A Week in the High Sierra with My Daughter
Featuring: Matt Biggar
April 19, 2022

Seeing through the eyes of love:

This piece was originally published over on Matt’s blog last fall, and he’s graciously sharing it with us now.  It’s about his relationship to his daughter, our relationship to the land, and our relationship to this moment in time. Seeing the world through Katharine’s eyes shifted Matt’s perspective, taking everything abstract about “the environment” and bringing it up close and personal. A reminder that when we lean into love, we may experience the pain of loss, but we will also enjoy the power and capacity born from meaningful connections.

 If you’d like to read more from Matt, you can find his other articles here and find his website here.


Connecting to nature and leaving no trace in the climate era

“Who designed this? It’s perfect,” my sixteen-year-old daughter frequently exclaimed during our week backpacking in the California High Sierra. And each time, we paused to take in our surroundings and agreed that nature’s design was indeed perfect.

I’ve been backpacking in the Sierras for over twenty years, but to experience it through the eyes of my daughter Katharine this summer made it the most special of trips. The beauty of nature was on full display during this week of mostly blue skies. Along the trail, nature had designed beautiful meadows bursting with wildflowers, meandering streams with crystal clear water, towering pines, churning waterfalls, birds of every color, a host of small mammals abuzz with activity, and so much more.

Before the trip, I half expected Katharine to say she had second thoughts, understanding that she might want to spend the last week of summer with friends or need time to finish her summer homework. To my delight, she was eager to go and had loads of questions about what to pack, what we would eat, and how to survive a week without a shower!

We took a one-way rental car to Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra from our home in San Francisco. After a bagel and coffee the following morning, we jumped on a town shuttle to the trailhead and began our adventure.

Over the week, we logged 55 miles on the John Muir Trail from the Mammoth Lakes Basin to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. At the summits, we savored spectacular views of where we were heading and where we had been. We camped next to creeks in beautiful canyons, across from a waterfall of more than 1,000 feet, and next to lakes set majestically against granite peaks. We greeted every sunset with a treasured cup of hot tea. The sun crept into our campsite each morning to break the early-morning cold and help get us moving.

Animals were a constant companion and amused us each day on the trail. A very busy golden-mantled squirrel pretended to be a boxer beating down blades of grass with impressive concentration and repetition, providing us with much laughter one morning. On our approach to our highest point at Donohue Pass, we came into the territory of Katharine’s favorite animal of the trip, the yellow-bellied marmot. These round, fluffy creatures popped in and out of granite outcroppings with occasional whistles to warn others of danger.

Birds and bats also made regular appearances. One evening while we ate dinner, we watched a family of ducks wade around a lake and dive for food every few seconds. At dusk, a couple dozen bats took over the skies just above the lake in search of all and any insects, dive-bombing a couple of feet above our heads. It was better than any television show we had watched all summer (well, maybe except for Ted Lasso).

On the trail, we met other father-daughter pairs that helped motivate us to keep going. Before our ascent to Donohue Pass, we came across a recently retired man and his adult daughter trekking 235 miles. Another father was joining his daughter for the first 66 miles before she attempted to complete the rest of the 220-mile trail independently. I could sense Katharine wondering if such a challenging pursuit might be in her future. It was evident, in these conversations, how fortunate each of us dads felt to be sharing this wilderness journey with our daughters.

I did not backpack or spend time in the wilderness until after graduating from college. At the age of twenty-one, I had the privilege of attending a ten-week National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) program in the Pacific Northwest. We spent most of those days immersed in wild nature.

Before that trip, “the environment” was mainly something abstract to me. I was aware of the frightening statistics on the degradation of forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and many other natural habitats and resources. Still, I had no real sense of what was being lost.

The NOLS experience changed everything for me. Never before had I connected to nature in such an intimate way. I developed a visceral bond to our natural lands and waters and the complex ecosystems upon them. I felt a sense of pain and disbelief that we would let our society damage something so beautiful and necessary for our survival. I’ve been concerned about the environment ever since, striving to improve the relationship between our species and the rest of the planet in my career and to live in balance with nature.

“Before that trip, “the environment” was mainly something abstract to me. I was aware of the frightening statistics on the degradation of forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and many other natural habitats and resources. Still, I had no real sense of what was being lost.”

Katharine’s world seemed to expand in similar ways on our trip. Her excitement at every lake, waterfall, vista, meadow, mammal, and bird was palpable. Each evening while the sun was still shining, she would find a quiet place to sit and take in all the sights and sounds of the ecosystem around her. While I don’t know how this and any future backpacking trips will ultimately affect her, I know she is developing a sense of kinship with nature that will stay with her.

We felt rejuvenated on our trip, in part because it offered respite from the news cycle and many of our pressing societal problems. We could not, however, escape the climate crisis.

There was almost no snow and only remnants of glaciers under a few high mountain peaks. Water was absent from many creek channels. In the West, warmer temperatures and cycles of more frequent and intense drought have become the new normal.

During my years hiking in the High Sierra, I’ve witnessed a dramatic decline in trees. Millions have died from bark beetle infestations rapidly worsening with increased heat and drought.

And then there are the fires. On our last two days, the blue skies disappeared behind a smoky haze. Intense wildfires erupted across our state and dimmed the mountains with smoke. One fire official after another has been alarmed by fire conditions that they have never witnessed in their careers. Prior to this year, fires had never crossed over the Sierra Nevada range, staying on one side or the other. It seemed improbable that fire could get across the mostly granite passes and peaks we observed throughout our trip, but it’s now happened twice this summer with the catastrophic Dixie and Caldor fires.

Warming temperatures are pushing animals to higher elevations. Species that are moving up to cooler temperatures will eventually run out of space. Our favorite animal of the trip, the yellow-bellied marmot, already lives in the highest elevations. As temperatures rise further, where will they go? And the trees and other flora don’t migrate easily, if at all.

While it’s easy to give in to despair, it’s not too late to turn the tide on the climate crisis. It’s going to take all levels of society and all of us. To make the transition, we need to feel it in our hearts. Spending time in nature, whether in the wilderness or our neighborhoods, activates our intrinsic, emotional connection to the natural world and reminds us that we are a part of it and must care for it.

In NOLS, we were taught to leave no trace. In the wilderness, this means staying on trails, not washing dishes in waterways, and, yes, no toilet paper left out there. The idea is to not only do no harm but to leave the wilderness better than we find it by, for example, picking up even the smallest piece of trash buried in the dirt at a campsite.

Katharine and I scanned our campsite each morning before we left to ensure we were leaving no trace. We ended up carrying out a few small items of trash, a pair of sunglasses, and a spoon that we found at different sites. We strove to leave every place we visited better than we found it.

To protect remaining wilderness, slow down climate change, and regenerate nature, we must move quickly toward a “leave no trace” ethic in our everyday lives. Gas-powered vehicles, fossil-fuel-generated electricity, consumer-oriented lifestyles, and meat-based diets are leaving much more than a trace, worst of all in the form of heat-trapping gasses that have led to the climate crisis. Our collective human impact extends to every part of the Earth. Our plastic pollution, for example, is threatening the vitality of our waterways and oceans. We are leaving a swath of destruction across the planet.

We need to learn to relate to nature in a respectful, regenerative way, whether or not we can directly see our impact. This ethic has been integral to Indigenous wisdom for millennia. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, describes the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples as the Honorable Harvest, which teaches:

“Take only what you need. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

It’s beyond time to listen to these words and not to those profiting from the dominant extractive, exploitative economy. The “leave no trace” ethic and Indigenous wisdom put us into the right relationship with nature and one we increasingly need in order to survive, let alone thrive.

I hope Katharine and the other daughters we met on this trip can experience this exceptional place again someday with their own children. The experience of being in the wilderness and treading lightly there illuminate the path. Deeply feeling our connection to nature and taking that sense of kinship into our daily lives is a start. We need to do whatever we can in our lives to leave less trace. This involves our personal choices, of course, but it also calls on us to demand that our government and institutions make this possible by improving options for transportation, building energy, food, and other aspects of life. If we do, Katharine and her peers will be able to visit the High Sierra decades from now and witness the same breathtaking beauty and abundant life — nature’s perfect design.

All photos by Matt Biggar.

A note from Rachel

Parents of teenagers: how are you managing through climate conversations with your kids? How do you hold their pain and anger and leave seeds of hope and power to change things? We’re humbled by your strength and guidance and you help your young people make sense of these times.

And to the teens out there – share your stories with us! We have much to learn from you. You’re not alone.