Bear Bells and Mountain Trails

Now that I am newly outdoorsy, I try to consciously spend at least two days a week outside – mostly on long meandering jaunts through the many state and federal parks nearby. I have spent many a glorious afternoon wandering through the woods, taking any trail that interests me, especially if it has an enticing name like Moose Meadow or Otter Run. The hours I spend wandering outside are good for me, both physically and emotionally. I am able to return to reality with a clearer perspective. I am naturally curious, and being surrounded by so many novel plants and trails provides so much satisfaction. I love mountain-gazing and these hikes allow ample opportunity for the endeavor. Those miles of beautiful terrain helped me clear my mind and focus my thoughts on any pressing issues I am experiencing. I end each hike feeling powerful and capable, with several miles under my belt.

One of my absolute favorite things about heading into the woods is the control I have. I can choose my own paths – I choose if I turn right or left at each intersection, I choose how long I want to continue my adventures, if I want to listen to a podcast or not. There are a lot of events in my life currently that are out of my control, so having this one extremely pleasurable aspect that I can fully control is really helpful. Often I start feeling rushed and hurried if I have a lot to do that day, especially if others’ expectations are weighing heavily on my mind. When I’m in the woods I say out loud, “I am not in a rush. I am in charge.” And I can relax and enjoy myself.

Because I am in control of my actions, I can fully satisfy my curiosity. In my favorite (and closest) park, Hilltop Ski Area, there are an untold combination of paths I can take into the woods. There are so many intersecting trails that cross at different points and lead to different destinations, I love exploring all of them. Some days I make all the same turns except at the very end I turn left instead of right, some days I take completely new routes. I get so much satisfaction from choosing a different trail each time, always seeing new places and new things. I also occasionally adventure out of my usual nearby Hilltop route and explore what other trail systems have to offer. Every time I go to a new park, I feel like I’m going on an exciting new quest with untold beautiful treasures.

There’s no better way to build a friendship than going in long hikes. Curiosity leads to the most amazing conversations. It’s the perfect time to get to the nitty-gritty details often skipped over at other times. The hours on the trail have to be filled somehow, especially if there’s a risk of bears. When bears might be nearby, loud noises help alert them to our presence, so what might have started as a short story gets longer and more detailed. Once surface level details are thoroughly discussed, we move on to deeper conversations. We discuss our feelings about our current mental health status, what we hope for in the future, or what a dream job entails. Our curiosity about each other allows us to learn so much about who we really are and what we really want. I feel so much closer to the friends I go on hikes with, in part because of the inherent trust that goes along with entering bear territory together, and also due to the depth of conversation we dive into. The beautiful scenery also helps stimulate conversation as there is always something new to exclaim over.

It’s hard to overstate how gorgeous Alaska is. I have never seen such stunning vistas, so easily accessible and massive in scale. Even downtown Anchorage has views of the Chugach Mountains looming large over the city to the east, and the sparkling Cook Inlet to the west. Parks basically litter the city, accounting for a good potion of its total acreage.

Any time I visit a state or federal park, I know without a doubt astonishing natural beauty will surround me. I am always sure to take my camera with me, because I know I’ll encounter something worth capturing. I love wandering through the narrow dirt trails that wind over creeks, meander through birch stands, and reveal hidden treasures. I prefer the single-track dirt trails because I feel closer to nature – plants do their best to reclaim the area that was once theirs. Trees roots, big rocks, and pinecones litter the trail, requiring my complete concentration to avoid rolling doing the hill in an unseemly fashion. I create time and space to take in the beauty surrounding me, often taking long breaks and just listening to the tranquility of the forest, the occasional bird call or rush of a creek.

A winter wonderland sunset at 4:30 pm at my favorite Hilltop Ski Area.

Though braving the cold is the hardest part of wintertime walks, it is well worth it. The sun begins its descent around 4:30 pm in the heart of winter, making it is easy to watch the hot pink and orange clouds transform the sky, shining through the glittering tree branches. The colder the weather, the more the snow coating every surface shines crystal bright, turning every vista into a glimmering winter wonderland. After about ten minutes of walking, my face becomes numb to the cold and I am able to begin focusing on something other than the biting breeze. Another benefit of wintertime walks – significantly reduced risk of encountering bears as they are cozily hibernating.

While the bears are dreaming of chasing bunnies and salmon, I am often busy chasing solutions to any current challenges I’m facing. These challenges vary in scale and importance, but are nonetheless worthwhile reflections. I think about everything from updating my cover letter, how to best practice gratitude in my daily life, or an analyses of the latest book I’ve read. I took a lot of long walks (usually around two hours) when I thought about the possibility of setting up this blog. I considered a lot of pros and cons about entering the blogging sphere, hashing out the best way to go about the endeavor during the winter, while I took in the blazing sunsets and crisp air.

My favorite trails loop around mountains rather than heading straight up the mountain face, so that the overall change in elevation isn’t significant. I’m not out of breath or straining to complete these hikes, but I have the time and energy to think. I think about a variety of aspects of my life during these long walks, which is made all the easier by the lack of internet service and other distractions. The forests are stunning silent – the occasion bird call rings through the air, but few other sounds enter, especially none of the human variety. The absolute silence and stillness in the winter is mesmerizing. The crisp, fresh air helps ground me and contextualize the scale of my problems. Nothing is as pressing or dire when I’m surrounded by the mountains and forest that have been looming above the landscape for centuries.

The woods are not completely silent while I hike – I generally have a bear bell, more popularly referred to as a jingle bell, attached to my daypack to alert bears to my presence. The bells are so commonly attached to dogs and daypacks that bears that live in high traffic areas know people are around when they hear the sound. They are likely to move away from the sound, thus preventing an unpleasant encounter. I know the bear bell increases my safety so I am more able to fully relax and enjoy myself, knowing that I will not surprise a bear, leading to a deadly meeting. Often the only sound I hear during the hikes, I subconsciously associate the cheery sound with forthcoming joy. The bell merrily punctuates my thoughts and provides a constant background to my thoughts.

A late night (10:00 pm) summertime hike, featuring the midnight sun and a wider version of my favorite winding dirt paths.

Of course, who can forget the most exhausting aspect of long hikes – the mileage. I am always sure to get at least my daily 10,000 steps when I head out into the woods. I wear a Fitbit to track my movement and I love reviewing the stats after each hike, especially after a climb a mountain. Depending on the length of the hike, I can walk 27,000 steps (around 13 miles), and climb 300 stories. I get enormous satisfaction from watching my numbers steadily increase as my heart rate skyrockets. My legs are always sore the next day, but I bounce back within two days. At the end each hike I feel tired, but strong and powerful. My body can climb literal mountains and it is capable of so much more.

I highly recommend everyone consciously spend some time outside, even if you don’t live in the beautiful, easily accessible Alaskan wilderness, because so much good can come out of time spent outdoors. A lot of studies show the scientific value of forest-bathing, as the newly popular Japanese concept is called. An excellent book was written on the topic, breaking down the myriad of benefits that result from being away from the influence and increasing persistence of notifications, bright screens, and city noise.

Spending hours in the tranquil Alaskan woods adds so much value to my life. I leave the woods feeling so serene and capable. The mountains give me time and space to think, or to consciously not think, and clear my mind of any stresses.

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