Hiking in the Anthropocene

By Michaela Keck

Cobalt Lake | Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

This past fall, my trav­els and work oblig­a­tions had me fly into Cal­gary. I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend five addi­tion­al days in spots I con­sid­er breath­tak­ing­ly beau­ti­ful: Water­ton and Glac­i­er Nation­al Park. I crossed over the Cana­di­an bor­der and into Mon­tana on a late after­noon in Sep­tem­ber and drove past herds of bison toward the vil­lage of St. Mary just as the last rays of the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the moun­tain ranges that rise so abrupt­ly from the grassy plains.

For the next three nights I had booked myself into the very lux­u­ri­ous Lake McDon­ald Lodge, which is prob­a­bly best known for being the proud own­er of a whole fleet of vin­tage auto­mo­biles built by White Motor Com­pa­ny in the sec­ond half of the 1930s. The Lodge offers tours along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in these famous red bus­es. On this dri­ve one ascends and descends numer­ous 180-degree ser­pen­tines along alpine pass­es with breath­tak­ing vis­tas of moun­tains and waterfalls.

Ford Fleet at Lake McDon­ald Lodge | Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

Because I con­sid­ered these tours mere tourist traps, I at first stur­di­ly ignored the fleet when I head­ed out on my dai­ly hikes. But even­tu­al­ly I learned that Ford had gen­er­ous­ly ren­o­vat­ed the famous auto­mo­biles such that they now run on gaso­line and propane. Also, hav­ing dri­ven the ser­pen­tines of Going-to-the-Sun Road by myself in thick fog upon arrival, the idea of being dri­ven along this beau­ti­ful pass road in its glo­ri­ous autumn col­ors began to grow on me. What I found par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive was the idea of being dri­ven around so that I wouldn’t have to turn out every oth­er bend to avoid top­pling off the moun­tain road because of the dis­trac­tions along­side the road. And I decid­ed that, if I ever returned, I would def­i­nite­ly go on such a tour. As it was, I great­ly appre­ci­at­ed that I could now start my day hikes right from my charm­ing room with a view of Lake McDonald.

I ven­tured to Mt. Brown Look­out on my first day, enjoy­ing the beau­ti­ful autumn col­ors along the way and the view across Lake McDon­ald from the top. On the way, I met a pheas­ant that parad­ed his beau­ti­ful feath­ers in front of me. The next day I hiked up to Spar­ry Glac­i­er and end­ed up above the pass in my first snow­fall of the year. I also dis­cov­ered plen­ty of bear scat on the trail up on the pass. Signs of the end of the sea­son were every­where: the park rangers had already dis­man­tled the small bridges that cross the numer­ous water­falls on the pass, and down at the lake the Lodge was pleas­ant­ly qui­et. After three nights, I had to relo­cate to a small motel in St. Mary’s and fel­low hik­ers told me that soon the water would be turned off on the campgrounds.

Spar­ry Glac­i­er | Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

Although the morn­ings were gen­er­al­ly quite cool and windy – some of them also rainy and misty – once the sun came out, the autumn col­ors glowed in all their bril­liance and by lunchtime, T‑shirts were in order. My third day hike from Med­i­cine Lake up to Cobalt Lake pro­vid­ed a few show­ers and driz­zle, but I was amply reward­ed with man­i­fold beau­ti­ful rain­bows along the way. Because it was moose rut­ting sea­son, the moose were very active and, to my great delight, I was able to watch sev­er­al of them wan­der about and chase deer with­out dis­turb­ing them or being dis­turbed by them. In fact, one evening an ado­les­cent moose clat­tered up the path just as I parked my car next to my room.

Bull­moose Day | Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

He stopped as if to make sure I was not a rival, and so we wait­ed and eyed each oth­er in the dusk for sev­er­al min­utes before he con­tin­ued on his walk across the road to some par­tic­u­lar­ly invit­ing bush of a neighbor’s where his two wives were already busy eat­ing. Two wives, I had been told, were a ridicu­lous­ly small harem for a grown-up moose, but this one was evi­dent­ly just play­ing at being grown up, and yet, he seemed to take him­self seri­ous­ly enough that I remained stock still in the shad­ow of my rental car.

I also hiked up Daw­son Pass only to turn around out of fear of being blown off at its very top and, on my way back, got quite dis­tract­ed with huck­le­ber­ry­ing. Although there were a few hik­ers, I spent most days quite undis­turbed and hard­ly met any­one on the trails except for pheas­ants, moose, deer, chip­munks, bighorn sheep, a pica mouse, and plen­ty of bear scat. I was nev­er dis­ap­point­ed that I did not encounter any bears, espe­cial­ly since I was all on my own. While one gen­er­al­ly starts out the day with lots of shouts and nois­es to make sure any poten­tial bears are warned, I always feel that as the day wears on and the feet grow more tired, the noise-mak­ing too becomes some­what of an effort.

Angel Glac­i­er | Pho­to cred­it: Michaela Keck

This trip was not my first into the Amer­i­can side of Glac­i­er Nation­al Park. I had already been there in 2010. And as in 2010, I also trav­elled into Jasper Nation­al Park in Alber­ta, Cana­da, after my work oblig­a­tions. I had almost for­got­ten that I had been here six years ago, but I remem­bered it sud­den­ly when I arrived at Angel Glac­i­er one morn­ing after some snow­fall. I remem­bered it so well because in the course of six years a lot had changed around Angel Glac­i­er. Not only were avalanch­es been keep­ing the park ser­vice busy, but the trail at the bot­tom of the glac­i­er had been moved and the glac­i­er itself had changed – it had shrunk sig­nif­i­cant­ly! In con­trast to my ear­li­er vis­it, I hiked up into the snowy area from where I had an even bet­ter look at Angel Glac­i­er, whose name is derived from its for­mer shape. By now, how­ev­er, the tremen­dous reces­sion of the glac­i­er no longer resem­bles its for­mer angel­ic shape.

The glacial reces­sion is a phe­nom­e­non shared by all remain­ing glac­i­ers in the area and also in Water­ton and Glac­i­er Nation­al Park. In fact, in the vis­i­tor cen­ter there is a minia­ture mod­el of all the for­mer 150 glac­i­ers after whom the Glac­i­er NP was orig­i­nal­ly named, only 25 of which are left. It is esti­mat­ed that by 2030, they, too,  will  be gone. These anthro­pogenic changes were also evi­dent as I hiked towards Grin­nell Glac­i­er, pos­si­bly one of the most trod­den paths in the park. It is an easy, very acces­si­ble, and extreme­ly beau­ti­ful hike – espe­cial­ly in autumn. As I trudged towards the glac­i­er, I lit­er­al­ly felt the changes of the Anthro­pocene around me, an expe­ri­ence that is as excit­ing as it is depress­ing and excel­lent­ly doc­u­ment­ed and described by Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert in The Sixth Extinc­tion (2014). Here she writes: “If extinc­tion is a mor­bid top­ic, mass extinc­tion is, well, mas­sive­ly so. It’s also a fas­ci­nat­ing one. … I try to con­vey both sides: the excite­ment of what’s being learned as well as the hor­ror of it. My hope is that read­ers … will come away with an appre­ci­a­tion of the tru­ly extra­or­di­nary moment in which we live” (3). Such a moment can indeed be expe­ri­enced in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park: be it through the mas­sive reces­sion of the glac­i­ers and the changes in the water lev­els, the evi­dent move­ment of the ter­rain and the changes in the flo­ra and fau­na such as the ris­ing tree lev­els, or the migra­tion of ani­mals in search for new habi­tats. On my hikes, I was as acute­ly aware of my own con­tri­bu­tion to these anthro­pogenic changes at the same time as I wit­nessed and expe­ri­enced them. While sci­en­tists’ and schol­ars’ ideas about the future of human­i­ty in the Anthro­pocene diverge, I per­son­al­ly have mixed feel­ings about it. And yet, I will remem­ber my autum­nal hikes in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park as fas­ci­nat­ing and serendip­i­tous moments in spite of – or because of – wit­ness­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing the changes of the Anthro­pocene so vivid­ly and directly.

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Michaela Keck teach­es Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg. Among her major research inter­ests are eco­crit­i­cism and nature writ­ing, women’s lit­er­a­ture, and visu­al cul­ture. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.