A wilderness hike reminds a young woman that privileges come with responsibilities.
WORDS AND IMAGES Jessica Herman
“Alright, good luck then,” my friend Michael offered, scooting away on his aluminum boat after he dropped me off on the western edges of Átl’ḵa7tsem, or Howe Sound, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Oh no, I thought as I watched him and his boat disappear on the horizon, my stomach sinking into the ground, What have I gotten myself into? This trip had been a few years in the making, as I dreamed of hiking a traverse from Átl’ḵa7tsem through to the Tantalus mountain range, adjacent to the town I now call home, Squamish. This route runs parallel to the Squamish River, separating the town from the aptly named Tantalus Range, with its tantalizing spires and icefalls. It skirts the edges of Átl’ḵa7tsem, where the steep granite walls drop dramatically into a fjord carved out by the glaciers.
After taking a few deep breaths, I spin around and start my trek. On my back, I have a sleeping bag and provisions for a three-day journey through the mountains. The drop-off point is close to the site of an old pulp and paper mill — a relic of the industrial logging past of Squamish that is now being retrofitted to host a future liquid natural gas export facility. I follow old over-grown logging roads to wend my way up the merciless coastal mountain approach. I am not the only one to make use of the logging road access. Alders also wend their way up the roads, amid bursts of bright pink fireweed — both plants being reminders of regrowth after destruction. What some might consider weeds are in fact early colonizers. Alders fix nitrogen in the soil, providing nutrients for coniferous tree species to take root. Similarly, fireweed appears early after disturbances such as fire and logging, putting down roots that prevent the erosion of barren landscapes and providing food for pollinators. The circle of life is alive and well here.
Hopping across old cutblocks, I arrive at an old hiking trail that wanders up through beautiful old-growth firs. I make my way up to an old cabin at the edge of a dammed lake. I peek inside and find a registry book. Written on its pages I see the names of environmental monitors out on their rounds to inspect the state of the collapsing dam, as well as those of a few curious wanderers.
The system that provided safety to my ancestors who escaped war and political unrest is the same system that colonized and colonizes Indigenous Peoples.
I feel a connection to those that came here before me. I remind myself that history extends back to well before the written word, and I thank the original stewards of these lands: the Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh (Squamish), whose traditional territory stretches over 6,700 square kilometers between Átl’ḵa7tsem and what is now known as Burrard Inlet, extending north through the vast Squamish River watershed. The present-day Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) arose from a political amalgamation of families that united in 1923 to protect their territory, after a century of erosion of their traditional ways of life at the hand of the government of Canada, which forcibly removed them from their traditional territory, confined them to reserves, and sent them off to residential schools. I recall what a Squamish Nation Elder once told me, “We cannot leave, we have nowhere to go.” For me as a second-generation immigrant with a Guyanese and German background, those words landed with a thud. The system that provided safety to my ancestors who escaped war and political unrest, that provided me with this comfortable life, this easy access to education and health care, is the same system that colonized and colonizes Indigenous Peoples.
I leave the cabin after writing a short note of gratitude in the registry book. The trail peters out, and I am left to wade through a sea of shoulder-high subalpine firs and thickets of delicious blueberry and black huckleberry bushes. My movement is slow as I negotiate my way past each branch, which slaps my legs and arms as I go by, a gentle reminder of where I am. I search for a pattern or repetition through the brush and am pleasantly surprised to find a stomp trail left by the bears. Carefully, humming a tune and clapping my hands, I follow it, weaving perfectly through the brush and around rocky outcrops. The golden light settles in, the sky slowly turning a brilliant shade of pink as I crest into the alpine. I look back to see how far I’ve come, to see the last view of the ocean fade away. I settle in under the spectacle of the night sky and wait for sleep to find me. I think of my ancestors and of the bears and tell myself, I am not alone.
The next day I awake, short on water and with a dead cell phone. I use a satellite phone to message my loved ones and reassure them I am safe and sound, and then I get ready to continue onward. Without my phone, the exact route I had carefully mapped out becomes a mystery. A few deep breaths later, I start moving — this time more intentionally, carefully reading the natural contours and undulations of the rocky alpine ridges. The days get shorter at this time of year, and I must be careful not to end up going astray. Once again, I’m looking for patterns and repetitions in the rocky alpine left by the glaciers that carved them. It’s not hard to imagine how the glaciers would have hugged these now naked peaks, physical evidence of a changing climate. I wonder what that means for the salmon below.
After navigating the alpine ridges and peaks and descending around a melted glacier, I connect to an existing trail system — a system carefully crafted by park rangers through looming old growth, each inconvenient branch cut off and each rock along the way placed at almost perfect intervals for the human cadence. The trail makes for a quick, enjoyable descent back to sea level. Standing under a tree as I wait for a pickup, I feel the first raindrops fall. Lucky, I think.
As a participant in the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Young Leaders in Conservation program in 2022, I heard from various Indigenous leaders in conservation. One of the teachings that stuck with me was the reframing of the Western mindset of “I have rights” into the Indigenous viewpoint of “I have responsibilities.” Indigenous-led conservation not only acknowledges the right of self-determination but also centers Indigenous perspectives and knowledge of ecological and cultural restoration. At a time when the West has all but severed its kinship with the natural world, it is important to ask what responsibilities we have as newcomers.
My journey through the alpine became a meditation on how the paths set by those who came before us determine the pace at which we move in the world. It’s incredible what comes into focus as we slow down and move with more intention — how the land becomes the great equalizer for those who take the time to immerse themselves in it. As an immigrant here in Squamish, as the daughter of immigrants to so-called Canada, I wonder: How do I learn to live here as if I belonged? How can I be a good citizen and steward of the land that has healed and shaped me?
In our cultural amnesia, moving around the world disconnected from place, we have forgotten that our privileges come with responsibilities.
In this questioning, it’s crucial to reflect on what a privilege it is to be able to leave, as my family did, fleeing conflict to find a safer landing here. Privileges are not earned; they are given through no action of our own. We don’t deserve them. Yet, just as the glaciers shape the fjords, Western culture in its pervasiveness has shaped how we define what “privilege” means: that is, an entitlement rather than a responsibility. Perhaps, in our cultural amnesia, moving around the world disconnected from place, we have forgotten that our privileges come with responsibilities. Perhaps, we can now learn a lesson from the fireweed and the alders: we too can learn how to resist the erosion wrought by the extractive cycles of colonization and capitalism and breathe life into the land that nourishes us. As we take the time to slow down and observe the harmful impacts of colonization on our social systems and environments, we become able to see how these systems, which we have inherited, are broken. While that may not be our fault, healing and regeneration must be our responsibility. And for those of us blessed with the privilege of choosing which path we follow, to move through these broken landscapes with a blind eye is to be complicit.
Healing and regeneration must be our responsibility.
There is a Squamish legend about the landforms I crossed: a legend about newlyweds who were transformed into stone after abandoning their community. They didn’t listen to their community. It doesn’t take much to realize that landscapes shape us. The rocks, the trees, the land all contain stories from long ago — stories about responsibility. Perhaps it takes a few steps off the beaten path to be reminded of them. And in this remembering, it’s important to ask, how can we learn to better listen?
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Jessica Herman has a background in engineering paired with a passion for community building, land restoration, and climate justice. She works to weave these threads together in developing infrastructure in her community. She has a special interest in ecology and Indigenous knowledge systems and the ever-changing relationship with place.