01 September 2008

dispatches from big sky country

Missoula, Montana / Mile 2,753 –

An unexpected visitor: “Shawn, there’s something circling our tent! It sounds like something big!” Samantha’s voice woke me in the predawn gloom on our last morning in Banff. I tend to treat animal-outside-the-tent worries with skepticism, whether they’re coming from a tentmate or, more commonly, my own overactive imagination. But there was definitely something going on outside, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. There was a padding sound, first on one side of the tent, then a moment later on the other side. The parts of our tent seemed to be rubbing against each other in a strange way. Finally, Elise—who you'd think would be least likely to figure this one out—realized what was going on. On the last morning of August, a thick, wet snow was piling up on the ground, weighing down our tent fly and periodically falling in big sloppy chunks to the ground. After two years in Africa, Elise said that she couldn’t wait to see and touch snow, and she got her wish.

Banff recap: With or without a layer of snow, Banff is gorgeous. The mountains around the devastatingly quaint Banff town are striped with ancient layers of sediment, and in different places the magma beneath the Earth’s crust has pushed them up in odd angles, so that they look like jagged, leaning piles of tiramisu. On our first day, we went paddling on Lake Louise, which is an impossibly bright turquoise color thanks to the glacial silt in the water. Lake Louise is world famous, but there were also a number of unexpectedly interesting sights. One was an area of land that is still scarred from a 1992 fire that was set intentionally by the Canadian park service. Since Banff became Canada’s first national park, naturally occurring forest fires have been beaten back out of understandable concern for life, property, and nature. The problem is that fires are an important part of a forest ecosystem, so taking them away has produced a lot of blandly uniform climax forest and caused the decline of species that thrive at other stages of forest succession, such as moose. So now Parks Canada intervenes by setting fires intentionally, when conditions are right to keep the fire in control and minimize unwanted side effects. It was just an interesting reminder that even what we think of as “wilderness” almost often bears the marks of its neighboring human society. Banff’s forests are no less a product of human intervention than another forest that has been clear cut by loggers.

Crossing the border II: Is it a job requirement for border control officers to be assholes? Or is that just part of their training?

Glaciers, under destruction: We spent our afternoon today in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and thanks to some very uncooperative weather, we only saw one glacier through a layer of fog. Before long, however, people will count themselves lucky to see even that much. According to the (U.S.) National Park Service, Glacier is projected to lose all of its glaciers by 2030. I have seen evidence of retreating glaciers firsthand in Alaska, but nothing quite so depressing as the thought that the national park that is named for glaciers will lose them all before my 50th birthday. The park is using the receding glaciers pretty aggressively as an educational opportunity, which I think is the best outcome that can be hoped for at this point.

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