words and photos :: Leslie Anthony
The message came in late—could I help out with leading a nature walk the next day?
Of course you can, people I know would snicker. But then, they really don’t know me. Despite having been a high school teacher, university lecturer and frequent public speaker, anything that comes with the weight of expectation unnerves me—at least momentarily. Suddenly, everything I know seems trivial and unworthy of sharing. How could I possibly help out on a nature walk when all I’m really good at is writing about it? Besides, only keeners sign up for nature walks, I fretted, and they’ll want to know about things like birds and ferns and flowers when all I have to offer are anecdotes about creepy crawlies like snakes, frogs and bugs.
In reality, I’d probably absorbed enough ancillary bio-info from a range of geeky associates to fill an entire book (which, I realized, I had already done on more than one occasion), so I was probably selling myself short. And the man who made the offer—a well-known purveyor of numerous eco-touristic experiences—knew it.
“You’ll do fine,” he coaxed. “It’s leisurely—these people are on vacation and just looking forward to a fun morning on the trails.”
I conceded. Still, I demanded a wing man. A mentor. That’s because I needed to formally apprentice—however briefly—as something I’d more-or-less been all my adult life but never quite owned: a Nature Guide.
With no idea what to expect, I rendezvous in the morning with three other guides (all exceptionally experienced) at the designated time. A UK tour group that has pinballed through Canada for 10 days from their starting point of Calgary, rolled into my adopted town of Whistler the previous evening. There are thirty or so hikers and the plan for our three-hour tour (I hear the Gilligan’s Island theme song playing) is to divide into a fast-walking group with little talking, a slow-walking group with lots of talking, and a group somewhere in the middle with a reasonably equal walk/talk ratio. I’m assigned to that posse, and I’m assisting Janice, who, in addition to having done this a bazillion times, is super knowledgeable and super nice.
I turn up two salamanders with glistening striped backs. Out come the cameras. Now it’s a treasure hunt.
As we head out, the first sunny day in what seems forever affords an opportunity to talk about the weather. If you can’t do that without thinking then you can’t do much, and Janice and I have no problem lamenting our oddly hot spring followed by a dreary June-uary and the effects this flip-flop has had on everything from bird migrations to planting tomatoes. That breaks the ice, so to speak, and we’re off.
The first nature Janice fills the guests in on is human: a sprinkling of local history, hubris and a few tidbits about the 2010 Olympics. They’re all rapt,and I realize I’m going to have to expand my own information repertoire to anthropological concerns if I am to succeed at this enterprise in the future. To wit: it’s great to learn about how red squirrels store nuts in their cheeks, but where’s that bobsled track and how fast can you actually go in one?
Speaking of red squirrels and their nuts, as we cross into a wetland to begin the actual walk, a discussion erupts over whether that relationship is responsible for the expression “cheeky.” As this Wallace and Gromit-like question consumes our attention, we head into the forest where there’s no end of things to talk about. We start with the abundant bear sign—munched dandelions, poop, and claw marks on trees. Janice expertly delivers the key points and answers questions about how many bears live in the valley, how they use trails, and where they hibernate, then throws it over to me to deliver arcane information about how skunk cabbage lures bears from dens in the spring and helps them clean the winter cobwebs from their intestines.
Suddenly we’re a team, and I relax. We discuss invasive plants, then devil’s club and why it has that name (its springy, spine-encrusted branches have a habit of hitting you in the face), and how First Nations use its inner bark as a salve. When Janice dishes on logging, it opens up the topic of tree diversity and ages, the forest’s cycle of life, and the role of abundant “nurse stumps” we encounter.
The Brits are mesmerized by the simple fact of trees growing on trees, but I have an even better party trick. Since it has been raining and the ground is saturated, I figure I can find some amphibians. Fortuitously, I turn up two salamanders with glistening striped backs. Out come the cameras. Now it’s a treasure hunt.
But it’s also still a hike, and Janice sets a good pace up and over the forested hills surrounding a small lake. Here, I recognize coral mushrooms, bracket fungi, symbiotic lichens and a moss called “fairy vomit” that I point out to folks at the back of the group, as Janice holds court with other small wonders up front. Soon we’ve circled the lake with talk of birds, fish and toads.
As we head back, satisfied chatter ripples through the group. They’ve had a good day and so have we guides. I needn’t have worried about failing at this job. After all, nature, as always, makes it easy to impress. –ML