Day 7: Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana
After breakfast, Lorie and I catch the trailhead at Swiftcurrent and hike up the creek to Red Rock Falls. Along the way we see several white mountain goats high on the slopes and ledges of the surrounding mountainsides, dining on lichen and merrily skipping from one deadly precipice to another.
During the last ice age, huge three-thousand-foot-thick glaciers scoured away the mountains here to create the deep valleys we see today, and when they and their meltwaters got done, there was virtually no topsoil. The place was just a barren and rocky landscape. The lush pine and aspen forests, meadows covered with grasses and wildflowers, elk and cougar and raven we see today are all possible thanks only to the tiniest of creatures: lichens.
Mysterious, symbiotic organisms, neither fungus nor bacteria nor plant nor algae, yet often comprised of as many as three of these, lichens are able to survive and thrive in the most barren and hostile environments, from moist and dark river valleys to high alpine slopes exposed to the most brutal of icy winds and blazing sun. Where they cling to rock faces, lichens excrete an acid which slowly deteriorates the underlying stone, making it susceptible to wind and water erosion. This eroded material, combined with a bit of scarce organic matter, comprises all the soil seen today in Glacier, and which lies only 12 inches thick throughout the park.
Considering that lichens grow only a millimeter each year, or a square inch per century, they have been steadily working for thousands of years to create the rich and diverse habitat we see here today.
On the hike back we make a short side trip to a nearby lake where several people have reportedly seen a moose. Lorie spots the moose and leads me a half-mile down the lakeshore for a closer look, but all I can see is a dark bush. “Well, he was there,” Lorie insists. I tromp back to the trail, mumbling something about a “wild moose chase …”
A little ways off the trail we spot what looks like a tiny log cabin built by trolls, but what we later learn is in fact a wolverine trap. Why so sturdy and overbuilt? Because the wolverine is one mean SOB, and doesn’t take too kindly to being told he cannot come and go as he pleases.Imagine your nephew’s ferret, but grown to a foot-and-a-half tall at the shoulder and nearly four feet long, and with a very poor attitude. Equipped with a mouthful of sharp teeth, and five claws on each of his broad feet, the wolverine eats the Tasmanian Devil for lunch. Capable of bringing down a deer or caribou, he has been observed driving a cougar from its kill, and even a pack of wolves will often slink away from a carcass when confronted by the wolverine. His Latin name, Gulo gulo, is the root origin for our words, “glutton” and “gullet.” Suffice it to say that he likes to eat, and eats what he likes.
When Captain Meriwether Lewis encountered his first wolverine, near modern-day Great Falls, he called it a “tyger cat”. The Native Americans called him Devil Bear, Master of the Forest, or the Trickster, and regarded him as the magical link between the natural and the spirit worlds.
Glacier may be a final stronghold for the wolverine, considered one of North America’s rarest mammals, and one of the carnivores about which we know the least. Tough as he is, some believe the wolverine may be endangered due to shrinking nesting habitat, so the Park Service is conducting preliminary studies using radio-tracking, hence the traps.
I dunno. Clambering into a wooden box to slip a radio collar around the neck of an enraged “tyger cat”? Sounds like a job for an undergrad.