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The Glacier Gallows
PORCUPINE HILLS, ALBERTA. AUGUST 10.
HE SAT ON THE PORCH of the single-story ranch house watching the morning’s first light color the folds in the hills that rose all around. From the perfect darkness of a starless night, the dawn grew in timid increments, first gunmetal gray and finally a rose blush that signaled the start of morning.
Cole Blackwater was wrapped in a heavy quilt he had taken with him in the early hours of morning, retreating from the nightmares and the pressing walls of his childhood room. He sat in his mother’s rocking chair and watched the day begin, his face drawn tight, his eyes scrutinizing but not seeing, his ears listening but not hearing the world coming to life around him.
His dawn watch had become a regular occurrence. That’s when all of his doubt pressed on him and he began to wonder if there was some way that maybe he had done what he was accused of.
Cole searched back through his memory to determine when all of this trouble had started, but the exploration led him too far back. Years: how many? Six, seven, more? A lifetime, really. The accumulated anger had boiled over again and again, and now his reputation had caught up with him. It was ironic that for the last six months he’d been working so hard to get a grip on his rage; now it would be his undoing.
In a few hours he would drive to Calgary and appeal to a Court of Queen’s Bench judge not to allow the Government of Canada to extradite him to the State of Montana to face the charge of murder. Cole Blackwater watched the green Porcupine Hills but instead saw only dark layers of malevolence and icy black fear.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA. JULY 10.
COLE BLACKWATER AWOKE BEFORE FIRST light. He lay awake and listened to the sounds of the approaching morning. A pikaa small, gerbil-sized member of the rabbit familysqueaked loudly. In the craggy summits along the international border between Waterton and Glacier National Parks, the wind began to stir.
Cole pulled his sleeping bag more tightly around his ears. It was cold, just above freezing, and the wind at eight thousand feet made it feel colder still. It might be summer in the valley below, where dense blooms of wildflowers carpeted the meadows, but in the alpine of the Rocky Mountains it was still early spring.
Cole donned his wool hat and without opening his sleeping bag shuffled awkwardly into his pants. When he quietly unzipped his tent, he could see that the eastern horizon, beyond the rise of serrated mountains that flanked the camp, was the color of a ripe peach. Cole checked to make sure his backpack, tucked inside the vestibule of his tent, was fastened tightly against rodents, and then pulled on his boots.
Cole checked his watch: 5:00 AM. It had been many years since he had been awake at that hour for any reason other than the plague of nightmares that had troubled his recent past. To be alive, in the mountains, breathing fresh air and working hard to climb steep trails inspired Cole to go to bed early, sleep deeply, and rise and greet the sun. It felt good, and Cole was determined not to sabotage his own happiness.
By the faint glow in the eastern sky, and aided by the circle of light from his headlamp, Cole reached the camp’s kitchen and soon warmed his hands by the blue gas flame of the camp stove as his small single-cup espresso maker worked its magic. When it had finished he poured the elixir into his stainless steel mug, added powdered milk, and turned off his headlamp. He looked back at the other tents: none of the other hikers or guides had stirred. He walked east from the campcareful to steer clear of the precipitous five-hundred-foot drop that plunged toward Crypt Lakeand ascended the far eastern edge of the ridge. The Wilson Range straddled the border between Waterton and Glacier National Parks. The team was camped on a mile-long and nearly flat unnamed peak. In ten minutes he was another two hundred feet above the camp’s lofty perch and had an unobstructed view over the rough breaks of limestone that fell like collapsing waves against a rugged beach.
Cole arranged a few slabs of stone to make a seat and drank his coffee. From where he was seated, he could see the box-like formation of Chief Mountain, one of the holy pillars of the Blackfeet Nation. The peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front were sheared off like torn paper where they collapsed into the gentle foothills and the undulating prairie.
For five days Cole had been busy with this fellow hikers’ questions, concerns, and inexperience. From 5:00 AM until Derek McGrath of East Glacier Guiding woke to brew large pots of coffee was his time. The morning’s enchanted light crept up the peaks that flanked Cole’s roost. This was the old Cole; he felt a passion in his belly and wonder in his heart. He wished that Nancy Webber and his daughter Sarah were with him to appreciate the scene, though he doubted that either would share his zeal for a predawn hike.
Cole watched for another hour. When the peaks around him were the color of golden wheat, he walked down off the ridge and returned to the camp. The three guides from East Glacier were up to prepare breakfast.
“Morning, gentlemen.” Cole refilled his coffee cup. He spoke quietly out of habit.
McGrath, a broad shouldered man who wore a wool cap day and night, said, “Off for another morning adventure?”
“Time enough for sleep when you’re dead,” answered Cole.
The other two guides remained taciturn. Tad Thomas was a veteran of many outings with East Glacier Guiding. He prepared pancake batter with dried berries for the crew. Blake Foreman was new to Derek’s team, having just signed on before this trip, but had proven capable of leading the group over the trails of Glacier. Cole marveled at how much all three men resembled each other, down to the beards and wool hats. He grabbed a handful of dried fruit from a plastic bowl and made for his tent. He munched as he walked and then unzipped the fly and pulled out his pack. Cole noted that he must have forgotten to tighten the bag’s synch straps that closed the lid. While all of the food in camp was sealed in bear-proof containers, he had to remember to keep the pack closed tightly so that rodents didn’t find their way in as they searched for the salt on Cole’s sweat stained clothing tucked inside.
Cole pulled a zip-lock bag of topographic sheets from the top of his bag and returned to the kitchen. A circle of stones had been arranged to create a makeshift dining area. Two other members of the hiking team were awake and he greeted them. Cole unfolded a topo sheet and took a drink of his coffee.
“Where are we off to today, Cole?” asked a lanky man with a hooked nose. Dr. Peter Talbot worked for the United States Geological Survey and was an expert on the impacts of climate change on alpine environments.
Cole pointed to their location on the topo map. “We’ll make our way along a goat trail around these cliffs, past Crypt Lake, and down the valley toward Waterton.”
“So that’s it? A return to civilization?”
“Afraid so. Eventually we have to rejoin society.”
“Says who?” asked the scientist.
“Says my boss.”
“I thought you were your own boss?” asked Talbot.
Cole laughed. “I have an eleven-year-old daughter, a girlfriend, and an assistant who pretty much runs my business. I’ve got at least three bosses. Plus, an ex-wife who keeps expecting child support, so make that four.” Cole held up four fingers. “Even Brian Marriott thinks he’s my boss, so that’s five.”
The second man in the kitchen area, Joe Firstlight from the Blackfeet Nation, studied the route. “This stretch of trail looks good,” he pointed to the area just north of the international border, “but this area looks a little nip-and-tuck.”
“It’s fine,” Cole indicated the pinch point on the topo map. “I hiked it once years ago when I was a kid. There’s a place where we can fix a rope for those who are faint of heart. Besides, my brother Walter is coming to meet us. He can carry anybody who is nervous.”
“Sounds like a regular Grizzly Adams,” Talbot grinned.
“Moves mountains, wrestles cougars.”
More sleepy faces emerged from tents, found coffee, and joined Cole to review the day’s itinerary. In total there were eight hikers and three guides. Cole noted that a few members of the party were sleeping in.
“Where is Brian?” asked Tara Sinclair, the science reporter for the Globe and Mail, who was based in Ottawa.
“I haven’t seen him yet this morning.” Cole looked around.
“If he thinks he can skip out after dragging our butts all the way up here just to talk about climate change he’s got another thing coming.” Tara sipped her coffee.
“He’s around.” Cole rose to go and wake the trip’s main organizer, Brian Marriott.
Cole walked to Brian’s bright orange tent. “Knock knock.” He rapped the tent fly with his knuckles. There was no response. “Brian, your flock awaits your presence.” Still nothing.
“Brian?” Cole unzipped the outer fly and peered inside. The tent was dark and smelled of body odor and sweaty boots. “Brian, time to hit the dusty trial.” Cole unzipped the inner fly and saw that the tent was empty. Brian’s sleeping bag was there, as where several personal items, including a worn copy of the book The Weather Makers, but Brian Marriot was not. Cole closed the tent and returned to the kitchen.
“No sign of our fearless leader?” asked Peter.
“Appears to have gone walk-about,” answered Cole.
“Nice morning for it,” said Joe. “You were up for sunrise as usual?” Everybody in camp knew Cole’s predilection for a few hours peace in the morning.
“Let’s hope he gets back before we eat all the pancakes.” Cole felt uneasy. Brian Marriott had taken quickly to backcountry travel, but he was a city boy, and inexperienced.
Breakfast came and went and the hikers and their guides began to pack up the camp. As the hikers busied themselves, Cole approached the head guide. “Derek, I’m getting worried about Brian.”
“Me too, Cole. I’ve already sent Tad to have a walk around to see if maybe he’s out and lost track of the time.”
“I’m going to go and check around too. Will you make sure the team is okay?”
“Will do. If Brian’s not back in another fifteen, we’ll get organized and look.”
“I’ll meet you back here then.” There had been no sign of Brian on his morning walk, but Cole backtracked to the rise of land and scanned the surrounding country side. Brian was not there. Cole returned by way of the cliff that dropped down toward Crypt Lake. When he got back to camp several other hikers looked concerned and were huddled with the lead guide.
“I think we ought to call in some help.” Joe Firstlight sounded anxious.
“And tell them what? That Brian has gone off for some alone time? I think it’s too early for that,” said Rick Turcotte, a broad man wearing a sweaty baseball cap. He was a federal member of parliament from Northern Alberta and was the junior minister for Natural Resources. An old friend, Brian Marriott had recruited him to come on the hike.
“We’ll split up into three teams.” Derek took control. “One guide per team. We’ll search for an hour and if we don’t find anything, we meet back here and I’ll call for help. Agreed?” He looked at Cole. Cole could feel panic rise in his throat. “Remember, people,” continued Derek. “The first priority in the search is safety. We can’t find anybody if you break a leg.”
The search party was hastily assembled. Joe Firstlight, who was seventy and worn out from the previous day’s climb, opted to remain close to camp. Three teams were dispatched to look east, west, and south of their position. The route north descended down the sheer cliff face down to Crypt Lake. “We need to look there too.” Cole indicated to the drop off.
Tad gave him the thumbs up. “We will.”
The teams began their search. Each guide carried a portable radio, and Derek put the party’s satellite phone into his pack. The lead guide set off down the path they had climbed the day before; Cole hurried to keep up and Rick Turcotte lagged far behind, nursing blisters. After half an hour they had dropped almost a thousand feet and walked a mile and a half from where they had camped. Cole dreaded the moment when they would have to turn around and gain all of the evaluation once again. When they stopped for a short break, Rick caught up. “We’re not going to find anything here,” he complained.
“How do you know?” asked Cole.
“Because Brian is lazier than I am. He wouldn’t walk all this way just to turn around and climb back up. Let’s go back and see if the others have had better luck. Bastard is probably sitting back at camp drinking coffee right now.”
“If he was, they would have called.” Derek patted his radio. He checked the dials to make sure it was receiving a signal. He started to walk again; Cole and Rick followed him.
“My experience is that when someone wanders off, you don’t send out amateurs to find them,” continued the MP. “You let the professionals do the job.”
“You get a lot of that on Parliament Hill? MP’s just going walk-about? Wouldn’t you just send a search party to D’Arcy McGee’s?” chided Cole.
“I grew up in Fort McMurray,” spat Turcotte. “We’ve got more bush up there than most people will see in their lifetimes.”
“Had,” said Cole. “Now you have more toxic waste dumps and poisonous holes in the ground.”
“Don’t start on me, Blackwater. We’re supposed to work together on this trip.”
“Yeah, well, Brian isn’t here to referee, and I’ve got to say that in the five days we’ve bee together, I’ve yet to hear a single idea out of you that doesn’t sound like business as usual. Hasn’t this made an impression?” Cole motioned to the grandeur around them. “This park used to have a hundred and fifty glaciers. Now there are twenty-six.”
“How is that my fault?”
“The tar sands are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada.”
“Even if climate change is caused by human activityand there is still no conclusive evidence”
“No conclusive evidence?” Cole stopped in the trail and turned to face the MP. “The verdict has been in on this for more than a decade. It’s a fact. Human activity is speeding up climate change and threatening life on earth.”
“Even if it is, Canada is only responsible for two percent of all the greenhouse gases on earth. The tar sands are just a tiny part of that. How would shutting down our country’s economic engine help?”
“It would send a message that we’re serious. This trip was supposed to illustrate the real impact of climate change on the earth. Fewer glaciers mean less dependable water for the prairies. That means drought, lower crop yields, less money for farming communities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Dakotas. We’ve got solutions”
“Gentlemen!” Derek stopped and turned toward them. “Please, we’re supposed to be” He was cut off by the crackle of the radio. He took it from his belt and adjusted the squelch.
“Derek, can you read me?” A voice crackled over the receiver. It was Tad.
“Five-by-five,” said Derek. “What have you got?”
“I think you better get back here.”
“You find him?”
There was a long silence. Cole thought he could hear Tad Thomas clear his throat. “What’s left of him.”