Wednesday, March 5, 2008

HIKING AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT


From 1998-2004, I spent my summers guiding hiking trips in the Columbia Mountains of Canada. Those mountains are incredible and it is there where I've had some of the most memorable times of my life. Most memorable of all were the people I met and their inspirational stories.

In 2001, I had a guest whose determination and eternal optimism left an impression on me that I'll never forget. The following is from my journal entry from July of that year.

“We were hiking on a ridge in Canada’s Columbia Mountains called Vertigo. It is a very special place. It is not one of our regular hikes. In fact, only a handful of people in the world had ever been there before. To even consider hiking Vertigo, an absolutely perfect day is in order. It is an exposed, relatively narrow ridge with an intimidating drop on either side.



On that day we were privileged. There were perfect blue skies and only a modest wind. I had been to Vertigo once before (a year earlier) and was quickly reminded why this place was so special: the view is superb - an endless sea of snowcapped peaks.





I was leading my group along the ridge towards the main peak. The peak is somewhat narrow and steep. It is not dangerous but for someone who has little experience in the mountains this hike can really test their courage. When I looked up I noticed another small group making their way down the peak. In that group was a man who I had taken a special interest in during the week. His name was Fred and he was tall, thin, muscular, and probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s (I never asked). He was a former athlete going through the initial stages of multiple sclerosis. As he hiked alongside his wife, I could see his diagnostic limp. He was walking towards me.

During the week, I never gave him special attention or treated him differently from any of my other guests. However, I thought about him a lot. I wondered what went through his mind the weeks, days, and nights before our hiking trip. Was he scared, excited, nervous, afraid of failing, and/or ready for his personal challenge? I did know one thing for certain – I could see that he was coming to terms with the fact that he was losing control of his body. One of his legs was not working very well. At times, I would watch him literally grab his pant leg and pick his leg up to make it go over an obstacle. At times, he stumbled and lost his balance, but he never (not even once) became frustrated. In fact, few people were enjoying themselves more! How could someone who was faced with such a difficult challenge be so enthusiastic? I did not realize it at the time, but he already gave me the answer.

As we walked past each other I smiled at him and said proudly, “Fred you went up there?” He came over to me, grabbed my arm until I stopped walking, and made sure that he had my attention. I could see his eyes well-up. He pointed back to that peak he just ascended and said, “that is the closest I’m ever going to get to Mt. Everest. Those are my Hillary Steps.” He was overcome with emotion.

He showed me that no matter how difficult a challenge one faces (whether it is a small hill on the top of a mountain or facing something as serious as multiple sclerosis) any experience (good or bad) is what you make of it because we cannot control certain things that happen to us.

I have heard similar clich├ęs in the past, but it was this mans reality and now it was my personal experience – it was truly inspirational. He embraced all the positive aspects from his experience when it could have been so easy to become frustrated or to feel sorry for himself.

The rare opportunity to hike Vertigo and the grand scale of all those surrounding mountains were eclipsed by one man’s courage, determination, and sense of adventure. He showed me something that was greater than the mountains, the scenery, and all of nature – his human spirit! He took that beautiful scene and made it better; by giving it emotion, he brought it to life.



He is not the only one. Every time I lead a group into the mountains there are certain individuals who achieve a personal goal and/or overcome a challenge. I frequently see spirits rekindled and a new enthusiasm for life. I used to think that the mountains created this spirit, but now I know that they serve only as a catalyst – the human spirit has been there all along.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

THE MIGRATION IS ON...


If the natural world excites you then take a moment to pull out a map. Find East Africa; find Tanzania; find Serengeti National Park. Now point to the central plains and be impressed that right there at this very moment approximately 1½ million wildebeest accompanied by 250,000 zebra are passing through the area. Our planet’s greatest animal migration is on.

A couple weeks ago, in the Seronera Valley, we saw an endless line of determined wildebeest trotting south. Wildebeest make a deep nasally “hhhuuummm” call. Sort of like an oversized bullfrog. Amplify that 1,000 times over, throw in the incessant thumping of hooves on hardpan, and imagine a cloud of dust flying in all directions. Only then can you begin to appreciate this incredible event.
Observing the migration makes two things obvious: 1) wildebeest are by far the most numerous large animal in the Serengeti; and 2) an individual wildebeest is unspectacular. Looking at a wildebeest begs the question, “how can something so ungainly be so abundant?” After all, wildebeest do not have the speed of gazelle, the size or intelligence of elephants, the aggressiveness of Cape buffalo, the athleticism of impala, or the power of zebra. So, why are they so successful?

The answer, in part, has to do with their reproductive behavior. Right now, nearly every adult female is pregnant. Most will give birth during a three-week window in February when an average of 8,000 calves will be born everyday. Sure, marauding lions, hyenas, cheetahs, hunting dogs, and leopards take a few thousand but that leaves many more thousands unharmed. They simply overwhelm the predator population! Throw in the fact that newborn calves stand within four minutes and can run with the herd within a day and we can begin to understand why wildebeest are so successful.

A calf’s biggest danger is being separated from its mother as the heaving masses move towards greener grass. Because no calf will receive milk from another mother, separation spells certain doom. Calves, for their part, do not like to be alone. Their instinct to follow something is so strong that one lonely calf ran along side our safari vehicle as we drove by. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen lions feeding on a female wildebeest lying next to her dead calf. Presumably, the mother was ambushed, and with no other options, the calf hung around until it met the same fate.

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest consume about 4000 tons of grass each day so they are in constant motion – always searching for new grass. This creates problems when the rains quite in June. The soils dry, the grasses brown, and the herds need to move north into Kenya’s Masai Mara. Along the way, they are forced to cross the Grumeti River where 16-foot crocs patiently wait for their annual feeding.

However, those are troubled times. It is raining now and there are endless fields of green nutritious grass. Adults and juveniles alike are sometimes seen “dancing.” They spin in circles, jump foolishly into the air, and kick their legs up high in what appears to be a “celebration dance.” It is this behavior that earned them the nickname “clowns of the Serengeti.”

This year, I was able to observe a part of the world’s most incredible animal migration. Observing this has shown me that wildebeest overcome horrific challenges and enjoy many successes. Because of this, I have developed a deep appreciation for them. But more profoundly, I take comfort in knowing that their 2,000-mile trek takes them across well-preserved and healthy ecosystems. I take comfort in knowing that this year wildebeest are doing what they have done for millions of years and today, like then, their fate is largely their own. Their annual “dance” ought to be celebrated by all who appreciate nature.