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.

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.

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.

 

 

Staunton State Park – Awesome!

Staunton State Park June 2013 from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

Staunton State Park is the newest state park in Colorado. It opened in May, 2013 and is located around Pine, Colorado. It is already one of my favorite places to visit and hike along the Front Range. During the week, it’s not too crowded, but on the weekends I imagine you’d have to get there very early, as parking is limited to maybe 50 cars, and there is no off-site parking allowed. When the park had its opening weekend, they provided shuttle service from Conifer. I don’t think they’re providing anything of the sort now that the grand opening celebration is past.

Upon entering the park, you’ll notice a very dramatic granite wall to the northwest of the entrance and about five miles distant, that isn’t actually part of the park system, but is perhaps a landscape feature that isn’t visible when you’re just traveling along Highway 285 toward Bailey, so it’s a nice treat. It is like a miniature version of El Capitan in Yosemite. On the eastern border of the state park itself, there are many unusual and dramatic rock outcroppings similar to this one, where the park has allowed climbers to explore. As you park the car, either in the lower, larger lot or the smaller one a little way up the road to the picnic area, you’ll have the choice of several trails, including the longer Staunton Ranch Trail and Mason Creek Trail. I took the Staunton Creek Trail on this visit, and headed toward the climbers’ access point, where I turned around. A dark cloud had moved over the park and lightning and rain were threatening. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can hike all the way to the northern-most point, which is the Elk Falls Overlook, about 3 miles from the trailhead one way.

The landscape there right now is incredibly lush and green. There are big aspens interspersed with ponderosa and other spruce and pine trees. The meadows slope down dramatically to expose a view of the Lost Creek Wilderness in the distance, Pikes Peak and the snow-capped mountains to the south of Mt. Evans. It doesn’t feel like the Front Range. The lushness, the dramatic granite cliffs and the distant views harken of the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, or Crested Butte.

I like this place because it has a kind of wildness to it, and a soft beauty that is calming and welcoming. It’s not spoiled by highway noise and overuse–yet–and it’s tucked away in a pretty little valley that’s off the beaten path.

Dogs are allowed, as are horses and bicycles on some trails. If you want to picnic there at the special covered area with tables and grills, you’ll have to reserve a spot ahead of time.

This park was bequeathed by Ms. Frances Staunton, its owner, upon her death, to be preserved as a wild place for generations to enjoy. I am grateful to people like Ms. Staunton, who knew the importance of preserving at least some of our land to cultivate wildness, both the inner and outer.

Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues

Tips for Getting Unstuck and Overcoming the Blues with Hiking from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

 

There are days when I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? You feel totally uninspired, blah, and you can’t seem to conjure up any motivation or enthusiasm about the future. The days ahead seem like a slog, and you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. It’s particularly bad if I can’t even look forward to the weekend, when I’m supposed to be enjoying my life and spending time with my family.

These feelings are often temporary for me. I know that if I just sit with the feeling, eventually I will feel better. Perhaps later that evening, or the next day. Often, within a few days. But sometimes the feeling persists and I know that I have to do something to get myself out of the funk. But what?

The advice experts offer on how to beat the blues, or mild depression, involves getting enough sleep, getting adequate exercise, proper nutrition, time with friends and quiet time spent in nature. Time spent outside has many health benefits besides offering invigorating exercise—you get a dose of vitamin D, which most people don’t seem to get enough of these days, a condition that has been linked to depression.

Time spent in nature isn’t just good for curing the blues. It has been shown to improve creativity and some cognitive function, according to a study undertaken by the University of Utah and the University of Kansas psychology departments. This study was performed with subjects who had been hiking in the wilderness for four days, and it’s unclear whether the benefits stem from an immersion in nature or from the removal of technology (phones, computers, cars, sirens, alarms).

The soft focus, or what researches call “soft fascination” on the natural world (as experienced through hiking) is soothing, and brings us back to a kind of default state of mind where introspection, creativity and clearer cognitive functioning occur. It can be a kind of “reset” button to our state of mind, especially if we feel overwhelmed, stressed, or stuck in negative thinking.

This study also validates my belief that the last thing I, or anyone else for that matter, should be doing when we’re not feeling all that great is to sit around surfing the internet or watching TV.

 

Excuses Keep Us Stuck

When I’m feeling down, I’m really not in the mood to do the very things I should do, which is to socialize or get outside to exercise or hike. More likely I will sit at home by myself, moping, napping, reading, or surfing the internet. Depression inertia is difficult to overcome.

What excuses do you use that are keeping you stuck at home and feeling down? That it’s too cold outside? That it’s too far to drive to go hiking, and you don’t feel like sitting in the car? That you’re too tired? Don’t want to go alone and have no one to go with?

Yeah, those are all excuses I’ve used, too. But here’s the thing. When I do kick myself in the butt and actually get out there on the trail, I feel so much better afterward. I’m so glad I went, even if it’s cold, wet, snowy, whatever. In fact, some of the best hikes I’ve had have been in inclement weather or uncomfortable conditions, simply because the intensity of the experience adds to the feeling of aliveness and adventure.

3 Tips for Getting Un-Stuck and Relieving the Blues

Consider doing these three things the next time you’re feeling a bit depressed and you know you should get outside, spend time in nature, and invigorate yourself with exercise and fresh air.

1. Prepare the equipment you’ll need the night before, or at a moment when you’re feeling a little more motivated. Take out your daypack, fill up your water bottle, and set this next to your hiking boots by your front door. Simply the act of getting ready for the hike, even if you’re not going until the next day, will increase the likelihood you’ll actually go.

2. Put your hike on your to-do list or calendar for the day. Set the alarm to go off and remind you. Tell yourself that you intend to go, and set a specific time that you’ll leave the house or the office. The more specific you are about when you will be going and where, the harder it will be to blow it off.  Make arrangements to get to work a little later or to leave earlier if you have to. Your mental health is important! I doubt anyone has ever invented anything or produced anything of value when they’re depressed.

3. Tell someone you plan on going on a hike. Perhaps they’ll want to join you, and that will offer you more social time with a friend, or alleviate your worry about going alone. Whenever I have a goal in mind, I make it a point to announce that goal and intention to as many people as possible. (The bigger the goal, the more people I tell.) The theory behind this is that the pain of NOT doing something you’ve committed to verbally with others is greater than procrastination and lack of inertia.

By following these tips, you’ll also be creating a set routine and setting a goal, which are two suggestions off the WebMD site for fighting depression.

There have been times when I’ve felt so lost and down that I’ve prescribed “a hike a day” for myself, even a short one as close as possible to my house. What I’ve found is that after three days of this kind of imposed routine, I begin to feel much better. I have insights while out there looking at the trees and mountains. I begin to feel like a part of the world, not like the world is on my shoulders. The exercise alone is like throwing open the windows in a stale house in the spring.

I’m willing to bet that you’ll feel much better after a nice hike, and you’ll think clearer and maybe even get some new ideas for how to live in a way that makes you feel alive and purposeful.

An Early Spring

Mesa trail, May 1, 2012

When our apple and plum tree began to bud out in mid-March, I knew we were having an unusually early spring along the Front Range. I’ve lived here since 1994 and haven’t seen trees leafed out earlier than mid-April, and certainly not late March. We did have a snowy October through December, but January through March were unseasonably warm and dry, often with overnight temperatures well above average.

This isn’t just a local phenomenon. The cherry blossoms came and went in Washington D.C. at least several weeks earlier than normal, and I even read a story about the sun rising a full two days early in Greenland, close to the Arctic Circle. Now, that has nothing to do with an early spring as much as scientists surmise it has to do with climate change and the polar ice cap melting enough to lower the horizon line so that the sun appeared to rise earlier than usual. Freaky!

Yesterday, on May 1, I experienced the greenest, most wildflower-filled hike I’ve experienced on this early date along the Front Range. I hope this doesn’t mean a brown July, or a horrific drought in August. I am staying open to what happens, or doesn’t happen. One never knows what nature has in store.

Five years ago I attended a panel discussion at the University of Colorado where top scientists spoke of the accelerating nature of climate change. They predicted that if nothing is done, within five years (umm…now) negative feedback loops will make it impossible to remedy the damaging effects of global warming. Well, not much has been done in the last five years and it doesn’t appear that large-scale remedies are anywhere on the (sinking) horizon. Nothing to do, except to contemplate an early spring.