adventure, childhood, Creator, Forest, God, Growing Up, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Peace, Pirate, Uncategorized, wilderness

A Pirate Still Lives Here

We left Trout Creek this week and moved back to the bluff. This is where I spent all but two summers since a child, atop a 150’ sand cliff with its face to the setting sun. From up here, Lake Michigan is grand and wide and shimmering. And though my grandparents bought this land 55 years ago, there is evidence from area artifacts that it was part of a network of hunting grounds for the ancients since the last ice age retreated north.

My grandparents built a cottage in the woods, and my brother and I slept and played to the steady rhythm of waves, wind, car ferry whistles, and Coast Guard foghorns. Here, our imaginations ran feral, with no television or telephone, and very few rules (compared to our city life) except to be home at the stated hour, to NEVER disturb mother if she was napping, and to remember that our behavior in public wore the family name. We had some drawing paper, a few dog-eared books, and a well-worn deck of cards that sat on a sunny windowsill underneath a moth-eaten Yahtzee cup. Every finished box of Jay’s potato chips was carefully deconstructed and laid flat to create a new board game. We made our own rules, we settled our own disagreements, and we laughed each other to sleep in the bunk beds’ sandy sheets. We became and remain best friends.

On a grand ash tree at the edge of the bluff, I flew my pirate flag, bought with birthday money and a sense of delight. (I still have it.) My brother had a telescope which we used to keep charge of this coast, vigilantly spying on fisherman, ore boats, and beachcombers. Here we learned to shoot with bow and arrow, how to tie bowlines, to know the language of woodland birdsong, to read the cats paw winds, and to name the constellations. We buried treasure, hooted up barred owls, hunted salamanders, found morel mushrooms, and haunted the cemetery where our father now lies. Here too I met my future husband when we were five, had my first argument with my parents, and developed what was to become a lifelong love of the conspicuous, God-breathed beauty that we call Nature.

This is not a big place, but it gave me a big heart and a curious mind.

In the sunrise of my life I ran barefoot and carefree, careful to mind the elders, but happy to be a child. Now all but one of those elders is gone, and I find myself here, under the same tree canopy, looking out at the same expanse of water and sky. I may be closer to the sunset of my own life, but I still have a telescope. The pirate in me will never die.

~J.A.P. Walton

Cancer, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, God, Hope, John Muir, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Prayer, River, Sierra Nevada, Spring, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

The Geese, the Floods, and John Muir

Geese flew over the house this morning, with a honking so hauntingly welcome that it stopped me breathless with the happy assurance that winter is losing its grip. This has truly been a winter of discontent, to borrow from John Steinbeck (my favorite author of fiction). We lost a loved one. Another continues to decline. We are sending up prayers for too much cancer, too many bullets, the sword-rattling of our enemies, and the deaths of two great men of prayer and faith, R.C. Sproul and Billy Graham. This week we had days and days of rain atop melting snow, sending our creeks and rivers out of their banks.

To dwell on all this too long leaves us as drab and lifeless as the snow-matted flood-stained grass. We defend ourselves with intentional numbness. Yet the geese remind us that goodness abounds, that life is not snuffed out entirely, and that there is work to be done. This week, as Trout Creek rose higher and faster, swelling and bullying itself downstream, I thought about the nature of things-water most especially. How it gathers to itself, seeks out the lowest places, dwells and swells with an abandoned playfulness that lurks with deadly innocence too. Water has a voice and a rhythm. It sings and swings down its course, sweeping everything unrooted away with raw power. What other than our faith can anchor us amid the flood of evil tides?  But water is also life-giving.

I have spent this winter reading the selected works of John Muir because his writing is extraordinarily uplifting (winter is long in the north, so I strategically choose reading that will edify and encourage me). Muir’s prose is divinely poetic, and his love for God and Creation oozes from every page. He often wrote about the waters that fall from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in California, carving out passes and canyons-

“The happy stream sets forth again, warbling and trilling like an ouzel, ever delightfully confiding, no matter how dark the way; leaping, gliding, hither, thither, clear or foaming: manifesting the beauty of its wildness in every sound and gesture.” 1

Muir shows us that part of the water’s power is in the way it glories to be on its way, hailing any who would heed. Spring is coming friends. Won’t it be glorious to be on our way, doing the work God has given us to do, righting wrongs with energy, and pointing others to the same hope we have in God? May you “set forth again” and rise up out of your banks with a renewed vigor, confiding in one another no matter how dark the way. Look up. The geese will show you the way.

~J.A.P. Walton

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  1.  John Muir Selected Writings, A.Knopf, New York. 2017,p.178.  This excerpt is from Muir’s first book, The Mountains of California published in 1894. (an ouzel is a bird)
Backpacking, Costa Rica, Creation, Faithful Living, God, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Outward Bound, Rainforest, Trees, Uncategorized, wilderness, wisdom

Lessons from the Rain Forest

I turned 46 the month I led a group of college students on an Outward Bound trip through the Costa Rica rainforest. Twenty year olds can go all day on enthusiasm alone, but my middle-aged middling fitness brought multiple challenges, the least of which was just keeping pace with my students.

The rainforest is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. On the first day, we hiked UP for 4 straight hours in a relentless rain that made the 90 degree heat unbearable. (Most people don’t even know that Costa Rica has high mountains with rugged wilderness terrain, and that you can easily get altitude sick and lost in the same day). Everything inside of me was, as the Brits say, upsot. Lungs desperate for air, sweat joined to raindrops with nowhere to evaporate, leg and back muscles screaming for relief from the 50 pound pack. Hot spots on both heels you pray are not becoming blisters. All while the young ones traipsed with joyful abandon happily shouting out lines from the Princess Bride movie.

It was hard for me to get outside of my own physical misery long enough to appreciate the stillness, the deep emerald greenness in a fine mist that nearly assaults the senses, the cheerfulness of my companions to finally be underway, and the teeming, fecund, inconceivable LIFE at every turn. Sapphire-tinged moths as big as your hand. Armies of leaf-cutting ants-whole platoons of them winding their way through the jungle, carrying, like me, a heavy load with unwavering duty. Cockroaches as fat as mice. Birds singing. Birds winging. Birds, birds, birds!

In matters of faith, it takes a willful choosing to be outwardly focused. To look at this hurting world with compassion and care even when we ourselves are hurting is, I think, the most difficult, and stridently unnatural thing that God calls us to do. The secret is in the abandon. The giving over in order to give out. To give out and not give up.

 Much of what Outward Bound teaches is how to keep going in the face of physical challenge, and how to embrace a physical challenge that you know will bring pain, tears, doubts, and, always, the bedeviling whisper that you can’t go another step. What God teaches is that there is a strength from unwavering belief that no man, certainly no devil can match. And it is true for all of our difficulties. In the midst of life’s wilderness of hurt, fear, doubt and misery, God is there to be our strength, our immovable rock. But, only if we let Him. Climb on, and BELIEVE that you need never climb alone. It is INCONCEIVABLE!

~J.A.P. Walton

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(more posts about the Costa Rica experience are in the offing, stay tuned. Oh, and lest you think me wimpy, on Day 2 of this trip a student asked if he could take something from my pack to lighten my load.  I was so grateful!  Only later, on the plane home, would I read his reaction in his trip journal:  “I took Dr. Walton’s food sack on the 2nd day to help her out.  HOLY CRAP!! It was heavy!”



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