Alpine Life

Marmot on the lookout
Marmot on the lookout


Just as I reached the mountain summit, two golden eagles took flight from the cliffs below. A marmot chirped loudly at the great birds as they soared off and gone, dropping towards the distant valley. The eagles had nothing in their talons – the marmot and its kin were safe for the moment. While the small drama unfolded, other birds chorused: pippets and swallows chirping and singing without a break. The alpine landscape echoed with song.

Shooting star

Shooting star

I spent most of that cloudless summer day above treeline. With every step of my walk, I moved through a rich and vibrant community. Even as I watched the great eagles spread their wings to soar from the cliff, I became increasingly aware of how much life filled this high and often harsh environment. The summer bloom was beginning to peak, and the alpine meadows shimmered with yellows, blues, pinks, and creamy pastels – cinquefoil, bluebells, shooting stars, alpine lilies and more. I stirred up several birds from their nests, mostly pippets who would fly out abruptly from under my feet, but also a horned lark who eyed me with alarm. Sometimes, I caught a glimpse of tiny chicks with mouths agape – “feed me!!” Each time I encountered the nests, I quickly and carefully departed, leaving the birds in peace to tend to their young.

Just downslope from the summit, a herd of elk grazed and dozed in an expanse of grass. I dropped to the ground before the elk knew of my presence, and so ate a leisurely lunch in the company of the glossy beasts. Eventually, they caught my scent or simply decided to move on, as they departed down and down to disappear in the forests below. Meandering through the tundra after my lunch, I encountered another group of elk, this time with calves. As I sat on the ridge above the herd, a little gray bird carried on nearby, sounding as if he was practicing his repertoire – even working to expand it – producing an amazing diversity of calls and songs.

Bears had been there, plowing up the earth in search of spring beauty tubers. Mountain goats had been there, leaving long, straggly strands of shed winter wool amidst the flowers. Wolves had been there, pressing deep prints into the mud by a creek. Pikas were there but remained unseen, their presence announced only by their calls – eehp!eehp! Marmots visibly made their presence known, perching conspicuously on the ridgeline once the eagles were gone to other realms. Butterflies floated throughout it all.


Alpine Lily

The alpine bursts forth with life in the short summer season, the plants spurting up with brilliant colors and scents to attract pollinators quickly even as the mammals come out of winter dormancy or migrate into the high places. At this altitude, there are few months when snow doesn’t fly, a scarcity of days without freezing temperatures. Yet in that high and challenging landscape are tiny fledglings, delicate lilies, small pikas, and an abundance of species too numerous to list.

A deep beauty weaves through the alpine, brought out by the patterns and connections that allow survival in an environment of extremes. The life is bright, energy flows, sounds reverberate. And the sky stretches forever outward on a summer day, when walking through that landscape is a walk through another realm.

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