gone to bed for the winter, his nose searching for elk in one of the sage openings I climbed through earlier.
Further down the mountain where snow claims the majority of ground, my route zigzags between patches of bare earth near larger trees whose trunks have reflected sunlight and melted the ice. At the base of a leaning spruce, I find the skull of a calf elk, the bone porous and stained a deep, mineral-brown. I pick it up and examine its crushed base, the signature of a mountain lion, then set it gingerly back exactly where it laid. In time, it will become part of the soil and perhaps give home to the seed of a spruce that will one day be raked by the antlers of another elk who has lived beyond this perilous first year. There’s something comforting to me in this collective sense of purpose in nature – a cycle we label with beginnings and ends but is better described as continual transition. I wonder if somewhere along my journey I have seen a flower containing molecular pieces of the lion or taken a breath of air composed of oxygen released by trees whose roots were fortified by the siblings of this elk?
A mourning cloak butterfly with wings as ragged as a turkey vulture’s floats by and lands on an alder leaf. It looks tired, as though it is ready for whatever comes next, and as I walk through its flight path I breathe deeply, hoping to inhale some atomic morsel of what has always been one of my favorite butterflies. Even if I don’t, if I’m unable to bring anything from this insect along with me, I believe it’s possible that the air fanned by its wings contains something from the saber toothed cats that once walked here or the great, fern-like trees which grew millions of years earlier.
At the foot of this ridge, several hundred feet below the mourning cloak, my trail crosses a milky stream brimming with snowmelt. It races downhill in a pell-mell eagerness to transport winter toward the Gulf of Mexico and, still thinking of nature’s connective properties, I smile envisioning a marlin filtering water through its gills that has already passed those of a brook trout a few thousand miles away. I look hard at a sleek log spanning the stream, water lapping over the top of its smooth surface, and decide to search for an easier crossing. The marlin doesn’t need anything from me just yet.
A hundred yards upstream, at the base of a talus slope more snow than rock, I pick my way across the creek, stepping on a natural bridge of boulders while wondering if the lion that killed the elk calf might not have done the exact same thing at some point. They don’t mind water I know, but, sharing many of the traits of their smaller, domestic cousins, certainly don’t mind keeping their feet dry either. If the lion crossed here, his final jump to the far bank, above a dark current churning along below, was more graceful than my own.
My route rises fast now, up from this V-shaped gorge along a smaller brook unable to contain its water between the banks. It flows over the trail as many places as not, exploring stands of thick, young lodgepole pine, testing the land for a more direct course.
The creek will one day flow straight as an arrow I know, but today both it and I weave a circuitous path. Where the trail isn’t under water, it’s muddy, and I can feel the damp prickle of water forming on my socks and am not interested in washing my feet this way. I no more than think it when the sky cuts loose with heavy rain.
“From above and below,” I say out loud as I dig a raincoat from my pack. While zipping it up, the scents of plastic and cold rain combine to elicit, strobe-like memories from my childhood – moments on spring streams in New England - as though this falling water has completely eroded the sediments of forty years’ worth of memory, exposing moments that I see as clearly now as I did then. Perhaps something in one of the droplets has circumnavigated the globe, touching me once more. Not impossible I decide as the memories fade into a curtain of heavier rain and I press on.
I measure time by the passing of the squall and my boots filling with its water, funneled down my raincoat with great accuracy. When both are complete, I find myself in a mountain-ringed bowl not far from the lake that I’ve come to photograph. I crest a rocky swell and it appears all at once, a few acres of green water contrasted against an unsettled sky and tall, dark peaks. I’m likely the first person to see it this summer, and that means something to me, even if I’m unable to explain exactly what, but from a photographic standpoint it’s an unremarkable image. I frame a few shots that I don’t take, unable to discover any angle that approaches what I’d hoped to find here.
Sunset isn’t as far off as it would have been a month ago, but it’s still a few hours away and I’ve got to weigh the possibility that it will not be colorful against an eight-mile walk back to my truck in the dark with sopping wet boots. I’ll give it a couple of hours I decide, setting my sights on a tall waterfall across the lake. It’s a tough climb through massive boulders whose heads peek from drifts of snow more than 15 feet deep, and my pace is slow and careful. In more than one spot, I see crevasses down which a detour would mean, at best, a broken leg. After half an hour, my nerves are frayed and I submit to common sense and give up trying to reach the falls. I follow a path of rock to the lakeshore and at its edge find a buttercup that’s broken through the snow and blossomed. As I stare at it, a fly, seemingly one who’s materialized for the sole purpose of pollinating this single flower, lands and begins probing the stamens, yellow pollen sticking to its head and feet. How far will it fly before touching another flower, I wonder, ensuring that next year more blossoms will welcome this ephemeral summer?
A low rumble of thunder reverberates behind me, more confirmation that I made the right choice in turning back from the falls. It comes again, this time sharper, as lightning peppers one of the high peaks less than two miles away. I see the next strike, a jagged bolt that appears to touch down twice, its second exclamation turning grey granite momentarily pink with blinding light.
As the next bolt rockets down a few hundred yards from me, the deafening crash of thunder causes me to flinch, though I know the lightning has already missed me. Like a soldier ducking the whine of a passed bullet. And then I smile, thinking that in less than the span of ten minutes Nature has showed both a delicate and devastating omnipotence. The power that draws the fly to the buttercup is no less than the force that delivers the lightning.
Rains come, and my choice of whether or not to wait for sunset is now an easy one. I dawdle at the edge of the lake where my trail begins its downhill journey, not quite ready to leave this place yet, watching sheets of moisture wash in from the east. With a dark filter on my lens and an umbrella over my camera, I take a 90-second photograph, capturing what seems physically impossible – the progression of time in a single, two-dimensional frame.
And then I don’t stop walking again until I come, entirely by chance, across the calf elk skull. Approaching from the opposite direction in the dim light of an overcast evening, nothing looks the same as it did earlier, and I have to pick up the bone, tracing the bite marks, to be certain it’s the same one. For the second time today, I place it back on the ground, sitting next to it this time myself while I eat a candy bar. There’s something as familiar as rain and plastic about wet hands and chocolate, though the memories they bring this time are disjointed. I catch glimpses of them like the mountains above the lake I saw, drifting in and out of view behind clouds and rain. A station wagon door closes alongside a dirt road next to an iron bridge spanning a fall brook. The peeling label on a small, glass bottle of iodine comes into focus above wide boards in a dusty, country store. A railroad spike covered with creosote lies in the foreground of a scene on a lake where a red and white bobber dances on north-wind waves. No vision is complete, yet their sum bespeaks a happy childhood.
“Chocolate and wet hands,” I say before wiping my fingers on my pants and retrieving my camera. I want a photo of this elk skull, but can’t make anything look remotely like the way the scene feels. I give up, but before I summon the strength to stand and continue I look at the photo I took of the lake. I stare a long time, lost in thoughts of lions and elk, brook trout and marlin, flies and buttercups, boys and men.
Souls, I decide. That’s what it looks like. The gathering or depositing of souls. Before I rise, a drop of water beads on the brim of my hat then falls. I catch it on my tongue.
**I hope that you enjoy the following photos, some from this hike and others from more journeys into Montana's summer alpine country.**
Pine Creek Lake begins to shed ice. June 27, 2019
Falls Below Pine Creek Lake. June 27, 2019
Upper Cradle Lakes, Madison Mountain Range. June 30th, 2019
A pair of grayling prepare to spawn in the inlet to Heather Lake. July, 2019
A fly finds a single buttercup bursting from a snow drift. July, 2019
A storm gathers over Bear Basin, full of summer wildflowers. August, 2019
Hardscrabble Peak, in Montana's Bridger Range at first light. July, 2019
Frazier Lake, Bridger Mountains. July, 2019