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Song of the High Peaks

April again and the wind turns on the Great Plains. Wedges of geese, high and determined, began this storm of spring, their voices sharp as the morning frost. Sicklebills cry to claim the land, sandhill cranes wheel and talk overhead, and everywhere the killdeer shout. Pasqueflowers push the bleak soil aside, beginning the westward rush that I must join, seeking again the sight of mountains.

In Glacier National Park the land is folded up. On the east, Chief Mountain, Curly Bear, and Rising Wolf break the prairie's hold. When the early French fur trappers saw these peaks glistening in the distance with summer-long snows and perpetual ice, they named this region "the land of shining mountains." But for all the ice and snow that reflect the summer sun, the park's present glaciers are but snowflakes compared to the mighty rivers of ice that carved this land. Glaciation, the magnificent sculptor, left its bold signature everywhere, and this park honors with its name the force that shaped it.

But the essential excitement of this land is more than cliff face, spire, and sudden storm. It comes to you when you realize that here is an aggregation of dramatically differing life zones, where a day's walk can easily take you from prairie and forest to treelimit and tundra; where a dense forest of redcedar and hemlock, similar to the rain forests of the Pacific coast, exists a score of kilometers from the great prairie sea.

Or it comes when you discover that these mountains—young and sharp with shadows, snow-jeweled and newly gowned with forests—are chiseled from the oldest unaltered sedimentary rocks on earth.

I come from the prairie and love its broad strokes; I've learned to hear the singing in the grass and to see those long, slow seasons soar the level horizons like gliding hawks. But here I learned to match my days against a wild earth, and in me grew the mysterious need to know a mountain from its every side. Mountains that wear the dawn like yellow hats, repeated in the named and nameless lakes. Mountains that stretch the storms between them and balance rainbows ridge to ridge.

I must see again the secret forest places, where the paleflowered wood-nymphs hover like a breath, and know once more the endless meadows painted camas blue.

I need the perfect freedom of this land, to be able to say, today I will climb Siyeh: to stand, for a time, on the rugged shoulders of this upright earth.

The sharp spire of little Matterhorn and the broad face of Mt. Edwards loom above Going-to-the-Sun Road in the upper McDonald Valley. During warm days in spring the valleys of the park resound with the thunder of avalanches.

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Last Modified: Sat, Nov 4 2006 10:00:00 pm PST

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