As her husband describes her, Mary Whitley is an elusive mountain creature.
Mary’s favorite bird is the northern wheatear.
I am proud to say that Mary is also my good friend and hiking partner. Many
Yukoners may know Mary as an avid outdoors woman, and for her knowledge
of birds. I was happy that she agreed to an interview, to give insight. What she thinks about the Yukon wilderness.
Mary is happiest outside — whether fishing, birding, sleeping in a tent, or with hiking boots on her feet.
Being outside makes her feel whole.
The feeling of her feet on the ground makes her feel connected. And, as she explains, her feet will often tell her a great deal about where she is. For example, if she is crossing an ancient trail, her feet will sense it, and move her in the right direction.
Being in nature is ultimately what makes her heart sing. I ask her how this came to be. When Mary was a toddler, her parents carried her around in a pack basket. She grew up in rural Maine, in a house surrounded by hemlocks. The nearby forest was her playground.
Today, Mary feels strongly about the land. With knowledge, she says, comes a closer relationship.
When Mary first came to the Yukon, moving east to west, she was surprised to discover that most of what she had learned about nature had to be
re-learned. She wanted to know why. It seemed she recognized only one flower, the twinflower — that she knew from its fragrance — from her backyard in Maine.
From one flower, she had to ask to learn more. As she puts it, she made a nuisance of herself. She asked. She was lucky to run into people who were both knowledgeable, and willing to share knowledge.
She’s now compelled to share what she knows, often walking up to strangers if she sees them interested in nature; for example, if she sees someone bending over a flower. If she tells someone about the flower they’re smelling, they always seem to appreciate it.
Mary knows a lot. Of course, about birds, but also about other animals, wildflowers, geology, geography, culture, weather, and on and on.
When Mary goes out on the land, she keeps to the least technical activities: hiking, fishing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing. Less can go wrong, she says, and so there is less danger.
She likes companions but also loves her solo treks, which may be up to four or five days. Unlike me, she says she is never afraid. Always being in the moment is her answer to that.
Of course, she says, you need a wide knowledge base to be comfortable out there. She calls this ‘situational awareness’. It includes such skills as map reading, navigation, knowledge of weather and terrain.
Skills that focus on how to take care of yourself are also essential, she says. For example, it is important to know what to pack, in case of emergency. She also tries not to take unnecessary risks.
“Once I stepped on a floating peat bog.” She said.
“I got off in a hurry!”
“Anybody can learn this, and do it if they are called to be out on the land,” Mary added.
I myself always get asked about bears; I didn’t ask Mary because I forgot. But I know, as we once had a bear encounter while hiking together, that she stayed calm, and did exactly what one is supposed to do in a bear encounter. And, as I lived to tell the tale, I might just tell it tale next time.