Exploring the stillness of winter in Glacier National Park.
David Powder Steele
ake a chill inside yourself, and imagine a wind that does not heed seasons. A wind churning across the landscape, a wind as feral as any animal treading the deepening snow. A wind with a physical presence, manifesting in gusts that scream through the subalpine fir and would knock you down if you were outside. A wind lofted and vaulted over the Divide, only to hurtle back down through the Grinnell Valley, falling down the steps left by retreating glaciers and roiling the beargrass in the summer. And imagine a dock standing out in that wind, stalwart, a series of timber frames holding a grey, sentinel watch at the foot of Lake Josephine. Though it was the second week of April, that wind and the snow it carried had left Many Glacier very much in the grip of winter. Clay and I rode our bikes the six miles from the gate at the Lake Sherburne dam, heavy packs pushing us into our seats as we rolled and tottered up the wet and sometimes snowy road. Pedaling in ski boots felt strange for the first few hundred yards, but in the gusts of headwind it made a little more sense than our approved winter campsite: the Grinnell Glacier trailhead. We pulled into the parking lot and promptly pitched our tent in our winter permitted spot: thirty feet from the pit toilets in one direction, thirty feet from the picnic tables in another.
The valley that bustles with activity in summer, with hikers and backpackers and carfuls of sightseers coming and going – it was deserted. Of course, that solitude was part of what we were after. There’s something primal in the steely eye of winter, something that reduces the complexity of summer color, blots out the road and trail snaking across the landscape. Our ski tracks were lines across the snow, only to be erased, filled in by the wind.
We wanted to see Many as itself, with the human additions pushed aside and out of sight by the snow. Our plan was to head in for a few days of winter camping. We’d ski ourselves silly if the weather would allow. Yet firing up the stove on the picnic table underscored the strangeness of our “remote” camp; we had ridden bikes on a popular road to a popular place, complete with all the trailhead trappings, during a very unpopular time of year. The things that we humans had installed upon the landscape had too heavily tilted the mixture of wildness and civilization. We weren’t, as they say, roughing it.
Which is why, when we skied out of the trees at the foot of Lake Josephine later the same day, the view of the boat dock caught me right between the ribs. It was a reveal almost cinematic in its sweep: gliding out of the trees with the broad valley pulling away, the snow-covered ice of the lake stretching through the foreground as negative space, the counterpoint of Angel’s Wing and Mt. Gould capping the scene. And the dock in the middle of it all looked like wreckage, like something cast off or forgotten, jutting out into the circular placidity of the lake as a last precipice of human interference in the scene. From this point, from this dock, it felt like we could just ski down and embark into the wild.
That wild, i.e. the whole of Glacier National Park, was visited by 2.1 million people in that year of 2013. That’s hard to imagine when conjuring the silence of the scene while we stood by the dock. Yet four years later, in 2017, 3.3 million people entered the park according to the same Park Service statistics. Three million annual visitors, roughly thirty times the resident population of Flathead County, is the new normal in this landscape. When you add the concentrating effects of popular trails and few arterial roads, the million acres of Glacier can feel mighty squeezed to locals used to the flavor of space.
The dock itself at Lake Josephine might feel the same way. According to the Glacier Park Boat Company, the timbers that the wind courses through have been rebuilt several times after losing battles with the ice and storms. Peak occupancy for the Chief Two Guns, the tour boat moored at the dock during the summer, is 400 people per day, times two for both embarking and returning. Multiply that by roughly two and a half months of their operational season—that makes 60,000 sets of feet tramping across the planks.
Yet you can’t see that when the dock is covered with snow. Our little moment on the edge of the lake is one tiny slice of the yearly counterpoint to all the steps taken across the boards. Those minutes gazing west remain a crystalline example that the proper proportion remains in Glacier. We sat as witnesses to our own smallness in a massive place, a feeling edified by the correct ratio of grandeur to a token piece of human engineering. Winter, for us in that moment in 2013 and for me still, is the shade that pulls us humans back in the equation between the wild and the civil. Winter returns this place to stillness, to ferocity, and to the wind, howling down the lake and – whether or not there’s someone there to see it or not – through the dock.
Photos: David Steele
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