Thursday, July 28, 2011

The things in life that matter, or why we love Rock Creek

Unbeknownst to them, today was a good day for the Bull Trout.

Today, a state court in Helena, Montana blocked the construction of a proposed silver and copper mine in the Rock Creek valley right outside and below our beloved Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in northwest Montana (about 40 minutes from our cabin).

The mine would have caused a 38% increase in sediment in lovely Rock Creek and would have very likely ruined what is one of the most peaceful and scenic hikes in the Cabinet Mountains. The decision requires the mining company to start from scratch with the permit process, and this time to take no shortcuts and engage in no back room deals. It will require them to be in full compliance with the Montana Water Quality Act, which, given the figure above, seems unlikely.  We can only hope.

I won't go into the merits of the case against the mine, or how they got their "general permit" in the first place. Instead, if you are interested in the background, I suggest you visit the website of the Rock Creek Alliance, a conservation group dedicated to stopping the building of the mine in Rock Creek.

I should probably tell you up front that T and I are members of the Rock Creek Alliance. But why would two intellectuals who live in Northern Virginia care so much about a creek, meadow and lake in a little-known corner of Montana? Because to us, Rock Creek and Rock Lake are too special to lose.

We have hiked through the Rock Creek Meadow to Rock Lake four times, falling more in love with it each time. The first was on 27 April 2007. The winter had barely come to an end and the meadow was awaking to the merest possibility of spring. We were completely enamored as we passed through it, listening to water coming off the mountains all around us. As we climbed the final ascent to the lake, we got our first glimpse of the meadow from above and it was love at first sight. We had no notion that it only got more beautiful as the year progressed.

As we went up, the snow got deeper. We weren't sure at some points if continuing was the best course of action, but on we went, debating continuously until we got to the top and the most stunning lake basin opened out in front of us.

Rock Lake was still partially frozen and snow covered. To me, it was like another world. The peace and stillness were immense and we were awed and exhilarated to be able to spend those few moments as nature's uninvited guests.

A thawing lake is an intimate thing. Standing on the shore, or what you think is probably the shore (as you are no doubt standing on snow), looking over the half white and half deep olive blue expanse before you, is almost like witnessing a quiet moment among strangers. You don't feel as if you belong, yet you are reluctant to move on. This is a sensation I first felt while at Rock Lake on that April day, and have only been able to articulate as we have made our way to more and more lakes in the first half of the year, during their slow, elegant thaws. It is a process that will always be unknowable to us, as we can never hope to watch it from start to finish. Our brief observation seems almost intrusive, yet tearing yourself away is one of the hardest things to do, regardless of how much snow you have in your hiking boots.

Our second visit was in the fall of that year, 05 October 2007 to be exact. It was a weekend where we arrived at our motel in Clark Fork, ID tired and stressed in mind and body. We almost didn't get up and get on the trail, but thank goodness we did. Our trip through Rock Creek Meadows was an explosion of autumn color, and the light rain didn't seem to register. It was as if each step we took, in total silence lost in our own thoughts, shook away some of our stress and unhappiness.

Even when the glance up the mountain at our destination showed white on the trees and rocks, we persisted on.

By the time we made our way up into the lake basin and turned around, we were in the midst of a heavy snow storm. Even through this, the meadows were lovely, shrouded in mist, clouds and autumn gold.

The lake itself was enjoying its last moments of movement before its enforced winter stillness commenced. The wind from the snowstorm created ripples on the water and tore through our wet, lightweight clothes. We were woefully unprepared for the elements, still we hated to leave. Its beauty, while not picture postcard perfect, was otherworldly and lingering in the consciousness.

Going down I was wearing T's spare pants,  spare gloves and spare socks having brought nothing along. Although frozen and wet, there was a new found spring in my step and we talked to each other with animation and affection. The lake had healed us and its magic was confirmed.

Our third trip was on July 4th 2008. We had moved back to the east coast and had just taken the crazy step of buying the cabin in Hope. We had spent five grueling days moving in and getting things set up and wanted to hike on the 4th of July as was our tradition, but didn't have the energy to travel far. Rock Lake was the perfect destination. Summer had just arrived in the meadows and the creeks were high. As we went through the meadow, the water coming off the mountain was so loud that it caused us to raise our voices to speak. The waterfall next to the abandoned mine shaft was going full blast and we stopped to admire the unbridled power of water.

Funny how something as innocuous as snow can melt, roar and make its presence felt so strongly.

Again it wasn't a picture postcard perfect day at the lake. For while beautiful, the air was hazy and the water flowing off the mountains shattered the peace and complete stillness that we were used to. Still, by then we had come to realize that no day at Rock Lake was a not good day, and we were able to unwind from the stress and work of past few days.

As an aside, while crossing Rock Creek just before the getting back to the trailhead, my feet went out from under me in an instant in the strong current, and had T not been holding on to me with both hands, I would have been gone. It was one of those moments when you realize how insignificant you are compared to nature and how you will never truly belong in the wilderness, just be allowed to get to know it a little better.

If we were looking for the picture perfect day to visit Rock Lake, we found it on 27 July 2009. We had our husky Mei Ping with us and she was coming alive to the joy of hiking in the western forests. Huckleberries were thick along the trail and she watched me pluck berries from the bushes and eat them. She watched me so intently that I gave her a berry. She ate it and trotted to the next bush along the trail and started pulling them off herself. It was entrancing.

Rock Creek Meadow was alive with sunlight and summer glory. I truly believe that every shade of green was on display that day and it gave me such joy to look down on it, I almost stumbled on the trail not looking where I was going.

The lake itself that day felt like a gift. The water was cool on our tired feet and the sun was vibrant but not beating. We sat down on the shore and relaxed without the bugs moving in. It was a moment that seemed to be made just for us and Mei Ping too was enamored by all around her.

Headed out on that day, we stopped at one of the bridge crossings of Rock Creek so Mei Ping could cool off. Looking down onto the creek from the bridge, I realized what a huge loss it would be for us all if the mine was built.
This is no place for mine run off.

We got a much different view of Rock Lake a year later when we climbed Engle Peak and looked down into the lake basin from above, way above. From that perspective the mountains surrounding the lake took on an entirely different quality, no less beautiful, but less imposing and daunting. Looking DOWN on Ojibway Peak made me feel alive and powerful, but as with all feelings of power produced by the high of the outdoors, it was completely fantastical. I still had to get down that mountain.

Ojibway from the lake.

Rock Lake, its basin and Ojibway Peak from above, taken from Engle Peak.

And that is the story of our connection to healing, magical place known to the lucky few as Rock Creek. Some things in life are worth fighting for and we believe Rock Creek, the Rock Creek Meadow and Rock Lake fall into this category.

Thank you to everyone at Rock Creek Alliance for making this day possible. Even from my desk in Virginia, my heart is lightened and my mind stilled by the knowledge that this place will remain what it always meant to be, wilderness visited briefly by man and loved by all.

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