Changing Winds: Portrait of a Landscape in Transition

1 The Story is Melting

In late summer, 2013, Jen and I left our worksite deep in the Wind River Range and began a two-day walk back to our tiny apartment. We followed a route I traveled three years earlier which, though tedious at times, I pitched to her with original excitement: what it feels like to connect vast wilderness to your bedroom door, one step at a time. As our coworkers started down the trail and toward the truck, to be home in time for dinner, Jen and I pointed the opposite direction, and couldn’t contain our grins.

We spent the rest of that day off-trail, in thin light and steady wind, linking great blocks of high plateau. Goat Flat, No Man’s Pass, Downs Mountain. Miles past the highest scraps of timberline, we tipped our highpoint and started descending toward an ice field called the Continental Glacier. Its long gleaming path promised a reprieve from so much boulder hopping.

Stepping onto the ice, my field of vision simplified to a blinding hoop of horizon, white-meets-blue, and a few piles of talus in burnished gold clusters. I let my steps fall loosely, feet skating in a slush of crystals, as I drifted toward a shadowy reference point on the opposite side. As I drew closer, I began to wonder what I was seeing. It looked like mud—but at an elevation where hardly anything visible to the eye could grow, and even the flats were built from boulders, mud would be complicated. Mud raised more questions. So I reminded myself of what I already knew.

Within the few seconds of geologic time that humans have occupied the Greater Yellowstone, the climate has undergone dramatic swings. 12,000 years ago, glacial tongues unfurled from cirques to river basins. 6,000 years after that, a megadrought drew the level of Yellowstone Lake down below its outlet. Through it all, life adapted. Warm periods drove timberline uphill, or down into the beds of evaporating lakes, and I started to imagine we were approaching the detritus of an ancient forest floor, once exiled by the sun to 13,000’.

Upon reaching the edge of the glacier, I took a minute to entertain my theory. Indeed, the dark material smelled like a tidal flat. It was fibrous and spongy. Right off the bat I thought I found a decomposed twig—then, just as quickly, I realized I was deluding myself. Inexplicably, the material was sandwiched between layers of ice. Jen couldn’t figure it out either, and soon we wandered off toward a small summit. One of three capping that high section of the continental divide, I call them “the Molehills”: despite their humble profiles, each commands a unique view off a different aspect of the massif. The top afforded an overview of the glacier we crossed, with its black splotch, and many more splotches draping our route ahead. But there was no insight to be had. Smoke from distant forest fires veiled the broader panorama, and without an excuse to linger, we descended in silence.

Working our way north again, I sought the margins of the glacier for easier walking. Once or twice I scraped my fingers through the pervasive organic mats, impatient with the mystery. While one pinch resembled a scramble of insect parts, mostly you’d call it muck. But crossing one rotten drift, there was no longer any mistaking it: we walked on grasshoppers. It was like a focus dial twisted, and the ground’s staticky texture sharpened into details of skin-crawling familiarity. Saw-toothed legs knitted terraces across a rivulet’s path; pea-sized crania with vacant eye sockets lay sorted like graupel. Freshly exposed by the receding ice, this moldering mess lined the glacier in a bank that was inches thick and, oftentimes, dozens of feet wide. I paced a couple manic circles. It stuck to my boots. In most places the components remained vague and unspecific, but then we’d find better-preserved specimens, some of which were grasshopper-complete. Looking north, the deposit continued indefinitely with the ice.

We resumed our walk slowly, in disbelief, stopping here and there to hunch over the mealy exoskeleton. I don’t think we said much. We squinted and puzzled, because if it was real it needed meaning, and it seemed to change everything though I couldn’t say how. Here were insects on a geologic scale.

Admittedly, I could’ve prepared myself better for the grasshoppers. My first clue, had I chosen to think about it, was the fact that glaciers named for grasshoppers are surprisingly common in the region I call home. There are two named “Grasshopper” in south-central Montana, in addition to a “Hopper,” and a fourth lay just south of where we walked in the Wind Rivers that day. If I ever did consider this fact, it was dismissively. I’d seen wayward insects on glaciers, and the birds that come to peck at them—not to mention snow fleas lower down in the forest; jittery little iron filings that congregate into carpets on spring snow. Every day in the mountains brings more leads than I have the time to follow up on, and my sanity depends on letting some things slide. But when I’m plain slow to comprehend what’s going on, like I was with those grasshoppers, it’s because the world works on a scale grander than I’ve taught myself to dream. Allow the challenge in at times like that, when it is sweeping and harmonious and too big to ignore, and you will never forget why you go outside.

Back at home, I found my way to some overdue reading on the Rocky Mountain Locust. Like the legendary flocks of passenger pigeons—which blocked out the sun one year, and vanished the next—the sudden extinction of this once-prodigious life form can hardly be exaggerated. The largest locust swarms were estimated to contain trillions of individuals, and rival the biomass of the pre-Columbian bison herds. While researching the physical and literary records of American locust swarms, Jeffrey Lockwood found other parallels between these two keystone species. Both held similar roles in the nutrient cycle, and both were targets of annihilation efforts by western pioneers. Ironically, it wasn’t a declaration of war that brought down the locusts, but the processes of domesticity. Plows, irrigation, erosion, and cattle were all it took to collapse the complex ecology of the American prairies. We will never know how much was lost in the process: the locusts were simply one of the more visible extinctions. The last living specimen was noted in 1902.

Bernd Heinrich found another moral in the story. He considers the Rocky Mountain locusts to be “extreme examples of animals homing to each other rather than to place, the ultimate in maladaptiveness.” In this sense, the story is particularly relevant to our current situation. Despite a pretence of self-sufficiency, western culture is self-reflexive, first and foremost. We are at home within buildings, on computers, but not on the landscape. Meanwhile, the survival of this system depends on a division of labor on a global scale. When things crash, they’re bound to crash hard.

Based on carbon dating from other samples in the area, the locusts we found might’ve been 800 years old. After taking flight, the swarm got mixed up with a cold jet stream, which froze and released them where the wind was at work building a glacier along the lee of the Continental Divide. There, the dead persisted long after the living died out—now, the glacier is what’s dying. Not long after locusts surfaced from the best-known Grasshopper Glacier in the Beartooth Mountains, the accumulation zones of that body shrunk away, and it functionally ceased to be a glacier at all.

Jen and I were lucky: we happened along as the sun burned through one of the more arresting pages of a glacier’s impossible life. No sooner are remains exhumed from the ice, they begin to decompose. Several years passed before I visited the Continental Glacier again, and by that time, it was all I could do to find a single recognizable abdomen from the undifferentiated mush.

There’s no question the locusts quieted Jen and me that day. They derailed our sense of scale, and introduced a theme of loss to a landscape of eternity. Having begun our walk as an escape from human influence, expecting lands of immutable power and timelessness, some lesson in vulnerability was clearly overdue.

Deposits of Rocky Mountain locusts on the Continental Glacier

Close-up of locust deposits

2 The Sometimes-Lake

September 6th, 2003. In the last constriction of Dinwoody canyon, where the creek opens up to slake the desert, an automated USGS gauge assigned numbers to the flow. About seven cubic meters per second—typical for the slow wind-down of late summer, when, aside from the diurnal ups and downs that correlate air temperature and snowmelt, nothing much changes for weeks. Then, in the absence of either recent rain or higher temperatures, the water began to rise. It doubled in volume, then tripled. If anyone was watching as the gauge passed 23 cubic meters per second—an average year’s maximum for spring runoff—they couldn’t have known that the inundation sourced to just a single tributary of a tributary of the Dinwoody, where the impacts were historic. Two days later, the torrent climaxed at 36.5 cubic meters per second. Trees crumpled into pounding foam. Boulders ripped from stream banks, and thundered toward the plains.

Over the months that followed, Forest Service employees studied the flood from the ground, air, and office. They named it the Grasshopper Jökulhlaup: Grasshopper being the glacier that birthed the event, jökulhlaup a Swedish word for what is otherwise known as a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, or GLOF.

There are several catalysts for GLOFs. Volcanoes, earthquakes, ice walls calving enormous pillars, structural failure in a loosely piled moraine—all of these circumstances can trigger the sudden release of disastrous volumes of glacial melt water. I first heard about such phenomena while going to college in Missoula, Montana, where there are interpretative signs right in town. Every forty years, for two millennia, a water body half the volume of Lake Superior ruptured a lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet and raged westward, gouging the lava beds of Eastern Washington into what’s now called the Scablands. One diminutive sign directs the reader’s eye to a pattern of horizontal stripes that traverse the grassy mountains on the edge of town—those aren’t more logging roads, but ancient lakeshores.

The Grasshopper Jökulhlaup was much smaller, of course. Aerial photographs dating back to 1966 reveal a body of water pooling uphill of a long tongue of the glacier. Through the warming temperatures of subsequent decades, the lake grew as the ice shrank. It wasn’t until 2003 that things reached a tipping point. It started with a trickle of water rolling over the top of the receding glacier: that’s all it takes to erode a channel in ice. When that trickle is backed up by a large reservoir, the process snowballs. All told, 650 million gallons of water—a thirty-acre lake—broke from twelve thousand feet. Investigators that visited the site afterward found a bizarre promenade, with guttered and grottoed walls, melted through a half-mile of ancient ice.

As suggested by Glacial Lake Missoula, GLOFs often occur cyclically. Forest Service hydrologist Liz Oswald concluded her 2003 report, Jökulhlaup in the Wind River Mountains, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, with an arresting cliffhanger: “It is likely that continued warming and melting of glaciers in the Wind River Range will result in future and perhaps more frequent outburst flood events.”

August 2nd, 2013. I awoke to another day on the job. Days of travel from my supervisor’s office, I checked in for the morning on a satellite phone. The shorter the sweeter when it comes to phone calls in the wilderness—mine follow a basic formula: “All’s well. I’ll camp at Ink Wells tonight. Have a good day.” But for once there was news: three miles downstream from my camp, the Downs Fork dumped a freakish flash flood into Dinwoody Creek overnight. While the outfitter of a nearby hunting camp was out scouting for rams, his camp was inundated. His visiting family members, along with a sixteen-year-old wrangler, escaped to a rocky knob with a dome tent, where they now sat stranded with a couple of horses. Our trail crew was moving over to help them back to safety. That’s all, no great emergency. Besides: “it’s happened before, about ten years ago. Grasshopper Glacier,” our receptionist told me. Some lost association turned over in the back of my mind—an illegible scrap of memory. I asked her for details, but she couldn’t say. With assistance on the way, and no way for me to help, I shut off the phone and continued packing up. In two days my work itinerary would not only allow me to see Grasshopper for myself, but I would need to cross it on foot.

Reasoning that there could only be so much water, I didn’t worry the crossing would be dangerous. The final approach tested my confidence. When the creek was still a hundred yards off, a terror sounded through the thick pine. In the last fifty feet I kicked through debris marking the climax of an incredible flow. Silt plastered the trunks of trees, four feet off the ground, and greased the meadow grass like a head of hair. My first order of business was to see if I could possibly ford the thing, or tightrope on a fallen tree. I found it violent and off color—anything but normal—but passable in the right spot. This discovery left me free, for the moment, to explore a strangely altered environment.

Granite walls augmented Grasshopper’s roar into a seashell’s feedback loop of white noise. Everything was loud and inescapable enough to make me a little frantic. I followed a game trail that wound through grouse whortleberry and directly over a ragged drop-off to the water below. Stepping up to the edge, the cataract mesmerized me, until I noticed an overhang eaten into the cutbank. Extending behind the heels of my boots, it could’ve collapsed at any second. The realization made my entire scalp prickle. Ten yards further on, the phantom trail returned from over the brink.

In Downs Basin, a treed flat where Grasshopper joins the Downs Fork, the creek had thrown its banks left and right and erupted in fresh braids through the surrounding forest. But it was shallow enough and I found my crossing. In the middle of the creek bed, where the water was fastest, I steadied myself by the trunks of dead, grey spruce: eerie reminders that this wasn’t the first time the water broke all the rules.

August 11th, 2013. We had six days off from work and were back in the territory, young and alive and unwilling to miss a thing. After years of admiring Wyoming’s highest mountain from below, Jen and I decided to cram in an ascent at the end of an eventful trip. A pre-dawn start put us on top before eight in the morning, where we spent one dreamlike hour—standing, strolling, and glassing the scenery under a sky clean and blue. Later, safely below Gannett Peak’s steepest sections and almost back to our tent, we kicked off our boots to enjoy “first lunch.” This low-key celebration, at which we’d eat our fill of peanut butter and raisins, would also mark the start of a long, business-minded push to get back to our car as early as possible the following day. The demands of another workweek were already elbowing into our minds. But before we could finish our food, a scum of cloud washed in from the west and the temperature chilled. We booted up and made for camp in a hurry, toppling inside the tent as hail pelted our heels. Our next objective was the trail—only one mile away, but a mile of freshly exposed terminal moraine. In its hasty retreat from a barrage of Wyoming droughts and record highs now lasting over a decade, the Dinwoody Glacier has shrunk a half-mile uphill from the perimeter illustrated on the 1991 quadrangle. In its wake lies a no-man’s land of unconsolidated rubble bulldozed from the vertical terrain of its upper cirque. As the weather continued, we teetered across this boulder field, ankles torquing on radical planes, fleece gloves soaked in sleet, trying to escape.

At once the moraine ended and the storm broke. The canyon widened and we put the East and West Sentinels behind us, mountainous thugs charged with scowling down mortal passersby. Their scaly granite shoulders, etched with chalky lines of new snow, beamed painfully in the sun. Still we needed to keep moving, to stave off the permeating chill. Slush filled the trail and my occasional step hydroplaned out from under me. But in time I was back in the rhythm of the walk and rational thinking returned. I began processing the thousand things we’d seen—including something unusual, something I didn’t expect. A shimmering lake lay just a couple miles north of where we stood on top of Gannett, cradled by the Grasshopper Glacier. A lake I didn’t think was supposed to be there. Wasn’t that the same one that had fallen out last week, disemboweling creek beds, rerouting bends, before dumping feet of sorbet-soft silt in the meadows? And now it was back?

Big Meadows, evening, home stretch. It was easy to forget we’d stood on top of Gannett that same day. The grand scenery never let up, but my wide-eyed enthusiasm ran out miles ago. Only the thought of reaching camp, and a reprieve from trail pains, could still engage my mind. Blank-brained I turned a corner near the intersection of Downs Fork and Dinwoody Creek, where a bridge would usher us into the last stretch before camp. Then I halted: the trail drowned at a slopping bank of milk water. I needed a moment to let this development sink in. Water sheeted through the green forest, roiled over logs. On a heavy load of suspended silt, bobbing pinecones and branches floated by. I could see it but I couldn’t think it. Grasshopper—which joins Downs Fork three miles upstream—had flooded again.

Sometime between our departure from the top of Gannett and our arrival at the Downs Fork, the Grasshopper Glacier burped another deluge. That inexplicable lake raced us downstream in a parallel drainage, then cut us off from the trailhead. A lake that refilled and re-emptied in hardly a week. Could that even be true?

Years would pass before I’d find a precedent. In this case, I suspect, water didn’t go over Grasshopper Glacier—it went under it. When a glacier is subjected to enough hydraulic pressure from an uphill water source, water that is also melting its way under the glacier and pushing up on it, it’s possible for the glacier to float up like the giant ice cube that it is. As the ice rises, the waters rush forth; when the discharge eases off, the glacier can resettle, staunching the flow, and allow the reservoir to refill.

But as I stood there, stopped in my tracks, I didn’t have a theory. It wouldn’t have helped if I did: we still had to do something. Fifty yards downstream of us sat the Downs Fork bridge, pride of the Wind River Ranger District trail crew. It was built over an entire summer season with hand tools and native timber after the preceding bridge, built by the CCC, was taken out by the first Grasshopper GLOF in 2003. When I’d last seen it, ten days earlier, the deck was burdened with a logjam from that week’s flood. Trunks and root wads jack-strawed twelve feet out, clogging the space between the pilings. This focused the tremendous inertia of the torrent on the deck, and floodwater boiled around both ends. The bridge looked imperiled then, and if it was gone now, we weren’t getting out any time soon.

I zipped off my pant legs, stepped into sandals, and ventured the flow. Downs Fork rushed on like an interstate: solid white tractor-trailers. The water was glacier-cold, opaque as cream, the color of ash. I sought high ground and slid blindly on greasy-fine silt into caving holes and burrowing currents. Inundated saplings waved as in a windstorm. I didn’t need to go far before I could see: the bridge was still there. When I returned to Jen and stepped back onto dry ground my bare legs needled from the cold. Much better to stay numb. We locked fingers and crossed together. Reaching the bridge required balance moves across a swirling logjam that wanted to roll us into the current. We shouted over the noise. I quarreled with an unfocused sense of outrage: this flood was wrong.

But once on the bridge, an island under siege, we were stable enough to enjoy it. Ivory splashes slid through our bloodless toes. Of the deadly tide that surrounded us, only a boom and a sway translated through the deck. Maybe one crack would’ve rocked us to the Atlantic, but at the end of an endless day, my mind was fresh again. And to beat it all, I was damn happy to be there. If the glacier was trying to kill us, that meant the glacier wasn’t dead just yet. And it meant that we weren’t, either.

The Downs Fork bridge, during the 8/11/2013 GLOF.

The Downs Fork bridge, during the 8/11/2013 GLOF.

My wife Jen walking along the Glacier Trail during the 8/11 GLOF.

3 Accommodating Change

Despite being small and perfectly out of the way, Snowbridge Lake grabs the map-reader’s attention. Larger lakes cluster to the north, south, and west, but only Snowbridge has a name. In September, 2011, I worked my way down to its south shore from a ridge of bedrock. I was wandering after work, humoring my curiosity, and now my waning curiosity sought reward. I wanted this lake’s distinction on the map to manifest personal discovery—something exciting and novel—something that could be mine. And I especially wanted to explain to my stomach why I was so far from camp come dinnertime.

In other words, my motives were external, and therefore my first reaction to the lake was disappointment. It was just a cramped little gem like all the rest, hemmed in by plateaus filed to points, with cliffed-out shores and unstable slopes. Another little gem, and I was no longer in the mood. I came for the exceptional, but here were the same old boulders, and stiff hedges of krummholz to tear at the arms. While weighting a boulder in the final approach I heard several more shift above it, grinding loose a smell I know from under the dentist’s drill—and a reminder of the Minnesota pastor who was pinned to death nearby in 1998. When I did reach the shore it hardly registered, preoccupied as I was with the map of pain and suffering to come. It was a long day getting longer still; in fact, I pitied myself. Yet I knew the only hard part would be emptying the brain, keeping on, trudging forth. So I turned my back to my non-discovery and continued downstream. And that’s when the surprise presented itself: a tunnel bored through an immense drift of winter white, just over the outlet’s rim. I crossed and recrossed this bridge of snow, I took pictures and marveled. The formation was not a glacier—that is, it wasn’t moving of its own gravity—but it was composed of old ice, the concretions of years, a landmark.

About three years later I descended toward Snowbridge Lake again, this time with a companion. I didn’t bring up the subject of the bridge. I just pushed through the obstacles like before, and smugly withheld the surprise that meant so much to me. I didn’t doubt its capacity to amaze, and since our trip was nearly a month earlier in the year than my previous visit, I had reason to believe that the bridge would be even thicker and more luxuriant than the first time. But as I led him over the outlet and looked down, there was no bridge. Just rock, the creek flowing, and a withered scrap of ice that I could’ve stepped over.

Glaciers. There are times when winter deposits more snow than summer can take away. The stockpiles morph under their own pressure, achieve life, sculpt land, and guarantee a flowing tap all summer long. That period is not current. Glaciers exist in the Wind River Range, but they are not surviving. When the last one is gone, there will still be winter snows. There will still be flowing streams. But a pantheon of gods will have deserted the mountain.

Privileged as I have been to walk among these doomed giants, I’ve had to accustom myself to the melancholy sight of large, bare swaths of ancient ice, exposed to the sun in mid-July. Some of them have no accumulation zones at all. This means that, having already lost the blanket of protection afforded by the previous winter’s snows, these glaciers have to endure as much as two months of borrowing against irreplaceable stores. Pages rip from singular history books.

Even with no snow bridge, Snowbridge Lake remains. Its signifier, in ceasing to be literal, now allows for personal interpretation. For me the name represents a time in my life: a period attached to a belief, when the mountains guarded what I took to be timeless truths and unchanging forms. The belief served me in my attempts to escape “civilization,” human folly, and uncertainty itself. But that belief wasn’t meant to serve me forever. The more I exploited it the more I learned, and the more I learned the less I could ignore.

Todd Burritt worked for eight years as a wilderness ranger in the Greater Yellowstone, including four years in the Wind River Range. In August, 2018, he published Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone, which recounts a two-month walk he took from Lander to Bozeman with his wife, Jen. George Wuerthner calls Outside Ourselves "a very thoughtful book, and one of the best I've read about personal experiences in the wilderness."

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