Passion Points: Active/Adventure
Inspired by the natural beauty of the Wyoming landscapes, Cathy Schill moved to Jackson Hole in the 1980s and founded her guiding company, the Hole Experience, in 1989. A trained naturalist with a degree in biology, Shill is still as enthusiastic about the expansive landscapes today as she was two decades ago. Whether she’s explaining about the self-pruning habits of the Lodgepole Pine or leading families to see elk calves, Shill possesses that elusive combination that makes a great guide: she has encyclopedic knowledge of the parks’ inner workings but imparts the information in fun, interesting conversations not lectures. While walking or hiking with her, you will learn a ton about the fragile eco-systems you’re traversing—and you will laugh a lot, especially when you get her talking about the old times when Jackson Hole was still an undiscovered, ski-bum destination. Indagare spoke to Shill about the experiences that make the Wyoming parks so unique.
What kinds of hiking excursions do you organize?
The Hole Experience offers a ton of tours, but we customize each so that we can truly create what people are looking for. Standard tour times are four-, six- and eight-hours long, with varying distances, elevation gains, and activity levels.
What was the most extreme hike you’ve ever led?
I don’t really do extreme. I share nature and beauty, not endorphin-heavy, “climb to the top as fast as you can” type of hikes. Our tours are non-technical, so extreme doesn’t really fit.
What kinds of discoveries make the Jackson Hole landscapes fun for kids?
The best part of nature is participating in the experience. We utilize our senses so you can taste, touch, and smell your way through the mountains. You can taste licorice, mint, even some edible ants, which taste like lemon. We smell flowers and trees, and touch everything from soft petals to rough bark. The natural world comes alive. We also bring butterfly nets, which makes it fun to frolic, to catch, identify and release these beautiful creatures. You can even try to get one to walk on your finger.
What do you love the most about Wyoming’s national parks?
They have been protected for so long so they can support a diverse array of wildlife. The truly wild ones—the grizzly, the wolf, and the wolverine—can survive with sufficient habitat and protection, at least so far.
Can you talk about a single wildlife sighting that stands out in your mind?
In the spring, it is always great to see the young. I have hiked up on elk calves that were hiding in a meadow. They stand up about the time you are going to step on them. They are gangly, with long legs and big brown eyes. They are new to this world and learn each step of the way. I also like moose calves with their chestnut brown coat and wooly muzzle. Of course, seeing the grizzly across the meadow will stop your heart, though you often only get the hind view as it runs away. Or seeing a wolf standing in the trees. Each day, each sighting holds its own magic, so there are no true favorites—just the knowledge that each day holds a new thrill and possibility.
What kinds of animals can people expect to see in Wyoming’s national parks?
They will generally see bison, elk, moose and rodents (squirrels, chipmunks, marmots), coyote. The harder ones to spot are wolves, bears and weasels. The best viewing time is dawn and dusk.
What is the biggest misconception first-time visitors have when they embark on a hike in one of the national parks?
That they will be alone. Park trails are beautiful but crowded.
What tips would you give hikers who are not going with a guide?
Carry bear spray, rain gear, extra clothes, water, food, fire starter. And tell someone where you are going if you are alone.
Why is going with a longtime guide such as yourself a better/enhanced experience?
Many people observe nature. Joining a knowledgeable guide allows you to participate with nature so you get so much more from the experience and leave with the realization of the interconnectedness of life. You come alive, learn and grow.
What are some of your favorite hikes and why?
My favorite hikes greatly depend on the time of the year but some of my all time favorites are Sleeping Indian with its’ endless meadows, Paintbrush/Cascade Canyon because it’s 19.5 miles and covers two canyons in the park, Jackson Peak since it is a non-technical summit with 360 views of all the mountain ranges surrounding the valley, Table Mountain since the summit at 11,000 or so feet is directly across from the Grand Teton.
Do you prefer the winter or summertime and why?
I fell in love with the area in the summer, and I do love the endless wildflower meadows however winter is quiet and a fun time to explore the parks without as many people. I would say fall is my favorite time of the year since it is usually perfect temperatures for outdoor activities, no bugs, few visitors and too early for snow so you can hike in the high country.
What do you enjoy the most about guiding families/working with children?
I enjoy teaching and sharing. To connect young ones to the landscape and nature is a passion of mine. With my enthusiasm, I can share nature in a fun, loving way so children can learn about the natural world and how connected we are. With this knowledge, they see nature in a new or different way and will take the knowledge with them as they grow and become our next decision making generation.
There’s been some controversy about the elk refuge and wintertime feeding of the elks in Jackson Hole…what are your thoughts on the topic?
There is always controversy when wildlife and humans interact. I really see us- humans- as part of the web of life and not the web itself. We must learn to live with the animals or we will ultimately lose with their extinction. Since we have taken so much of the elk’s winter territory/habit with our homes and infrastructure, we don’t really have a choice but too feed them. In anything, compromise is an option so I support fewer feed grounds so some of the ecosystem is feed ground free. I believe we have over 20 feed grounds in the area so we could shut some down. If we suddenly stop feeding all the elk, they will starve so we have created a situation that is hard to end.
Do you think there’s a growing environmental conscience in travelers who come to Jackson Hole?
Yes, I think there is a growing environmental conscience and fortunately it’s bigger than just Jackson Hole. People are waking up and realizing the importance of the earth, clean air, and clean water. Our lives depend on it. Granted beautiful natural settings support this awareness so it is definitely apparent in Jackson Hole and other natural places.
If you could relive a single moment that you’ve had since moving to Jackson Hole, which one would it be an why?
When I first drove into Jackson Hole in 1984, I came down from Yellowstone. As soon as I saw the Teton Peaks, I was awe struck. I could sense the energy and the pulse of life. As I built my home and livelihood in the valley, I chose to live with nature and align with the pulse of life. I continue to this day to be awe struck with the wonders of the natural world and I am grateful for the opportunity to share them. Each day is a new beginning and I never know what I might see. I don’t want to claim favorites since I have so much more to see and discover and my ultimate favorite might be right around the corner.
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