Monday, July 21, 2014


This blog documents the second annual offering of ENVIR 495, “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”, a 9-day wilderness-based field course sponsored by the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment

From July 12th to July 20th 2014, this year being the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the 105th anniversary of Mount Olympus National Monument, our course headed deep into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. At over one million contiguous acres of wilderness, Olympic National Park and its surrounding USFS wilderness areas, are arguably the largest tract of contiguous, roadless wilderness area in the lower 48. Shockingly, this wilderness is only 20 miles from the rapidly growing Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area, home to over 4.2 million people, and hotbed of ultra-modern digital technology companies. During our trip, we used the wilderness landscapes of Olympic National Park as a model to understand the ways in which the landscape of the Puget Sound region has changed in the distant (1000s of years) and recent (last 100 years) past, and what human-imposed changes to the landscape mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. Direct observation of the effects of climate change and fragmentation on species and ecosystems, was coupled with student-led evening discussions on a variety of student-chosen topics related to “wilderness” including:

  • native American perspectives and relationships of local tribes to the land through story telling
  • perspectives on resource use in and around the national park, largely as debated by timber-based communities
  • appropriate lifestyle, development, and settlement patterns for a rapidly growing Puget Sound region
  • wilderness management concerns for endemic species threatened by changing climate, invasive species, and historical over-harvest
  • when and whether active species management is appropriate or antithetical to the concept of “wilderness”
  • Eco-feminism and other “unheard” voices offering alternative perspectives on land conservation

Readings included classical wilderness philosophy, as well as the philosophy of modern day writers and conservationists from this region, with much of our discussion beginning in an online format prior to the start of our wilderness trip. The course was taught by Dr. Tim Billo (faculty in UW Program on the Environment) and Carter Case (recent graduate of the UW Program on the Environment).

The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our daily adventures in Olympic National Park’s wilderness, and to invite you to join in discussion of the ideas we wrestled with often deep into the night during our trip. Each of us have written about a separate day of the trip, and added our personal impressions on the value of wilderness in today’s world. To give you a general sense of the location of the terrain we are talking about, a map of our hiking route can be viewed here. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Day 1 (July 12, 2014)

From the perspective of Tim Billo (each day of the trip is documented by a different participant).

Leaving Seattle: A ferry ride and a chance to imagine the glacial legacy of Puget Sound
A trip to Olympic National Park from Seattle usually begins with a ferry ride. If the mountains aren’t shrouded in mist, the jagged eastern skyline of the Olympics looms ahead, inviting adventure and solace from the giant metropolis that has replaced the once-virgin forests on the east side of Puget Sound. Our trip began much this way, at 8 AM on Saturday morning, July 12th, 2014, an unseasonably warm, sunny, and windless day unfolding, and most of Seattle still asleep. We loaded up the vans with 9 days worth of food and other gear, and rushed up I-5 to make the 8:50 ferry out of Edmonds. By 8:30 it was clear that we were going to have to “hurry up and wait”. The 8:50 ferry was full and there was a mile-long line of RVs and passenger cars ahead of us, all, like us, trying to escape to the beckoning beaches and mountains across the sparkling waters of the sound.

As with most wilderness expeditions, the hardest part is actually leaving home and getting onto the trail. Weeks of planning, packing, re-packing, and checking lists lead up to the final joy and relief of the moment when you finally set foot on the trail. Although first-time backpackers stress about what they might have left behind, experienced backpackers are comforted by the notion that whatever you might have forgotten, you probably don’t really need anyway, and if you do, you will have to either invent it or learn to do without. And the truth is, that most of the “stuff” that surrounds us in our daily civilized lives, is not really that useful or essential to our survival. Packing for a long wilderness trip, where every ounce of weight counts, forces you to examine and re-examine what is essential in your life and what is not.  

Entering the national park; the boundary line is clear, even without the sign which is riddled with bullet holes.

As the thoughts of checklists scrolled through my mind while stalled in the ferry line amongst impatient vacation-goers, equally as anxious as us to escape the heat and bustle of the city, the momentousness and anticipation of our long awaited wilderness trip finally began to settle in. For the first time, our entire group was assembled in one place. For the first time we had the opportunity to go around and introduce ourselves, and share in our collective nervous anticipation. Today would be the day where we would find out if all of our training hikes up stairs and around city parks with iron weights and full jugs of water in our packs would pay off. For me the anticipation of the academic side of the course was equally appealing. Weeks of independent reading and participation in on-line discussions would give way to our first discussion of the trip, this very night, in perhaps the most primitive of settings: around a campfire in the wilderness. Back to reality, the line finally began moving and we were rolling our way onto the lower deck of a waiting ferry.

From the upper deck of the ship, with a pleasantly cool breeze whipping through our hair as we motored across the Puget Sound, we were treated to a magnificent view of the eastern Olympic Mountains, starting with the twin-peaked Brothers in the south, the jagged behemoth of Mount Constance dead ahead, and the soft ridges of Mt. Townsend fading into the northeast corner of the range; a perfect place for an introduction to the field part of our course. Boating across the Puget Sound is an excellent way to ponder the legacy of glaciation that shaped the Puget Trough and served in part to isolate the Olympic Mountains from the Cascades, leading to distinct differences in the flora and fauna of each range. Whidbey Island to the north and the approaching Kitsap Peninsula to the west are giant plains of sediment deposited by the massive ice sheet and glacial torrents that flowed down what is now the Puget Trough as recently as 12,000 years ago. While alpine glaciers also enlarged around this time, there were ice-free spaces in mid-elevation valleys in the Olympic Mountains that served as refugia for a variety of plants and animals, some of which have flourished and expanded their ranges, moving out across the post-glacial landscape of the last 10,000 years, and others of which continue to hang on in little pockets throughout the mountains. We would continue to explore the legacy of the Vashon and Juan de Fuca lobes of the Cordilleran ice sheet throughout the coming week.

The Washington State Ferries, while huge and bulky and seemingly sluggish, slide along at an incredible clip. It is important to admire the mountain views while you can, as the forested ridges and sea-cliffs of the approaching Kitsap Peninsula quickly gobble up the ridge-tops. Even Mount Constance, famously mis-identified as Mt. Olympus by early European expeditions that made maps of the areas as they traveled, disappeared behind the ferry terminal in Kingston. Behind the roar of Harleys (always first off the boat), we were off on our way to Highway 101. Crossing the Hood Canal (another arm of Puget Sound), the road rose into a stretch of vast miles-wide clear cuts with toppled trees, brush, and occasionally a group of 2 or 3 spindly trees left standing here and there as “habitat”. These lands are a matrix of private and public management. “Public” in this case is the Department of Natural Resources, and as the road-side signs proudly state, these forests, now in their third timber rotation, fund our schools and hospitals. Ahead on the road, the eastern Olympics loom, large and dark, with United States Forest Service lands somewhat more intact with more conservative cutting practices now in place. Beyond the uniform canopies of second growth timber land, one can see the ragged canopies of old-growth forest signifying the boundary with wilderness land (designated by the 1964 Wilderness Act) also managed by the US Forest Service.

Land use approaching the national park: Private, DNR, USFS, and Indian Reservation
The trip from Seattle to the Olympics is an instructive study in landscape change (both in the spatial sense and the temporal sense). In as little as 30 miles from Seattle (as the crow flies) one can travel from the heavily urbanized, industrialized, and densely populated landscape of the east side of the Puget Sound to one of the most wild and uninhabited areas in the lower 48. Suburban and urban landscapes encroach on timberlands and the timberlands march right up to the boundary of wilderness preserves—so much so that the outline of Olympic National Park and adjoining wilderness areas is clearly visible from outer space.  Our wilderness preserves serve as a reminder of a regional landscape that as little as 100 years ago, was still comprised largely of contiguous, roadless and wholly intact forest, much of it characterized as oldgrowth. In 1895, Seattle already had 40,000 people living in it, but the Olympic Peninsula was still largely unexplored by Europeans. Access to Port Angeles was by ferry, not a network of roads, and many myths existed about what lay behind the imposing ridges easily viewable from Seattle. Now, 100 years later, 4.2 million people live on the eastern shore of the Puget Sound, with this population set to grow by another 1.5 million over the next 25 years. The demand for resources from local to international scales has greatly impacted our landscape, in ways that we are only beginning to come to terms with as a society, especially as anthropogenic climate change is now thrown into the mix.

Traveling around the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101, we passed Discovery Bay, the first Puget Sound anchorage of Vancouver’s ship Discovery in 1792. The madrones (Arbutus menziesii) overhanging the road are just as Menzies described them in his journals as the surgeon-naturalist of Vancouver’s expedition (except that there was no road there when Menzies walked that land). Menzies made detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, as well as the native peoples they encountered on their journeys. Our next stop would be the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation where we briefly pondered the native American presence on the landscape dating back for more than 10,000 years. With much of their native language lost or forgotten (due largely to violent enforcement of turn-of-the-century US government policies forbidding the speaking of indigenous languages), the very words that describe the natural history of the landscape, and ultimately connect a people to their native landscape, were lost. Thankfully the Klallam have recovered much of their language, but they are struggling to recover the stories and traditions that are so intimately intertwined with their native landscape, that were also lost with the language. Totem poles, for example, depicting native animals and spirit creatures, abound on the reservation, but are not part of the original culture of the tribe. Later, we would have opportunity to discuss native American concepts of wilderness and legends specific to this landscape in an evening discussion led by student Merrick Calder (described later in this post).

Picking up our Park Service Permits: partners in the complex mission of the NPS
Our next stop was the offices of the National Park Service in Port Angeles. The National Park Service is charged with the mandate to manage the national park “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. The current interpretation of this verbiage of the 1916 “Organic Act” emphasizes “unimpaired”. To this end, the park has stringent permitting requirements for all people (and especially groups such as ours) entering the park, with emphasis on minimizing impact in ecologically sensitive areas, either by keeping people out of them altogether, or emphasizing “Leave-no-Trace” practices. One requirement for groups such as ours, is that every person carries a Park Service issued bear canister. Olympic (unlike, for example, Yosemite) has had very few problems with bears becoming accustomed to humans and human food over the years because of this policy, and they would like to keep it that way. While some view park service regulation as a hassle and barrier to the “enjoyment” clause, when you consider that the park has become an international destination for backpackers, the regulation is necessary. Lax regulation would result in a violation of the “unimpaired” clause, and ultimately also the “enjoyment” clause both through ecological degradation and through the encounter of too many people in the areas where backpackers go to seek solitude. The park service does not actively keep people out of the park (thus serving the "enjoyment" clause), but quota areas require that sometimes visitors are forced to visit another part of the park, rather than their number one choice. Luckily for us, our permits were reserved months on advance.

Entering the park and beginning our hike: First evidence of the natural history of climate change
Finally, we were on our way up the Deer Park road, with a requisite stop at the national park boundary. A small sign riddled with bullet holes announces the entrance to the park, although a sign is hardly needed. The park boundary is clear. On one side the forest is cut, and on the other it is intact. Heading uphill into the park, we passed through stands of old, but slow-growing Douglas fir in this, the driest part of the Olympic Mountains. Periodic fire probably maintains Douglas fir as the climax species here, unlike most other areas at similar elevation where western hemlock becomes the climax. At Deer Park, the forest is dominated by lodgepole pine. A recent fire, started in the mid-1980s by an out of control campfire, has aided the dominance of this species. However pure stands of the tree can be found, even in areas that haven’t recently burned, with the overall experience much like the dusty pine-scented east slope of the Cascades. Lodgepole pine is relatively rare in the Olympics, but these stands give a taste of what is to come with warmer and drier climates. 

Hiking down through the burn with Douglas fir and lodgepole pine regeneration in the foreground. Three Forks is in the valley in the background.

As we finally left the trailhead behind with the freedom that comes knowing that you have all you need to survive for over a week on your back, we passed downwards through the ghost of a forest lost in the mid-1980s fire. Gravelly alpine slopes dominated by Olympic onion, vetch, phlox, and desert parsley were interspersed with subalpine meadows full of paintbrush and other subalpine flowers. Between the widely dispersed trees were patches of snowberry, service berry, and dull Oregon grape, all drought tolerant plants forming a community not unlike areas on the east slope of the Cascades at the shrub-steppe interface. Vanilla leaf grew surprisingly high here too, under the canopy of patches of Douglas fir that survived the fire.

As we began to drop below treeline, a large flock of evening grosbeaks flew overhead landing in the tree tops near us with their ringing “cleerr” call; a wonderful welcome to the “untrammeled” wild (to use the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act) as the trailhead finally faded out of view and the hot beating sun became mercifully lower in the sky.  Quickly we descended through fat old Douglas firs mixed with subalpine firs and silver firs, the Douglas firs being remnants of a warmer drier period around 700 years ago that allowed Douglas firs to move uphill into the subalpine zone. Silver firs continue down to around 3000 feet of elevation in this part of the Olympics, but they are not doing well at the low end of their range—as these are remnants of the Little Ice Age cooling trend that occurred some 500 to 200 years ago. The silver fir zone will gradually shift uphill here to escape the current warming trend, unless fire and summer drought are strong enough that lodgepole pine out competes it. The forests on this hillside form closed canopies, with generally rocky and nutrient poor soils. Saprophytic plants are common and we found a beautiful specimen of candy stick (Allotropa virgata) at the side of the trail. Nearing the bottom of the valley, the trail passed through an interesting grove of Pacific yew, known for the compound taxol, used in a chemotherapy drug. Yew has one of the broadest ecological tolerances of any tree in the Olympics, growing well in the wettest valley bottoms and the driest ridges. Interspersed with the yews was one loan hazel nut tree, a species that is hyper abundant in the forested parks of Seattle, but only one of two I would see on our whole trip.

Candy Stick (Allotropa virgata), a saprophytic plant that lacks cholorphyll (and probably gets its energy from decomposing plant material), is well-adapted to the intense shade of the closed canopy. Photo by Anthony Dang.

 The trail from Deer Park to Three Forks (the confluence of the Cameron, Grand, and Gray Wolf Rivers) drops 3,500 ft. in 4 miles. The trail sucks you ever downward to about 2000 feet of elevation at the bottom of the canyon at Three Forks camp. And the valley floor really is canyon-like, with a deep V-shape profile, indicating that mountain glaciers probably never descended this far down these particular valleys.

Once you are in the valley, you feel like you are really entrenched in the wilderness. There is no easy way back to the trailhead. It’s like taking the plunge into an icy lake (which we would do several times in subsequent days). Three Forks is a tiny grassy clearing in the midst of a low elevation old-growth forest. Giant grand firs and western hemlocks ring the clearing. A large Douglas maple is at the back of the clearing and red alders border the stream. Last year there was an outbreak of hemlock looper caterpillars ravaging the hemlock trees in the clearing (and hemlocks all over the park), but these seemed to be receding this year. Outbreaks will likely become more common with climate change and will affect the composition of our forests. 

Encountering the Legacy of early Euro-Americans, and a discussion of Indigenous concepts of the land
The CCC shelter at 3 Forks built using the trees that once filled this clearing. There were once many more shelters like this one in the Olympics, but most have been removed or destroyed, some illegally by devious souls, who believe shelters are antithetical to the wilderness experience. The remaining structures are deemed "historic" structures that are maintained by the park's "wilderness carpenter". Now there's a cool job.

In the middle of the clearing, there is rough-hewn three sided shelter made from the trees that were cut to make the clearing, which served as a CCC camp in the 1930s. The CCC built all the trails in the heart of the Olympic Mountains and one feels a sense of that historic legacy and connection to the men of the CCC when camping at Three Forks. Despite the fact we carry lightweight tents and stoves, and clothing made of space-age materials, the essence of camping today is really not that different from how it was back then. A campfire ring in front of the shelter would be the site of our evening discussion and has probably been the site of countless discussions over the years. As darkness falls on the clearing, stars twinkle in the night sky above it, ringed by the looming darkness of an all-encompassing forest. It is easy to see why early settlers feared and loathed the forest which seemed to encroach on them from all sides, barring progress and harboring mis-understood predators (such as wolves and mountain lions). Undoubtedly wolves were once common in the Olympics before the last known individual was exterminated around 1920—and the Gray Wolf valley, our hiking route for tomorrow was undoubtedly one of those places. Mountain lions still lurk throughout the range, and in recent years there was one said to be living in a cave across the river from us.

The most human of traditions; story telling around a campfire.  Merrick began our first evening discussion by recounting several Native American legends pertaining to the Olympic Mountains.
As day faded into night, and the food was hung (or placed in bear-proof canisters), Carter stoked up the fire and Merrick led us into a discussion of native American relationships to wilderness (a concept that really had no meaning to Native Americans in the sense that it existed in the minds of European peoples). Merrick made the comment that before even the CCC boys sat here discussing life around the fire, native Americans may have been here in this very place huddled around a fire as much as 10,000 years ago (as evidenced by middens found in the mountains). Storytelling is perhaps the most human of traditions around the night fire, and Merrick entertained us with a variety of local creation legends from the first peoples of the Puget Sound region. He explored the spiritual and ecological relationship that Native Americans traditionally developed with nature, and specifically, an animist (as opposed to humanist) belief system that allowed Native Americans to develop deep respect and reverence for the non-human world, and indeed placed them squarely amidst the larger community of plants and animals as opposed to separate from it. The humanistic beliefs of Europeans, on the other hand, led to the European conception that man was apart from and above the non-human world, and the invention of the concept of wilderness was no exception to this rule. Merrick asked us all to think about what animals we connect most strongly with on a spiritual level, and asked us to choose a “spirit animal” for ourselves. He asked us to think about how that spirit animal might allow us to connect to nature in a different way, and to imagine ourselves as that animal over the ensuing days as we traversed the range.

As the fire faded, we threw in some lodgepole pine cones collected on the upper part of the trail. Sealed shut with resin, the heat of the fire allows the scales to open and releases the seeds—part of the species’ adaptation to fire. As for me, I retired to my tent, content to rest with the steady roar of Grand Creek in my ears. For me, Three Forks feels like a home, and this night was the beginning of an annual pilgrimage into the Olympic Mountains that I have been making for the last 14 years.

My personal reflections on wilderness will be coming in a later post.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Day 2 (July 13, 2014)

As told by Jake Schiffler

The second day of our journey into the wilderness of the Olympics, the first full day in the park, I find myself calling the Introduction. Our relationships with the surroundings and with each other were still raw and each moment was setting up our expectations for the rest of the trip. The tents were put away for the first time, our first breakfasts were cooked (or not cooked, for those who opted for granola) and our backpacks were packed with slightly more efficiency than they were the day before. Our shoulders, feet, and joints had only an inkling of understanding of the trials they would be put through over the next 8 days.

Crossing the Grey Wolf

The hike began at the merging of the Grey Wolf River with two other rivers and right off the bat we crossed the first of many log bridges. I was thankful for the handrail as I felt the felled tree absorb each of my heavy footsteps. A quick slip and I would be taking a refreshing dip a little earlier in the day than I bargained for. As far as I can figure, this is the lowest elevation we hiked at all trip. It’s the most familiar hiking, for me at least. I am used to trudging through heavily forested areas where the sweeping views of mountains are obstructed by layer after layer of gnarled trunks and a ceiling of boughs looms constantly overhead. Most might agree that hiking along a ridge top or through a subalpine meadow is more breathtaking than walking on the hot and stuffy forest floor. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with our group. Although the majestic views of mountaintops are lacking, there is so much to take in around us that there is a wealth of marvel in all of us. Birds flit through the branches singing out to us occasionally. Tim usually sings back. A branch snaps somewhere off trail and my head swivels to see what woodland creature caused it. Fungi grows vibrantly and alien-like on the butts of trees.

I don't even know what this is. [wild ginger, genus Asarum]

We crossed the Grey Wolf River a few more times and the architecture of the forest began to change. The trees are getting bigger and more spread out. A silver fir shows up occasionally, amongst the Douglas firs and cedars. At the bases of the biggest trees, the blacked scars left by fire are apparent. Tim informed us that about twenty years ago a fire came through here, started by careless campers. Since the burn a new wave of succession has come through, and now the floor is littered with the matchsticks that were unable to beat the competition. The canopy opens up some to let the still young trees grow towards maturity. The occasional legacy tree towers over them and reminds us all of the younger growth’s true potential. This is real old growth, and as we walked I found myself wondering where the nearest spotted owl was.

Now that's a tree.

We reached Ellis Camp and had our lunch there. It was the first time many of us had tasted the wonders of wasa bread. I don’t know if there are words I can use to describe the impossibly dry, yet strangely satisfying feeling I get from a cracker drizzled with peanut butter. I also don’t know if I will ever have one again.

Following lunch was one of the highlights of my day. The solo walk. It was our first chance focus in silence on the forest around us without the presence of other humans. Despite the interruption of a group of other hikers going the opposite direction, I found great solace in the intimacy and seclusion of the walk. Soon after the solitude began, I passed the massive Doug fir trees that were some of the biggest we would see in the whole park. I felt much smaller on my own than I did while in the company of others, and it gave me an oddly comforting feeling that I didn’t really matter, at least not to the surrounding forest that would outlast me many times over.

During the walk, I saw Anthony standing in an open section of the trail, where the trees gave way to allow a trickle of water to drain down to the rushing river below. After a moment of confusion, Anthony motioned for me to come over. I did and he handed me Carter’s binoculars, then slipped off quietly up the trail. I stood for few minutes, gazing upslope at the waterfall that was the source of the stream at my feet, and across the valley at the opposing slope. There was a single patch of snow high above, some bare patches of hillside indicating landslides, and of course the tumbling waters of the Grey Wolf below.

The pack reunited, and after a quick recounting of our solo walks, we continued onward. And upward.

As we gained elevation, the composition of the forest continued to change. We passed through the silver fir zone, gained our first views of the Alaskan yellow cedar, and a few of the conical subalpine firs even began to show up. All the while the ever-present Douglas firs remained. Occasionally I’d stop to pick up a cone for use later.

At this point in the trip, I can tell a Douglas fir from a true fir, and I can pick out a hemlock if I can see its drooping crown. But at Falls Camp, the wide variety of the tree species [at least 7 species of conifer all within 100 m] surprised me and my identifying skills tended to come up short. The trees that established their presence centuries ago in another era of climate are amazing. Their age and ability to endure allow them to defy the biological requirements one would generally expect of their species. Light is beginning to be shed on the many factors that go into to putting the puzzle pieces of a landscape’s history together.

We all claimed land to erect our tents and then gravitated towards the river to wash the grime and dirt from our bodies and also to pray. A few of us wandered up to the meadow and watched the bees buzz about the flowers, while others rested their bones and set about making dinner.

After dinner, we talked wolves in what would be one of my favorite discussions of the trip. Tess and Serena gave us a thorough briefing of the subject and then led us through the chat with many questions. To me, the Olympic wolves issue is unique because they are gone and have been gone from the peninsula nearly long enough to be out of living memory. From what I have experienced thus far in the park, the environment does not seem to be broken. It forces me to think again about Kareiva’s argument that nature is resilient.  This is not to say that the wolves’ extirpation has left the park unaltered; the effects of their extermination have cascaded through the levels of life on the peninsula in more ways than humans have been able to record. Marmots on the edges of the park are disappearing, perhaps due to the encroaching of coyotes into the area, elk and deer may be altering the flora and damaging riparian zones, but on the whole, everything more or less still seems to function.

Wolf Chat

And yet as we sat around the fire and chatted, I couldn’t help but imagine the ghosts of wolves wandering through the trees around us. It’s undeniably sad that they are no longer here, at least I think so. The idea that wolves could potentially re-populate the Olympics from Oregon, Eastern Washington, or Canada in a Watership Down-ian pilgrimage fascinates and inspires me. How realistic this option is may be questionable, but I think for many it is the ideal one. The opposition to wolf reintroduction is based on stigmas and stereotypes, not at all on the scientific observations made on their behavior. Maybe if the people who dissent could be convinced that wolves wouldn’t actually come blowing their houses down they would have a different opinion.

And then night fell and the discussion began to peter out. Our sleeping bags began to call to us and we trickled off in the directions of our respective tents. The ground was lumpy and uneven in a way that can only be comforting while one is in the wilderness.

At day two, it was very hard to actually appreciate the isolation of the land. The buzz of the city was still too fresh in my mind. I hadn’t settled into the simple rhythm of backcountry life yet and wouldn’t fully until another day or two later. However, when I did acclimate to the quieter, rougher style of living I would not be eager to return. There was a quote that our fearless T.A. Carter read to us one morning from Thoreau. I don’t remember the exact context, but a few words hung in the mosquito-infested air of Cedar Lake and stuck with me. The tonic of wilderness. It’s a little sad to admit but when in the wilderness, I realize it is just that. A cure for the mind-numbingly complex yet absurdly trivial lifestyle that comes with city life. I know that city life doesn’t need to be that way and often isn’t, but I tend to get bogged down by it nonetheless. Each trip into these environments dominated by non-human life serves as a reminder to me that life doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be so inundated with the superficial.

Looking around, I see all of the pieces of the ecosystem. Valleys carved by glaciers, birds hopping around snowfields looking for frozen insects, flowers blooming where snow has melted and allowed them to grow. A person can spend an entire career studying just one of these things and barely scratch the surface of all there is to know about them. The organisms, land formations, and systems are infinitely complex. But for me, when I stand in a meadow and drink in all the complexity, the sum of all the parts is so simple. This is certainly the perspective of an outsider, but that is to a certain extent how I feel in the wilderness. In one sense, like Muir says, I may be coming home, but in a more literal sense, it isn’t where I live. The simplicity of everything coexisting in wilderness like national parks, untouched (mostly) by humans, is an example which I try to draw from because ultimately whatever lessons I take back to the city from it will help to improve the quality of my life and also my ability to coexist sustainably with the natural world.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Day 3 (July 14, 2014)

The tent shook violently followed by Tim yelling, "Yo yo! Time to wake up!" I woke up startled at first of my surroundings but soon remembered where I was. This was the second night that I had dreamed heavily about things back home causing a bit of a startle when I would wake up in an unfamiliar setting. This was the third day and I had yet to fully assimilate to living in the back country living only with bare essentials.

After a couple of minutes of recollecting where I was, rubbing my tired eyes and allowing the cool morning air to be drawn in from a yawn. A chill broke through me as I slide out from my sleeping bag warning me of the cold that was to accompany breakfast. I stuffed my sleeping bag back in its cover, and quickly layered myself in thick clothing to battle the morning cold. I then stepped out of my tent prepared for the next day of this adventure.

Tess and Meranda were already out of their tents engaging in morning stretching and loosening up from the cold night. We collected our bear canisters and started a pot of boiling water for a breakfast consisting of oatmeal with powdered soy milk and drank hot chocolate relishing in the warmth both brought.  There was a brief moment of dissatisfaction expressed between Tess and I as we realized that we had gone two mornings without coffee that we depended on to be able to function in the morning.

We were quick to have breakfast and pack all our gear in the hopes that we would reach our next campsite as early as possible to enjoy the day. Today was to be a rest day after roughly 10 miles of hiking we had accomplish the days prior.

On the hike through an especially diverse area for conifers. This low elevation meadow is already filling in with trees as the winter snowpacks become lower and lower each year; credit Tim

The hike was a taste of what strenuous hiking was going to be like on our trip. In 2 miles we would climb about 2,000 ft with the first 30 min of hiking had  us traversing on a 35-45 degree slope. We first traversed through an old forest that then lead us to our first meadow of wildflowers and low lying plants. The meadow was expansive ranging from a forest boundary to the steep rocky surfaces of a low peak. Tim had said this was prime bear viewing but we never saw a bear on this day.

The meadow; credit Tim
Elephant heads.

Photographing the unusual elephant head flower.

A tree scarred by a bear's claws. This damage was fresh on our 2013 trip. Bears are starving when they come out of hibernation and will strip the bark off fir trees to expose the nutritious sap. It tastes quite have to try it to believe it.

The trail took us to a small waterfall that was created by fallen logs. We decided to take a rest and refill empty water bottles and restore lost energy with food. We then took a small excursion back to the the meadow to look at the flowers and butterflies that were found everywhere. I distinctly remember a beautiful flower called Elephants Head that was easy to see why it had been called such as each flower was in the shape of an elephants head.

We then returned to our packs, loaded up, and kept progressing forward. For the next part we had to cross Cedar Creek causing some of us to get wet. While most of our boots could remain dry on parts of the low flowing creek, most of us had to take a deep plunge causing one boot and socks to get wet. Others had preferred to switch to camp shoes and pack their socks away. After crossing and a brief few minutes of drying our feet off we were on our way again.

Wet feet crossing the stream

Finally approaching Cedar Lake, hidden beyond the next rise, and below the peak.

A frigid swim ensued.

A fern that thrives in rocks around snow fields.

Headed back to the tents for evening discussion with alpenglow on the peaks above.

The trail continued to climb up and follow along Cedar Creek as Cedar Lake was considered an alpine lake being fed water from melting snow and whatever remnants of a glacier existed. We hiked through avalanche blowouts and open areas as the forests gradually changed from low old growth to alpine. With one final push up a steep hill and battling swarms of mosquitoes, we arrived at Cedar lake just before lunch time.

The lake itself was a beautiful example of what geological process' created. The north side of the lake consisted of forrest vegetation and small alpine plants. As you wrapped around the western the conifers began to get small leading into moraines and boulders left from the glacier. The southern slope consisted of only a carved slope with some conifers existing only closer to the top of the ridges. The eastern side displayed a large snow bank from the last winter; melting creating small water falls and creeks that fed into the lakes. The lake was also home to many Rainbow Trout that flourished. Unfortunately I couldn't bring a rod and reel to go fishing.

We were quick to set up tents and pull out bug sprays as the lake was swarmed with mosquitoes. Many people climbed used the tents as cover or layered themselves to prevent any skin from being exposed to attack. I personally had to wear my sneakers, socks, rain pants, rain jacket, a bandana wrapped around my mouth and nose, sunglasses and a baseball hat with the jackets hood up just to be able to work around the camp with out being eaten. Lunch for my group consisted of mac and cheese with Wasa crackers, salami, and Tilimook cheese.

East side of the lake. Jake journaling; credit Tim
As we had woken up early and only traveled 2 miles there was still much of the day left over for personal activities and enjoyment. Many chose to go swimming in the freezing water hoping to cool off and clean as much of the sweat, sun block, and bug spray away from their skin. I chose instead to explore more of the area feeling that a campsite would not be enough to enjoy the beauty of the area. I traversed over the large boulder field finding a chipmunk scurrying through it and an underground creek that only exposed itself a couple of times.

Later in the evening after a large meal (that I have unfortunately forgotten) we proceeded into Jakes discussion. For the discussion all 10 of us sat in two tents that were Carters and mine, and Tess' and Merand's due to trying to protect ourselves from the bugs. Jakes discussion followed a reading we read that put into perspective about loggers and their impact on forests. The main distinction that we were able to conclude was that loggers are not oblivious to environmental issues. They equally have concern for the health of forests because their livelihood depends on the ability to cut down forests. The discussion did turn to the issue that the logging community has a negative stigma towards Spotted Owls as their need for preservation prevents loggers from cutting down trees which overall prevents an income for loggers. Overall the discussion was balanced as really any issue or side could be strongly argued.

Afterwards we all separated to our tents for the night. Carter and I had chosen to leave our rain flies off and fall asleep gazing at the stars as the threat of rain was very small. At that point I started to think about what nature meant for me. Nature has always inspired me to believe in one thing, how the power and beauty of nature is a random event. Our blue planet was luck enough that it was able to collect water, create a moon, and reside just far and close enough to the sun to create life. Had one variable been off, then nothing that we see today could have existed. When I see nature I see the science behind it that made it to what it was. Evolution allowed us to grow from single-cell organisms to walking, thinking creatures that have developed the skill to reason and think. Plants evolved into a carbon rich environment that not only allowed them to survive but to regulate and balance the planet. The abilities for what science and nature can show I believe has no end. We are already seeing an increase in findings of planets outside of our solar system that have the potential to support life. Who knows what else we will find in 100 years or more.

-Written by Merrick Calder 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Day 4 (July 15, 2014)

Day 4
From the perspective of Serena Starr

Pausing at the base of the snowfield, by a small snow cave with a blast of cool air on this hot day. This snowfield is a remnant of the glacier that was in this valley not 200 years ago. Extensive vegetation has yet to recolonize the valley. Note the small moraine in the background.
The group in the same place, but looking back towards Cedar Lake.
Nearing the top of the snowfield.
Rana cascadae from the tarn we swam in later that day.
Begining the steep trek down to the tarn, after passing by some small lakes that were still sow covered.
Down, down, down...
Having completed the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to the Gray Wolf Trail, now charting the path for the afternoon and evening.
Refreshing dip on a hot afternoon. Thankfully, no bugs at this lake!
Arriving at the tarn below Gray Wolf Pass...Anyone up for a swim?
Butterwort, a carnivorous plant that grows at the edge of the lake. Note the insects (black specks) that have been caught by the leaves.
Making our way around the lake, without a trail.

The snow cliffs on the far end of the lake.

Finally breaking out into the open again.

Today was quite a day, although I think you could say that about any day in the wilderness. We woke up next to Cedar Lake, which was so clear you could see straight to the bottom, and cold enough to make you go numb in a matter of minutes. There is a bald eagle that flies there every day from Puget Sound to hunt [rainbow trout that were introduced to the lake via air drop years ago]. I envied him because he could fly above the mosquitoes. They were truly terrible and found every vulnerable spot we had. It was a relief to start walking and leave most of the mosquitoes behind us.
The walk around Cedar Lake
We hiked off trail around the lake to our very first snow field. We learned a little bit about glaciers at the bottom of the snow. There are several ways to tell if a glacier carved out a valley. First, the valley will be more u shaped as opposed to v shaped which is caused by rivers. Secondly, there will be striations on the rocks in the valley. These are caused by rocks caught up in the glacier scraping against the bedrock on the valley floor. Another sign of glaciers is moraine, which is a ridge of rocks pushed up to the side or bottom of the glacier. They are created by the bulldozing and plucking effect of the mound of moving ice, and deposited where the ice melts. After learning about what glaciers can do we learned how to climb a snow field [a remnant of a glacier that existed here 200 years ago] correctly. We started by learning how to use the ice axes that had been strapped to the back of our packs for the past three days. To self-arrest, or stop yourself from sliding uncontrollably down the mountain, you have to flip onto your belly and hold your ax underneath you while digging the pointy end into the snow and covering the sharp end with your hand. While practicing we also discovered that rain pants are great for sledding. Once Tim was confident that we could all stop ourselves we got to glissade, or slide on our butts, down to our packs. This was my favorite part of the day. 
 After donning our packs we climbed up the snow field to the top of the ridge. To climb most effectively we walked in a straight line, with Tim in the lead. 

To walk up a snow field most effectively you have to take tiny steps, so someone as short as me can fit in your footsteps. You also have to do something called kick stepping where you kick your foot into the snow to make a better step and help keep you from falling. As you go up you have to cross your bottom leg over the top so you are not wasting any uphill by stepping back downhill, you know you are doing it right if your steps make a strait line. Your ice ax goes in your uphill hand so that you can self arrest if you need to.  After the climb we stopped for lunch while Tim went off to photograph a rare species of flower. 
The view from lunch, we climbed that snow field!
Once he got back we headed down to a lake. It does not have a name, so we decide to call it Frog Lake after the cascades frog that Carter caught. We took a group swim, glad that the water was warmer than Cedar Lake, even though you could see snow next to the water. Once we were all clean we laid on some rocks to dry off. They were not quite big enough to be comfortable, but they were pleasantly warm from sitting in the sun.
Our little frog friend, he was very eager to get away from us.

Our sun basking was followed by a discussion on mountain goats. The goats were introduced into the park for hunting and have greatly expanded and started killing endemic alpine flowers. The goat population reached up to 900 in its height and is now around 200 or 300. We came to the consensus that a brief hunting period should be allowed in which only goats could be killed to control the population in a cost effective and hopefully humane way. With thoughts of goats in our heads we headed off to make some pasta for dinner. Once our bellies were full we decided to make the push to the top of grey wolf pass. So we would have time to look at alpine flowers the next day.

We made it just in time to see the sunset. Wow. We were surrounded by nothing but mountains, the peaks stretching out as far as you could see. As the sun went down the sky erupted with color, framing the peaks in gold’s, yellows, reds, and greens. It was my other favorite part of the day. The beautiful sunset was followed by a night spent under the stars.
You can get an idea of the sunset from this photo, but you have to imagine it 10 times brighter and bigger

Yoko and I slept next to each other, I was glad of her company because I was very scared that I would roll off the ridge. (Spoiler I didn't). It was cold with a breeze which caused me to hide inside my sleeping bag for most of the night, but when I dared to peak out I was able to see the most amazing stars. Since there is less light pollution you can see way more stars when you are out in the wilderness. It’s worth the price of your face getting a little cold being outside your sleeping bag, and I always find myself nostalgic for the mass of stars you can see in the mountains when I look up at night in the city.

Here we are sleeping on the ridge. My sleeping bag is the green one, it turns out I wasn't even close to rolling off. 

Form a non-linear perspective I think day 4 was the day I started to get use to the wilderness. It was an amazing feeling knowing that we were around 15 miles from any type of help. I felt partially terrified by this idea and partly thrilled. I was terrified because I knew that if something happened it would be hard to get help, if I had fallen off that ridge (even though it would have taken a lot of rolling and was extremely unlikely) it would not be an easy trip to the hospital to get help. On the other hand it was exhilarating knowing that I was off grid and experiencing life in a different way. It was nice not knowing what was going on outside of my little world. I know that I forget to just be with myself a lot when I am home. Even now as I write this I am surrounded by things. The couch I am sitting on it soft and comfortable, my music is playing in the background, and I am drinking a cup of coffee that I did not make myself. All these little things get taken for granted and distract me from the idea that there is more to the world than my comfortable life. Being in the wilderness reminds me that there is so much more to the world. I find it amazing that flower can survive clinging to the side of a rock, while I don’t even make my own coffee. Then I think about the fact that humans use to live like that, without computers or grocery stores and I wonder how I would have done if I had lived off the land. I like thinking about these concepts because it reminds me how far humans have come and how far we have to go. There is something relaxing in knowing that there is more out there. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter that I did not get an A in o-chem or that I forgot to respond to a text message. Wilderness reminds me of this and that I am part of more than just a school, or a city, or a country, and that my choices affect me, not the whole world.