Grinnell Glacier ignites memories of Iowa's past

The Nature Call: Memories will remain while glaciers fade

Editor’s note: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board. This is the last of a two-part series on a trip to Glacier National Park.

There are no lakes in Linn County.

Same goes for Jones, Benton, Johnson, you name it.

Lake Macbride is a fake. Lake Rathbun is a reservoir. Pleasant Creek Lake, Lake Delhi ... no and no.

All are man-made.

The only natural lakes in Iowa lie in the Prairie Pothole Region, the inverted triangle whose tip is Des Moines and bases are west to east Lake Okoboji and Clear Lake. Glaciers make clear and lasting lakes. Humans make impoundments, doomed to fill in with silt.

Our alternate would have to be Grinnell Lake. It was a different route; there would be no chance of touching let alone seeing the glacier.

Sandhill Cranes fly across Montana and Iowa, they have done so for millions of years. These birds have witnessed many an ice age and warming period. I bet they will survive to see another glacial advance, sometimes I’m not so sure humanity will.

Sunrise was 5:45 a.m. When we awoke the eastern faces of the peaks were already basking in the morning light. The dry and cool mountain air helped make the view seem more like a painting than a real place.

The parking lot at the Swiftcurrent trailhead was nearly full despite our early arrival. Slothful pilgrims are punished.


We set out in high spirits and my itch was less bothersome. A large rabbit hopped onto the trail and then toward us. Since we didn’t give way, it lept lakeside to go around. The liveliness of the animal at the park do so much to animate the stone and ice.

The trail continued to Lake Josephine, higher and quieter and then diverged. To the right it climbed and traversed a cirque to the glacier. To the left was the lake. After a moment of hesitation we continued left.

Many pilgrims and hikers traveled this route. Some with casual shoes and disheveled attire, others wore serious hiking gear. Bipedal ambition was the passport and bear spray the visa.

A moose and calf browsed near the trail. It was remarkable how such large animals hid in plain sight. Only another group of rubberneckers helped us notice the pair.

Iowa is too hot and developed for moose. With long legs they migrated with the retreating glaciers north. Flowers are not so mobile. The Northern Monkshood hides in Driftless Iowa, in its few cool and untrammeled retreats.

The ascent continued. And then test of patience and faith: a suspension bridge that demanded solitary crossings awaited. In turn we passed and then neared the headwaters.

My pulse quickened, the trail curved left and then the view opened into a vista. Grinnell Lake was nearly encircled by the Garden Wall. Rock, ice, waterfalls and trees. We had arrived, but not exactly.

The little plank footbridge crossing the outlet was washed out. Our final act of penance was to remove our shoes and walk through the frigid water to the shore of the lake proper.


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The water shocked and bare feet fumbled on rocks. To dither was to suffer, the reward required determination. I accepted the water as a ritual cleanse.

Many stopped at the barrier and refused the final test. Our party reached the shore, some in silence, some with shrieks.

I sat on the gravel shore and sketched the scene for my journal. A boy and I shared an apple. I noticed I didn’t notice my itch.

I walked to the water’s edge, this water that so recently was Grinnell Glacier. I touched my hands to the water and then to my lips. Psalm 23 rolled through my mind. I looked upward, three Golden Eagles orbited across the sky.

Grinnell Glacier was not totally lost. Through my journey it wasn’t totally found either. But I was satisfied that my efforts were true and my suffering earnest.

Iowa’s glaciers are gone. Montana’s glaciers are fading. But my memories remain.

Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.

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