Singing to the Grizzlies

Glacier National Park     Photo: PhotoDisc

Your Official National Parks Pass

From Acadia to Zion, 70 surefire ways to climb, kayak, trek, dive, sail, fly-cast, and generally bliss out in the backcountry heaven of America's great parks

32 YEARS AGO this summer, my pal, the crime novelist Jim Crumley, his overeducated farmer friend from Arkansas, Harold McDuffy, and yours truly hiked six miles to Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park. For someone who had spent most of his life in the desert country of southeastern Oregon, this was a breakthrough for me. In high school I'd been driven through Crater Lake National Park in a bus, but that hadn't seemed so much like visiting a park as the sort of thing they just did to you in high school. Crumley and McDuffy and I spent a few days loafing and fishing. I killed a fool hen with a rock. We cooked it that first night. Then we got into our only bottle of whiskey and drank the whole damned thing. The next day we solaced our hangovers on a raft of downed timber strapped together with a set of suspenders, drifting and casting to shallows in a frenzy, catching more fish than we could eat. Which was fine, because some fellows camped down the shore had brought no food whatsoever. We traded them fish for what are best called smoking materials, and quickly got over our fear of spook grizzlies in the midnight darkness. We sang to them: "Why don't you love me like you used to do?" The grizzlies didn't respond.
One afternoon I found myself with my eyes closed, feathering my fingers along the trunk of a great yellow pine, encountering platelets of bark, each unique and yet not unlike all the others. I was trying to imagine what that tree would mean to a blind person. That night, when the lake was still and mirroring silver under the full perfect moon, loons called and called, and I thought they were singing to me. It was one of those times when I found out that the world had more to it than I'd imagined, more pleasure, and more glory. And all because we'd chanced a few days of frivolity, play, and release.

Sure, there was that rapacious fishing. But I'm willing to excuse us; that was another world and we were rednecks on vacation. At least we weren't trying to skip snowmobiles across the lake.
America the beautiful, the "fresh green breast of the new world," according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, is about freshness and greenness as metaphors for life and health, a new-by-God-world that might stay sort of new and fair if we take care of it. Our national identity is embodied in liberties and natural wonders, freedoms, and the kinds of places we choose to celebrate in our parks—mountains, great swamps, canyonlands—all open and receptive spiritual playgrounds. That identity is threatened by each instance of environmental heedlessness, each clear-cut, each ill-sited power plant and oil drill, each extinction and political sellout. We need to understand that we are responsible for ourselves, for one another, and for the well-being of the natural world, which sustains us.
How to react? Go float down the Grand Canyon. Stop at Matkatamiba Rapids, and walk into the side canyon, which opens into walls of cream- and honey-colored limestone. Sit quietly, soaking in the infinities. Once I saw a wolverine on a lakeside sandbar in Glacier; it was there, then aware of me, and vanished, and was thrilling in its wildness. Yes, go visit the parks. Then come home refreshed, revitalized, and ready to save them.

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