By Joanna Cahoon, legal fellow
I never expected to find peace and well-being at sea. For most of my life I wasn’t an ocean person. I loved the beach, but I would get seasick every time I left the shore. The thought of open ocean sounded like torture.
So, I surprised quite a few people a few years ago when I decided to join some friends on a sailboat trip through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of Panama to Costa Rica. I was emerging from the fog of the first few years of being a new parent and felt restless for an adventure. I put my faith in some seasickness patches and went for it.
All’s good after the ordeal at the canal
Getting through the canal was quite an ordeal. Floating alongside huge ships in a tiny sailboat was comical and also stressful at times. But once we entered open water, I found myself awash in awe. The wind, waves, wildlife, and quiet made me feel reconnected to nature and myself. It was exactly what I needed.
The days were peaceful and simple. The wind was warm and there were often dolphins racing along in front of the bow. When I dangled my feet over the boat, I felt like their slippery skin might brush mine when they jumped.
For a few days we stopped in a small bay and did nothing but swim, fish, and cook. There were birds calling from the thick jungle and little fish darted through the water as we swam to and from shore. Stepping away from my daily busyness to simply enjoy the beauty around me was incredibly grounding.
The nights on the boat were magical. When it was clear, moonlight reflected off the waves as far as the eye could see. On cloudy nights the blackness was complete, and the power of the ocean took on new life.
One night the waves were so big I couldn’t sleep. I spent about an hour just focusing on gripping my little couch to keep from falling off. When the waves kept coming, my friend and I struggled to stand while we strung a rope up to keep me from falling off the bench while I slept. Rocking back and forth, I felt some of the most restorative sleep I can remember. I honestly think that is the way humans are made to sleep.
One evening the swells starting building just as the sun was setting. I slowly crawled out to the bow to hang on for dear life while being pounded by the salty rollercoaster. The mix of adrenalin and awe I felt watching the sunset through crashing walls of spray made me feel alive. It was exactly the adventure I was craving. I felt a rush of gratitude.
A world so vast
Those moments of pure joy in nature reconnect me to life’s beauty and remind me of what is truly worthwhile. I don’t often find that perspective within four walls. When I get out in nature, whether in the mountains or looking out over the ocean, I feel grateful that the world is so vast and that I cannot predict what will happen next. That feeling is often followed by the desire to share the experience. Imagining my kids going out for adventures of their own and renewing their own sense of awe with nature is about the happiest thought I can muster.
Three questions about spending time in/with nature
What do you think is the ideal amount of time for you to spend in/with nature?
Since we are talking ideals, I am going to abandon reality. My oldest friend is a guide in New Zealand. She spends most of her day outside. That would be an ideal amount of time outside for me — daily for extended periods, preferably on a sailboat. Fantasy aside, I’m happiest if I can go outside for a walk, bike ride, or ski every day. Walks or skis in the woods are very high on my list and I love to hike out in Prince William Sound.
What does a meaningful experience in nature look like for you?
Any experience that shifts my mood or outlook is meaningful for me. These days, my outdoor adventures are shorter and closer to home because I have two small children. But it really does not take much for nature to serve up a new perspective. I live close to the coastal trail and almost always turn south on my walks and take the same shortcut through the woods. That means I almost always see the same view of the mountains. I almost always look for birds in the hollows of the same standing stump. I almost always see the nurse tree that fell across the path with saplings growing straight up out of it. Those familiar sights seem to put my mind right every time. Looking for signs of life in the hollows of the standing tree stump renews my sense of wonder. Seeing those saplings jutting to the sky, despite their rather precarious host tree, reminds me that nature and all living things are fighters. And I absolutely crave the calming feeling of insignificance I get when I look across the water.
The other day my son said: “I was grumpy because the baby woke me up but then I looked at the sea and it cheered me up.” All I could say was: “I know! Me too!”
Describe one moment in nature/outdoors that left you with a sense of awe and connection?
I was really into amphibians as a kid and some of those moments stick out for me the way only childhood memories can. When I was small, like in first and second grade, I remember gathering lots and lots of tadpoles in jars, watching them and letting them go so I could return in a few days and catch them again to see how they had changed. There is nothing so cute and fascinating as watching fat tadpoles swimming. That is my first memory of being awed by nature. It felt like I was in my own little world watching evolution in real time.
Years later, when I was nine or ten, I remember swimming and looking up to see several Rough-Skinned Newts slowly swimming up to the surface of the lake. Rough-skinned newts are common in western Washington where I grew up and I used to look for them in the woods by my house. They have brown bodies and bright orange bellies to let predators know they are poisonous.
I’d never seen them swim before and I felt so lucky to see them that day with sunlight streaming through the cold water. Like tadpoles, newts are very cute swimmers. They pin their little legs against their bodies and rock back and forth slowly. I was as still as possible and felt a sense of awe in the quiet of the water. It seemed that slow-moving sight was just for me. Like the world knew I loved those little guys and put me there just in time to see something I would appreciate.
Joanna is a legal fellow with Trustees. Her story is the fifth in a monthly series about how nature, getting outside, and being with land and water influences human health, resilience, connection, and purpose. Look for these stories in our monthly newsletters.
Previous stories in the series:
- Tracy’s story: My summers with dirt
- Ashley’s story: Just a country girl
- Rachel’s story: Nature teaches me I’m the protagonist in my own life
- Katie’s story: Howling pierced the morning quiet