High in the Rocky Mountains, there’s a vast landscape where the wind sighs over rock and heather. The trees struggle up the steep ridges and end in mats and twisted bonsais. The fingerprint of the glaciers is fresh, and life grows slowly in patient forms over the glacial rubble.
In British Columbia’s Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, it’s possible to feel the quiet pulse of this expansive landscape. The mountains rise high and steep above Kootenay Lake, a spectacular basin excavated by glaciers where the waters rest before they flow into the Columbia River. And although I had never been here before I spent five days in these mountains in September 2023, the waters had already connected my life with the park. Three hours south on the wings of an eagle, the Kootenai River cuts and winds through Idaho, past the cedar forests and pileated woodpeckers of my birthplace, before it empties into Kootenay Lake. The waters connect us all.
Fall in Kokanee Glacier Park
During the winter, Kokanee Glacier Park is covered with a deep blanket of snow. The plants rest dormant under insulating snow drifts while backcountry skiers glide across the powdery slopes. But in early September, it’s a place where huckleberry bushes blaze with burgundy leaves and offer up their last juicy berries. Summer turns sour as early frosts bite the fireweed leaves, and birds hurry their migration away from the approaching winter. The scarlet red and pumpkin orange fruits of the mountain-ashes contrast with the deep green needles of the subalpine firs.
This place has stories to tell us. Here are a few of them: a collage from my five September days in the park.
An American dipper along the stream
As the morning sun touches Kaslo Lake, light wisps of mist rise up from the calm surface—an ephemeral curtain in the cool morning air. Nearly 200 meters higher, along a mossy stream where frothy white water cascades over the granite backbone of the Canadian Rockies, an American dipper is spending the morning. Bobbing her body and doing knee bends, she forages leisurely for invertebrates among the mosses. And then, half walking, half swimming, she moves into the sunlight above the cascade and preens.
The cool morning air carries the calm, resinous scent of the subalpine firs to me. The mountains are breathing. One of the dipper’s gray contour feathers tumbles down the cascade and circles calmly in the pool below. I’m perched uncomfortably next to it, sitting on unyielding rocks. Step by unhurried step, the dipper picks her way upstream, a cheerful gray shadow disappearing back into this world where caddisflies and mosses join water and stone.
A profusion of mountain-ashes near Tanal Lake
It’s noticeably later in the morning when the sun reaches the subalpine firs and cone-heavy spruces along the edge of Tanal Lake, set deep in a north-facing cirque basin. The pine grosbeaks are giving a quavery commentary from the treetops. The avalanche chute behind the lake is still chilly in the shade, but a mixed flock of songbirds is getting breakfast in the mountain-ashes. These striking shrubs clothe the slope, their limber, arched branches supporting a heavy orange crop of fall fruits. The chestnut-backed chickadees are partaking, nibbling small mouthfuls out of the fruits between bouts of foliage-hunting for insects.
The ruby-crowned kinglets and Wilson’s warblers that accompany the chickadees don’t seem interested in fruits. Instead, they’re focused entirely on the leaves and branches, hunting late-season insects. Half a dozen golden-crowned kinglets are also moving with the flock, but they stay exclusively in the evergreen foliage of the subalpine firs nearby. Maybe they’re gleaning spiders. I watch as a pine grosbeak glides down from the treetops to eat the bitter orange mountain-ash fruits.
Raptors along the ridges
I keep turning an eye to the small ridge west of Kaslo Lake, where steeples of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce grow up from the jumble of glacier-gouged granite. Fall raptor migration is underway—and this ridge is in a perfect position for migrating birds of prey. It’s located near the head of two major drainages that slope up from the northwest and northeast, Keen Creek and Enterprise Creek. Its south slope catches the early morning sun, creating plumes of warm air—thermals—which raptors can use like elevators to gain altitude.
Sharp-shinned hawks, those small, nimble hunters of songbirds, skim the treetops and pause to chase their prey. The red-tailed hawks often pass higher, gliding and circling majestically, a hundred meters or more above the ridge. Almost all of them approach from the northeast and follow along the curve of the ridge west, then continue southwards past Kaslo Lake. The pattern is consistent enough that I can be sure: these birds are in the midst of their fall migration, one trickle among the outpouring of the boreal summer’s raptors, strategically fleeing the inevitable approach of winter.
Finches, spruces, and hawks
The sharp-shinned hawks have been finding plenty of songbirds to hunt. The seed-eating finches are widespread this fall: pine siskins by the dozens, small musical groups of pine grosbeaks, and occasional flyovers of evening grosbeaks. From time to time, I see the siskins feeding in the subalpine firs. The firs’ early-ripening cones are already far along in their yearly disintegration process, falling apart scale by scale, dispersing all of the winged seeds that the birds don’t get first. The spruces still hold their cones in cheery, drooping tan arrays.
As the day warms up, the migrating raptors become more flexible in their behavior. At times the red-tailed hawks, too, skim low over the ridge, necks craned over the boulder fields where the pikas mew. Perhaps the red-tails, too, are searching for a meal.
Raptors and pikas in Kokanee Glacier
The raptors seem to travel in groups. Often I’ll spot a red-tailed hawk, only to raise my binoculars and see two tiny sharp-shinned hawks higher in the air. At one point, I see a golden eagle circling east of the ridge. This massive, steady soarer has an incredible vantage point, peering down at Kaslo Lake 200 meters below. As she spirals, she has sweeping vistas of the jagged, glacier-carved ridges to her east. A red-tailed hawk is harassing her, tucking wings and stooping at the much larger eagle, then rolling upwards again in a lazy dance. Three more red-tails are nothing more than specks higher up on the thermal, circling as the sunny air lifts them higher. Soon all three are coasting southwest along the ridge in a tight squadron. The pikas keep mewing below, on the lookout for danger as they cut plants for winter hay.
The quiet landscape of Kokanee Glacier
As the planet spins towards afternoon, the landscape is quiet near the headwalls of the cirques. The wind whispers through gnarled alpine larches and matted subalpine firs. A textured green carpet of sedges and heather cloaks the raw, jumbled bulk of glacier-carved ridges. I think of the other glacial landscapes in my family lineage: Norway, Sweden, Scotland. The raptors have stopped passing now—or perhaps they’re using other ridges, or they’re so high that I can no longer see them. I’m alone except for the bleating of the pikas, the sighing of the wind, and a million silent plants clinging to the rocks.
One afternoon, as I’m hiking with my friends among a bouldery expanse of pika country, a weasel pops out from the rocks to investigate us. Curious with a prudent touch of caution, she scampers towards us, then darts back under a boulder. A few seconds later, she reappears, continuing this ballet of explore and hide for several minutes. Farther down the trail, we see a second weasel, bouncing easily over the rocks in his fluid search for dinner. It’s beautiful to watch—unless you’re the pika or chipmunk that’s at risk of becoming dinner.
The fall’s final flowers
The journey of water across this landscape begins in the winter, as deep snows cover the high mountains. By now, the wintry blanket has melted entirely, much of it seeping into the earth. Now, from this groundwater supply, a mossy brooklet emerges from a high basin among the rocks. The long-ago winter snows burble towards the Pacific Ocean, 2,200 meters below and over 1,400 kilometers downstream. Along the brooklet, a pink monkeyflower is showing its last bloom, a magenta farewell to summer among hundreds of ripening seed capsules.
Here and there, the heathers are still flowering, too, nodding urns of pink and white held a few centimeters above the rocks. Meanwhile, on the ridge where the raptors are migrating, the alpine larches are beginning their flaming goodbye to the warmth, taking on the first hints of brilliant gold. Soon they’ll drop their needles, becoming stark and bare in preparation for winter.
Wind, water, and connection
Farther down the brook near a cascade, a flock of American pipits flushes from the rocks as I stop to admire a sunny group of arnica seedheads. Half of them have already transformed into tawny parachutes, which will carry the seeds on the wind.
This brook flows constantly onwards through glacial lakes and tumbling cascades, into Kootenay Lake, where the waters unite and continue flowing, into the Columbia River and towards the ocean. The river weaves back and forth across the border between countries, like my life, like so many lives. The golden eagles and sharp-shinned hawks follow the wind and the sun southwards away from winter, as they have for generations. The river connects us; the wind connects us. And the larches, heathers, and subalpine firs show us what it means to be rooted, to grow patiently and quietly among a jumble of stone. Next fall, they’ll still be here, waiting to share their wisdom with us.