Section C - Day 5: Lessons of Tamarack.
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
I leave Banff after my unplanned snow-day as early as I can tear myself away from the cotton sheets and hot running water (read: way later than I should have). Surprise surprise, it's raining again, all day, but I need to get back on the trail because I'm now a day behind.
The GDT is unlike most other thru-hikes in that you need to book many of your campsites months earlier and get camping permits in the big parks. It feels really important to me to stick to my bookings - some of these campsites are very sought after, and there are many people who would love to stay in them, but don't get the bookings in time. I don't want to freeload on sites I haven't booked. But I'm now a day behind and need to catch up to my reserved campsites! After faffing at Sunshine for way too long, reluctant to get wet again, I plunge back into the rain and start hiking as fast as I can.
Despite the weather, I'm in pretty good spirits, my skin can still remember what it feels like to be warm, and my belly is full of hotel breakfast buffet. The views are misty and subdued, but I'm hiking through groves of tamarack. I love tamarack. It's my favourite alpine tree, and I always delight in its presence.
The steely light grey trunks, and spring-green needles seem festive against the backdrop of more common dark alpine spruce and fir krummholz. I love it's lightness, it's wispy foliage, how unlike it's cousins, it's needles stay so soft to the touch. Almost like pistils of a flower.
Tamarack needles stay soft because unlike all it's other cone-bearing relatives, it is deciduous. In early September every year, it turns canary yellow, whole mountainsides blazing in the late-day sun, and drops all of its needles, leaving a light grey skeleton of a tree. Thin and wiry, these grey skeletons stand bare all winter, wind and snow whistling between their fingers. In this way, they are less likely to be blown over, because they present less surface area to gather the force of the wind and the weight of the snow. It is a good way of protecting yourself as an alpine tree. No better and no worse than the method of the densly packed prickly krummholz - but I love it. And every so often, I come across an ancient tamarack, trunk wide as a barrel, towering above all other tree species on the mountainside. I know how slow mountain trees grow, and my mind bends as I walk beneath them.
This yearly shedding and regrowth means that the needles never need to harden into prickles to survive the harsh winter. They stay light green, and tender to the touch all summer long. Glowing in the alpine sun while the summer is there, and decorating the new autumn snow with their peach fingers when it departs. I delight in brushing my hands against their soft needles as I pass, and the forest floor is soft nwith their fallen ones past as I step along it.
I am thinking a lot about changes these days, of course, and shedding. As my body adjusts to a new hormonal profile, part of me feels sad. For every change, there is an associated loss, and although I greet every change with joy and wonder, I think with sadness about my before-self, and what will happen to it. You cannot change and still be the same person, really. And I'm scared of all the change coming my way. I'm also thinking about masculinity, and how the world teaches men to grow hard in the face of pain, how little space the world has for softness, for truly feeling loss, and for the miraculous, if crooked process of regrowth that comes in the aftermath. That comes when you do allow the winter to rake through your limbs. When you feel.
I'm listening to the audiobook of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer on and off as I do this hike, and I can't imagine a better companion to a solo hike through such a lush and wild place. I recommend this book to everyone. There are many things going on in this book, but one of the things Kimmerer writes about, is learning to listen to plants. To hear what kind of lessons they have to teach you, and to be grateful for all that they give. I am thinking a lot about tamarack as I hike, and the lesson of loss. Shedding. How brave it is to lose your needles so high up here, and how miraculous to grow again. To be soft.