Learn the alchemy human beings know
the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given,
Welcome the difficulty as a familiar comrade.Rumi
Before there were Ur Sacks and canisters there were still hungry bears in the woods, and the only option available to hikers who wanted to keep their food safe at night was to hang it from a tree limb. For most of my hiking life I hung my food in this manner and never once had a bear or a rodent get into the sack at night while I slept nearby. I would like to say it was because of my great skill with the rock and the rope, but mostly I think I was just lucky. I will be the first to admit that I did not follow accepted recommendations. It is a nearly impossible task to suspend a food sack in such a manner that the rope is not anchored, and at high elevations it is hard to find trees with strong enough limbs that will support a sack of hiker food.
My friend Jan often hiked with me, and we came to think of the food hanging process as the evening’s entertainment, since something always went wrong, and the only way to look upon it without abject terror was to think of it as entertainment. I am not sure who was being entertained. I like to think there was a bear nearby, holding its furry belly in laughter as we tossed the rock over the branch, pulled the sack up, and anchored the other end of the rope by tying it to another tree.
Our clever friend Pam developed a pully system that eased the lifting of the sack as we pulled it upwards, but it seemed the rope always got off its track and then got stuck there, which complicated the process.
But the real entertainment came from the process of hefting the rock over the tree limb. Various things could go wrong and usually did. Aiming the rock just right was a task for a skilled track and field star or a baseball pitcher, but we had time on our side. With enough attempts we usually got it placed just right, far enough away from the trunk of the tree that a bear would not be able to reach out and grab it, but not so far that the end of the limb would fail to support the weight of it. Often the rock came loose, and we would be left holding the rope in our hands instead of watching it fly over the tree limb. On one occasion I tossed the rock, then watched it fly back in my direction, hitting me squarely on my forehead. It was the first night of a solo nine day trip, and the lump on my forehead stayed with me for the duration.
The most entertaining story of all came about one morning in the Pasayten Wilderness of the North Cascades, where I had successfully suspended the food sack the night before and went to retrieve it, usually a much simpler process than getting it up there. Typically all that was necessary was to untie the anchor line, and then let gravity work its magic, dropping the heavy sack on the ground by my feet. On this morning that did not happen. I gave the rope in my hands a little shake, hoping that would set it free, but again the food sack was motionless. It seemed to be holding firm. I had two days left to complete my trip, and hiking on without food was just not an option. I had to come up with another plan.
Perfectly placed next to the tree where my food sack held fast was a stump about six feet tall. I climbed onto the top of it and, holding the rope firmly with both hands, leapt into the air like Tarzan swinging from the trees, minus the yell. When I had reached the end of the arc the tree limb came crashing down, just as I had hoped, and I fell with it, somehow landing gracefully upright. I inspected the limb and found that the rope had somehow looped around a twig on the branch when I had tossed the rock the night before. It would never have been possible to just pull it down. I felt exhilarated. For a few seconds I had been a jungle creature flying through the trees.
I think about these feats from time to time, how many risks I took over the years. Somehow both arms and legs have remained intact, though I have a few scars here and there that tell their stories.
At seventy-two of course I am prone to reflection. Mostly my life has been rather ordinary. I went to college, got married, had two kids, and when my marriage ended I worked hard to support my family as a single mother. But there is this: I have sailed through the trees on the end of a rope.