Today, September 3rd, is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Preservation System Act into law. I was four years old in 1964, and had no idea that I would spend a good portion of my adult working life in wilderness areas. The longer I live, the more grateful–and amazed–I am that people in our country were able to come together to make such a thing happen. It means that there are millions of acres in the United States that have no roads, no clearcuts, no permanent structures (except some bridges). It’s a place where natural processes are supposed to dominate and “man is but a visitor.” Given the current political climate, I’m glad Congress got it done fifty years ago, because it probably couldn’t happen now.
There are lots of celebrations going on around the country, local observances of the anniversary. While I respect those who have the energy and gumption to applaud the accomplishments of the past, I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to participate. My employer gave me a commemorative pin for the anniversary, and a sticker. Posters have been printed and distributed. What I and my colleagues really wanted to celebrate fifty years of wilderness was a renewed commitment to wilderness stewardship, including adequate funding for wilderness rangers, restoration work, and public education. Also a willingness to tackle really difficult issues such as unrestricted recreation and loss of opportunities for solitude. Alas, we are disappointed and have to be satisfied with the lapel pin.
So I console myself with thoughts of what 25 years of wilderness work have given to me: an appreciation of big landscapes, and small reminders of the transient beauty of life. Life in the wilderness (and I consider that I have lived out there, not just traveled through) has both toughened me and softened me, stripped away a number of illusions and helped me understand what really matters in a life. There have been moments of sheer terror, moments of absolute delight, and many many miles both solo and shared. I always learn when I go out there, in the way that John Muir said that in going out we are really going in.
So Happy Anniversary, and may we have the courage to step up and face the daunting task of keeping wilderness wild into perpetuity.
DAY ONE: September 15, 2013
Topic of the Day: Perfume
September 15 through 25 is a buck hunting season in the wilderness areas of Washington state. We call it “high hunt”, and it is traditionally a time to patrol the backcountry. I have heard stories of legendary exploits (the guy who carried a chicken nine miles on his saddlehorn to eat in camp, and all the drinking), but this was my first time on solo patrol. I got a late start at the Cathedral Pass trailhead, and had a sweaty climb up the trail. Turned off on the Squitch Lake shortcut. As the name implies, Squitch Lake is a swampy area, and the official trail has been rerouted to higher ground. I followed an elk path through the lush grass, tiny treefrogs the size of my little fingernail bouncing ahead of my boots. As I emerged into the open and saw the lily pads floating on the open water, the perfume hit my nostrils: a rich fruity scent. Vaccinium deliciosum, the lowbush huckleberry drew me to red-leaved bushes. It had to be break time. I dropped my pack and started sampling the round berries. They are dark purple with a bluish bloom, releasing from the twigs into my fingers. A few were mushy from heat followed by rain, but most of them were perfectly ripe and bursting with juice. I forgot what I was supposed to be doing and simply ate. At one point I looked down to see bear poop next to my foot. Hm, I thought. Smart bear, finding berries. Wonder where it is right now?
Eventually I came to my senses and looked around for hunting camps. None evident (no bears either), so I lifted my pack and continued on. As I dropped down Trail Creek, the sky to the west was darkening with roiling clouds. The weather forecast mentioned thunderstorms with abundant lightning. My thoughts turned to where I wanted to be when all hell broke loose and changed my destination for the evening. Camp was made near a small meadow where I could shelter under lodgepole pines away from any standing dead trees. After supper, I secured my gear in anticipation of wind and rain then sat in the tent reading. The grumbling started around 7:50 as night fell. It came over Polallie Ridge to the west and echoed up and down the Waptus valley. I watched the flashing approach, and delighted in the strobe effects of suddenly illuminated trees. It was below, down the valley and overhead, in the clouds. And loud. I counted the time between the flash and the crash–one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three BOOM! A mile away, or less. The wind sighed through branches and the first drops of rain pecked the tent fly. I retreated inside to the sleeping bag and drowsed as the storm made its way northeast. It rained hard, and I was glad for my preparations. I slept dry in my cocoon.
DAY TWO: September 16, 2013
Topic of the Day: Bear Sign
Emerged from the cocoon to a damp drippy world. Cobwebby clouds hung low, muffling the sound of water droplets. After breakfast, I stuffed the wet tent into its bag and pulled the cover over my backpack. Hiking in rain gear is cumbersome and soon I was perspiring inside the swishing nylon. Long ago I learned that you never stay dry in the woods, but if you keep moving at least you will stay warm.
I hadn’t been to Michael Lake since 1992, when the trail crew camped in the area to install log waterbars. That’s a long time, and this trail has fallen off the list of high priorities for maintenance. It’s not even on the medium priority list. So I was curious to observe the conditions for myself. Turns out I barely remembered anything. It was a long uphill pull on rocky tread. When I stopped for lunch, a bit of weak watery sunlight shone down so I hung the tent fly and my raingear on branches. Before long another shower swept through and I continued hiking. I met two wet miserable hunters who were heading out. After whining “Am I ever going to get there?” to myself for the hundredth time, I dropped down into a basin that cupped a deep blue-green lake. Encircled by a rugged ridge and sweeping talus slopes, Michael Lake reflected the blue-green of the water-drenched conifers around it. All day I had seen where a bear had gone ahead of me, turning over rotten logs to hunt for grubs. This time of year, the omnivorous black bears are fattening up on whatever they can find. Huckleberries are a favorite, but there are other sources of nourishment as well. While choosing my campsite, I came across the perfectly turned log above. It seemed best for me to find a place that had been used by humans before.
When I spotted the dry ground under a clump of Engelmann spruces, I knew I had found it. The branches hung low, creating a semi-cave. There was a root to sit on. I hung all my wet gear inside the spruce cave, and spent the next hour dismantling an illegal fire ring, In the Alpine Lakes, fires are prohibited above 5000 feet elevation to protect the subalpine habitat. This is the highest forest, with a short growing season. Trees occur in groups rather than continuous stands, and may only grow a fraction of an inch in a year. This sort of place cannot sustain lots of wood-gathering for campfires. Besides the lack of wood, subalpine areas also recover more slowly from any kind of disturbance. The scars from a fire will remain visible for years. So I have no qualms about tearing a fire ring apart and hucking the rocks into the brush. I have a special bag for carrying charcoal and ashes away, and I carefully sift out the foil and broken glass and other unburnables. The final step is to camouflage the site so that it looks as if there never was a campfire. I fill the hole with rocks, soil, even horse turds. Then sprinkle a layer of needles and duff to blend with the surrounding ground.
The only flat place for the tent was under a white pine tree, so that’s where I put it. Everythingh else sheltered under the spruce tree. I filtered water for the evening, then wandered around with a plastic bag. The huckleberry bushes around camp were bent over with ripe fruit. I was not the only one harvesting. Birds and ground squirrels were eating as well, erupting out of the wet bushes when I came too close. Up in the rocks, pikas were calling in their squeak toy voices “Eeeeep!” I watched, but saw no dark lumbering shapes of bears.
DAY THREE: September 17, 2013
Topic of the Day: Disbelief
I got up once in the night, and sleepily saw that mist was hanging down to the ground. Felt the fine cool droplets on my face. In the morning, the clouds had risen to the level of the ridge around the lake. The water was still. I heard rocks falling above camp–some animal moving along the ridge. There was no hurry to leave so I ate breakfast, had a second cup of tea, packed up. Took my radio, shovel, and trash bag along the fisherman’s trail to see what there was to see.
A lawn chair?! Really?
It was as if the campers had just been there. I saw the scuffled marks around the trees where they had tied their horses and the melted plastic in their fire. Off to one side I found a discarded pair of romeo slippers. One sole flapped loose and the leather on the other shoe was blue with mold. I hefted them in my gloved hand–several pounds of weight.
I dismantled everything, leaving the meadow in a more natural state. (This fire ring hole received horse turds.) Found more huckleberries, which I ate as a reward for virtuous stewardship of wild places. I thought about the trail ahead of me, and the companionship of a lawn chair and shoes. It was clear to me that since the campers didn’t pack everything out then I would. When I bought my backpack, I made sure that it had plenty of straps and pockets for tying on strange loads.
My crew of inanimate objects and I set forth, heading for the Waptus River. In spite of the weight there were still moments to observe and wonder…
DAY FOUR: September 18, 2013
Topic of the Day: Ranger Haiku
After seven miles, an elevation drop of 1500 feet, and a river crossing I arrived at the log jam. I could see a shower hissing its way down the valley and scampered to get the tent set up. There was another clump of spruce trees with dry ground underneath so I felt fortunate to have a good place to hunker. I slept listening to the river and rain. My feet were dry.
As always, there was a fire ring to clean up. My micro trash recognition skills are so finely tuned that I can tell a piece of decayed foil on the ground from a shred of lichen. They are remarkably similar. The creative mind being what it is, I did my work while stringing words together. The day before, I had started writing a letter in my head To Whom It May Concern about why I don’t like them. It had much to do with the weight of soggy romeo slippers and a lawn chair added to the load on my back. How could I transform my rant into poetry? Ranger haiku!
Dull silver ingots
lumpy pebbles in fire ring.
Your melted beer cans.
There’s more where this came from. But thinking of haiku made me remember how poignantly the changing seasons are interpreted in Japanese art. Fall is the time of rain and sadness, of the longing cries of migrating geese, of transient shining slivers of beauty. Nothing lasts, but how beautiful the world is as things come and go!
As I traveled down the Waptus River trail, the ground was drier. It hadn’t rained as much. I could see scraps of blue sky through the trees and vine maple leaves just beginning to turn red. A few red and olive sockeye salmon hovered in the Cooper River pool–they’re back! Before I knew it, I had reached the trailhead and laid my pack down in the back of the truck. Driving to the ranger station, I noticed the absence of people. Not many cars parked at dispersed campsites, no piles of garbage along side the road, no campfires. The woods are relatively quiet, even for hunting season.
Upon my return, I weighed my pack with the trash still strapped to it. Sixty pounds. Know I know. The romeos and lawn chair were deposited into the dumpster, having been carried eleven or twelve miles from Michael Lake. No regrets. That stuff doesn’t belong in the wilderness.
And now I’ve been home for a couple of days. The sleeping bag has been aired and loosely stuffed into its storage bag. The rain pants have had the mud washed away, and the tent is dry once more. Will I go out again? Probably, but I don’t feel the urgent drive to get to high country. The season is changing; has changed. There are other things that want my attention. And honestly, I am ready to slow down and reflect. Enjoy the coziness of home and get ready for the long winter that’s coming.
DAY ONE: August 16, 2013
Topic of the Day: Some Unpleasant Realizations
I’m counting things. Two miles from Pete Lake from the shortcut. (How many times up this trail already this season? I have stopped counting. Would rather go anywhere else.) Thirty minutes for lunch. Eight Boy Scouts. One bag filled with Canada thistle flowers–a noxious weed that should not be allowed to go to seed in the wilderness. Seven stakes pounded into excess social trails with little signs requesting that people not walk or camp there. Four firepits cleaned, one destroyed. Two piles of human feces buried. One pound of litter picked up. Two miles back out to the truck.
The Pete Lake area is pounded. Loved to smithereens. It’s a short easy hike, popular with beginning backpackers, families, and others who are not ready for longer steeper trails. Thanks to guidebooks and internet hiking sites, Pete Lake is more well-known and popular than ever. It’s not such a long drive from the city, and most of the road is paved.
I realize it’s not going to get better. So many people go there, and why not? It’s public land. The task of teaching people to care for the places they visit feels impossible. Care = watchful regard or attention; heed. Attention to where one puts one’s feet, to what one removes from the backpack, to what falls on the ground, to what goes in and out of one’s body. Attention to fire, water, earth, air, living beings. Attention to one’s passage through the world.
Pete Lake is a sacrifice area, a place not too far into the wilderness. Let the masses go there, so that the deeper wilderness can stay primitive and untouched. To protect places like Pete Lake would mean restricting access by letting only a few in. Politically, that idea is dead on arrival. The only way it could happen would be to allow the bridges over the rivers to decay so that people couldn’t drive to the trailhead. Or implement a strictly controlled permit system.
It disturbs me deeply that we created wilderness areas but can’t keep them wild. I hike back with a dark cloud over my head, trying to reconcile reality with ideals. Curmudgeonly misanthropy arises in me. I want reverence. I want people to crawl here on their hands and knees and be humbled. Better yet, I want them to stay home.
As I grumble to myself, I hear something flopping around in the brush. My eye catches movement, and I drop to my knees. Bufo boreas, the western toad! My attention is captured by its thick body and loose lumpy skin. The cinnamon flecks of color, the thin yellow stripe down its spine. The eyes are liquid gold. Long toes splay across leaves. The ivory throat pulsates, and I see the nostrils dilate. The toad breathes, just as I breathe. For a moment, we breathe together. My sense of wonder rekindles, and reverence arises.
One toad, and my perspective is restored.
DAY TWO: August 17, 2013
Topic of the Day: Return to Waptus
The pack is packed for three days. Nine miles to Waptus Lake, and my earworm is a line from a Neil Young song: “Old ways…are a ball and chain.” The trail is dusty, and I shovel loose rocks out of the tread as I walk along. After years of practice, I can do this without breaking stride. Clang, fling, thump.
The river is lower, the water sound muffled. The vine maple is vigorous, poking into the trail a little more aggressively than a month ago. A few huckleberries are ripe, and I sample freely as I pass. There are very few mosquitoes and flies. Butterflies everywhere, especially the ones that gather on horse dung dropped in the trail. They have ragged-edged wings and orange spots, fluttering up in a bunch as I approach.
They are green commas, members of the Brushfoot family. (Butterflies have some of the most imaginative names in all of natural history.)
The book says that green commas (Polygonia faunus) emerge in mid to late summer, overwinter, and reproduce in the spring. They favor boreal and mountainous areas in western North America, often along or near streams. So the subalpine firs, Engelmann spruce and Douglas-firs along the Waptus River are perfect for them.
I smell smoke on the descent from Cone Mountain, and wonder what I will find. I suspect an abandoned campfire, which is exactly what I find. It smolders only a few feet from the river and I wonder that the campers did not think to dip their cooking pot in the water and dump some on the hot ashes. A half-melted beer can appears as I stir the fire, and I am not surprised. These people were thinking of other things. After the fire is out, I pick out the trash. “Dumbshits,” I think to myself.
Sigh. I never catch them. I only meet nice people.
DAY THREE: August 18, 2013
Topic of the Day: Minimize Campfire Effects
The sound of a loud airplane wakes me from a dream. I crawl out of the tent. The air is cool enough that I want my down jacket and a warm hat, but only until the sun comes over the hill. By then I have had a cup of green tea, a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, and scribbled in my field journal. Pigtails are renewed for the day, sunscreen applied, and I’ve checked in by radio. I’ll be patrolling the Waptus Lake campsites today.
I cross the river and head to Quick Creek. It drops steeply from Waptus Pass and dumps into the lake across an apron of gravel that has washed down. There are a few campsites here. I am pleasantly surprised to find no piles of poop, and not much trash. But the fire rings are in need of attention. Rocks have been piled high to contain mounds of ash and charcoal. These fire rings need to be reduced in order to encourage campers to build smaller fires. I hurl rocks into the brush and throw a few into the lake just to hear the splashes. I have a special sack for carrying ashes, and fill it again and again. Ashes are dispersed into thickets–out of sight, out of mind. It takes all morning to reduce three fire rings to modest size. It is hot in the sun, and I find a shady place to eat my lunch before crossing the river to do more campsite work at the lake.
One of the elements of Leave No Trace camping is “Minimize Campfire Effects”. The idea is to keep fires small, use small fuel such as twigs, and burn everything to ash. Also to avoid stripping fragile areas of wood and leaving sooty black marks on rocks. And of course, there is always fire danger especially when the weather has been hot and dry. The fire issue is a frequent topic of conversation when I meet people. I ask if they really need that fire. If they choose to have one, I encourage them keep it small, and put it out with water. It’s best to use an established fire ring. I destroy any new ones I find, and am amazed to find them built on top of rotten wood and other organic material. The other thing I find is small trees that have been hacked down for firewood, leaving unsightly tall stumps. Apparently many people carry hatchets and feel obliged to use them. I don’t have time to remedy this, so the ugly stumps stay.
When I return to camp in the evening, it’s still warm enough to wash up in the creek. My skin is blackened from the fine ash that has penetrated my clothing, almost as if I have been fighting fire all day.
I do not build a fire in my camp but watch the moon rise over Polallie Ridge while nighthawks buzz and wheel overhead.
DAY FOUR: August 19, 2013
Topic of the Day: Reflection
The weather changes. Marine air pours over the crest, wrapping Summit Chief and Bear’s Breast in woolly gray clouds. Wind rushes down the valley, ruffling the surface of the lake into waves and whitecaps. I wade the river one last time, letting cool water lap my calves and bathe my feet. The rocks are golden and speckled with dark algae. Without the glare of bright sun, the spires of trees reflect softly.
I’m hiking out with an empty food bag and several pounds of garbage. The ubiquitous burned foil. Broken glass. A pair of broken sandals, abandoned underwear, shreds of duct tape, cigarette butts, an empty plastic bottle that held some sort of liquid to mask a hunter’s scent, as well as a few wrappings from my own food. The weight on my back is familiar. I’ve been backpacking for several weeks now, and am feeling strong. The miles pass under my feet. My senses register changes in wind, a ribbon of flower scent, a few drops of moisture. My mind has stilled. The earworms have lost their potency; the worries I carried in with me have shrivelled. I just walk on this trail, moving toward the next moment.
This time the transition is smooth. I return to the ranger station, deposit trash in the dumpster, debrief, write up some notes. Carry my pack home. Here is my garden. Here is my cat. Here is some supper, a shower, bed. It feels just right.
DAY ONE: August 5, 2013
Topic of the Day: Return to the Burn
Recently I photocopied a small map of the Cle Elum Ranger District section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and drew the shapes of large fires from the last twenty years on it using a chunky red colored pencil. There were four red splotches: Lemah-Escondido (1000 acres, 1994); Polallie Ridge (900 acres, 2006); Lemah (800 acres, 2009); and Trail Creek (200 acres, 2012). Interesting to look at the big picture in this way as fire has been allowed to return to the wilderness as a natural process. It’s like puzzle pieces falling into place.
I feel fortunate to have been in the field observing each of these fires as they came to life, grew, decreased and finally went out. Each one was unique, occurring at their own point in space and time. The aftermath is what I find endlessly fascinating. Trail work has taken me back to these places so my colleagues and I get to witness what happens to an ecosystem after a disturbance.
The Lemah fire in 2009 started in late July and crept around on the forest floor for a month. We confined it to one side of the Pacific Crest Trail and kept an eye on it. The weather shifted significantly in late August as the fire moved to a more southerly aspect and climbed up into the old growth hemlocks. One afternoon it consumed four hundred acres in a swirling billow of smoke and roaring flames. For a few days there was excitement and general amazement. Then the fall rains came to subdue it. The fire festered and smoked until winter snows buried it.
It is a peaceful place again, the deep forest now opened to sunlight. Bark sloughs off the dead trees in curled sheaths, and naked saplings bend over the trail. Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is a pioneer plant. Its fluffy seeds land on the charred soil and take root, pushing up tall spires that sway over hikers’ heads. The flowers open in late July and early August, a prodigious flush of hot pink. The afternoon sun casts long shadows through the spikes of snags and flowers. It is a hummingbird haven. Small birds rocket through the air with zinging wings and squeaky chirps. Plenty of nectar for all! Rufous and calliope hummingbirds share this space, defending their tiny territories to raise their young. They apparently fear nothing, and zip up to a human, hovering until they figure out what this lumbering creature is. Not food, not a threat. Then they zip off again.
Fireweed colored the industrial-scale clearcuts of my childhood landscape. Watching the pink appear reminded me that the freewheeling days of summer were numbered. Before long, Mom would be bundling us in the car for the trip to town for new school shoes and tablets and pencils. Fireweed is a bittersweet flower–still summer, but a reminder of impending change.
DAY TWO: August 6, 2013
Topic of the Day: Cascades
After a long commute through the burn, we arrive at the work site. All day we labor next to the roar of a waterfall. It’s Delate Creek, spilling over the lip of rock that holds Spectacle Lake. It thunders down, and we holler at each other to be heard. When drinking water containers are drained, we walk across the bridge to a side stream to filter more. The water-filled air is like cool breath, blessed relief on this hot day. I think to myself: this is one reason why these mountains are called the Cascades.
DAY THREE: August 7, 2013
Topic of the Day: Some Unkind Thoughts About Hemlock
A project log is one you walk up to and know you are going to be at that spot for awhile. It will take hours to clear from the trail. Some of the more infamous ones have names. “Remember the one that fell on the puncheon at Deep Lake?” someone will ask. Oh yeah. We remember. I’ve written about The Ogre. This week we dealt with Slabby.
Slabby fell during the winter of 2010-2011, same as The Ogre. We are only now getting around to cleaning it off the PCT. Slabby was a big western hemlock hollowed out by rot. Only the outer four inches or so was sound wood. The structure of the tree could no longer stand the strain of standing vertically, so it twisted off the stump and fell to the ground, shattering into long pieces. These shards completely blocked the trail, forcing hikers of go up and around, picking their way through the wreckage. Last year Pam and Sam and I came through to log out, but didn’t have time to cut through Slabby.
Now it was time to get the job done. I had tried single bucking some of the chunks, but the saw bound and pinched in the cuts after I got partway through. I would have to chop. While waiting for Jon to bring up the double bit axe, I chopped with the smaller single bit. “I hate hemlock,” I pronounced after the first swing.
Then realized that’s not really true. I do not hate hemlock. As a tree, it is a fine one. Western hemlock grows in warm moist environments at lower elevations. It thrives in the shade of other trees and can grow to great size. The wood is tight-grained and sound when it has not been compromised by fungal rot. What I dislike is chopping and sawing through hemlock when it crosses the trail. I don’t hate it, but recognize that I am in for a prolonged exercise and patience is required. Long ago the trail crew renamed it “hemrock” for its hardness. I have heard my brother, a logger, refer to it is “scumlock”.
Hemlock is hard wood. It will not break. You have to chop or saw through every last inch. Hemlock cuts you no slack. You’re in for it, so go ahead and complain as you swing and hit again and again.
When you finally sever the chunk, you have earned that short burst of satisfaction that comes before turning to the next slab that needs to be removed. There was a sense of gratification, pride even, when we finally got Slabby off the trail, including the the long stringy pieces of rotten wood.
DAY FOUR: August 8, 2013
Topic of the Day: Drought
It was spooky. A trip to Lemah Meadow without being rained on or being eaten alive by bugs? I mentioned this to Jon, and he agreed that it was probably a first in trail crew history. Sure, the meadow was wet with dew in the mornings, and there were moments with the mosquitoes and flies. But we easily recalled other trips filled with far more misfortune than this one. The time we never took off our headnets except to shovel in dinner. The time mice got into the foodboxes. The time mice launched themselves at Jon’s tent and slithered down the nylon walls with their little claws scraping all the way down. The numerous wet pack-outs.
I made time to walk around the meadow, noticing the encroaching trees. The interesting bog plants. The fire-scarred cedar snags down at one end. The magnificent view of Chimney Rock and Summit Chief. That glacier up there is melting just as sure as the meadow is filling in with trees.
Hiking out, I noticed that much of the some of the vegetation around Pete Lake appeared much more parched than it had three days earlier when we walked in.
Thimbleberries love damp lowlands, yet here they are giving up where the sun has been beating on them strongly. The soft green leaves turn brown and papery, curling at the edges. The trail is pounded to dust by hundreds of feet. The woods are dry, even on the Cascade crest. This area has been traditionally thought of as wet and green. The asbestos forest, unable to burn. Yet I know from my map of wilderness fires that it does burn when conditions are right.
When I get to the truck, my uniform shirt is completely soaked with sweat. I’ve been drinking water all day, yet there is an unrelenting drought in my throat.
Now I have been home for over twenty-four hours, rehydrating and doing laundry. In the afternoons cumulus clouds pile up over the mountains and the sky flashes and rumbles after dark. Rain pelts down out of thunderheads, watering my garden. Tomorrow I go look for fires.
DAY ONE: July 19, 2013
Topic of the Day: Catching Up
Office day. Email, paperwork, phone calls. And most importantly, toilets. The third element of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics is “Dispose of Waste Properly”. In heavily-used backcountry camping areas, we provide pit toilets to concentrate human waste in discreet areas. In the Alpine Lakes, Wallowa style toilets (see link) are favored, and we can make these ourselves out of cedar lumber. They are packed in and then maintained. When the pits fill up, they have to be moved. A nasty job, but consider the alternative: I’d rather move a toilet than bury hundreds of piles of poop & TP left on the ground. Fortunately, I have help this summer from an Earthcorps (part of Americorps) crew. This group of six young people is spending a week at Pete and Spectacle Lakes to rehab campsites, move and repair toilets, and give a little TLC to these well-loved areas. To prepare for their work, I’ve finished constructing a whole new toilet to go to Spectacle Lake (6 miles from Pete, these folks are heroes) fabricated wooden parts to fix the Pete toilets, gathered tools and hardware. I want them to have a good experience so I stay an hour late to get everything lined up.
DAY TWO: July 20, 2013
Topic of the Day: Pacific Silver Fir
Pam and I backpack to Hyas Lake after making the very tedious hour and a half drive up the Fish Lake road. This ride is the most glaring local example of crumbling infrastructure in the National Forest. Unmaintained for years, the potholes are numerous and deep enough to swallow small cars. Still, there are 22 vehicles parked at the Deception Pass trailhead, and more arriving.
We’ve carried in tools to clear logs from the trail. The first log is a doozy, right next to camp. A Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis) has tipped over, with a big rootwad looming near the trail. Hikers have pounded in a path going up and around, since it is too big to climb over with a full backpack. We clear the area where we will cut the log, and chop away some of the bark. Then it’s time to saw.
Pam’s on one side of the log and I’m on the other. She extends the handle of Polallie, a five foot Atkins falling saw that we use for bucking. It’s one of our favorites. The handle fits my gloved hand, and we pull gently back and forth until the teeth have established a groove. We’re making a compound cut, and angle, so that the chunk will roll out easily. Back and forth–I’ve missed crosscut sawing. Sawdust dribbles out of the kerf, and we notice that the cut is opening. As we release tension, the log is moving upward with loud cracks. This is good. It means that gravity is working for us and the saw will just keep going down. We won’t have to underbuck, which is a the more difficult technique of cutting upward from the bottom.
It’s really hot. Sweat rolls into the creases of my eyes. We take frequent breaks to stand in the shade and sip water.
Silver fir dominates the middle elevations of the forested Cascade slopes on both sides of the mountains. It belongs to the family of balsam firs, the true firs (as opposed to Douglas-fir, which is not an Abies). Silver fir is a Northwest specialist, occurring as far north as southern British Columbia and extending as far south as Crater Lake in Oregon. It extends down the spine of the Cascades like the stripe on a skunk’s back. Rarely found above 5000 feet in elevation, it doesn’t seem to be as frost-tolerant as mountain hemlock. Like all firs, silver fir is tall and graceful with a pleasing symmetry to the crown. The branches extend horizontally in regular whorls. The glossy green needles are flattish with blunt ends evenly spaced on both sides of the twig. A staggered row of needles lies on top of this, covering the top of the twig. The needles are silvery underneath. The bark of young trees is smooth and whitish, but the older trees develop gray scaly bark. Our big log is old and scaly.
As a sawyer, what I notice most about silver fir (and all true firs) is the pitch. Pitch is not the same thing as tree sap. Sap is in phloem, the layer of living tissue under the bark that transports the sugars created by photosynthesis. Pitch, or resin, is a substance made by trees and stored in cells under the bark. If the tree is injured, it exudes pitch to scab over the wound. Pitch is sticky. Silver fir pitch is the stickiest. It collects on my gloves, the saw handle, my uniform shirt.
Our first cut finishes with a drop to the ground. Hikers come along and see what we are doing, remark that we have our work cut out for us (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, I could retire). We try not to roll our eyes. The second cut goes much the same as the first, without so much cracking. After two hours, we have used pry poles to move the chunk out of the trail.
Examinining the end of the cut log, I observe the regular growth rings, the knots where branches grew, the cracks where the log broke inside as we cut it. It smells good.
DAY THREE: July 21, 2013
Topic of the Day: Seek Shade
We have heard stories of aggressive mountain goats at Tuck Lake. I want to go see for myself. We continue up the Deception Pass Trail with the saw, hoping that there will be time to hike into Tuck after we finish the logout. It’s a spectacular subalpine lake basin of rock and water. I’m thinking that it’s not so much of a goat problem as it is a people problem. After all, the goats live there and people just visit. Goats are curious, and very interested in salty human urine. Not surprisingly, there are encounters and occasional conflicts.
But there are more silver firs. We spend a long time bucking from the top, chopping, and underbucking. Again, we are in the hot sun. There are flies and mosquitoes. Our water bottles are stashed in a tiny patch of melting snow, and we refill them from a nearby trickle. The weather forecast calls for 96 degrees in the valleys, 90 degrees in the mountains, and low relative humidities. We are right on the Cascade crest. I can believe that it’s 90 degrees. The direct sunlight feels very bright.
We meet hikers in shorts and tank tops. One man asks how we can stand to work in long pants and long sleeves. He starts jumping around when the bugs bite his legs, and I wonder how folks can stand to hike in shorts.
We cut four logs before topping out at Deception Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s two o’clock and we won’t have time to go to Tuck Lake. It will have to be another day. We hike back to the trailhead with our full packs and tools. I feel wilted and parched, wanting to hide in the shade of the deep forest.
I want to squinch my eyes almost shut and run through the sunny patches. The valley is filled with the sound of waterfalls as snow melts in the heat.
When I get home, I scrub the silver fir pitch out of my shirt using Citrasolv and Fels-Naptha soap. The wet fabric dries almost instantly.
DAY FOUR: July 22, 2013
Topic of the Day: Dust
We meet the Earthcorps crew and hike to Pete Lake. Wind whips the water and stirs the silt off the bottom of the lake. The Chimney Glacier has been melting and Lemah Creek deposits the finely-ground rock in Pete Lake. The water level seems low, and it will keep dropping. The crew admires the view of Lemah Peaks, still holding onto some snow. The leaders and I scout the work while the crew sets up their camp.
I’m feeling the effects of the heat and am ready to go. The trail is beaten into dust by horse hooves and many many boots. This transformation always startles me. It wasn’t too long ago that the trail was mucky.
Pam and I talk about food on the way out. She’s got leftovers at home for supper, and I’m craving Thai peanut sauce. Just picked the first garden zucchini…
We hike in 9 miles to the lake. By now the trail is familiar for this year–logout started in May so we’ve done a couple day trips to get to the five mile point. Then we got a report that there were only four more logs before the lake, and that a volunteer cut them. So our hike today is mostly a commute, a long walk. The climb over Cone Mountain marks five miles, and is one of the worst parts of the trail. Katie the packer has asked us to see what we can do about a rocky narrow trench in a boulder patch. We get to the spot. Seems like filling it in is the thing to do. We drop our packs by the side of the trail and look around for breadloaf-sized rocks to pile in the bottom of the hole. We are in the direct sun and lush vegetation hangs over the sides of the trail. Seeps of water from the hillside trickle into the trench. It’s as if every pore in my body has opened. Just one of those middle-aged woman wacky temperature regulation moments? No. I look over at Sam. She could be my daughter. Beads of sweat have popped out on her tan forehead and she has a look of mild distress on her face. Wow. It’s really hot. We’ve brought along collapsible buckets and ferry loads of gravel from deposits that have washed down to low spots in the trail. Bucket by bucket, we fill in around the larger rocks, imagining horse hooves going over this place. At last it’s good enough and we put our pack on to keep moving into shade.
Heat is an energy drain. The heart works harder to pump blood around the body, sending it to the surface to cool. That surface is sweaty, the body’s attempt to discharge the excess heat. Air movement across damp skin does cause cooling. The fluids exuded as sweat must be replaced. There is a powerful need to drink water. Thirst.
Nine miles to camp, and I have drunk 7 liters of water. Once I am thirsty, I am running on a deficit that can take days to replace.
DAY TWO: July 11, 2013
Topic of the Day: Teamwork
With five of us, we plan for an ambitious day–push up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) toward Deep Lake. Brent offers to scout ahead and has a report by 11 o’clock. There are nine logs, all small. Jon decides that he and Angela can take the crosscut saw over to the Waptus Pass trail, where there are bigger more complex logs. While Brent and Sam finish the logout with large pruning saws and a double bit ax, I get going on the brushing. The PCT climbs up the Spinola Creek valley, crossing several avalanche chutes. The snow slides are frequent enough to prevent conifers from being established. Instead, a variety of vegetation flourishes in the openings. Bracken ferns sway overhead. A mixture of thimbleberry, huckleberry and salmonberry obscures the trail tread. You can’t see where to place your feet. I’ve got a brush whip, a sharp serrated blade on an arch at the end of a wooden handle. By swinging this through the stems, centrifugal force lops the soft-stemmed plants. We all love to do this job–the results are immediate and gratifying. After throwing armloads of wilted ferns off the trail, you can look back to see a neat swath through the green.
By the time Brent and Sam return, I have done 500 feet. Working together, we are far more efficient. We take turns with the whip, while the non-whippers fling piles of brush away and follow with pruning saws to cut woody stems and any stragglers. When it’s time to head back to camp, we’ve cleared 1200 feet and gotten the worst of it. Good job, crew! Feels like we did some good out here today.
DAY THREE: July 12, 2013
Topic of the Day: Microtrash?
Cloudy, cooler. The trail crew packs up to hike out. I’m staying for four more days. I’ll spend the day patrolling campsites along the lakeshore. A wilderness ranger is similar a backcountry motel maid–after people spend the night and leave in the morning, the ranger/maid goes in to clean up. Instead of making beds, I observe two elements of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics: Minimize Campfire Impacts and Dispose of Waste. I’ve noticed that people who drink instant hot cocoa in the backcountry are prone to throwing the wrappers into the fire. These are lined with foil, which does not burn. I hunch over the ashes picking out little wads of silver with gloved fingers. This is what John calls the “Hot Chocolate Wrapper Nightmare”. I find other bits of trash as well. A sliver of mylar energy bar wrapper, twisted bits of nylon string, a wisp of tissue paper. Microtrash.
From my field notebook:
“Watching for microtrash as I patrol campsites, my eyes become sensitized to the shape and color of things that are not twigs, needles, leaves, small rocks, flakes of bark, etc. I pounce on the non-orghanic such as a twist tie or weathered bit of duct tape. As I walk through the forest, several times my vision has been arrested by a scrap of white or blue. Must be a piece of litter. But when I stoop down I see
Discarded from the nest, half an eggshell as big as the end of my index finger lies on the ground. I found one with a tiny piercing, a hole from the egg tooth of an embryo.As the shell parted and fell away, the embryo too its first breath and became a hatchling. A baby bird.
This is all happening right now over my head in the moving boughs of conifers. The forest canopy is an avian nursery. I think of the dome of sound that rests over the summer woods–all those birds, resident and migrant–creating songs, buzzes, chirps. They are here exercising their biological imperative.”
I’ve brought the brush whip, and clear 600 feet in a place we call the Snag Patch. The thimbleberry is prolific.
I see no one all day.
DAY FOUR: July 13, 2013
Topic of the Day: Reward
Spade Lake trail. I’ve worked on it but never climbed all the way to the lake. This trail is infrequently maintained and is suitable only for hikers. It ascends 2000 feet in 3.4 miles. Strenuous. Adventurous. Sweaty.
Sometimes you have to stop and smell the heather. Take your boots off and soak them in the lake. Bask on a rock. Filter some water and drink. But only after removing foil from the remains of an illegal campfire (fires prohibited above 5000 feet to protect the subalpine ecosystem).
Totally worth it. 9.6 miles for the day, and two hours late back to camp.
Thinking about where I was three years ago, four years ago. Caught up in a medical adventure, not knowing if I would ever make it to Waptus Lake under my own power again. Scary and depressing. As I recovered from heart failure, Waptus was my first backcountry trip. Wanted to see if I could do it. Wanted to heal.
I did heal. Even now, sometimes I am so damn grateful to be upright and breathing doing what I do, loving what I love. I’m lucky. The gratitude bowls me over, leaves me speechless.
What about you? Where do you feel most alive? And grateful?
DAY FIVE: July 14, 2013
Topic of the Day: Organism
Morning light penetrates my eyelids. My tongue feels swollen and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I crawl out of the tent, heat water for tea. Pick my way over the cobbles to Spinola Creek and splash cold water on my face. My eyes still feel gummy. I put on my boots and pack then head out to check a nearby campsite to test my energy level. My skin is slick with sweat, my head feels the first throbbing of an ache, my bowels cramp. A grown-up voice in my head advises that today is not the day to climb up to Lake Vicente. This is heat exhaustion and the best thing I can do is go back to camp to rest and rehydrate.
The human body is a living organism. Cells are bound together into functioning tissues and organs, animated by a mysterious spark of energy. The body has its own intelligence. Our culture has taught us to separate the mind and body, and we are accustomed to operating out of our heads. Often we have the (mistaken) assumption that we can overpower the body by sheer force of will. Just ignore the hormones and neurotransmitters that the body uses to communicate and get on with whatever we want to do. How many times have I paid the price for pushing the body further than it wants to go? I know I can endure, but I want to be more discerning about when it’s truly necessary.
Spending a few days in the backcountry living out of a pack brings me closer to my organism. I have fewer resources to cope with extreme situations, and help is hours away if I do something foolish. So I stay in camp and tend to the body, which thirstily drinks water, savors salty pepperoni and cheese for lunch, and drifts off into a light nap during the hottest part of the day. My camp reading is Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian cop thriller that I picked up at the Roslyn Library book sale. I finished it and went to bed early. Got up once in the night and put my glasses on to stargaze. There was no moon, a star-prickled sky, and one long glistening meteorite.
DAY SIX: July 15, 2013
Topic of the Day: Transition
Feeling much better today. It’s go-home day, and I pack up with the fond wistfulness I always feel when it’s time to leave Waptus. On the one hand, I look forward to being home to clean myself up and loaf around, eat nectarines and salad, and see my animals and garden. On the other hand, I know that I will emerge from the wilderness with finely-tuned senses. Merging myself back into society, witnessing the behavior of other humans and interacting with them can be a shock.
Remind myself that I’ve done this many times before, and it’s different every time.
The miles unfurl beneath my boots. My pack squeaks softly with each step. One leg in front of the other. Mosquitoes chase me from Trail Creek over Cone Mountain, then thankfully disappear as I make my way downriver. After six days, the earworms have died. I stop for lunch at a campsite, and find a fire ring to dismantle. Also a sweet swimming hole–a slab of rock that gradually slips into the river where the current is slow and the pool is deep. The water is so clear that I can see the details of the gravel at the bottom. The shallow water takes on a golden cast and turns to aqua blue out in the current. It’s sooo tempting…I filter drinking water and keep going. The air is still and hot and I can feel myself zombie hiking. My feet are on autopilot and my mind is a million miles away. I bring myself back to listen to the chuh-durp of a tanager in the treetops. It sounds as hot and lethargic as I feel. I meet hikers at Hour Creek. They are on their way in. I meet another pair of hikers near the wilderness boundary. Only a mile to the truck now. The birds are silent except for the occasional tseep-tseep of ruby-crowned kinglets deep in the brush. As I approach the Polallie Trail junction, I hear screaming. It’s human. I remember my mom talking about listening to my sibs and I when we played outside as small children. She said there was happy screaming just for the fun of making noise, and then there was scared hurt screaming. What I hear is happy screaming. The trail brings me next to the Cooper River, where there is a big pool below the trail. Two large women in bathing suits are standing knee-deep in the water. One of them holds a chihuahua in her arms. The women are encouraging two others perched up on a rock bluff to jump. All I need to know is that no one is in trouble.
I reach the truck and open it. Hot air puffs out at me, stale from being closed up. I’ve stashed a canvas bag with sandals and a dry shirt. As I make my way to the toilet to change my shirt, a guy comes out. He is so drunk that his eyes are unfocused. He has missed the hole and peed all over the concrete floor. Someone has left a bag of garbage in there. I come out and the drunk guy asks me how to get down to the river. My explanation sounds incoherent even to me. I can’t wait to escape.
The dry shirt feels good next to my skin as I drive back to town. There’s traffic. Houses. People. The ranger station. I park, and drag my pack out. Throw away the garbage that I have carried out from Waptus and the toilet. The office is utter air-conditioned chaos. I fill my water bottle and carry my paperwork out the the picnic table by the fire warehouse. There’s a sense of urgency about downloading my notes into various reports before I hit the wall of fatigue that looms about three feet from my head. The trail crew comes by and we share stories and laugh before it’s time to go home.
The day after returning from a trip is rest and rehab time. I allow myself to float in that in-between state of not quite feeling all the way back. It takes awhile to make the transition.
My job title and duties are a little different this summer. My friend John has taken a work detail to Nevada for 4 months, and I am temporarily filling in for him as “wilderness manager”. This means I am responsible for the stewardship of 70,000+ acres of Congressionally-designated wilderness, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness which straddles the Cascade Range in Washington. The North Cascades begin here.
Because neither John nor my boss is a micro-manager, I can make what I want of this opportunity. What I most want is to manage my little portion of this place from the field. I have no formal crew to supervise, only a handful of volunteers and visiting wilderness rangers to coordinate. An Earthcorps crew is coming for two weeks, and I’ll be overseeing their efforts to deal with backcountry toilets and restore campsites. As a ranger myself, my job is to hike and explore, check on things (trails, campsites, areas burned in wildfires, etc.), and talk to people. Being close to the urbanized Puget Sound area means that parts of the Alpine Lakes are heavily visited by human beings. I prefer to believe that the wilderness takes care of itself perfectly well without interference from “wilderness managers”. The unpredictable element that requires management is the people who show up to recreate.
So for the next couple of months, this blog will be where I track some of my observations about nature and humans and human nature, and whatever else else strikes my funny bone.
DAY ONE: July, 3, 2013
Topic of the Day = Pests.
My backpack is rigged for three nights out. I plan to set up a base camp at Pete Lake and take a different hike each day to scout trail conditions, snow levels, and talk to hikers about wilderness regulations and Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. It’s a warm day, and humid as I plunge into the brush to take a shortcut to the trail. The first pest of the day makes itself known: the earworm.
I have been plagued by earworms since childhood. With the invention of transistor radios in the 1950s, it was possible to have music anywhere. Growing up in the 60s, my head filled with popular music of the day, film scores, and commercial jingles. The human brain being the mystery that it is, any of this auditory material is subject to being dredged up at any time. I hypothesize that the rhythm of walking on a trail triggers the remembered rhythms of songs. Thus the earworm comes into being–that fraghment of song that repeats over and over and over in one’s head. My first real experience of this was when I was a wilderness ranger in 1981–my boyfriend was an avid Grateful Dead fan, and I spent four days in the mountains hearing them sing “Truckin'” until I thought I would go mad. Then there was the time the trail crew was given a ride to a trailhead, and the driver insisted on listening to the radio. The last thing we heard before diving into the backcountry was Tom Jones belting out “What’s Up, Pussycat?”. Pure torture. I’ve learned over the years that if I can fill my head with music I like prior to a trip, some of the edge can be taken off earworms. So this time I had the iPod in the truck and sang along with Neil Young “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”, and a song by REM that never fails to make me smile–the words are so random and obscure. It’s the one with the good mandolin riff. I thought I was taking good care of myself, but as soon as I was a half mile down the trail here it came: “Super-cali-fragilistic-expi-al-o-docious!” What?! How did Mary Poppins get into my head? And if that wasn’t bad enough, the alternate was “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off to work I go…” Rock and roll displaced by the Disney medley–why, brain, why???
Which made the appearance of the second pest of the day almost welcome. The mosquito! Yes, it just wouldn’t be summer in the mountains with out this small whining insect. Actually, vast numbers of them. There are two things that happen to water when the snow melts. The first option is that it melts into a stream and runs off into bigger streams. The second option is that it collects in a low spot and creates a pool/puddle/pond/tarn which is the ideal place for mosquito larvae to develop into adults and infest the forest with the buzzing of tiny diaphonous wings. As a naturalist, I understand the biological imperative–live, mate, die asnd ensure the proliferation of one’s species. The mosquitoes’ strategy is that there’s strength in numbers. Despite the multitudes of them that feed birds, frogs, fish, and the multitudes that are slapped to death by campers, there are still multitudes at large. As individuals, they don’t have long life spans. But there are just so many of them. Just now I did a little clicking around the internet and learned that Washington state is home to only 37 species of mosquito (out of 25,000 worldwide). They are adapted to habitats as diverse as willow flats along the Columbia River to irrigated farmland to high mountain meadows. It is this latter that I am most interested in. I found a 1952 Department of Agriculture handbook “Mosquitoes of the Northwestern States” that details the natural history and management of this insect pest. Most of the mountain mosquitoes belong to the genus Aedes and have species names like increpitus, hexodontus, communis and vexans. The narrative repeatedly includes the words “annoying”, “irritating” and “prodigious numbers”. Not much has changed since 1952. Personally, I have years of experience living with mosquitoes. So I roll down my sleeves and slip on a boonie hat from which I drape mosquito netting over my face. When they bite through my shirt, I rub a little geraniol, citronella and spearmint oil on my shoulders and keep hiking.
DAY TWO: July 4, 2013
Topic of the Day = Exuberance
After a relaxing evening in camp and a good night’s sleep, I wake to the echoing trills of varied thrushes and chirps of evening grosbeaks. The morning is cool enough that I slip into my puffy down jacket while drinking a cup of green tea. It’s so good to be out! I love the simplicity of life in the woods.
Without looking at my map, I head out for the day. I know exactly where I am going: up the Waptus Pass Trail. This terrain was shaped when the last glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. Big U-shaped valleys, shallow at the bottom and steep in the sides. Not only steep, but littered with the rubble of rocks left behind. Under the thin forest soil is a layer of rounded cobbles. Sections of the trail are like walking on big ball bearings. Every year the trail crew heaves rocks out of the trenches that form, but it doesn’t help much. Short switchbacks zigzag up the brow of a the ridge. It’s sweaty hiking. After some climbing, the trail grade moderates and I wander through the woods and descend to a creek crossing. Time to replenish my water supply. New to me this year is a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter from Switzerland–a lightweight durable unit. I haven’t swallowed unfiltered water from the backcountry since I was a teenager, having witnessed friends suffering from giardiasis.
Waptus Pass is a hanging valley scooped out of Polallie Ridge, sprinkled with swampy meadows and stands of subalpine forest. The air is scented with tangy red heather and musty yellow cedar and something else I can’t quite place. It’s a warm earthy green growing smell wafted about by the breeze. I’m elated that there are no mosquitoes here and there’s a spring in my step as I explore ahead. No people either. After checking campsites and the backcountry toilet, I turn around and head for Escondido Lake, which is tucked away two miles up a side valley. Can’t remember the last time I was there. Escondido means “hidden” in Spanish and must have been named by early 20th century sheepherders. After making my way over three foot snowdrifts, I emerge into the basin. The lake itself is a shallow pond at the end of a big open meadow. I drop my pack on a log then spend some time hurling rocks and hauling away charcoal from campfires. Then I do what I really want to do, which is loll around in the flowery meadow for a little while. The summer sunlight feels so benevolent at high elevation. The air smells good and is filled with echoing birdsong. I savor the colors of the conifers: blue-green subalpine fir, dark green mountain hemlock, olive-toned Alaska yellow cedar. I flop onto my belly to look directly at the yellow glacier lilies and pink spring beauties that carpet the ground. They are full of buzzing insects–bumblebees and butterflies. Life burgeons here.
By the time I return to my camp at Pete Lake, I have hiked 9 miles for the day and my feet ache with exuberance.
DAY THREE: July 5, 2013
Topic of the Day = Mostly Mental
The book in my backpack is Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. A compelling camp read, and just right for the backcountry. There are outdoor recreation deaths in the Alpine Lakes every year. Gonzales digs into why people take risks, and why the consequences are more extreme in wilderness settings. He hangs out with fighter pilots, interviews survivors of mountaineering accidents, and studies the case histories of people who have survived plane crashes and shipwrecks. He makes a strong case for the mind-body connection by exploring emerging neuroscience. How human brains are wired affects how the body responds. We are not as rational as we like to believe. Gonzales suggests that people who have survived other sorts of emotional trauma (major illness or injury, death of a parent, divorce, abuse, etc.) are more likely to function relatively well in an outdoor survival situation. At the end of the book, he lists his rules for adventure. They are good ones:1) Percieve, believe, then act; 2) Avoid impulsive behavior, don’t hurry; 3) Know your stuff; 4) Get the information; 5) Commune with the dead; 6) Be humble; 7) When in doubt, bail out.
Sure, it helps to be trained an experienced. But mostly it’s mental. You have to want to live. You have to be where you are. I think about this all day as I hike to Spectacle Lake and back. I don’t know when or how I’m going to die. All I know is that I’m pretty sure today is not the day.
The mountains are beautiful. Twelve miles by the time I get back to camp and finish the book.
DAY FOUR: July 6, 2013
Topic of the Day = Connection
It’s go-home-day. I pack most of my gear and say good morning to my neighbors at the next campsite. Their three well-behaved dogs have greeted me each evening when I return to camp and I enjoyed our conversations. Lots of questions about the area, what bird is that, and so on. I am able to tell them the whoofing sound they thought was an owl is actually a grouse announcing his territory and trying to attract a mate. While they pack up, I am on my way to Lemah Meadow to check campsites. It’s a short morning stroll of a couple miles. After returning to my camp, I load everything into my big red backpack, take one last look around, and head down the trail. There are more campsites to visit on my way out. One of them has a campfire smoldering away and no one around. The people come back, a dad and his six-year old boy. It’s their first ever backpack. We talk about campfires, especially on a breezy day with lots of dry rotten wood on the forest floor. The boy–he tells me his name is Noah–is checking out my ranger uniform as I demonstrate how to properly extinguish a campfire. His dad asks about other trail suitable for kids, and I pull out my maps. Noah listens as I talk about good places to camp, how far the walk is, how steep. When I refer to my field notebook, he holds out his hand to see what I have scribbled. He is paying attention, and I direct much of the conversation toward him. His eyes are steady, calm. This kid would survive.
Who knows what seed has just been planted and whether it will grow? It does my heart good to see parents taking their kids outside and letting them be kids. This is the real experience of wilderness, even though it’s not very far in.
Each step takes me closer to the wilderness boundary, to the road and the truck and then that disconcerting transition to where people drive and talk on telephones and live in houses. It shakes me every time, this going in and out of the woods.
Would I choose another trail if I could? Nope. The take-away from Gonzales’ book–I don’t want to live in a safe and predictable world. I want to keep discovering.
My eyes were busy taking in the landscape, hurrying to connect peaks and drainages into the familiar map in my mind. The speed of the aircraft was 105 miles an hour. I walk at two to three MPH, and rarely have the vantage point I had in the front seat next to the pilot. A flight is a wondrous opportunity to see the ground below, but I always feel a mad rush to take it all in.
“Yep,” I replied into the microphone on my flight helmet.
This was one of the fires sparked by lightning on September 8. Deep within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was a low priority for attention. Days passed while it crept and backed down the slope, occasionally flaring up enough to send smoke over the ridges. As the helicopter circled, I scribbled the fire’s shape on a contour map I held on my lap. Look and draw, hold details in memory long enough to get down on paper–my art training comes in handy.
After the reconnaissance flight I came home to pack. The packing routine starts in June, and by October I am thoroughly tired of loading and unloading my backpack. Not till the next morning did I overcome inertia and get all my gear in place. John and I planned to hike in to observe the fire for a few days. The upper Cle Elum valley was nearly deserted, and we had the golden meadows and deep blue shadows to ourselves.
After quickly setting up our tents near a meadow in Trail Creek, we found a cross country route to a high point where we could observe the fire. The upper part was black and cold, with the only real activity at the bottom of the fire where it had backed down to the heavy timber above Trail Creek. It had not moved significantly since I’d seen it the day before from the helicopter. Our mission was to map the burned area, estimate the acreage, note the intensity of the burn, and make other observations to include in a summary report. By 5:30 PM, we had to leave our perch to hike back to camp before dark. No long lingering sunsets in October. We finished our supper wearing down jackets and wool hats, leaning back to find the first stars emerging.
By morning, frost had crisped the meadow next to camp and we were eager to get moving just to warm up. The sun painted a golden band of light on the ridges above us. John is an excellent wayfinder, and after looking at the map together, I was content to let him pick the way up to the viewpoint we’d agreed on. My eyes were on the forest we hiked up through, searching for details that would tell the story of the wood that the fire burned in. I found evidence of a previous fire in the shreds of charred wood and fire-scarred old trees. The subalpine firs that made up much of the stand were about the same size and age. Huge old logs were rotting into the ground. A fire had burned through Trail Creek 75 to 100 years ago. Most of the trees were killed and stood as snags. Eventually they fell to melt into the soil that the new forest grew in. My guess is that the fire across the creek was burning in this duffy old wood on the ground. As we climbed higher, more sky was visible through the trees until we finally emerged on a rocky knob. There was no higher ground, and we actually descended to find the best viewpoint.
Neither of us had seen Waptus Lake from this angle before, and we stood for awhile just looking. The names of mountains and rivers make the lyric of the song I sang to myself for the whole day: Summit Chief, Chimney Rock, Lemah, Escondido Ridge, Quick Creek, Waptus Pass, Polallie Ridge, Cone Mountain, Goat Creek…we settled in to our fire-watching routine. We discovered another lightning strike just down the ridge, and ran like little kids to look (you can see it in the right-hand foreground of the photo). Sure enough, a little fire had torched a few small trees and burned itself out. This is how the day passed: the fire smoldered, the wind changed and carried the smoke in different directions. Hawks of all sorts flew over us and passed us, soaring upward on thermal currents. A family of ravens came from east to northwest to play in the air way above the creek. The sun’s angle lowered and shadows grew across the fire. When it was time, we packed up and made our way down through the yellow Cascade azalea and red huckleberry brush to the main trail.
Another cold night, colder than the previous one. We were slow to move, but the chilly air forced me off the ground to seek sunlight. The trail was frozen as we searched for yet another viewpoint. Often it seems like wherever you want to go, game animals have been there already. We found a deer trail and followed it to a bluff where we hung out. John is ready to be a solo fire watcher, and we reviewed the language to describe fuels and fire behavior. The fire enticed us to stay with a little flare up, but it was time to go. Lunch in camp, then packing for the hike out.
I fell into a state I can only describe as meadow bliss. The pack on my back felt lumpish and familiar (45-50 pounds?), but I wasn’t really aware of it. All I knew was that the weather forecast was changing, and I was leaving the mountains. This perfect day was only here now, and I wanted to experience it as fully as possible. I scrabbled my notebook out of my pocket and wrote while I walked: Mushrooms–fungi emerging from bone-dry earth, displacing soil & needle litter. sweet cicely arnica trailing raspberry lupine fine grasses fir seedlings. Breeze in boughs husssshhhhh ussshhh mmmmmmmmm sunwarmed blue-green needles stomata open, releasing balsam scent. Seed heads, gopher holes spruce cones scales flung open like a hundred cabinet doors paperwinged seeds flying. Gray jay. Shovel clangs softly on huckleberry brush. Ravens live here and they echo above the mountain hemlocks.
We stopped at Squitch Lake for no reason except it was beautiful. A special place, John calls it. I didn’t want to leave. And if I had to leave, I wanted to come back. We lingered, knowing that there was more trail ahead. Put packs back on, stepped into the shade.
Even in the shade colors glow. I framed a few more photos, marveling at the tapestry woven seemingly at random. Every direction I turned was a new composition.
The trail descends along a timbered north-facing slope, which seems especially dark this time of year. No sun penetrates to the ground. We walked down stony switchbacks, and I imagined the glacier that shaped the valley. The slope is on the lateral moraine, that ridge of rocky detritus left by the retreating glacier. There is no way to make the trail smooth, even if a crew shoveled rocks out of the tread every week till the end of time. Irregular cobbles just keep appearing, and bigger rocks are buried in the trail. John calls them icebergs, because only the tops show. The intrepid trail worker who decides to dig one out had better have some patience and time.
On the final traverse, my eye fell on a mushroom that had been plucked from the ground. When I picked it up, it was light and air-dried. I liked the creamy color, the waves of the gills, the intricate design. The whole trip had been filled with wonder and curiosity. We got to the truck and prepared for the hour and a half drive back to the ranger station. Even worse than packing is the transition back to civilization. It starts with the trailhead, then the truck. One has to move at a different speed, and more assaults on the senses lie ahead. After time in the wilderness, life becomes not simple. So we are pretty quiet, not talking much. We still look at the colors–vine maples in avalanche chutes–and I’ve run out of words. I’ve already used flare, flame, glow, ablaze, scarlet. All I have left is the looking.
The truck came to rest at the ranger station. Now I felt tired, the kind of tired where I don’t know what I wanted more–a hot meal, a hot bath, or just to fall into bed. Eventually I had all three.
It’s the second day after coming back. This afternoon I finally finished dumping out my pack and putting gear away. It’s raining.
In the backcountry, it’s raining. The Trail Creek fire will not be able to stay alive. The leaves will not be able cling to twigs a moment longer. The fire will let go. The leaves will let go. And I will let go of another season as winter comes a step closer.
Last summer I read Backyard Wilderness: The Alpine Lakes Story by David Knibb. It was published in 1981, five years after the wilderness area was designated by Congress. I wrote this essay and have been sitting on it till now.
Backyard Wilderness is the story of conservationists, politicians, timber industry lobbyists, and private citizens. As I read, I realized that I was a witness to history when I was a teenager. Some of the people in the Alpine Lakes story turned up in my story, at least along the edges. Reading about the battle to preserve the central Cascades, I marvel that anything positive ever gets done in this nation. The process is so convoluted, so rife with money and politics. So much depends on a few persistent individuals.
In the fall of 1976, I joined the Wenatchee High School Alpine Club. Mr. Asplund, the advisor, led a few of us dedicated teenagers on weekend backpacks and snowshoe trips. We learned about what we should have in our packs, how to camp and travel, how to stay out of trouble in the backcountry. For me, it was an escape from my stressful family life, a way to connect with the mountain world I love. Those Alpine Club trips influenced my life in a way I could not have foreseen.
Mr. Asplund took us to the dedication ceremony of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 1976. He had been one of the supporters and advocates for wilderness designation. We stood in a crowd at the Alpental Ski Area parking lot. The mountains rose up all around us. Speeches were given by prominent Washington State dignitaries. I don’t remember at all what was said. After the talking, we rode the chairlift with our backpacks and hiked to Snow Lake. We camped there overnight, and hiked out the next day. Beautiful spot.
I had many adventures with the Alpine Club. A couple years after high school, I met Bill and Peg Stark, who operated a small resort along the Icicle River outside of Leavenworth. Also mountain people and wilderness advocates, they had been involved in the Alpine Lakes story. Their annual pilgrimages to the Enchantment Lakes were the stuff of legend. I became their cook, and part of their community. From the Starks, I went to my first Forest Service job on the Leavenworth Ranger District trail crew. I believe that I was one of the first women to do that kind of work there. The next season I was a backcountry ranger and went to the wilderness every week. Mr. Reagan was elected late in 1979, and that was the end of my wilderness work for a long time.
For me, the Reagan years and most of the first Bush years were spent doing forestry-related jobs. Resource extraction was the carrot and stick of the Forest Service, with endless rounds of planning, roadbuilding, surveys, timber marking and cruising, logging, brush disposal and burning, replanting and more surveys. After eight years I grew sick and weary of working day after day in slashy clearcuts and nice pieces of forest that were about to get trashed. I was lucky to find a job on another trail crew, where I have been for the last 20 years. This brought me back to the Alpine Lakes.
I wonder if the proponents of the Wilderness Act and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness could have foreseen the growth and development of the past thirty years. Seattle was still something of a backwater in the late 1970s. The area boomed in the 1980s with the growth of the information technology industry. The city gained nearly 200,000 residents in that time, and the Puget Sound area is now home to over 3 million people. The Alpine Lakes is easily in their backyard. Anyone can leave home in the morning, latte in hand while they drive, eat lunch at a beautiful mountain lake, and be home for wine-tasting and dinner.
According to the 1964 Wilderness Act as passed by Congress: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”
The Act goes on to establish a national wilderness preservation system, and further specifies uses and management. Certain uses are prohibited, such as no commercial enterprises or permanent roads or structures. No temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport (except in case of emergency, and then special permission has to be granted).
What is amazing about this law is that we have more or less followed it. Efforts to establish new wilderness areas are hard fought, often languishing for decades. During the 1980s, there seemed to be momentum among some in the Forest Service to build roads into roadless areas to prevent them from being considered for wilderness designation. That came to an end when the bottom fell out of the timber market, and environmental groups stepped in as watchdogs of land management agencies’ every move.
Following this law has shaped my life. Without it, I would not have become passionate about old tools; the axe and crosscut saw. In the wilderness, travel is by foot or by horse. Work revolves around resourcefulness and solving problems with what the crew has with them. When insects surround me and I am soaked to the skin by rain and wet brush, I think of Lewis and Clark crossing the Bitterroot Mountains. They didn’t have Gore-tex clothing or mosquito netting. They didn’t have cell phones or GPS. They didn’t have enough to eat, and they weren’t sure where they were going. But they didn’t whine or quit (that we know of). They proceeded on. This, I think, is essential to the American experience in the landscape, and why we still need wilderness. I like to believe that any of us are still capable of traveling the way the Corps of Discovery and Native Americans did.
Man is still a visitor who does not remain, but the sheer number of visitors does leave the wilderness trammeled. It’s this nibbling away at the edges over time that has my attention. How can it still be wilderness? People who have studied this more than I insist that there is a spectrum of wilderness. Wilderness purists who demand the letter of the law come into conflict with others who call themselves realists. The people are here, the human influence on climate and planet are inescapable facts. Some wilderness areas are a sort of backpackers’ park. Others are what my friends and I call “The Big Wild”, places where solitude and silence dominate and being eaten by a grizzly bear is not out of the question. And I suppose there is everything in between.
One summer Friday I hiked the Snow Lake trail, which takes off from the Alpental parking lot where I stood in 1976. It’s a very popular hike, and I was passed by people in running shoes holding bottles of water in their hands. They hiked in groups, talking and chatting the whole time. When I started hiking down, I met an older couple wearing hiking boots and real day packs. They had looks of distress on their faces. When they saw my ranger uniform, they stopped and wondered if I could ask the people behind them to lower their voices. While I tried to explain to them that they were on one of the most popular trails in the Cascades, the noisy hikers caught up to us. The older man asked them politely if they could be quieter. “Oh, sure,” they replied and went on talking.
Wilderness is many things to many people. Some people use it as an outdoor gym where they work out and socialize. Others attend it as if it is church. And still others have no use for it at all, and resent that they aren’t allowed to use their machines in it or cut trees/mine/develop/drill for oil and gas. Nature is an inconvenience if it throws something in the trail that slows you down.
For me, that is the point. Slow down. Live more simply. Notice surroundings and yourself. Let ego fall away for awhile. Inhabit the body and mind directly. If you want to go to church, you will have to penetrate deeper into the Alpine Lakes or make a pilgrimage to the Big Wild. I concede that a backyard wilderness is better than no wilderness, and that people who go there are probably healthier than those at home watching television. And I remain in awe of the vision of the advocates and organizers who persisted until the Alpine Lakes was established. I’m watching that dynamic edge between wild public land and growing population and technology. As time goes on, I find it more and more unbearable. If wilderness is trammeled, then so are we. If wilderness is compromised and chewed around the edges, then so are we. Someday we may wake up and realize that we have lost ourselves as well as solitude and wildness. We need the humility of not knowing if we’ll die out there.
Someday I want to live in the wilderness’ backyard.