Nature’s Mirror

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden


After a few days rest it felt great to be back on the trail. My pack was down to about thirty pounds, I had five days worth of food and the poles were making hiking up and down ice a lot easier. I took in some beautiful views and ran into a few day hikers on my first day back on the trail. I made it to the “priest” shelter by about 5 p.m. It’s called the “priest” because the climb is so steep to reach the summit of the ridge that you need to see a priest when you get to the top to count your blessings. It was close to four thousand feet up there so I set up my tent inside the shelter to stay out of the wind. I ate, then tucked my food away in the roof of the outhouse. I tried to get a fire going but it was too windy so I called it a night. I put on a few layers of clothes along with my balaclava and cocooned myself inside my sleeping bag.

I awoke, wondering, “What is that sound?” I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been sleeping. I heard something outside the shelter. I could hear an animal walking around the fire pit sniffing and making a huffing sound with its nose. “What is that? Is it a raccoon, a porcupine?” I was now paying close attention. Then it made the huffing sound again and then a snorting sound. “That sounds bigger than a raccoon or porcupine. It almost sounds like a pig or a boar.” I heard the animal come closer, huffing its way to the shelter. “Shit, that sounds more like a bear.” (I have encountered bears camping in Ontario and know the sound they make). Suddenly, I heard a loud ‘thunk’ as the animal stepped into the shelter. I could feel by the weight of this beast it was a big animal, bigger than a human. It walked over right beside my tent and I could hear it take a sniff toward me. My heart was now rising up into my throat. “You have to be kidding me. This isn’t how I go, is it? Should I make noise and try and scare it away? No, it knows I’m here. It’s not scared of me. Stay calm,” I advised myself. Now I was hyper-alert. My heart was beating so loud the animal must have heard it. I reached for my knife in the bottom of my tent just in case I had to wrestle with the animal. The animal began to go through my backpack, pushing it around in the shelter. Thankfully I had no food, toothpaste, or anything scented in there; anything attractive to animals was in the outhouse. Within a few minutes, which seemed like years, the animal got bored and stepped out of the shelter. We never saw each other eye to eye. I still don’t know if it was a bear. Whatever it was it wasn’t afraid of my presence. I slept with one eye open the rest of the night.

The daylight brought me deep relief from my late night wildlife encounter. “This may not be the last time,” I thought to myself. There was also a gift in this. This encounter vitalized me to my core, to the immediacy of now, and woke me up to the fact of my tenuous existence. I didn’t know it was possible to feel as alive as I did while the animal was breathing next to me. Nature is a humbling mirror when we dare to get really intimate with it. It strips us naked of all our means of psychological and structural separateness. It cuts through our false sense of superiority, immortality and confronts us with the facts of life: we are going die and we don’t know when it’s going to happen. In our essential physicality, we are as perishable as any wild animal. This moment, is all that there is.

Excerpted from Walk of Life: A pilgrimage in search of roots, healing and inner truth by William Timothy Walker