In the final days of September 2016, the North Fork of the Flathead River, Polebridge, and Glacier National Park put an exclamation point on why autumn is best.
I spent the last couple weeks driving around listening to the audio version of Ed Abbey’s classic The Monkeywrench Gang. I enjoyed it quite a bit, as the guy reading it, Michael Kramer, did a fantastic job. But it didn’t help my growing surliness — likely a symptom of age and a faltering tolerance for bullshit as much as anything else — as it relates to sharing the wilds with other people. And that is stretching the term “wilds” so thin it’s practically invisible. My last rant on this subject turned into something of a false alarm, but it doesn’t change the fact that this time of year more and more people are using my beloved river access site, and making a mess of it. Cigarette butts, random garbage, etc. Hell, even their mere presence can irritate me, even though I’m not so myopic as to not understand they have every bit as much a right to be there as I do. A couple twitter friends and I were discussing something similar last week. I had mentioned I feel it is a failing on my part that I’ve not yet visited the Grand Canyon. My friend Jeff, aka The Southwest Dude, weighed in with some suggestions for areas of the park that were a little less traveled, information I find critical. I pointed out then, as I have been saying for over a year now based on my last visit to Yellowstone National Park, that one of the greatest things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone. At the same time, one of the worst things about our national parks is that they are so accessible to everyone.
I recognize that it sounds like I’m some kind of outdoor snob. I suspect I probably am. I thought about this a lot last May, when work took me to the Bay Area, and I ventured into the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. This is a beautiful cathedral of magnificent trees, regularly overrun with people. There are signs all over requesting visitors be quiet, all of which are ignored, at least they were when I was there. I also saw for the first time in person the much maligned “selfie stick.” This guy was walking around, his camera on the end of this thing, pointed at himself, filming his progress through the park. Not filming what he was seeing, the camera was directed at himself. It was bizarre. I followed him for about 10 minutes or so, somewhat dumbstruck, just to see what he would do. He just kind of buzzed around, making like he was looking at stuff, but mostly just looking into the camera, moving its angle around, etc. Then I realized how monitoring his actions were spoiling my experience, so I just paused and let him go on about his business while I refocused on my own enjoyment of the area.
There is no right way or wrong way to experience the outdoors (unless you’re a litterer, of course), so I know I need to lighten up. Just because I can’t get enough time outside, and get depressed and quite angry with myself when I don’t make more time for it, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be just a casual experience for others. I don’t understand people who don’t like the outdoors, but that’s their prerogative. I should be pleased to see people out and enjoying themselves, because getting out in it is the only way to build a connection that inspires action to protect it.
Sometimes it’s just hard to share.
The other evening a couple miles up on my (near) nightly ramble in the Rattlesnake I reached a spot creekside. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and I decided I wanted to grab a picture — it’s one of my favorite spots that, while definitely popular, doesn’t get near the traffic other sites do — before climbing a steep hill and returning to the trailhead. As I approached the bank, I thought to step out onto some flat rocks so that I could be farther out into the water for a better photographic vantage point. I took a step, heard a splashing at my feet, and lo and behold —
This snake had a fish firmly by the tail. Up out of the water, the fish’s gills were still flexing steadily, but not quickly. My immediate reaction was to want to rescue the fish, which is strange. Yeah, I have learned a deep affinity for fish as I’ve become a more avid fisherman (how’s that for a contradiction?)(I’m certain other fishermen, and hunters for that matter, can relate), but why should its life be more important than that of the snake? So I left them alone, and sat back to watch the struggle unfold. I was transfixed, and found it oddly emotional.
At one point a couple other hikers approached, with dogs, and I stood from my perch on a rock to try and keep the dogs away. The two hikers — young women — eyed me with looks of mild concern before ascending the hill I had intended to climb. I didn’t want the dogs to mess up what the snake was trying to accomplish.
The snake worked the fish around and positioned its jaw at the fish’s tail, clearly with the intention to swallow the entire thing. How it hoped to accomplish that I don’t know, but I trust it knew what it was doing. I could have remained until darkness watching, fascinated, but I had to return to Missoula and pick Julia up after work. I was pleased to witness it, though. Something I’d never seen before, and possibly never will again.
The next night I returned to the spot, curious to see if there were any signs of what had happened. No dead fish, no bloated and belching snake, nothing. No one ever would have known what had happened there. Who knows what DID happen there. Maybe the snake pulled off its feast, maybe a dog — or bear, for that matter — came along and swallowed them both. I’ll never know.
I took the opportunity to take the pictures that I hadn’t the night before, though.
I explored a couple little side trails on the way back that I hadn’t hiked before. Looking upstream I could see clearly that someone had built a cairn out in the flow, but there weren’t any obvious paths to access it. After some bushwhacking and finally some wading out into the current, I got a closer look.
There were a couple cairns, which were cool enough, but what amazed me is that someone had taken the time and no small amount of effort to make little redirections of the stream so that it flowed over rocks, creating little pools and waterfalls along the way. It was like some guerrilla zen garden of some kind, and I loved it. Again, I could have stayed for hours. The pictures I took don’t do it justice.
It made me happy. It proved that how we humans choose to disrupt nature doesn’t always have to be shitty, that sometimes we can actually make beauty. It was good to be reminded of that.