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.
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.
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.
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.