The Belly River Valleys

To realize the growing bigness of the land northward one has only to cross the wall from Iceberg, Lake into the Belly River canyon. “Only,” indeed ! In 1917 it took us forty miles of detour outside the park, even under the shadow of Chief Mountain, to cross the wall from Iceberg Lake, the west-side precipice of which is steeper even than the east. The Belly River drainage-basin is itself bigger, and its mountains bulk in proportion. Eighteen glaciers contribute to the making of perhaps as many lakes. The yellow mountains of its northern slopes invade Canada. The borders of its principal valley are two monster mountains, Cleve-land, the greatest in the park for mass and height and intricate outline; the other, Merritt, in some respects the most interesting of Glacier’s abundant collection of majestic peaks.

There are three valleys. The North Fork finds its way quickly into Canada. The Middle Fork rises in a group of glaciers high under the continental divide and descends four giant steps, a lake upon each step, to two greater lakes of noble aspect in the valley bottom. The South Fork emerges from Helen Lake deep in the gulf below the Ahern Glacier across the Garden Wall from Iceberg Lake. Between the Middle and South Forks Mount Merritt rises 9,944 feet in altitude, minareted like a medieval fort and hollow as a bowl, its gaping chasm hung with glaciers.

This is the valley of abundance. The waters are large, their trout many and vigorous; the bottoms are extravagantly rich in grasses and flowers; the forests are heavy and full-bodied; there is no open place, even miles beyond its boundaries, which does not offer views of extraordinary nobility. Every man who enters it becomes enthusiastically prophetic of its future. After all, the Belly River country is easily visited. A leisurely horseback journey from McDermott, that is all; three days among the strange yellow mountains of the overthrust’s eastern edge, including two afternoons among the fighting trout of Kennedy Creek and Slide Lake, and two nights in camp among the wild bare arroyos of the Algonkian invasion of the prairie—an interesting prelude to the fulness of wilderness life to come.

I dwell upon the Belly valleys because their size, magnificence, and accessibility suggest a future of public use; nothing would be easier, for instance, than a road from Babb to join the road already in from Canada. The name naturally arouses curiosity. Why Belly? Was it not the Anglo-Saxon frontier’s pronunciation of the Frenchman’s original Belle? The river, remember, is mainly Canadian. Surely in all its forks and tributaries it was and is the Beautiful River.