La Gatilla: My Costa Rican Companion

In January, I left the beautiful concrete jungles of Europe for a real one. I found my wilderness in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, one of the most remote regions of Central America and the gateway to Corcovado National Park. I began my trip as a volunteer on a turtle project, living in a tent on the beach, 45 minutes by bike from town on a dirt road riddled with potholes. After two weeks of turtle patrol, I left the sea for the mountains where I worked as a volunteer at La Tarde, an ecolodge situated on the buffer zone of Corcovado National Park in what National Geographic calls “one of the most biologically intense places on Earth.” It was there at La Tarde that I met my Costa Rican companion: La Gatilla. 

La Tarde happens to be home to the most famous cat in the Osa, La Gatilla, an ocelot, which the owner Eduardo, who five years ago turned his finca (farm) into a rustic ecolodge, brought to the property after she was found abandoned in town. The ocelot was adopted by the family dog who raised her, protected her, and taught her to hunt, until the time she began to wander off into the woods alone. 

I first met La Gatilla during a day-trip to La Tarde with Mike Boston, a family friend and renowned Corcovado guide. We were 20 minutes into a jungle hike with Marcelo, the resident guide and biologist at La Tarde, when Marcelo stopped in the middle of the trail, turned to me, and asked whether I would like to meet the famous ocelot. I said that I’d love to, if we could find her, at which point, Marcelo laughed and then called out into the trees, “Venga, Gatilla.” 

We stared into the woods, waiting for the cat to appear. Marcelo called again. Nothing. Then, out of the hollow of a nearby tree trunk, sprang the ocelot. She jumped down from her perch and made a B-line for Marcelo, curling herself around his legs. He bent down to pet her and she bit affectionately at his arm. A moment later and he was wrestling with her. When he stopped, she came to me. I bent down to pet her and she nipped at my arm and set her claw on my chest. I wondered whether she could feel my heart beating. 

That night, I went home with a pair of scratches, a bite mark, and a red arm that throbbed. But it didn’t matter, because I had been wrestling with an ocelot. I was going to have the best scar story around. 

Two weeks after that visit, I went back up to La Tarde, this time to stay. I was given a guest tent which had remained unoccupied after the ocelot opened the tent flap and jumped on a guest’s bed. Eduardo warned me about tying the tent string, but I decided against it. If the ocelot wanted a cuddle buddy, I was happy to oblige. 

Three nights later, my wish came true. I was fast asleep, when I heard a rustling from outside the tent and the sound of the zipper sliding up. I sat up in bed, Leatherman in hand, awaiting an intruder. In the dim light of the moon, I saw the spotted nose and silky coat of the ocelot. She loped around the tent, the light of the moon on her back. After exploring the tent, she doubled back, sprang up on my bed, and settled herself at the end of my mattress. I watched her lick herself, before I fell back asleep.

I woke up the next morning to the croaking calls of the mantled howler monkeys and the light seeping through the screen of my tent. The ocelot was gone. 

I stretched out, kicked off the sheets, and got out of bed to get water. The sun had just come up over the trees and the ground was still wet with dew. I went to put on my sandals just inside the tent entrace, but they weren’t there. I checked again, this time under the bed. But they were gone. Unworried, I headed across the lawn barefoot to the open-air kitchen. From a distance, I heard the growls of the ocelot and smiled thinking back to her late night appearance. She was in the kitchen, stretched out on the floor, belly up, tossing her head back and forth. As I approached, I saw she had something in her mouth. A moment later, I realized: she had taken my sandals. I ran forward, but I was already to late. One sandal was tossed to the side, completely untouched. The other was in shreds. As I wrestled the shoe out of her mouth, she clawed at my leg, inviting me to play. 

That night, I kept the tent door open, hoping she’d return. But she never did. She’d already had my sandals. Besides, nighttime was for hunting. In the morning I’d often see her walking around the clearing licking her chops or still eating what she’d killed in the jungle – lizards and rats. She was getting wilder by the day, and becoming less of a companion. I missed my friend, but I knew she was where she belonged.

Back in Boulder

Biking Flagstaff Pic

My mother turned 52 this month, and she seems to have found the fountain of youth.

For my dad’s tour for his new book, Braving It, our whole family piled into our Toyota van and went on a whirlwind road-trip of the West, kicking off the tour in Boulder, Colorado, my mom’s old stomping ground.

To introduce me to her former home, my mom decided to rent mountain bikes and take me on her favorite Boulder biking route, a relentless, 45-minute climb on steep switchbacks up Flagstaff Road to a point overlooking the Boulder Valley. After living in the car for two days, my legs were stiff and my lungs, at altitude, felt like they had been crushed under the weight of the mountains. But I was not about to refuse the invitation. We made our way to Flagstaff Road, my mom in the lead, pointing out places from her past, reclaiming the town as her own. I struggled to stay in earshot as I huffed and puffed up 6th Street. My mother seemed to be gliding on the thin mountain air, sitting back on her seat, surveying her city.

When we reached the beginning of the ascent, she glanced back, smiled, and took off climbing, her legs taut and strong as she stood up on her pedals and curled over the handlebars. I followed, attempting to keep her in sight as she took the switchbacks seemingly two at a time. Each bend she rounded, she’d hold up her hand and wave like the queen looking down on her subjects. All I could do was grimace. I may have backpacked over the Brooks Range and paddled to the Arctic Ocean, but I was no match for my mother on a bike. There would be more rides over the course of our week in Boulder – Sunshine to Poorman, Old Bill, Lee Hill – and I would get stronger, but it was on this first ride that my mother staked out her territory, letting me know that Colorado was her home long before I entered the world.

Me and Mom in Idaho

Elliot At Altitude

Elliot at Altitude

Move over, Cheryl Strayed. I have a new role model.  Her name is Elliot Singer; she’s 14 years old, writes an amazing blog at Elliot At Altitude, and eats mountains for breakfast.

I’ve known Elliot since I was 11 years old, and if I’ve learned one thing about her over the years, it is that you should never underestimate her. At four foot, eleven inches, and no more than a hundred pounds, it’s hard to imagine this girl doing much damage. That is, until she shakes your hand. She has the kind of iron handshake that could make a grown man tremble.  Her callouses are hard and well-worn, developed over the years from summers spent scaling the Sawtooths, biding her time before she was ready for the high peaks of the Himalayas. This spring, Elliot finally had her chance, and with five-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot as her guide, she traveled to the Khumbu Region of Everest to attempt three 20,000 foot peaks. She had been training for the trip for months, waking at 5:00 am to run at the gym, wearing a 20-pound weight vest around the house, and practicing her breathing techniques for the paper-thin air of the high Himalayas.

This trip was a test, not just of her skill as a climber, but of her character. Few teenagers have the patience or the perseverance to be a mountaineer. An ascent of 20,000 feet takes every bit of physical and emotional strength you have, and, sometimes, you don’t even get the reward of reaching the summit. But Elliot is a quick study.  In the Khumbu capital of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas, Elliot discovered the value of being “chill,” of entering into a meditative state in which you prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and settle for something in the middle.  Armed with Bob Marley and a pocket full of Coconut Crunchies, she successfully summited Island Peak, slept 20,000 feet atop Lobuche Peak, and entered into the unknown territory of Kyajo Ri. With each ascent, she set the bar higher, proving again and again that she is absolutely fearless, one of the grittiest gals I know.

Recently, when faced with my own small challenges, I have started to ask myself a question, “What would Elliot do?”

Elliot, I don’t know what the future holds for you, but after standing at the summit of a 20,000-foot mountain, the sky is truly the limit.

Gritty Gals Are Gutsy Girls

I recently learned that I was included in Caroline Paul’s book, The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, a collection of stories and tips from Paul and other female adventurers throughout history. I am honored to be a part of the Gutsy Girl club! Here is the link for those interested:


Women in the Wild

Watching “The Revenant,” I was struck by the stunning cinematography, and reminded of how much I missed the Alaskan wilderness, at least aspects of  it–the scene in which Hugh Glass is repeatedly mauled by a bear made me thankful to be experiencing it second hand from the comfort of my movie seat. I was impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of  the legendary mountain man  and  surprised myself by finding DiCaprio at his most attractive as he crawled inside a horse’s carcass to stay warm. But still I couldn’t help but wonder, Where is our female Hugh Glass? Legendary women  have always existed, but if Hollywood has a minority issue, it also has a female heroine issue.

I want a movie about a woman who can brave a bear attack, eat raw bison liver, and find her way across the wilderness. How about a film dedicated to Fanny Bullock Workman, an explorer, cartographer, writer, and mountaineer? Or, what about Sacagawea? How far would Lewis and Clark have gone without her? How about Aliy Zirkle, currently running fifth in the Iditarod? Largely considered a male event, the Iditarod would lose roughly one-third of its competitors if it weren’t for female mushers.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate what the movies have not women in the wild. Woods women like Edna Korth who has lived in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. Female mountaineers like Melissa Arnot who has summited Everest five times. Adventurers and explorers like Kira Salak who at the age of 24 became the first woman to backpack across New Guinea.

Hugh Glass might have been a tough mountain man, but these modern day women would give him a run for his money.

Aliy Zirkle, champion sled dog musher

Grittygal to Citygal


I am sorry Alaska! I have betrayed you. You are no longer the only love of my life. I have found some place else, a civilized, sophisticated city, pulsing with energy. Its name is Amsterdam.

Those who say love at first sight is a lie have never been to Amsterdam: The narrow cobblestone streets, the three-story stone houses, the open-air markets winding through the city, the canals crisscrossing the neighborhoods, the musicians serenading the tourists on the bridges, the bikers zigzagging through cars, the people smoking in the green leaf cafes. Maybe it was the fact that the whole city smelled of marijuana, but there was no resisting it, I was high on Amsterdam.

The city gave me a rush that I had not experienced since Alaska. There, it was the quiet, a silence as big as the tundra.  But in Amsterdam, it was the noise. The torrent of people and traffic, expanding and contracting like the bellows of an accordion.  

That first day in Amsterdam, I explored every street corner and canal I could. Five hours later, I returned to my room and collapsed on my bed. Outside my window, the lights of the city danced over the water like the Aurora Borealis in the Alaskan night sky.

I was just about to fall asleep, when I realized I had forgotten something. I grabbed my purse from the window sill and started digging. Finally I found it at the very bottom, my Leatherman. Every night when I was in the Alaskan bush, I slept with it by my side. It made me feel secure.

Next to me, my cousin turned over in her bed, and stared at me, her eyes wide open. “Are you kidding me, Aidan!?” she asked, glancing at the knife. I laughed and tucked the Leatherman under my pillow. I may have fallen in love with the city, but it couldn’t change the fact that the habits I learned in the wilderness stayed with me. I was still an Alaska girl.





Near the top of the globe, at the slipping edge of Alaska, on the southern coast of the Arctic Ocean is a small barrier island called Arey.  It is nothing more than a six-mile-long scrap of land pounded by whitecaps crashing in from the open water. The island is entirely bare; the only evidence of life, the birds overhead and the dinosaur-sized polar bear tracks pressed into the sand. Yet, the thought of this island was what I imagined every day as I paddled down the Hulahula River, shivering from a core-deep cold, the bill on the hood of my raincoat pulled down to shield  my face from the stinging shards of sleet.

When we were backpacking over the Brooks Range, and all I wanted to do was be rid of my sixty-pound pack and throw it into a ravine, I dreamed about being on the river—and this island.  But when I got to the Hulahula, I discovered that the river was sometimes dangerous and always demanding. Each morning, before packing up camp, I’d pull on my cold, damp clothes and rub my hands together to get the blood circulating. Then, I’d take down the tent, pack up our gear, and load the dry bags into the canoe. Three hours later, we’d finally push off and then for the next 20 miles battle the river’s rapids and the biting wind to the coast. 

After 14 days on the river, when we’d finally reached Arey Island, I waded to the edge of the Arctic Ocean and gathered snail shells, thinking I’d soon be going home. But, then the winds blew up, and we were stranded for another three days. The cold on Arey was worse than anything I’d imagined. The non-stop winds came straight off the North Pole and cut threw everything – our tent, my clothes, and the driftwood shelters we’d erected. We even built bonfires, but still it was impossible for me to get warm. Sometimes, I felt like there was no end to it.

When I tell people about our trip, they often ask me how I managed it, physically and mentally. The word that always came to mind was Grit.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and educator, popularized the word with her TED talk. Grit, she said, is the single best predictor of success in life. She got the word from the John Wayne western True Grit, in which a girl hires a gruff, one-eyed, alcoholic sheriff to hunt down her father’s murderer. Despite her age and gender, the girl refuses to let the sheriff go alone and against all odds, sets out with him to take on the rugged west. This, Angela Duckworth points out, is what grit is about: “passion and determination” for long-term goals. While most people seek immediate gratification, with grit there often is no “aha” moment, just hard work and a long wait.

I found grit in Alaska, but you don’t need Alaska to get grit. Grit is the mile runner who guts it out in the last 200 meters; it is the stutterer who returns to the classroom everyday despite being teased; it is the farm kid who trudges to the barn every morning before school; it is the dyslexic who finishes all seven Harry Potter books; it is the girl who trains to make the high school football team; it is the boy who shovels snow all winter and mows lawns all summer to pay for college.

Grit sounds like what it means — a mixture of purpose and perseverance. Grrrr—it.