A Tribute to Arin Trook

Honoring former Program Director Arin Trook with words shared from the Balanced Rock community

Below is a compilation of photos and words about Arin from the BR community and beyond.  We miss him dearly.

“This news feels like a big meteor hit the Earth and left a huge deep hole. The complexities of this impact are beyond what I am able to describe. It is incredibly frustrating not to be able to adjust anything about it.

He was sparkly, kind, curious, thoughtful, engaging, and devoted. I think his super power was suspending time. When I had the opportunity to be around him whether for five minutes or an hour it never seemed rushed and somehow there was always enough time to plunge into and complete a meaningful conversation.

For those who had the opportunity to share days and years with him, I can only imagine what time is like after his death. It is not like we can go down the street and get another Arin. He definitely was one of those people that I think we all would be significantly better off if there were more people like him. I hope the world we live in is creating that opportunity.

If there is anything that I can do that would be helpful please let me know. You, Arin’s family, and the rest of his vast sphere of influence and inspiration are in my thoughts.”

With love,

Brenda Ostrom (Balanced Rock Board Member, Owner of Mountain Meadow Farms), Mariposa, CA

“While many friends’ memories of Arin will flash to high-country adventures and wanderings, my sweetest memories of Arin, Liesa and Kosma were of the most domestic kind in the low canyon living of El Portal. Arin and family stayed with our family on Incline Road during one of the many evacuation events here in EP; we felt lucky to get them to ourselves. Arin was good company in conversation and in silence. His comfort in his own skin and spark for living and connecting were palpable in his cleaning the kitchen, making food for his son, and hanging on the couch in the evening. He offered a cozy-hearted presence that invited others into the comfort of his kindness. Our blessings go out to Liesa and Kosma and Ria.” 

-Schuyler Greenleaf (Yosemite Conservancy, El Portal resident, Volunteer Yoga Instructor with Balanced Rock), El Portal CA

“Arin was a one of a kind human being with a captivating presence, who seamlessly balanced playfulness with deep reflection.  In my mind I can hear his voice, echoing jewels of wisdom embedded in the most engagingly presented stories.  I can see his smile- joyful and warm, with a pinch of mischief.  Arin was a teacher and a friend, and someone who led life in a way that inspired those around him.  He was a mentor for me when I was an eager young educator for NatureBridge in Yosemite, and again years later as I deepened my study of yoga.  Arin was an old soul, wise beyond his years. I am grateful for the time that I got to spend with Arin, and for the way that he touched my life. Arin, thank you for sharing your inspiring spirit with us all.  May you roam wild, peaceful and free. “

 –Jenna Beers  (Former Nature Bridge Instructor, Nursing Student, Wilderness Guide and Yoga Instructor for Balanced Rock), Columbia, CA

Story-teller. Heart open! Look at your Urdva Danurasana.. proud El Cap in the back ground! Lover of music and listening and singing and playing. Elf, imp, magician, sparkly, bright, twinkle. Soulful and wise. Deeply studied. You put in your time; your hard work.  Wicked smart, you Berkeley and Standford grad…Ha! they didn’t know what to do with all those dreads on campus! No sleep, too much to explore and celebrate. Caretaker, nurturer. Deep dedication and commitment to Liesa. To Kosi. To Ria. Family. Husband. Father. “

-Eliza Kerr (Ayurvedic Practitioner, Co-Founder and Board Member for Balanced Rock), El Portal, CA

“My memory of Arin is when he was the lead instructor for a custom trip of women from Oakland.  Most of them had never been backpacking before.  So they were excited and nervous.  We had a VERY slow trudge up the 10 Lakes trail to get to our camp site.  Arin was incredibly patient and played his guitar the entire time to serenade us.  We were all surprised he could be doing that, while we were just struggling to breathe!   Arin was amazing at reading the individuals and meeting their needs every moment during that trip.  His cooking was fantastic and his smile infectious.  I’m so incredibly honored to have shared this journey with him!  My heart goes out to his family and to the entire community!”

-Marcia Hodges (Top Facilitator, Balanced Rock Board Member), Oakland, CA

“One of my most vivid memories is when a woman who wasn’t on our trip got angry and started yelling at us. Arin was incredibly skilled at non-violent communication and within 3 minutes, this angry woman was hugging him and talking to him like she knew him for years. That is the kind of person Arin was. He was such an original. We had so many good laughs! Arin was one of the most gifted outdoor guides and storytellers that I ever met. He lived an absolutely authentic life, motivated by ecological citizenship and loving kindness. Arin was a facilitator of transformation, bringing out the best self you didn’t even know was there.”

   –Pam Kuhn (former Balanced Rock Executive Director)

ACES has set up a memorial fund to help Arin’s family:

Embracing Change in 2019!

Happy New Year!  

We are grateful for the continued dedication of the staff, board, volunteers and donors for making Balanced Rock such a solid, inspiring and loving organization. We hope you will join this incredible community on one of our 2019 courses! 

If your new year’s resolution includes spending time in nature, recommitting to self care and wellness routines, and/or exploring personal growth in supportive community then these courses are just the thing.  

Balanced Rock is also welcoming 2019 with some significant and exciting changes within the organization. Read on for the latest news!

Changes to Our Staff:

In 2019 we bid farewell to Paula Wild, Director of Operations, who has served Balanced Rock for almost eight years in a variety of roles. 

Paula leaves a wonderful legacy at Balanced Rock. She has implemented many organizational systems with an attention to detail and professionalism that has allowed BR to grow and therefore, become a more efficient and polished organization.  Also in her tenure, Paula has served as a wilderness guide and yoga instructor. She has helped co-create the WildYoga Advanced Studies and Teacher Training Program by contributing engaging curriculum, attentive instruction and a compassionate and caring teaching style.

Paula has truly embraced the Balanced Rock mission; to inspire health and well-being through deep connection to nature and spirit, in her work and life. We wish her well on her new, exciting position as Program Specialist at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA.  Here, Paula will continue to serve people by focusing on exploring the human potential in a dynamic landscape.   She will also continue to cultivate her amazing organizational talents and her passion for teaching and bringing compassion and wellbeing to the world. 

Immense gratitude for all she has given to the Yosemite, Mariposa, and Balanced Rock Communities. We love you, Paula.

Board of Directors:

Balanced Rock is also experiencing a transition in our Board leadership as Anne Baxter steps down from her role as Board President.  She has held this role for four years. We are so grateful to Anne for her dedication.  She has graciously exercised thoughtfulness and compassion in her managerial position. We honor and thank you Anne. And we are so glad you will stay on the Board!

We are equally excited to welcome Pete Van Kuran as the new President of Balanced Rock’s Board of Directors.  Pete has served on the BR Board since 2010 as Secretary.  He brings a wealth of organizational and fiscal skills to the organization.

We are thrilled to have Pete’s expertise and guidance in this new role.  Pete’s daughter, Kim Marcis, was a participant on the very first BR trip in 2000. His three grandchildren participate in the Kid’s Mindfulness Program with BR in the El Portal school system. Thanks to Pete for stepping up as our new President!

2019 Administrative Staff
  • Heather Sullivan Managing Director/Co-Founder
  • Deana Barone, Admin Assistant
  • Operations Manager  In process
2019 Board of Directors
  • Pete Van Kuran, Board President
  • Eliza Kerr, Vice President/Co-Founder
  • Rosa Aranda-Lister, Secretary
  • Monte Myers, Treasurer
  • Marcia Hodges
  • Sarah Ottley
  • Brenda Ostrom
  • Anne Baxter
  • Maggie Jones
2019 Instructors and Volunteers
  • Breezy Jackson
  • Jon-Paul Salonen
  • Jana Kilgore
  • Patrick Bremser
  • Miho Aida
  • Grace Anderson
  • Nancy Aronie
  • Heather Sullivan
  • Eliza Kerr
  • Dennis Eagan
  • Erin Dickman
  • Schuyler Greenleaf
  • Paula Wild
  • Cassidy Engfer

Exciting Opportunity: Balanced Rock is hiring an Operations Manager!


Balanced Rock (BR) is excited to be hiring a part-time position of Operations Manager (OM) to support Balanced Rock’s high-quality wellness, yoga, nature-based programs & retreats in 2019.  Balanced Rock is a small dynamic non-profit 501c3operating in Yosemite National Park since 2000 with a mission “to inspire health and wellbeing through deep connection to nature and spirit.” Successful candidates will have experience in accounting and fiscal management, systems management, and marketing work well with others and independently, and align with BR’s mission.  This position will report directly to the Managing Director.

 Job Brief:

We are looking for a competent Operations Manager to enthusiastically take on a variety of operational and marketing tasks and effectively manage the administrative side of program operations. Significant duties include but are not limited to:

  • Budgeting, Accounting and Human Resources
  • Marketing and Outreach
  • IT and Online Systems Management


The candidate must have their own housing, a working vehicle, clean driving record, and have familiarity with the local area and systems within Yosemite National Park. Must be able to take direction as well as have initiative and good problem solving skills.  A kind, positive outlook and excellent verbal and written communication skills are essential. Prior knowledge of and experience in Microsoft Office Suite, Quickbooks Online and WordPress is desired.

Compensation & Schedule

Compensation will be commensurate with skill and experience with a range of $20-$25/hour. Hours and schedule to be negotiated to fit organizational need as well as applicant skill-set and availability.This position is non-exempt, part-time (approximately 3 days per week).

To Apply

Please submit current resume & cover letter to:

Heather Sullivan, Managing Director

Deadline to apply is December 19, 2018.

Balanced Rock seeks part time Program and Operations Assistant

Estimated Term: Jan 2019-Dec 2019
Exact Start Date: Flexible
Balanced Rock (BR) is excited to be hiring a part-time, temporary position of Program and Operations Assistant (POA) to support Balanced Rock’s high-quality wellness, yoga, nature-based programs & retreats in 2019. Balanced Rock is a small dynamic non-profit 501(c)(3) operating in Yosemite National Park since 2000. Balanced Rock’s Mission is to inspire health and wellbeing through deep connection to nature and spirit. Successful candidates will have program support experience, work well independently and with others, and align with BR’s mission. This position will report to the Managing Director.
We are looking for a competent Program and Operations Assistant to undertake a variety of program support, administrative support and instructional tasks. This position will assist staff and instructors in planning, organizing, facilitating and supporting programs and activities as well as carrying out important operational duties. We are seeking someone who has good problem-solving skills and naturally takes initiative but is also comfortable receiving and following directions. A kind, positive outlook and excellent verbal and written communication skills are essential for this collaborative customer service and programming position.

Requirements: The candidate must have their own housing, a working vehicle, clean driving record, WFR/CPR certification, and familiarity with the local area. We are looking for someone who has a personal yoga and/or mindfulness practice and loves spending time in the wilderness and connecting with nature. The ideal candidate will have a 200-RYT certification and at least two years of wilderness guiding experience.

Compensation & Benefits: The pay range for this part-time temporary position is between $20-$25/hour depending on skills and experience.  Hours and schedule to be negotiated to fit organizational need and applicant skill-set and availability.

To Apply: Please submit a cover letter, current resume, and three current (contact) references to:
Heather Sullivan, Managing Director – Currently accepting applications, if you have questions please contact us.

Deadline to apply is Friday, October 26, 2018.

The Power of Ritual

At various times we all experience a sense of feeling anxious or disconnected, and creating supportive rituals for ourselves can be a remarkable anchor in the tumultuous uncertainty of life. For thousands of years humans have utilized rituals to reconnect mind, body and spirit. Even if we don’t have a formal background in creating or engaging in ritual, this practice is available to us! At Balanced Rock we offer many approaches to ritual and we welcome you to check out our WildYoga Intensive or WildYoga Teacher Training to experience it firsthand! We are grateful this month to share the following guest blog post from Jennifer Allan about the power of rituals to support wholistic health. 

How Spiritual Rituals Can Boost Your Health

By Jennifer Allan

Photo by William Farlow on Unsplash

According to a new study from the PPRI, 18 percent of Americans consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. That number has increased with each new generation of Americans. Why? Spirituality provides a number of benefits in our lives. One cornerstone of spiritual beliefs is the process of creating rituals that center your body and mind. Many spiritualists have morning routines that focus on growing their spirituality. However, rituals can be practiced at any time of day while still providing exponential benefits.

Physical Health Benefits

Spiritual rituals vary from person to person. Typically, when we think of spirituality, we see images of people meditating. That’s certainly a beneficial ritual, but it’s not exclusive. In fact, people who incorporate physical activity into their routine experience emotional and mental benefits. Spirituality is directly connected to the physical body; when we feel centered and connected to the earth below our feet, we feel calm. Focusing on connecting with the physical world through exercise, observing our surroundings, and connecting with others feed our spirituality and improve our quality of life.

Mental Health Benefits

Creating a spiritual ritual that you practice every day can have a significant impact on your mental health. Americans are struggling with increasing rates of depression and anxiety. The combination of societal pressures, identity crisis, and trauma all impact our mental health. The inclusion of spiritual rituals like meditating, yoga, and mindfulness all aid in treatment. In fact, psychologists have created a new form of treatment for people suffering from mental health issues that heavily focuses on spiritual health.

How to Create Spiritual Rituals

Since you know how beneficial spiritual rituals are for your physical and mental health, it’s time to try them out. One easy way to start your spiritual journey is to practice gratitude. Every day (morning or night), write down three things you’re grateful for. You can list physical things or emotional. Gratitude rituals are a great stepping stone for beginners in spirituality. They’ll create a more positive outlook on life. Later, consider incorporating mindfulness techniques and meditation.

Embracing spirituality and creating rituals can significantly improve your physical and mental health. As more and more Americans are becoming spiritual, research is proving that spirituality and its rituals truly benefit us. Whether you have concerns about your physical health or are struggling with mental health issues, spirituality can help. Starting with gratitude, begin incorporating rituals into your daily routines and reap the benefits.

Fire Season Reflections: With a Yoga Lens

Agni, the Hindu God of Fire, is personified in actual flame, in the fire of the sun, in lightning, celestially in the stars, and in sacrificial and ceremonial fire.

The word Agni is used in many contexts, ranging from the fire in stomach, the cooking fire in a home, the sacrificial fire in an altar, the fire of cremation, the fire of rebirth, the fire in the energetic saps concealed within plants, the atmospheric fire in lightning and the celestial fire in the sun.  ~Jayaram V 

Fire is one of the five elements in both Samkhya and Ayurvedic Philosophy According to both, the universe is composed of the 5 Elements:  Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space (Ether). Concepts like seasons and time of day can even hold the qualities of these elements.

Here in California, we are well aware that this is fire season and see and experience on a daily, very gross level fires physically burning around us.   We see the burning or recently burned landscape, we smell and taste the smoke in the air, and we evacuate our homes on what feels like a regular basis.

When left unchecked, fire can burn out of control and be very destructive.   Many of those we know have lost their homes and some their lives or their loved ones in these big fires. Fire becomes the ultimate transformer in these moments and often we are not ready for it.

One of the original founders of Balanced Rock’s predecessor organization, Wild Women Workshops, had parents who lost their home in the recent Carr Fire just a month ago.  The Ferguson Fire, which burned through the Yosemite Region, claimed the lives of two hard-working, local and beloved firefighters this summer.  We mourn these losses of life, livelihood and homes deeply while increasing deep reverence for the power of fire.

Firefighter water puja. El Portal, CA.

Not mentioned much is the great loss of animal life and habitat in these monstrous western wildfires:  the bears burned over in Swall Meadows, the charred rattlesnake found in a coiled position by Mono Lake as though trying to defend and strike the flames, the deer family huddled together in a burned out tree stump hole that couldn’t outrun the Butte Fire.

The Vedic people were aware of his (Agni’s) destructive ability, as he sets the forests aflame. “Urged by the wind he spreads through dry wood as he lists, armed with his tongues for sickles, with a mighty roar. Black is thy path, Agni, changeless, with glittering waves! When like a bull thou rushes eager to the trees, with teeth of flame, wind-driven, through the wood he speeds, triumphant like a bull among the herd of cows, with bright strength roaming to the everlasting air: things fixed, things moving quake before him as he flies.”  ~Jayaram V 

But wildfire is one of ten forms of Agni described traditionally.  The first five are material:  and the last five are ritualistic. Fire in its healthy and balanced state consumes, transforms, purifies and conveys as it engulfs matter and reduces it to ash, transforming it from one form to another. As it consumes it morphs matter from a gross level to a more subtle level. Fire can do the same for us in our yoga and breathing practice in terms of transformation.   We use the fire of our breath and the heat generated by physical postures to burn through obstacles, establishing a fertile landscape for new energy. This is something we can witness in our outer landscape in the springtime after the rains come and new life abounds.

The fire of our breath cultivates tapas, discipline and focus and (when burning well) slowly consumes them, revealing our true authentic nature. The fire of our digestion helps us consume our food as well as all that we take in through all of our senses.  Hence, our physical practices are essential for us to handle all of this input from our environment, diet and habits and assimilate them in a healthy way.

When fire is unharnessed as in a wildfire, it can create chaos, stress, fear, and confusion. It poses danger as it can burn out of control and be extremely hot and destructive. But just like a well-tended campfire, when fire is harnessed and able to be controlled it sheds light and warmth, it purifies, and it serves as the ultimate vehicle of transformation.

There is a reason Agni, the Hindu fire god was revered so much and that hundreds of hymns in the Rig Veda were addressed to him.  Though he has fallen out of vogue as less sacrificial ceremonies were held over time in, his qualities are still observed in Hindu wedding ceremony, in burning of butter lamps, during funeral ceremony and many of his qualities have been absorbed by other deities with more of a re-directed focus on the inner transformation that Agni represents.

Topics for Reflection during this Fire Season:

  • What are you sacrificing to the fire?
  • What is transforming for you during these heated months?
  • What could benefit in your life or yoga/meditation practices from the purification properties of fire?
  • How can you harness the power of fire through your breath work and physical practice?

Written by Heather Sullivan


Loss, Nature & Spirituality

All of  us experience loss in our lives and need to find ways to grieve and cope with this natural and challenging transition. Balanced Rock Foundation was formed following the tragic loss of a dear friend and community member Joie Armstrong, in an effort to provide a space for healing in nature using the tools of yoga and creative writing. If you have experienced a recent loss, we urge you to reach out to us and consider coming on a backpacking or campground-based retreat to support your grieving process. We are grateful this month to share the following guest blog post from Jennifer Allan about moving through losing a loved one. 

Finding Solace in Nature and Spirituality after Losing a Loved One

By Jennifer Allan

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The Holmes and Rahe scale, used by doctors to predict future illness, lists the death of a spouse or child as the single most stressful event that can occur to a human being. Losing a family member turns one’s world upside down, changes our plans for the future, and can lead to a sense of solitude that is difficult to bear. At this time more than any other, it is important to lean on others but also to search for a sense of connection. Research carried out over the past two decades has shone a light on the important role that nature and spirituality can play in helping human beings survive through the toughest of times. Studies have shown, for instance, that being part of a spiritual community is the only social activity that promotes sustained happiness. Nothing else – including volunteering and other selfless acts, provides quite the same level of support.

Nature, Spirituality, and Bereavement

A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing investigated the effect of spiritual activities on parents who had lost a loved one (in this case, a child). They found that spirituality assisted mothers with symptoms of grief, depression and PTSD, and promoted greater personal growth. Fathers, meanwhile, seemed to find greater solace in religious activities. Of course, spirituality per se is a much wider concept than religion. It can include self-reflection in nature, leaning on family and friends, meditating in a natural setting, or taking part in worship. Harvard academic Casper ter Kuile notes that these days, millennials in particular are seeking spiritual connection in everything from mountain climbing and trekking, right through to taking part in Crossfit, or communicating regularly on social media.

Nature Awakens our Rich Interior World

Many studies have been carried out on the effects of spirituality on bereavement. Around 94% of findings show positive connections for both men and women who rely on religious/spiritual beliefs to get over life’s vicissitudes. What can those who are not used to prayer or other introspective activities do to find their spiritual place? Nature is a great place to start. Carl Jung noted that divorcing ourselves from nature wrests meaning from life and makes us feel small and alone. He wrote that it was only when beholding the majesty of Nature that human beings could comprehend the magnitude of the spirit or be reminded of the importance of tending to their spiritual health.

Where to Begin?

To find the spiritual activity that resonates with your needs, think of what used to ignite your passion before you lost your spouse. Did downhill mountain biking get your heart racing? Was simply sitting in a park your way to disconnect? Did you feel a sense of peace and calm by doing a yoga class or meditating? You could start with something as simple as forest bathing, which involves simply visiting a green area such as the mountainside, a lake, or a park. Open your sense to the sights and sounds around you. Touch leaves, and trees, walk slowly through a lush area and enjoy the smells and textures that connect you to something far larger than yourself.

Spirituality and nature can play an important role in soothing symptoms of grief, including anxiety, stress, and depression. Studies have shown that even contemplating imagery of natural scenery can significantly lower stress hormone levels. Imagine what actually walking into Mother Nature’s embrace can do to your psyche at a time when you most need solace, peace, and quiet.

How Backpacking Changed My Life #2

This is the second of a series of posts from Balanced Rock’s current staff. We are excited to share with you how backpacking has impacted our lives. We hope you enjoy the stories!

By Paula Wild

When I write the word HOME what comes up for you? This can be a really loaded concept for many of us, and I’d like to share with you how backpacking has helped me heal my relationship with the idea of home.
I am an immigrant; my family came over from communist Poland in 1988 when I was five years old. I don’t remember what that was like, however I do know that most of our extended family remained in Poland while the small nuclear family of mom, dad and me set off into the huge landscape of America.
My childhood was fraught with confusion and often embarrassment. I was forever caught between cultures and feeling alien. My folks spoke Polish with me and we ate the food they had grown up eating. However when staying over with friends I was exposed to a Midwestern American culture that felt both foreign and exciting.  I often cringed and wondered why my parents’ accent had to be so strong, and why we couldn’t just fit in?!
In 1999 my father passed away unexpectedly and my mother and I moved into a new “home”. I was heartbroken and bewildered, and began heavily using marijuana as a means of coping with my discomfort. I went on to attend University continually feeling lost and out of place. For these two decades I was completely adrift without a real sense of my roots.
Enter backpacking. As I write this, tears of gratitude well up in my eyes for the people and landscapes that helped bring me “home”. As I began to explore this concept of filling a pack with everything I would need, shouldering it and walking many miles I immediately felt at ease.

Whatever the weather I am HOME!

In the backcountry I am a citizen of Mother Earth, just like you. Our differences fade or quiet down and our innate humanity comes forth. We each have our own fears (wild animals, thunderstorms, the inability to walk another step etc.), and our moments of surmounting those. We can each celebrate the stunning beauty of the landscape, the magically clear sounds of the place at night, or the delight in a warm meal.
When we are in the wilderness, judgments and comparisons seem to somehow fade or quiet down and we can simply be. The daily tasks of filtering water, cooking a meal, pitching a tent are all that needs to be accomplished. There is a certain simplicity in having everything you need on your back. A whole lot of spaciousness opens up to just be who you are; a human being.
The study of Evolutionary Psychology reminds us that our DNA is informed by 50,000 generations of pre-farming wilderness nomadism, and only 500 generations of settled agricultural domestication. This really explains to me why I feel so at ease and so fully ME when I am backpacking. I am truly going “back to my roots” in a profound way (even though no one in my family has ever backpacked).
In the space of the backcountry I always feel more open to connect and share, which is why I LOVE Balanced Rock trips in particular. It never ceases to amaze me that we get a group of 5-10 people together who have never met, and after only four days together in the wilderness we have created bonds that often last a lifetime. 


Loving life and connection on an annual girlfriend backpacking adventure. 

After spending countless hours in the backcountry, far away from any human-made structure or cell signal, my soul finds itself. I know exactly where my home is. This is a beautiful thing, and I know I need to tend to it. Every year I plan multiple backcountry outings to keep that connection with my soul’s home alive and thriving.
Tend to your soul’s home and hearth by going backpacking this year! Balanced Rock has some really great trips planned, check them out here.  


Paula Wild, E-RYT 500, is honored to serve as Director of Operations, Instructor and Guide for Balanced Rock. She is a masterful yoga instructor and therapist who most deeply enjoys practicing and teaching in nature’s outdoor studio. She believes that the tools yoga and time in nature offer are the most effective ways to connect with our own inner wisdom and expand our potential in the world. Access Paula’s latest musings and offerings on her blog and website:

How Backpacking Changed My Life #1

This is the first of a series of posts from Balanced Rock’s current staff. We are excited to share with you how backpacking has impacted our lives. We hope you enjoy the stories!

By Deana Barone

I am the type of person that really likes staying inside of my comfort zone. The experience I had on my first 10-day tour working on Yosemite’s very first fish removal crew in 2007 changed my life forever and forced me, not only outside of my comfort zone, but to a place of massive realization and not within the realms of what I was physically and mentally capable or comfortable doing.

I was 27 years old and considered myself an experienced backpacker in the Sierra Nevada. I was assigned to do a series of 10-day tours in the high country of Yosemite roughly 5 miles northwest of Cold Canyon to a quiet and unvisited lake named Virginia Lake. The fish crew consisted of Jeff Mauer (Aquatic Ecologist and Biologist), Eleanor Hartney, and myself. On the first tour into Virginia Lake we were accompanied by a few other NPS rangers to help carry in a full load of gear and food we would need for the whole 10-day tour. Our packs were each 95-100 pounds and we moved liked slugs along the trail past Glen Aulin into Smokey Jack Meadow. When it was time to leave the trail and travel via cross country utilizing our map and compass, it got harder to breath and harder to focus on what I was doing. We had been traveling for 8 hours straight and gaining elevation for about 5 of those hours. I became quite dehydrated and lethargic by the time we arrived to the lake and didn’t care about how beautiful it was. I was truly exhausted so I set up my tent and went to sleep. This was unequivocally the hardest backpacking trip I had ever been on.

The next morning I awoke to Jeff whispering a Dr. Suess story outside of my tent, “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish…..” After a generous cup of Earl Grey tea and bowl of belly-warming oats for breakfast, we climbed to the highest peak above the lake to scope out the scenery, and there it was– one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen in my life. Virginia Lake which is situated right at the confluence of Return Creek, Matterhorn Creek, and Regulation Creek, a pretty epic spot in my favorite part of the park. Completely surrounded by towering granite peaks and rounded domes, I felt a surge of energy rise up from underneath me and run throughout my entire body. Awake and gazing down at both Matterhorn Canyon and Virginia Canyon, I felt every step was worth getting to this amazingly beautiful spot in Yosemite. I was home.

For ten days, we swam in the crystal clear crisp waters of Virginia Lake, we drank the water straight from the lake without purification, we ate huge 55 centimeter Brook trout that we caught with our bare hands from the lake, we watched damsel flies emerge from their cocoons and may flies swarm us in our float tubes. We observed a neighboring family of yellow-bellied marmots that lived in between two boulders near our camp, and at night we watched the special star show that the dark night put on for us making it impossible for us to go to sleep. The lake had these natural stadium-shaped granite benches that we perched upon every night to watch the stars reflect off the stillness of the water. It was breath-taking and awe-inspiring. Every afternoon I would solo hike to the edge of the lake where the water pealed over the edges and poured downward thousands of feet into Return Creek. I would go to this special sacred spot in my mind and in my heart that I had never tapped into before. This place of “being” in wild and raw mother nature was magical and terrifying at the same time. I felt wild and free.

My journey continued for those summer months in and out of Virginia Lake and it had changed me forever. It never got easier, but it made me crave the outdoors in a way I never knew I would embrace.



Celebrating Chelsea Griffie and Women of Color in the Wilderness

Interview with Chelsea Griffie, by Heather Sullivan Co-Founder of Balanced Rock

In 2003, Balanced Rock was a fledgling organization under its former name, Wild Women Workshops.  It was winter and we hosted a writing and yoga workshop at the Yosemite Bug Hostel in Midpines, CA.  A woman named Deni Hodges from San Francisco was a participant on the course and yoga teacher herself.  At the end of the course, she told me she really got a lot out of the course and wondered if we would consider offering courses for women of color (WOC).  “As you can see,” she smiled, “I am the only black woman here.”  I looked around, agreed as it is common in these Sierra Foothill towns, and responded that we would consider it.  She was really interested in our backpacking trips and thought it would be great to get a group of WOC on the trail.

The next summer we offered our first WOC backpack.  One of my first challenges was how to staff it.  As with Deni’s observation in the café that day, a similar reality holds true in outdoor leaders and guides.  At that time, I knew of one woman who held the credentials Balanced Rock requires in guides.  She was a local “rock”-star, Chelsea Griffie, and also a dear friend.  I was excited to tell Chelsea about this trip and more excited to see if she would lead it.  I was more than surprised at her initial response, “Am I of color enough?” As someone who generally has an opinion on most things, I didn’t really know how to answer.  I found myself really uncomfortable with this question, with the fact Deni was the only woman of color in the room that day, that I only knew one guide who could potentially lead the trip or what  “of color enough” meant.

To my relief, Chelsea said Yes.  And not only yes to that trip but she has been leading the Balanced Rock WOC trip for 13 years inspiring WOC, recruiting women to take this chance and representing WOC in the backcountry.  “You should see the look on people’s faces when we pass them on the trail,” Chelsea says.  “It feels so good to be out there” and one participant stated, “I feel like this is my Park too, now.  I didn’t feel that way before.”

Chelsea Griffie

Chelsea Griffie

Chelsea told me this year she was moving on to other things and giving her knees a break.  Everyone at Balanced Rock wants to thank you, Chelsea, for your dedication to this program and for really championing the importance of WOC in the wilderness.  What a legacy you have left!

Here is a recent interview I had with Chelsea and some reflections from past trip reports.

Give us a little background of yourself (Where you grew up?  How you got into outdoor endeavors?)

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My mom was an RN and led a couple things with Girl Scouts when I was young.  But my mother didn’t do camping.  I always knew I wanted to do backpacking.  In my mind, I knew I would have to wait until someday when I moved to California to try this.

When I turned 13, we moved to San Diego. I saw mountains and snow and I wanted to be in mountains and snow. 

So I started these outdoor pursuits in my late 20’s.  I started rock-climbing around 27. I first backpacked in order to go rock climbing in King’s Canyon National Park.

Who introduced you to outdoor activities? 

A boyfriend at the time named Chris introduced me to climbing.  I was living in L.A. and we did a lot of car camping and climbing in Joshua tree and Idyllwild, CA.  Car camping is a great introduction to camping…kind of easing your way in.  I started leading some outdoor trips after that and eventually came to Yosemite to climb.  We climbed El Capitan in 2001.  My first time climbing it we climbed it in 26 hours.   We were aiming to climb in under 24 hours but I was just so excited to climb it! I have climbed that formation 4 times.   Oh, and I was the first black woman to climb El Cap.  That’s kinda cool.

How do you support people to feel more comfortable in the wilderness?

 Good food makes everyone happy and calm.  Culturally appropriate food makes people feel at ease.  A recipe I like is veggie chili…. it seems to work for everyone (unless someone doesn’t eat tomatoes (insert un-mistakable Chelsea laugh).

Who were influential people in your life, specifically to working in the outdoors and as a WOC?

My first real guiding job was working with Yosemite Guides.  They did trips with kids:  hiking, fishing, bird-watching, and that kind of thing.  I learned of an organization called Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) who were offering outdoor leadership trainings specifically for people of color (POC).  I took this BAWT training and moved into leading trips for them and was eventually asked to be on their staff as Program Manager, which I did for 5 years.

And then you founded LA Wilderness Training (LAWT)?   

Yes…I realized there was nothing like this in the Los Angeles area and since I saw that need I decided to go for it with BAWT as a model. 

So you just started another non-profit on your own?!   

Yeah….I realized the need and I knew I could do it.  That said, it is really hard to run a non-profit in L.A. especially trying to get people outside.  There is a lot of inherent fear.  People imagine it is dangerous….bears, snakes, etc.  Many people don’t have the gear, confidence, experience or support network to do it. 

What is the importance of having programs like the Balanced Rock WOC program?

If you look on a hiking trail, you see mostly white people, at least the places I’ve been. I felt lonely out there and wanted to share how awesome it is to be out on a trail and seeing such beauty with others and other POC .  I wanted to get more POC out there!  Hiking, backpacking, climbing.  There’s nothing like just seeing a lake amidst the big mountains.

What have been your highlights working this program over the years?

It is exciting to get other WOC outdoors and doing what we do in terms of introducing the Balanced Rock curriculum of mindfulness practices, dialogue, and learning the hard skills of how to backpack and set up camp. 

I’ve had amazing co-leaders over the years:  Echo Davenport, Cynthia Ramaciotti, Elizabeth Sy, and Miho Aida.  All of these women are doing amazing things in the world in terms of inclusion and awareness and social justice.  They have brought so much to this program as well.

Have their been any challenges working this program over the years?

Of course.  Every trip is different with different challenges.  The trick is to figure out how to work it out.  Funding is one.  It is important that people know about the program and that there is a specific WOC scholarship fund that they can donate to.  It is great that tuition assistance is available for this course and all BR courses

What advice would you give to future instructors of this program?

I recommend doing and teaching what you know.  Be communicative.  Work things out.  Talk things out.  Be present. Be a bit methodical.  And always ask:  What are the implications of what I am doing/saying/modeling?  Be flexible and use intelligence in decision making.

What wisdom would you impart on future participants of this program?

Have patience being out there…if you are weirded out or feeling challenged because it feels hard or unfamiliar…stick with it and see where it takes you.

Be open to see if there are parts of the experience you like or if there are some surprises and learnings to be found.   Often people’s most challenging moment(s) on a course become their highlights or biggest learnings.

Why is this WOC trip important to have in existence?

Oh wow.  It is important for so many reasons.  It is important because everyone should get to share this beauty.  Everyone should feel that parks and open spaces belong to them It is important to enjoy great views across a lake, or experience the challenge of walking there, or work together with other people to make a camp or climb a summit.

It is important to be able to claim this space as our own.

It is important to have a safe space to have important discussions of race and diversity and inclusion.

It is important for women to learn from other women and WOC to learn from other WOC. 

I have heard from instructors and particpants of this course that a highlight is the community created on this trip and some of the really rich or deep discussions and sharings.  What are some conversations/discussions that arise on a course? 

We’ve had a lot of really great and important discussion out there.  One was on the definition of what WOC is.  One is how it feels to be a WOC in the wilderness.  I remember one share about the podcast, Code Switch, that discussed how people of color have different ways of talking based on audience.  This was a really interesting insight because we then observed ourselves doing it at times when we ran into different people on the trip.  

What is next for Chelsea?

Well, I am 50 and noticing myself getting older.  I think I am going to get into nursing.  My mom was an RN and recently I had a doctor who was a WOC that was able to give me a diagnosis that other doctors were not able to give me.  This was inspiring and so important to me.  I think I’d really like to work with people who are getting older.  I’ll be moving back to Oakland in May.

Thank you Chelsea.  For this interview.  For all you do and have done in this world and continue to do.  Bringing your laugh and unique view and your go-for-it-ness into this world.  We are glad you will be closer to us in Yosemite.

Balanced Rock is committed to the WOC program and keeping this space for WOC who wish to learn wilderness skills and connect to wild places in a supportive community.

Check out more information on the Balanced Rock 2018 Women of Color Wilderness Backpack and to meet our newest instructor Grace Anderson who will be co-leading this year’s course with Miho Aida, who has now led the course for the past three years.  We are excited to see where Miho and Grace will inspire the program that Chelsea has been so fundamental in laying the framework for.

Grace Anderson

Miho Aida