When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.Mary Oliver
Many years ago for my annual trek in the wilderness I chose a route that was quite different from the backpacking trips I usually took. For several years I had done these yearly trips in the Pasayten Wilderness of the North Cascades, one of the largest roadless areas in the nation so that year after year I was able to explore new trails. I would sit down at home with a map, identify an area I had not yet explored, and then plot a course, aiming to cover about a hundred miles, thereby averaging ten to fifteen miles a day, depending upon how much time I had. On these wanderings I would often come to an area that beckoned to me for further exploration, but there was never time if I was going to complete my planned route in the time I had left. Finally I decided to change things up and spend a week camping on the slopes of Sheep Mountain, where there would be plenty of opportunities to explore off trail. I planned extra time for this trip, a total of fourteen days alone in the wilderness, which made for a very heavy pack, but fortunately I would not be carrying it everyday but instead would be day hiking from a base camp.
It started raining on the first day, only about three miles from the trailhead. I made my way to the Ashnola River, where I pitched my tent next to the old shelter and shared the site with a trail crew, which was building a new bridge over the river. Their cook had prepared a big batch of corn bread, which baked slowly in a Dutch oven over the fire, along with a hearty pot of beans, a feast they shared with me and was greatly appreciated after a long day of hiking in the rain.
From there the next day I made the steep ascent via switchbacks to the slopes of Sheep Mountain, now a part of the Pacific Northwest Trail, but in the 1980’s it was a relatively isolated route, just the kind of place for a solitary hiker to camp and hang out for several days. The rain did not let up, so I sought out a well sheltered spot in which to pitch my little one-person tent. There under the spreading boughs of a subalpine fir I spent the next three days doing not much at all but waiting for the rain to stop. I drank tea and read a Michener novel as well as The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher. If you are wondering why I would carry two paperbacks with me on such a trip, let me remind you that there were no cell phones nor e-books in those days, and if you have ever spent three days alone in a tent waiting out a rain storm, you will know why those books were worth their weight.
On the third day I awoke to a light covering of snow on the ground. I debated about packing up and heading back down to the river, but I had the perfect sheltered campsite and hiking in the snow held no particular appeal. I still had another week left. Anything could happen. The clouds could part, and the sun could come out. They did.
That afternoon under sunny skies I moved my camp about three miles east to Lone Wolf Creek near Crow Lake. It was one of the nicest campsites where I have ever lingered and remains in my memory as a place where I recovered from the storm in warmth and comfort. Someone had fashioned a rustic rocking chair held together with rope in which I sat and admired the view of the northern Pasayten. A hollow log had been placed in the stream, forming a perfect spout from which I filled my water bottles. In the evening a lone coyote circled my camp, singing its beautiful song from all directions.
The next day I arose and packed up my little day pack with lunch and rain gear and set out to make a long traverse of Sand Ridge, which formed the divide between the drainage where I made camp and the southern slopes that led southwest towards the Pasayten River. I retraced my route of the previous day, back to Peeve Pass on the south slope of Sheep Mountain, and from there left the trail for some high elevation exploration of the ridge, which would lead me eventually to Corral Pass and a return to camp. The route was up and down on the ridge top, rugged but not steep, and I loved the feeling of being poised between two worlds.
I reached the summit of the ridge, at that point probably less than a half mile from Corral Pass to complete the loop, when it dropped precipitously to a ledge about two meters below where I stood. There on the jagged rocks below me was the nest of a golden eagle with two downy chicks in its midst, their beaks pointed upward, chattering to one another, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I immediately looked up to see whether Mama Eagle was on her way back home any time soon. Not seeing any sign of her, I dropped to my belly, hung my head over the edge, and watched the eagle chicks. My heart was racing. I was only a few feet away from them. They were beige in color, unlike the photograph above, and about the size of small hens.
I do not know how long I stayed there above the chicks looking down at them. It might have been five minutes. It might have been all day. I eventually turned around and retraced my steps, not wanting to plunge into the center of the nest to make my descent. I thought about Prometheus, tied to a stake by Zeus for punishment, there to have an eagle peck at his heart each day, or his liver, whichever version you prefer. I wanted both my heart and my liver to remain intact, so I left that place of wonder.
I think of this moment in my life, many years later as I ponder what lies ahead for this old woman. I remember this line from a poem by Mary Oliver: Tell Me What Is It You Plan To Do With Your One Wild And Precious Life? Here is the answer: I want to watch the eagle chicks from above. I want to listen to the coyote as it circles my camp and sings. I want to savor the warm corn bread after it has baked all day over the fire. And yes, I want to lie in my tent listening to the soft rain falling.