Thinking Like An Elk

Photo by Amanda Morrison

Once I made the mistake of saying out loud to someone, “So what do you think an elk thinks about?”  The response was something along the lines of “What are you talking about?  Elk don’t think!” 

Perhaps it is time to think differently about this.

A handful of years ago I worked in Yellowstone National Park tracking radio-collared elk and wolves as part of a research study investigating the impact wolves have on elk feeding behavior.  I spent 2 full winters following elk tracks in the snow and spent a whopping 2400 hours within a very close proximity to elk.  I have to admit, the days were sometimes very dull, cold, and lonely.  However, the experience taught me something very valuable about life no matter what species you belong to.

Every morning I set out on showshoes with the goal of locating an elk herd to spend the rest of the day observing.  At first it took me hours to locate hours-old tracks and then get to the elk on foot using my radio telemetry equipment and maps.  I never knew where to start looking and felt that I was randomly and blindly searching, often without success.  This was maddening to say the least and on top of it I was wasting days unable to do my job.

About 40 days into the first winter, I decided to change my tactic and go with a less conventional way of locating wildlife.  I decided to think like an elk.  You might ask, just exactly how does one go about doing this? I brainstormed a list of questions and scenarios to help me. 

Photo by Amanda Morrison

“If I were an elk who needed to get to food quickly, where would I go?” 

”A pack of wolves is lingering nearby.  How do I not get eaten?”

“If I were an elk trying dealing with deep snow winters, what choices do I have for food and where do I find that food?”

I began to think in terms of basic elk survival, putting myself in the position of the elk and seeing it from an elk’s point of view.  Trust me, this was much easier for me to do for the elk than it was to do for many humans I knew!  Humans tend to be much more complicated and their point of view can change with situations and over time.  An elk is a much simpler animal with very little going on in its life, and what is going on is pretty repetitive and predictable.

Aside from thinking about food and water sources, and strategizing how not to be eaten, an elk also thinks about sex.  The latter is not a constant but is something that becomes an intense focus for a few weeks every fall.  Once the hormones have relaxed, the elk returns to a normal eat, drink, sleep, and escape from predators lifestyle.  

As I began to think like the elk, I also began to act like the elk.  I began to think about the choices I had when it came to food and I started eating healthier.  I began to think about what I was drinking and changed that.  I began to think about how much sleep I was getting and that changed too.  I began to be much less tolerant of people who were crowding me, pushing me, pressuring me and I began to defend myself or simply remove myself from them.  I became more like the elk by living a simple life.  Thinking like an elk greatly increased my ability to find elk each day, and it also changed my perspective on life and what is most important for my own survival.

Climb On! (part two)

One of the ways I deal with stress and frustration is to immerse myself in some physical activity that will help to take my mind off whatever is driving me insane.  Two summers ago this activity was bouldering. 

I was fortunate to work at a State Park that was full of Pikes Peak granite boulders who at some point in geologic time had rolled down from the nearby Puma Hills and planted themselves outside of what would be my home for five months.  The rock was solid but rough with crystals that tore at my fingers as I worked my way up and around each boulder.  I quickly learned which ones I could climb on days when my body and mind were tired, and which to climb when I had the negative energy of stress, anger and frustration to work out or a rush of positive energy to be released.

I remember well a day I was in a terrible mood.  The world just plain made me mad because something wasn’t going my way.  A long overdue end to a relationship had finally come and like any rejected girl, I got angry.  Angry at him and angry at myself .  Angry at the world.  At work that day I paced around the office,  vigorously hiked 3 miles, and vented my frustrations to my co-worker.  None of this helped.  All day my eyes kept drifting toward the rocks in the distance.  I ached to ditch my responsibilities, grab my gear and climb the day away.   

Six o’clock came and I was free.  I literally ran to the house, changed into climbing shorts and tank top, and grabbed my helmet and shoes.  I sprinted to the massive boulders strewn across the field.  I started with the easy ones but was quickly frustrated by their inability to satisfy me.  I swore out loud at them, telling them they were not good enough.  I moved on to the hardest boulders, ones I had been getting nowhere on for many days.  Again, I stood there swearing at the rocks while bluebirds stared at me from their perches in nearby aspen stands.  Fuming because none of them were doing what I needed, I left my usual spot and ventured out further to an area I had been avoiding.

Amanda working her way across the new wall. 2009. Photo by Amanda Morrison

It is there that I discovered my own personal climbing wall.  It was perfect!  Unlike the other boulders, this one extended about 30 feet wide and was not rounded on the climbing side.  The natural holds were thin but stable, the face flat with small cracks and tiny ledges scattered throughout, a sudden curve inward, and then a curve back out. It was about 10 feet high so I felt okay climbing it alone; a fall would probably not hurt me all that badly.  I could not believe my good luck!

As I surveyed the wall, calculated routes (called problems in bouldering), and tried them out, my mind was not only freed from the anger but also freed from everything else in the world.  My energy shifted to accomplishing 2 goals:  1.  Make it to the top of the rock and 2.  Make it from the north side to the south side, without falling off.  Neither happened that day, but finding a new opportunity outside of my usual path that presented new challenges helped me to let go of the old stuff hanging around inside my head and in the physical space surrounding me. 

I spent 2 months working on and getting to know that wall.  It gave me the change I needed at the time – new goals to work on and a connection to something solid that is always going to be there for me.

Climb On! (part one)

Unknown Climber at Eldorado Canyon State Park. 2009. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

I longed to rock climb for years.  One year I promised myself I would learn before the year ended.  That year passed and then a couple more passed all with ample opportunity to learn from  friends who frequently offered to teach me.  I always turned down these offers with the excuse that I did not trust these people enough.  The reality was that I have battled a fear of heights since at the age of 9.  On a flight from CO to VT lightning struck the airplane I was on, resulting in a drop straight down.  Coincidentally, the idea of free falling is terrifying to me!

After 10 years of telling myself I would climb a rock face, I decided to work on conquering my fear of heights.  It was the only way I was ever going to climb up higher than 4 feet off the ground and help to alleviate a lifelong fear of flying. 

2008. Costa Rica. I stood on the edge of a rainforest canyon looking out at a tree standing 200 feet above the canyon floor.  My goal was to get there and then to the canyon floor, preferably alive.  Standing on that dark canyon edge, harness encircling my legs and waste, and the pull of cable and caribiner urging me to go, I felt a surge of excitement shoot throughout my entire body.  Before it could fade into fear I gripped the handlebar and shoved off the edge of the canyon.  So this is what flying was like!  Gliding through the air, high up in the tree canopy, I felt more alive and free than I have ever felt in my entire life!

Amanda doing self rappell. 2010. Photo by Pat Rastall.

Of course I still needed to get to the ground.  Standing on the platform swaying in the breeze, I clipped into the rope and slowly backed off the platform.  My fear of falling rushed back and I began to panic.  In my head I started to tell myself that I was crazy, I was going to fall to the ground and smash into a million pieces.  But that is not what happened at all.  Somewhere amidst the intense fear and shaky hands, I just let go and began to focus on the task at hand.  Lowering myself became my only goal in life.  I was armed with the tools and skills to enable me to succeed.  Confident in my skills and ability to use them, I lowered myself safely to the ground.

The following October I officially learned to climb indoors on a climbing wall.  As I announced “Climb On!” to my belayer, I grabbed the wall with confidence, chose a route, and climbed effortlessly to the top in minutes.  Leaning back to take in how far I had come, I laughed out loud.  I was so proud of myself for accomplishing such a difficult goal!  Before rappelling down, I said a quiet yet victorious “YES!” to myself while a room full of climbers cheered my success from below.

A Swinger of Birches

Robert Frost

Growing up in Vermont, Robert Frost was naturally a part of my life.  I can’t recall at what age I was introduced to this marvelous writer, teacher and observer of the outdoors and rural life, but at a very young age I felt connected to him.  Always thick, heavy, hard-backed, and full of words expressing a shared view of the outdoors, I have checked out his books from the library over and over since the age of ten.  Finally there was someone who saw, felt, and understood the natural world like me!  I think we would have been good friends had he not died 14 years before I was born.

In the woods across the dirt road from my house, if you followed a small brook as it bubbled through mucky channels and underneath fallen logs, you would reach the bending birch.  I discovered the tree with my best friend who lived down the road as we roamed and explored the woods just like we did every day.  Instinctively, I reached up to grab the bent trunk but was too small to grab ahold.  So I jumped up, reached high above my head…and missed!  Determined to succeeed, I spent the next several visits jumping and reaching for that solid gray arc.  When I finally curled my fingers around the solid trunk I was thrilled!  Now I could swing, bounce, spin my body around and around on it, do pull ups, or just dangle in hopes of stretching myself to add inches to my height!

The birch tree gave me much more than a new playground on which to spend endless amounts of time.  To this day I can still feel the smooth, papery bark slip across my palms as I struggled to hang on.  When I moved my body, the entire tree moved with me – sinking low toward the ground, swaying side to side, springing up toward the sky.  The trunk was very pliable, adapting to the conditions and pressures that it faced such as strong wind or heavy snow that might have otherwise snapped it into pieces, thus ending its life.  The birch tree was resilient, flexible, and strong. 

Bending Birches

I see qualities of the birch within myself, qualities that perhaps I learned early on in life as a swinger of birches.  Life is full of external and internal pressures that take thier toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.  If we allow them to break us and we fall crashing to the ground it is very difficult to get the whole self back up and put together again.  Faced with such pressures, I am reminded of that mighty birch tree and its ability to bend and flex, adapting to its current situation, always bouncing back into place once the stress is gone, and ready to take on the next big wind that is trying to blow it off course. 

To read Birches by Robert Frost: