I won’t lie: last week challenged me in unexpected ways. I have been trying to move forward since my daughter started college six months ago. Since she’s merely fifteen minutes away, I feel like I take five steps forward only to retreat two steps back whenever she comes home. This weekend I took a leap of faith and planned an outing with a friend before I knew my daughter’s plans. I am determined to expand life one outing at a time.

In an attempt to expand life, I visit thousands of snow geese and trumpeter swans in the Skagit Valley at dawn with the Olympic Mountains in the background.
In an attempt to expand life, I visit thousands of snow geese and trumpeter swans in the Skagit Valley at dawn with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

The Skagit Valley Birding Invitation

Five of the things I love the most include movement, photography, wildlife, helping, and writing. Put them all together and bingo, a blog is born. I also love my family, and since my daughter comes home on weekends, I feel obligated to stick around whenever she visits. A friend invited me to bird with her in the Skagit Valley an hour north of Seattle. We’re gaining more birding practice for an upcoming trip with friends to Arizona in April. But when she mentioned wanting to bird all day, I gulped.

This would be the first all-day trip without my husband, daughter, or dog in more than three years. And on a weekend when my daughter was visiting. In November, my husband and I took eight days to bird in southeast Texas. So it’s not like I haven’t been away from her for an extended time. But something about this invitation challenged me in a new way. This was another step toward releasing the apron strings. Why is it so hard?

Expand Life: Enjoy a Skagit Sunrise

At 6:30 my friend promptly arrived and I sneaked out the front door, leaving my sleeping husband and daughter and a very unhappy dog. Ajax knows what it means when I put on my hiking togs, and he is always eager to join me. Not this time. I later learned that he complained loudly for quite a while after I left, waking up the household.

The view from the Fir Island Farm Estuary in the Skagit at sunrise, with a pair of bald eagles on the snag toward the left.
The view from the Fir Island Farm Estuary in the Skagit at sunrise, with a pair of bald eagles on the snag toward the left.

I felt quite emotional on the drive north. Shouldn’t I be the proper hostess for my daughter? Shouldn’t I be there to take her back to campus? Fortunately, I was able to talk through my difficulties with my friend. By the time we reached our first stop, I had a clear head and buoyed spirit. At the Fir Island Farm Estuary, the sunrise was spectacular. Snow geese, trumpeter swans, and waterfowl were plentiful, and people were few. I focused on my surroundings as Mother Nature helped me heal.

Contributing to Science on Ebird.org

One of several bright moments from the all-day birding trip was contributing to science. When I go with my friend or my husband, I let them record our bird sightings and report them on Ebird.org. This wonderful website is affiliated with Cornell University. Many thousands of bird enthusiasts can keep track of their observations online. Researchers and other birders can then track and learn where target birds are.

Yellow-headed blackbird (left) joins a red-winged blackbird (top) and house sparrow (right in flight) at a local feeder.
A yellow-headed blackbird (left) joins a red-winged blackbird (top) and house sparrow (right in flight) at a local feeder.

On this trip, we made a brief stop at a field where red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, and Brewer’s blackbirds were feeding. Through my 100-400 mm camera lens, I noticed a bird with a yellow head and chest. Definitely not one of the other three species. My friend immediately identified it as a yellow-headed blackbird, a bird I’d seen before, but a rarity for this time of year and location. We followed the YHBB (pictured left) to a nearby feeder where it joined house sparrows and red-winged blackbirds to enjoy breakfast. Score! I had proof of the rarity in the photos.

Expand Life: Watch Short-Eared Owls In Flight

Another memorable moment occurred in the early afternoon when we arrived at the Skagit destination called the “East 90.” The main road takes a sharp right turn, and it lies east of another sharp right known as “West 90.” Flying low over the field were at least half a dozen short-eared owls, one of my target birds for the day.

These little guys are open-country hunters, one of the few that can be spotted foraging during the late afternoon. My friend explained that she likes to plan birding outings with newer birders so that there’s a highlight toward the end. That way she’ll have company in the future. I smiled. That sounded like what coaches do in training sessions: we end on a high note.

Short-eared owl on farmland.
Short-eared owl on farmland.
A short-eared owl on the hunt.
A short-eared owl hunts for supper.

Memorable Moments

On our return drive to Seattle, I asked my friend a question that I grew up hearing often: what was your best or favorite moment? My husband and daughter hate questions like that. This time, I used her answer as a teachable moment. I rephrased my question: were there any memorable or takeaway moments from the day that stood out to her?

The Takeaway Challenge

I proceeded to mention my three to her: the spectacular sunrise, spotting the yellow-headed blackbird rarity, and watching the short-eared owls forage.

Something my parents recently mentioned came to me. It’s called their “penny jar project.” It’s an opportunity to expand their world post-COVID. Every time they explore a new neighborhood or try something outside their comfort zone, they add a penny to the jar. (To account for inflation I might suggest a “dollar jar…”) Once you accumulate enough money, you can put it toward something you enjoy to celebrate your courage.

How might you gamify your own challenges to encourage your success? I took on a playful challenge in January to create the Active Ajax Adventures project. I created my blog to have something positive come out of COVID time. And the birding trip coming up in April is helping me expand my world by taking birding trips to practice and prepare.

Another favorite, the Great Blue Heron.
Another favorite bird, the Great Blue Heron.

While agreeing to go on this weekend trip was a challenge for me, I definitely made the right decision. I have a life apart from my daughter, and it’s okay — no, necessary — to explore outside one’s comfort zone. It helps her, as well, to know that we are all trying new things, taking on new challenges, and growing.

If you have a new challenge you’re facing in 2023 and would like life coaching assistance, feel free to reach out to me at www.bodyresults.com or comment below. I’d love to help!

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.

4 replies on “How to Expand Life One Outing at a Time”

  1. Thank you for sharing the struggles and rewards of changing patterns and taking chances on new adventures. This post resonated with me as I am VERY much a creature of habits… and indeed too few of them, which makes for a relatively limited comfort zone. I admire – and am inspired by — your constant drive to expand your life horizons. I seem to “experiment” in much smaller ways (for now), and mostly around my main outdoors interest: hiking. Three separate friends of mine have asked if they could join me on the trail. I am saying ‘YES’ and learning to let go of the great sense of freedom and intimacy with nature that solo hiking provides to me. I am learning to adapt to hiking with a younger and very experimented trekker… to say “can we take a break” when I feel exhausted; I am learning how to choose the proper route and pace when hiking with a neighbor who has lost half of his lungs’ capacity; I am learning to stop, sit down, and just talk for a while when my third friend want to just “work through” the emotional roller-coaster resulting from her recent divorce. I was worried that I was giving up these moments of profound serenity I enjoy when spending hours on my own following a trail; I did not! I can still get them when I really need/want them. More importantly, by expanding my “palette” of hiking options I have added new ways of enjoying the outdoors: my friends notice details that I would have missed (animal tracks, birds, flowers, etc.); they share in which ways the outdoors are making their life better; we discuss a wide variety of subjects and we get to know each other much better. I was afraid that I would lose so much; I did not. To speak in terms of the GAP and the GAIN, whatever gap I feared was there ended up being rather small and really manageable… and I was unaware of how many beautiful gains were waiting ahead for me if I only took a chance.

    1. This is such a powerful reminder, Gerard, of saying “yes” to the universe of possibility. I am in the middle of writing a post on the power of “yet” which I think will also be a great teacher for us both. Agreeing to do something outside our comfort zone and going into it with an open mind, a mindset of opportunity, can open up new doors to new experiences. I am guilty of solo rambles and hikes because it’s (for lack of a better word) easier and less messy, sometimes, but as you point out, other people can teach us, can engage with us, and can show us things we might have in our blindspot. Much like critique groups, we all have our blind spots and by “collaborating” in nature, in the office, in workout creation, in just about anything, we social creatures can get so much more out of it. So yes, find that magic balance between solace and engagement and keep learning! Thanks for the post.

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