Finding Peace in the Wild as Educators and Bringing the Wild to Our Students

This post was written by educator Renee Boss.

Bear bells jingling loudly and hikers calling out “hey, bear” were the first signs that a bear was headed our way. As we neared other hikers coming our direction, we were informed that indeed there was a grizzly bear on the very trail where we hiked. Our guide suggested that we climb up a ridge to get off the actual trail, so all 18 of us climbed as quickly as possible and waited in anticipation for what would follow. Looking in the direction we had been heading, we initially saw nothing, but then more crowds of hikers began moving quickly in our direction and heading up on the ridge to join us. Not long after the last group made their way up the ridge, a grizzly bear ambled into sight. Awe (and fear!) inspired, my legs shook and my heart raced the closer the bear came to where we stood. We knew that we should continue to let it know of our presence while also staying calm. We were off the trail and respecting the grizzly bear because it preferred to travel on the trail instead of in the thick brush on the edge of the trail. 100 yards, 75 yards, 50 yards, 25 yards, the bear continued in our direction and then it veered off the trail and into the tall grass away from the ridge where we stood. We started to breathe a sigh of relief, and then the grizzly turned quickly, looked in our direction, and returned to the trail, a mere 15 yards away from where we stood. Hearts pumping faster, we waited for what would happen next.

The unpredictability of this bear encounter on Iceberg Lake Trail at Glacier National Park reminds me of the unpredictability of the past year and a half as we have all dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Could it be that the increased talk of anxiety and mood disorders in the past 18 months is rooted in the constantly changing environment of the pandemic?  Some of us as educators in the USA left our classrooms in March 2020 fully expecting to see our students again in two weeks. But I had colleagues who were watching the entire world and warning me that we might not return to in-person learning for the rest of the year based on what they were seeing in other countries. They ended up being right.

For the rest of the school year and throughout the following school year, we endured constant shifts for in-person or remote learning. We had a constant shift in the time-frame for when the pandemic would end, and the health and safety protocols continually changed based on public health policies. When we did attend school in person, we endured the unpredictability of always wondering if we would end up quarantined for two weeks due to exposure. Our entire lives felt unpredictable. 

If, as some would say, our brains tend to prefer predictability over uncertainty, why then after 18 months of unpredictable living, did I choose to take an adventurous outdoor vacation full of unpredictably? 

Perhaps because I am learning more about how nature calms and connects us. A calming connection is exactly what I noticed myself, my own children, and my students longing for this past school year. Even as we all connected online, we could feel anxiety mounting with continued Google Meet or Zoom sessions. Nature is a perfect antidote to those anxieties. We went outside for mask breaks frequently, and we all talked of our summer plans to travel (when national travel opened up again for the summer). 

Or perhaps I wanted to take this trip because of big personal life events (new decade of life birthday, 25th wedding anniversary, youngest son graduating from high school and turning 18). I longed for a memorable family trip to a wild and gorgeous place. For all these reasons a year ago (in the midst of the pandemic) I began planning a cross-country road trip to 4 different National Parks, with the top goal of seeing Glacier National Park up close and personal before there are no glaciers left to see.

Glacier National Park did not disappoint. Gorgeous scenery, incredible feats of engineering along Going-to-the-Sun Road, icebergs, glaciers, mountains, lakes, and forests (and, of course, wildlife). GNP has been named the “Crown of the Continent” and has distinguished itself as the first international peace park in collaboration with Canada’s Waterton Park System. 

When we think about finding peace, we might just choose to venture into the wild, where real people and fictional characters have found solace and peace for centuries. In this Book Talk article, we read a conversation between the author of the article and the author of the book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I happened to read Williams’s book during the pandemic. It further fueled my National Parks vacation planning, and as an English teacher I naturally liked the parts about the Romantic poets and their connection to nature. 

Native American poet, Joy Harjo, also includes images of nature in her writing and shares how poets sense and understand the natural world as in this excerpt from the poem “Speaking Tree.”

The deepest-rooted dream of a tree is to walk

Even just a little ways, from the place next to the doorway—

To the edge of the river of life, and drink—

I have heard trees talking, long after the sun has gone down:

Imagine what would it be like to dance close together

In this land of water and knowledge. . .

Joy Harjo

Seeking knowledge and preparedness (my way of controlling what I could about venturing into the wild), I spent the months leading up to our tour of National Parks in the American West intently reading books and articles and watching documentaries about history, flora, fauna, and wildlife in the parks. I prepared but also braced myself for unpredictable experiences such as a grizzly bear encounter. 

On our hike toward Iceberg Lake, we spotted a mama grizzly bear and her cubs high above us in a patch of snow. We paused to look, and I felt grateful we were far away from those bears. We kept going and made it to the lake in time for lunch. We waded in the frigid waters and marveled at the snow patches all around the lake as we ate our lunch. The serene peacefulness of our view met the connection to nature for which we longed.

Back on the trail and heading back from the lake, we were only about a mile into our return when we did encounter that grizzly bear who obviously found walking on the trail a more peaceful experience himself. He turned and looked up at the humans up on the ridge but thankfully kept on moving.

Resources or interesting books I read in preparation for our trip:

Renee Boss is a veteran educator of 23 years currently teaching high school English and community activism in Versailles, Kentucky. She is a renewed National Board Certified Teacher focused on empowering students to use their voices inside and outside the classroom. She values an explorer’s mindset for herself and her students and believes traveling and reading help cultivate that mindset.

Follow in Renee’s footsteps of telling powerful stories and enroll in one of National Geographic Education’s Storytelling for Impact online courses.

Lead photo by James Blair.

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