As I threw down my pack, my shoulders momentarily rejoiced. If shoulders could talk, they would have used the privilege to sigh, “Ahh.” I unzipped the top compartment of my pack, grabbed my water bottle and filter, and sat on a flat rock at the river’s edge.
The waters of Glacier National Park are beyond blue. At a distance, lakes shimmer like iridescent gemstones. Here at the river’s edge, the water obscured nothing beneath it. Only the ripples of its flow masked swimming fish. As I screwed the filter onto my bottle, the sparkling water mimicked me. Do you really need to filter such perfection?
But I did. Despite its role as a place of escape, wilderness sometimes reminds us we don’t quite fit in. Somehow we have become ill adapted for natural places. (Or, as is usually the case, we have made natural places ill adapted for ourselves.) This river was so clear filtering hardly seemed necessary, but this is a ritual of wilderness, and one I quite enjoy. After walking along rocky trails weighed down by a backpack, the slow, smooth arm movements required to lift water from its source are a welcome contrast. As I pumped, the world slowed. I looked off into the distance and took in the tiny details of the landscape: the pebbles on the river’s bottom, the towering evergreens, the deeply blue sky.
I had just crossed over the Two Medicine River on a rustic log bridge (an odd but welcome sight in the midst of wilderness). As I fell into my meditative-pumping state, something moved in the bushes off to my right. I sat just two feet from the log bridge, with my back towards it and, before I could even process the rustle in the bushes, something squat and dark and fluffy moved towards me, hopped onto the bridge, and ran across. Its bushy tail followed animatedly.
As it passed me, I caught a glimpse of the animal’s face. I could hardly believe it. It was a wolverine. I marveled at how unafraid it seemed. Perhaps it was waiting for me to finish pumping my water and lost patience with my slow contemplation. Or maybe it didn’t care at all about the human presence. It didn’t go for my pack, which was nearby and contained food, or for me. It simply went about its business as usual. (Though it did seem to enjoy the human intrusion of the bridge.)
As I turned to watch the animal saunter over the log passageway, I was reminded of documentarian Martin Johnson’s idea that wildlife in remote regions are “tamely wild.” That is, they show no fear of humans because they have not been taught to fear them. They are tame through unfamiliarity. This wolverine had no reason to fear me in this remote area of the national park where it enjoyed a refuge from guns and cars. Nor did it have any reason to ransack my stores of food in the plentiful landscape. For both me and the wolverine, Glacier delivered the promise of the National Park System “to provide for the enjoyment of [scenery and wildlife] in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
This is the first installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.