'Field Notes:' Reflections On Knowing A Wild Place
Montana has so much to offer for those who love wild places, and I’ve spent much of my time here exploring all the new spots I can in our lovely state. Yet there are a few places that I find myself returning to again and again. My favorite may be Glen Lakes in the Bitterroots.
It’s not Glacier National Park. It’s not St. Mary’s Peak or Trapper Peak. It’s not Yellowstone or the Yaak. Compared to those spots, it’s unassuming; just three little lakes nestled beneath a quiet ridge. But it’s a wild place that has become special to me over nearly a decade of visiting it in different seasons, experiencing its myriad beauties.
The area burned in 2006, and much of the trail is through an earlier burn, including a huge rock outcrop perching atop a ridge at the wilderness boundary. It’s a perfect place to lean back, eat a handful of trail mix, and gaze east across the Bitterroot Valley or west into the wilderness, looking up into the craggy mountains. At certain times of year, the top of the ridge is spotted with bright-white clumps of pearly everlasting; at other times, the gleaming white is an expanse of snow.
Farther on, the trail winds through a cemetery of bleached white trunks, some of which are still partially covered by blackened bark. They are beautiful against snow, against blue sky, against the bright flashing reds and oranges of changing huckleberry leaves and the purply stalks of fireweed stems.
Another landmark is the sinuous root of a dead Engelmann spruce, just off the trail near the first lake. Sometimes the curving reddish wood is surrounded by snow, sometimes mere rocky earth, and at other times, a galaxy of yellow glacier lilies that swirl up and away beyond the trail.
Then there’s the young alpine larch at the eastern edge of the middle lake. I’ve seen it bright green with new growth in early summer, and a flaming yellow-orange in the fall. The first time I visited, it was near its base that my now-husband captured a small black salamander larva, cupping its wriggling body and a splash of lake water in his curved palms.
There’s the wide, sloping rock on the north shore of the upper lake, where I’ve napped in the sunshine, eaten lunch on day hikes, cooked dinner on backpacking trips. I’ve leaned back against it while gazing in awe at the blazing gold of autumn larches spilling down the surrounding slopes. I’ve crouched at its edge, peering through the clear water to find caddisfly larvae crawling on rocks just beneath the surface, protected by cases made of miniscule grains of sand.
I know I could spend the rest of my life exploring Montana’s wild places and never walk the same trail twice. And yet in the midst of exploring new places I’ve discovered a richness to returning to one particular place. I’ve hiked the Glen Lakes trail more than a dozen times, but it always feels new, somehow. On each visit I see something I’ve never seen before—red algae on the snow or masses of ladybugs congregating on the rocky ridge above the lake. On each visit, I get to know this place just a little better.
There’s so much a naturalist can learn, watching one spot change over the years and throughout the seasons. By observing when the wildflowers bloom in different years, or how long it takes the last bit of snow to melt from beneath the trees, or when the huckleberries are ripe from one summer to the next, we learn the idiosyncrasies of a place. We can come to understand what is normal and what is not.
And in coming to know a place, we come to love it, in a more intimate way than those places we visit only once. With love come other emotions—worry, perhaps, about forest fires and climate change; delight in anticipating the beauties future visits hold; a desire to protect and preserve the places that have tucked themselves into our hearts. But mostly I find myself simply grateful: for Glen Lakes, and for all the wild places that are there for us to return to, again and again.