The hulking peak rose up to my right and the large river canyon plummeted away to my left. The air was hazy; thick with smoke from nearby wildfires, choking our breath as we trekked down the double track path, down and down, towards the confluence where two trout rivers met, and the spot that marked our arrival to the land of the gods, where the realms outside those of men have been colliding for generations.
It was hot. It was only 9 am and already the sweat beaded down my spine, the sun penetrating through the thick haze that hung in the air and stamping my exposed skin. My mind was also hazy; trying to comprehend what the day before had meant in my life. The complex, inner-workings of the human mind; what that long walk, on an abandoned BC road, under the swirling stars and moon-illuminated trees had done to me. We spent the last day driving in a heat wave across the interior without air conditioning, or good music, or much to say. I had too much on my mind. Too much to contemplate; and one conversation that lingered above me like the haze that lingered in the sky.
The haze gave the surroundings a sort of surreal feeling; as though the mountains were etched in water color, painted on canvas, perhaps no more than an illusion of the mind. Maybe it was the haze; maybe it was my newfound appreciation of life, but the mountain on my right seemed bigger than I remembered, towering high above the basin, reaching for the gods in an inspiring showcase of our own insignificance. I always felt insignificant when I wandered into this valley; a place where no man could access save by his own two feet. A place more wild and rugged than anywhere I have ever seen, tucked away into a little corner of the rocky mountains, so close to everything; yet seemingly so far, once the labyrinth of logging roads and the long hike down carried you further and further away from the impurities of the human realm of existence. And into what ever realm of existence this was.
I could feel the bear. It’s presence permeated throughout the valley. It felt as though every time we rounded the next corner it would be there waiting for us. A guessing game. Perhaps a game of probability. But he was in here; somewhere in this wide expanse of pristine rocky mountain wilderness, foraging for berries, gracefully roaming the meadows of the colossal avalanche paths, created by the gods in another realm of existence; the realm of winter, and snow, and darkness.
I contemplated that for a moment; I supposed that maybe they were the same realm after all, all part of an intricate, perfectly crafted cycle of life. I thought about the cold water in the river below, and the months of silent snowfall that would sustain that pulsing rhythm of the river throughout the months of summer. Before the basin once again would recede into the shivering cold of winter, and the cycle would start anew. The bears would disappear into another winter of slumber, lost into the recesses of whatever happens in a bears mind in winter; the trout would move into the deep pools and waver motionless in suspended animation for long months, in some sort of surreal comatose state of nothingness; the flowers in the meadow would be suffocated by the heavy blanket of accumulated snow crystals, and shrivel into lame piles of frozen matter, in stark contrast to the beauty of their present state. With the sun rising and setting all the while, shining the same light onto the same peak that rose up to my right, throughout all the days of winter, until those days would begin to grow, and the snow would begin to recede, and the subdued canvas of life would emerge once again. The contrast of this reality was undeniable; perhaps it was not one realm of life after all. Maybe, it was two realms, in a constant, and ever lasting battle for reign on earth. I wondered which realm was winning.
As always when my mind wandered, I think I ended up being more perplexed then before. One might call it clarity; but the reality of being one searching for answers is infinitely more questions. Questions that we, as petty creatures on earth, have no hope of ever answering through our own corrupted logic. The mountain on my right took millions of years to form; what then could I possibly infer about the nature of things?
But I could still feel a bear, and that had not changed because I just contemplated which realm of existence we were entering. We were in his realm, and that much I knew for certain. So we began to yell. We let our human voices violate the expanses of the canyon with our yells, which served as our request of passage into this bears home. The mountains boomed right back to us, echoing our voices off the granite peaks and dispersing them across the canyon in a lower, more imposing composition of our request. The language of the mountains; making our foreign presence in this place known for all who lingered in its expanses.
We stopped on the edge of a cliff and stared down at the clear blue waters at the bottom of the shale canyon on which we were flanked. The canyon weaved and meandered into a higher mountain plateau to my left; the basin and flood plain where it joined its brethren was just visible down and away to my right. My feet dangled over the edge and into the abyss; I tumbled a rock over the edge and watched gravity take it course, as the rock bounced and plummeted towards the bottom for what felt like an eternity. That made me think back to a time when there was no canyon; a time, thousands of years ago, when my feet would have been dangling in the cold flowing waters of the stream that was now hundreds of feet below me. I thought about the thousands of generations of battles between the two realms I had at somepoint in the last 20 minutes accepted as the higher powers in this valley, at least for my own comprehension, and all the floods, and storms, and snowfalls that carved this wound out the left flank of the mountain to my right. I imagined the valley morphing and changing and placed myself in the center of geological time and watched it unfold. And then I thought about that rock tumbling down to the bottom and realized that I was a part of it; if even for a second, when I decided to displace a rock.
Then another thought entered the hazy ramblings of my current state. And that thought was of a Cutthroat trout darting out of the river that once ran right where my feet now dangled, thousands of years ago, slurping up a hatching Caddis fly who’s life now seemed almost as insignificant as my own.
And down below, the Cutthroat Trout were still there. And, as odd as it seemed, they were the only reason I was in this valley in the first place, admiring the big mountain to my right, and the canyon to my left, and letting my mind wander to places I didn’t know it could comprehend while breathing in the hazy air and sweating through my shirt in the mid-summer heat.
And that thought got me on my feet again, and making haste towards the wide flood plain where those trout were waiting for me and my caddis fly pattern. Where I would finally be able to stop thinking so damn much. Thinking too much about things that I could only really pretend I knew anything about. Thinking about the surreal memories from the night before that pestered my mind and had me searching for any excuse to think about anything else.
The trail got steeper and as we started to get closer the bottom more trees lined the trail, giving us some much needed reprieve from the sun. In the shade my cooling sweat on my shirt pressed coldly against my back and sent shivers down my spine. The haze was beginning to clear, the sky returning to the color of blue; like a veil being lifted by grace of the gods. Really, it was the winds shifting and driving out the invasive smoke. Whatever it was, the change was welcome. The anticipation of catching fish was building inside both of us. We traded fish stories, talked gear, and discussed the stretch of river we were about to fish. We made a wager; whoever caught the biggest fish would be treated to coffee and food on the way home. But really both of us were just trying to avoid the inevitability of what we had heard the night before. And it weighed on both of us as we made our final descent towards the river; words that carried more weight then all the stars that had seemed so miraculous as we stared up at them that night, and cried; for reasons that didn’t seem to make sense anymore.
Because that night, I realized, more than I ever had, how lucky we are to be able to experience life. Of what is encompassed in our journey as we experience it; the love, beauty, and sorrow of human life. And, at the same time, I realized that this experience is only important to us as individuals. Each and everyone of us will die; some sooner than seems fair, some longer than is necessary. But our lives don’t really matter. Not to the gods that exist in the realms of where I stood. Not in comparison to the stars of our universe, nor to the grandeur of the peaks that surrounded me. But the finite amount of time we have here is a gift that I saw clearly, as my friends spoke words to me that I never wanted or expected to here. Words that made me seriously contemplate death, and the bleakness of what it might entail, for the first time in my life. And as I continued to contemplate this darkness as we walked along an empty highway in BC, I saw life as I had never seen it before.
So as I walked down the trail towards the beautiful Wigwam River on that hazy July morning, where the Lodgepole joins it under the imposing Mount Broadwood, I contemplated life. My life, my friends life, the life of the bugs and the fish and the bears, of the flowers and the trees, and whatever other higher life there was that I couldn’t understand. All these thoughts that had been festering and morphing and growing since that night until I found myself in a place where I could actually make sense of it all.
And then we could hear the sound of the river rumbling in the distance. The sound of purity, and things that aren’t nearly as confusing as what happens inside of a human brain. Things that are dictated by the fundamentals of nature, and not by rationale, or any sort of reasoning. Things that happen because they have to, because the realm in which they exist dictate them to do so. The world in which we have so unceremoniously dismantled and corrupted in our own fruitless human pursuits. Just in the way we corrupt our own minds with substances, through stress, and work, and relationships; by thinking too much about things we can’t control.
We emerged from the trees and in front of us was a deep emerald pool, where the Lodgepole plunged into the depths of the Wigwam, with large shadows wavering gently in the bottom, just as they had for thousands of years. And then we saw him. Just as we both knew we would. On the other side of the River was the Grizzly who had kept our senses on high alert since we began on our journey, no more than 40 yards away. We froze, and admired the powerful creature. I felt a spike of danger rise in my gut, as the Grizzly turned and stared us right in the eyes, sizing us up, wondering what creatures such as us were doing in a place such as this. My senses sharpened and my heartbeat slowed. I wondered what the Grizzly thought of us; whether he contemplated our lives in the same way we contemplated his. Whether he considered charging us and taking our petty souls. Whether he knew how miraculous the world that surrounded him was, and how many other grizzlies had come before him to bring him here. I wondered if he could see in my eyes that I envied him, and the timeless wisdom he contained in his chest. And then he turned and darted away, sprinting up the mountainside with a powerful elegance that, for once in my life, left me without any more questions; only understanding.