Silly human, grow some fur

“Stupendous.”
“Singularly stupendous.”
“Indeed, simply marvelous, sir.”
“Even though the rain put a dapper on the day, it was splendid nonetheless.”
“DAMPER, not dapper, you idiot.”
“Quit being such a nuisance.”

They call over to us as we cross the Exit Glacier parking lot. “Hey, are we a nuisance yet?”

I can’t help but burst out laughing at the YCCs. Perhaps they are a “bit of a nuisance.” But we’re cold, tired, and soaked to the skin. After climbing up the side of a glacial slope and shoveling snow and fielding tourists who won’t stay on our hard-earned snow trail all day, they still have the spirit to banter in bad English accents.

It was a rather marvelous day indeed, in spite of the rain. Half an hour up the trail, we ran into a marmot munching cow parsley on the trail, half a leaf still dangling from his mouth. We held our breaths as he chewed, and swallowed, and peered at us curiously with his head cocked. The groundhogs of Alaska, I suppose, herbivorous, and ground-dwelling, and relatively commonplace. But much larger, and furrier, and wilder—a full-grown marmot hefts around twenty pounds and burrows good-sized holes in trails, under rocks and through the stony soil left behind by glacial growth.

A brace of marmots frolicked in the meadow, chasing each other across the islands of vegetation cropping up through the snow.

And then the kicker, the holy grail, the trump card of wildlife awesomeness. Perched on a stony outcrop of uplifted slate, we’ve stopped to eat lunch and enjoy the Top of the Cliffs. It feels like a different world up here, in the snow and the silence; on one side, gentle white slough stretches upward as far as the eye can see. Directly in front, the icy river of Exit Glacier crawls interminably slow, its undulating surface raked with deep crevasses, wounds of summer sun and weight of snow. And on the other side, mostly obscured by cloud, Exit Creek and the Resurrection River snake across the Outwash Plain down the river valley, cutting swathes of gray through the cottonwoods beneath the mountains.

Up above, our biotech points out a dark shape on the white-coated slope. “It’s moving too fast for a bear… it’d be kinda ambling.”

“A wolverine?”

“Maybe.”

“Whoa.”

Wolverines are a big deal. They’re almost never seen on this side of the peninsula. A lot of tourists apparently come through the Nature Center and report seeing wolverines, only to show the rangers, when asked for verification, pictures of marmots, or squirrels, or even Dall’s sheep. Though it does happen on rare occasion that the ranger agrees to take a look at a camera LCD and finds a perfect picture of a wolverine snarling back.

The black shape, lithe and almost wolf-like, trots from outcrop to outcrop on the cliffs above, taking cover on the dark patches of exposed stone. He’s on the roam.

A lone hiker drops across the horizon, on point for intercept. He stops, probably not believing his eyes—then starts running. And the wolverine takes off. He leaps effortlessly across the snow, traversing slippery slopes that would take a human ten times as long to cross. The hiker is left in the dust.

T is snapping pictures like crazy. The YCCs and I watch, forgetting our sandwiches for a moment.

I always feel kind of silly in the face of such elegance. Here is a creature adapted for life on the snow slopes, made to race ptarmigans and marmots across rock and ice. His out-sized snowshoes are permanently attached, self-repairing and never soaked down with snow; his outerwear is naturally made to shed water and keep out cold. He’s got teeth and claws for hunting, and burrowing, and a body system that shuts down in extreme cold to survive.

And here’s me, plodding along in layers of polyester and wool and leather and Gore-Tex, hauling a pack with 20 pounds of gear and food that I need to survive for a few hours out in the snow. Marking and carving out a trail that blind, numb human beings can’t miss, a trail that a wolverine could probably find blindfolded. Silly human, I think to myself. Go grow some fur.