#YEG: Beyond the Road’s Edge

Reflections on winter hiking.

Photography Jonathan Havelock

I recall what he was wearing – a turtleneck sweater, John Lennon glasses, and a beret.  He had been standing in my booth for some time, checking out my work, and then approached.

“You are proof man can partner with God.”  He smiled and left.

While I believe in the big guy upstairs, mainly because I don’t agree the “big bang” just happened (didn’t someone have to light the fuse?), I am not a deeply religious man. Nor am I so arrogant or talented to regard the beret’s comment as nothing more than a very kind, though over-the-top, compliment.

But it stuck with me, and on occasion when out hiking, it serves as a reminder I am simply borrowing from God’s roll of film. Not that the borrowing is always easy. There have been lots of obstacles along the way, some self-created, which somehow haven’t finished me off.

I am not a big fan of winter – beer commercials extolling its virtues do not encourage me to layer up and venture forth to where I can see my breath. Not that I haven’t tried. A January camping trip in my teen years resulted in our axe being lost in the lake, a squirrel eating all my Peek Frean shortbreads (he created a perfect tunnel from end-to-end), a pair of gloves melting to a Freddy Krueger shape on the campground stove and my buddy burning off his eyelashes with the tent heater. This led me to ask, do I really need this? Amundsen and Scott may have, but I didn’t.

So, I restrict my “winter” hiking to late fall – to catch some snow with the yellows, reds and browns of the season. But some snow rarely happens in the mountains.

There is nothing like hopping from ice-covered boulder to boulder to slow you down. An impromptu snow blizzard leaving you just shy of your goal. Or a frozen goat path so narrow and slick forcing you to retreat, without room to turn around, by jamming your poles into the ice and slowly pushing back the way you came.

It takes a certain single-mindedness and focus (or stupidity) to ignore warnings to give up. You get over your fear of heights. You dismiss avalanche warnings as relating to only one side of the sign, or shrug off sliding back two feet for every three advanced. And you believe the lodge owner who says, after the first snowfall, “it shouldn’t be too bad up there” and leave your snow gear in the room.

That’s because you want to see a dry creek bed filling with an afternoon melt. And strut your estrogen and keep pace with your gazelle-like buddy (for the first 100 yards), who effortlessly bounces over rocks and roots on a 40-degree slope to get to a small mountain lake with its golden larch.  Or watch the sky open and sun light up the mountainside.

And there is nothing like sharing those experiences with my two “spouses,” wife Neris and brother Darren (collectively “Nerren”). They are the most unlikely of hikers.

Darren expects and plans for the worst, carrying no less than five cowbells (a dinner alert for savvy bears), a horn and bear spray. He is a mobile percussion and wind section, singlehandedly destroying the peace and solitude for miles, driving everything – including his companions – from his path.

Neris is the opposite, somewhat naively always searching for a bear encounter. Having never camped, and to “spice” it up for her, we roughed it on our last trip to Waterton – the microwave was outside, beside the barbecues – and we slept with the motel windows open.

Still, at the end of the day, it’s not so much that you made it, with or without companions. Rather, you have some great shots – you scraped off some of the daily grime – and you are alive in every sense. Though as I looked over from the goat path down to the rocks and creek 50 feet below, “alive” wasn’t the predominant emotion.

Thankfully, not all winter trips need be quite so dramatic. I have ventured a mere 40 yards from my home and captured a  pine tree, laden with snow and partially illuminated by an afternoon blast of light. Or poplars further down the path, waiting and still, like sentinels.

Even though it’s close, you still experience something akin to “partnering with God.”  That’s why I hike, either alone or with Nerren, over the mountain, or down the street.

Jonathan Havelock is the former attorney general and minister of justice for the province of Alberta. He owns an eponymous photography gallery in Oliver.

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