A Sense of Place
June 1, 2019
Wild Lands Advocate article by: Ed Hergott
Editor Ian asked me to reflect on my experience in nature: Why I spend so much time in it, put so much effort into creating opportunities for others, and why I find my experiences so rewarding.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the word ‘nature.’ Had you asked me as a 10-year old what I enjoyed about nature, I would have been puzzled. I grew up on a farm east of Saskatoon so fully immersed in ‘nature’ that the question would have seemed odd. Our lives depended on a successful relationship to nature’s bounty. And we suffered when natural phenomena such as hailstorms, drought or pestilence visited us. I remember as an eight- year old watching with my Dad from the tractor shed as a particularly nasty hailstorm totally devastated a fine crop just before harvest. After it was over, he took me by the hand and we walked to the edge of a flattened wheat field. We stood in silence for a moment and then he simply said: “It’ll make good feed” Nature can be harsh. Its gifts and hardships were part of my daily life.
I lived a typical rural childhood. I got my first .22 rifle when I was eight and I carried it with me as I skied my trap line after school in the waning light. My prey was weasel. A good skin would fetch four or five dollars. That money was important to buy hockey sticks and .22 ammunition. The weasels certainly suffered some cruel deaths but life was raw so it wasn’t unusual. Birth and death were constant companions as we raised and slaughtered what we needed for the table. When I was asked to chop the head off a chicken for Sunday dinner, it wasn’t an option to say that I didn’t like doing that. It was life, and I didn’t separate ‘nature’ from it.
My first separation of nature from my life came when I left the farm for a boarding school in Grade XI and XII. Since I had an older brother who stayed on the farm and would obviously inherit it, my parents emphasized education for me. From an early age there was no doubt in my mind that I would go to university and earn a living unrelated to farming. As my life became increasingly urbanized, nature started to become just a place to go to: a lake cottage or a fishing trip. Only in retrospect did I realize that there was a restlessness in me. I lacked a sense of place.
In the summer of 1963 my fiancé Mary Alice and I took a trip to Calgary to experience the Stampede. We had a spare day so our hostess suggested we drive to Banff. I had never seen the mountains. It was a beautiful day and as we crested Scott Lake Hill west of the city, the mountains came into view. I had a strong visceral reaction and a strong sense that I found my place. We did the usual tourist stuff, even saw a bear, and returned to our summer school studies in Saskatoon. The following Christmas break I drove to Calgary and interviewed for a teaching job. We were married in July 1964 and made Calgary our permanent home.
With work and a young family our mountain activities were limited to car camping and short hikes. The year 1967-68 changed all that. I was granted a year’s study leave and chose a small graduate program in New York City. Recall New York in 1967. Just before I arrived for summer school (to find a place for us to live), East Harlem erupted. The riots there dramatically reflected a city throbbing with unrest. That winter there was a sanitation strike with mounds of stinking, rat-infested garbage throughout the city. Anti-Vietnam war feelings were running high, especially among my younger classmates who were eligible for the draft. I was at a lecture near Harlem the night Martin Luther King was murdered in April 1968 and had to take the subway at a stop in Harlem. We sat up until about 3 am to ensure that the city would remain quiet. We lived just north of the Harlem River and we were ready to throw our two little ones in the car and head north to safety if any rioting started. Later that spring we were driving home somewhere in Illinois when we heard on the radio that Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated.
These were bleak times and I couldn’t see the positive future for large urban centres. The urge to return to our home and the mountains became overpowering. So began my serious exploration of mountain terrain, which was intimidating and exciting at the same time. We started with backcountry skiing which was in its infancy in this area. There were no set tracks so we just used the summer hiking trails which led to some terrifying descents. Then came backpacking. Our first trip was four days in Kootenay National Park on the now famous Rockwall trail from Floe Lake through to the Paint Pots. Wonderful memories. Soon my attention turned to rock climbing so I took a course from the Alpine Club, gathered gear, and looked for opportunities. About then I started teaching at the newly opened Bishop Carroll High School. It featured an innovative approach to student scheduling, abandoning the classic classroom structure.
I was approached by two students who found out that we were skiing every weekend and they wondered if they could come along. I couldn’t say ‘no.’ Soon other students heard about it and I cajoled other teachers to help out. There seemed to be endless enthusiasm in the student body so we formed the Bishop Carroll Mountain Club and quickly bought 16 sets of boots, skis, and poles. In the fall of 1972 we introduced backpacking. It grew like Topsy and now, helped out by Lonnie Springer, an experienced mountaineer, we soon had a fine equipment room full of skiing, backpacking, and climbing gear. The individualized student schedules allowed for extensive activity that was inter-curricular by design. So even if we were in the mountains, students were completing work in biology, history, literature, and philosophy.
Certainly a highlight of that time were two ascents of 11,453 ft Mt Athabasca on the Columbia Icefields. On each trip (one in September 1977, the second in September 1979) 12 students summited successfully. The second trip was especially memorable. We started up the lateral moraine in the dark, about 5:30 am. It was drizzling and cold. By the time we reached the crampon area, although the drizzle had stopped, our group was chilled and some of them would have had trouble doing up the crampon straps. We reluctantly turned back. When we had descended about a hundred metres I noticed a thin line of clearing to the north. We watched it for some minutes and it was advancing. Quickly we turned the kids around and hiked back up to the glacier. The exercise warmed them and with crampons attached and roped up, we started out on the glacier. Within an hour the sun was on us and we had a glorious and safe day.
We ran the Mountain Club for 10 years and those years are the happiest of my teaching career. It came to an end when conflicts of time with my growing family became unbearable.
I retired in 1996. I knew I wanted to start a mountain group for retired folks but thought about it for about six months before launching it. That happened in January of 1997. It started small but in the 22 years since it has become quite large and active with many former and present members. I send out a monthly schedule…that would be about 265 of them so far. We’re out every Tuesday…that would be about 1,100 days of activity to this point. In addition to the regular schedule we have cycled in Europe, kayaked on the West Coast, hiked in Arches National Park, and helicoptered into several mountain lodges.
Ian asked about the ‘work’ involved in this. Indeed, it is a lot of work but it is deeply rewarding. First of all, I still love getting out the guide books, maps or onto internet sites to research possible routes. That’s only ‘work’ if I leave it too late so that I have to rush a decision. My ten years with the Mountain Club gave me considerable experience in leading groups so it’s rarely stressful. And the rewards are too many to mention. Through this activity I have met many women and men who have become good friends. I’m reminded of an old quotation: “Friendship sneaks up on those who engage in worthwhile activity together” Certainly we have experienced that in spades. I still love introducing others to the mountain joys. And for those who come with their own strong backgrounds in mountain travel, it’s fun to trade stories and route possibilities.
I never started in the mountains to stay fit or to philosophize. It was to explore an exciting environment. Fitness and deeper thoughts were by-products. Now that I’m in my late seventies, I can well appreciate what Wordsworth captured in the poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved….
…..For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue
And the Alberta Wilderness Association? I had followed them for years, having newsletters from the early 1970s in my files. I didn’t have time to get actively involved then but AWA seemed to represent my attitude toward wilderness and I was cheering for them from the sidelines. In September 1996, after retirement, I walked into the old school house on 12th Street and asked to speak to someone about volunteering. Christyann was the Executive Director at the time and I offered her one day a week. I did that every Thursday for a year. By then I took another job and time wouldn’t permit a full day. While there I witnessed first-hand how dedicated the whole staff was. It impressed me enough that I committed to getting volunteer help for their major functions, such as the Tower Climb and the Casino. That continues to this day. A large contingent of our mountain group was at the recent Climb for Wilderness at the Bow Tower.
I still have the visceral feeling that overwhelmed me in 1963, not as raw perhaps but still powerful. I used to envy those who had a profound sense of place, like my friends from the Maritimes. Life in the mountains has provided that. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I found my place and I am gratefully home.
Ed Hergott is an invaluable member of Alberta Wilderness Association. Ed received a Great Gray Owl award in 2011 in recognition of his outstanding volunteer contributions to our Association.