The concept of balance pervades Stephanie’s life. Balance in body, in work, in her mental state. It wasn’t always this way. She used to be go-go-go, latching onto passions and pursuing them with a single-minded zeal that brought a series of successes into her life. But after enough hospital stays, you learn a thing or two about how un-fun it is to see-saw between extremes.
Stephanie has a type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. It causes extremely painful swelling and inflammation (for her, mostly in her feet and hands but she’s also experienced serious symptoms in her eyes and bowels). Looking back, there were clues in her childhood but they were largely chalked up to growing pains and it wasn’t until she’d moved to Jasper for a summer of work in 2003 that she had her first major flare-up. She was 19 years old when a colleague rushed her to the hospital, but it would be another two years before doctors were able to hand her a diagnosis. Regardless, it kicked off a decade of discovery, with her medical journey interweaving with her exploration of the national park.
The Rockies are so-called for a reason, and the limestone slabs that pepper the Jasper skyline are catnip to rock climbers. About a year after first coming to Jasper, Stephanie and her boyfriend (now husband) Jeff got the itch. Originally from the east coast, Stephanie grew up fairly active so had a good fitness base going into it. They started climbing as often as possible and improved quickly.
“When I first started climbing, it was exciting and new,” Stephanie says. Basically whenever she wasn’t working at Tekarra Lodge, a local cabin property bordering the Athabasca River, she and Jeff would head to the crags, learning and getting stronger. But although she enjoyed going up, she struggled with the descent, at least initially, and would cling white-knuckled to the rope as Jeff belayed her down the wall. But after a while she’d have another flare-up, and that come-down was way harder, both emotionally and physically.
Her fingers would get so painfully swollen that she couldn’t bend certain digits to grab onto a hold, couldn’t get the tight rock-climbing shoes onto her feet. She’d try to climb without them, even though just walking took effort. Anything so that she could still climb.
“I didn’t want the arthritis to stop what I was doing. To think about that, I could cry. Because we were so into climbing and so I would still try, even while being in so much pain. I kept repeating ‘this isn’t going to stop me, this isn’t going to stop me.' But there came a point where it did. It did stop me.”
Stephanie is an eternal optimist, but it was extremely discouraging to return to climbing after a flare-up and realize she’d lost all the strength she’d worked so diligently to gain. Still, when she could climb, she loved the flow state that climbers often rhapsodize about.
“There were moments where everything would just fade away, and you’re in the zone. Those moments kept bringing me back. That and feeling strong.” She explains that when you go through periods of feeling physically weak, the feeling of strength in your body as you execute technical moves and trust your full body weight on a sliver of ledge was incredibly potent.
It was sometime after a particularly vicious flare-up (an overseas climbing trip cut short, multiple days spent in a Thailand hospital unable to walk) that someone recommended yoga as a complimentary practice for her rock climbing. She was hesitant but ended up falling in love with how it strengthened her spirit in addition to her body and decided to get her teacher training. Two hundred hours of training at a Costa Rican ashram later, and she was in love. Both with yoga, which she describes as her saviour, and with Jeff, who proposed on the beach before they returned to Canada. Things were falling into place.
She found the Arthritis Society online, and in the chats and forums she met a community of people who, despite the disease, were still out there living their lives and going on adventures. She joined a fundraising and awareness program called Joints in Motion; over four years she raised around $50,000 for arthritis research by running half marathons in Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and Hawaii, then a full marathon in Rome in 2013.
In the background, she was amid an ongoing search for the right medication and navigating on-and-off flare-ups. Then in April 2014 a massive flare-up sent her health into freefall. She lost twenty pounds in three weeks. She told Jeff that it felt like her body was giving up, that she was dying.
“I realized I had to let go of some things.” she says. “I just kept taking things on.” Over the next few years, she slowly started reducing her workload. Less yoga teaching, no more personal training, selling her half of a paddleboarding business. She kept her job at Tekarra Lodge though—the first gig that brought her to Jasper and a big part of the reason she stayed—and today is the general manager with 19 years under her belt. “The property has given me many opportunities and holds a very special place in my heart.”
But letting go of so many other things was tough. She still felt like she’d lost something, even if the purpose was to regain more space in her life.
“I had this mentality of not knowing how long my medication would keep working or when the next flare-up would come so I had to make up for lost time, had to fit in as much as possible.”
“So many times over the years I’ve heard ‘my god, how do you do so much,’” she says. “I had this mentality of not knowing how long my medication would keep working or when the next flare-up would come so I had to make up for lost time, had to fit in as much as possible.”
For a while it felt like she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for another flare-up to come. But she eventually found a drug regimen that worked for her and now hasn’t had a major flare-up in seven years. While climbing has taken a back seat in recent years, she continues to teach and practice yoga in Jasper, and finds meditation and acceptance out in nature.
From clinical to natural spaces, from rock wall to yoga mat, Stephanie has walked between extreme and soft spaces and found herself somewhere in the middle. She learned to find more peace within her body, and balance in her life. And should another flare-up come along, she’s confident that she’ll be able to handle it.