Fear, Art, and Love in the Canadian Rockies

Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Culture, Family, Hooked Favorites, Reading & Writing | 25 comments

Head down, I watch my snow boots creep across the lake, one shuffle-step at a time. Joel doesn’t shuffle. He hustles, hunched beneath his camera bag as he rushes for a distant spot of blue. Ice wiped clean by the wind: the perfect frame to lead into the fast-approaching sunset. It’s negative three degrees. As I murmur into the scarf swathing my face, words form frosty pellets in the fibers. I can do this. I can do this. A chant intended for my ears only, the lake responds. Bu-BUM. A deep drum beat, issued from somewhere far below. A heartbeat, so much steadier than my own.

A half-mile east, tents and propane heaters dot the lake as ice fishermen jig for trout. Two of them, John and Ymir, assured me the ice is safe – eleven inches thick. My fear isn’t rational, yet it’s real. Every step terrifies me. I follow every step with another.


We’re ending 2014 with a five day road trip in the Canadian Rockies. Joel comes up here every winter. It’s a sacred place for him; he sang Hozier’s Take Me to Church as we drove the Icefields Parkway. This is the first time I’ve joined him. There’s always been some reason not to: busy writing Hooked’s proposal, busy writing the first draft, busy. I’ve always sent him off with a kiss and wishes to be safe, get some good shots.

Now that I’m finally here with him, I’m learning that “be safe” and “get some good shots” aren’t necessarily compatible goals, and we have differing perceptions of risk. We spent our first afternoon scouting sunset in a mountain-bordered meadow outside of Jasper. Joel crashed through tessellations of creeks without hesitation. I cringed at every crack.

That night, I didn’t keep walking. I dug my heels into a tuffet of trustworthy earth, unwilling to go any farther, and waved him on. The tree-line on the far side of the field welcomed him with boughs extended, holding the day’s remaining light in green arms full of snow. Backlit, he appeared dark, an impression of impermeability that was as misleading as the sun dog we’d seen earlier in the day. Joel is transparent. He’d wanted so much to share his beloved mountains with me, secretly hoping their spirit would move me as it does him, that wonder and joy would surpass anxiety and discomfort. That I would make his faith my own. Instead we watched the sunset from separate viewpoints – Joel crouched behind his camera at his chosen composition, me pacing a labyrinth of uncomfortable questions. Where are the lines between being there for the person you love, and being there for yourself? Expanding your comfort zones, and honoring your boundaries? By the time the last embers of color had faded from the peaks above, I’d stomped a hollow of answers into the snow. I couldn’t read any of them.

Back in Jasper, we talked about our differing reactions to the outing. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Joel. The landscape photographers he most admires all work alone in remote settings, exploring the fringes of the day by headlamp. My fear baffled him. “They were just little streams; the worst that could happen is you’d get a wet foot.” He wondered aloud if there’s anything I love that scares him. If there’s anything I chase the way he chases photos – charging onward to a destination known only to me, unfazed, while he wonders why I would possibly choose to do such a thing. Why I would need to.

Three days later, I am still hearing my response, a steadying echo behind this lake’s heartbeat and my own. Writing. I believe in stories like Joel believes in mountains: leaning on them, grateful to have found one thing solid enough to hold me up. It wasn’t a surprising answer, nor was it what Joel had meant. He’d been looking for a physical parallel, like the way he delights in scampering steep ridges and I definitively do not. But it was a true answer, and like a bone glinting in a wound, the trueness of it mesmerized me. It has dogged my heels through every pre-dawn hike and hillside scramble in the days since, and now, shuffle-stepping my way across this eleven inch ice on a meditation of art, fear, and love.

Joel and I are both artists. Whether by image or by words, we both have a need to capture and share our experiences of the world around us. But there’s a difference between his art and mine, and it’s as significant as the difference between eleven inches and one. Joel suggests I sit these missions out. Knowing where his next shoot will take him – knowing how I’ll react – he says sleep in, stay in the motel, we’ll meet up in a coffee shop after. I shake my head, unwilling to accept kindness I can’t return. As a memoirist, I tread across ice far less stable than this. I agree to be vulnerable, risking exposure, judgment, shame, for the relief of an honest, scary sentence – and in doing so, I yank my loved ones onto the ice with me. My art doesn’t include an opt-out. That’s why I’m still walking. Knowing the privilege of the option to turn back, I force myself to go on.

Dragging my gaze up from my boots, I study my sweetheart. He’s a charcoal log in the distance, shooting low, lying on his belly to peer through the viewfinder. He can hold this position for hours. Never complaining about the cold, never losing patience. Fully engaged with his art and himself. Leaving renewed, soul-fed, even if he doesn’t end up with a great shot. This is how I want to know my partner, even when I don’t understand what he does. Even when it scares me.

He’s spent the past few years teaching me how to know him this way. My writing has scared him. He doesn’t always understand the places I’m willing to go – the places I feel I have to go. But he’s never suggested I not write. He’s stood by my art, knowing my decision to expose my life means exposing his.


The sun fizzles without any of the flamboyance Joel had hoped for. He packs away his camera and folds up his tripod, and together we walk back to the shore. We talk about what a beautiful evening it was anyway, and how eager we are for dinner at the brewery next to our motel. My body moves more agreeably, heading towards land.

We’ve just gotten back to the car when Joel notices a purple edge scalloping the western horizon. “Oh, shit. Is that going to spread?” He stares, waiting to see if the ribbon will unfurl, and glances back to the ice.

“Go.” I prod him. “You have to go.”

Cursing himself for having left his spot too soon, he tears back down the snowy slope and across the lake. This time I stay on the bank, and I watch with a smile.


Joel Brady-Power, Vermillion Lakes


To see some of the shots Joel got from this trip, visit Joel Brady-Power/500px and Joel Brady-Power Photography




  1. Love the way you paint with words, Buddy. Like the comparison between what he is driven to capture and what you are driven to capture, although I’m with Joel. I’d much rather take the stroll across tangibly thin ice.

    • Thanks, buddy. I hear what you’re saying and know your private nature – and even so, I’ve heard you go to those personal places with your words. You gave your audience your heart, sharing “Cling.”

  2. Love this. Great comparison. Remind me never to do anything around you I don’t want in print. Love BOTH your art and Joel’s. You complement one another.

    • That reminds me of what Anne Lamott said: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

      It’s funny in a facetious sense, but writing true tales that overlap into other people’s lives has never been that simple or flip for me. You’re safe, Pops.

  3. Loved reading this mesmerizing love story online. Your truths are always rich, ever compelling.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Jennifer. Thank you for reading!

  4. Wonderful Tela, I felt I was with you crossing the lake, it’s been 25 years since Bill and I were that direction. : ))

    • Elise! I should have known those were some of your stomping grounds! We thought of you on the way home, when Joel was ready to find a cabin to rent next winter as a home base for all the photo trips he’d love to do in your area. Beautiful lives you have out there. Sending hugs and love.

  5. Beautifully written- a joy to read your “voice.”

    • Thank you, Jessica – glad to have you here.

  6. Gorgeous and true and brave. Thanks Tele for the images and insights.

    • Thanks, Victoria. Much appreciated, coming from a writer who so deftly conveys images and insights herself!

  7. Tele, I’ve worn your boots Not on ice, but the rest of your story feels so familiar. Thank you, thank you. I’m not alone.

    • Nope, we’re not alone, my friend. I’ve often thought back to your bear essay from those years ago, recalling reading with my heart in my throat, admiring what you accomplished with your words. I still struggle to write honestly about fear – hard to admit what I so often feel – and found some comfort as I wrote this one, randomly turning to Eva Saulitis’s “Leaving Resurrection” and Pam Houston’s “A Little More About Me.” Both are excellent; I think you’d connect with them both.

      • I am not familiar with Eva Saulitis but will take both your suggestions to heart. Thanks, Tele.

  8. Beautiful…well put.

    • Thanks, fellow memoirist/artist/ice walker. 🙂

  9. Dear Tele, Your words not only create a picture in my mind, but bring questions to it as well. About our partners and where they go. Our we obligated by our love to follow? As a women, our we programed by our society to?

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Meg – YES! Yes yes yes, I’m so glad you posed those questions. They’re the same ones that I struggled with not only in the experience, but again as I wrote about it. Earlier drafts felt so embarrassingly codependent – why the fuck am I doing this thing that scares me? why am I behaving as if love obligates suffering? Your questions, and the push-pull tension of seeking their answers, feel like an on-going quest for me. If you’ve found solid answers that work for you, I’d love to hear them.

  10. Ah, Tele, you’re such a master of writing close to your senses, close to your heart. I don’t believe I breathed until the last word, “smile.” Truly, you are an artist!

    • Ah, Susan. 🙂 Talk of being a master of writing your senses: I loved your “Feverish at Negative 40” post. Ravens crying like ice cubes grinding against each other… Beautiful!

      You are missed in writing group. xo

  11. Thank you for sharing this – and reminding me that no matter how monumental, courageous, or downright dicey the experience—writing about it is much more difficult.

    • Susan, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Not to minimize the significance of everyone’s individual experiences, but I’m awed by your journey! As a teenager, I fantasized one day kayaking the Inside Passage. Haven’t done it, and at this point am pretty content to live vicariously through your book. Have you been in touch with Bellingham’s Village Books about scheduling a reading? I’d love to hear you speak about your journeys – both the paddle and the written.

      Friends: visit Susan’s website to learn more about her memoir, “Inside: A Woman’s Solo Journey Through the Inside Passage.” http://www.susanmarieconrad.com/Susan_Marie_Conrad/HOME.html

  12. Breathtaking, Tele. On or off the ice.

    • So good to see you, Pierr! Hope all’s going well for you and your writing. Always, thank you for being here.