canoeing, death, Faithful Living, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Trees, Wilderness Paddling, Winter


The graceful tamarack is my favorite tree. Now, in the iron fist of winter, it soldiers on, bared of its fronds like a naked pine. Also called a larch, the tamarack is a unique tree in that it is considered both coniferous (evergreen, conical shape) and deciduous (loses its leaves/needles). The indigenous Algonquian and Abenaki peoples used it to make snowshoes because of its pliant nature.

Why do I love it so? Mostly I think it is because it is shaped by grace, and colored a rich, soft emerald that turns a royal gold in the autumn, and because the birds love the tamarack’s cover and branching. Here at Trout Creek our resident wrens sing lustily from the largest tamarack next to the garden. Tamaracks grow in swampy areas, greedily drinking up the excess water like a camel in the desert. And, heaven knows, in this family, we love the mired bogs and fens that subdue sound and teem with life. The tamarack tenderly graces the rivers we paddle, swaddled into the forest edge with cedar, birch, and pine.

What I love most, though, is that this tree, so dead-like now, will soon sprout soft, feathery green pinions as the wrens return to nest in its bosom. It reminds me of my dad and brother-in-law who lost their hair to chemotherapy- bald and bare in the cold. But, what seems utterly dead and ready for the woodpile is actually a living thing at rest, hibernating like the bear. What seems lifeless is full of life, of living beauty and grace, where birds and animals shelter with confidence and hope. I love, too, that the tamarack is pliant, like a life bent to the Presence and will of God.

Here, in the strong grip of winter, the tamarack’s barren look mirrors my own mood; the cold, dark days strip and whip me mentally and physically, and my vitality dips, and I feel exactly the same way stumbling through this drowsy hibernation. And yet, I remain secure in the knowledge that I am protected, warmed, and given a great hope in the life that is in me and is also to come. Thank you God for the tamarack trees, and the way they remind us of your grace and love.

These short essays are my way of noodling about life in the wilderness, on foot, in a canoe, on a bike.  If you want to read more, sign up to follow the blog and you will receive an email each time a new essay is posted!  Your comments help

~J.A.P. Walton

If you are passionate about quiet adventuring: paddling, camping, hiking, cycling etc. try this link to find out about the Quiet Water Society!  Quiet Water Society

death, Faithful Living, Hope, iceboating, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Uncategorized, Winter, Winter Water Sports

At the Mercy of…

It is finally iceboating season in Michigan! Lake Michigan acts as a huge heat sink, and when its waters are warmer than the air, the significant evaporation results in lake effect snow showers for days on end. But, once the lake begins to cool off, the snow lets up so that the inland lakes can freeze slick and relatively snow-free. Our whole family gets impatient for the good ice to form!

My brother got his boat out last weekend. It takes some work, sharpening the runners (as you do your ice skates), checking the sail for holes (the mice can eat like horses), making sure the stays and halyard and sheet ropes are sound, and, of course, gauging the depth of the ice and the force of the wind.

As in all outdoor adventure, you put yourself at the mercy of prevailing elements when iceboating. That means you must withstand marrow-freezing cold, fickle winds, imperfections in the ice, and other ice boaters. Of course, you do your best to fend off the threats with the right equipment and sound judgment. A pot of chili on day-long simmer doesn’t hurt either.

I have been thinking a lot this year about “being at the mercy of…”. We typically think of mercy as something we extend to others-actions like charity, compassion, and nonjudgmental service. I wonder, though, if mercy isn’t so much bigger, and why we often fail to see ourselves in need of it; we are needy recipients, yet prefer to believe we are grandly altruistic in our smug self-sufficiency. God knows better. There is nothing we can do or buy to protect ourselves. In the end, we are incapable of saving ourselves because we can’t be enough-not good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, nor can we work hard enough to avoid the ice cold truth that we will die.

Think about a God who would still love you despite all your imperfections and sins. One who would make a way for you to be fully prepared in life to accept and even welcome death, and to live forever with Him. That is mercy as deep and solid as good ice. All you have to do is believe it.

Happy sailing…into the arms of a savior!

~J.A.P. Walton

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Darkness, death, Faithful Living, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Light, Uncategorized, Winter

The Light Across the Creek

Last week, after a full and happy Christmas Day with her family, my mother-in-law went to bed and fell asleep forever. We were not surprised-her light had been dimming over time, and, in these last days, it was as translucent as the papery skin on the back of her hands. After all, life is bounded by breath, pulse, and light. Without these, we are gray and cold and lifeless. And I think that, on this side of the river, the God who breathes life into us, who drums a thrumming pulse into our veins, and who IS the light of our living, also snuffs out our light in His good timing.

Here, at Trout Creek, the woods and running waters meld into the cold and dark of our short winter days. And even though we live just outside the city, without a clear sky and a near-full moon it is deeply dark here, a playground for the owl and deer, but a mask of drear, even dread for the rest of us. But, high up on the hill across the creek, the neighboring house leaves a back porch light on all night long. It is a beacon of hope for me, that this moldering darkness can be split apart, that there is a Light that welcomes us from across the wilderness of this life. Mom’s earthly light went out last week. But the light upon the hill shining through the dark from the other side of the creek reminds me that mom is not really gone, but joined to the great Light that is our Father.

To celebrate mom’s life, we made a pilgrimage to her home up north, and built a giant bonfire on the beach on New Year’s Eve. Hot cocoa, open-fire grilled kabobs, and happy memories of her faithful and cheerful life warmed us in the 10-degree evening full of the light of millions of stars. What a warm comfort it is to know that her light will live on in all of us.

~J.A.P. Walton

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canoeing, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Wilderness Paddling, Winter, Winter Paddling, Winter Water Sports

The Ice Shelf

The question always at the back of my mind: is the reward worth the risk?

I really like to canoe. My husband Mark and his brother Hugh rabidly LOVE it, so much so that a winter paddle is never far from their minds. I guess it isn’t fair to expect a real waterman to stay grounded for long. One year, the three of us decided to paddle the lower end of a local river that winds lazily out to Lake Michigan through the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. In the summer, the canoes and tubes are five across as tipsy tourists float or flail their paddles with an astounding lack of expertise. No matter if they tip over, the water is warm, shallow, and not too swift.

Winter is another matter altogether. Winter paddling takes planning, the right clothes, and a spare set of dry clothes in a dry bag (a hefty water proof sack made for water sports). The winter we went down this particular river had been exceptionally cold, and the ice mantle butted ten feet out to create a narrow middle channel where the water was corralled into a swift current. We walked up and down the bank looking for a good place to “put in,” a canoeman’s “ism” for getting an awkward, land-lubbed craft gracefully (and dryly) afloat. But, with so much unstable ice, there were no good choices.

The fellows determined that if we started on a high point, we could “sled” the canoes down the hill, over the ice, and into the downstream swifts. I wasn’t so sure-it seemed risky to me. What’s more, with Hugh’s cancer always in the back of my mind, I didn’t think an icy dunking would be good for his already vulnerable health. In the end, Hugh went downstream with the lifesaving throw bag to toss us if we capsized, and my husband and I geared up our “sled.” I am always in the bow, so I got in on my knees to stay low, while my husband grabbed the gunnels and did two practice push-pulls like a bobsledder. On the third push he ran alongside the canoe, then jumped in for the ride, and we were launched. No turning back now!

We hit that ice, slid straight across it, and nosed broadside into the current with an exhilarated whoop. Before I could worry about being perpendicular to the current with the opposite ice shelf looming ahead, Mark had expertly turned the canoe downstream.   Hugh soon followed.

The landscape along a river is as robustly alive in winter as other seasons, but it takes a vigilant and patient eye to parse out the subtle differences in the tinted palette of grays, blacks, and browns. The trees stand dormant, a stark relief against their snowy backdrop. The mountain ash berries pixilate the landscape with wild red abandon, and the snow is clumped in the wild river grasses like so many wads of cotton.

It is exceptionally rare to encounter other people. But the deer, mice, squirrels, snowy owl, muskrats, minks, bald eagles, hawks, titmice, and the drably draped goldfinches are all out paying no mind to the cold. Energy along the singing river lifts life up and out in a muted chorus of vigorous yet hushed harmony. People miss it entirely when they hibernate inside all winter. Being outdoors in the winter helps us become so alive, so attuned to the natural environment, so energized by spending all our energy, that the answer is, always yes, the reward is worth the risk.

Get up! Get moving! Don’t duck the winter, dive into it!

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~J.A.P. Walton

Faithful Living, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Outdoor Adventures, Prayer, Uncategorized, Winter

Lessons from Trout Creek in Winter

A winter storm is blowing in from Lake Michigan, and we will be out on snowshoes later even though we are in town for the season. The cold, wind, and snow bear down on us, snarling traffic, calling on us to shovel the drive, creating in us an inner anticipation-a breath-holding hope really, that activities will be cancelled so we can all hole up with soup, hot cocoa, a fire in the fireplace, and a good book. The silence of the snow beckons us to hush our busy holiday “gottas”, a brake on our hectic lives that we might have the time to sit and think about being blanketed by and made white in God’s love.

Out back, along Trout Creek I can see the squirrels from my desk. They are busy snuffling through the snow, and scrabbling under the bird feeder. The chickadees are bursting with energy, and the wild turkeys’ tracks from yesterday are now just a memory. The deer will be here by afternoon on their daily rounds, hoping for an offering of apples. It seems irrelevant that it is cold-life goes on. In this very snow is stored the spring roots’ draught, underneath it the field mouse can travel unseen from the eyes of the hungry hawk.

Such big flakes now! What if each one were a prayer? For God to redouble his restraint on evil. For our many friends with cancer. For a woman at church burying her only daughter this weekend. For warm shelter and food for the homeless. For homes for the thousands of innocent children orphaned by the opioid crisis. For parents of special needs children. For our own aging parents and all those once-stalwart church elders who can no longer come to church. For people beleaguered by bills, addictions, depression, loneliness, and anxiety. For the oppressed who are trapped between war and inhospitable nations. My God, how can these prayers make any difference? I must trust that you hear my voice crying in this wide wilderness.

Oh how deeply I want to drink of wisdom and patience and mercy, for the snow to hide me from the predatory world, to sit wrapped, and silent, as flakes fall like grace from heaven. And after awhile, to bundle myself against white wilderness and go out and embrace it. To discover the beauty that veils the rot. Yes, the world is cold. It is counterfeit too- just sweep aside the snow to discover the season’s decay under the surface. But, remember too that you are loved, held, and comforted by the same God who assures us that spring is also under there, just waiting to shoot through with abundance and mercy and life. After all, he hasn’t missed a spring yet.

~ God’s deep peace be upon you,

J.A.P. Walton