Last year, my family spent a good part of its August vacation watching television. While we were visiting my mother in New Mexico, Mother...

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Last year, my family spent a good part of its August vacation watching television. While we were visiting my mother in New Mexico, Mother Nature was beating the hell out of the Gulf Coast.

Nature had our attention this year too, but in a different way. We drove through the Canadian Rockies, stopping to gawk at glaciers, mountains, valleys, trees and wildlife. Nature can be a bear, but it is as fragile as it is powerful.

We drove to Jasper, Alberta, then traveled down the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise and Banff and back west along the route Canada’s transcontinental railroad took in the 1880s.

On the way up we met some friends at Harrison Hot Springs for a few days of tamed nature — natural hot springs harnessed for pleasure.

Going from Harrison to tent camping isn’t the ideal arrangement, but we did choose a relatively cushy camping site outside Jasper for our first stop in the outdoors.

The plan was to spend a couple of nights camping at each of four sites, partly for the experience, but largely to save money on lodging.

We hadn’t camped in years so there were some glitches. Our son, who is 14, had outgrown his sleeping bag. He used his mother’s bag and she slept in his, which turned out to be kind of snug for a person wearing eight layers of clothing as a shield against chilly mountain nights.

Worse, the air mattress my wife and I shared had a leak, which deposited us onto hard, frosty ground by the middle of each night. That would have been fine 20 years ago, but our bones whined for something softer and warmer. We’re used to being comfortable.

Three days of camping gave us ample opportunity for family bonding. We helped each other navigate piles of elk poop on the way to the bathrooms when nature called. Our son took charge of the camp fires and made s’mores each evening, though he still whined about not having access to the Internet and MySpace.

One rainy day was enough to persuade us to give the indoors a try. We are not a wilderness family.

We moved indoors at night, but during the day, we walked and hiked and enjoyed. And we thought a lot about what we were seeing.

The landscape is not just scenery, but a vital actor in the story of our own species, shaping us and being affected by our behavior.

Earth is a busy place. We marveled at mountains that were layer cakes of rock that had once been ocean sediment. The layers sat at angles, tilted by the collision of plates of earth crust that raised all that rock into the sky.

And then glaciers wore down the sides and sculpted valleys into bowls of ice before retreating. Trees and other plants are filling in spaces that were once frozen, but in many places, conditions are so harsh that a tree might be centuries old, but not much taller than a person.

In the woods we looked out for bears. On the roads bears looked out for us. A lot of mother bears bring their cubs to feed along roads and highways. Sometimes people in cars hit them.

We compete with bears for territory, and with other animals too, even in places we visitors think of as the wilds.

One visitors center displayed the stuffed remains of a bear named Jake. Jake had taken to visiting Lake Louise looking for food. Each time he was caught and relocated Jake would find his way back, until finally he was put down.

Sometimes our impact on the wilds goes beyond competition for space, of course.

All of us nature-loving folks were burning a lot of gasoline traveling around the Rockies.

We’re warming the planet with our factories and heaters too. We want to be comfortable and efficient, which is completely understandable. But now we’re starting to understand some of the consequences.

Some of those Canadian rocks carry fossils of species that came and went long before humans made our appearance. The Earth keeps recycling itself and that includes us.

As long as we’re here, though, it makes sense to play nice with the rest of nature as much as we can. Not just because unspoiled nature is beautiful, but because it is a finer machine than any we’ve made and it would be a shame to break it and hasten our own recycling.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays.