I Have Heard the Marmots Screaming

The mountains were calling and we had to go. We spent months scouring maps and websites to plan the perfect backpacking itinerary in the southeast section of Rocky Mountain National Park–only to scrap pretty much the entire plan for a new one at the last moment. Ah well, with great risk (and a lot of huffing and puffing) comes great reward.

The rivers, falls, and lakes within the park are nothing short of magical. The flow of a river may be a gentle, distant burble for minutes on end, before suddenly transforming into a roaring wall of water at a simple bend in the trail. The waterfalls twist so fantastically, from so high and for so long, that it is often impossible to get an entire falls into a single photograph.

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And the summertime snowmelt lakes are the hiker’s solace and reward: completely clear and still, reflecting the mountains around them like mirrors, the lakes are instant portals into equanimity and ease. Ouzel Lake is modest and charming in its symmetry, as if to divert your attention from the secrets it prefers to keep hidden.

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There were small clearings alongside the shore that practically shouted “Moose drink, swim, and frolic here all the time!” We surreptitiously crept up to the lake at dusk and dawn to catch a glimpse from afar; we snuck up to a high vantage point over an adjacent wetlands; and we tiptoed down the trail along the creek in the morning; but nary a moose was to be seen (meanwhile, folks on the trail told of a moose luxuriating openly at the busiest of the falls, not far from the trailhead).

We were loudly confronted by a marmot on the trail to Ouzel Lake, however, and it seemed quite put out by our impertinence.

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We pushed onward to Sandbeach Lake, which requires a long, grueling uphill climb with few views or other noteworthy features along the way. On that particular day a thunderstorm was growling up the trail behind us (not the first time a Rocky Mountain storm has caused me to hike harder and faster than I thought physically possible), and my anxious, distracted mind was stunned into stillness when the shoreline unfolded itself:

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With little time to admire the lake given the menacing clouds behind us, we rapidly set up our tent, inside which we waited while the storm raged as if it intended to destroy all civilization as anyone has ever known it. Three minutes later we crawled back out and set off to explore the shoreline, starting with the lake’s inlet, then traveling down to its outlet, where we were afforded gorgeous views of Mount Meeker:

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In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot’s narrator speaks of having heard the mermaids singing as a metaphor for the magic he has sensed pulsing in the world, but in which he could not quite bring himself to participate. We can live in sterile boxes and tread well-worn neural pathways, and risk forgetting the magic that cavorts on the paths we never take (and make no mistake: those are difficult paths that often require great sacrifice and uncertainty). Or worse, we can hear the magic call out and never quite find the courage or time to turn in its direction. Heed well the marmot, my friends. Follow the marmot. BE the marmot.

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