Tomorrow, if the weather channel is to be believed, it will snow. Insects will freeze, flowers will wilt, pika will remain inside their rocky homes where they’ll sample their stores of summer-gathered grasses, and the world will sport its first white coat of its longest season. Yes, tomorrow it may snow, but not today.
Today, summer is firmly in control. Even the approaching storm and my autumnal sense of change can’t convince me otherwise. I’m at the trailhead to Glacier Lake in Montana’s Absaroka Mountains, already sweating as I leave the beaten path in favor of my own course up a steep, boulder-strewn creek that appears to drop from the distant, western horizon, falling straight out of the smoky sky.
My lightweight trail shoes sink in wet moss where I pause to pick ripe, wild raspberries, their flavor reminiscent of a place, taking me back to Northern Vermont and an afternoon when my mother and I picked them there. A few feet further, I see the indentation of a black bear’s front foot preserved in the moss, a record of its nocturnal pursuit of these same berries. It’s probably sleeping somewhere in the snaking line of spruce that traces this stream between high peaks well above timberline. Perhaps I’ll see it, I think, as I tighten the chest strap on my pack and drop to all fours, crawling over the creek above a patch of whitewater on the slick trunk of a Douglas fir lodged between ragged hunks of pink granite. Where I stand on the opposite bank, the knees of my pants now as wet as my shoes, an aster leans from heavy, streamside grass, pointing its blue-ringed face toward the sun. I stop long enough for one photo and then begin climbing.
My legs are slightly more accustomed to the rigors of near-vertical ascent than they were a month ago when I climbed the Beartooth to shoot the Milky Way. They protest less vehemently, resigned to their task of hauling me upward, letting me gain ground inch by inch. Back across the creek, on the side of a mountain scribed by a well-maintained trail, I see someone trudging their way up, too. I’m convinced they won’t encounter nearly as much as I will, though that’s more a reflection of my optimism, desire for solitude, and trail-breaking nature than any real difference in environment. This time of year especially, not many people see this corner of Montana, either from the packed gravel of a path or the timbered stream paralleling it a mile away. Still, the road less traveled by, I think, digging my toes into a cirque of shattered stone, a crescent carved above the stream during spring’s raging high water.
An hour of scrambling over rock slides, slipping under leaning trees, and tightroping across others closer to prostrate, and I’ve found a patch of mountain grass at the base of knife-blade-thin snowdrifts. Here, seasons mix with fireweed half gone by and columbine just coming on. Most of it is the common, pale-yellow variety, but in the shade of a fallen white bark pine one blooms with delicate, pink petals encircling a center the color of late September aspen leaves. Maybe the weatherman will be wrong, I hope, as my shutter clicks and I start hiking again.
At the base of a hundred yards of haphazardly-stacked boulders ranging in size from basketballs to Buicks, lichen a dozen shades of green and yellow on their backs, the stream vanishes. I can hear it, rumbling in the mountain behind this curtain of rock, but there’s no visible flow. It reverberates in my chest like the drumming wings of springtime grouse, churning unseen through some hidden cavern while I pick my way toward a skyline of hazy blue and the possibility of flatter ground.
A pair of young pika emerge to stare at their rare visitor. They look like the cross between a squirrel and cottontail rabbit, their round ears swiveling as I hunt through my pack for my camera. One decides that it’s seen enough before I focus the shot, but the other allows me one picture then retreats to its home where by all predictions it will spend the entirety of tomorrow.
The stream reappears above the wall of rocks, and I follow it up through a sliver of valley toward a small lake. Mountain goat hair clings to the lower limbs of the trees I pass, rubbed off in June as these animals shed their coats that protect them from a savage, high-elevation winter. The goats rely on gale-force winds to blow snow from the rocky peaks, exposing grass and moss. Unlike the deer and elk, they remain up here all winter, but while they’re probably not far away I don’t see them today.
The little lake has good water in it I see twenty minutes later, fed by the stream I’ve hiked along and a series of half a dozen waterfalls along its upstream side. Part way around its shore, just as I’m thinking it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to unstrap my pack and rest my back, I come across an infield-sized patch of wildflowers.
Pink fireweed, yellow Jerusalem artichoke, and lavender asters fill each inch of space between the granite boulders which have rolled down from their lofty homes. Poking above the blossoms, they look like the gray backs of some ancient species of bear, while smaller stones ring this oasis, sharply delineating where mountain ends and paradise begins.
Here, in a pocket of summer splendor, I refuse to believe that I stand on the cusp of changing seasons. The air is alive with butterflies – nearly every species I’ve photographed during the past two months – while honeybees and their larger cousins, bumblebees, crawl over the flowers, their legs caked with pollen, the delicate hairs on their head as yellow as the background they land in front of.
There are limitless choices for the fritillary I watch spread his wings flat while he drinks.
He basks on top of one bloom then flits a couple of inches to another, crawling upside down to yet one more. In this moment, early in the afternoon of a September day, summer is preserved forever. Even as a gentle breeze stirs out of the west and some tiny, unrecognizable part of me trembles within, this butterfly somersaults in the air and executes a perfect landing on a swaying, yellow blossom. A day-flying moth, hoping for room to land alongside him, buzzes directly overhead, the same distance from my macro lens to catch them both in good focus, one clinging to its goblet, the other eager to share a drink.
A silvery blue, Montana’s miniature morpho, circles an aster then lands facing me. I ease onto my stomach and focus on her, trying to bring out the white banding on her antennae, letting iridescent blue wings glow in light filtered through taller flowers above. She permits one shot then hurls herself into the air, landing on more asters in deeper shade.
She’s a butterfly of spring – of the opposite end of the equinox – and I can’t decide if her presence here feels hopeful or foreboding. I think about it a second longer as the breeze picks up a couple of miles an hour, then stand and sneak toward more Jerusalem artichoke where a painted lady, fresh from its chrysalis, circles in rapid flight.
As I wait for it to select a flower, an orange sulfur lands. These flighty butterflies are tough to get close to, glinting across meadows in July like pieces of wind-blown confetti, but there’s limited terrain here and this one doesn’t mind me sneaking a few photos. It won’t open its vivid orange wings, but there’s a hint of the color hidden within, ringed in pastel pink, its green eye trained on my Cyclops-like lens.
As I look away from the sulfur, the painted lady prepares to land nearby and a fast shutter speed freezes her just before touching down. She drinks for half a second then decides a different blossom suits her better, landing before a backdrop of green and pink, the crown jewel in this mountain garden.
I’m not really aware of passing time but lengthening shadows suggest I should move along, though not before a photo of a lilac bordered copper sharing a perch with a bee. Late summer has made strange bed fellows, I think, snapping a quick shot before turning into the mountain again and shoving off.
The streams drops in waterfalls over polished granite shelves above where it flows into the small lake, clear water giving itself over to gravity. I want to photograph these falls, but the sun has inched closer to the western horizon and the light is wrong. Instead, I settle for a narrow panorama in my mind, mountain, flowers, and falls each anchoring a portion of the mental picture.
Onward, and I don’t look back. I’m breathing hard when I reach Glacier Lake at the head of the falls and the edge of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. My stream meets the trail from the parking lot, but the person I saw walking it hours earlier has come and gone and I have the lake to myself. I can taste the forest fires burning west of here, fires that have ravaged over a million acres of Montana this summer, more than any year in recorded history.
The patch of flowers far below where I photographed butterflies is a tiny smudge of color from here and I look from it to the sky and sigh. Endings and beginnings, I think, deciding that fire-ending snow might be a worthwhile price to end so much devastation. Of course, the painted lady, only a day out of her silky sleeping bag of transformation, has no way of knowing the life threatening cold may save thousands of her unborn relatives miles from here. Perhaps she’ll find the underside of a cow parsnip – a broad, protective leaf to cling to where she can ride out the storm. If not, she could hardly have picked a better day or better place to be a butterfly than this one.
“And it isn’t over yet,” I say aloud into the west wind, noticeably cooler than an hour ago.
I teeter momentarily where the trail back to my truck, three miles away, turns from the route I took getting here, knowing I don’t have the time to retrace my steps, still hesitant to walk among so many other footprints. With the sun at my back, I take a picture of the cascading water where it shoots toward the lake below then resign myself to walking the beaten path, placated ever so slightly by the hope that it’s late enough in the day so that I won’t encounter other hikers.
There is no one else at a round clump of Jerusalem artichoke to watch bumblebees drunk on nectar slowly crawl from flower to flower. It’s a feeding frenzy with hundreds of bees working hundreds of blossoms. I sit down and watch them, ragged wings testament to a short and busy summer in the high country. These are members of their colony’s last brood, and will not survive the coming days. Deep underground, a few queens will hibernate to repopulate the mountains next summer, but these bees are dining on their last supper. As my mind drifts ahead to that far-off day next May when warm temperatures expose south-facing slopes and the drone of wings once more sounds, I’m struck with sadness. Even as I photograph a pair of bees vying for the best position on a flower, I notice a long, leaden cloud appear in the north sky.
I leave the bees to the final hour or so of warm sunshine and strike off down the trail. As it loses elevation, I drop out of the green of summer and into the dull browns of dry, early fall. Lupine pods rattle in the wind, and withered leaves of arrowleaf balsamroot clack together like the yellow and red wings of the locusts I flush from the path. There can be no rebirth without death, I know, but I don’t have to like it.
A mile above the parking lot the trail crosses a sturdy wooden bridge spanning a tributary of the creek I climbed earlier in the day. This is more than my pride will allow, and I turn abruptly downstream and begin bushwacking through timber that still stands even after a forest fire some years ago took its lives. These trees return to the Earth slowly, standing now with only their largest limbs attached, reaching to the sky like blackened, mountain cactus. In time, seeds freed from cones relying on fires to germinate, will burst from the soil and for part of a generation the old and new will share pieces of this mountain. Maybe that’s what the massive, fallen fir I come across where the fire jumped the seep I’m descending is waiting for – the shade of new trees and cooler shadows to hasten the growth of moss that will in turn help complete its recycling.
I’m almost back to my truck now, almost ready to begin the long drive home. In a few minutes, I’ll motor away from the Absaroka and won’t likely be back until next summer. It seems a hell of a way off right now. As though mere moments ago I was watching leaves unfurl and celebrating an afternoon on which I didn’t need to wear a jacket.
The last rays of the sun are shining off the roof of my truck when I spot a little spring flowing just off the stream I’ve followed down from the bridge. Where its water gurgles from the ground, a bit of summer remains even this low. The Jerusalem artichoke is looking a bit ragged and there aren’t as many asters as grew higher, but a clump of bright-red paintbrush stands high enough to glow in the sun. It’s exactly what I needed to see before bringing this journey to a close, and though it has no idea I veer in its direction, passing my hand over its flowers, their soft touch a memory that will help me through the coming months. The faint haze of pollen on my fingers a hopeful stain of things to come again.