5 Life Lessons from the Wild

I remember being fifteen years old and absolutely dreading my end-of-summer vacation, which was spending two weeks in Alaska with my father fly fishing and sightseeing. Granted, today this trip would be a dream. However, at the time in my fifteen-year-old, self-centered life, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had grown up fishing, hiking, and hunting with my father so was no stranger to the ways of the wild, but the idea of two weeks together in the back country with my dad just seemed…awkward. 

But, as one would guess, the trip went exceedingly well, and I fell in love with Alaska- mostly because of the adorable sea otters in Homer which I bought a fossilized carving of (I have it on my desk to this day). That trip was the catalyst for what would become a tradition of annual father-daughter adventures. We’ve since trekked in Switzerland, hunted Jim Shockey’s outfitter on Vancouver Island, explored several national parks, eaten many blueberry pies and ice cream cones, and spent many days on the Appalachian Trail. What I remember most, though, are the five lessons my father taught me during those times in the wilderness. 

Lesson 1: “Just think- you were worried about a little rain.”

The rain was beating down and my socks were completely drenched. I squinted through the downpour to gaze at my dad in an irritated fashion, who was struggling to put together our “easy to assemble” tent. My father and I had planned a hiking trip to Blood Mountain, GA for weeks and were hell bent on going even though the forecast predicted rain. 

Dad learned that using the rain fly instead of the base tarp was not going to work (pro tip: always read the directions). We heated up water for our Mountain House meals and called it a night at seven o’clock. By the following morning, I was hoping that the rain had subsided, but alas woke up to the relentless pitter patter of rain droplets falling. We pulled on our boots, packed down camp, and continued on towards our final destination of Neel’s Gap.

The rain continued all day and eventually we both walked in silence with our heads down, ready for the welcoming sound of car engines at the finish. While there are shuttle options along the AT for those stranded or in need of help, my father will always decline them. He told me, “Always remember, Sarah, every day you’re on a mountain is better than not being on one at all.” 

We made it back to town and got dried off before treating ourselves to a big dinner. With a movie theater being nearby, we decided to polish off the father-daughter weekend by going to see Everest (2015). Having read “Into Thin Air,” we both knew how the tragic story ends. By the time the lights rose at the end of the movie, I was in tears. My dad asked if I was crying, and then laughed at me and said, “Just think- you were upset over a little rain earlier!”

That comment has stuck with me to this day. I’ve now run half marathons after ripping skin from my feet, suffered grueling bike races, and been able to sit in freezing glacial lakes (very Wim Hof style), because when I start to feel weak, I realize that it’s just a little rain. There’s always something worse, and the things that typically rob us of energy are not life or death. 

Lesson 2: Choose your company carefully

I’ve always had a fear of “the group.” This dates back to my adolescence when I longed for personal space and control over activities at overnight birthday parties. Some would say those were early signs of a control freak, but I prefer ‘particular about how one chooses to spend their time.’  FYI, not everyone likes the same party activities and bedtime (or lack thereof). 

For anyone who has gone hiking or biking in a group, you know what I’m talking about. The group gets split due to multiple skill levels, and even when the more experienced try to go easy, it still isn’t enough. The stronger ones are usually left to wait around on the top of a summit being exposed to the wind and getting chilled while their slower comrades catch up.  And when they do…you guessed it- they’re ready for a break and are in no hurry to get moving again! 

My father’s guidance on this dilemma is “choose your company carefully. They influence how fast and how far you can go.” This holds true in life and on the trails. While there is a time and place for being present and enjoying life at a chill pace, there is also a time when you need to suffer, grow, and be inspired.  

Lesson 3: Risk vs. Reward 

The adventures I’ve gone on so far in my life have been pretty rad. There’s a certain magic that happens on mountaintops, overlooking a vast ocean, or repelling down a ravine. But this magic isn’t found without risk. Whenever friends and family members view photos from my trips they often ask, “Were you not scared doing that? If you had slipped just slightly you would’ve fallen to your death on that exposure! What if you didn’t slip, but a rock fell from above and onto you?!” And to a certain degree, they’re correct. But my dad calls these calculated risks.

Calculating the risk allows you to operate calmly in an uncertain environment. But that describes life in general, doesn’t it? “Should I take that job? Should I move somewhere else? Should I marry this person?” We all have decisions like this to face every day of our lives. And while fear allows us to ask very logical questions, we can’t let it paralyze us from making decisions at all. 

But getting the courage up to take a risk doesn’t mean things always go well. Sometimes you can do everything right and it still doesn’t go to plan. Do you let that stop you from taking a risk again? No, you must accept that it is a possible outcome when getting into any life scenario.  

There comes a point when no matter how much planning, practice, and experience you have, in order to get the reward, you have to take the risk knowing all of the potential outcomes. Nothing ventured. Nothing gained. 

Lesson 4: Don’t step on the wet root

Anyone who has ever hiked just after a rainfall is well aware of this rule. There are few things slicker on this earth than a wet tree root. From a distance, it looks harmless- almost welcoming. The way it positions itself as an inviting “step” on an otherwise puddle-filled path, makes it look like a natural place to step when dodging mud. But if you catch it wrong, especially on a descent, your backside will hit the ground in a split second. 

There are some things in life that we are warned about, but on the surface, they don’t seem that bad. These are the painfully obvious truths that we love to ignore. Whether it be a caution from our close ones regarding who we are dating, impulsive decision-making, etc. We have all taken the step, knowing it’s slippery, and ended up on our backsides with things spilling out of our packs. Some of these falls are necessary so that you learn not to step on more wet roots, but if one wishes to continue hiking or going through life unnecessarily injured, we have to pay more attention to the wet roots. 

Lesson 5: “This is not a race. You can go at your own pace.”

It was the ninth day on the Haute Route to Mont Blanc when I started feeling lightheaded. Having never had altitude sickness, I wasn’t accustomed to the feeling of nausea and shortness of breath. What made me feel worse was the fact that I, the youngest and fittest person of the group, had to sit down on the side of the trail and eat half of a Twix bar just to get my blood sugar up to keep going. Going back to Lesson 2, I was now the person everyone was waiting on. 

When my dad came over and made sure I was okay, I found myself apologizing to him for making him wait. He sat down with me and said that it was okay and that it wasn’t a race. “There are too many times in life where you feel like it is a race with all the noise and expectation that society creates, but it isn’t. Go at the pace you feel safe. There is no shame in stopping to rest.” 

With social media, we are constantly in this race of keeping up with one another. There’s always a new product, more luxurious trip, home with better hardwood floors, etc. And if we keep chasing this false reality without ever taking time to rest and not worry about catching up, we may come to find ourselves just how I was- feeling nauseous, lethargic, and unable to see the beauty of the world around me. 

My father is a hero to me who has taught me so much about life. He always said that one of the most beautiful realities is that it is the sides of mountains that sustain life, not the top. He said to enjoy the struggles, challenges, and moments leading up the occasional summits of life. And know that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.