Backbone of the World

"Be wise and listen," said the Sun. "I am the only chief. Everything is mine. I made the earth, the mountains, prairies, rivers, and forests."
--Blackfoot Legend

George Bird Grinnell
Blackfoot Lodge Tails

In the high country of Montana and Alberta, the sun makes Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park new each day with the tints and shades on its palette of light. The rough mountains of the continental divide rise up from the great plains on broad brush strokes of grey, green, brown, red, and the gold of dawn's alpine glow.

Waterton-Glacier is the only park in the world that crosses a national boundary. Waterton was established in Alberta in 1895, Glacier in Montana in 1910. The two parks combined, under separate administrations, into a 2000-square-mile wilderness in 1932.

The Pacific cordillera has been called the backbone of the world. At the 49th parallel, the rocky vertebrae began as sediment deposited in a Proterozoic sea 800 to 1600 million years ago. Ripple marks created by water and wind are suspended in time within the stone. About 100 million years ago, massive movements of the earth's crust slammed the bedrock forty miles eastward over the younger rocks.

During the last ice age, glaciers plucked and scraped the rock along this thrust fault into horn-shaped mountains, hanging valleys, delicate ar?tes, amphitheaters where turquoise lakes are framed by whitebark pine and subalpine fir. Of the park's remaining fifty or sixty glaciers, Sperry and Grinnell are the largest.

Water, wind and ice shape and reshape the rocky spectrum of limestone, quartzite, diorite, and argillite that stretches from valley floor to mountain summit. The wonders of this rock unfold along every trail. East of the divide, thousands of hikers stop below the face of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, Nat?si-?itapo, where some say the creator of these mountains watches over his world from within the living stone.

A former college journalism teacher, Malcolm R. Campbell is a contributing writer for "Living Jackson Magazine" and the author of the novel "The Sun Singer."

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