My 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.