What's Tony Thinking

Seeing Wildlife, Seeing God


I’m back from five days of backpacking in the Central Cascades with Mike and Kit Pierson. A great trip in an area I did not know well, but which I now know a little better.

We entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness south of Highway 2, maybe 20 miles east of Steven’s Pass. After driving south from Highway 2 for ten miles, we hiked ten miles further south, gaining 4000′ in elevation. This brought us to Frosty Pass and Mary’s Lake, our basecamp for several nights.

From there we crossed Mary’s Pass and then Ladies Pass heading east near Chiwaukum Mountain and Ridge. There’s one lake up there named “Brigham,” while most of the rest have women’s names — the wives of Brigham Young? Must have been some Mormon presence at some point.

Here’s Florence Lake, a beauty in which we took an afternoon swim as brook trout gave us the once over.


There were lots of tasty huckleberries up there. See photo below.

All three of us confessed that we kept panning our eyes over hillsides and valleys in hopes of seeing a bear, cougar or elk. We saw nada (well, we saw marmots, chipmunks, and grouse-like ptarmigan.)

One of our number commented that an Alaskan wildlife guide had told him that you are most likely to catch sight of such wildlife, if you do, by using your peripheral vision — catching movement or color at the edge of your field of vision.

Here’s my theory. We don’t so much catch or “find” wildlife. They show, or reveal, themselves to us. Only not often.

I’ve spent plenty of days in the wilderness “searching” for bear, elk and cougar or some similarly memorable sight to report on return. But whenever I have seen such a wild animal it feels less like I’ve found it than it has revealed itself. In fact, it is most often the case that that when I finally give up my frantic “searching,” I may actually see something.

There is a theological corollary here. I am skeptical about our efforts to find God or attain enlightenment by various means, which is why I’m not a big fan of “spirituality.” Most of what we call “spirituality” is our attempt to get at God.

But the movement kind of goes the other way. God, elusive, mysterious, tends to reveal Godself as he/ she/ it chooses. Whenever I’ve seen a bear, elk, coyote, big-horned owl, or eagle in the wild it feels similar. Not my accomplishment, but a gift, a surprise.

Experiences of God too, like experiences of wild animals, are more given than gotten.

This frustrates our desire to be in control. Or to bring home the “trophy” of a story or picture. Or our account of some spiritual “high” or “break through.” But it restores a proper relationship with wildlife and with the sacred. As I say, more given than gotten.

You’re doing your thing, whether hiking a mountain or going about life, when God shows up, breaks in, arrives when and where you least expect that to happen.

Two years ago I was on another backpacking trip. Because there had been several recent reports of bear sightings, I was peering at every mountainside and meadow in the high backcountry in the hopes of seeing a bear. Didn’t see a one.

But when we got home, we were met with the excited news that a bear had paid us a visit at the cabin. A little ironic.

Without putting too fine a point on it there is difference between religion, which is often a human system for getting to God, and faith which is an account of how God has gotten at, or come to, us.

Christian faith is in the latter category. Not so much about our fevered efforts to find God as our accounts of how God has, often quite unexpectedly, found us.

Our last night was spent at Lake Grace.

A fitting name in light of this discussion of the parallels between sighting wildlife and experiencing God.

Both come as gift, as grace. Here’s Lake Grace, certainly a glorious gift.


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