The Good Life – Of Caution and Experience

When in need of healing, some people meditate, practice tai chi, or sit alone in a quiet church. I have always gravitated to the outdoors. If I can reach a body of water–ocean, lake, or river–so much the better. If not, a few hours walking alone in the woods will recharge my spiritual batteries, and help wash away the human cares and insecurities that inevitably plague us all.

Because of the magnetic attraction that exists between my spirit and the natural world, I have spent pretty large chunks of my life walking and camping in the wilderness, either alone or with my family and friends. One of the most wonderful benefits of these experiences has been the many, many encounters I have had with various forms of wildlife. I have kayaked beside dolphins and seen humpback whales breaking water off the coast of northern B.C. I have seen eagles and hawks soaring overhead whilst lying on my back gazing up into the sky. I have had encounters with deer, moose, elk and wolves, and bears, both black and grizzly.

Of these, the only ones that have truly left me feeling frightened are the bears. Over the years, I have heard numerous stories from fellow backpackers about nerve-shattering experiences with these magnificent and powerful creatures. And, of course, there are always the horror stories of fatal mutilations and near-death encounters that have become part of our collective understanding of the natural world.

My own encounters with bears wandering down creek beds in Alaska and on forest trails in the Monashees have been at a more or less comfortable distance, and not very traumatic. Still, I have a pretty healthy respect for their power and unpredictability; I would not for the world ever go out of my way to get anywhere close to one.

This wasn’t always the case. I remember when I was a girl; I would listen with rapt attention to the stories of family friends who had been lucky enough to see bears in the wild. It was my fondest dream, at that time, to one day live by myself in a cabin in the woods and watch grizzly bears playing outside my window. I would dream of sharing my food with them, and perhaps even going for a wild bareback ride across a mountainside, hanging onto the fur on a bear’s neck.

One day not long ago, I was sharing a story of a backpacking adventure with a friend’s seven-year-old niece. A true animal lover, she was mesmerized by stories of the wildlife I had seen, and was particularly fascinated by details of my encounters with bears. She told me that one day she would become a famous zoologist, and would spend her life in the woods, studying them. They would be her only friends and companions. She would feed them bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

What really got to me was the look of sheer wonder in her eyes when she told me about this wonderful dream. It reminded me of the wonder I always had as a girl toward the wilderness. It was this sense of wonder, the desire to have adventures of my own, that first propelled me outdoors. Later, of course, this fanciful view of the world was tempered by experience and common sense. Without that initial sense of wonder, though, I would have missed out on so much.

I think there is a broader lesson in this. It is a lesson that I try to keep in mind for myself. Although wisdom and caution are vital to our safety and survival, they are only a part of the necessary ingredients for a well-lived life. They are the yin, if you like. The yang–the desire to step outside and leap into the magic of the world–that most of us have when we are children must always be respected, and be allowed to thrive within us.