Healed By Nature: Hiking Bear Lake To Fern Lake In Rocky Mountain National Park

I’m sitting here in my campsite, a fire crackling faintly in the background. The site is situated across from a meadow and the stars are putting on quite a show. When I lay down on my picnic table, the satellites make continual arcs across the sky as I try to identify the constellations I learned while in Yosemite just a couple of weeks ago. Understanding the night sky makes the world feel so much smaller, like we’re all living in a big terrarium, seeing the same stars. This earth is the thing that unites us. We all live here in this one place, flung to the farthest ends, waging our wars, struggling for peace, looking for meaning in the vastness of this universe held within God’s thimble. Elk are bugling in the adjacent meadow, a reminder that life persists, continues, goes round and round each season. I feel overwhelmingly lucky to be here in this moment. It is impossible to sit here in the middle of so much wonder and not be awed to the core.

I was nervous about this trip at first, butterflies creating a storm in my subconscious. This is my first solo camping/hiking trip out of state. Traveling alone is exhilarating, empowering, lonely, and joyful. Today I went on a hike from Bear Lake all the way back to my campsite in Moraine Park, more than 11 miles over mountains, between passes, beside cerulean alpine lakes, and through meadows where elk danced and sang. The first stop I made was below a grouping of pines where birds were noisily active, so much so that I wanted to sit and be in the midst of their motion. The second I landed myself on a rock, a family of 5 dusky grouse came meandering by, tutting softy to one another just a few feet from where I sat. I could barely breathe. My heart was about to burst from happiness as I watched their hefty mottled brown and white bodies pick their way through the undergrowth, enjoying the day’s first meal. As I continued to sit, a hawk came through in a deadly dive, only to swoop aloft once again just enough to show me the beautiful markings under his wings and breast. As things quieted, I reluctantly set on my way through a forest filled with the scent of pines readying themselves for the weight of snow on their boughs.

There are several boulder fields along the trail and pika were scurrying in and out among the rocks squeaking excitedly to one another as they gathered grasses tinged with the colors of fall for their winter’s store. I also began passing the people I’d be leap frogging with all day. The nice thing about hiking trails in the national parks is that a camaraderie is built, even for a day. Everyone I passed was friendly and we all began to settle into the rhythm of stepping aside for one another.

The highlight of this trail is the lakes dotted here and there beneath the ever waning glaciers. Lake Helene has tucked herself away just far enough that if you aren’t keenly looking for the unmarked trail that leads her way, you’ll miss it. There is also a stunning vista to the right of the trail, unmarked as well, that goes to the top of some boulders. A sprawling view of Odessa Lake and Lake Helene lie below. Sometimes those little side trails are worth the curiosity of a short jaunt.

Her waters are shallow, but I desperately want to know the stories Helene holds. There is so much peace here in spite of the wind that seems to blow continually, rippling the surface just enough to cause an urgent lapping sound. Small dark-eyed juncos are busy catching insects at the water’s edge.

Once past Lake Helene, it’s all downhill to Odessa Lake through a dynamic landscape where each turn reveals a new glimpse of what’s to come.

The last time I hiked to Odessa’s shore, I could barely stand upright in the biting wind and snow. Today I spent some time soaking up the sunshine beside the brook that meanders away from the lake.

No sooner had I set down my pack when an American Dipper came sauntering by, half hopping, half floating in the current’s sway. I saw a dipper the last time I was here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same bird and this is its daily routine, patrolling this stream like a playful army sergeant.

The art of stopping and sitting for a minute proved to be a gift throughout this trip, not just on this trail.  On more than one occasion when I stopped to rest, animals would come by. Delight is truly the best word that can be used to describe the feeling one gets when a creature hardly anyone ever sees graces you with its presence. When I hike alone, I tend to speed along as quickly as I can, while taking frequent breaks. Honing the skill of observation requires a willingness to sit, which is not always easy for me, but settling into stillness gives nature a chance to rest in our presence and find ease in walking by.

Odessa Lake lay in all her glory, serene, sparkling, and perfectly secluded in this protected place.

Last time I stood on the edge of the shore leaning into the wind, being pelted with sharp snowflakes. Today the vibe is more relaxed. A slight breeze blows as the water laps the shore.

Onto Fern Lake! As I approached the boulder field that leads down to the shore, a small cacophony of juncos flitted in and out, playing at the border of the woods and the rocks. Fern Lake was a popular destination and I left the lunchers and fly fishers to keep pace on the trail until I reached the waterfall that would serve as my lunch spot for the day.

In a happy incident, I missed the hiker shuttle at the trailhead when I popped into the privy, so I decided to walk the remaining 2 miles to my campsite. I’m so glad I did. Sometimes being on foot provides a more fulfilling experience than the quicker way home. The meadows glowed golden in the breeze as birds of prey perched on dead branches to scour the happenings below. I heard the elk before I saw them. Huge bulls having a tame standoff, bugling to the multitude of females surrounding them. The meadows close at 5 pm, and since I still had a couple of hours, I walked in a bit, found a nice rock to perch on, and enjoyed the show. What a majestic display as they chased each other, slowly moving through the meadow, dipping down into the stream, and swishing through the grasses to the next hill.

I headed into town for a stroll past the shops, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the solitude of my campsite. Too many people, too much noise…get me out of there. Camping provides a nice seclusion from the tourist scene and I prefer this to a hotel any day. Yeah, my feet stink and the baby wipes only help so much. But, I have clean water, a bathroom nearby, and the whole Milky Way galaxy above my head with shooting stars streaking right through. Is there a better place to be in the world right now? I don’t know how sleep will be possible tonight knowing this is happening above me.

I am healed by wild places. Muscles that stiffen with daily stress are relaxed. My mind is open to actually hear what my heart is saying without being drowned out by work and home responsibilities, or the tempest that rages in the world right now. My anxiety has increased in many ways with the tenor of our country. I am always on alert, worried about what comes next. But out here, none of that exists. My phone doesn’t work except to take pictures, and my eyes are not strained from reading the news. Instead they feast upon a banquet of scenery that fills my soul with childish delight. This is where I belong. This is where I am most myself. And as I sit here at this table alone beneath the cosmos, I feel closer to God. I understand his presence here in ways I never understood it in the context of organized religion. Since I separated myself from the thing that calls itself the church today, my spiritual life has manifested outdoors beneath the Heavens. Maybe the stars that shoot across the sky are messages from loved ones lost. Maybe every dose of beauty is evidence of God’s love, his artistry, his perfect mercy that sees a weary heart and heals a piece of its brokenness with a visit from a bird.

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