Tag Archives: Wilderness

Mapless Travel

Another reflection on Ireland sort of … and the loss of a mentor. 


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

Very recently, someone I admired since I was a young kid died suddenly. He was healthy, super fit and young at heart. A young 53, I believe.

His name was Dr.Brent Cuthbertson, but I grew up knowing him by his nickname Chase. There’s this special place in Lake of the Woods, Ontario, called Camp Stephens; a YM/YWCA camp that I attended from ages 8 to 17 as a camper and worked at from 18 to 24. I met Chase there.

When I was a teenager going on 2-week canoe trips, Chase was one of the wilderness directors and a few years later, he and my big brother co-led a 6-week canoe trip. I have fleeting memories of Chase but the people ahead of us in the Trail program seemed like gods and goddesses that we automatically admired.

I remember his cheesy grin, bright eyes, awesome mullet, kindness and intelligence. On my first 2-week trip when I was an awkward 14 years old, Chase was driving us in the old camp bus Stoughton (named for the town in Saskatchewan that it was purchased in) to the drop-off point where our canoe trip would begin. The gravel dust was billowing up and filling the bus that hot summer day and started to aggravate my asthma so I moved up to sit right behind him where the air was clear. I can’t tell you anything we talked about. All I remember was that he made me feel special because he actually took the entire time to chat with me about stuff. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.

I remember my brother saying that Chase had audio taped many evenings around camp during their 6-week trip in, I think it was 1990. He was doing some sort of ethnographic study about group dynamics on wilderness trips. I’d so LOVE to have heard those recordings. I know how wild and goofy groups get living in such intense situations in the woods like that. I can only imagine what 7 teenage boys and their fearless trippers would have gotten up to!

After I learned that Chase died, I went online to find out what he’d been up to for all of these years. He was a professor at Lakehead University, still teaching about group dynamics in wilderness settings but he was also taking part in “autoethnographical exploration … of the land through a mapless canoe trip.”

And that got me thinking!

The same week that Chase died, we were discussing way-finding and how visitors to the park where I work orient themselves and explore the region, or why they don’t explore it. Often times city folks are fearful in the woods so they don’t go beyond the town site.

I got to thinking about my time in Ireland. I had a similar experience to many park visitor but in the opposite situation. I was content and felt safe while hiking but when I got into Dublin I was wandering around hopelessly lost, as if my inner compass was spinning uncontrollably. I could not get straightened around for the life of me and it was incredibly disconcerting. I relied almost entirely on my friend to get us from point A to B each day. And I was so befuddled by the fact that I could not figure out where I was because every day we went to many of the same areas in the city.

So then I was talking to a good canoeing buddy of mine who’s older brother was a contemporary of Chase’s. She was telling me how Chase taught her brother to navigate among the islands of NW Ontario and how to sight portage trailheads from the water in ways that she’d never thought of before. This amazed me because she’s been canoeing all her life and the way-finding she talked about is something that I do automatically. I assumed she had been doing it too.

Maps are great tools and I would choose a map and compass over a GPS device any day, but I have also been royally screwed by maps in my years of wilderness travel. Nature changes. Maps are static snapshots. I never rely on them 100%. More and more I have learned to read the land for markers and way-finding.

I can point out a tree on the far side of the park (that to most people looks just like all of the thousands of trees around it) at a particular bend in a trail that is tens of kilometres long and tell you a story to go with it. But I walked past the same clothing store in Dublin 10 times and felt like I was seeing it for the first time every time save for the fact that my friend Allan would say we’d been by it before.

I grew up in the suburbs of cities but I’ve lived the better part of the last 18 years rurally or remotely in the north. I always assumed that I would be able to re-adapt to city life without much fuss. Now I’m not so sure.

I know how to read a map. I armed myself every day in Dublin with a paper map and downloaded Google maps on a tablet that I would study before leaving the hotel. I would identify landmarks in real time as I walked and yet I got turned around every day and had to ask for help. Before my friend showed up to explore with me, I spent more than two hours lost one night in Temple Bar going in, I think, circles but never returning to the same place twice. CRAZY!!!

This idea of mapless exploration also made me think of a talk I heard given at a feast in the park by a Metis elder named Maria Campbell, author of The Road Allowance People, among other things. She spoke about her peoples’ connection to the land and how disoriented they were after being forced to move and live outside what became the park. She spoke of cultural landmarks such as burial sites that the people knew of in the woods. The land wasn’t just a bunch of trees and rocks but routes of travel created through experience that became knowledge passed down through generations orally. If I understood her correctly, their identity was intimately linked to their surroundings and when that was lost, they were lost.

I get that at a personal level. I get it because it’s how I move around the land and how I, more and more as I live in these remote places, connect to and journey through the landscape. I know one tree from another, one bend in the trail from another and a rock in its place because of my experiences in those places that have shaped my knowing and understanding. I’ll always take a map with me when I venture out and about but I might not always have it at the ready. I want to ensure that I am paying closer attention to my surroundings than I am to a piece of paper.

Seasons, water levels, weather conditions, time of day and years of wear all alter the natural world. If I don’t pay attention to it as I move through, there will come a day when no map will aid me. I need to have that sense of self in space and time, whereas in Dublin I seemed to need to have rote memory of the order in which brand store names appeared along streets and count paces to the next left or right turn in order to find my way.

Chase. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. And I’m sad that it took his dying for me to find out about the interesting work he was doing. It would be so great to be able to pick his brain and have a good discussion about some of this stuff. Connie Russell, a friend and colleague of his who gave the eulogy spoke about his interest in mapless travel. I leave her words here for you to enjoy and to consider about how you move through the world about you and how you might move through the world beyond this one.

I’ll chat with you all about it in the next realm, Chase. I can’t wait to hear about what you’ve learned!

Chase Past (photo from K.Picken)

by Connie Russell

It is wonderful to see so many of you here today to celebrate the life of Dr. Brent Cuthbertson. I am not remotely surprised to see such a large crowd, because I know that Brent touched and inspired many in his too short life. Thank you all for coming.

If anyone had suggested two weeks ago that I would be here today giving Brent’s eulogy, I would have scoffed. How absurd! Brent was so healthy, so full of life, such a vital presence that it was impossible to imagine a world without him. Yet here we are.

As you all know, Brent passed away peacefully on Tuesday, October 28 in the presence of loved ones. In the last week of his life, he took those of us who were members of what we came to call “Team Brent” on an epic journey. I was reflecting yesterday on how this journey was led in true Brent fashion. Brent was very intrigued by “map-less travel” – indeed, he loved heading into the wild without a map. He felt that there was much to learn about oneself as well as one’s relationship to other people, and to nature, through such travel. And last week, he took us on another map-less journey. For much of the time, we did not know where we were heading. Later, after we did have a sense of our destination, we were not really sure how we were going to get there and Brent, being a master teacher, ensured there were a few twists and turns still in store for us. And on this journey, we found ourselves needing to pay attention to group dynamics, to be compassionate with one another and with ourselves, and to lean on each other. As I spoke with the other folks on the journey, it became abundantly clear to me that each of us had learned something important this last week thanks to Brent. I, for one, had to learn, yet again, to let go of my need to plan and to manage; this journey remained unpredictable and uncontrollable to the very end, and I just had to go with Brent’s flow. This would no doubt make Brent chuckle.

But, now, let us focus on Brent’s life rather than his death. Brent was born on June 2, 1961 in Northern Rhodesia, in what is now Zambia. His family moved to Canada when he was a young boy and he lived in Canada for most of his childhood and adolescence. I gather from the stories that his parents Bruce and Ann told me that he was a spirited yet gentle child, a kind soul with just a wee bit of mischief in him. His brother Alan told me what a generous boy Brent was and his sister Debbie described him as her protector.

Brent’s love of the outdoors was evident from early on. A pivotal time for him was clearly his Camp Stephens days where he went first as a camper and later joined the staff. I was struck by how many of the postings on Facebook and on the online condolences site mentioned experiences with “Chase” (which was his nickname at that time). That he formed, and maintained, strong bonds with people at Camp Stephens is not a surprise given who Brent was. Indeed, he was the sort of person who, once you had him in your life, you wanted to keep him in your life.

Brent went on to earn a BEd in 1989 from the University of Winnipeg, an MA in Outdoor Education in 1992 from the University of Alberta, and a PhD in Outdoor Education in 1999, also from the University of Alberta. Brent joined the School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism at Lakehead University in 1996 and was the Director of the School between 2007 and 2011. He was also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education.

Brent was the author of two textbooks and numerous articles, and he also wrote very good short stories and poetry on the side. He was internationally recognized for his expertise in outdoor leadership. His overarching concerns were our relationship to the natural world and our relationships with each other. As such, he was deeply committed to the flourishing of both natural and human communities and he saw these as intimately intertwined. Drawing inspiration from environmental philosophy, he urged outdoor leaders, and all of us, to consider the ethical and material implications of the choices we make – in how we travel, how we educate, what we eat, how we live.

Brent himself lived simply and was particularly critical of our society’s rampant consumerism. One could see that in the clothes he wore! He seemed to have what one might say was a rather limited rotation of clothing – I’ve seen quite a few comments about that blue Lake Superior sweater of his, for example. I also saw mention of his penchant for wearing socks in his Birkenstock sandals, which reminds me of the time he and I went to see one of the Shrek movies (Brent and I went to many movies together over the years and we both particularly enjoyed action flicks and cartoons). Anyway, in this movie, the wizard Merlin appears and is portrayed as a stereotypical male professor who wears socks in his sandals. Brent and I took one look at each other and started howling in laughter because, yes indeed, that was precisely what he had on his feet at that moment.

Brent lived in a very deliberate way, trying as much as he could to live his life in congruence with his values. He was humble about this attempt, knowing full well that we are all creatures rife with contradictions and that we often stumble, but that it is important that we continue trying to do the best that we can. This was a key concept he wanted to share with his students and I can see from the statements by his former students that this message was heard.

Students also speak of Brent as a brilliant instructor. He was clearly revered by his students. Indeed, many former students have shared how he impacted them, both professionally and personally. Many are now educators themselves in one setting or another and have described how Brent has been a role model for them. Others have talked about how he inspired them to think deeply and critically about a whole range of topics, to be compassionate, and to live deliberately. He has impacted hundreds of people over the years through his teaching and they, in turn, have impacted many others. What an amazing legacy!

In the tributes I have seen to Brent over this past week, a number of words pop up frequently: smart, kind, gentle, compassionate, thoughtful, ethical, genuine, playful, funny, inspiring. What a wonderful list. There also has been much mention of his warm smile, his wicked sense of humour, and his infectious laugh. All of these remembrances ring true for me. As well, for me, Brent was also a loyal and trusted friend. We had a brief stint as roommates when he kindly invited me to live with him in his home when I needed a place to stay. I recall those days very fondly. Cooking together, laughing together, drinking tea by the fireplace, with dogs Tinder and Pagan and cat Fisher listening to our philosophical chats about important stuff like our place in the natural world, religion, politics, and the relative merits of heavy metal and folk music.

Another word I would use to describe Brent now is happy. Seven years ago, Brent met Kim, the person he called his “greatest love.” Theirs truly was a fairytale romance and it warmed his friends’ hearts to see him so very, very happy. While Brent and Kim were married just a few short months ago, on July 7, 2014, they have packed a lifetime worth of good memories into their seven years together. Kim, thank you so much for making Brent so happy.

I want to share a poem that one of Kim’s dear friends sent her a couple of days ago. It sums up the gift Brent gave to Kim and to so many of us:
“The best kind of people are the ones who come into your life
and make you see the sun where you once saw clouds.
The people who believe you in so much, you start to believe in you too.
The people who love you for simply being you.
The once in a lifetime kind of people.”
Brent most certainly was one of those “once in a lifetime kind of people” for Kim and for many of us.

I want to close now with an excerpt from a favourite poem of Brent’s, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day. In it, she asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question resonated deeply with Brent and was one he asked not only of himself, but also of his friends and his students. As a way of honouring Brent’s life and memory, then, I challenge each of you to ask that question of yourself not only today, but in the days ahead, especially when you find yourself just going through the motions or being caught up in the demands of daily life. Let me repeat the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Dearest Brent, you did so very much with your own wild and precious life. You taught us. You inspired us. You made us better people. We love you and we will miss you and you will live on in our hearts.


Posted by on November 18, 2014 in PonderQs


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The Stand Outs in our lives

This is the first entry about my trip to Ireland. I met some incredible people. I’ll start with the mountain leader – a fella who knows and loves the hills almost as much as his three children and wife.

If we’re lucky and looking out for them, a handful of people will stand out along the way and touch our lives. Like trail way-markers on the mountain, they let you know you’re on the right path and being true to who you are, or they illuminate the fact that you’re not being true to yourself and help guide you back.

A person walked into my world recently, like an inukshuk at a fork in the road, and became one of those stand outs.

I signed up for a 15-day hiking tour of Ireland in September and the mountain leader was exceptional. But it was more than that he knew every flower and plant including their historical or medicinal purposes and it was more than his knowledge of local history and folklore and it was more than his technical skill in leading us around the hills and mountains that affected me.

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I discovered a bit of a kindred spirit around whom I didn’t feel like an oddity or too quirky. I returned to the playful, unguarded, living in the now, confident person I used to be when paddling for days on end in the wilderness as a youngster. Laughter came easily and silence wasn’t a burden.

Before leading me down a mountain top goat trail that dropped off into oblivion he said, “Do you trust me?” and without fail I knew that I did. It was no big deal because it felt like we’d known each other an eternity in which he’d earned my trust a million times over.

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Why does that happen sometimes out of the blue? Is it because we’re mentally and emotionally ready for that new experience and friend in our life? Is it because we were somehow connected in a past life and really do know each other well on some spiritual level? Is it the magic that happens when taking on a challenge in the outdoors and you have no choice but to trust the person or people you’re with?

I don’t know. All of the above?

What I take away from the experience of knowing him, and what’s important moving forward, is how I share the same generosity of spirit that he shared with me with those who now come into my life. In fact, I know that to be true because he told me just that after I’d visited him one last time before heading back to Canada. I liked that. It reaffirmed that acts of kindness have no strings attached and are to be given and received with an open heart.

We’re all winding our way to the grave and those bright lights who put a spark in our days leave us with lessons and laughs that are only ours to reflect upon and put to use.

I’m choosing to live with great gusto, to have as many adventures as possible, to surround myself with inspiring, quirky people and to be generous with the people I care about, as well as travellers that I meet along the way.

I know the saying … people come into our lives “for a reason, a season or a life time” …

I don’t have many photos of him and I never thought to take one of the two of us.


It always felt weird to pull the camera out on this trip. I was keenly aware of my surroundings on this adventure; sights, sounds, smells, textures. As if, from the mountain tops, all of Ireland was imprinting itself on my soul.

I finally saw the wind.

1 Summit Mt Brandon 2014-09-17 2 Summit Mt Brandon 2014-09-17

I conquered my insecurity about being fit enough to hike.

Shannon Mt Brandon Climb 2 2014-09-17

I laid my hands on ancient rocks


and pocketed little ones from every summit to take home with me and he was there for every part of it. He gave me the first stone at Mount Brandon.

Adrian Summit Mt Brandon 1 2014-09-17

Our guide for week two of the hike … how shall I say it … had a driving style that didn’t suit my sensitive inner ears and stomach. At one point it was finally too much and after having to pull over hastily where I was violently ill in a lovely cafe toilette in Leenane, I crawled into the back-back of the van to lie down and sleep while the others toured a museum in the next town. Now raining outside and shivering cold from being sick, I started reaching around in the van for something cozy to pull over myself so I could get warmed up.

My hand fell on a piece of material and I pulled. He had forgotten his jacket in the van. I pulled it over myself blocking out daylight, the scent of whatever soap he uses calming my frayed nerves.

In the moment before mercifully falling asleep, I was whisked away from my immediate physical suffering and back to the memory of a “thin place.” (a term I learned when studying work by theologian Marcus J. Borg). In that thin place on Carrauntoohil, the veil had lifted and I connected to the source of all energy; God, the Creator, whatever you want to call it.

In that moment before rest, the memory of six ravens playing on air currents in an ancient landscape settled in my mind. The only sound was air being forced through ebony feathers as they sped around and around locked in a playful, aerial display. The sensation of cool mist on my sweaty face, scent of fresh air at altitude in my nostrils and ruggedness of mountain rocks against my palms the only reality. And I recalled the voice of my friend right before he led me into that thin place…

“Do you trust me?”

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I’m so glad that I did and that he tempted me into oblivion.

For interest: When I researched Marcus J.Borg to confirm my thin place definition, the video that popped up addressed it well. Move ahead to 15:26 to hear about Thin Places

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Posted by on October 12, 2014 in PonderQs


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Travel Well – When are you at your best?

Where and what are you doing when time ceases to exist because every cell in your body is vibrating and every neuron in your brain is firing? What awaits you on those days that you leap out of bed ahead of the alarm clock ringing?

I’ve identified a couple of things that have that effect on me and I’ve realized that if I can immerse myself in that which ignites and motivates me then life is 100% richer. I think it feels like a wealthier life, not because of the salary figure attached but because of the internal well that fills and overflows. The challenge, sense of accomplishment and even failure inspire me in the right circumstances.

I think one good measure of knowing whether or not you’re on the right path is how you feel when you fail at something. If I feel demoralized or even apathetic about a poor outcome, chances are pretty clear that I’m on the wrong path. If a failure makes me hungry to try again, do better or use my creativity to envision a different way, I’m travelling well.

1 Footprints 2014-07-23

Isn’t it interesting that as children we so easily migrate to those things that we are naturally inclined but as adults we tend to choose what we think we should be doing or need to improve upon? Why don’t we embrace and follow our strengths rather than beat ourselves senseless trying to perform the stuff that’s on a grown up version of a report card that we hold ourselves accountable to internally?

It’s important to learn new skills and to try new activities, to push ourselves in fresh directions that might open doors of opportunity, but forcing ourselves into boxes that staunch our growth can’t be helpful or healthful.

It sounds so Oprah to say (because she said it) but… here’s what I know for sure.

I AM… an adventurer, a story teller and a seeker of information in order to more deeply understand the world about me.


I’ve always loved the excitement of an adventure, taking calculated risks and I’m incredibly curious. That said I was never the kid who took the scariest jump off the highest piece of playground equipment but was possibly the second to leap if I could determine with assurance that it wouldn’t kill me. I liked the thrill of scaring myself and feeling just a bit tougher than others who wouldn’t even entertain the thought of tossing themselves from a height, but only if it was on my own terms. If anyone tried to push me into doing something that made me nervous, I shut down. I concluded early on that people bullied and pushed their intent on me only if they were hiding some fact or had an ulterior motive that didn’t have my best interest at heart. There is no satisfaction in fulfilling someone else’s goal, especially if it strips you of your confidence and self-determination in the process.

I loved exploring and rejoicing in the feat of the bravest and most athletic. At times I have berated myself for sitting on the sidelines but the truth is I’m simply not as determined or as reckless in the pursuit of pushing boundaries as some people are. But I’m pretty courageous, question everything and I love to record what those living closer to the edge do – through story telling or photography. I want to be in the thick of things observing the risk takers and change makers so that I can retell the tales of their actions to those who will never be part of that world but who wonder about it.

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[An aside: This attribute also makes me an interesting party-goer. I don’t like to drink but rather bartend. The view from my side of the mickey affords me some excellent fodder for teasing in the days following!]

I love being part of a team where excellence is aspired to. Within that team I need a certain amount of freedom and it’s important to me to have a distinct role that contributes to the end result. I hate being told what to do and need to be trusted to do my part well. I take responsibility and deadlines seriously. I will ask for help if I need it but if controlling, commanding and condescension are in your vocabulary and not collaboration, you can do it yourself smarty pants.

One of These Tents is Not Like the Others

I love being able to reflect on a day and know I accomplished something tangible or contributed to the team accomplishing a greater goal. I don’t want to be the centre of attention but I do like the publicity that my work receives.

I love knowing people intensely through situations where we live large and loud and actively and we’ve had to rely on one another to get the best result. I love knowing a few people really well and being comfortable with them having seen me at my worst or my weakest. I don’t doubt that they have my back because they know I have theirs after seeing them at their lowest.

I like a world where judgement is left at the door; communication is clear and mission-based so as not to be taken as a personal attack when a decision is questioned; each person on the team lifts the others up with their words and actions; and everyone is working towards a common goal that has a clear end in sight.

A success then, is something to savour because everyone on the team knows what it took for each member to do their best whether it was through physical or mental courage and prowess. The entire team has a loyalty and respect for one another that runs as hot as the blood in their veins. It’s vital to the result.

The key element in making all of this come alive for me… the mission must be in the wilderness.

Waskesiu Lake     IMG_20140629_174936 Elbow River Alberta 2014-06-29      IMG_20140629_174701 Colder   IMG_20140629_175200 Shady Lake 2013 041   Birch in Autumn

There is no greater equalizer than Nature. There is no other force that can so swiftly knock a person to their knees, humble them to the core and then raise them up with gifts of fleeting grace and beauty as Nature.

Ice  Weathered Wood Dewdrops 1  Puzzle Rock



Bow Lake 2014-07-20  Indian Paintbrush Mountains 2014 Height of Land Tower  Paignton Beach 2014

Working with the elements is about adaptation, not winning or beating an enemy, for Nature is not an adversary. It just is, and the challenge is whether or not (and sometimes how quickly) you can puzzle out how to harness Nature’s power to resolve the issue at hand in a way that mitigates irreversible (versus perceived) damage and destruction and heals the earth while protecting those living nearby. Achieving that delicate balance is a grand experience that will leave the entire team buoyed for weeks afterward and striving to repeat the high through increased excellence.

Fire, flood, electrical storms, blizzards, canoe trips, working with wildlife; these are all areas in which I’ve experienced feeling that I am not just connected to but part of every aspect of the natural world about me. There is no separation between Nature and my body and that which I perceive to be “me.” When I can get in that groove and do it with a team of people who are as equally present; body sweating, muscles pumping, sight sharp, ears tuned in, mind keen and lungs so full of air it feels like you might take flight, that is when I am fired up and closest to being the best of what I have the potential to be.


But the very best part is knowing that I still have room to grow which makes getting out of bed tomorrow as exciting as it was today.





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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in PonderQs


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Lunch Post Challenge: Rattled & Hummed

One of my oldest friends has been informed that her breast cancer is back and now in her bones and lymph nodes. It’s not an immediate death sentence and she’s one hell of a fighter but it’s definitely not good news.

She has four children younger than 12, three of them daughters.

She is 41, four days younger than me.

We have been friends since we were 14.

We met on a 2-week canoe trip and went on a 6-week canoe trip and worked at a YM/YWCA camp for years. I can’t explain it to those who have never been on wilderness trips like that but those canoe trips cement friendships for life. Even if you don’t see each other for long periods of time… it doesn’t matter. We’re sisters.

I’ve been busting into heaves and sobs on and off since I found out yesterday. Cancer looked at two women the same age and chose to afflict the one with four babies but not the one with five pets? It’s just so messed up.

So I fell asleep all stuffed up and puffy-faced and sad and wouldn’t you know who rescued me?

Love rescued me

Came forth and spoke to me

Raised me up and didn’t let me fall…

U2. My favourite band of all time visited me in my dreams and gave the concert of their life to 37 fortunate fans in an old run down curling rink in Calgary complete with a canteen, and at one point, someone walked in with a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts.

It doesn’t get much better or more Canadian than that people! I woke up laughing.



Posted by on January 24, 2014 in PonderQs


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