Surprising – it is the only word that could possibly describe my first hike with Neil’s group in the Highwood Area. I have been an avid hiker for 15 years now, and have been out with many groups in many different circumstances. Nothing could have prepared me for just how unique and dynamic the Diamond Willow Hiker’s group truly is. When I met them in a parking lot in Black Diamond, I hardly knew any of the individuals. I had spent a little bit of time at the meetings for Take A Stand for Upper Highwood Kananaskis, so I recognized some faces, but not many. I knew they were a passionate group, and it was immediately apparent just how much they loved their weekend hikes. Everyone was in high spirits, and new members were being welcomed into the group with unwavering enthusiasm. I was one of these new members, and instantly was thrown into too many hugs and introductions to even keep track of. Neil was clearly the coordinator of this large pack of 25 people and in between laughing and hugging everybody, was taking head counts and introducing people to each other. The most shocking aspect of the group was the range of ages in people who had turned out, 18 years up to 70. Before long we were off in a caravan of vehicles parading to a trailhead that many seemed familiar with. I rode along with Neil, and as we drove he pointed out areas, rolling hills and mountains of which he knew all the names for and history behind. This, I thought to myself, was a man that didn’t just know the area, he loved the area. The hike itself was all too enjoyable, Neil pointed out mountain after mountain, each with a name and a story. Everyone concerned themselves with the where abouts of everyone else, these people were truly taking care of eachother.
The landscape was breathtaking – rolling hills were cascaded by dense forests. Although we were surrounded by such a large hiking group, the surroundings held fast to a serene demeanour. Navigating the trails were a mild challenge, and it was clear that there was a multitude of capabilities within the group. It seemed there was a sense of teamwork to get everyone to the summit of the adventure, and that is where the magic really started to happen. It was only now that I noticed Neil had been carrying a rather over packed bag – and for good reason. From it, he withdrew a tarp, a sheepskin rug, several worn books, Tibetan prayer flags, metal wine goblets and a flask of red wine. Wine was poured and poetry was read. Everyone adhered to a ritual that had clearly been in practice for years. The event held everyone’s attention, and was ended in a moment of silence that produced a profound air of respect for the landscape. My heart smiled.