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Notes from an author: Catherine Raven on finding solace in the wilderness of the American West

An unexpected kinship with the wild landscapes of the West inspires a US park ranger to find peace and a place to call home in America’s subalpine zone.

By Catherine Raven
Published 27 Dec 2021, 06:06 GMT
Kennedy Creek in Glacier National Park, Montana. Through exploring the awe-inspiring landscapes of the American West, ...

Kennedy Creek in Glacier National Park, Montana. Through exploring the awe-inspiring landscapes of the American West, park ranger Catherine Raven found a home in the great outdoors.

Photograph by Getty Images

The first time I hiked the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana, I fell under the spell of subalpine country [the cool, largely coniferous biotic zone in western North America]. Patches of mist danced like fairies, shining the sedge grass with tiny droplets of water and gentling the sun’s rays. A couple of miles later down the trail, a mountain goat looked down from a rock ledge at a sight that was fairly uncommon in the 1980s: a girl hiking alone. Tilting our heads in unison, we each studied a rare creature from a new angle; we gazed into each other’s eyes — mine, almond-shaped and brown, hers, perfectly round and black.

Several years later, working as a backcountry ranger in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, I was hiking uphill on the Wonderland Trail when I crested a rise and entered subalpine country and promptly found myself knee-deep in purple lupine. Several feet ahead, on a stage of pink heath with the white-grey dome of Mount Rainier for a backdrop, a chunky mountain goat kid pushed his head under a tiny fir tree and peeked at me. I was so astounded I stopped breathing. Between my first and second encounter with mountain goats, I’d visited the most astounding scenery in the American West. But the goat gave me something the physical world couldn’t: recognition and acceptance. The feeling of communicating across a species boundary sank into my soul. 

When I started working for the US National Park Service, the Wonderland Trail heading into Indian Bar from Stevens Canyon was one of the wildest places in America. In 1988, Congress designated the area a Wilderness with a capital W, an honour not yet achieved by Glacier National Park. And wild it was. I slept in bivy sacks far off the trail. I hiked cross-country, unrestricted by man-made routes, and forged streams unrestricted by man-made bridges. At first, I thought these freedoms would make me tougher and that I’d become conqueror in the inevitable girl-vs-nature battle. Instead, I slipped into Mount Rainier’s wilderness unnoticed, abruptly cognisant of my lack of prowess. 

Still, I worshipped Rainier, and not just because I wasn’t brave enough to climb her highest peaks and rappel into her deepest crevasses. It was the sense of community. Travelling cross-country, breaking the barrier between humans and animals, we were a society of wild things. Me, the goats and all our living neighbours were a fellowship akin to Tolkien’s hobbits, elves, dwarves and man. But instead of wizards, the white-bearded mountain goats gave the area its unique magic.

Oreamnos americanos (mountain goats) aren’t closely related to their domestic cousins, but are truly wild. As a ranger, while I replanted damaged campsites, curious goats gathered around me. When I pitched a tent in a circle of hemlock and fir, they lay beside me. When they sneezed, I called out “Gesundheit!”. Drawn to land without a human watermark, but not wanting to be alone, the subalpine became my favourite home, not for its beauty but because of the goats.

As a biology student, I understood that this landscape, where plants surrendered to wind, sun and ice before disappearing into rocky alpine peaks, marked life’s last stand. Empathising with mountain goats changed my view. I saw instead a land where wind sculpts fir trees into whimsical shapes and where goats thrive. Only when threatened by predators will they flee to the suboptimal alpine zone. Now, when I hike down from a mountain summit, I see life restored. The subalpine isn’t where life ends, but where it begins.

I manage my own land now. At dawn today, in my home in Montana, a doe and two spotted fawns greeted me; a skunk waddles near my feet most evenings; and for several years, my best friend was a wild red fox. In Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship, I tell the story of nurturing the land and befriending the wild animals of America; and why I’m making my own tiny spot in a place where a wild animal, or even just a butterfly, can feel at home.

Catherine Raven is the author of Fox & I, published by Short Books, £16.99.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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