Weary eyed, but willed by the power possessed within ‘Bear’s Paw’ coffee, the plan is set. The group shall bushwhack up ‘Excelsior Creek’ until the undoubtedly overladen packs get the better of those unconditioned first day legs. Next day, emerging blurry eyed from the dew soaked nylon domes, an ascent of the col south of ‘Centre Mountain’ will pursue, this will allow for an easy transfer on to the ‘Skyline Trail’. The ‘Skyline Trail’ is a classic in itself, but in this case its sole purpose will be to enable the group to head west towards ‘Watchtower Basin’. It has to be said that the ridge walk off the ‘Skyline Trail’ into the basin does look a little tricky according to the 1:50,000, but hey, if it doesn’t go just descend ‘The Notch’ to ‘Curator Lake’ and from there pop over a gentle col and voilà. Either way the hope is to set up camp at the top of the basin and hike out the next day. But alas the night is young, the coffee’s effect is waning and I’m going to need a refill before I go through the motions again; planning and preparation, client care, risk management, navigation, terrain assessment, weather, emergency response and communication.
Three days later and cheerfully back in the ‘Bear’s Paw Bakery’ with coffee and scone in hand I muse on the now past trip – the group was an enjoyable bunch, the stories many, and there was craic to be had. Sure isn’t this why I wanted to become a guide in the first place – so I can be in the outdoors? However, there is something missing, an unquenchable thirst, a hunger that isn’t satisfied. Yes the technically based courses and exams I have taken ensure that I can safely and comfortable bring people into wilderness environments. However, there is a disequilibrium, such a strong focus on the technical led to a miniscule focus on the naturalistic.
So it should come as no surprise that even after a full summer spent in the Rockies my naturalistic skills leave much to be desired. Sure at the time I knew a couple of plant tidbits, but mostly just the names. When I saw a plant I knew such as lodgepole pine, I would simply name it and briskly move on, eliciting little passion for someone who prides themselves on their very love for that environment. Today I can barely remember those plant names from summer past, and this solemn fact encapsulates in its entirety my relationship to date with plants – learn-forget-learn-forget. This is a crying shame as when I think of why I want to be a guide today, it is less about my earlier selfish aspirations of an outdoor oriented lifestyle as it is because I want to share my love of nature and wilderness with like-minded people. It is with this realization that it became clear to me that I have to offer people more that just safety, navigation, comfort and a few tidbits of information. I want to offer them a highly meaningful and memorable experience in which they feel more connected to themselves and the natural world. So the question becomes how do I myself rearrange my attitudes from a technical oriented one, to one where I can better connect to the natural world and myself.
This is where my relationship to the lodgepole pine begins, I see the lodgepole being a symbol of a more meaningful relationship with plants in general. I recognize now that only memorizing the name, Pinus contorta var. latifolia to regurgitate it to clients is congruent with an I-It view of plants (Knapp, 2005). Rather, I long for an I-thou relationship, a mutual one bolstered by; wondering and questioning, knowing local history, observing seasonal change, listening intently, counting and measuring, empathizing and personifying, connecting in cycles, finding beauty and seeking solitude for reflection (Knapp, 2005). By wondering and questioning, I wonder why after having read that lodgepole pine is indeed a characteristic montane tree, I never saw it in the Athabasca valley? The question may be as Ben Gadd suggests – due to the chinook winds (Gadd, 2009). By knowing local history, I imagine how easy it must have been to travel through those less dense lodgepole forests 200 years ago before fire suppression blanketed the parks with unnaturally old and dense lodgepole forests (Cannings, 2005). By observing, I think back to my sighting of June 25 in Jasper, it was exactly as Gadd described, lodgepole pollen clouds drifting through the mountains (Gadd, 2009). By counting and measuring I think to myself, how many if any of the lodgepole stumps I’ve obliviously walked around had 113 growth ring or more? Did these old trees bare witness to the first Swiss guide employed by CPR in 1899? (Scott, 2000). Upon seeing pictures of the blue-gray appearance to the sapwood, I empathize and personify with the plant, how would I like someone eating out my insides. (Gadd, 2009). By connecting lodgepole pine in cycles I begin to understand the dynamic environment of lodgepole pine forests; growing quickly after fire into dense dog-hair forests, thinning after time and eventually succumbing to disease to be replaced by patient spruce and Douglas-fir, who themselves will fall to fire, to which the cones of the lodgepole will once again take advantage – cycle complete (Gadd, 2009). It’s not hard to find beauty in the lodgepole, the gracefully tapering trunk mesmerize me.
Weary eyed, sipping a ‘Bear’s Paw’ coffee, the plan is set. This summer though I’m at the Bow River, but I go through the same motions again, for safety and comfort are important, if the clients are not safe and comfortable its doubtful they will have any type of meaningful experience. But this time the trip takes a very different tone. Beginning at 1400 m, I make a point of drawing attention to how the lodgpople pine, a characteristic montane tree is very much unlike other local pines, in that it will retain its cones instead of letting them fall on the ground, in fact I mention “some of the older trees may have kept their cones for many years, never to open.” A client may ask, “well what the heck are they waiting for,” I tell him that they are waiting for an intense heat to open them, i.e. a fire. I mention how this cone form is called serotinous and that it is common at the montane level where stand-replacing fires are common occurring every 5 to 25 years. A couple of hours pass as we make our way higher, eventually reaching the subalpine ecoregion at 1600m. Here I mention that rather then waiting for an environmental trigger like fire, lodgepole cones will open when the seeds are mature. This is because fires are less common at this elevation only occurring every 80 to 150 years and that the cones have better chance of landing in sunlit ground then they did in the montane (Cannings, 2005. & Interpretive Guides Association). “Huh” the client utters, “and here I thought all along that a tree was just another dumb tree.”
Association, I. G. Hanbook For Interpretive Guides. Banff : Interpretive Guides Association.
Cannings, R. (2005). The Rockies: a natural history. Vancouver: Greystone.
Gadd, B. (2009). Handbook of the Canadian Rockies. Jasper, Alberta: Corax Press.
Knapp, C. (2005). The “I-Thou” Relationship, Place-Based Education, and Aldo Leopold. Journal of Experiential Education , 27 (3), 277-285.
Scott, C. (2000). Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering . Calgary: Rocky Mountain Books.