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the novice and the mountain mentor: the swan

credit M. Sigler
Good morning sprouts!

You may remember McKenze from her stellar pieces on her mentor and failure. Today's guest post is the third part in the series Novice and the Mountain Mentor by McKenze. One of my favorite of her strong attributes his her unflagging integrity and introspective honesty, the reader will benefit from both in today's piece. 

As the idea of the yin and the yang mountain mover buds, McKenze's words help put color and depth to the concept in my mind. After she verbally related the experience in the story below, I quickly looked up the medicine of Swan. Fortuitously, Swan imbues its follower with grace, beauty, and power of self--all traits McKenze sought on the day of her run and will continue to develop as her seeking progresses. I hope you enjoy her journey with Swan in the winter forests.


I’m an outdoor, snow, trail, and forest enthusiast. I’m also an extrovert, and a worrier. When you combine each of the aforementioned attributes you get someone who loves hiking and running on trails, in all weather, with friends. However, someone with these attributes can lack independence, personal navigation, and the self-trust that lends itself personal empowerment sans excessive worry. My endurance coach put words to it: I am someone who personally tends towards the Taoist yang (active, positive, brightness, heaven, south slope, sunshine, fire, etc.) but athletically I tend towards the yin (passive, negative, darkness, earth, north slope, cloudy, softness, moisture, night-time, etc.). I think this may be why I took to running trails in the dark so quickly, and why I love running in the forest, largely unseen by non-runners. The pitfall is, I hardly enjoy nature alone. I worry about doing so. I lack the self-trust to navigate trails or sometimes even the driving directions to get there. Then, the New Year came, and I took one small step into athletic yang.

I was at a cabin in the mountains for the New Year holiday with a group of friends. One day, they went skiing and I stayed behind. I still wanted to be out in the mountains, so I researched and selected a trail, wrote down driving directions, and let everyone know where I was going. My dog (Loli) and I drove to a trailhead in the Snoqualmie-Baker National Forest, and set out on a trail run. We ran through incredible cedar old growth alongside a partially frozen river. We twisted through the forest and took pictures on the charming wood-plank river crossings. The forest was near silent except for the snow dropping from the pine boughs. As we ascended the gentle grade, joy enraptured me in a way that it does only when I’m in the mountains. I kept a steady pace while Loli danced and dove into snow berms around me. I smiled uncontrollably. 

When Loli and I got to the first lake on the trail, we stopped to take it in. It was there that I bickered with my inner worry. “Turn back”, it said. “You know you know the way back from here. Just turn back before you get yourself in trouble”. But, my body said, “No! Keep moving. Make the most out of this incredible day!” I decided to keep going. To appease my worry, I noted that the trail I had covered so far was pretty easy to discern – there were no turns to choose and the snow was pretty well beaten. I looked forward beyond the lake and saw another clearing in the distance. I picked that spot to run to, noting that again I simply had to follow the water. Moving forward put me in deeper snow. At a slightly belabored clip I jaunted on, with Loli leading the way. 

Perhaps ten minutes later we arrived at the clearing, and to my surprise it was a second lake. I was so pleased. I had gotten myself here and I was having so much fun. Loli was impeccably behaved, as though she knew I was on a special journey that shouldn’t be disrupted. I smiled at Loli, gave her a treat, and turned to the lake for one last look. And there it was: a lone swan. He just glided slowly, gently, in a figure-eight form along the frosted lake. I exclaimed to Loli in glee, turning my head to realize she was out of sight. I panicked briefly, only to find the she was sitting so close to my side that I had overlooked her. She, too, was looking out across the water. We watched the swan until I started losing heat, then we decided to run back. I did so chuckling to myself: I took a risk, I challenged myself, and I was rewarded by the swan. Had I not gone on, the run would remain in my memory as pleasant and joyful; now it’s in my memory as profound.

Swan, credit M. Sigler
In shamanism, the swan totem is indicative of the swan’s wisdom, including awakening the power of self, balance, grace, inner beauty, self-esteem, evolution, developing intuitive abilities, and commitment, just name a few. What a powerful totem to see on this run. THIS run was a first of so many things for me: I sourced the trail independently, drove myself to it alone, and navigated my way through a brand new trail run by myself. These acts aren’t exactly novel in the world of outdoor sports, but they are for this yin athlete. I pushed myself, I discovered reward beyond the physical, and I built trust in myself and my ability to safely seek solitude in nature. The swan was a symbol of all of it.

Coming off the trail I made a commitment to run a marathon distance in the mountains (a distance that I’ve actively avoided). That’s what I’m training for now. The training is as much emotional as physical. I know how to get physically strong; I know how to run far. I’m still hesitant to push myself. I’m still seeking confidence in my abilities. So, this training will include more solo ventures, more challenges of mind and balance. And when I run my 26.2 mountain miles, I’ll have a mantra of gratitude towards the swan--my newest mountain mentor. 

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