There is no question that I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve grown older, both in the woods and generally. Speaking to the former, I like to think that increased wisdom accounts for most. I’m better able to realize the full consequences of the more reckless things I’ve done, as well as visualize the long term impacts. An example of the later would be mountain biking. I will never ride technical terrain again like I did in 2008. Even if we move to Utah, Arizona, or another place likely to bring my skill level back up to where it once was, I’ve had too many concussions in my life, and would strongly prefer to not have another. Yes skill and mindset mitigates the risk inherent in riding stuff like National, but age has and will no doubt continue to slow my mind enough without the added speed from lawn darting myself into hard dirt. An example of the former is boating. I’ve packrafted enough creeks in the last three years to realize that much of my first year success, on runs like Upper Rattlesnake, had a lot to do with luck. Steep and technical creeks are risky, and while that risk can be mitigated, I’m realizing ever more clearly that the laborious and exacting process of doing so is no longer a priority.
I prefer to move through the woods differently.
Pinchot Creek, scouting from an elk trail.
There is a point in human explorations beyond which objectives become rather contrived, with the focus on seeking out difficulty within the landscape rather than traveling through it on its own terms. Whitewater, steep skiing, climbing, canyoneering and indeed most anything involving ropes qualifies here. There is virtue in these things, but taken too far their focus becomes myopic. And while the added hazard is not as straightforward as most think, such activities do carry more risk. As my understanding of how the world fits together, and of my own mortality, increases I find myself drawn to quieter explorations undertaken on the lands’ own terms. As Evan Hill of Hill People Gear said in a recent discussion (about risk): “For me, the ideal is roaming the backcountry, mostly off trail, and being a natural part of the landscape. Sometimes high, sometimes low, mostly where the other animals are, sometimes a place that just looks intriguing. The risk of injuring myself and the difficulty of extraction add to the commitment I make to being a part of that natural landscape and living by its rules. My belief is that our life in civilization is a subset of that larger world, always subject to its rules – though we sometimes forget that reality when we are resting in the collective insurance policy of close proximity to others. I go out to remind myself, to strengthen my connection to that larger reality, and to cultivate the intuitive faculties that are dulled by life in the hive.”
I’ve come to think of this ideal as traveling as the elk go. Elk are reasonable, dignified creatures whose habits match well with human capabilities. Bears and Moose are prone to impulsive, early and late season slogs over high and snowy passes. They pick good routes, but not easy ones. Deer avoid the high country. Following deer trails almost always lacks purpose. The abilities of sheep and goats (especially) strain or exceed those of the most trained humans. Wise people follow sheep and goats trails cautiously. Elk trails are simply the best; they take wise and purposive ways through major landscape features. You’ll learn faster and better following elk trails than those of any other animal.
This past Saturday, I packed a large load of whitewater gear ten miles back to fill another blank on the map for my packrafting guidebook. Projects can be a burden, but their structures gets you into places for which ease and prudence would never provide the impetus. On Saturday I first found myself carrying around beaver dams and log piles, then miles downstream gravel bar hopping and portaging the most continuous boulder garden rapids I’ve seen in Glacier. The steep, ~mile stretch I skipped had marvelous elk trails leading across the gravel bars and through the woods from one moderate ford to another. The elk travel the river corridor much as a timid boater (me) does; floating the moderate sections and skipping the woody and hard stuff. We found a similarly elegant and intricate route last August, weaving though some of the more rugged mid-elevation terrain in the park.
There is value to be gained from exceeding the mandate of the elk, namely that under duress your execution will default to a middling level in all things, and the only preemptive solution is to expand your upper threshold. The best way to move fast and safely down fourth class in a downpour is to be comfortable running it out on 5.9, and the best way to safely paddle harder stuff is to practice. To that end, I sucked it up and ran the burly last miles of the canyon, including one drop where I did exactly what I was worried about. The current slammed me into the wall, with the shale thankfully not cutting my boat. I reverted to slightly above my safe level of training and leaned into the wall, kept the water from flipping me, didn’t drop my paddle, and shoved off with one hand for an ugly if upright run.
Everything in moderation, including moderation, but when in doubt go as the elk go.
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