Since returning from Alaska, I’ve been eager to visit the Alpine Lakes region to see how autumn is progressing. Last week I learned that the trail to Snow and Gem Lakes has been repaired and reopened. So a friend and I decided to explore. I needed to process my daughter starting college (Convocation is today!) and hoped Mother Nature could provide solace from the tears. She provided the perfect metaphor for me to learn from alpine autumn changes. The lovely weather, beautiful fall colors, hidden blueberries, daunting challenge of a talus slope, and barefoot dip in Gem Lake paralleled my daughter’s own adventures at the University of Washington.

Ajax, T, and I enjoyed the overcast approach to Snow and Gem Lakes.
Ajax, T, and I enjoyed the overcast approach to Snow and Gem Lakes.

Perfect Conditions

At just after 8 a.m. on 9/23/22, the three of us headed up the trail. The forecast was for overcast skies, high 50’s, and a light breeze. Perfect hiking weather. Between conversations, my thoughts wandered to my daughter and what she might be doing on campus the weekend before her first quarter of college classes.

Fortunately, Mother Nature grounded me in the present moment. As soon as I spotted the first maples and Sitka mountain ashes in brilliant red and orange, I could only whip out my camera and search for more. Mission accomplished: beautiful colors. Absolutely breathtaking.

A brilliant maple, evidence of alpine autumn changes. Maples are common in Western MA, where I fell in love with their beauty in college. Our daughter visited Seattle's U. WA campus in May when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.
A brilliant maple, evidence of alpine autumn changes. Maples are common in Western MA, where I fell in love with their beauty in college. Our daughter visited Seattle’s U. WA campus in May when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

As we returned to the cars hours later, the sun came out. It gently reminded me that my daughter will struggle and succeed. She will face stormy and sunny days, ups and downs. The only constant we face is change. Change in her living situation and growing independence. For me, coming to terms with the fact that she no longer needs me in the same way.

Our new role as parents of a college student is to support her, be a sounding board when she has questions, and let her assume an active role in navigating her college landscape. May there be as much beauty and a comparable road map for her journey as we had going to Snow and Gem Lakes.

A tarn (foreground) with the larger Snow Lake behind it, on our way back from Gem Lake.
A tarn (foreground) with the larger Snow Lake behind it, on our way back from Gem Lake.

Alpine Autumn Changes: Hidden Blueberries

We paused for a short rest stop at Snow Lake before continuing toward Gem Lake. I discovered we were in prime blueberry terrain. Score! I picked a few small ripe ones and was instantly rewarded with purple smudges on my fingers and a delicious burst of refreshing sweetness on my tongue.

A ripe wild blueberry dangles below reddening leaves, waiting to be picked.
A ripe wild blueberry dangles below reddening leaves, waiting to be picked.

The berries reminded me of a huckleberry hike to Mt. Catherine we did together as a family in 2021. The fruits were like hidden gems, shielded by the changing leaves. Similarly, I’m sure my daughter will find hidden gems at school if she stays on the lookout for them.

The week before University of Washington classes start, the college offers dozens of daily Dawg Daze activities. Sporting events, visits to the Zoo, and impromptu art gatherings. Foot races, movies, and pre-football game face painting.

Like me, my daughter is not much of a joiner, but I truly hope she finds a few tiny gems, moments with a friend here or sunrise there, a class she falls in love with, or a special location she visits repeatedly like Drumheller Fountain.

Uphill Climb of a Talus Slope

Just when I was convinced that “a little farther” would soon become “we’re here,” we faced the most intimidating part of the 11.3-mile hike. Our obstacle? A talus slope that seemed to swallow up the boot path. Momentarily discouraged, I waited for T. to catch up so she could have the final say.

The more we studied the slope, the more we realized that the path through the rocks was fairly level and crested not too far away. We decided we were so close, we might as well finish it up. And what a great decision it was. Other than the two gentlemen right behind us, we had the lake to ourselves and great views in every direction.

The final talus slope just about turned us around. Until we examined where the path went and decided it didn't look too bad. May my daughter, as a new university student, find her roadmap through the next four years and be as filled with excitement about the prospects as I was on reaching this slope.
The final talus slope just about turned us around. Until we examined where the path went and decided it didn’t look too bad. May my daughter, as a new university student, find her roadmap through the next four years and be as filled with excitement about the prospects as I was on reaching this slope.

The takeaway lesson for my daughter is to encourage her to persevere, even when the path is not apparent. To ask questions of those around you who might help. Collaborate. Gather more information. Then proceed, knowing you can always pause, turn around, or try something else.

Alpine Autumn Changes: Cold Dip in Gem Lake

The final lesson involves nurturing. I’ve developed a new hiking ritual this year. If my destination includes a lake, I take off my boots once I get there, so I can dunk my feet. Since we were visiting two lakes, I waited until we got to Gem, a lake I’ve never visited before. T took a pass, but Ajax joined me. It even looked like he wanted to go swimming.

The only constant in my life today is my faithful hiking companion, Ajax. How much longer will a 7-year-old dog be able to hike 12-15 miles? That, too, will eventually change.
The only constant in my life today is my faithful hiking companion, Ajax. How much longer will a 7-year-old dog be able to hike 12-15 miles? That, too, will eventually change.

Once again, I thought about my daughter and how she’s taking the plunge into a mighty big lake. The University of Washington admitted 7,000 first-year students this fall, 3.5 times more people than the whole of my own undergraduate experience. Talk about overwhelming! But if we can nurture her own process of finding courage, and support her to take tiny steps — maybe not her whole body at first, just her toes — she can gradually build her confidence that she can swim without sinking.

Final Words

Hokey though it may be, turning my hike experience into a life metaphor helped me feel better. It reminded me that change is a constant we can neither control nor prevent. What we CAN control is our mindset and attitude. The more I experience nature to stay grounded, centered, and connected to what matters most to me, the more gracefully I’ll handle this transition to an “empty nest.”

A final look at Snow Lake before we crested the pass and headed back to the car. Sometimes the path is more easily identified by looking backward than forward. May my daughter find a map forward to make looking back more fun.
A final look at Snow Lake before we crested the pass and headed back to the car. Sometimes the path is more easily identified by looking backward than forward. May my daughter find a map forward to make looking back more fun.

Can lessons from nature help YOU make some big changes this fall? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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  1. My wife recently shared with me how much she has seen me change (for the better) since I started to spend much more time in nature. In particular, she believes I now have a much stronger and thoughtful approach to ‘difficult situations’ in life. Your account of how you find strength and wisdom in the outdoors, while finding ways to support your daughter’s taking off on her first long solo flight, seems fully aligned with my modest experience. I love several of the points you make as they deeply resonate with what I learn on very long backpacks. “Mother Nature grounded me in the present moment”; indeed! My mind occasionally returns to “pinball mode”, relentlessly bouncing off the many “to do” and “to worry about” items on my list; mostly, though, the overwhelming presence of “out (t)here”, the many – large and small – discoveries, the imperative to pay attention (weather changes, trail challenges, quest of wildlife sightings)… all invite me to “stay with me” as much as possible — peace and happiness often ensues. I also related to “… coming to terms with the fact that she no longer needs me in the same way”. In my case, the feeling applies to those I “leave behind” when I am on a solo journey: will my wife be OK alone in the house at night? What if there is an ice-storm? What if she gets into a car accident? Am I not supposed to be instantly able to assist? Worrying for a spouse is not the same as it is for a child, but the need to accept our newfound “powerlessness” (or the other party’s strength and resilience) is still there… “The fruits were like hidden gems, shielded by the changing leaves”. Ha! I am pretty sure I saw the same bushes when coming through Snoqualmie Pass in mid-August, and they were worth a pound of gold; fresh, juicy, and a wonderful burst of flavors. I remember another lady hiker laying down in a field of huckleberries to look UP at them from the ground; she later said she spent a half hour in the area, just gorging on the berries. Needless to say, I also recognized myself in “Like me, my daughter is not much of a joiner”. Yet, I have found this to be less true when on the trail. At times, I was even the “master of ceremony”! I later realized that this seemingly 180 change of attitude was likely due to a few simple things: I liked and trusted the fellow backpackers around me (after all, we shared our core life experience at the time), there was an inherent playfulness in the exchanges (we craved sharing stories rather than competing with / measuring ourselves against each other), we all understood we “were not all that” and certainly not “better than thou” (being achy, dirty, disheveled, and hungry took us a few notches down), and we did not fight for very limited resources (Ok… maybe with the exception of the occasional 5-stars campsite at the end of a long day 😊). Finally, I internally cheered at “The more we studied the slope, the more we realized that the path through the rocks was fairly level and crested not too far away.”. I can’t recall all the times the trail ahead LOOKED much more daunting than it really was once I forgot the incredible power of “one step at a time”; THAT lesson I directly “ported” from the trail to my every day life.

    1. Beautiful reflection, Gerard, and reading your musings on my thoughts returned me to the original experience I had and shared, but in a new light.

      I loved your comment about looking UP at the berries — something we experienced on our Huckleberry adventure last Labor Day.

      I’ve often wondered: are my excursions to nature an ESCAPE, or a RETURN — to myself, my true self, the confident self that just IS without anyone judging or criticizing me — my harsh inner critic included. When I’m hiking, all parts of me are content.

      And your reflection about “leaving behind” really resonates with me. Sometimes we think we do/mean more than we are, or in the case of a parent, we think we’re needed when it can actually be a crutch. Letting go and allowing my daughter to struggle is SO. DARN. HARD. But necessary.

      My husband and I are presently watching the History Channel series called “Alone” (you might really dig it!) in which 10 people are launched into the wilderness (season 8 was in British Columbia, looking for all intents and purposes like Alaska we just left behind) and season one is filmed on Vancouver Island. While I don’t profess to have 5% of the outdoor survivalist skills these experts have – starting fire, finding water, making shelter, acquiring food, all with only ten survival items in addition to their clothing — I can definitely appreciate the harsh beauty of their locations (who will survive the longest to take home $500,000 in reward money each series?) and the wildlife that inhabit them. Any outdoor enthusiast might really enjoy watching it and learning more about survival skills and where they’ve been passed down (or lost).

      The path through the woods is not always apparent, but if we take it a step at a time, look for and consider all options, and remember to breathe, we can find out way through just about anything with patience, resilience and empathy for whatever and whoever is around us.

      Welcome back and thanks for the post!

  2. Such beautiful comparisons. And sweet Ajax. Your pictures are beautiful, that lake wow. Hang in there all of you. Come visit any time.