Read “Grandpa’s Kitchen”

Places of the Heart: Grandpa’s Kitchen first appeared in Legacy Magazine in the fall of 2009.

Places of the Heart: Grandpa’s Kitchen

Close your eyes and smell the woods, the meadow, ice on rock. Leaves rustle and the brook whispers. I wake this September morning to the warble of a songbird piping in the distance.

My tent is secure, despite last night’s windstorm, and I have amazing comforts in spite of the distance to the highway. My dad taught me how to pack: tiny flannel bag to stuff my down jacket for a pillow; wool pants that keep their warmth, even when wet.

My husband and daughters still sleep, burrowed deep into down sleeping bags.

The sun crests the mountains. Dewy tundra glints black and green and silver, sprinkled with cinqfoil. I pull on boots and zip the tent door closed before crunching through bracken to the stream for an icy drink. At treeline, the fir and spruce are barely tall enough to hang a food bag away from the bears. Beyond the forest, the tumble of lichen-covered talus and scree lead up sheer cliffs and an endlessly blue sky.

This is Grandpa’s Kitchen. Like many valleys tucked back away from Highway 541 near the Highwood pass, it’s wild, undiscovered, beautiful. But for me, this valley represents all valleys, all mountain peaks, all backwoods cabins where I spent time with my father; where he shared with me his love of the outdoors and his knowledge of woodcraft and wildflowers.

I see his face, though he’s gone now, smiling. Deep grooves in his cheeks, his skin weathered brown, eyes twinkling. I see his backpack, magically filled with everything. Reaching the top of a pile of rubble that is a mountain peak, he would fish out an extra sweater from his pack to keep me from the bitter wind. When the binding broke on my cross-country ski, he produced a piece of wire, just the right length, to jimmy it until we came home. And at the end of a tiring day, campsite not yet in sight, a handful of raisins to keep me going.

I walk up a short gully, untie a cord from around a tree and lower our food bag. Then I go to the “kitchen,” a space among the trees away from our tents where we have made a platform of flat rocks to stabilize our one-burner stove. I start the stove and boil water. Tea was always the first thing my dad made when coming down from a climb. Then soup. Then noodles. It took all evening to make supper with one pot, and we had all evening to eat it.

My dad, Don Forest, was an amazing man. He was the first person to climb all the peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Interior Ranges over 11,000 feet (64 peaks), and at age 71, the oldest person to climb Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan.

But it was not competition, not “bagging peaks” that took him up and down the Rockies and the Purcells and the Lyells on weekends; it was friendship and camaraderie within the climbing community. My father grew up in northern Saskachewan, putting meat on the table during the depression by hunting grouse and partridge. As a young man, he tramped the woods with his brother, and later, took my older sister and brother duck hunting. When our family moved to Calgary in 1961, climbing was a natural outgrowth of his passion for the outdoors. Sharing his love of the wilds with his children was the heart of my dad’s adventures.

Once we were old enough, he took us hiking, skiing, then climbing. My youngest sister, at two, rode in my dad’s backpack long before the Snugli was invented.

The water has boiled and my children jump the creek and race to the clearing in the trees. My husband and I help them find their bowl and spoon and mix a little oatmeal, instant breakfast and powdered milk–and a few raisins–with hot water. My children are fortunate; many never experience life beyond Saturday morning cartoons and Nintendo, and perhaps Little League. Schools, and even outdoor clubs, have become so frightened by law suits and insurance companies that they no longer offer risk-associated activities. Our younger generation is at great risk for obesity, diabetes and sedentary illnesses. A Wall-E future for most of us is not science fiction.

But more than this, what is lost when we retreat to our houses and electronic entertainments, is a history and a way of life. What I valued most about travels with my father were the skills I mastered and the lore I learned, as well as the quiet times shared. Building and sleeping in a snow cave, and the art of crossing a river are experiences that come with a whole body of knowledge; knowledge I want to pass on to my children.

Which is why my family is here: to smell the leaves as they begin to change for the winter; to feel to the crunch underfoot in pathless woods; to know the weight of carrying everything one needs for self-sufficiency, on one’s back.

My children pack up. With help, they stuff that whole sleeping bag into its sack and tie it securely to their packs. They have learned to organize the things they need for the day in their outside pockets, and each of them carries some part of our common camp gear. Not a scrap of our passing is on the ground.

I remember the smile in my dad’s eyes the last time I saw him. It was late November, and my daughter and I had just completed Wilderness First Aid training. After a weekend of practical testing in sub-zero temperatures, we wrote our exams. The sun had set, the woods were grey and we were chilled to the bone, but we dropped by my parents’ house to show off our certificates. My daughter, tested on safety during a lightning storm, passed: she remembered the story of how my dad, on top of a mountain peak, heard his iceaxe humming. Knowing lightning was coming, he climbed down to safety.

Yes, I remember my father’s face, his shining eyes, as he saw his love and legacy carried on through his grandchild.

My husband leads and I bring up the rear as we descend through the forest back toward the highway. There is no hiking trail in this valley, just game trails that go in our direction for a time. When we reach the valley bottom we find our running shoes, tied together by the laces and hanging in the willows above the rushing water, waiting for us to wear back across the river.

My father died a few days after that November visit. At eighty-three, he still hiked Prairie Peak once a week, to see “his old friends,” the mountains he loved so well. On this particular day, though, my sister and her husband, worried about him hiking alone, took him on a short cross-country ski trip. It was there, skiing through the snow of early winter, that he suffered a sudden heart attack. My brother-in-law went for help and my sister built a fire in the snow and lay my father comfortably by it. He passed away in his sleep, by a campfire in the woods, with family beside him.

My father still lives. In the smile of the brook, the whisper of the trees, the strength of the mountain. His memory is in my fingers as I adjust the valve on the stove, snap dry twigs from the underside of the spruce branches, name each flower along my path. His legacy is in my commitment to sharing with my children the wonder of a bumblebee in a bluebell blossom, the taste of a wild raspberry, scent of an Alberta rose. His legacy is Grandpa’s Kitchen.

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