I'm part of a band of volunteers with a wolverine research project in Glacier. We help pack bait into box traps built of logs, tag captured animals with transmitters, and roam the backcountry to track their movements with radio receivers. We do this because wolverines, the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, have become alarmingly scarce in the lower 48 states. Glacier, an all-too-rare stronghold, offers the opportunity to gather sorely needed information about reproduction and survival. We also do this because we think the wolverine is cool—the toughest 25-to-30-pound (11 to 14 kilograms) blur of constant motion to ever drive a grizzly off a carcass. Above all, we do this to be in the park.
The frozen surface of Lake Josephine, encircled by looming peaks, makes for a beautiful glide on skis. But at night, which is when a wolverine is most likely to enter the trap at the lake's head, it's not the same journey. Not with temperatures sinking toward 0°F (-18°C). Not after avalanches off Grinnell Point have spilled across the ice. And especially not when the winds that howl from the divide across Glacier's eastern half for days on end have whipped up a stinging ground blizzard. I'm solo, so I'll take the longer route across the base of Allen Mountain.
After about two miles (three kilometers), the trail descends into a stand of big, old-growth spruce. Intercepted by curtains of boughs, the gusts fade to a breeze at ground level. High overhead, the treetops continue to rock. Branches thrash. Leaning snags rub against the limbs that blocked their fall. They fill the grove with moans, mews, wheezes, and whispers. Each sound has my full attention, if only because I usually cross fresh moose tracks here and, once in a while, those of a mountain lion. Skiing alone through a talking forest in tatters of moonlight on my way to meet a feisty carnivore no longer feels like a suspension of ordinary reality. It's just a night out.
A lot of backcountry mixes the sense of a world freshly shaped by natural forces together with a timeless quality. Floods move the courses of rivers. Raw talus slopes turn into forests, and lightning-sparked blazes recycle the forests into pink swaths of fireweed. Yet in Glacier, the alterations go on alongside cliff faces that were standing in the dinosaurs' day. Backcountry also has a knack for interspersing moments of perfect tranquility with clenches of fear. Glacier's wildlands can generate more of both moods in a day than tame lands could muster in a month.
Lean out through a notch in the rimrock, and a huge view only keeps expanding; lean a fingertip farther, and you could join the rubble below. Lean back to nap against a sun-warmed boulder; awaken to a family of black bears digging for glacier lily bulbs on the other side. Maybe you were determined to walk around one more bend because every one before was lovelier than the last. But from that new vantage point, you can see thick-bellied clouds starting to pile in from the west, and the slant of light on the mountains so alluring a moment ago becomes a reminder of how soon the sun is going to sink behind them. You'll be lucky to get back before darkness, rain, and cramping muscles start to seriously break you down.
Then again, I recall times when all Glacier demanded of me was to jump in a lake on a hot summer afternoon. One day last fall, preparing to hike the park's east side to where I could perhaps spot a grizzly, I counted seven eating kinnikinnick berries up on a grassy slope before I'd left the parking lot and two more ambling across high ledges within the first half hour of strolling an easy trail through gold-leafed aspens.
Glacier's founders left it for each visitor to discover the best way to experience the park. I couldn't say which is best; there are so many still to be tried. But here's my advice for now: Light packs make for light spirits. Don't feed the bears. Save the wolverines. Let it snow.