The Humbled Hiker

‘It was harder than I remembered.’ So reads my diary entry for May 14, 2021, describing a steep climb up to a ridge. I was reviewing my hiking notes in preparation for setting off, once again, to tramp up and down the hills behind my house: the highland part of Highland Holler. As I wrote in my very first blog, Bared Trees and Barred Owls, I enjoy exploring the highlands in November. The lack of foliage makes for more open views, so it’s easier to orient myself relative to ocean, hills and valleys as I bushwhack around the forest. Plus it’s just so tempting to see what’s atop that ridge, beyond that bend, or down that gully.

These forest forays are exciting, exhausting and sometimes a bit unnerving. I love the anticipation, the immersion in the forest, the delight of discovery, the serendipity of stumbling across one forest treasure while searching for another. I typically return home tired and relieved but exhilarated.

But earlier this month I went on an exploratory hike that left me steeped in frustration. I’d set out in hopes of finding an alternate route into a neighbouring valley. I’d not only failed to do that, I’d had to backtrack three (three!) times. Worse, I’d had to backtrack twice where I thought I was on familiar ground. I felt both humbled and disappointed with myself. Argh! How had this happened?

That short note in my diary tells the tale: ‘It was harder than I remembered.’ It is always harder than I remember. Whenever I revisit the special places I’ve discovered or retrace routes I’ve found, the walks are invariably longer, steeper, bushier, boggier, more confusing than I expected. The footing is trickier and the route more difficult to navigate. And did I mention bushier? Oh yes, it’s always bushier than I remember.

Memory is a funny thing. It is not a record, like a videotape or even my diary. It is a story we create. We edit, filter, revise. We forget. We embellish. We mould and shape until – voila! A memory. My diary entry reveals that my memories lean toward the sunny side of life. I tend to filter out the negative and retain the positive.

So I remember wandering in an old-growth stand of hemlock but forget pushing through straggles of spruce to get there. I remember the wide-open birch forest atop a ridge but forget how the hummocky ground makes for awkward footing. And when I set out on that hike last May, I remembered finding the babbling brook that led me all the way up to a ridge and an old survey post. But I’d forgotten about the steep slopes, the long boggy section, the bushy bits (of course) and how confusing it was near the top when the brook vanished underground. My rosy memories ran up against a wall when confronted with reality.

I have often wondered if optimism and pessimism have more to do with the past than the future. That is, those of us who tend to view the past through rose-coloured glasses also tend to imagine a rosier future. Realists manage to see both past and future through clear lenses. And those who tend to filter out the good bits from their past and hang onto the bad may be more likely to see the days ahead through gloomy grey-tinted spectacles.

Rose-tinted specs make for pleasant memories but there is a downside. I considered my hike a ‘failure’ that day in early November because I had, temporarily at least, set aside memories of all my previous hiking ‘failures’. What happened that day was not an anomaly – a rare instance of failing to get to my objective or having to retrace my steps. It was, in fact, the norm.

Sitting there in my funk that November day I was forgetting how many tries it took before I finally found a detour over the ridge I described in Bared Trees and Barred Owls. Or how long it took me to find an old grown-in shortcut, only to lose it again and have to find it anew. I was forgetting the number of times I searched for that old survey post before I found it at last, hidden behind new stands of spruce.

Such experiences are humbling but in a good way. They are not failures but rather part of the process, of learning the lay of the land. No topographic map or aerial image can convey the rich density of the forest, the complexity of the geography, the myriad hidden waterways. That has to be discovered on the ground, step by step, walk by walk.

So a funny thing happened twelve days after my humbling hike. It was a rare dry day after a series of rainy days. I headed upslope into the same area, hoping to flag more of an old ridge-top survey line. My son and daughter-in-law had been here for a visit and we’d managed to find part of the old blaze trail that had become obscured by young upstart growth and ancient fallen giants. We’d gotten as far as the base of a short, steep slope and I was keen to see if I could find the next blaze mark and extend the line.

Nature doesn’t do straight lines but surveyors do. I had to scramble up that slope using all fours, but was rewarded by finding two more blazes up top. I peered around, looking for the next blaze mark. The area looked oddly familiar. Could it be?

Then I spotted some orange flagging tape. Twelve days earlier I had climbed up to this very spot, unaware that I’d reached the old survey line. That afternoon I’d turned back, taking down my flagging tape as I retraced my steps. My attempt at route-finding had failed, so why would I ever be back? By luck, I’d missed a single bit of flagging tape.

Ah, sweet serendipity! On that earlier hike I was looking for a route into the next valley and instead stumbled upon the blaze line. Twelve days later I was looking for a blaze mark and instead spotted an overlooked piece of flagging tape. Twice I’d arrived at this same spot, high up on a forest ridge at 2 pm on a short November day. Once again I resisted the temptation to keep exploring and turned back for the long walk home. But this time I was more cheered than disappointed. Instead of slip-sliding my way back down that steep slope I could retrace my earlier, easier descent. It had only been twelve days and for once my memory served me well. Even without the flagging tape I was able to find my way down the slope, then over and across into a familiar creek valley.

I arrived home, exhausted and relieved as usual. I hadn’t gotten any further than my earlier hike, but far from being frustrated I was totally chuffed. Thanks to my ‘failure’ I now have an alternate route up to the old blaze line. I’m eager to get back up there and continue my explorations, but even this rosy-spectacled gal suspects that I may have to wait until next spring.

Sue McKay Miller
November 30th, 2021

p.s. That last hike was on Sunday, November 21st. Starting the next night Cape Breton was inundated with a deluge of rain. I measured 191 mm at the Holler but some areas north of here received almost 300 mm. Bridges and roads were washed away, stranding some people on the far side. The Cabot Trail, the only road in these parts, is ruptured in several places, separating nearby communities. The damage is terrible.

L’il Pond rose so high it flooded into a nearby low-lying area, and many trees are still standing in water. All the local brooks, rivers and waterfalls filled to overflowing. But I was lucky and stayed high and dry. My thoughts are with all of those dealing with the consequences of catastrophic rains here in Cape Breton and out west in BC.