Grand Canyon, Arizona

During my Spring Break from teaching, I was lucky to have had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon, Arizona, one of the seven “Natural Wonders of the World.”

It is stunning. Beautiful. Inspiring. Terrifying.

Nature has the power to stretch the limits of the imagination. When we witness the unimaginable, we are able to dream bigger and see the world through a new lens of possibility.

Bearing witness to one of the World’s Natural Wonders left me with a new perspective of how small and insignificant I am and how silly my “issues” are.

Meaning only exists inside of my own mind–what I believe to be true, real, possible. I’m only one small, speck on this Earth so I may as well create meaning that actually matters and let go of the shit that doesn’t.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

-Albert Einstein

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“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” 

-John Muir

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“Curiosity is the one thing invincible in Nature.”

-Freya Stark

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“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.” 

-Christopher McCandless

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“In the long run, we only hit what we aim at.” 

-Henry David Thoreau

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“It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.”

-Jon Krakauer

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Debbie Jenkins

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“My inspiration is in nature. It’s simplicity. It’s complexity. It’s beauty.”

For the fifth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I chatted with Debbie Jenkins, an amazing woman who I had the pleasure of meeting while teaching in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Debbie worked for 7 years in the Canadian Arctic as a caribou biologist, and is currently completing her PhD at Trent University.

Debbie grew up in North Bay, Ontario. She attributes her current passion for biological conservation to her active, outdoorsy childhood, a life-long gift from her amazing parents.  

From an early age, she developed a deep connection with nature, and this relationship is at the core of everything that she does. An avid adventurer, Debbie takes every opportunity to get outside, whether that is through traveling, hiking, skiing, paddling, camping, or simply spending time alone on the land.

“At the core of who I am is this connection I have with nature.” 

After completing her undergraduate degree at Laurentian University in Environmental Science, Debbie worked for Science North and then the Department of the Environment in Sudbury for several years. Eventually, her love of learning and commitment to nature pulled her to quit her job to follow her dreams of becoming a biologist and she began a Master’s Degree in Biology at Trent University.

During her Master’s, Debbie worked with elk that had been reintroduced in Ontario, and white-tailed deer, and developed a research interest in large ungulates. After graduating, she left the security and comfort of her work in Ontario, and moved to the Arctic where she lived and worked for 7 years.

“I always wanted to work in the Arctic. I always felt this passion for large, wild spaces and I couldn’t imagine a wilder space than the Arctic.” 

As a wildlife research biologist in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Debbie conducted population surveys of caribou and muskoxen, collaring projects, and community-based monitoring. She traveled all over the High Arctic and completed research projects in some of the most remote regions, many of which had not been monitored for 40 years. 

Debbie is currently completing her PhD at Trent University and is using the data she collected from her time in Nunavut to inform her research. With many caribou populations declining, not only in the Arctic, but across Canada and globally, Debbie’s work is important for gathering information on the status, distribution and structure of caribou and muskoxen populations, as well as the potential impact of climate change on these iconic Arctic species. She hopes that she will be able to use the knowledge she gains from doing her PhD to communicate scientific research in a way that is meaningful and “palatable to people in the Arctic and to people around the globe.”

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Debbie talks about her loves of nature, her partner, her family, and her dog, her passion for protecting the earth’s biological diversity, and her personal challenge to do new things even when she’s afraid.  

“I quit two jobs to go back to school. I left a really comfortable job in Ontario to go up to the Arctic, and it’s not to say I was this brave person heading out, because I was scared to death when I did some of those things. But I did [them] afraid. You know when you think you can’t do it, when you can’t get past the fear, just do it afraid.”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Debbie’s interview here:

Witnessing Magic in the Amazon Rainforest

Peacock Fly
Peacock Fly in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador.

A few years ago, I took my first trip to Disney World during a spring break vacation to Florida. To be honest, I was kind of dreading the experience. I thought that I’d be turned off by all the crowds, commercialism, and unrealistically proportioned princesses.

Shannon as wizard
Becoming a wizard in the Magic Kingdom.

But since the friend I was traveling with was excited to visit the recently opened Harry Potter World, I decided to give it a chance.

As predicted, I did find some of the ways that the park commodifies happiness a little soul-crushing. Surprisingly, though, underneath all of the make-up and costumes, amusement park rides, princesses, castles, light shows and souvenir shops, I was witnessing a hint of magic–something unbelievable but that existed nonetheless.

Stripped down, I could see that Walt Disney World is an example of the extraordinary power of the human imagination and what can be accomplished when dreams are put into action.

Oddly, I sensed a similar presence of magic on a trip to the Amazon last week.

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The Amazon is so wild and beautiful that it is hard to believe that it really exists. But it does.

I know that Walt Disney World is NOTHING like the wild of the Amazon Rainforest, but both left me feeling like I was witnessing the impossible. They inspired a sense of wonder, left me questioning reality, and stretched my imagination of what I believed could exist in real life.

Cuyabeno
I visited the Amazon in Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, home to an abundance of flora and fauna and several indigenous communities.

Unlike Disney World, however, the magic of the jungle is that it is not imagined, but a living, breathing ecosystem. It exposes the darkest side of nature, but also its brightest colours.

Baby Anaconda
A baby anaconda hides amidst the bushes. The average length of adult male anacondas is 2.7m, with the longest on record being almost 9m.
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Caimans, which tend to be 2.5-4m long, are well camouflaged in the dark, murky waters of the Amazon River.

The Amazon River is the largest river on earth, making up one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater. It’s been referred to as the “lung of the world” because of its massive power to have vital gases exchanged between the forest and the atmosphere. The rainforest stretches through nine countries:  Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and is the most bio-diverse region on the planet.

In the Amazon, there are anacondas that prey upon caimans, birds, and even jaguars from blackwater lagoons, trees that are over 5000 years old, termites that inspire engineering projects, birds that mate for life (take that, Ashley Madison!), and butterflies that re-define the colour wheel.

Squirrel Monkeys
Squirrel Monkeys search for food in the Amazon’s canopy areas.
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A sloth slowly makes its way along a tree branch.
Stinky Turkeys
Stinky Turkeys are one of over 580 species of birds in the Amazon.
Wooly Monkey
The Wooly Monkey is one of over 10 species of monkeys in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Due to its diversity, the extraordinary role it plays in regulating the earth’s climate, and the sense of wonder it inspires, the Amazon Rainforest is an example of the ways in which life can transcend what we believed to be possible. Unfortunately, looming threats of oil and gas extraction, deforestation, and other development projects threaten the future of the Amazon (along with many of the Earth’s wildest places).

Not only will this limit the diversity of life on the planet, it will also threaten our ability to imagine new possibilities for how to make the world a better place to live.  For me, it’s these glimpses of magic that make life interesting. They push us to dream bigger, live more fully, and expand our imaginations of what we can accomplish.

As Walt Disney said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Los Nevados: My week ‘out on the land’

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Camping by a secluded laguna in Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia. My carpa (tent) is the white dot in the bottom left corner.

I just spent the last week without my iPhone. I know what you’re thinking: How did I live without the daily dose of selfies from my fave Instacat? #Olivegram

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@justoneolive  How pretty is this kitty? #Model.

Even though I make a conscious effort to detach when I can, it’s been years since I’ve gone without the Internet at my fingertips for more than a couple of days. Many places of quiet solitude, like my family cottage in Quebec, and some of Canada’s National Parks, my ‘refuges’ from the stresses of city life, now have Wi-Fi hotspots. With so many distractions, so much pressure to squeeze in a status update, respond to an e-mail, or scroll through a database of potential dates for Saturday night while riding the subway or running on the treadmill, it’s hard to make time these days to stop. think. breathe.

Los Nevados National Park, Colombia
Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia

But last week, on a week-long camping trip in Los Nevados National Natural Park, I was finally able to unplug and disconnect. Los Nevados (Spanish for ‘snow covered peaks’), is a protected wilderness high up in the Colombian Andes (over 3500m in altitude), where conditions are wild and rugged, reminiscent of previous trips I’ve done in the remote Alaskan backcountry and northern Canada.

At least in the regions of the park where we were, there is no electricity or running water, no designated campsites or marked trails, and certainly no Wi-Fi. It is a place that is difficult to access, even for local Colombians.

I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Park.
I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Natural Park.

Luckily, I was camping with locals who knew the land really well, as cloudy conditions and gnarly terrain resulted in us losing the ‘trail’ multiple times. On several occasions, the clouds had created such a whiteout that I felt like I was standing at the top of Tremblant, the ski resort that my family often went to when I was a kid which often has blizzard like conditions at the summit.

Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of 'Where's Waldo' at the top of Mount Tremblant!
Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ !

Since the ultimate purpose of our trip was to fly-fish for trucha (trout), we had a goal of locating a laguna (small lake) that my friend’s boyfriend had previously heard about from some campesinos (local farmers). It took us two days to find it, which involved bush-whacking through thick jungle, crossing swamps and streams, summiting mountains, hiking across tundra, and getting lost then re-routed several times, but it was certainly worth the struggle. The elusive laguna was nestled in a secluded valley surrounded by mountains and was a gold-mine of trucha. Originally, we planned on traveling overtop one of the mountains to another river, but rainy weather and great fishing convinced us to change plans and camp at the laguna for four nights.

Smoking trout for dinner!
Smoked trout for dinner!

I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshing it was to be forced to slowdown and be still. I enjoyed being able to read a book without being constantly distracted by texts or e-mails, and having real conversations with friends who were truly paying attention to what I was saying, rather than half-listening while scrolling through Instagram.

Trucha (trout)
Trucha (trout)
The sun did make some brief appearances! Good thing a 5am need to pee forced me out of my tent to see this beauty of a sunrise.
The sun did make some brief appearances! 5am sunrise over the laguna.
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-100 years old!
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-1000 years old!
Apparently the trail goes through here.
Apparently the trail is this way.

My week of being ‘out on the land’ (a phrase I often heard used by Inuit when I lived in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to describe being in nature) forced me to truly live in the moment, which according to Buddhist and many New Age philosophies, is the pathway to happiness.

I loved being able to read without distractions.
I loved being able to read without distractions.

(Okay, so maybe one of the books I read in my tent during a monsoon was Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which further reinforced the idea that showing up, being present, letting go of the past and our expectations for the future, and living in what he calls ‘the NOW’, is essential for spiritual transformation and whole-hearted living).

I guess my challenge NOW that I’m back in the city, is how to live without distractions in a world that is full of them. I haven’t even been able to write this post without pulling out my phone to see if my friend’s messaged me on WhatsApp or compulsively checking Instagram for @justoneolive’s latest status update.

Maybe I should start by–gasp!– turning my phone off.