[Note: The following was first published in the September 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
“The older you get, Don, the more of these you’ll attend,” observed one of my mentors many years ago now. He was approaching retirement age and was about to leave for the funeral of one of his old friends. Since I am now past that mentor’s age, and indeed saw his own passing, I have to agree—if you survive this life long enough, one of the prices you pay is seeing more of your friends and colleagues predecease you.
Some passings have more impact than others, depending on how well you knew the individual and the experiences you shared. Like most people my age, I have had many friends over the years, from grade school chums through college buddies to work colleagues and neighbors. However, the ones whose friendships I’ve most cherished are those with whom I’ve shared some intense life-changing events. Many of those events occurred outdoors.
For example, my wife Betty and I were recently informed that one of our friends from many decades ago had died quite suddenly and the family was planning a memorial for him at the place where we worked, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. There, Randy and I had worked for the U.S. National Park Service and shared a love for the park with our fellow workers. These were summer jobs often taken by students in their early 20s. They were custom built for people considering careers in the outdoors, and I felt very lucky to have landed one, as did my new colleagues. Many of us worked several seasons at the park and became fast friends. Some of us met our life partners there, making the park a special place indeed.
Although we initially made excuses for not attending the memorial, Betty and I eventually decided to make the trip. Randy needed a good send off, there would be several old friends there, and seeing the park again would rekindle some memories and stories that should not be forgotten. We were not disappointed. Even though we had worked with these people only for a few years out of our lives, their friendships had become a part of who we are.
One of the many subjects we discussed, while hiking trails and viewing the unique landscapes, was why did our times together in this place mean so much to us. The consensus boiled down to our youth, the jobs we were doing and the place we were doing them in.
Being young adults, we were searching for our places in the world. The outdoors beckoned us all, but how were we going to fit that passion into our lives, as a career or a pastime? It was a pivotal time for all of us.
Our jobs taught us about the responsibility associated with public service. I served as a seasonal ranger and was trained in forest fire control, mountain rescue, law enforcement and public relations. When I first came to the park, I had a budding interest in mountain climbing that I had developed when I hiked in the Sierra Nevada as a teenager. Climbing Mt. Rainier (4393 m, 14,410 ft.), however, seemed out of my league. It involved climbing up steep glacial ice using specialized equipment and techniques. But now I was a member of an organization that would be called upon to rescue mountain climbers who got into trouble on a glacier. So I took the national park mountain climbing and rescue school. It was an intense week on the mountain, learning how to climb on ice and how to rescue people from crevasses, etc. At the end of the course, there was a graduation climb of The Mountain. We were all successful to the summit but more importantly we all were now members of a unique group of people who have shared a special experience. I was hooked. I wanted to climb some more.
Fortunately, I worked with a group of people who also wanted to climb. The result was I ended up climbing Rainier three times and going with my climbing friends to climb peaks elsewhere in the Cascade Mountains. I also participated in several mountain rescues. Mountain climbing, especially on ice, is all about teamwork and trusting your partners with your life and they trusting you with theirs. These experiences moulded our characters and bound us together like few other friendships.
When I came to Alberta to pursue graduate studies in wildlife biology, I met other students with similar interests and aspirations from all over North America and parts of the rest of the world. Many hunted and fished, as well as hiked and backpacked. Betty and I fit right in. While we worked at school and in the field, we made many friends with whom we shared many interesting experiences that further defined who we are.
Like the national park jobs, our university work only lasted a few years, after which we each went our separate ways in pursuit of various careers. My first job out of school was working for a biological consulting firm in the Arctic. After that I bounced around various jobs as the economy waxed and waned. Friends came and went, but the most enduring friendships were those with whom we shared outdoor pursuits. Some helped us build our house, and we helped build theirs. Others backpacked, hunted or fished with us.
Some of the longest friendships have come from our hunting experiences. Our moose-hunting group has been hunting together for over 45 years. Sitting around a campfire at night telling the stories and legends that have grown from our experiences is a ritual that never gets old.
One of the boons to keeping us connected with our friends over the years has been the Internet, mostly e-mail. Before that came along in the 1990s, we communicated by postal mail and telephone. E-mail allowed us to easily keep up with each other in real time, and arrange face-to-face reunions and other get-togethers where we put our pasts into perspective.
Never Forget Your Friends
After our trip to Mt. Rainier this summer, one of our friends sent us one of those stories that float about the Internet without attribution. I usually don’t pass these stories along but this one struck a chord, especially after what we experienced. The following is a brief paraphrase:
A father tells his newly wed son that although he’s embarking on a new phase of life, he should never forget his friends. Time passes, life goes on, children grow up, distance separates, jobs come and go, desires weaken, people disappoint, the heart breaks and parents die. But true friends are always there, no matter how long or how many miles away they may be.
A friend is never more distant than a phone. If need be, they will intervene in your favor or steer you down a better path.
When we started down this adventure called Life, we did not know the incredible joys or sorrows ahead or how much we would need from each other. Love your spouse, your parents and your children, but keep a group of good friends.
Sometimes in the hurly-burly lives we lead, we forget to remember how we got where we are and who helped us get there. It never hurts to reconnect and catch-up.
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