Close your eyes and smell the woods, the meadow, ice on rock. The air is sweet here. Leaves rustle and the brook endlessly whispers. I wake this September morning to the warble of a songbird piping in the distance.
My tent is secure, despite last night’s windstorm, and I have amazing comforts in spite of the distance to the highway; my dad taught me how to pack for backpacking: tiny flannel bag to stuff my down jacket for a luxurious pillow; wool pants and shirt that keep their warmth, even when wet.
My husband and daughters still sleep, burrowed deep into down bags.
The sun crests a flat paper chain of mountains and dewy tundra glints black and green and silver, with sprinkled jewels of Forget-Me-Nots. The air is crisp as I pull on boots and zip the tent door closed — there are mosquitoes — and crunch through bracken to the stream for an icy drink. The fir and spruce are scrub at treeline — barely tall enough to hang a food bag away from the bears. Beyond the forest, the tumble of lichen-covered talus and scree lead to sheer cliffs and an endlessly blue sky.
This is Grandpa’s Kitchen. Like many valleys tucked back away from Highway 541 near the Highwood pass, it’s wild, undiscovered, beautiful. But this valley holds special memory for me. It represents all those valleys, all those mountain peaks, all those backwoods cabins where I spent time with my father; where he shared with me his love of the outdoors, his knowledge of woodcraft and wildflowers, his philosophy of life.
I see his face, though he’s gone now, smiling. Deep grooves in his cheeks are like long dimples, his skin weathered brown, eyes twinkling black buttons. His backpack, like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, was magically filled with everything. Reaching the top of a pile of rubble that is a mountain peak, blasted by cold winds, he fished out an extra sweater from his pack to keep me from the cold. When my binding broke, cross-country skiing, he produced a piece of wire, just the right length, to jimmy it until we came home. And at the end of a long and tiring day, campsite not yet in sight, he found a handful of raisins to keep me going.
I walk up a short gully and untie a cord from around a tree and lower our food bag, then go to the “kitchen,” a small space among the trees away from our tents where we have made a platform of flat rocks to give our one-burner stove stability. I start the stove and boil water. Tea was always the first thing my dad made when coming down from a climb. Then soup. Then noodles. It took all evening to make supper with one pot, and we had all evening to eat it.
My dad was an amazing man. He was a legend in the climbing community in Calgary, the first person to climb all the peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Interior Ranges over 11,000 feet (64 peaks). At age 70, he was the oldest person to climb Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan.
But it was not competition, not “bagging peaks” that took him up and down the Rockies and the Purcells and the Lyells on weekends; it was friendship and camaraderie within the climbing community. It was family. My father grew up in northern Saskatchewan, a farm boy, putting meat on the table during the depression by hunting grouse and partridge. As a young man, he tramped the woods with his brother, and later, took my older sister and brother duck hunting, so that when our family moved to Calgary in 1961, climbing was a natural outgrowth of his love of the outdoors. Sharing his love of the wilds with his children was the heart of all my dad’s adventures.
Once we were old enough, he took each of us: hiking, skiing, and climbing. My youngest sister, at two, rode in my dad’s backpack when she was too tired to walk, long before the Snugli was invented.
The water has boiled and my children jump the creek and race to the clearing in the trees. My husband and I help them find their bowl and spoon and mix a little oatmeal, instant breakfast and powdered milk — and a few raisins — with hot water. My children are fortunate; many never experience any life beyond Saturday morning cartoons and Nintendo, and perhaps some Little League. Schools, and even outdoor clubs, have become so frightened of law suits or compelled by insurance companies, that they no longer offer risk-associated activities. Our younger generation is at great risk for obesity, diabetes and sedentary illnesses. A Wall-E future for most of us is not science fiction.
But more than this, what is lost when we retreat to our houses and cars and electronic entertainments, is a history, a culture, a way of life. What I valued most about travels with my father were the skills I mastered and the lore I learned, as well as the quiet times shared. Building and sleeping in a snow cave, the art of crossing a river, and skill at reading geography are experiences that come with a whole body of knowledge; knowledge I want to pass on to my children.
Which is why my family is here: to smell the heady perfume of leaves as they begin to change for the winter; to feel to the crunch underfoot in the pathless woods; to know the weight of carrying everything one needs to be self-sufficient on one’s back.
My children pack up. With help, they can stuff that whole sleeping bag into its sack and tie it securely to their pack. They have learned to organize the things they will need for the day in their outside pockets, and each of them carries some part of our common camp gear. Not a scrap of our passing is on the ground. We are ready to say goodbye again to this valley.
I remember the smile in my dad’s eyes the last time I saw him. It was late November, and my daughter and I had just completed Wilderness First Aid training. After a weekend of practical testing in minus temperatures, we had just written our exams. The sun had set, the woods were grey and we were chilled to the bone, but we dropped by my parents’ house to show off our new certificates. My daughter, tested on safety during a lightening storm, passed, remembering the story of how my dad, on top of a mountain peak, heard his iceaxe humming and — knowing lightning was coming — climbed down to safety.
Yes, I remember my father’s face, his shining eyes, as he saw his love and legacy carried on through his grandchild.
My husband leads and I bring up the rear as we descend through the forest back toward the highway. There is no hiking trail in this valley, just the serendipitous game trails that for a time go in the direction we wish to go. When we reach the valley bottom we hunt for our running shoes, tied together by the laces and hanging in the willows above the rushing water, waiting for us to wear back across the river.
My father died a few days after that November visit. At eighty-three, he still hiked Prairie Peak once a week, from which he could see “his old friends,” the mountains he loved so well. On this particular day though, my sister and her husband, worried about him hiking alone, took him on a short cross-country ski trip. And it was there, skiing through the snow of early winter, that he suffered a sudden heart attack. My brother-in-law went for help and my sister built a campfire in the snow and lay my father comfortably by it. He passed away in his sleep, doing what he loved best, by a campfire in the woods, with family beside him.
My father still lives. He lives in the smile of the brook, the whisper of the trees, the strength of the mountain. His memory is in my fingers as I adjust the valve on the stove, snap the dry twigs from the underside of the spruce branches, recall the names of each flower along my path. His legacy is in how I take my children along these same paths, share with them the wonder of a bumblebee in a bluebell blossom, the taste of a wild raspberry, the delicate scent of the Alberta rose. His legacy is in Grandpa’s Kitchen.