We are now in what is known as ‘shoulder season’ - the time between full on summer and winter sports. My road cycling has cycled down (so to speak :-) ), mountain biking, hiking and running have taken it’s place. Oh, yes, and preparing for winter.
Winter... that glorious season of long darkness offset by brilliant brightness, the melancholy feel of going to or getting off of work in the full dark, of the sense of limits rather than freedoms; cold winds and the tantalizing smell of snow in the air. I love it!
Winter always reminds me of our friend Doug. I say ‘our’ because many people reading this knew Doug, was a friend of Doug’s, and will always remember him. Doug was one of my first best friends here. He was here for me when my Mom died, and helped carry me through that rough emotional time. Doug is also what I might term a ‘spiritual playmate’ because we had so many playful discussions about matters of the spirit while we were out enjoying the backcountry. He talked about ideas that took me far outside my comfort zone, and sometimes that felt like flying.
Doug did not have a narrow comfort zone. That was one of the reasons he was a delightful backcountry companion, regardless of the activity. Doug could play with the big boys; he was a graceful skier, a talented mountain biker and a strong athlete. But Doug wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone. He was content to be out there, and to be out there with people, and went at whatever was the pace of his companions. He enjoyed everyone’s company for who they were, and what they offered in the day to him. Doug was also very good at taking you just beyond your own physical comfort zone. He often would suggest a place to ride or ski, and he wouldn’t limit you to terrain he thought you’d be comfortable on. He’d take you somewhere that challenged you, but probably wouldn’t kill you. And then he would help you learn how to ski it, or ride it. All you had to do, really, was follow him and watch him, and visualize yourself being as beautiful as Doug. He would also help you with your technique. He would watch where you were flawed, and try to get you past it into oneness with your sport.
When shoulder season comes, and I start anticipating snow, I think of one day Doug and I were skiing on Sherman. We had fun wandering our way up to the peak - no time or athletic agenda on hand to push us up at an uncomfortable pace. It was also late enough in the year that the darkness would not chase us prematurely off the mountain, so we wandered, feet on the ground, kicking and gliding, stretching those calf muscles with the steepness of the slope, and our spirits in the clouds. A raven followed us up the mountain, and we both laughed at her laughing at us, stuck to the ground on two legs. We admired her flight and freedom, and perfectly understood her derisive delight in us. We came across lynx tracks... a set of big ones, with little ones wandering in and out of Mom’s path. More delight.
We got to the peak, steamed up from our climb, muscles warm and loose, layers shed long ago. When you get to Sherman Peak, often the first thing that happens is a blast of frigid wind, making you wonder why peaking out was your goal in the first place. But, you look around, and remember why... on a clear day you can see over to the Cascades to the west, the Cabinet Mountains to your southeast, the Selkirks due east, and the Canadian Valhallas to the north. Closer in, the beautiful and wild Kettle Crest stretches north and south, and below stretches a ribbon of reflection of what used to be the Columbia River. Closer yet, trees stunted by wind, yet stubbornly alive, covered in a season’s worth of artistically wind-shaped rime. You see these odd, bright, white shapes against the brilliant blue you find at altitude in winter. The wind and cold remind you to stop your admiration of nature and get on with things. A quick layering up of everything in your pack, strip those skins off your skis as fast as you can (yes, Doug taught me how to take my skins off without taking my skis off - I only fell doing it about 80 times), tighten up your boots, and off you go. Whooping and smiling and screaming with delight - sunshine, wind, powder, downhill, gliding, turning, and for me, falling, getting back up covered in glorious snow. The whooping actually has a practical purpose. Skiing through the trees you can lose sight of each other, and the happy whooping is a way to keep track. The screaming is just a natural expression of almost limitless joy.
We were skiing down through the Ghost Forest, the west side of Sherman Peak that is covered with dead but still-standing trees from the White Mountain fire, 30 years ago. That spot is good for someone with limited skiing ability and a strong desire to get better. The trees are tight enough to challenge, and spaced wide enough you can pick a line, but the aspect is not so steep that you would meet a tree personally with great force. It was about 1 in the afternoon now, and the sun was brilliant. So brilliant that it was having an interesting affect on the rime, melting it off the trees. Not a dripping spring melt; rather it dropped. The ice was falling off the trees in chunks, and skittering down the empty boles of standing dead trees. Without verbal agreement, both Doug and I had to stop skiing to listen to this magnificent symphony of sound. Think of wooden wind chimes, and how those tones sound in the wind, magnify that by a whole forest of sound surrounding you, stand still and listen. I’m not sure two people ever smiled more broadly with the simple joy of life.
Doug is gone now, but somehow it seems to me he is always on Sherman, waiting to ski with anyone that comes up, to remind them of the joy of life.