A Post-Blizzard Spring Hike

The Front Range got anywhere from 8-16″ of snow yesterday (3-23-10), and this was a heavy, moisture-laden snow. The clouds parted this morning and the sun is now melting away the evidence of an early spring blizzard.

These are photos taken from Chautauqua – one at the Ranger Station and one from the McClintock Trail. Snow was sliding off tree limbs as we passed underneath, giving the impression that the trees were throwing snowballs at us. It was beautiful. The trail was already well-traversed at lunchtime this morning, indicating that many people were eager to experience a little beauty in their day.

boulder flatirons
Boulder Flatirons covered in snow. Taken from Chautauqua parking lot.
trail in snow
Mcclintock trail post-blizzard at Chautauqua

Winter Fatigue and the Power of Now

hiking wild basin in winter
Wild Basin in winter, Rocky Mountain National Park,

Location: Wild Basin, northwest between Allenspark and Meeker, Colo.

Directions: From Boulder, take US 36 to Lyons then take Hwy 7 to Allenspark/Estes Park. The big brown sign for Wild Basin will be slightly past Allenspark but before the town of Meeker.

Access notes: This hike is located on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Wild Basin. In the winter there is no cost to enter the park at this location, but you will need to purchase a park pass in the summer. Dogs are not allowed in the park at any time. Arrive early in order to secure a parking space at the trailhead in winter (before 10 a.m.) The road may be snowpacked or icy in winter, but level so it’s passable with any passenger car, as long as there hasn’t been a lot of recent accumulation.

cross country skiing wild basin trailIn winter, depending on the precipitation, Wild Basin is a pleasant snowshoe, YakTrax hike or cross-country ski. The terrain from the winter recreation parking lot to the warming hut is fairly flat, surrounded by forest on both sides, with only slight undulations of the trail through the trees. There are hills on either side and mountains to the west—Copeland Mountain is the tallest nearby peak at 13,176 ft. and the second tallest is Ouzel at 12,716 ft. You can’t see the peaks very well while following the first couple of miles or so of the trail. St. Vrain creek runs alongside the wide trail after it forks off from Ouzel Creek about 4 miles up the trail. You have the option of staying on the wider, flatter path or venturing off into the side trails where hikers with snowshoes have blazed a lane. The side trails meander into the trees and roll up and down, steeply at times, around giant lichen-covered boulders.

The trails keep going west for several miles, so you can make this hike as long or short as you like. I did this one on a weekend winter morning as a two-hour roundtrip.

Growing weary of winter and hiking in the snow

By late winter, I’m getting sick of snow and tired of the cold weather. I can’t say exactly why, except that I start to grow weary of seeing brown everywhere and I want to get outside and start planting seeds in the garden. In previous years, I hadn’t done much winter hiking. I had gone cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but mostly on established and groomed trails where you have to buy a pass. Not to mention that the thought of going on a hike when it’s 20 degrees outside and snowing seemed absurd in the past—I’d much rather be sitting around the fire reading a good book and smelling a slow-cooking stew simmering on the stove than subject myself to that sloppy, bone-chilling mess.

But this year was different. Armed with a good 4-wheel drive vehicle, YakTrax, snowshoes and decent winter attire, I didn’t let gray, cold weather stop me from enjoying natural places that were an hour or less away from home. So many people hike in the winter along the Front Range that it’s almost as accessible as hiking in the summer. Trails are packed down and obvious from use (sometimes even more obvious than in the summer) and roads around here don’t stay icy or treacherous for long after it snows, especially in late winter when the sun is beginning to gain intensity. Hiking in the winter has its advantages for sure: relative solitude, silence, lots of parking on weekends, no mud (on a good year), no bears (they’re hibernating), and a good workout burning a lot of calories to stay warm.

snow in woodsEven so, I was getting tired of hiking in the snow. It was late winter, only three weeks before the official start of spring. I wanted to smell the greenness of a summer day in the mountains already. I wanted to see Columbines blooming in the shade of the lodgepoles and ponderosas. I wanted to see green hills, little mountain blue birds, waterfalls, mossy stream banks and clumps of Indian Paintbrush and little white daisies. This late in the season, I’m itching for the next thing.

It was with this attitude that I set my intention on this particular hike. My intention was to find a way to be grateful for winter, to appreciate its qualities, because in a month or so the weather would change and mud season would begin. I intended to think of all the things I like about hiking in the snow and in winter and keep those aspects in mind, so I could eke out another month or two of enjoyment.

As I started the hike another important contemplative principle came to mind, one which I felt was even more important than mere appreciation or gratitude for something that’s starting to feel “old hat.” And that is the principle of presence, and the Power of Now.

In his book, “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle describes a period in his life when he felt so suicidal and anxious, he felt little appreciation or gratitude toward anything. One morning, as he lay in bed surveying the dark shadows of his room, he became overwhelmed with a feeling of fear. Instead of resisting, he allowed himself to get “sucked into a void” and let the darkness overtake him. When he awoke several hours later, he suddenly and inexplicably felt no fear at all. Instead, he felt wonder at everything: the bird chirping outside, the way the light fell through the curtains, the objects in the room. This peak experience marked a new beginning for Tolle. Instead of feeling burdened with depression and hopelessness, he spent the next two years simply…being. He writes in his book that he “had no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity.” He spent almost two years sitting on park benches, but instead of feeling depressed or empty about it, he was in an almost constant state of wonder and joy.

This was the revelation of Tolle’s “power of now.” He was able to enjoy the moment without allowing his mind to indulge of fantasies of “what if” or obsessing about all the things that should be or could be.

Tolle writes that the pain or discomfort in our lives is the result of not being able to accept our circumstances, or a resistance to what is. My resistance to the fact that it was still winter and that it was going to be several months more of bare trees and snow on the ground in the mountains was making me feel irritable. It was causing me to suffer when I didn’t have to.

There’s a way to obtain relief from suffering and worry, resistance and anxiety. All you have to do is disassociate yourself from ego, get out of your head and snap right into the present moment. This contemplative activity is about doing just that.

The activity

At the start of the hike, consider all the things you are resisting right now, all the ways in which you’re suffering. These can take many forms. Ask yourself:

Is there something I wish I could be doing?

Is there someone I wish were with me right now?

Is there an event in the near or distant future that causes me worry or fear?

Has something happened recently to make me feel bad about myself?

Have I been daydreaming about a different time, a different place or a different circumstance in life?

When I did this hike, it was as benign a discomfort as feeling a bit burned out on winter and wishing for summer.

Set your intention to stay completely and utterly present. Enjoy the moment, and don’t let your mind wander to the negative thoughts that are associated with your mind and ego.

The way Tolle describes this exercise in his book is very simple.

Whenever you feel yourself descending into any kind of despair, ask yourself: Am I okay now?

To demonstrate the simplicity and power of this exercise, imagine sitting in the waiting room of an attorney’s office, waiting for your appointment so you can file bankruptcy. This would normally feel very depressing, would it not?

But if you were in this situation, all you have to do is ask, are you okay now? Are you feeling well? Is there food in your stomach? Are you breathing in and out without obstruction? Right now, right this minute?

You’ll probably answer yes at first, but add a disclaimer…

“But I’m losing  everything, but I’m a failure, but what will my friends and family think, but what will I do now?”

All that stuff is stuff of ego and mental projection. It’s about fussing over a thing that really isn’t a thing at all, and that’s your ego. It’s your ambition, your pride, your sense of self. Those aren’t things and they don’t really exists outside your mind. And that’s the beauty of snapping yourself right back to the present. You realize that that which DOES exist—your body and the environment around you—is actually doing just fine in this moment.

On the hike, as you find your mind veering into unpleasant thoughts, ask yourself, am I okay now? Is everything around me okay now? By doing so you will come to realize how much your mind plays a role in your happiness and sense of wellbeing. Everything may be perfectly okay, but you can still drive yourself into a state of malaise just by creating stories in your mind about the past or the future and then believing them.

Wild Basin
Wild Basin, early morning, winter: enjoy solitude and quiet

Look around at the trees and the sky. Realize that everything is as it should be, and that you are well enough to be hiking, that you are alive in the moment, and that nothing is hurting you right this second.

If you feel thirsty, take a drink. If you’re in discomfort in some way physically, see what you can do to shift your body or stretch or rearrange your pack.

The more you come back to the present, the more you’ll find it easier to slow down and take in the surroundings. You’ll hear the screechy call of a bluejay and you’ll stop to acknowledge him. You’ll look up the hillside at the trees and see the way they sway in the breeze or wind. You’ll realize that you have a feeling about this place, whether it’s late February or mid-July, and that you can enjoy it in this moment without ruining it by thoughts of “I wish it were something else.”

We humans are not just creatures of habit, as the saying goes, we’re also creatures of novelty. We like to be entertained in both small and dramatic ways. The problem is that we don’t enjoy what we get long enough, and as soon as we get something or achieve something, we start to desire something else or something more.

This endless cycle of desire, consumption, boredom, desire, consumption, boredom is not just depriving us from experiencing a decent amount of joy and gratitude, but it’s also causing untold damage to our planet. Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money Or Your Life” said during a teleclass I listened to, that as Americans we have a warped notion of what “freedom” really is. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, anytime, any place without regard to limits. True freedom is setting up reasonable limits, knowing when we’ve had enough and therefore being able to be truly happy and fulfilled more often. There’s a bell curve to consumption and fulfillment. We need certain things for our wellbeing and beyond that, to feel comfort. But if we start to do or purchase too much, it becomes more of a hassle to try to maintain (all our possessions, all our hobbies). The enjoyment we get from it dwindles.

At some mid-point in your hike, while you’re walking on the trail, stop and ask yourself what you really need in the moment to be happy. Do you have what you need in THIS moment?

If not, what is it that you need in order to feel more comfortable or fulfilled?

Then go back to now. Be aware of everything around you now. The sound of the stream below the trail. The sway of branches. The call of birds and squirrels. The way the clouds are moving overhead. The snow that’s blanketing the nearby mountains. If you don’t stay in the present moment, you may just miss all of the wonderful things about winter in the mountain forest.

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Icy Cliffs and a Frozen Lake

Echo Lake and Chicago Lakes Trail near Mt. Evans
January 18, 2010

Chicago Lakes trailThe Chicago Lakes trail, which starts at Echo Lake near Mt. Evans can be pretty thrilling this time of year. There’s a stretch of trail that’s maybe a couple of feet wide above a very steep and sometimes sheer dropoff, and right now it’s covered in snowpack and ice. Unless you’re wearing YakTrax and have a lot of confidence around heights, you might be challenging your senses. At the start of the trail, Echo Lake is frozen solid and even though there’s a sign posted to keep off the lake, several groups and individuals decided to ignore that sign and ice skate, walk around and even do a little ice fishing (complete with a motorized ice screw).

Frozen Echo Lake

What felt unusual this time of year along the Continental Divide was the sheer stillness in the air. It was balmy in Denver (mid 50s) and well above freezing up around 9,000 feet at Echo Lake. Normally when the weather is this warm in January you expect strong, gusty winds in the mountains as the air downslopes toward the plains. Not on this day. There was barely a breeze. It was blissfully quiet.

Earlier that morning, back in Westminster, I had gone on a short jog around my neighborhood and was accosted by the smell of exhaust and the rumbling engines from cars with impatient and caffeinated drivers on their way to work on a Monday that was a holiday for some. In comparison, being on this trail in the woods with just the sound of an agitated squirrel and maybe the caw-caw-caw of a crow was like a long, heartfelt sigh.

Once we stepped out from the trees and onto the ledge of the rocky slope overlooking the valley below and north toward Berthod Pass, it felt more than just peaceful. It felt expansive. Again, this was a stark contrast to the claustrophobia of the suburbs, where my views are confined by houses and cars and the sound of non-stop traffic.

View from Chicago Lakes trail
View from the Chicago Lakes trail

My 12-year-old was intrigued by the nooks and crannies between giant boulders that had long ago tumbled off the mountain and settled on the slopes. You had to be careful to stay on the trail or risk wedging your leg in a narrow crevice between rocks, unseen due to a blanket of snow that covered everything. The trail is well-worn and snow-packed, evidence that even this time of year, Colorado’s residents can’t stay away from enjoying some solitude with nature. It’s a good time of year to hike up here. It’s a good way to test your focus and balance on the icy patches along the narrow trail before you descent into the valley. It’s a place to breathe the long, deep sigh of a body and mind letting go of the drone of a busy city.

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.