A Meditation on Oneness

picture of Ridgway State Park
Ridgway State Park

When spiritually-minded people say, “We are all One,” what do they mean? What is this idea of “oneness” anyway?

I was contemplating this and decided that to me, oneness is more than just some esoteric notion. It’s something tangible that I could relate to and use in order to transcend my sense of self.

Here’s a meditation to read now and then ponder while you’re on a hike:

I’m going to take you through a contemplative process wherein you’ll have the experience of being a separate self in nature, surrounded by individual entities, to being part of the oneness and connectedness to all things, living and non-living.

You will walk in silence.

You have made the decision to be here today. You arranged to get here in your own car or as a passenger in someone else’s car. You have chosen how to spend these next few hours based on what your personal preferences are.

As you’re walking, notice how you’re placing one foot in front of the other. Notice how you’re negotiating the terrain and making instant decisions on where to step and what obstacles to avoid.

Feel the space around you. Feel the spacious boundary between you and your neighbor. Ponder all the ways in which you’re unique or different from the others in the group.

Now, look around you. Notice how each tree, shrub, plant, bird holds its own space. Some are closer together than others, but they are still separated by some amount of space. You can distinguish a tree from a bird from a mountain from an airplane. Each of these living and non-living entities is unique in its environment.

Everything around you, everything you see, was created without your input or control. The trees, the grass, the ocean, the lakes, the mountains, the animals, the insects are the result of 13 billion years of creation for which no human being can take any credit.

This creation, this life, continues year after year, millennia after millennia.

Notice what, in this moment, is living its own agenda apart from yours.

What is the tree’s agenda?

What is the mouse’s agenda?

What is the fly’s agenda?

How are these beings moving and functioning in order to accomplish this agenda?

Now go back to your own body. Notice your legs. Notice the movement of your arms. They are still moving and getting you closer to your destination without you consciously needing to direct the muscle fibers every moment.

You don’t need to control everything in order to get where you’re going.

Notice your breath. Notice your heart beating. Do you feel your aliveness in this moment?

Also in this moment, look around and notice the aliveness of the plants and animals around you. What are the clues that there is that life force within what you see around you?

The aliveness is happening outside of any being’s control. It just IS.

Right now you have a life force within you that you aren’t control. You can’t even make your heart beat one time.

Feel the aliveness coursing through you and through every living thing around you.

There is motion and movement and aliveness at a level you can’t see with your naked eye.

Right now, there is photosynthesis taking place in the needles and leaves of the plants. Cells are carrying on their energy production. There are cellular functions happening in your body in this moment without your being even aware of it. And yet, it is within your body, at a distance that can’t be any more intimate.

The mice and insects and birds have even less of an understanding and awareness of the process that’s taking place at a cellular level in their own bodies.

Everything that’s alive has this cellular process happening in the background right now.

Nothing you see was created by any one human being. Not even a car or the  the clothes on your back.

They’re the product of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution and society. It’s the product of culture and knowledge that’s been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of generations.

You are not a separate from your human ancestors, either.

What about the mountains and the rocks and the water and the sky? Are they different from you and from all the living things?

In your mind’s eye, journey to a sub microscopic level, where everything you sense, from the animals and plants to the cells, to the mountains and rocks, are composed of sub atomic particles.

At an atomic level, it’s all just nuclei and atoms and electrons. It’s all brimming with energy and movement.

There is no distinction between DEAD or ALIVE, INERT or ANIMATED.

The electrons in your cornea are the same electrons that are contained in those mountains and in the air between you and the vastness of space.

There is more space between the atoms in your fingertips than there is between the stars in all the Universe.

How does understanding the connection and oneness of everything that is feel to you right now? Are you in control of your life? Do you need to be?



Life Lessons at Ice Lake

ice-lakes-flowers2What is your life trying to teach you about yourself? Go on a hike and you’ll find out!

Five years ago to the day, I hiked Ice Lake Basin near Silverton, CO with my husband and a friend. At the time I was living on the Front Range and not used to hiking above 10,000 ft., so I was having a hard time making it up the steep trail. I felt so drained of energy and out of breath that after an hour I decided to stop and catch my breath and go no further. My hiking partners forged ahead another ten minutes or so, but out of consideration for me, they, too, made the decision to turn around.

This time when I hiked this same trail, I had been living at 7,500 ft. in Ridgway for two months, so I was better acclimated to the altitude. As I passed it, I made a mental note of the spot, where, five years earlier, I had stopped and turned around. I had no reason to stop this time, I felt fine. To my shock, just a few minutes past that point, the trail made a slight turn and opened up to the most magnificent flower-filled meadow! In the distance I could see Ulysses Grant mountain and the Ice Lake Basin. Had I kept going just five more minutes, I would have been treated to this incredible view!

I was astounded that had I not stopped where I had, I would have been rewarded with this treat five years earlier. I wondered what this said about my life. Don’t quit, you can be very close to your goal? Sometimes you’re closer to what you love than you think? I could interpret this “message” in a multitude of ways. I just laughed to myself and kept going.

Ice Lake
Ice Lake

From that point, the trail ascends another mile and a half to a turquoise lake situated at 11,000 ft or so. It also gets steeper, way steeper, and much more precarious in a couple of spots. In fact, one stretch of the trail is perhaps 8 feet wide, rocky and sloped over a dramatic drop-off. Uphill, you just have to scramble and GO. Not so on the way back. You have to psyche yourself up for navigating it downhill. Five years ago there was no way I could have done that. I have a phobia of heights and steep declines. So even though I would have seen something magical had I kept going five more minutes, I wouldn’t have been capable of doing the rest of the hike due to the difficulty and steepness. It took me five years of experience and conditioning to be rewarded with the brilliant jewel at the basin.

ice-lakes-valley-belowThis day, I was able to handle the descent in that spot by singing songs out loud and acting (and feeling) goofy. The singing took my brain away from panic mode and allowed me to maintain my momentum when in the past, I would have been frozen in terror with vertigo. I don’t know how I decided to try this strategy, but I did, and it worked brilliantly for me.

The hike was also telling me that what is true for me one day may not be true for me a different day. It was telling me that I can always change my mind and circumstances if I choose. It was telling me that there can be more beauty ahead, but it won’t always be available to me, not until I’m ready. Or maybe it won’t ever be there for me because life isn’t limitless and neither is the body. How many hikes will I never do? Thousands.

In hindsight I also realize that my hiking partners five years ago didn’t tell me about the meadow up ahead. They must have seen it. Was it not spectacular then? I’m not sure why, maybe they were being kind and not letting me feel regret. Maybe they didn’t want to push me when I wasn’t feeling well. I can only guess what lesson the trail is trying to teach me about that.

The View from Here

Precipice Peak in the San Juan Mountains
Precipice Peak in the San Juan Mountains

The first time I saw the outline of Precipice Peak was maybe 7 years ago, on our way to visit Ouray and Ridgway again to look at parcels of land. It was among a cluster of peaks to the left (northeast) of Ouray that were part of the San Juan mountains. You can see it as you approach Delta, and it gets darker and clearer as you drive south on Hwy. 550 into Ridgway.

Precipice reminded me of a droopy soft serve ice cream cone. It was unusual and unlike the smoother, broader mountains of the Front Range. It was jutting and had “character”. It was instantly one of my favorites, after Mt. Sneffels.

We have a view of Precipice from the deck of our house, along with Courthouse Mountain, the Cimarrons, Chimney Rock, Coxcomb and others. My eyes are instantly drawn to the floppy peak every morning as I’m sipping coffee and looking east from my living room. It’s a 13er, so it’s towering and visible for many miles.

What came up for me on this hike was the correlation of an imagined future and a distant mountain I’d never seen up close. We just moved to the small town of Ridgway, a move that’s been in the planning and dreaming stages for 6 years. Back in the city, I used to imagine what that life in the country would be like. I imagined the access to nature, the quiet, the solitude, the lack of traffic and industrial noises. I imagined being able to hike out my front door and seeing wild animals daily. I imagined the privacy I would enjoy.

The view from around Courthouse and to the Sneffels Range from the trail.
The view from around Courthouse and to the Sneffels Range from the trail.

I also looked forward to the day I would drive the 20+ miles up a 4WD road to get closer to Precipice. Would it be mind-blowing and towering and lush with flowers? Would I been in awe?

The day I hiked up Courthouse Mountain, I rounded a bend in the trail and was surprised by clear, unobstructed view of the face of Precipice across the narrow valley below. It didn’t appear any more breathtaking than the other views from the trail, but this was the mountain I had been gazing at from afar for year. There it was!  At this closer distance, I could see things I couldn’t from 20, 50 or 70 miles away: waterfalls and craggy spires, the delicate green, mossy texture of the uppermost slopes. It’s not just a big, rocky ice cream cone. It’s something old and eroded and teeming with tiny grasses and delicate flowers. It tells the story of ancient volcanos and impossibly high winds. It is scarred by the freezing and melting of miles of snow and ice.

The parallel is that, in life, when we finally experience that which we have been anticipating for a long time, it’s not exactly as we imagined, because it is far more complex, beautiful and surprising than we could ever imagine.

Farewell, Front Range

View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons
View from the top of the Royal Arch trail, looking toward Boulder and the Flatirons

After many years of planning, saving and sacrificing, my husband Dave and I are finally making a big move to Ridgway, Colorado after Memorial Day weekend. We are looking forward to growing a large garden, tending chickens and meeting new friends and neighbors in our new, small community.

I’m also looking forward to starting a new chapter of contemplative hiking on many mind-blowing beautiful trails in the San Juan mountains near Ouray, Telluride and Ridgway.

There was one trail near Boulder that I hadn’t hiked but had wanted to for many years – The Royal Arch trail at Chautauqua. I attempted to scale the trail in February but it was simply too icy and treacherous for my liking, despite wearing ice spikes and having poles. This is a trail that’s much better attempted when conditions are dry.

The Royal Arch trail has a reputation of being a butt-kicker and for good reason – it boasts 1,200 feet of elevation gain in just under a couple of miles. It goes up—straight up—for most of the way, and often you’re stair-stepping on big rocks and having to pull yourself up to keep from stumbling backwards. This is “no country for old men”, or old anyone with a heart condition. Fortunately I’m in good shape and not too old yet, so I made it up in good time with lots of breaks to catch my breath. I would say that you should expect to reach your max heart rate for at least 60 consecutive minutes, which is not something you want to be doing every day.

The view at the top makes it worthwhile. On the north side, you see the flatirons, and to the east is the vast expanse of flatland that stretches all the way out to Erie, Firestone, Broomfield. Above you is a giant arch that rivals anything you see at Arches in Moab, but without the sandstone or the searing heat of the desert.

View of NCAR from the Royal Arch
View of NCAR from the Royal Arch

I was feeling unusually sentimental on this particular hike. I remembered all the trails I had worn out in the last fifteen years and ones that I’ll likely never step foot on again. Life is a series of endings and beginnings, some profound and some almost unnoticed.

Recently my mother died (one of those profound endings) and I remembered the time we took her “hiking” up the hill from the Chautauqua Ranger station. It made me wistful, because she had a hard time up that hill, but she was always willing to try new things and trusted me to show her the way, even though later it turned out it was beyond what was comfortable for her, physically. She loved being out in nature, appreciated beauty. The longest hike we took with her was around Monarch Lake near Grand Lake – almost 5 miles of mostly flat terrain. She really liked that.

Maybe we tend to forget these precious memories after dealing with the traumatic memories of a loved one’s last few days, but they appear later in quiet moments. Our minds get quiet and relaxed and we see all the tiny but wonderful moments we’ve forgotten.

And so it might be with my life here on the Front Range. Right now I’m very preoccupied with our move and what’s to come. In time, however, as I walk along some trail high up in the mountains of southwest Colorado, I might remember a certain colorful hike in May, an exceptionally delicious meal at some restaurant in Boulder, a romantic walk at dusk somewhere downtown Denver. I’ll remember the good times when my daughter Skye was still a little kid and when we worked hard on our backyard garden and when we built snow forts after a crazy blizzard. These memories will poke their heads out when I’m feeling sentimental or lonely or reflective.

So farewell, Front Range. It’s been a deeply satisfying relationship of 22 years. I’ve written books about you and I’ve been elevated by your beauty. I’ve also been bored with you and frustrated at how crammed and developed you’ve become. Even though I’ve fallen in love with a new place, you’ll always be my first love. The Front Range is where I found my gifts and discovered the person I was always meant to be.

Gratitude and Presence In Times of Sadness

dreamstime_s_67074644My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.

My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.

“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”

My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.

Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.

We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.

This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.

When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.

Scott Jurek and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Controversy

Recently, ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Appalachian Trail thru hike in record time – 45 days. This spawned a controversy at the terminus, Baxter State Park, where Jurek was fined for various rules violations. He opened a bottle of champagne at the summit to celebrate his feat. He had more than 12 people “with him” at the summit.

If you read the letter that Baxter State Park Authority wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, you could empathize with what the BSP rangers have to deal with on a daily basis during AT hiker season. Perhaps Jurek would have planned his accent a bit differently had he known the fatigue these rangers face every day from rude AT hikers.

The bigger controversy is, do we all have the right to enjoy parks and wilderness, or do we need to follow certain “rules” in order to keep those lands pristine for generations to come?

It’s a good question. This perhaps isn’t a problem of environmental values, but maybe a problem of overpopulation and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation and sports. With media vehicles like Outside Magazine glorifying the human achievement in nature, and documentaries that follow the accomplishments of extreme hikers, bikers and mountain climbers (180 Degrees South, Touching the Void, Ride the Divide, to name a few), more people than ever are seeking personal fulfillment through nature.

What is my personal opinion about all this? I’m not sure. I think that different people view “spirituality” and “peak experiences” in nature in different ways. Some people, like myself, enjoy quiet contemplation in nature, with no particular goal in mind other than deep observation and enjoyment. Others get that same sense of bliss from running 50 miles on a trail per day, climbing to the highest peak in their state, or riding giant waves on the ocean.

Certain deep ecologists would say that wilderness should be kept free of all human contact. I always found that sentiment extreme. We belong in nature because we ARE nature. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from nature. However, when there are 8 billion of us on the planet, we will eventually nudge nature out. Animals don’t do well living elbow to elbow with humans.

Derrick Jensen says that civilization isn’t good for the planet, because “forests precede it and deserts dog its heels”. We may be part of nature, and we may enjoy it and have a right to be in it, but we’re not really good for the planet, because not all of us leave the trail better than how we found it.

One Simple Reason to Meditate

The other day I was at a friend’s house for a little gathering and the subject of meditation came up. The women at this gathering discussed the many ways meditation had helped them, or what they thought were benefits of meditation based on what they’ve experienced from friends and family.

We all seemed to agree that meditation was a good habit, and that it was important to not get caught up in the idea that it has to be done correctly or for a certain amount of time. Any time you can just sit quietly, take a break, breathe and observe your thoughts, even if it’s for five minutes, was a good thing.

There is a common misconception that meditation is about suppressing thought. Meditation is not about “not thinking” but rather allowing the thoughts, observing them, and then going back to the breath. In this way, meditation is a way for us to let go of our attachment to the meaning we assign to our thoughts.

Detaching ourselves from the emotional triggers our thoughts create is one simple and very important benefit to meditation.

I’ll offer an example from my own experience with meditation. Many years ago I was taking an online meditation class at Naropa for my graduate degree. We were required to sit at least 20 minutes per day and journal about it afterward. I hadn’t done any serious daily meditation before. I’d meditated only a handful of times before and with a group. Never alone and never consistently.

I was ready to see what it’d be like to have a consistent practice. I prepared my space. I put down a couple of couch pillows on the floor. I set up a timer on my phone so I wouldn’t constantly be watching the clock.  I got into a comfortable position and touched the “start” button.

The first few times I meditated I kept glancing at the timer, thinking that surely at least 20 minutes had passed, when in fact it had only been five or ten.  It was excruciating to sit still doing…nothing. My thoughts started lining up.

My back feels stiff. What if I start fidgeting. Will that be wrong?

Back to the breath…

There’s a lot of dust under the entertainment unit. Ugh. I have to dust that later.

I can’t forget to make that appointment today.

Back to the breath…

Will I have time to get that project done and do this meditation, too?

I wonder what I’ll make for dinner? Not now, back to the breath.

…and so on.

At first, I was totally “buying into” these thoughts. I would start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, disgusted even. I was a terrible house keeper. I had too much work to do. I wasn’t totally happy with my work because if I were, I wouldn’t feel so stressed all the time. Why was I so forgetful lately?

The meditation felt excruciating because I wanted to keep DOING instead of just “sitting there” obsessing over something.

After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that the same exact thoughts would come up, day in and day out. The noticing of the dirt and dust in the room as I sat with my eyes open with a soft gaze. The discomfort of my position because my core was weak. The sense of overwhelm about all the things on my to-do list that day.

That’s when things began to shift, ever so slightly. Instead of feeling anxious over the many things I believed I had to do that were pilling up and creating ever-increasing urgency, I began to look at the thoughts themselves with a little bit of irritation. Why was I so obsessive? Why was it so hard to relax for 20 minutes and let things go? The world (and my to-do list) wasn’t going anywhere for 20 minutes. Why was my brain making it so difficult for me to just sit?

I was really judging myself!

After another couple of weeks, I began to look at my irritation in a different way. I saw that I was resisting, but what I was resisting was the letting go. I wasn’t resisting taking 20 minutes away from my schedule to just sit, I was resisting the idea that I stopped buying into the idea that the thoughts themselves were all that important.

Was it really that important that the room had pockets of hidden dust that I hadn’t cleaned?

Was it really that important that I get everything done on my to-do list a week ahead of schedule?

Was it really that important that I be absolutely 100% comfortable at all times?

What I was witnessing was the ego having its little power struggle. As Eckhart Tolle would say, our ego wants us to believe that it is much more important than it really is. It wants to be in control. It doesn’t want to be released or gently set aside. Letting go of our sense of importance is really one of the most difficult things we can do, but it can be the most liberating.

And that is the one simple reason to meditate, in my opinion: To observe those repetitive thoughts and be able to unplug from them, and to be able to unplug from our ego’s sense of importance. This allows us to have more inner peace, because we are not always in some sort of competition with the world, our schedule or our ego’s idea of happiness and success

After several months of daily meditation, I was able to look at a thought that came up—about the dust or the to-do list—and chuckle. “Oh, right. You again.”


I Promise You Won’t Suffer Reading This Wonderful Book


I met Gail Storey online back in 2010 when I started blogging on this website. She found it somehow, and once in a while would comment on my blogs. She, too, was a contemplative hiker of sorts, she’d  say, and then told me a little bit about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’d even written a book about the experience. It took me a couple of years, but I finally got around to reading it a couple of months ago.

I don’t know what took me so long. It’s certainly the genre I enjoy reading. I love adventure non-fiction that takes places on trails and mountains. Some of my favorite authors of that genre are Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), Joe Simpson (Touching the Void, The Beckoning Silence) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I love reading stories where the writer overcomes a fear or obstacle and is transformed. In that sense, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with I Promise Not to Suffer.

Gail begins her story with a clue of where the trajectory of her transformation may land. “I never much cared for nature,” she writes, “or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.” Unlike Krakauer and Simpson, Gail is not a professional athlete or a seasoned mountaineer or hiker. She’s a professional writer. Her account of her hike on the PCT is from the perspective of a normal person doing something extraordinary. Like Bill Bryson in the first chapter of “A Walk in the Woods”, she too, has normal trepidation about what the experience may entail.

So why does Gail hike the PCT? Because her husband Porter, a rather outdoorsy and adventure-loving sort, decides to resign from his job and do the 2,700 hike. She goes with him because, well, she can’t stand the thought of sitting at home worrying about him for six months.

Gail and Porter’s trek on the PCT is not surprisingly without complications. Gail’s mother is dying of cancer and Gail calls her at often from their stops in town. Porter is trying to figure out what he’s going to do in his career after he’s finished with his hike (and before the hike, while he was still working, all he thought about was doing the hike!). There are the usual hardships of the trail – long miles, sore muscles, discomfort, fatigue, unbearable heat followed by unbearable cold. Gail’s telling of the story is full of heart and vulnerability, but isn’t so splayed out as to make the reader feel voyeuristic (think Eat, Pray, Love). She tells us about how she worries she’s holding Porter back from hiking faster, and how she’s often complaining about the horrible wind and the deep snow and of her ability to handle things when they get way harder. She’s not exaggerating, either. In one memorable scene, Gail almost gets blown off a cliff in the middle of the night while huddled in her sleeping bag.

Gail is petite and lightweight, but not fragile. She decides she’s going to continue the trek with Porter despite the fatigue and weather challenges. He wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she went home and let him finish on his own. He worries about her and doesn’t want her to get hurt or worse. He is torn, and implores her to consider stopping. She refuses, and implores him that she wants to continue, that as difficult as it is, she can’t imagine leaving.The trail and Nature herself has done a number on her. She becomes addicted to the trail, to the beauty, to the wilderness, to the rawness of it all. She wants to carry on, and besides, she promises not to suffer from now on.

I was riveted by some of the challenges Gail and Porter faced in the Sierra Nevada mountains in late spring. The story is a page turner, because even though you know they survive the journey (well at least you’re sure Gail does), you’re not sure if they finish or how they’ll navigate certain obstacles that Gail warns the reader about. Will Gail finish the entire hike? Will Porter? What about some of the people they meet on the trail along the way?

What I liked most about I Promise Not to Suffer was that Gail didn’t take herself too seriously, and certain passages made me laugh out loud. She describes the dread she feels about having to do certain sections of the trail, and you can’t help but wonder how you’d feel if you were facing the same thing. She isn’t smug, or flippant, or boastful. She isn’t whiny, either. When you read this story you tell yourself that you wish you could do the PCT and feel the things Gail felt, but at the same time you think, hell no, I couldn’t put myself through all that crazy shit.

I Promise Not to Suffer is the kind of story that makes you wistful when it’s over. You don’t want it to end. You want Gail to take you on another adventure, and another.  It’s a great read when you’re feeling stir-crazy on a cold winter night and all those glorious summer hikes are still many, many months away.


The Upside of Dangerous Hikes

Queen Elizabeth Range
The Queen Elizabeth Range, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

It’s a day of rain and drizzle, and we’re hiking in Jasper National Park on a trail that flanks the Queen Elizabeth Range. It’s July, so it’s tourist season, but it’s also mid-week on a cold day on a trail that isn’t very popular. In other words, there aren’t too many other hikers on the trail. A fact that is causing me a bit of anxiety.

On the drive up to the trailhead my husband and I encountered two black bears and their cubs foraging close to the road. We stopped, rolled down the window and took photos from the safety of the car. I was thrilled and amused at seeing so many bears in the last several days, mostly from the car and mostly black bears. But now, as we make our way through the mud and mist on a narrow trail that cuts through the dense forest, I’m not amused by the thought of seeing yet another bear. Particularly a grizzly, a species with a healthy population in this part of Alberta, Canada.

The trail curves to the left, then to the right. The trees that surround and tower over us seem dark and foreboding. The birds have fallen silent for the most part. All we hear is the steady drip of the rain and our footfalls. I’m remembering (and regretting reading) a passage in a book I picked up at a gift shop near Maligne Lake in Jasper. It was about a grizzly bear attack near Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A couple was hiking and enjoying the scenery one minute, and the next minute they rounded the bend and everything changed. The husband was killed and the author was left disabled when a large brown bear charged them. Just like that, you stumble upon a predator and your entire life changes.

I’m normally not afraid of bears when I hike in my home state of Colorado. I’ve encountered many black bears there, and only once while hiking. They seem skiddish, elusive and shy. I respect them, but I don’t worry too much about them. Incidents of bear attacks on hikers are unheard of in Colorado.

Here in Jasper, it was different. There were warning signs posted at certain trailheads about hiking in groups of a minimum of four people for safety because of the high chance of grizzly bear encounters. The visitor center in Banff National Park further south had posted trail closures due to high grizzly activity in the area. We bought a large bottle of bear spray and were advised to carry it at all times. These people weren’t messing around. This wasn’t Colorado. This was a place where you had to stay focused and alert when hiking. No joke.

So here we were, the two of us, descending deeper and deeper into the woods. Our senses were sharpened and sensitive. We heard every snap, every rustle around us. When we stopped to fish in the lake the trail encircled, we would occasionally look over our shoulder to make sure nothing was stealthily moving upon us. Whenever I got a whiff of something musky, I felt a rush of adrenaline burst in my chest. Was that a bear nearby or a moose?

We didn’t feel that we had the luxury of silent contemplation while hiking on this trail. We were constantly talking or singing, trying to make as much noise as possible so we wouldn’t startle any unsuspecting predators. When we tired of talking, we’d smack our hiking poles together to make eerie, metallic “clack, clack, clack” sounds to cut the silence. We doubted any of this was going to really scare away a grizzly.

In our everyday lives, we normally don’t need to be in such a state of heightened awareness. Our natural instinct for preservation and attunement to the natural world is deadened because we are surrounded by conveniences and comfort. Instead, we walk around in a mental fog, distracted by our cellphones, pondering our to-do lists, constantly tweaking our environment for comfort and pleasure.

Despite the nervousness and tension I felt while hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, I look back fondly on that hike and others we’ve taken in similar places known for large, dangerous predators and dangerous conditions: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Teton National Park.  My heightened sense of awareness in these places brought me fully into the present moment like nothing else in my everyday life. The fear burned my memories in high definition with surround sound. It’s one of those experiences you dread at the time, but can’t stop talking about later.

When you’re in a place where can die at any moment, whether it’s because of lightning, slippery trails over steep drop-offs or the possibility of dangerous animals and predators, something ancient and primitive gets activated. It’s a part of us that lies dormant as we commute to work, buy dinner from the grocery store and sit on the couch at night. It is hibernating in the dark corners of our being, until the moment we go outside and step into a vast unknown. It suddenly wakes up, eyes clear and ears pricked, and suddenly we remember something that’s taken us centuries to forget: how to survive in the wild.



Mind-Boggling Nature!

The Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada

Sometimes the things that fascinate us most in nature aren’t the things we can see, but the things we can’t.

This summer my husband and I visited Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. We were inspired to visit these parks a few years ago when we were in Glacier National Park, Montana. A woman who lived and worked there told us that if we thought Glacier was awesome, we should go to Jasper National Park up in Canada, which was like “Glacier on steroids.”

Well, we thought Glacier was the most spectacular mountain scenery we’d ever seen, so the idea that another five hundred miles north was something even more intensely beautiful thrilled us.

In anticipation of our trip, we bought travel and hiking guides off Amazon for Banff and Jasper. We Googled images of the two parks. We made a checklist: canoe Lake Louise, go inside the castle-like Banff Hot Springs Hotel, maybe take a boat around Spirit Island on Maligne Lake. These were the iconic destinations, and we couldn’t wait to see them all in person.

But there were things we didn’t expect to see or experience, and I’m glad, because while I like to plan things out when I travel, I also like to feel surprised.

The drive from the town of Banff to the town of Jasper is nearly 300 km long along the Icefield Parkway. Along the way, according to a map we picked up at the Banff visitor center, there are many places to pull out, go for a hike, check out a lake or just take photos. One of those places was the Columbia Icefield. On the full-color map, the Icefield was pictured as a large snowy area with a knobby-tired bus parked in the middle. I didn’t think much of this. I thought the Icefield was just going to be a high-altitude valley with a permanent snowfield or something. I so underestimated it.

Several hours into our spectacular drive, with “crazy ass” mountains around ever corner, we approached the Icefield. When I realized what I was looking at, I sat up straight in my carseat and my jaw dropped. Ahead of us was the largest glacier I had ever seen up close and personal – The Athabasca Glacier.

Along the Icefield Parkway between Banff and Jasper.
Tourists hiking up the trail toward the lip of the Athabasca Glacier.

There was a visitor center and a parking lot from which one could walk right up to the edge of the glacier. The moraine on either side of the ice was rocky and bare. The ice draped over the saddle of two towering mountains, some of the tallest in the Canadian Rockies, beyond which was the Apex, the point where the Continental Divide ended. The sheer amount of ice, the relative rockiness and lack of trees and vegetation made me feel as if we had been magically transported to Antarctica.

There were signs posted along the road leading up to the lip of the glacier to indicate how far the glacier had receded in the last century, which was about a quarter of a mile or more.  It seemed like a lot of loss, but then I studied our road map closer, really looked at it, and my mind boggled.

"Columbia icefield view" by Original uploader was Rufus Hawthorne at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

The glacier we were seeing was just a small appendage of the much more massive Columbia Icefield. The icefield was an area of about 325 square kilometers with a depth averaging 100-300 meters (1000 feet), and that icefield was what we couldn’t see. It is the largest ice mass in North America south of the Arctic Circle. If we were to climb one of the mountains at the Apex and look directly west, we would see an ocean of snow and ice that reached out to a wilderness of semi-permanent winter. A real-life relic of the last ice age!

The Columbia Icefield formed three rivers and fed three oceans: the Pacific (the Columbia River), the Atlantic (North Saskatchewan) and the Arctic. The river that flowed from this glacier was the Athabasca River and it flowed all the way across Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. This was the first time in my life I was standing at the origin of a river that flowed to the Arctic Ocean.

As we departed and made our way north to Jasper, we saw many more glaciers that flowed off the Icefield. We saw snow cornices atop mountains that must have been 100 feet thick. We viewed distance crevasses that were large enough to swallow a house. It was one of the most spectacular drives I had ever experienced. And it was deep wilderness, with no houses or structures besides those servicing the Parkway, no roads, nothing but mountains and forest and glaciers as far as you could see.

I could not stop wondering about the Icefield. I imagined climbing one of the mountains at its edge or getting into a helicopter and seeing the massive icefield, imagining how much time it represents, how long that ice has been there. It was there when cavemen were painting horses and bison in the caves of France. It was there when the Egyptians were building pyramids. It was growing slightly a half century before the American Revolution and receeding when Kennedy was shot. There is frozen water buried under hundreds of feet of more frozen water that hasn’t seen sunlight or been exposed to air in over 125,000 years, perhaps.  This state of wonder made me feel pleasantly insignificant in terms of the vastness of time and the sheer size and force of the glacier and icefield. There are things on this earth that we know so little about as individuals, but that have endured for hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of years.

I didn’t know anything about the Columbia Icefield until about an hour after I was standing at its toe, reading about it in a tourist information brochure.

I’m so glad to be reminded that I can still be humbled by nature, in the little I know and the whole lot I don’t know, or can’t see, or have yet to discover.