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Birch River Books

Grand Marais, MN 55604, USA

©2019 by Birch River Books.

A Camping Book for Women and Men: Compass Season book cover.

A Recommended Read for 2019

A Camping Book for Women and Men

It’s a book I’m proud of. It combines my experience canoeing with decades of guiding individuals and couples in counseling. It is a camping book for women and men. It is a recommended read for 2019. But here’s a chapter that found its way to the mountains.​

Chapter Read:

Compass Season



Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles

must begin with a single step.

Lao Tzu

When my children were much younger, we would head out to the Canadian Rockies for a summer of camping and hiking. Occasionally there was a vista or small mountain lake that could not be reached any other way than to walk to it.

The steep climbs were not easy, with smaller children, almost impossible. To begin at the bottom and to climb straight to the top would have exhausted all of us. Of course, that's not the way most trails are built. The logical "shortest path to the destination" was a false one. It could not be accomplished.

Switchback is a term we learned. It meant the trail would caress the side of the mountain in a gentle slope, sometimes away from our destination and then with an abrupt turn, we would ascend the other way. Like a skier coming down a mountain swaying first this-way and then-that, we would make our way to the top.


The Seven Sisters, Johnston Canyon, Mount Rundle, the C-Level Cirque were all beyond description. They were "ours" for that day with the joy of not being given such spectacular moments, but in knowing we had worked for them.

Switchbacks are something we should think about in life, and in relationships. We expect a steady pull to the top. Our anxiety makes us want to go vertical, the quickest way from here to there. But just as with mountains, that is not possible. In the same way, in life, it sets us up for defeat.

Sometimes we move away to go forward.

It is counter-intuitive. Switchbacks teach us that.

Not dropping into an argument that in the past has only produced frustration and no positive result might be a good idea. Doing something simple with a partner when you feel like being alone might bring you out of sadness or despondency. Not forcing relationships, even when you want them badly, this may be the better way to foster friendships, a prelude to love. Exercising, instead of dwelling on depressed feelings, could be a way of gaining new height and more ground.

Switchbacks are not grand goals that put us in all-or-nothing positions. Climbing straight up makes us all weary.

We aren't able to maintain. Switchbacks are small-step advances we can manage. There are beginnings and endings. We can make promises to ourselves to get to the top of the next pitch, and then the next. We can measure progress, and there is satisfaction with each new achievement. Marriages need this. So do individuals.

Switchbacks provide places to rest. Our legs still burn as we move further up the trail. Breathing can sometimes be labored. Each turn is an opportunity to pause before we climb steadily onward. That is a good thing. We have achieved something. A goal has been met. Now we have a choice to rest or to go up to the next platform.


In couple relationships, or individually, where the challenges can be significant, when do we do this? When do we pause to stop: to talk, to rest, to gather our strength?

Switchbacks take us places. Most were built not to run us through the woods. They have a goal. Follow them, and at the end, they will spill out onto some beautiful meadow. Anyone who hasn't seen the Seven Sisters is the poorer for it. The uplift we feel and the sense we are stepping into nature’s cathedral makes the struggle worthwhile.


As couples and as individuals it is the destination we strive to reach. Doesn’t this simple fact often get lost? We can forget, in hardship, places we want to enjoy, the moments that make it worth getting there.


Similarly, summer days are hot in closed forests. But we press on towards a goal. Once reached, the memories of sore muscles and tired feet are gone. The trail is as long heading back, but we are buoyed by the grandeur of what we have just witnessed.

The same should be said of other accomplishments in life. They should have been worth the effort. We should also know what we are striving for.


Switchbacks on the way down stop runaway wrecks. Anyone who has allowed themselves to run a trail to get home sooner knows that if it is too steep, we will soon be out-of-control. The potential for injury is real. Switchbacks, by their design, make the transition back more gradual.


In our relationships, and individually, we need to remember "normal" isn't just the parking lot. It is where we are now. We can slow down, and perhaps enjoy as much the journey “home.”

It isn't often in life we have to confront a challenge head-on. We can break it down, set reasonable goals, gain satisfaction in their achievement. We can pause to rest. We can eventually gain the heights and the position of the privileged few who can enjoy spectacular moments denied to those who think the climb is too arduous.


Switchbacks provide us a passageway to grand accomplishment.